Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Promise of Peace



It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
So begins Charles Dicken’s story, The Tale of Two Cities. I ask you, on this second Sunday in the season of Advent, are these not the times in which we live.

         Some men like our president speak in superlatives. Others like Senator Grassley deride the “little people” whom he accuses of spending “too much money on booze, women, and movies” while he and others in some brazen act of reverse Robin Hood steal from the poor and give to the rich.
 People living in high places have no qualms about transferring billions of dollars to the wealthiest one-percent, or discrediting and desecrating sacred institutions of democracy, or exploiting their power for personal pleasure, or waging preemptive wars in the name of peace, or inflaming Jerusalem in some new orgasm of violence. “We will bomb you into oblivion,” Donald says. And he means it. As if to reward him the stock market climbs to new heights. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. It is an age of wisdom and an age of foolishness.
Stay woke my friends. Stay woke. Can you hear the voice of John crying in the wilderness? After the killing of Trayvon Martin the black community’s response was “stay woke.” Become aware. Be aware of the ways which racism, sexism, class-ism, militarism, economic and environmental violence, and the desecration of sacred places like Bears Ears National Monument affect the way we live. Stay woke to what is happening in our communities and the world in which we live. Stay woke.
Developing a healthy paranoia doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Maybe it’s just you trying to be healthy. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a highway for our God in this moral desert. Stay woke until every valley is lifted up, and the crooked places made straight, and the glory of the Lord is revealed in some shimmering moment of truth. Stay woke.
The birth of Jesus is not about a strange event that happened once upon a time in village far, far away, long, long ago, when a child was born. The birth of Jesus is the story of the enfleshment of God. That is what the word “incarnation” means. It means “going into flesh.” The Spirit going into flesh. And, Mary’s flesh magnified the Lord.
Robert Frost gave voice to this powerful promise of hope in a poem in which he wrote:
But God’s own descent
into the flesh meant
as a demonstration
that the supreme merit
lay in risking spirit
in substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
and for all its worth
charges into earth
in birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.
We may take the view
that it’s derring-do
thought of in the large
was one mighty charge
on our human part
of the soul’s ethereal
into the material.
Frost, a prophetic poet, believed the greatest enterprise of life is our penetration into matter, carrying spirit deeper and deeper into matter.
The meaning of the incarnation and the doctrine of transubstantiation is the celebration of the mighty charge of the ethereal into the material. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us full of grace and truth.
What does all this mean to you and me in practical terms? What am I trying to tell you about the promise of peace? We have just witnessed seven murders in ten days in Wichita. The habits of violence are deeply ingrained in our culture and in us. It is fair to ask if peace is possible. Like the prophet Habakkuk we stand on the ramparts of the besieged city and ask, “Is there any word from the Lord?”
My friends in the Satyagraha Institute tell me there is. They offer these three steps, which they call three key principles for peace:
1.     Change happens one person at a time. A community will change only to the extent that individuals in the community are willing to change. And we, each one of us, can be instruments of change. We can create ripples of change that will alter the nature of our relationships and our communities and our nation and the world.

2.     The path to change requires face-to-face interaction, meeting, and dialogue. If we want to
      be agents of change we need to spend quality time with others who can help us work through difficult questions. Nothing can replace the power of studying, eating, reading, talking, walking, working and relaxing with others.

3.     Deep change, like fast-acting yeast, takes time.
So stay woke, my friends. Even now God’s spirit is charging into earth in birth after birth. And you are a child of God. And that is amazing and wonderful and very good.

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, December 8, 2017

Among the Trees and Grasses, Finding Solace and Strength


From words of Torah, prayers form, words become vessels to fill with our soul, Torah filling us, each of us filling Torah. It is the way of sacred scripture in every tradition, encountering God and ourselves in the seeking, in the shimmering union of text and context. As we make our way along the path of Torah from week to week, wooded glens open before us, places to pause and rest, oases from the strife and struggle along the way of life. There is succor for the weariness and worry held in the details of our own lives, and for the collective worry from all that assaults us in the political climate of these times. Given the gentle beauty of our sensibilities, we can’t in conscience put aside our awareness of those who suffer, or not consider the ways we might help to meet their needs. Yet even here, there are times when we need to pause, to sigh, to breath deeply, to remember the beauty of the world all around us and within us. There are times when we may recall places of beauty we have been, that gave of their gifts to us and helped us to relax.
             Perhaps a pond deep in the woods, a beautiful flower we saw along the path to get there. Perhaps it was a mountaintop and all the beauty along the way of hiking higher and higher. Perhaps we didn’t have to go very far to come to such a place, delighting with the flowers and bushes that grow along the sidewalk, roots of trees breaking through the cement that invades their space. And in the changing of seasons, now to stop in the midst of all that swirls and see our breath that comes from within and reminds of a place even deeper where our very soul abides. Seasons continue to turn in their way, snowflakes then to melt upon our skin. We hold the memories of what has been, sensing the beauty, seeing it with eyes closed with all the freshness and clarity of when we were there, of when it was new and now, time and place shimmering, gifts of forest and field continuing to touch, to inspire and infuse.

It is the essence of an exquisite teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) that is rooted in the Torah portion Chayei Sarah/the Life of Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:18). Following the trauma of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, of father’s intended sacrifice of son, Yitzchak goes out into the field to meditate, va’yetze Yitzchak lasu’ach ba’sadeh lifnot arev/and Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field at the turning of evening (Gen. 24:63).  It is the same root, whether of language or spirit, la’su’ach/to meditate, to pray, to converse, and so too the root of si’ach/a bush, a shrub, green and verdant growing things. So from his own traumas, so much pain and sorrow in his life, Rebbe Nachman would go out each day to be alone in nature, among the trees and grasses, finding solace and strength in field and forest. From words of Torah he formed words of prayer, May I merit to make it my custom to go out each day to the field and be among the trees and grasses and every shrub of the field. And there may I merit to be alone and to increase in conversation between me and the one to whom I belong (Likutei T’filot 2:11).

It is all in the way of Yitzchak going out into the field that Rebbe Nachman teaches, words of Torah become prayers, become vessels, become places of respite, of sanctuary. I share his teaching as I translated it long ago while sitting in the woods of a Jewish summer camp, children’s voices all around, laughter and joy to inspire, Shabbos coming near.

             Know, that when a person prays in a field, then all of the grasses come within the prayer, and aid the one praying, and give to the one praying strength in their prayer. In this way, prayer is called “sicha” (in all of its layers of meaning, prayer, meditation, and shrub). This is in the aspect, derived from B’reishit 2:5 which says “si’ach ha’sadeh/shrub of the field.” Every shrub of the field gives strength and aids one in their prayer. This is the aspect of B’reishit 24:63, “And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field,” that his prayer would be with the aid and strength of the field, that all of the grasses of the field would give strength and aid to his prayer. For this reason, prayer is called “sicha,” as explained above. Therefore, in the curse in D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:17 (which is in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma) it is said, “and the ground will not give its produce/v’ha’adamah lo titen et y’vulah,” for all of the produce/herbage of the earth needs to give strength and aid within prayer. And when there is a defect or barrier concerning the earth’s giving aid to prayer, of this it says, “and the ground will not give its strength. And even when one is not praying in a field the produce of the earth still gives aid to their prayer. That is to say, all that supports a person, for example, eating and drinking, goes forth to provide such support (as eating and drinking support the body, so the produce of the earth also supports the soul and aids one’s prayer). When one is in the field, however, then nature’s support for their prayer is greater, then all of the grasses and all of the produce of the ground give strength to their prayer, as explained above. And this word “produce/yivol” can be derived from the first letters of the verse (Gen. 24:63), “and Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field/Va’yetze Yitzchak La’su’ach Ba’sadeh…, for all of the produce of the field prayed with him, as explained above… (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 11).

        As we go out each week to meditate in the Sabbath field, L’cha Dodi/Come Beloved, so may we find beauty and rest among all the delights of Shabbos.     Aid and support given to our prayer, continuing then to inspire and nurture as we re-enter the world of time, may we merit to remember what we have seen and known, strength given to body and soul, renewed and refreshed.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, December 1, 2017

An American Thanksgiving

     This Thanksgiving, some things I saw on the internet made me think more seriously about the first inhabitants of this land. One writer told the traditional Thanksgiving story of friendship and a shared meal with the usual characters like Squanto, helping the early settlers plant and harvest their escape from starvation.
     Another told the story about how the first Thanksgiving was proclaimed by then Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Bay Colony, as a celebration for massacring the Pequot people. The Governor wanted prayers of gratitude in the churches for this great victory. One commentator of the day remarked, "Let the whole Earth be filled with his glory! Thus the Lord was pleased to smite our Enemies in the hinder Parts, and to give us their Land for an Inheritance." Another said God had destroyed the enemies of his people; "Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling (Mystic) with dead bodies." 

       A third video shows some young Native American women telling the story of theft, pillage, rape and terror and then turning over a laden Thanksgiving table.
      Different people see history through different eyes. But European Americans should all be able to recognize three things: we stand on stolen land that belonged to someone else; the original Americans are still with us; the first inhabitants continue to petition for recognition of their rights, like clean water and sustainable economies
     And although there are still Christians who stereotype all tribal peoples as pagan or heathen, the informed are aware of the deep spirituality and sacred traditions that have been carried on, even in the face of government prohibition and attempted genocide. 
     For fifteen years I coordinated a program in reservation communities where people came from many different countries and across the U.S. to immerse themselves in traditional and contemporary Native American life. We carried our home, a couple of tipis, on the top of our vans and without watches or rigid plans camped on the property of hosts and welcomed visitors as resource persons. As often happens in Indian country, people heard of our interest in learning and wonderful elders and teachers found their way to us.
     During and after these programs I was sometimes invited to ceremonies, including the sweat lodge ceremony. It's not my place to say too much about sacred ceremonies of Indian people. But as a Christian pastor, I must say that the sweat lodge experience for me was like a whole body experience of baptism, of being born again.
       One is cleansed not only of the bodily toxins but through prayer, of the emotional and spiritual toxins as well. If the arrogant and self righteous in the Christian community could give up their sense of superiority for just a moment, to truly learn of this sacred ceremony, they  might recognize that other traditions have similar and just as meaningful ways of approaching the Creator.
      Some Indian people have confessed that when they first heard about Jesus from the early missionaries, they understood. Their culture encouraged them to be willing to suffer for others. They were schooled in the value of generosity. There was an emphasis on the common good. So when they heard about this person who went to his death for others, it fit with their traditional understandings. Their sun dance ceremony represented something similar. It was about purification and sacrifice. 
     What those same Indian people didn't understand was all the baggage that came with Jesus. Baggage that eventually resulted in the destruction of indigenous people and the outlawing of their most meaningful ceremonies. Those of us of European descent would do well to confess it. It was the self righteousness and manifest destiny of those early pilgrims that resulted in the elimination of the Pequot people. It was the papal declaration of the Doctrine of Discovery that set the stage for stealing land and exterminating resisters. The Christian religion brought colonial baggage to this continent, conquering for Christ. 
      And in many ways, that nativist spirit is still too prevalent in the land. The cartoon of Indian people cutting off new immigrants from Europe is altogether appropriate in a Trumpian climate. One cartoon has the picture of an Indian man with the words,  "So you're against immigration? Splendid! When do you leave?"
     We need to work harder in this culture to incorporate some traditional indigenous values. We're in relationship, with all that is. When you enter the sweat lodge ceremony, you remind yourself of this reality. You are also reminded of the elements of all life: water, fire, air and earth. You are reminded we can't treat the earth like a thing and expect it to give fruit in its season. We can't treat the waters like our toilet and expect to be healthy. We can't use and misuse the others around us and expect mutual aid.
     Religious leaders from all across the country disowned the Doctrine of Discovery at Standing Rock last year. They confessed God did not give anyone a right to take lands occupied by others. Now it's time to give flesh to that confession. A good first step would be respecting Native sovereignty and Native values when it comes to pipelines.

Carl Kline