Stones of Hope

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The Psalm for this 3rd Sunday of Advent is Psalm 126. This year I am struck by these verses: “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts. Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!”
These are the words of hope spoken by a people newly restored, returned from exile. They are people who feel as if it is almost too good to be true—“we were like those who dream.” The Israelites, knowing what they had come through, sought to give encouragement to those who might find themselves in similar situations. And so they pray that the bitter tears that are wept become joyful shouts, the burdens carried turned into a bountiful harvest.
I think of these hopes and dreams in the context of Martin Luther King, Jr. We recently visited his memorial on the Mall in Washington DC. His likeness carved into what is called the Stone of Hope emerging from the Mountain of Despair. In the stone the words: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Those words come from the “I Have a Dream’ speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. He wrote: With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free on day.” His words echo the hope found in the words of Psalm 126.
In 1983 I attended the 20th anniversary march of that speech. I remember reflecting how much had changed in those 20 years…but also how far we still had to go. I was excited to go back to my congregation to share my reflections with them But when I shared my experiences with them the next Sunday, their responses shocked me: “What a waste of your time, we don’t pay you to do such things!!” “If those people would just stay in their places, we could get back to the way things are supposed to be.”
Now thirty plus years later the same is true. We have come a long way, but still have far to go. That has been made extremely evident in the recent events around our country—in Ferguson, in Cleveland, in Staten Island, and so many other places. My hope and prayer in the midst of this Advent season is that we will find ways to confront the mountains of despair that come from racism and injustice, and hew from them stones of hope. And that we carry those stones of hope with us to shape and guide our actions as we continue to live out the vision and dreams Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of that day in 1963. May our tears become shouts of joy and our burdens a bountiful harvest as we lives towards such a day!

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Thoughts on the 13th Anniversary of 9/11

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Just another day in September…almost…
As we took the train into New York City for the annual September 11th observance I reflected on how different the trip is thirteen years later. For several years after 9/11/2001 it was a silent trip in to the city. There were tears, flowers in hand, people were nervous. Now people are traveling into the city as they do every other day—laughing with friends, catching up on emails, getting a few more moments of naptime. Many seem not to be thinking of the anniversary. It’s just another September day…almost. And then, you see on the face of someone that they are remembering. You catch a glimpse of bagpipers in a station going on to a memorial service. In the stations and around the city security is heightened with military guards in evidence. You realize it is not just another day in September.
It will never be just another day in September. That becomes evident when you scratch beneath the veneer of what looks like normality. At some point during the day people will remember what they were doing, survivors will remember the chaos and their senses will be assaulted by what was happening as their world came crashing down around them, families will remember the loss of loved ones. Pain is still deeply etched on faces as we all remember the fear and terror and horror of the events that unfolded on 9/11.
The reality that this will never be just another day spills into all our days. We can never go back to a 9/10 world. The question is, going forward how we will work to make this a better world…how will we transform the way we live and work in the world so that violence and terror no longer define anyone anywhere in the world. Children are often part of the name reading ceremony in New York City. I am amazed at the poise with which they stand before the world to read the names of those lost. I also find myself thinking of an 8 year old girl I met in Afghanistan. Amina was the only member of her family left after a bombing raid went astray and hit her home. One night in our Kabul guest house, she stood and read the names of her dead family members with great poise. I grieve that children anywhere have to go through such an experience.
On our refrigerator there are pictures of my brother next to pictures of Amina and another Afghani woman who lost her children. They are a daily reminder for me that God calls us together to work so that evil does not have the last word and that when all is said and done, love wins. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.” May our lives be a reflection of this truth we know in God’s love!

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Of Pine Needles and Alleluias

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It is a Lenten tradition in our congregation that on the first Sunday of Lent, the children hide papers with the Alleluia printed on them. We symbolically bury the alleluias for the Lenten season, reminding us of the somber tones of Lent. Then on Easter Sunday the children find them and we bring the alleluias back to our worship. As we were getting the last of the Advent/Christmas decorating finished right before Christmas and moving things around in the chancel, I came across a folded sheet of paper—one of the alleluias that had not been found on Easter last year. Fast forward a few weeks to putting away the decorations and moving the Christmas trees out. Even if you have an artificial tree you end up vacuuming the needles. It seems that for the rest of the year you will find a needle here and there. They are never completely gone.
The church is between times right now…we call it ordinary time. Ordinary time is the seasons outside of the major observances of the Christian year; namely Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. It doesn’t mean this is an unexceptional time of year, rather it takes its name from the fact that ordinal numbers are used to describe the sequence of Sundays. Extraordinary things happen during ordinary time, but I always think we have to pay extra attention because we aren’t in the big, exciting seasons such as Christmas and Easter. Ordinary time gives us a chance to figure out what it means to live out the message of the Christ child…and then the message of the Risen Christ. It’s a time when we aren’t facing the frenzy of preparing for the major holidays, so we have the space to do that.
As we observe ordinary time, I love the fact that you can almost always find an alleluia tucked away somewhere in our sanctuary…and in our homes and at church there’s always a pine needle to vacuum up. The pine needles and alleluias break into our everyday, just as God surprises us and breaks into our lives. Such reminders help us to remember what the love of God has done, and continues to do for us. They are the signs of the mystery of God’s love found in the cross and the cradle. May pine needles and alleluias break into your every day to remind you of the awesome mystery of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.

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Advent Day 16-Strong

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This is a picture of my niece celebrating after she had just made her first journey out on the “big rocks” at the Manasquan Inlet. It’s about a half mile out…there are some steep drops between the rocks, and some daunting jumps; especially if you are Madison’s size! I think of strong in remembering her journey. She approached the task with appropriate caution, reached out for a helping hand when needed, and wasn’t afraid to get down on her hands and knees when necessary. Isn’t that what true strength is all about? Not a show of bravado and “I can do it alone” mentality…but the willingness to journey with others, reaching out for help…and perhaps even having to risk being awkward and clumsy along the way.

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Advent Day 15-Rejoice

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This picture reminds me of the text from Isaiah: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That is a day of rejoicing!

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Advent Day 14-Gather

There is a lovely hymn called “Gather Us In.” One of the lines reads: “Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own; gather us in–all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone. What a beautiful reality that is! A reality that God calls us to work towards and a reality that God longs for. In Luke’s gospel Jesus expresses that hope as he looks over Jerusalem and says: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” May we know the peace of God’s gathering us in! Then, in that peace find those seeking the shelter of God’s love.

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Advent Day 13-Justice

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This picture of the balancing rock in Bar Harbor, Maine reminds me of Lady Justice. Lady Justice is often depicted as holding scales and she is blindfolded. It demonstrates the idea that justice is a balancing act and that justice shows no partiality. That being said, when I think about the justice that Jesus came to bring to us I don’t think of a blindfolded, impartial sorting out of issues. Instead I think of the Jesus who came to disrupt…the Jesus who threw tables around in the temple because the money takers were stealing from those with the least resources…the Jesus who helped us remove blindfolds so that we could see others with the love of God. That is God’s justice!

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