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“Let the Waiting Begin”

“Let the Waiting Begin”

We are now beginning the season of Advent, the coming of messiah Jesus into our world 2,000 years ago and our personal preparation to receive the spirit of Christ into our lives today. The world into which Jesus was born was a dark one. Despite the romantic embellishment of our Christmas story, the Christ child was born in a bed of dirty straw and animal feces and his people suffered under the heavy hand of the empire. The Jewish people whose fortunes had been dashed so many times, waited hesitantly for a messiah to inaugurate a new world order of peace and justice. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jesus was born in the wilderness.

Many, if not all of us, go through “wilderness” times in our lives. There are times when we may feel bereft of hope, alone and even spiritually bankrupt. During Christmas these feelings of loneliness, despair and emotional pain seem to be magnified in our lives. The beauty of Christmas is that in the midst of the wilderness there often come little glimpses of hope and renewal that remind us that all is not lost and that eventually the darkness gives way to the light. I recently read a poignant testimonial which reminded me of this advent reality:

“This trip back was a sort of spiritual pilgrimage. A landscape of grief and disappointment had made my life flat and joyless. God seemed as cold and remote as the mountains we were driving through. My throat was too dry for prayer. I was hoping this trip would help take away some of the sad longing I felt.

We were riding on a lonely stretch of road with no gas stations or stores and not even another car. The road has been gradually ascending for several miles, and my ears were popping. The tundra spread out for miles. Nameless mountains rose up in the distance. The trees had disappeared-winters were too cold and the winds too fierce for them to live.

It hadn’t been so lonely to me when I was younger. I was raised on Davey Crockett and Wagon Train and Little House on the Prairie, and I loved stoking the stove with split logs and sitting by the light of the kerosene lamp, It was novel to plug in the oil pan heater on the Jeep every night so the motor oil wouldn’t turn to Jell-O.

Life seemed all opportunity; I could be a waitress or a college professor or a poet. My grandparents, my parent and my sister were all alive. I imagined I’d have a big family that would sit around a long table at Thanksgivings.

Now my mother had been gone ten years. My dad, sister, aunts, uncles and many friends were dead too. I had regrets. I never became a waitress, poet or college professor. I left Alaska and ended up in a middle –sized city in Iowa. I didn’t have a big family, and my children lived far away. The past year my husband and I had eaten Thanksgiving dinner at a Perkins restaurant.

Suddenly I saw a small spruce tree. From our vehicle it looked about two feet high. I don’t know how the tree got there or how it had managed to survive, but there it was, a spike of green in an arctic desert. I stared at it, turning in my seat to keep it in sight. Then a clump of four or five trees appeared, clinging together in what must have been a warmer spot of ground. An old spruce shoulder leaned sideways onto a hearty tree as if the old one was putting its head on the younger one’s shoulder.

A few miles further on, several families of black spruce stood close together as if posing for a family picture. Now the evergreens filled the slopes with a deep green-descendants of other spruce and fir trees. I felt a hopeful quickening. I was surrounded by kinfolks. I took a breath and inhaled a prayer.”

Excerpt from The Christian Century, Nov. 2017

As we enter the season of Advent, let the waiting begin with anticipation and any measure of hope we can muster up. Let us look for those little signs of new life and new light, even in the midst of our pain, brokenness and disappointment…… even in our wilderness times.

Seasons of Life

Seasons of Life

Connie and I were able to take a few hours this week to take a wonderful and familiar hike in the nearby Harriman State Park area. We like to begin at the Reeves Meadow Ranger Station, which is only about 25 minutes from Ridgewood. Turning onto Seven Lakes Drives opened up a beautiful panorama of fall color and rushing water, a world apart from Gotham City only a few miles away. During a break in our hike, sitting on a stone by the brook, I noticed the last of the dying leaves on one particular tree slowly falling to the ground. That leaf had lived out its life span, changed from green to brown, and returned to the earth to become part of the organic material which would, in turn, nurture the forest floor. Human beings are like leaves in that respect. We too have a lifespan, we go through the seasons of our lives, and we literally change color, or at least our hair does, and then we return to the earth and are absorbed by it. I remember the many times I have quoted the phrase at graveside memorials: “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Emmanuel is represented by people in all seasons of life, summer, spring, fall and winter, although most of us are either in the “fall” or “winter” of our lives. If we are lucky and relatively healthy, we will enter into the winter season with a quality of life that allows us to enjoy and reflect on the beauty and meaning of life. Carl Jung said that these latter seasons, the second half of life, were especially designed for persons to reflect on and cultivate their “spiritual lives.” After having lived in Florida for so many years, I have so enjoyed experiencing the full range of seasons again that occur in the Mid-Atlantic states. Winter is upon us and it is the time when things “die” or go into hibernation. At the end of December we experience the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (Christmas) and then the days lengthen and we anticipate the rebirth of creation (Easter). This cycle of death and rebirth is emblematic of the spiritual life. In fact, Jesus said that unless a person “dies” they cannot be born again. Spiritual death and rebirth is not a one-time experience but a continual and beautiful cycle in which we can encounter and conquer our own egos and false selves and give birth to the “new man” or “new woman”, the incarnation in our own lives of the loving and compassionate presence of the Christ in us. The holiday season can be, for some, just mindless exercise of frenetic activity. For those who have suffered serious losses over the year, the holidays often only exemplify those losses. This year, I encourage the members of Emmanuel to focus on their own rebirth and renewal and the renewal of our world, which is facing great darkness. The reality of life is that nothing lasts. Leaves, people and even trees have a lifespan but as the Apostle Paul said, “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” I am so glad that our congregation has made a commitment to go deeper in its daily devotional life and that this initiative is beginning at this time of the year. Together let’s make a commitment to take the time to watch a leaf slowly float to the ground or to be with the gentle stirrings of our own spirits as God speaks to us and nudges toward the deeper life.

Reverend Arturo Lewis

Reverend Arturo Lewis

Emmanuel’s church council is excited to recommend the Rev. Arturo Lewis to the congregation to serve as Associate Pastor beginning November 1. Rev. Lewis will focus on youth and family ministry and discipleship, assisting me with preaching and serving as a representative and advocate for Emmanuel’s ministry and outreach into the larger community. Pastor Judy Wheeler will continue to serve in the role of Pastoral Associate focusing primarily on pastoral care, prayer concerns, children’s ministry and facilitating the several groups she is involved in and leads. The new Associate Pastor position will be part time and will not result in any additional monies needed for pastoral staff in 2018. Pastor Judy and I have both agreed to take a salary reduction beginning in 2018 in order to fund the new position. In order to compensate for these reductions, Pastor Judy will be given the summer off next year and I will take an additional four weeks off primarily in January/February. This will insure that there is always pastoral staff available for congregational needs and emergencies. In addition, Rev. Arturo will fill the pulpit in my absence 8 to 10 times per year. Rev. Lewis is an ordained American Baptist Minister, endorsed by ABCNJ and completed his theological graduate work at Princeton Seminary. He is currently adjunct professor at William Paterson College teaching sociology of religion and world religions. Rev. Lewis has pastored several churches and been involved with at risk youths as a mentor and program facilitator. He has served as a life coach, motivational speaker and community activist with a particular passion for social justice issues. He and his wife Debra are long time Ridgewood residents. I believe Rev. Arturo will add a new dimension to Emmanuel’s ministry as an inclusive, interfaith, and diverse Christian congregation. A congregational meeting is scheduled for Oct. 29, immediately after the morning service to vote on the new associate. As well, Rev. Lewis will be available on that morning to meet with any youth and/or their parents who would like to get to know him at 9:15 in the Peace Lounge. If you haven’t heard Rev. Lewis preach, he will be filling the pulpit for me on Oct. 8 when I am away. Please pray for this process and try to be in attendance in the coming weeks as we head toward the call of a new Associate Pastor. If you have any specific questions or would like to take a look at Rev. Lewis’s resume, just contact me or the church office.

The Blessing of Not Knowing

The Blessing of Not Knowing

I was at dinner a few weeks ago, when a question came up for which no one around the table had an answer. Immediately, several folks pulled out their smartphones to Google the answer. With instant access to any piece of desired information everyone quickly becomes an “authority” on every issue. We have access to the Library of Congress at our fingertips. Every-body knows everything all the time. A good discipline is to sideline your smartphone at regular intervals. The fact is, we don’t need to know everything all the time. We don’t need to know where our children are at every moment, we don’t need to know the current stock quotes and we don’t need to know who the Chinese emperor was in 1411 A.D., or other obscure pieces of trivia or random information. In fact, there are some things we cannot know even if we wanted to. There are some aspects of truth which are totally unknowable even with the latest technology. God and God’s ways are one of those things. In the Hebrew Bible God is quoted as saying, “My ways are not your ways,” (Is. 55). In one of his letters the apostle Paul said, “As for now we see things only dimly as in a faded mirror, but in the end we will know fully, even as we are now fully known.” (I Cor. 13) The Christian faith, as Paul reminded us, is more about “being known by God” than knowing things about God. We can become familiar with the “attributes” and qualities of God through reflection on the Bible or we can devise theological and metaphysical systems of thoughts which might quantify and categorize information about God but, in the end, God remains a mystery who/which is ineffable and indescribable even to the wisest and most devoted of us. Our deepest understanding of the divine comes not from intellectual inquiry or doctrinal orthodoxy but from the experience of opening our hearts and minds to the spirit and living and walking through this life in “relationship” with God. As the apostle said, it is only “in the end” when we meet God face to face that our knowledge and under- standing become complete. In the meantime, we humbly confess our inadequacy and even ignorance of the things and ways of God which our puny minds can only catch glimpses of. Thankfully, even those glimpses can be glorious and life transforming and so we give thanks for the blessing of not knowing.

The Dog Days of Summer at Emmanuel

The Dog Days of Summer at Emmanuel

I recently spent a few days with my very bright six year old grandson. We developed this little game in which we explored the origins of etymology or certain funny sounding colloquial expressions. We would think of one and then Google the phrase to find out what the original meaning was. Some of his favorites were, “Cat’s got your tongue”, “It’s raining cats and dogs” and “An arm and a leg.” You can look these up for yourself but I’ll give you the meaning of one; “The dog days of summer.” Actually this expression originally had nothing to do with dogs or the lazy days of summer. To the Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” occurred around the day when the constellation, Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year.

I bring this up because it seems to me that many churches and church folk do things and says things which may have had meaning at one time in the past but have been detached from their historical context and quite simply doesn’t make much sense today. We often unconsciously and habitually repeat the same practices and traditions without asking what they really mean or meant or what purpose they really serve for our present time. Why do we do what we do in church? Is there a purpose worth being salvaged and celebrated as we practice our traditions? Is there meaning and vitality in the rituals we observe? I find it quite interesting to reflect on why things in the church are the way they are and how we might organize in a way that better connects with 2017.

When I first came to Emmanuel I noticed there were two short pews placed in the front of the church at floor level. It was obvious that the wood did not match the rest of the architecture and aesthetically they did not complement our beautiful sanctuary. At the same time, while I was cleaning out the small chapel, I found two footprints on the carpet which perfectly matched those two small pews. Apparently someone had removed them from the small chapel and placed them in the sanctuary. I wanted the pews to be returned to their original location but before moving ahead with that task I wanted to know why they were moved in the first place. I asked many of our long time members if they knew why and who had moved them and no one seemed to remember. Finally, I was in the sanctuary one day with Marek, our Sexton, and I asked him. He said, “I remember when that happened. One day, about twenty years ago, one of the interim ministers decided he wanted to sit down in front of the church while communion was being served so he and I picked them up and moved them and they’ve been here ever since.”

When we begin to ask why we do the things we do and why things are the way they are, we often get surprising answers. We may then decide to make or not make a change, or to retire some activity or even language which no longer has value. After we discovered the origins of the phrase “The cat’s got your tongue” with my grandson, I am inclined not to use that one so much anymore. Maybe there are some things in the church we need to relegate to the archival section.

An Extravagant Welcome

An Extravagant Welcome

I noticed that President Trump received what was described by the press as “an extravagant welcome” from King Salman of Saudi Arabia when he recently visited there. Last Sunday Emmanuel celebrated an “Extravagant Welcome” Sunday recognizing our recent affiliation with A.W.A.B. (Affirming and Welcoming American Baptists). This organization advocates for the full acceptance in congregations of all L.G.B.T.Q. persons (Lesbian, Gay,
Bi-Sexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning). We were privileged to host three very compelling guests, each with their own unique story and perspective on this and other pressing social isues: Mr. Stephen Bouchard former AWAB member, State Senator Ray Lesniak (Gubernatorial candidate and human rights champion) and State Assemblyman Tim Eustace (Deputy Conference Leader).

All three of our guests emphasized the importance of what Emmanuel and other congregations are doing as a way of breaking the “glass ceiling” for L.G.B.T.Q. persons. As one of our guests said, “Everyone is looking for a spiritual home.” I agree with that and I believe that it is Emmanuel’s unique role and mission to open its doors to “the house of God” as wide as possible so that the many who might never enter a traditional church might find the love, support, and acceptance that we all need and desire.

The Apostle Paul admonished us to “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, to the glory of God.” Its time in the life of the Christian Church for congregations to walk their talk. Jesus ministry and modus operandi leave little wiggle room. We have no excuse and no authority to exclude an open hearted seeker from full and free membership into the body of Christ, regardless of their pedigree or theological orthodoxy. I spent a good chunk of my ministry in the Church of God of Anderson, Indiana. It is one of the few Christian denomination whose congregations still have no “membership.” The idea is that only God can place an individual into the body of Christ, the church is not something that one “joins” like a club, rather the church is a living, organism that grows and is grafted together as God graciously adds to it. Ultimately, God is the “decider in chief” and determines the parameters for membership into God’s family.

At Emmanuel our intention is not to build a “gay” church just as we don’t intend to build a “straight” church. Our intention is to build a “great” church which, by definition, is one in which there’s room at God’s table for all people, of all color and classes and even sexual identities. Thanks to you who are “constituents” of Emmanuel who are open-minded and open-hearted enough to make that vision into a reality.

Living Consciously in the Presence of God

Living Consciously in the Presence of God

One of my personal goals is to live “consciously in the presence of God.” By that I mean to live with an awareness of the sacred dimension of each moment and movement of my daily life, even in the most mundane of activities. I have to admit, however, that I often fall short. Pastors get very busy with their churches and with the business of life and can neglect the daily cultivation of their own devotional lives. In that vein I offer some guidelines from a dear and saintly woman I have known in prior years, Flora Wuellner. Consider her guidelines for a way to “pray through the day.”

Prayer is primarily a relationship with God, not a set of rules or gymnastic disciplines. Our prayer methods are most fulfilling when they arise from the natural ways we relate to others.

Waking: Let yourself return with gentleness to full consciousness. Stretch, lightly mas-sage your face, neck, hands, and arms. Lovingly greet your awakening body. Listen to any signals of bodily tension or discomfort. With each gentle breath picture or sense God’s renewing light and life flowing into your body. Does the memory of any dream tell you something significant? Take a moment to think about it prayerfully. When ready, picture or sense your body moving with joyful strength out of bed, and then move into the sensed picture of yourself.

Cleansing and Dressing: As you drink water, eliminate, wash, let God’s love be expressed through running water on your body. (An ancient, sacramental symbol.) Many people find they pray best when in the shower! These are meant to be healthy, holy, pleasurable actions. While dressing, sense God’s renewing light clothing and enfolding you toughing and blessing each bodily part.

Eating and Drinking: claim each bite of food and each cup you drink as God’s direct gift of life. As you eat and drink, you are bonded more closely and the body of God’s world. Eating and drinking is an ancient sacramental act, and as with all sacraments it is meant to increase our vitality, our joy, our thankfulness, our health. It is also meant to deepen our compassionate awareness of our brothers and sisters who are hungry and our intention to reach out to the hungry more fully. If you eat alone, note with delight the color, texture, taste, and fragrance of your food, and inwardly thank the animal or plant that shares its life with you. If with others, let there be laughter, tender fellowship, and shared loving awareness of the divine energy that comes to you through the food and drink.

Facing the Day: Early in the day, or on your way to work, claim Christ’s promise: “When I go and prepare a place for you, I will come…and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:3). This is a promise not just for the transition of death, but for any experience that lies ahead of us. God’s love will go ahead of us, pre-paring the place for us, filling that place with light and healing, so that when we get to that task, that office, that meeting, that challenge we will feel welcome and strengthened.

It is also helpful to claim God’s protecting, embracing light around that car, bus, bicycle, train or plane that you will use.

Working: Through the day, give loving thought to your bodily parts which are especially being used; eyes, hands, feet, arms, legs, brain. Touch them occasionally and encourage them like good friends working with you. Listen to your bodily signals of tension, stress, discomfort. These are messages telling you about stress within you or in your surroundings. Sense God’s embrace around your stress. At intervals, take a few moments to sense or claim God’s healing.

At intervals, take a few moments to sense or claim God’s healing renewing presence which is “closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.” Become aware of your breathing, and with each gentle breath sense or picture God’s light and warmth flowing through your body like a river. This can be done even in the midst of a meeting. Inwardly include those who are working with you as also held in this light and warmth. Such frequent, silent prayer can make an enormous difference in the atmosphere of a workplace, or in any other community.

In Relationships: As you go through the day, be aware that most of the time you are among “the walking wounded”. With each encounter, whether face to face, by phone, by letter, claim, picture, or sense Christ’s light around the other, or Christ’s healing hands on the other. Try to sense the hurt, bewildered, or frightened “child” with the other, which is usually masked. Inwardly reach out that inner child of the other. If you feel drained of energy or uncomfortable with the other person, picture or claim the Christ between you and the other, so that you do not feel yourself to be the sole source of nurture for the other. Sense also that beautiful child within the other of giftedness and hope, Sense the inner beauty of the other struggling to open up to the light like a plant pushing up from the darkness of the earth to the sunlight. Inwardly celebrate that deep growing even if you cannot yet see any change.

Celebration and Thankfulness: During the day, often take a “mini-Sabbath” and gaze at a tree, cloud, bird, flower, sun’s ray, or experience with intentionality a fragrance, sound, taste, or touch. Let your five senses rejoice. Let God touch you through your senses and renew you.

Preparing for Sleep: Give your day’s hurts and joys into God’s hands. Gently breathe the light of God through each bodily part. As you move into the mystery of sleep, trust that you are held by God’s “everlasting arms”. If you lie awake, know that God’s tender, renewing strength still flows to you and through you. “My soul clings to Thee. Thy right hand upholds me”. (Psalm 63)

Readying the Candle for the Flame

Readying the Candle for the Flame

The season of lent, like advent, is an opportunity to assess the state of our soul and to prepare for a fresh encounter with the divine. In his classic “Paradise”, Dante uses the image a holy fire and a white rose to inspire his readers toward the quest for a union and re-union with God, “But already my will and desire were being turned like a wheel all at one speed, by the love which moves the sun and others stars…The love that calms the heavens always welcomes into itself such a salutation to make the candle ready for the flame. “ Our nature and destiny is to be afire in Divine love. As Plato said, “We are fired into this life with a madness that comes from the gods.” The Apostle Paul affirmed that it is only as we live, deeply, in and out of that divine love that we experience what Jesus called “abundant” life; ‘In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) The season of Lent, then, is an opportunity to “prepare the candle for the flame.” To consider and cultivate our inner lives and make them ready to receive the light and fire of God’s love and grace.

All of this is lofty and esoteric stuff can seem out of reach for us, mere mortals, plagued by the broken-ness and limitations of the human condition. In our weaker moments, we lie, cheat and steal. We make mistakes and live with the guilt and regrets that are part and parcel of a less than perfect human existence. Our church sanctuary is filled with various candles. Some are real candles and some are battery operated. Someone recently tried to light an electric candle and melted the plastic wick! Talk about preparing the candle for the flame, half the time, despite our best intentions, we don’t even know which end of the candle is up (or real). The fact is that we all make mistakes, we sometimes only cripple along but usually we do the best we can. Approaching Easter also allows for opportunities to start over, to find forgiveness and to thrust ourselves again on God’s limitless mercy which defines the Gospel message.

We must never lose sight of this high and lofty vision of the spiritual life. Again, as Paul said, we must forever strive for the “upward calling in Christ Jesus.” Our deepening union with God is not only the preferable but the possible option for anyone who takes seriously their spiritual pilgrimage. For years, I have been a fan of another Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross the Spanish Carmelite priest who, like Dante, cast his vision of the Christian life in terms of a direct, experiential encounter with God. He once said: “To love is to be transformed into what we love, therefore, to love God is to be transformed into God.” For most of us, being transformed into God, seems unimaginable when we consider how limited and temporary human life really is. We are not all mystics and certainly we are not all saints. We may want to “fly like eagles” as Isaiah said, but how can we fly like eagles when we live and work with “turkeys.” Not to worry, our job is only to “ready the candle” and to cultivate the soil of our hearts in order to prepare for the movement of the spirit in our lives. That is our part and the rest is God’s part—-and thank God for that!

Lessons From the Children (and Grandchildren)

Lessons From the Children (and Grandchildren)

I was able to spend several days with my grandson Zion this week. Zion turned 6 a week ago and he knows me by “Papa Gill”, the same name my children knew their paternal grandfather by. Zion is sheer joy. He is extremely bright, witty, creative and rambunctious. Like most children there is no pretense or inauthenticity and no ill will in him. One day he made a new best friend on the playground, if only for a few hours. The other little boy was African American but I know that if I would have asked him about his ethnic origin afterward he wouldn’t have had a clue. He wouldn’t notice that he was black, only that his name was Devon. That’s because children, until they’re taught differently are color blind and class blind. Jesus said, “Unless we become like little children, we will not enter the kingdom of God. What Jesus was referring to was a kind of innocence, naiveté and purity that comes with, as Paul described it, “a renewal of our hearts and minds.” As well, this childlike state involves a reclamation of a deep authenticity and uniqueness that is given to every human being from birth. Sadly, the “world” has a way of draining our authenticity and squeezing us into culturally and socially expected norms and patterns. Listen to author Parker Palmer: “We arrive in this world with birthright gifts, then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces and religious communities we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism, sexism and “success” our original shape is deformed beyond recognition. We ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others. We lose sight of our original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then, if we are awake, aware and able to admit our loss-we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.” Carl Jung declared that the second half of life is the time when adults have the opportunity to develop their spiritual lives and to grow into their full humanity (which might just mean growing into our full “childlikeness!) Becoming who we were created to be is a challenging and exhilarating spiritual journey which lasts a lifetime. There is an old Hasidic tale in which the rabbi says, “When you meet God, you will not be asked; Why were you not more like Moses or Abraham, but rather God will ask; Why were you not more like yourself?” I have found that there are few true individuals left in the world, that is unless you spend time with little children. In them we see a glimpse of something very revealing and very beautiful. It is something we can learn from and something we can become….by the grace of God.