God’s Sweetness

asparagus_heroThere’s nothing like eating asparagus just picked from the garden. Its sweetness soothes one’s senses and brings a delightful surprise to taste buds accustomed to the supermarket variety picked days before, sweetness gone – or worse yet, frozen or canned. When not eaten truly fresh, my favorite green vegetable falls prey to being just one of many with a bland taste, unless sauces or spices are added. Yet when not processed, what a different culinary experience is ours!

Fresh picked? There’s nothing like it. And you know what? God wants that for us in all areas of our life. God gives us not just asparagus, but life itself, pure and sweet and unadulterated. That is, until we get in the way.

Take God’s creation for example. God gives us the beauty of creation in all its splendor, yet we allow our human processes to all but ruin it through over development, overuse, misuse leading to climate change, and worse. Yet in its freshest, most original unspoiled form, there’s nothing like the goodness, the sweetness of what is offered to us.

And what about human relationships? God gives us the beauty of love in the same way. How many times have we found it hard to hear a simple, “I love you”. “You are valued.” “You are a person of worth.” How many times have we processed those words to death before being able to accept them in their pure and unadulterated form?  Yet, that is what God wants for you and that is what God wants for me.

Accepting and believing without always second guessing, thinking ‘yes but’, or feeling that there has to be an ulterior motive, is God’s desire for us. Babies don’t question our love for them. They come at it with the eyes and heart of purity. Few adults can say the same.

Sweetness and purity abound in God’s creation, in God’s abundant love for us, and in every spear of asparagus. It’s there for the picking. Come join me in the field God has planted for us all!

 

 

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VisitMyForest.Org

My husband Michael and I became snowbirds this winter. First-time-I’m-never-gonna-do-it Official Snowbirds. And yes! We loved the warm weather and all that goes with it. Who wouldn’t?

480But imagine our surprise when we turned on our television and saw an ad for VisitMyForest.org. There on the screen in front of us  were directions for how to locate the forest nearest you, then a little girl and her father gazing in awe at a deer. What joy! How unusual!

And it was. You see, in South Florida such sightings are rare and prized and something you have to drive miles to see. Those creatures and forests that many of us take for granted, don’t exist in all areas of our country. And that truth hit home to me right then and there in deeply moving ways.

When our daughter, husband, and granddaughter came to visit, we could hardly wait to take our little one for her first trip to the zoo. We were surprised to find that many of the ‘exotic’ zoo animals were hardly exotic to us. There were ducks, red tailed hawks, majestic eagles, wild turkeys, deer, black bear, turtles and otters, all native to our forests in northeast Pennsylvania where we live.

We shared with our grandchild that all these creatures of God were right in our own backyard at home! Being one year old she may not have understood all that we were telling her, but we did, in profound ways.

And of course, we finally made it to the lions and tigers and grizzly bears. Oh my! But I’ll take where I grew up in Tennessee and where I live now in Pennsylvania, any day of the week.

So if you’re lucky enough to live in one of these areas, don’t take it for granted as springtime begins to blossom and the leaves come out. Visit YOUR forest in your own backyard. You don’t need a website to tell you where to find it. Relish it. Enjoy it. And thank God for the unspoiled beauty you’re lucky enough to call home.

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Yes, It Really Is That Simple

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, much less to write in a spirituality column. It seems as if all spirituality, all goodness, all that is just and true has fled the American political scene. Exit stage right, or left. Take your pick.

America seems to be falling apart at the seams. We have become the derision of our global neighbors, who scratch their heads and wonder what has happened to us. I scratch my head and wonder, too. What has happened to basic civility, much less love of neighbor?

Neighbor? We seem to have forgotten what the word means. Are neighbors only those people who look, and act, and think, and speak, and believe as we do? Not on your life. No way. In the Bible in Matthew 25 we are told, “When you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And that was Jesus speaking. That’s right, Jesus of Nazareth. Messiah to Christians and prophet to Jews and Muslims.

That means that black, and Muslim, and Mexican lives matter. It means that we are all created in the image of God and that God saw what (s)he had created and it was good, very good. To denigrate any human being is to deny that they are created in the image of God. As are you. As am I.

stepYou know, there’s an old saying, ” When you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, step back.” Step back. And that is what we all need to do.

Step back and stand up for the image of God that is within each human being. Step back and reflect on what really matters in this world we all call home. Step back and ask yourself if this is the world in which you want your children to live.

And if not, do something, anything, to stop this madness that is masquerading as politics in this, the greatest nation on earth.

And love your neighbor as yourself. All neighbors. Yes, it really is that simple.

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103 Times

103There’s a certain pall hanging over Christmas and Hanukkah this year. A sense of uncertainty. A sense of fear. A sense of anxiety that belies the joy of the holiday season. All around us are news reports of one shooting after another. One more terrorist attack. One more loved one suddenly taken – from a concert, a dinner out, an office holiday party.

We wonder when simpler times will be ours once again, as we wait for a new tomorrow that doesn’t come. Our entire country seems both at sea and at odds with one another. Instead of pulling together in crisis we are pulling further apart, with each catastrophic incident mere fodder for one’s own political grist mill. Before victims’ loved ones can even be notified, while blood is literally still on the ground, pundits and social media aficionados take to the airwaves to prove that only if their political view were adhered to the latest tragedy would not have occurred.

Yet surely we know the folly of such assertions. Surely we know that the well-worn maxim “United we stand. Divided we fall,” is in fact true and yes, we are falling. All of us. Together.

What can we do in times such as these? For starters, we can think twice before sharing our own polarizing views, regardless of how convinced we are they are correct. There is rarely only one way forward and a way forward without compromise will never bring the stability for which we so long. And yes, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I am writing to myself here, that I may remember when tempted to hit the ‘send’ key.

Significantly, we can also do what has worked for countless people throughout the ages in times far more turbulent than our own. We can turn to the Bible, where the most often repeated phrase is, “Be not afraid” or “Fear not.”

There is a reason this injunction appears 103 times in scripture. People have been afraid of forces outside of their control since the beginning of time. We join our brothers and sisters of times gone by in feeling fearful and anxious about the future. That in itself can bring comfort.

We can also follow the advice of St. Paul to the Philippians when he wrote to them, most likely from prison, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing…..if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Following a senseless shooting, think of the hero who died shielding a co-worker from bullets, which occurred in San Bernardino. Think of his bravery, selfless courage, pure innate goodness. Think on these things.

Think of the first responders who risk their own lives to save others. The medical personnel who stay up until all hours to save as many people as possible. Think of the strangers who warn others of danger ahead. Think of the Muslim clerics and leaders who speak out publicly against violent extremism. Think of the politicians, yes, politicians who genuinely seek answers to the most pressing needs of our times. Think on these things.

And let’s think of our own blessings this Christmas or Hanukkah. Our loved ones, family, or friends near and far that God has given to us for comfort and solace in times such as these. Yes. Be not afraid. Fear not. Think on these things and the joy that so easily eludes us can be ours once more.

A Happy Hanukkah; a Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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Rocking Chair Hospitality

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” (Hebrews 13:2)

From Halloween trick-or-treaters, to festival attendees, to holiday shoppers, to seasonal tourists, to new neighbors – community residents across America have many opportunities to show hospitality to strangers through their words and actions.  We know the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But what many of us don’t realize is how deeply hospitality is embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Within first-century Judaism, Abraham was heralded as the supreme practitioner of hospitality. In the Book of Genesis, he and his wife Sarah reach out in hospitality to three strangers, offering them a meal of milk, curd, calf meat, and cakes. While they are eating, one gives them the seemingly impossible news that Sarah will bear a son in her old age. These strangers are nothing less than angels in disguise, bringing with them life-changing news.

A few years prior to Jesus’ ministry, a large monument was erected by Herod the Great on the site of this meeting, not only commemorating the event, but also highlighting its centrality within the Jewish tradition. Why was hospitality so central in the life of the first-century Jew? They believed that the way they received the stranger, was how God would receive them at the great end-time banquet. If they were hospitable and welcoming, God would receive them in kind. Likewise, if they did not receive the stranger warmly, they would be received in the same way.

rocking chairThis gives me much to think about. What if God receives us in the same way we have received the stranger? Will we arrive only to find that walls have been erected to keep us out, or that community ordinances have been passed that make it more difficult for hospitality to be extended? Or will we find an atmosphere of welcome for all, with an empty rocking chair with our name on it that says, come sit next to me and let’s visit? On the great Main Street in the Sky will we be welcomed with open arms by those who are already comfortably in? Or will they put up one obstacle after another to make it clear we are not welcome?

Hospitality to the stranger was not only central to first-century Jewish and Christian belief; both religions are dependent on hospitality for their very existence. The Jewish faith was shared by traveling pairs of teachers, who were dependent on the hospitality of those who welcomed them into their homes.

Jesus and Paul followed in this tradition as they planted the seeds of the Christian church. Without strangers welcoming them into their homes, the gospel message may never have spread beyond the boundaries of Palestine. Without hospitality there may never have been one holy, Catholic, and apostolic church.

As we discuss reaching out to the stranger here in our community, we need to begin with one basic question. Who is the stranger?

One of my favorite stories about hospitality to the stranger is from the movie Sister Act.  Whoopi Goldberg plays the role of a nightclub singer who witnesses a murder. As a result, her life is in danger. For protection, the police decide she should live in a convent, a most unlikely hideout. She is taken to a convent and directed to the Mother Superior’s study. Before the Mother Superior enters, a monsignor informs her of Whoopi’s predicament. The Mother Superior agrees to accept Whoopi as a member of the convent, until she opens the door and sees her. There sits Whoopi, wearing a gold lame coat, a purple-sequined outfit, and a profusion of jewelry. The Mother Superior gasps and shuts the door. The monsignor reminds her, in not-so-gentle tones, “You have taken a vow of hospitality to all in need.” With a straight face, the Mother Superior replies, “I lied.”

How often do we, upon seeing the strangers God sends our way, say somewhere in our heart of hearts, “I lied.” How many of us can say that, in reality, yes, there are times when we have been less than welcoming to the stranger in our midst – yes, at times bringing noise, at times trampling our bushes, at times wrecking our peaceful existence, at times challenging long held traditions and customs?

Yet, the first distinction of Christian hospitality is precisely that we welcome those who may not have been welcomed in other settings.  Time and again Jesus broke with the custom of his day to reach out to the outcast, the marginalized.

When we make the decision to welcome all strangers, we become a link in the chain of hospitality that reaches back through Sarah and Abraham, through Jesus and his followers, through countless people of faith throughout the ages. And it is we who benefit in innumerable ways.

Be not forgetful to welcome the stranger, for in doing so many have entertained angels unaware. Are you entertaining angels? Is your community?

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A Sprinter’s Spirituality

DSCN0092“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion, ” wrote Albert Camus. How wise he was! Isn’t this what summer and fall, with its stunning patchwork of different colored leaves, is all about? In these months our area of Pennsylvania becomes a playground for beleaguered New Yorkers, Jerseyites, and everyone trying to turn away from the complexities of the world, if only for a moment.

The spirituality of crystal clear lakes, wooded hiking paths, mountains, and wildlife abound in our county. Yet to see and really feel God’s presence in the midst of nature requires both intentionality and yes, discipline. When I used to be a ‘weekender’, the discipline was built in. Coming here involved getting away from work, routine, familiar surroundings. But now my work and familiar surroundings are right here, luring me away from the mystical, the holy in our midst. So I struggle to find balance, the right mix.

What can you do if you find yourself caught in this dilemma? Let me pose another question. Are you a sprinter or a marathoner? If you have a marathoner personality, you might try a daily spiritual exercise – slow and steady, a little at a time. Ten or even fifteen minutes a day of praying or reading whatever is meditative, devotional, inspiring to you while surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation can work wonders for your frame of mind, spiritual life, and even blood pressure. Whether it’s Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn’s latest book on mindfulness, slowly reading one Psalm a day from Hebrew scripture, or your denomination’s suggested daily reading from the Bible – the turning away from the worries of the world in the midst of nature is refreshing on many levels.

If you’re more of a sprinter, like me, then you might begin such a daily discipline and soon lose interest, becoming distracted with more pressing needs or more exciting opportunities. If that’s your pattern, try taking a retreat for a morning or a even full day in your own home or backyard. Tell those you live with you’re off limits for the allotted time! Don’t answer the phone or the doorbell. Power off the electronics and do what calms you.

Is it yoga, reading spiritual writings, engaging in centering prayer, journaling, rocking on the porch, sitting by a babbling brook or pond in silence? A combination of these things? Whatever it is, an intentional, planned retreat in your own surroundings can’t be beat. It’s better than binge watching the latest serial drama on television, bringing you into yourself and away from the world at the same time, instead of merely escaping.

And never underestimate the power of a walk in the glorious beauty of nature that is there for you to enjoy, somewhere not too far from home. The trick is to not become so accustomed to it, that we no longer see it for what it is – our creator’s gift to each one of us to relish, cherish, and hold dear to our hearts.

Then we can tackle our complicated world and its myriad demands with a clear mind and a replenished spirit. Who knows what we might accomplish?

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One Flag Up, One Flag Down

flagsThis week marks a turning point in American history – a time when long held traditions came tumbling down, resulting in the raising up of one flag, and the taking down of another. Flags are symbols in America. Symbols of our most deeply held personal beliefs. Symbols that say, “This is me. This is who I am. This is how I identify myself. Take notice!”

And take notice we did. When a lone racist gunman walked into an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and joined nine devout Christians in prayer and Bible study only to kill them in cold blood one hour later, a tipping point occurred in the minds of horrified Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. To witness the murder of African Americans in Baltimore, Cleveland, and New York where there was even a shred of doubt regarding the innocence of the one killed unfortunately did not seem to result in change. We protested. We signed petitions; then life went on as usual.

But not this time. This time undeniable evil walked into the midst of goodness and love and killed it. So it seemed. But rather than killing that which was good, the goodness rose and forgave and moved forward, joining hands and singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’. Goodness overcame evil as finally, symbolically, the Confederate flag came down in Alabama and is on its way down in South Carolina and hopefully other states.

Then almost simultaneously, another flag arose in America – the Rainbow flag. Symbol of gay pride. Symbol that says I am an American too. I can love and marry. I am equal. As the Supreme Court justices handed down their decision on this seminal case, they knew that 70% of American states had voted in favor of gay marriage. Another tipping point. A point at which the boulder moves over the top of the mountain at long last and justice prevails. A tipping point from which there is no turning back.

One flag down. One flag up. Justice wins out. Finally. There is nothing more Biblical than the concept of justice. In the book of Amos we are told, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

This week justice and righteousness are rolling and flowing, in spite of it all, in spite of us all. This week our outward symbols are matching an inner integrity for which many have long searched and worked and prayed. This week of tipping points, of one flag down and one flag up will long be remembered. Thanks be to the God of justice.

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Just Around the Corner

It’s that time of year when I leave the house in tennis shoes, light weight slacks, a cotton sweater, and a wool coat. I think I’ve dressed appropriately for the day only to discover that it’s just above freezing outside. We are living in that in-between time right now when the daffodils are blooming and an overnight freeze is just around the corner.

This is a time of transition, a time of change, a time of letting go of the old and embracing the new. However, the new – a glorious, predictable spring – isn’t quite here yet. How much of our lives are like this! Life is never stagnant, change is always just around the corner, and stability is an illusion.

Just living, being and moving through the life cycle forces us to change, puts us on unfamiliar ground where we suddenly realize it’s sink or swim. Leaving home for kindergarten was most likely terrifying for all of us, although few of us have any memory of leaving the safety of our parent’s arms into a wide world we knew nothing about. Then the teenage years, who can forget those? Our bodies were changing, hormones raging, and suddenly we didn’t know who we were any more, if in fact we ever did. Then it was off to the world of work or college with more change – change that felt searingly permanent because we knew in significant ways we could never go home again. Then for some it’s the change of marriage and children and the life cycle starts all over again with its circular quality of never-ending transition until that day when we make the ultimate transition from life to death, from this world to the next.

around the cornerChristians believe we are living in in-between times constantly, that time between present reality and the moment when God’s kingdom finally will come on earth. We await the in-breaking of that kingdom, while being all too aware of how painfully short of that ultimate goal we and our world really are. We lament that these in-between times are still alive and well, characterized as they are by continuing racial prejudice, senseless killing, new and fatal diseases like Ebola, war, hunger, and poverty. And we wonder what we are meant to do about it all, if anything.

While we cannot change the seasons or the life cycles of human existence, each and every one of us can do our part to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. We can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, educate the world’s children, work to stop violence of all kinds, and the list goes on. We can work to bring a slice of God’s kingdom in our own small corner of the world, however and wherever we can.

Yes, these are in-between times. Embrace them, accept them and let’s work together. God’s kingdom is just around the corner.

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Crucifixion of Complacency

“Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Many Christians throughout the world who attend the Palm Sunday liturgy, find themselves participating in the gospel narrative. Regardless of how we may feel, we find ourselves shouting, “Crucify him!”

In that moment, we are transformed from a group of Sunday morning worshipers into the very first-century people who crucified Jesus. This is not a neutral crowd of which we are suddenly a part. Neither is it an innocent crowd. For there are no uninvolved bystanders here, but rather we are a crowd of people with blood on our hands.

Every time I shout, “Crucify him,” it is a heart-wrenching experience for me. I don’t want to become part of the angry mob. I want to step back and say, “Stop! Don’t you know who it is that you’re crucifying?” But having the text in my hands, I know I can’t do that.

No, we can’t put the video in reverse, nor can we stop it or erase it. We are part of the crowd with blood on its hands that calls for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As part of this crowd, we become part of the system that crucifies Jesus – a system in which Jesus is betrayed by Judas, deserted by his apostles, condemned by his council, denied by Peter and implicated by the crowd of which we are a part. He is then whipped, mocked, spat upon, hit on the head, and finally nailed to the cross.

But why are we made to be part of the mob that crucifies Jesus? I don’t like being part of this scene. Do you? We would never crucify Jesus. Never. Or would we? Or do we? Could it be that we crucify Jesus?

To answer that question, we don’t have to travel very far. We don’t need to go to Israel or Africa or Mexico or inner city America. All we need to do is look in our own backyards. Friday was a significant day in our local food pantry. Like many throughout the country, our schools are closed for a week which is great news for children. Right?

Mmmmmmm, not really. For some – of course it is, but for others? It’s a living nightmare filled with hungry days and hungry nights and nowhere to turn. You see, when school is in session, food pantry families only need to provide one meal/day. A huge savings for families barely making it from one paycheck to the next.

But with the beginning of spring break, children in our own backyard are home for a full week; and far too many of them are hungry children without enough food to eat. Hungry children we see in town or in the pharmacy or in Walmart or in church or synagogue. Hungry children who do not live thousands of miles away, but are right here among us.

Do I crucify Jesus? Oh yes. I crucify Jesus every time I forget to buy a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna fish for the food pantry; every time I walk right past the aisle and never give it a second thought. I crucify Jesus every time I assume someone else will write a check for the local food bank. I crucify Jesus every time I look the other way and deny what is happening in my own back yard because it’s more comfortable, less emotionally gut-wrenching and painful.

When did we do this to Jesus? When we did it to the least of these who are his children. And when we turn a blind eye to the systems that perpetuate a status quo that results in ever rising statistics of food insecurity in America.

hungryBetween 2007 and 2008 the food insecurity rate among households with children, increased from 15.8 percent to 21 percent. A total of 4 million American children experience prolonged periodic food insufficiency and hunger each year, which amounts to 8 percent of children under the age of 12 in the U.S. An additional 21 percent are at risk of hunger – an alarming statistic in this land of plenty.

Mine is also a complicity of silence about these devastating systemic injustices that are all around me – silence rather than advocacy for a livable minimum wage that would enable parents to earn enough money to buy food for their children. Silence rather than speaking out about the very real and growing economic issues in many states – the economic recovery that never happened.

And this is just one issue among thousands in our world today. Each and every time one of God’s children suffers – for whatever reason – God suffers. Any time a child of Jesus goes to bed hungry, or is gunned down as a result of racial profiling or religious reasons, or is kidnapped by Boko Haram or ISIS, or goes without needed medicine – then Jesus is crucified all over again.

As children of God, we are meant to feel the pain of our brothers and sisters and we are meant to do something about it. To take action – in whatever way we can, with whatever gifts God has given us. Yet, we must never forget that we are a people of hope, redeemed through the power of the resurrection. For while we can’t change what happened to Jesus then, we can change what happens to Jesus now.

For we all know, it is the resurrection that has the final word on what happens in the crucifixion of Jesus. And it is the possibility of resurrection for each one of us standing that can be the final word for us.

*Parts of this blog originally appeared in Gender and the Nicene Creed, Elizabeth Rankin Geitz, Church Publishing, Inc. For additional information, click on ‘Books’.

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“Perfect Love Casts Out Fear”

1-john-4-18-perfect-love-casts-out-fear.From bombings to beheadings to our own inner fears – we need the reminder of this Biblical verse from First John 4:18 in our world today. We live in a world riddled with fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of terrorists, fear of our neighbors, and yes, fear of our own inner demons.

It has become increasingly difficult to read news reports or to watch the nightly news. Doing so forces us to realize that the world we live in is not a safe one. But is today any different than the days of countless millenia past?

I don’t think so. One of the most repeated phrases in the Bible is, “Be not afraid.” There is a reason for this. Humankind has been afraid from the get go and with good cause.

Religious wars are as old as God. Murder and mayhem have never not been a part of our history from the fratricide of Cain and Abel, to assassinations of world leaders, to the murders of innocent state troopers, to the killing of unarmed civilians.

And there is the fear many carry of memories from their past – fear of anger, fear of reprisal for a job unfinished, fear of losing a loved one, fear of being less than perfect.

Whether from without or within, the feeling of fear can cripple. But God tells us of a very different way to live. Believing in God, loving God, and knowing in our heart that God loves us with a love that knows no bounds, can set us free.

How? I have found in my own life that in my greatest self-doubt, greatest fear of what tomorrow might bring, greatest fear of the unknown, just a simple prayer of, “God be with me. God don’t leave me. God be with me now,” can cast out fear and fill that space with the love that knows no bounds. Love that says no matter what I AM HERE.

“Perfect love casts out fear.” Yes, it does. Rest in that. Relish it. Relax, and be not afraid.

 

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