Friday, September 30, 2022

Beyond the Status Quo


Luke 16: 1-13  Most commonly this story is called “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” or  “The Shrewd Steward.” I think this approach to the story, though generally accepted, is misguided for a couple of reasons. If the story is about the dishonest steward, we think of the steward, the manager of the loan office, as a crook. He’s guilty of something. We don’t know what he did, but we know he is dishonest. He’s a cheat. He’s not to be trusted. And, we assume the master who fires him has cause. So right away it is a story that is about social class and class bias. If we think the steward is not dishonest but shrewd, that’s not much of an improvement. He is now a guy who knows how to work the system. In a game of winners and losers, he’s the fox in the henhouse.

I think  Jesus told this story and Luke repeated it to help us think about what it means to live as followers of Jesus in a world like this. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor and release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and set the prisoners free. Think of this parable not as a story as Jesus’ invitation to join him in an effort to turn the world upside down.


William Herzog, a biblical scholar, calls the parables “subversive speech,” and  I think he is right to call all the parables subversive. The purpose of the parables is to get us thinking about being followers of the way of Jesus. That’s what the first Christians called themselves, “a People of the Way.” They were part of a countercultural movement. Their aim was not just to upset the status quo, but to replace it.

To begin with, let’s recognize that the role of the manager, the steward, is fraught with danger. He is always between a rock and a hard place. He is in charge of the lending office. He is free to charge whatever interest on the loans that he makes that the market will bear. At least in some instances the interest rates are usurious. The master always wants to maximize his gains. The debtors are always fighting to survive and keep enough of whatever wealth they have to hold body and soul together.  The manager is the person in the middle. Every day he has to meet goals set  by the  master, deal with the unhappy debtors, and find a way to make the whole thing worth the trouble. It’s a daily struggle that does not end.

Not surprisingly, someone starts a rumor about him. Maybe the master had decided that the manager is getting too much power and it’s time for him to go. Maybe an important debtor is unhappy. Maybe someone wants the manager’s job. We don’t know the source of the complaint but it’s enough to get him fired.  The master calls the manager into his office and gives him a pink slip and tells him to go home. That’s what happens in verses one and two.

In verse three the now unemployed manager assesses his situation. He has little chance of competing with day workers for their jobs. Asking the person who just fired him for a second change isn’t going to work. There is no chance of getting a good recommendation for another job. Herzog characterizes the manager’s unemployment as a death sentence. The manager is about to join Lazarus sitting at the gate of the rich man begging for food. The situation is critical. “What shall I do?” That’s the central question in verse three. This is an existential crisis. Think of what happens today when someone is fired in this manner. They don’t just lose a paycheck, their income. They might lose their health insurance, maybe their car, their house. What shall I do? That’s a hard question.

In verse four he makes a decision.  He decides to contact everyone who owes the master money and renegotiate their debt. He cuts one person’s debt by as much as twenty and another’s by fifty percent, and so on. One way to think about what the shrewd manager is doing is that he is acting in pure self-interest tinged with revenge. The master is going to be sorry. But there’s another way to think about this story.

 I want to say that receiving the pink slip is the manager’s Damascus Road encounter. It is a conversion experience. He has been blind-sided. Suddenly he is no longer working for the one percent, he has joined the ninety-nine percenters. The parable is no longer about the dishonest steward. The question now is: What is our responsibility in such a world as this? What shall I do?  That is, “what is my responsibility?”

I am interpreting this parable as a story of religious conversion and spiritual awakening. The pink slip forced the steward to assess his situation and think about his choices and come up with a plan of action. He thought he was going to find himself living on the streets, but then realized to his own amazement that he could become an agent of change working to create a new society. 

Once he embraced the possibility of change something else happened. The rich man, the master, changed too. Rather than pressing charges against the dishonest steward, and calling him an unhappy former employee out for revenge, the rich man praised him. Luke doesn’t tell us what kind of conversations or demonstrations or negotiations were needed to bring the rich man and the debtors together. You have to fill in the blanks. Each generation has to write that story afresh, as if for the first time. Faith is a living faith. Discipleship is a way of life. One generation cannot tell the next generation what it has to do.  The situations change, but not the invitation to become followers of the way of Jesus. What I hear Jesus and Luke and many others say to us this morning is that the church in our generation and in every generation must live and work in solidarity with people of good will wherever they are to create a world fit for people, and a people fit for this world that God has gifted to us. So be it. Amen.


Rev. Dr. David Hansen

Friday, September 23, 2022

Tzadikim

 

One of the Journals I receive has a section each issue called “Readers Write.” Subscribers are notified of the future themes ahead of time and encouraged to submit a short written essay on that subject. The most recent theme was “The Bus.” Several entrants shared their bus stories; on dangerous roads in foreign countries to meeting a future spouse. All of them were interesting to read but one left me rigid. I couldn’t read on till I thoroughly digested the last sentence.

The writer was describing her experience on a school bus in Montana. It had to be one of the longest routes in the country, seventy miles, often on treacherous roads, taking two hours each way. The story is basically about the driver; of many years. He left home before dawn, spent the school day waiting to return his charges to their homes, and returned to his own home and family late in the day. He managed rugged, treacherous, often snowy roads, and ungrateful, often rowdy children, with good humor; even offering special boxes of chocolates to each child as a Christmas gift. He literally had the lives of hundreds of children in his hands over the years.

Forty years after last riding that bus, the writer looked up the driver’s name to find he had been dead for decades. Then came her concluding sentence that brought me up short. “The obituary made no mention of his many years as a bus driver.”

Obituaries can be long or they can be short. But what can they really tell us about the import of a human life? And how often do those who serve in unpretentious ways fall off the radar when we belatedly offer our attention and respect; or not!

Mr. Knap was an immigrant from Estonia. He served a church where my father was pastor as custodian. It was a large building with a two story sanctuary with balcony, large fellowship hall with spacious kitchen, many meeting rooms and a gymnasium. Mr. Knap kept the place spotless, working long and irregular hours! His English was limited but his smile was contagious. He was so grateful for his new home in this country and his employment at the church.

When he died, his obituary didn’t mention he was a custodian. His funeral was sparsely attended. I suppose he was ignored or forgotten by many because he was not fluent in English.

In my first few years out of Seminary, I served a church as an Assistant Minister. I was young, the new kid on the block. Probably because none of the more tenured clergy in town would do it, or maybe because they took their turn before I arrived, a local funeral director always called me to do the “disability” funerals. You could hardly call them funerals. The deceased had been warehoused at a state facility for the disabled and many had no known family, or been essentially disowned by family; dumped on the state. There would not be anyone at the funeral but the funeral director and I. As a deeply religious Catholic, he couldn’t bear putting anyone in the ground without the reading of appropriate scripture and prayer. All the personal information I had for my prayers was a name. He and I prayed together at a grave site several times in my three short years in that community. None of those folks had an obituary in the local paper.

The Jewish Talmud offers us the concept of the Tzadikim Nistarim. They are the thirty-six righteous ones who hold up the world and keep us from disaster. According to the tradition, if even one of them were missing, the world would come to an end. No one knows who they are. They could be “wood choppers or water drawers.” If someone claimed to be one of the righteous, they obviously were not, as humility would be one of their most important traits. If one of the thirty-six dies, another is immediately added. Together, they justify humanity in the eyes of God.

The idea of the Tzadikim is such an important concept! We can not always be certain those with the most visibility and the longest obituary are the ones holding the world together. Sometimes, it can be just the opposite, the unknown; the bus drivers, the custodians, the disabled; the wood cutters and water carriers.

Only through the eyes of God will human worth be assured, and measured.  

Carl Kline

Friday, September 16, 2022

Welcome

Unexpected guests have arrived on the island. They are exhausted and hungry and confused.  They were prepared for Boston.  They landed on an island in the ocean.  The headlines are full of the  scandalous way in which they have been mistreated, manipulated and lied to.

Without a lot of information except for the humanitarian need confronting the island,  within a few hours, these unanticipated guests were Covid tested, fed and sheltered by a community that simply wouldn’t know any other way to respond, except to extend compassion and hospitality.

Ministers and rabbis of the various faith communities on the island came together for a swiftly called meeting on Zoom and within an hour and a half  were organized to meet the need - - food, clothing, shelter, appropriate interactions with the media - and a commitment to rise above the political implications of the situation.

 In the course of the conversation about how to “message” the island response from the perspective of the faith communities, one of the rabbis, zooming in from her vacation in Nova Scotia, reminded all of us that our various faith traditions are grounded in the biblical admonition to welcome the stranger - - to offer kindness and hospitality to the alien with in our gates.  It is as simple and complex as that - to respond in a compassionate and humane way to the most vulnerable among us - - the stranger.

In the early stages of the conversation, it was very apparent that there was much that we did not know.  At frequent intervals in the joint conversation, although much information was shared, the response in the moment was “we just don’t know enough yet.”

As I listened throughout the hour and a half long conversation, impressed by how much collective knowledge and compassion were in play, I could not help but recall again the “Three Tenets” from the Zen Buddhist tradition: 

I vow to practice not-knowing, by giving up fixed ideas about myself and others, and the universe.  

I vow to practice bearing witness to the joys and sufferings of the world, clearly seeing what is, without attachment or judgement.  

I vow to practice taking action that proceeds from not-knowing and bearing witness, welcoming all hungry spirits into my life.


This morning’s headlines are rife with a lot of information that was not available at the time that the flights bearing our guests landed late Wednesday afternoon.  The political nature of these events is becoming clearer.  But none of that mattered when the flights landed.

In a state of not-knowing - -many island “hosts” witnessed the suffering and confusion and pain. Proceeding from a place of “not knowing” and “witnessing” these hosting humans applied action in very practical ways to meet the immediate need - - no questions asked: friendship, food, clothing, shelter, legal assistance, hot showers, laundry facilities…practical compassion.

Jesus said "When you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me."  He was talking about the simplest acts of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving cold water to the thirsty, the most fundamental acts of human relatedness. 

In time, the larger aspects of justice will be addressed. As the complexity of the situation becomes clearer, other actions will have to take place, informed by the awareness of all that has led up to the arrival of unexpected guests.  But for the moment, a bit of light has entered a great darkness, embodied in human beings who are willing to sit with not-knowing, willing to witness the immediate suffering of strangers, willing to take action that proceeds out of their  not-knowing and their witnessing to bring a higher level of humanity to bear in a very difficult situation.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, September 9, 2022

Meeting God

When I first learned about the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3: 1-9), I thought of Moses as some kind of superhero alone on the mountain top having this strange encounter with God that was unlike anything I would ever know or ever could know. Then I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, Aurora Leigh, in which she writes: “In this twofold world . . . Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”

This wonderful, terrible, confusing, bitter and yet beautiful world is crammed with hopes for justice, and songs of peace, and hearts filled with courage, and every bush is aflame for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to engage in the struggle to make this a more just world.

Moses is there on the mountain top, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. A mundane task if there ever was one. He is there because he is a fugitive. Only a short time ago he was in Pharaoh’s land listening to the cries of his people who were being oppressed by their task masters and forced to watch their children being murdered. Borrowing a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., Moses found that he was maladjusted to the injustice of the scene, so he struck back and killed one of the Egyptian overlords. Then he became a fugitive from Pharaoh’s justice. With a price on his head, he fled. Now, on the mountain top, Moses sees a new vision of the world. God too has heard the cries of the oppressed and seen the affliction of the people and the murder of the children. And God promises to deliver the people from their oppression. That is what this story is about. There is a parallelism in the text. Moses encounters God not only in the burning bush, but also in the struggle to end oppression and the murder of children. 

As the story unfolds, Moses returns to the land of Pharaoh and begins to organize the workers. In biblical history there is a prolonged and bitter struggle between the Hebrew people and Pharaoh. And the undertow of violence is always present. The death of the Egyptians first born parallels the death of the Hebrew children. It is as if the storyteller feels an obligation to balance the account. Violence begets more violence. I want to return to the issue of violence, but first it is important to see that Moses must be thought of as a labor organizer. He is the lead negotiator. He leads the people on a general strike. And he organizes a walkout–the first labor strike and walkout in the biblical story.

Throughout the rest of the Exodus story and throughout the biblical story we see again and again that God gives us a choice–a faith choice or a fear choice. We can believe that we live in a present that has a future that anticipates a new song, a new wine, a new society, or we can surrender to a kind of fatalism that accepts that there is no alternative to the present–truth and love are forever on the scaffold, that military power is the final solution to the world’s problems. We won’t teach our children the truth about our history and the painful realities of the present. And because ours is an “at will” state, workers have no rights.

The church at its best is always in an exodus community. We are a people who live by hope, holding on to the promise that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. It is our human vocation to remind each other of the presence of God. History teaches us that this is a stoney road to trod. 


We learned this morning about the TriangleShirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village in 1911, in which 146 people died because the doors were locked. I also want to remember this morning the Lowell Mill strike. In the 1830s, before women had any rights, when  they worked 13 hour days under wretched conditions, the women who worked in the mill organized and went on strike. The strike was crushed, of course. But against all odds, the women created the first union of working women in the United States. We don’t do a good job of teaching labor history, or racial history, or US history because it is painful for us to learn about things we would like to forget. Robin DiAngelo popularized the phrase “aversive racism.” We might call it “aversive history.” The gap between our ideals–the people we wish we were–and the reality of our history, the gap is so great we just avoid thinking about it.

When I first learned the Exodus story, I thought Moses was some kind of superman. He was a superhero empowered by the Almighty to swoop into Egypt and rescue the Hebrews and deliver them to freedom. The story really did not have anything to do with me. Only later did I realize that he was part of a community that shared a history of seeking a better world. But in our hope for a better world I want to remember this advice from Bill Coffin who said, “If you love good, you have to hate evil, otherwise you are sentimental. But if you hate evil more than you love good, you simply become a good hater” and the world already has too many such people. We do not need more good haters, we do need more good lovers.


 I want to return briefly to the issue of violence. Candidly, the story of the exodus does not end well. God promises the Hewbrew people that he will lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Jebusites and Hittites, and many other tribes and nations–and he will give them this land. It is a story that underlies much of the violence we see between Israel and the Palestinians. It is also a story that informs much of our own history. 

We, and by “we” I mean White people in general and White Christians in particular, we are only beginning to deal with the fact that we live on stolen land–land that once belonged to Native peoples. Because the history of labor struggles and racism and anti-indianism are painful and difficult, we don’t want to talk about these parts of our past. We find ourselves wishing for a better world and then, not knowing what to do, we join the Bystanders Association of wishful thinkers.

There is a better way. That’s what Labor Day is about. It is reminding us that there is a better way–when we come together in solidarity we can create a better way. This is also the message of the gospel. There is joy in collective action. Learning the truth about ourselves and our history is liberating, because it sets us free to make amends and fight for a better day.  We need to learn about this history, which is our history. We need to begin a conversation about restorative justice. What does the Lord require of us but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God and with each other. How do we do that? Not, I think, as a people filled with regret and remorse, guilt-ridden and shamed, but rather as a people who believe that earth is crammed with fire and every bush is aflame with hope. That’s the word for us, on this Labor Day.  

Rev. Dr. David Hansen

Friday, September 2, 2022

Living in Community


“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when people, women and men and children, live together in unity, in harmony, at peace with each other." Seems like a utopia doesn’t it. We are used to “red” states and “blue” states and never the twain shall meet. We have normalized violence to some degree. Random acts of violence sadden us, but they no longer shock us as they once did.

It has not always been like this. I recently learned about a national survey taken in 1963. According to this survey, seventy-one percent of the people in the United States answered in the affirmative when asked if they trusted the government to act in the right way all the time or most of the time. Seventy-one percent of the people trusted the government and the basic institutions of our society. When a similar survey was taken fifty years later, six percent of the people surveyed answered that question in the affirmative.

That is a dramatic change. We have gone from seventy-one percent approval of our government to six percent. And not without reason. As a nation we experienced the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Watergate and Nixson’s resignation in 1974, and on and on. Depending on your political point of view, the Congressional hearings into the January 6th attack on Congress may or may not help you feel better about our national institutions, but either way we are learning that democracy is fragile. We have been chipping away at confidence in our national institutions for decades, and in the process we have devalued the coin of the realm, which is trust – - - -trust. Can we trust our voting processes? Our elected officials? Our neighbors? We did not just suddenly arrive at this point. We have been moving in this direction since 1963.

How good and pleasing and precious it is when children, women, and men dwell together in unity and trust each other. This is not a call for tranquility. The Israelites who penned these words and sang this song came to this wisdom the hard way. They had experienced war and social turmoil. They knew that unity and peace and harmony are precious social values not to be taken lightly. So, when the psalmist says, “Behold,” what he means is “Listen up! I am about to tell you something that is important. Your unity has been tested, is being tested, and will be tested. Don’t take it for granted. Dwell together.”
 

The 2020 United Nations Report on Human Development, offers a global perspective. The subtitle of the report is: “The Next Frontier: Human Development in the Anthropocene," in the age of the human being. What the UN is saying is that we have pushed the environment to the brink. Rich country, poor country, it doesn’t make any difference where you live. We are all in this together. Rather than living on the earth, it is imperative that we learn how to live with the earth, and with each other.

Christian theology sometimes speaks of “prevenient grace.” This is the gift of God’s creative love that makes the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening. It is grace that spins the earth on its axis. If you like to look at pictures from the Webb telescope, you can think of these as images of God’s prevenient grace unfolding before your eyes. The psalmist was not thinking in planetary terms, but we cannot afford not to be thinking in terms of solidarity with the earth and the unity of humankind. Environmental theology teaches creation is God’s gift, and our responsibility. So the Psalm begins, “Lord, how precious it is for us to live together in unity. It is in the measure that we do this that we begin to resemble you, and to carry out most effectively your purposes in our discordant and disjointed world.”

The psalmist continues, God’s blessing is like precious oil on the head of Aaron, flowing down on his beard and the collar of his robe. Identifying the collar of the robe is important because this is where the names of the 12 tribes of Israel are sown. We can think of it as a listing of the continents. It is an inclusive blessing. It is falling like the dew of Hermon, a 9,000 foot high mountain that holds the headwaters of the Jordan River.  The image reinforces our unity with creation, and our experience of creation as a source of blessing. 

Oil flowing down on the beard...This is not a symbol of trickle down economics. Rather, the image is one of an overflowing cup of blessing that is being poured out. It is a call to practice radical hospitality. We tend to think of hospitality in individualistic terms: welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and so forth. And that is one form of hospitality. But there is another level of hospitality that is more structural. It is a form of hospitality that is woven into the fabric of society.

Ancient Israel had what they called “gleaning laws.”( Leviticus 19:9-10 and the Ruth 2:1-13).  At harvest time the wealthy had to leave part of the crop so that poorer members of the community could glean–that is to gather–food. The wealthy had a legal responsibility to make sure that the poorest of the poor had their needs met and nobody went hungry. There were no soup kitchens, no bread lines, no free and reduced school lunches. The wealthy shouldered the responsibility to make sure everyone had enough.

In the 1800s in England there was a movement called the Chartist movement. Not all Christians agreed with this movement and some strongly opposed it, but some Christians were Chartists. We can learn from this history. Chartists fought for the rights of labor. They defended  the dignity of the poor. They preached on the law: “Do unto others as you would they do unto you.” They established reading rooms and printing presses. Education was part of their agenda, and they denounced leading members of the clergy who tried to silence them. In one of their hymns they sang these words: “God is our guide! From field, from wave, from plough, from anvil and from loom we come, our country’s rights to save. . .  The sacred watch word, Liberty . . . We will, we will, we will be free.” How precious it is when children, women, and men dwell together, stand together,  in unity.


Today when people talk about unity sometimes are talking about the commons. They are talking about a recovery and a rediscovery of the commons. Protecting the commons, providing for the common good, is a shared public responsibility. Politically the commons means democratic participation, equal representation, transparency, and fairness. The commons is also about sharing resources. But it is also about social practices and values, and the way that we manage our resources–social and natural. The debate we are having right now about public education is an example of a debate about the commons. Shall people on the Board of Education be elected by districts? Shall they represent the people from the district and be elected by people who live in the district, or shall they be elected by a city-wide vote? This is a debate about the commons.

This morning’s newspaper featured a story on the front page and in the first section about city parks. Are these parks for the benefit of the public, or for the benefit of the real estate developers and private interests? A whole section of today’s newspaper is devoted to this question. It is a question about the commons. Behold, how good and pleasing it is when people dwell together in unity, in harmony. How good it is when there is transparency and accountability in high places? 

The commons is about social and cultural practices. The commons is about revitalizing democratic participation, cooperation, fairness, innovation and inclusiveness. There is no magic formula for how to do this. The commons comes to us as a gift, and a responsibility. One of the things that interests me is how a congregation like ours becomes both an on-the-ground social laboratory for the rediscovery and recovery of the commons, and a launching pad for recovery of the commons, which is both a gift and a responsibility. 


David Hansen

Friday, August 26, 2022

"Regenerative..."

 


There is a brand new compost bucket sitting on our kitchen counter, provided by Island Grown Initiative.  This rapidly growing engine that is gradually transforming island consciousness about land use and food consumption was founded in 2006.   Their website clearly states their mission:  Food equity is the heart of Island Grown Initiative’s work on Martha’s Vineyard. Innovative, collaborative programs in regenerative farming, food waste reduction, and community education help make good food accessible to everyone.

Regenerative farming is a new and exciting term to me as my consciousness of food equity and care of the earth continues to expand.  Regenerative farming means low or no tillage, use of cover crops and mulches, composting, diverse crops in the field rotation, grazing animals, no synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
 
Regenerative farming focuses on improving the health of the soil.

 
Each time I look at the ever present compost bin I am reminded of the echoes of the concept of the Jubilee Year commanded in Leviticus 25 - a year of “release throughout all the land for all its inhabitants.”  The year was to be one in which the land was permitted to rest - a year in which there would be no sowing of seed or cultivation of the land, no reaping of the “aftergrowth or harvest of the untrimmed vines.”

  
The Jubilee Year was largely aspirational. Historically, it probably never actually happened.  However, it continues, generation after generation to hold before us the principle of honoring the land, the earth, upon which we depend for our very lives.

  
As our island grows in ways to be self sufficient in the face of the climate crisis and the anticipated

supply chain disruptions and the unavailability of adequate food supplies, it is unlikely that our farms will ever be given “rest.”   So it seems as though “regenerative” methods are critical at this time on the planet.  We have to do better in managing the ways we live on and interact with the Mother of Us All.  
Part of what this means is that we are learning to eat “closer to the land.”   And that means a gradual change of diet, leaning toward eating foods grown locally.  Eventually that will mean that we find substitutes for the oranges and grapefruit that are so readily available in the supermarket. The potassium for which we appreciate bananas will have to be found in another source that does not require shipment from some far off land.  It will mean going through the process of identifying locally grown foods that supply all the diverse nutrients that we are accustomed to having at our fingertips in the supermarkets.  
 

Given the aspirational inspiration of Leviticus and what it holds in the way of both challenge and hope

makes the bi-weekly trip to the local farm for our CSA share a bit of a spiritual, perhaps even religious, journey: witnessing the care that is given to all aspects of farming there; enjoying the mostly “30-somethings” who staff the farm out of love for the land and for the work of producing nutritious food sustainably; being exposed to and stimulated by a real, physical working effort to feed more people more equitably in a culture where affluence can easily ignore the nutritional stress of so many families who must make the choice between paying the rent and putting food on the table.  
Supporting small, local farms that are learning and practicing what is required for the good of the earth and for its inhabitants is the coming thing to do wherever and whenever possible.  Future sustainability depends upon it.


 That modest compost bucket on the counter stimulates a lot more consciousness than one might expect!
 

Vicky Hanjian


Friday, August 19, 2022

Interruptions

 It has been one of those days.  The sermon awaits completion.  The order of service still needs attention.  Only now am I sitting down to put some thoughts on paper for this blog.  I have been awake since 4:30 AM.   Surely all of this should be done by now.  But the sheets on the bed needed to be laundered.  The compost needed to be taken out to the composter.  The extravagant farm surplus from our CSA needed to be shared with a neighbor. An unexpected phone call from a beloved friend usurped an hour of the morning that I had planned to use for writing.

I am reminded that life is what happens while I am busy making other plans. 

My dear friend is a grieving widow faced with the possibility of the sale of her apartment building and  having to move while still somewhat immobilized by her sorrow.  Her finances are stringent.  Her options seem confusing and elusive. She is alone. Her 43rd wedding anniversary fell yesterday on the 10 month anniversary of her husband’s death.  An hour long phone call is hardly enough time to hear her ongoing sadness and immobility as she tries to see what the next  steps on her life journey will be. Her sorrow is papable.

While on the phone, as I sat in my living room  so comfortably furnished the way I want it, with my husband nearby working out a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, waves of gratitude kept sweeping over me.  We own our own home, mortgage free.  No one else’s decision will sell it out from beneath us.  My husband is still alive!  We will celebrate 61 years together this year.  I am not alone!  Our adult children live nearby.  They are attentive without hovering.
We live in a community we love.  We have the freedom to choose how much or how little we will engage with life beyond our four log walls.  We have enough resources to keep us from feeling edgy every time a car or household repair needs to be done. 

The things I need to accomplish today seem negligible in the face of my friend’s tumultuous grieving.  Indeed, they are of no consequence at all when I glance at the daily headlines. Our local paper reports that two vibrant young Jamaican men drowned in our waters over the weekend, having done some night jumping off a very popular bridge, without knowing how strong the current was.  An entire Jamaican family and community thrown into profound mourning.  An entire island community sobered by the reality of lives lost while enjoying innocent pleasures.

 Afghan women suffer ever more under the repressive and oppressive regime of the Taliban.  Another crazed driver uses an automobile as a weapon of terror in Texas.  Quite possibly the most intelligent woman in Wyoming loses a critical election to someone who does not have the health of our democracy on her horizon.  Elsewhere women of color, women with limited means of support, financial or otherwise, young women with their entire lives ahead of them, struggle with how to manage their reproductive lives with freedom.

As Sunday morning rapidly approaches, and “Come Sunday, Come Sermon,” there is no lack of “grist for the mill.”

The message could really be quite simple.  The words have already been formed and spoken:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way were the prophets before you persecuted.”

Perhaps the interruptions that life throws in the path of the best laid intentions are where the real sermons of life exist.

Vicky Hanjian



Friday, August 12, 2022

Transition

 It’s that time of year again.  Cars are packed to the roof with clothing, bedding, electronics, books, favorite belongings to replicate something like home.  Parents keep asking “have you packed…?”  Young adults roll their eyes.  The scenario is playing itself out a few blocks from our home as our granddaughter prepares to leave the nest yet one more time, this time for graduate school.  Next week the drama will play again as our grandson returns to college after a long Covid induced hiatus.  

As grandparents, we will experience the phenomenon of  “empty - nesting” again.  One would think, having been through it before, we would be used to the comings and goings of our grandchildren.  But it is new every time.  In the enforced interruption of their studies due to Covid, we have gotten to know them as emerging adults.  We have enjoyed witnessing their evolving sense of responsibility and their increasing ease in moving about in the various worlds they encounter.  In some ways this makes the next leave-taking a little easier on us.  We don’t worry about them as much as we did when they were younger - - and yet, we still wait for news of their safe arrival at a new destination; we still sort of hold our breath when they are driving unfamiliar roads; we are conscious of holding them more closely in our hearts as they exit the nest again - each leave taking bringing them closer to the final one - - where they leave the nest and don’t return except for long awaited holiday visits.

Change is an accepted fact of life, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging or strenuous each time we go through it again.  We are gradually learning that the transitions set in motion by change  are constant and unsettling while at the same time offering opportunities for growth and transformation. 

Somehow, no matter how much we think we are prepared for the physical change that is about to take place, ie the scouting out of second hand pots and pans and dishes and linens for our granddaughter’s new apartment, all the physical preparation for a change does not prepare us for the necessary transition that will attend the change.   

Transition is an emotional, spiritual and psychological work and somehow we are never quite prepared for it. Transition means an ending is happening or is about to happen.  As I recall the first “empty-nesting” process, we witnessed our grandchildren leaving the nest as young, just out of high school, late adolescents.  Between the beginning of September and the beginning of the winter holiday break, they became different people in so many ways - had their own opinions;  were capable of making more decisions on their own; were ever more appreciative of the nest from which they had sprung.

Childhood had pretty much ended. They had done the strenuous work of transitioning to young adults.  We, as the adults left behind, experienced that ending of their childhood and had our own transition to go through.  Letting go of the precious life of “hands-on” grand-parenting of young children meant we needed to grow up a bit ourselves.  Now there were new young adults in our lives and that meant learning new ways of loving without condition; new ways of witnessing their lives in the present; new ways of being present to our grandchildren as they become adults.

I find myself feeling grateful for what William Bridges, in his book Transitions:Making Sense of Life’s Changes, labeled “the neutral zone,” that time between what was and what is to come, a sort of “gap in the continuity of life”  where we might take time to process the change and gradually get re-oriented to the new way of being on the other side of the transition.  Making use of this “dead zone” seems to be the key to making a successful transition  to what life will be like when the familiarity of the old is stripped away by change.  It made see me appreciate more the common sense of the advice to newly widowed people not to make any big decisions in the first year after the death of a spouse, but rather allow for the time required to adapt and adjust to the loss and to being a single person again.  I also have a new appreciation for the meaning of a “gap year” that so many students wisely take whether after high school or between college and graduate school.  Far from “wasting time,”  spending that period in a sort of “neutral zone” allows for a successful transition from one way of being to another.

Change is constant and inevitable.  Transition is strenuous.  But the potential for the joy of transformation awaits as the process unfolds.  So I try to put a lid on my sense of anxiety, my reluctance to let go, my fear of the unknown that accompanies every change - - and pack a few more necessary snacks and odds and ends that  may come in handy when setting up a new apartment.  I hug my granddaughter and tell her I’ll see her at Christmas.  And she is off again!!

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, August 5, 2022

"You Shall Be..."


 For some reason, I awoke from a dream this morning with the jeweled breastplate of the high priest in ancient Israel on my mind.  Go figure.  Since the image kept nagging in consciousness, I decided to follow it back into the description of the breastplate in Exodus 28.  In the midst of a lot of detailed description of the garments that the high priest of Israel was to wear for ritual purposes is the colorful detail of the chosen mishpat (the “ch” is pronounced with a sort of ‘clearing the throat’ sound), the breast plate of decision or judgement.  It was a ritual garment crafted from gold and blue and purple and crimson yarns, and “fine twisted linen” embellished with 4 rows of precious stones.  In my imagination it appears rich with the deep jewel tones of carnelian and emerald, turquoise and sapphire and amethyst  - 12 stones in all - each representing one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Upon it were also constructed the Urim and Thummim which were items that constituted a device for determining the will of the Holy One in matters that were beyond human ability to judge.


What impressed me most after all the glorious and colorful description of this ritual part of the high priest’s garments were the instructions for the intention with which it was to be worn by the high priest: “Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastplate of decision over his heart when he enters the sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times.”   

I have often thought about how life might be different if we human beings were to wear some kind of beautiful ritual garment over the heart that would keep us always mindful of the sanctity of each human life we encounter in our daily wanderings.
I wonder if such a garment might give us pause before giving silent permission for more prisons to be built?  Would it help us to see people without homes as precious lives huddled in alley ways and under bridges? Might wearing a beautifully woven garment of decision and judgement make us more alert to laws that dehumanize and dis-empower some of the most vulnerable among us?  How might a Supreme Court make decisions guided by a just mercy well tempered with compassion rather than power politics if the justices were required to wear an elaborate jeweled garment representing all the people over their collective heart - - reminding them?

Another ancient command comes to mind: “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  Even taken out of context, it is a reminder to humankind of a high calling; a reminder that we have the capacity to be whole -  - wholly whole - - not just as individuals, but as a collective expression of the very highest levels of creativity and generosity and hospitality and compassion.  We have written within us the capacity to be priests to one another in the highest and best sense of the word.  We have within us the ability to recognize one another’s wholeness - - one another’s holiness. Not only that, but we are also capable of being on the receiving end of the priesthood of another when we are in need of wisdom, comfort, guidance, strength, or compassion.


The high priest’s breastplate was to be worn by Aaron “over his heart when he enters the sanctuary for remembrance before the Lord at all times.”  The BaalShemTov (Master Of The Good Name) wrote: Remembering is the source of redemption, while forgetting leads to exile.)

Living as we do, in an unrelentingly stressful world, it is easy to live in a state of forgetfulness - or absence of mindfulness.  In remembering who we are, who we are in relationship with  one another, there is our redemption - our “return” as it were, to wholeness and holiness - - our return from exile.  

The ritual garment, the jeweled breastplate with the Urim and Thummin reminded Aaron of his high calling.  When putting on the ritual garment he was to carry the names of the tribes of Israel on his shoulders “like a father carrying a child on his shoulders to keep the child safe.” (B’er Mayim Hayyim).  Aaron was  told to carry the names of the tribes over his heart so that when making judgements, he would consult not only the rules, but his heart as well.   It is a heavy priesthood.  We need to take up the garments together.

As we enter this day:
May we be peaceful.
May we be happy.
May we embody love and understanding.
May lovingkindness manifest through our lives.
May we receive the priesthood of all whom we meet.
May we offer our priesthood to others.
May we dwell in peace.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 29, 2022

Lament

 

You never know what you might find in those old file folders, lying in the bottom of a box, hidden in the cubbyhole under the eaves. I was surprised to find a Lamentation I wrote years earlier, lost to my memory.

People may be aware of the book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. It’s not a long book, only five chapters. Still, it sets the standard for the definition of a lament. I remember studying the three primary characteristics. Every good lament has a complaint, a request for help and the certainty that God will hear and respond.

The story begins some 35 years ago. In January of 1987, I was part of a Witness for Peace delegation in Nicaragua. We were there to express support and solidarity with the Nicaraguan people as they suffered from the violence of the U.S. supported counter-revolutionaries (contras). Afraid of the Sandinistas who had come to power there and what the U.S. government saw as their communist tendencies, our government was supporting counter revolutionary forces based in neighboring Honduras. They would slip across the border to murder and terrorize the population. Symbolically, our purpose in Witness for Peace was to stand between the contras and the people of Nicaragua, putting our lives in jeopardy with theirs. It didn’t take long to realize that aim. 

Shortly after our arrival in Nicaragua, as we headed toward a border town where our presence might discourage some of the violence, we got our first taste of the situation. We were traveling in the back of a truck with Nicaraguans heading in the same direction, some forty of us altogether, driving over a dusty rural road. Before long, we heard an explosion some distance off in the direction we were moving. Several minutes later we came on a small battered pick-up truck, lying on the side of the road, next to a crater. The people nearby informed us the truck had hit a contra land mine and the two dead farmers had been removed from the scene. If we had arrived ten minutes earlier, it’s hard to know if I would be telling this story.

Our immediate destination was a rural community close enough to the border to experience regular incursions from the contra. We accompanied farmers to their fields, walked the rural roads, sat and talked with the townspeople. Mainly, we wanted their adversaries to understand there were North Americans in their midst and any violence might risk U.S. support. 

 

Part of our time later was spent in a refugee resettlement camp called La Posolera, a community of 83 families who once lived closer to the Honduran border, but had moved several times seeking shelter from the terror of the contras. Even here, they had armed guards patrolling their perimeter day and night, with good reason. We visited several sites around their community in pouring rain where their residents had been killed, to offer prayers of repentance and peace.


The day before I wrote my Lamentation, we visited the nearby Waslala hospital and watched as medical personnel amputated what remained of a 15 year old girls’ arm, the result of a grenade accident that killed her boyfriend. After the amputation, the doctor told us the only game children in the area were able to play was “war”! It was ever present in their consciousness!

At the end of our visit and before returning to the states, we went to the American Embassy to meet with our Ambassador. When I asked to close our time with the Ambassador with a reading of my Lamentation, it was denied. He didn’t want to hear it. As we left, it was read with only our delegation listening, outside the gates of the Embassy.


                                   God! Where is my arm?
                                   Who will carry my family’s water?
                                       and shape the tortillas?
                                   How will I hold a child to suck
                                       at my breast?
                                   What man will want only half
                                       of a hug?

                                   Have you taken it to heaven to
                                       comfort my lover?
                                   Or is it lost in the blood on
                                        the hospital floor?

                                   Make my arm busy in the Spirit world.
                                   Help me bear my share of life’s work.

                                   For you are the God who takes children
                                        into your arms,
                                   and makes all of our arms strong for
                                        filling a cross.

                                   I will sing praises to God, for
                                        she has left me a voice.
                                   I will run after her will, for
                                        she has left me with feet.

                                   Praise God in the heavens. Praise God
                                        on the earth. Praise the name of
                                        God.

 




My continuing complaint, my continuing lament is, that all of the world’s children are too conscious of war. Every day they lose arms and legs and lives. Why is the alternative vision so hard to realize? When, if ever, will I be able to conclude my lament?

Carl Kline













Friday, July 22, 2022

Sitting In the Fire

 With the reports of searing temperatures and fires in Europe mirroring the ongoing threat of forest fires and record breaking temperatures and drought conditions here in the U.S. the metaphors of heat and fire have been on my mind a lot.  Boston has been enduring days of 90 degree weather with debilitating humidity.  While not as hot on the island, the weather has been unusually dry and and the parched grass in our yard crunches underfoot.  We keep an eye on the sign at the edge of the state forest that lets us know the level of danger for fires there.  It is high.

The heat  of war in Ukraine continues unabated as the military machine burns and obliterates home and hospitals and schools, melting an entire culture in front of our eyes.

 

In the midst of the “high season” here, the beaches draw the multitudes who find relief in the cooling waters of Nantucket sound.  There is the brief ease of forgetfulness at the water’s edge in the midst of colorful beach umbrellas and coolers stocked with cold drinks.

But the title of James Baldwin’s book “The Fire Next Time”  flutters around in the back of my mind.  It seems an apt allusion to the heat and fire of our times.

Alongside that title, the sonorous tones of “for he is like a refiner’s fire” from Handel’s “Messiah”  keep replaying in my head - - persistent.  The words are from the prophet Malachi: See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears…for he is like a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…and he will purify.

The metaphor of “fire” will not leave me alone.  It disturbs - - but it also opens a window for other ways of thinking about this burning process we seem to be in, quite literally, but also figuratively, as a species on this planet.   And I wonder…are we in the midst of “the fire that purifies?”   Is it OK to entertain that question?

My Buddhist teacher sends out an invitation to “tea and conversation,”  inviting the sangha to engage in a thoughtful discussion of the thinking of 13th century Buddhist sage, Eihei Dogen, the founder of  Soto-Zen in Japan.  The  conversation starter is an article on a work titled Kuge - “The Flowers of Emptiness.”   (The article he shared can be found at https://www.lionsroar.com/steadfast-in-the-midst -of -samsara).  I was hooked by some words in the first paragraph: “The time and place that the blue lotus flowers open and spread are in the midst of the fire and in the time of fire.”  According to the article, “Dogen lived in a time of political uncertainty, violent weather, and cultural change. Perhaps these difficulties inspired Dogen to take up the poetic image of a blue lotus - associated with practice - realization - blooming within the fire of samsara.”     In order to bloom, the blue lotus requires the heat of the fire.


So -from two major religious traditions comes the metaphor of fire as part of a process of transformation.  The passage from Malachi evokes the image of a powerful process of refinement. In refining silver, one needs to hold the metal in the middle of the fire where the flames are hottest so as to burn away all the impurities. The high temperatures volatize the impurities that form on the surface as dross. The dross is discarded and only the beauty of the silver remains.

So, I wonder.   Is it OK to entertain the notion of the possibility that this grand human experiment may be in the process of transformation?  Is it possible that in order for humanity to become whole, compassionate, and the embodiment of lovingkindness, we must endure a purification process not unlike that of a refiner’s fire?  

The prophet Malachi addressed a corrupt culture where even the religious leaders had lost their sense of vocation.  The sacrificial system was breaking down as people brought blemished and unfit animals for sacrifice - totally against the religious order of the day.  The prophet promised something like a “refiner’s fire” in the face of which no one could stand.  It is as though he could see ahead of time the deterioration of society.

The Buddhist tradition affirms that out of the fire of suffering, compassion and wisdom arise with the willingness to practice spiritual discipline in the midst of the fire of life’s difficulties and challenges.  The blue lotus blooms in the heat of the fire.

Since it seems unlikely that we will escape the suffering caused by war, ignorance, conspiratorial thinking, poverty, racism, anti-semitism, various gender prejudices, and on and on, is it possible that we might entertain the  metaphor of the “refiner’s fire?”  Is it possible, by focusing on the inner life, cultivating mindfulness, seeking a consistent compassionate response to what life offers, we might begin to understand that we are in the heat for a reason - - that we must return again and again to the center of the traditions that call us to something higher - to compassion, generosity, hospitality, lovingkindness.  

Buddhism also affirms that “when the student is ready, the teacher will come.”   It seems the teacher is in the room.  The fire is burning white hot.  

“…and who shall stand at the day of [it’s] coming?”    

I take reassurance from a few other prophetic words from Isaiah 43, captured in  the hymn “How Firm A Foundation” - - “When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply;  the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume , and thy gold to refine.”

Sitting in the midst of the refining fire is painful, challenging,  and exhausting.  But major spiritual traditions affirm that if we can hold steady, practicing the high spiritual disciplines of faithfulness, lovingkindness, justice-seeking, and compassion in the midst of the fire, transformation can happen.  

Holding on tight for the ride,

Vicky Hanjian