What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
I checked it out on Google. There is no consensus on how long it takes to make (or break) a habit.
Who mentored you? Who are those people - coaches, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, pastors, strangers - who influenced the direction of your life, who helped you to be the best of who you are, who flamed that spirit that lives within you? Who did you find yourself keeping company with at those formative times of your life? What was it about them that captured your attention and respect? What do you remember of what they said or did that still lives in you today?
Since 2002 many communities have observed January as national mentoring month. January 22, 2010 is "Thank Your Mentor Day", which many mentoring programs select as a day of volunteer recognition. Perhaps you will take the opportunity to send those who mentored you a note of thanks, or give them a call to share a little bit about how they have contributed to your life and how their legacy lives on.
Perhaps you will spend a little time thinking about the ways in which you are a mentor to others. Of course many of you take this idea very seriously already. You have invested yourselves in intentional mentoring programs like Communities in Schools. You take time out of your schedule to spend time with others who need you - young children, nephews and nieces, youth in the church, other adults that look to you. Perhaps you will consider more deeply to whom you matter or have mattered. Who looks to you that you may not have seen? Do they have access to you? How do you help to create a mentoring environment in those places where you live and have leadership?
We at St. Andrew are going to take the opportunity to think a bit more about mentoring during the month of January. We're going to explore not only what it means to be a mentor, but what it looks like to be a mentoring community, the kind of gathering that serves the next generation.
Speaking to a group of church leaders, Sharon Daloz Parks, one of the Harvard faculty behind the Harvard Mentoring Project and now a fellow at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA recently suggested this idea: If we are going to enter into the church as it is, a mentor will be of great value. But if we hope to enter into the church as it could be, a mentor will not be enough. A mentoring community will be necessary.
Who has been instrumental in your life and why? How did they inspire you and change or clarify the direction your life needed to go? What's next for you? What's next for St. Andrew as we live as a mentoring community?
A true story: a pastor once called over to a parishioner's house to set up an appointment. The phone rang and a small and polite voice eventually answered. Recognizing the voice as the woman's daughter, the pastor identified himself and asked to speak with her mother. He could hear the little girl's steps as she padded off, and then after a minute or two as she returned to the phone.
"My mother is busy right now. She'll be here in a little while."
Trying to be understanding, the pastor suggested, "Oh, that's all right. I can call her back a little bit later."
"No," came the reply to the little girl. "You can wait."
The pastor, a bit surprised, replied, "How do you know I can wait?"
The girl's response was clear, "You are a pastor. You can wait."
The thing is, the girl was exactly right. A good pastor understands that the work of the Spirit happens in its own time. It is an unseen, yet profoundly real process that takes place in each of us, as we allow it the space. It cannot be forced. It cannot be rushed. A good pastor can wait; it is one of the primary things she does.
But this understanding is not just limited to pastors. It is deeply embedded in the rhythms of our historic faith. It is written in your own soul. Advent is a container for this deep knowing that comes only as we live with the haunting of what we do not yet understand, what we do not yet know how to do, but cannot let go of - the holy gap between what is and what could be, the pregnancy that leads to new birth.
We all know the feeling, don't we? An idea, a hunger, a question lingers. At first we see it only in our periphery. Gradually it comes more into focus. We examine it, question it, explore it, give it voice. We are present to letting it ripen, clarify, and even change us.
After the active mind has done all it can, we come to an active pause, this pregnant waiting of Advent, where the deep currents of the soul, the deep mind can work. It may look like nothing is happening, but everything is happening. The pause is essential to the discovery, to the deeply creative spirit working within us. The result, the gift of the pause is insight - that "aha" that comes when a new way of working through a vexing problem becomes apparent.
The stories of Advent find us smack dab in the midst of the kinds of complex crises that require a new way of seeing. Prepare the way... A little child will lead them... a messiah from a backwater of a town... the dawn from on high will break upon us. Advent is that gracious space that we who seek and wonder and question need: From where will our salvation come?
What is being birthed in you? What new questions? What deep hungers need the space of your stillness? Carry them with you to church and let them be there, gathered around our big stories. See what God might unwrap within you this Christmas. You can wait.
There are many places where the intellect is given room to grow - schools and universities are a good example. The same is true with the emotions. Therapy groups, 12 step groups, small church groups all provide space for injury to be explored, anger and joy expressed. Task forces and committees provide room for the will to be exercised, organized, formed and shared. And the ego? Well, pretty much anywhere we go there seems ample space for our egos to bump against each other!
I am reassured by the fact that the church provides hospitable (but sometimes indulgent!) space for all of these parts of us - intellect, emotions, will and ego. But there is another part of us that Parker Palmer thinks about in depth in his book A Hidden Wholeness (particularly chapter four). There is another part that he worries we make dangerously little room for. He calls it the soul. I think of it as the deep center of our being, the place where the unique voice of God resides in each of us, the inner compass that resists being deformed by the pressures and messages of everyday life and sickened by the toxicity of the busyness of our age. Spaces designed to welcome the soul and support the innery journey are rare. Palmer says, "Apart from the natural world, such spaces [for the soul] are hard to find - and we seem to place little value on preserving the soul space in nature."
Yet, it seems to me that making space for the soul is the primary mission of the church from which all others flow. How would our life together look differently if we were to better make way for the soul within each of us to find room to roam?
Palmer imagines the soul as a wild animal: "Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places." Yet it is also shy. If we want to see a wild animal the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. It takes patience, quietness.
In Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis offers a story that hints at the harm that our "crashing" can do, no matter the good-will with which we do it:
One morning...I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as the butterfly was
making a hole in the case preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long
appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it
as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life.
The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my
horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly
tried with its whole body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my
breath. In vain.
It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a
gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to
appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later,
died in the palm of my hand.
That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I
realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not
hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.
Healthy relationships, circles where there is trust, are neither invasive or evasive. In places where the soul might come out, we neither invade the mystery of another's true self, nor do we evade another's struggles. We stay present to one another while stifling any impulse to fix each other.
Palmer identifies four affirmations that get at what soul-safe space looks like:
So, there is much here. And if you have made it with me thus far, you have shown patience and endurance. May the Spirit add to that wisdom as we continually seek to be a community that listens to the wild voice of God that dwells within each of us.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God
prepared beforehand to be our way of life. - Ephesians 2:10
Philip Yancey, editor-at-large for Christianity Today, travels a lot. He writes in his book What's So Amazing About Grace that for awhile he began asking the strangers he encountered what they thought of when they heard the term "Christian". He heard in reply mostly political descriptions, responses having to do with theological struggles taking place in the public eye, but not once a description that spoke of grace.
Yancey's book chronicles his own struggle with a tradition of legalism and a gospel that speaks of God's loving acceptance and pursuit of even the most unlovely. I'm sure we all have our own personal stories of church encounters that spoke or intimated the language of shame, guilt, and rejection much more fluently than grace. Mark Twain used to talk about people who were "good in the worst sense of the word."
More importantly though, I have been struck recently not by the damage done by un-grace as much as by the sheer power of grace to transform us and overcome and overwhelm so many hurtful experiences. Some conversations may be dominated by those moments of abuse or dismay, but we stick around because we've had, perhaps, just a glimpse or even more of that true grace we know lies at the very heart of our Creator and deep within the rhythms of life. We've seen the way that things can change when we'd given up hope - resurrection!
Grace breeds grace. We experience gifts and love from others, absolutely undeserved and our natural response is to offer it to others. Grace, like love, is never hoarded, but returns ten-fold. This, after all, is what we are built for.
the winds, the waves
the tides and gravity,
we shall harness for God
the energies of love.
for the second time
in the history of the world,
man will discover fire.
- Teilhard de Chardin
I keep hearing this refrain going around that things are going to get harder before they get better. We hear it at the national level of course - the economy is in the dumps; retirement investments have been decimated by a plummeting Stock Market; we're funding two wars we can't afford, but we can't afford to end them carelessly either. Unemployment is on the rise and many of us are holding our breath that our job isn't next.
I'm hearing it elsewhere too. Non-profits are getting hit pretty hard in these times. Many have gone under. Churches that have set their budgets on the calendar year have found deficits looming - spending up but giving not following suit. I've heard it quite a bit lately around St. Andrew as the Session is in the process of setting our budget for the new fiscal year beginning in July - reconciling our calling for mission and ministry with our financial expectations.
There is certainly reason for concern. We don't have any reason to expect that the financial realities will be any different for St. Andrew. So let me invite you to a little perspective. Let me invite you to remember our story. Isn't it in precisely those times that we don't see a way out, that God shows up? Don't take my word for it; listen to just a few examples from our own story:
We already know about the promise of a son and a future to Abraham and Sarah, but we might argue that Hagar and Ishmael got the short end of that deal there and yet, in the desert, out of water, just as she turns away from her dying son for a final time, God hears and she becomes the grandmother of a great world religion (Genesis 21).
The Pharaoh who had locked up in his basement a dreaming convict named Joseph with a plan to prepare for the coming years of drought is able to save all of Egypt and provide aid to the surrounding nations, including Joseph's own family with whom he is reunited (Genesis 45).
A nation with 100% unemployment and no permanent housing wandered in a wilderness, but ate manna and quail and did alright (Exodus).
Ruth faced starvation but somehow continued the line to Jesus (Ruth).
The people of Ninevah are hours away from extinction and all they have going for them is a cranky and reluctant, water-logged prophet who would love nothing more than to see the great city disappear, yet the whole city repents and is saved (Jonah 3).
A widow without resources whose sons are taken into slavery to satisfy her debts is told to keep pouring the last of her oil into any jar she can find, and it just keeps coming until she has enough to buy her children back (2 Kings 4).
Elizabeth has a son in her old age (Luke 1) and Simeon and Anna get to see salvation's dawn (Luke 2).
At least two starving crowds in the middle of nowhere and without an arguably incompetent event planning committee are fed by a few loaves and a few fish (Matthew 14, 15, Mark 6, 8, Luke 9, John 6)
The widow at Nain gets her son back (Luke 7).
The Samaritan woman at the well never thirsts again (John 4).
Enough from me. Let me turn it over to a section from one of my favorite prayers of thanks that we pray around a table with only a little bread and juice, and yet, even there when we share it, a world is fed:
'When we turned from you, you did not turn from us...when everything was in chaos, you formed beauty and order (Genesis 1, 2) When Abraham and Sarah were childless, you birthed them a son (Genesis 21) When the Israelites were enslaved, you led them to freedom (Exodus) David faced Goliath and the widow of Zarephath drought (1 Samuel 17, 1 Kings 17) Naaman faced leprosy and Esther the slaughter of her people (2 Kings 5, Esther 8), and the stories proclaim that you granted them all your life.
Maybe it is just me, but I get the sense that this story of ours teaches us that God is to be found precisely in these trying times. And given some of the stories you have told me, it seems pretty clear that God has continued to write this story in our lives. It's not that we welcome tough times; it's just that our God is a God of tough times, and tough times are when miracles happen. Yep, I think this could just be a very good year!
Perhaps you've had a chance to see the current exhibit "Edward Hopper's Women" at the Seattle Art Museum. The painter of such iconic American images as "Nighthawks," "Chop Suey," "House by the Railroad," and "Morning Sun" is featured in an intimate show that takes up only two small rooms but spans a vastness of meaning.
Hopper described the time he spent in France like this: "I used to go to the cafes at night and sit and watch." And he not only watches, he sees. Hopper had the ability to capture with his brush a moment crammed with meaning, a moment that defies reduction or simplification. It is there in the expression, in the way people look at or past each other, in the architecture of the composition. He liked to watch, but his paintings quickly transcend the self-indulgent moment of the voyeur for the existential power of the poet.
The power of his images is to invite our own self-reflection, to uncover the enigmatic depth of our own lives by virtue of a single moment. His compositions are surprisingly spare on the outside - the center of the Seattle exhibit is his 1929 piece "Chop Suey", which depicts a restaurant with no food to be found on the tables. In their simplicity, precisely in their simplicity they evoke a mysterious and complex richness within. Desire and vulnerability, hunger and reticence, emotional density and barrenness coexist within the architecture of the paintings, refusing to be resolved. Thick beams isolate individuals lost in thought. Shadows evoke emotional distance. For Hopper, even beams of light can function as a cage for his subjects.
It is an interesting dynamic, looking at these paintings. The power of them for me is that they invite our own self-reflection; the spare compositions invite us to find our way through the dense interior of our own lives, both for good and ill, strength and weakness, consistency and inconsistency. The story, as Sheila Farr in the Seattle Times review so aptly puts it, "takes place in our heads". Hopper catches his subjects at moments when they think no one is watching them. The painting then becomes a mirror that invites us to look within, to resist the tendency to read ourselves either too generously or too severely, but instead to ask simply: who am I when no one is watching? Who am I when the walls are down and I'm most honest? How are we trapped within the secrets of our own interior lives and what would freedom look like?
For me, it's a timely show. The good news of Christmas - the idea of incarnation, of a God showing up in the midst of it all, of a God loving us enough to, as Eugene Patterson's The Message translation so artfully captures, "move into the neighborhood" moves us toward Epiphany. The story of God's absolute love assures us there is grace enough to take a good and honest look at ourselves. We remember that God's blessing comes not at the sum of our best works, not after we've made our most convincing arguments for our worthiness and value, but at that precise moment when we think no one is looking, when all that we are is laid bare - deeply complex, fearful, yet wishing to be known, gifted, yet trapped in prisons of our own making.
For we too are a mystery - fearfully and wonderfully made. And the courage to look inward is the way to freedom in our outward lives, the way to live lives of integrity in which we are the same on the inside as the outside. And when we find our way past our own limits we are more able to refuse to limit the lives of others.
We are entering into the richest of seasons as we move at the first of the month into Holy Week--Pascha from the word Passover—when Israel and then early Christians celebrated the passover from death to new life, from slavery to freedom found in the transforming presence of God. The very heart of our Christian faith is found here. Deeper understanding that makes way for transformation is available to those who desire. The possibility of the transformation not only of our personal lives, but hand-in-hand with them, our world is available here. Are you ready?
Together we will keep the feast. In her book The Three Day Feast, Theologian Gail Ramshaw notes that there is a deep truth to this idea of keeping a feast, keeping the festival that we call Holy Week, particularly with its culmination in the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter or Paschal Vigil. We may mark the solstice, celebrate Thanksgiving, and observe the anniversary of a death. But to keep is to hold something close, preserve it, protect it. Festivals such as this need to be “kept” or their influence will give way to the complications of our lives, to the muddle of necessities that claim our energies.
If we do not keep in our minds and hearts the birthday of a child or a mother’s day of death, these events will fade, their importance to us will be lost to us. But if we keep them, we find that they keep us! Their values will remain in the community and enrich our lives together. Their ideals will inspire and their hope will sustain. We keep family dinner for the same reason we keep a festival—so that our communities like our families might be shaped toward collaboration, mutual support and life-giving love.
So let me invite you to a feast that is the water and bread we need for life. Let me invite you to a feast that has been around since the beginnings of the church precisely because it dishes up the Christian life and the fullness of Christian hope in ways that engage the whole community. This feast is so lavish it takes three days to fit it all in! Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Saturday evening Easter Vigil.
The Three Days together serve as a primer for the whole Christian life. The betrayal and failure and disillusionment of Maundy Thursday’s upper room supper captures our own experience, yet a way is provided to cross from death to life—much like the ancient Israelites before us—in the commandment to love one another. We know too the darkness and injustice we encounter on Good Friday. Though we devoutly gather to recall our Lord’s passion, we celebrate the wonder and mystery of the cross as the sign of the world’s redemption. From this cruel cross flows forgiveness, healing and salvation. An instrument of torture and death becomes a tree of life, and all the faithful are invited to bow before this great mystery of our faith. Only with the insight and experience gained from the previous days, are we ready to encounter the radical hopes of Pascha, passover, Easter.
These are days filled with images, sights and sounds and activities that are especially hospitable to children—there is movement here, greater informality, a healthy dose of the stories that define who we are as a people of faith, that keep us. There is fire in these days! Quite literally the fire with which we push back the darkness at the beginning of the Easter Vigil service, and the fire that is kindled in our hearts through these liturgies that were first practiced by the earliest Christian churches as the blossoming of the year and the admission of the Church’s newest members into the full life of the faith community.
Throughout the Three Days we are not becoming biblical people in their time and place. Rather we are becoming more and more our baptized selves. We are practicing what it means to be the body of Christ here and now. We are drawing deeper and deeper into the freedom we know as Easter—when the stone of our own hearts is rolled away and we find a new life, a freedom to love and forgive and live with purpose and clarity, to live in the world in ways that allow others to live as well—with justice and generosity and grace and joy.
And this feast is only the beginning! It sends us out into the 50 days of Easter in which we can further explore the terrain of this resurrection life rooted deeply in the waters of our baptism.