My favorite comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live is about 30 years old. It was a running gag written and performed by (not-yet-Senator) Al Franken, in which he proclaimed the coming decade (the 80’s) as “The Decade of Me, Al Franken.” It was bitingly funny, as he created a character so narcissistic and un-self-aware that he actually thought he deserved a decade in which all eyes were on him. He periodically gave service announcements on the show, offering “tips on what you can do for me, Al Franken” and just generally making a fool of himself. It was funny because, especially in the 80’s, we were experiencing a societal shift away from thinking about “us” or “you” in our policy making, and toward a decade of planning mostly for “me.” It was a reaction, perhaps, to the 1960’s and 70’s, in which issues of poverty and civil rights dominated the national dialogue, and some people felt the individual was being ignored. So we shifted to a decade of “me’s” and Al Franken, goofily enough, led the way.
As Christians, we have always been suspicious of the lure toward “me and mine.” When we read Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, we know we are being asked a question so obvious to God as to be rhetorical. Yes. Of course. And yes, we are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. And yes, to take seriously that “whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” Even these words are part of the Christian calling: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” We believe with all our hearts that Jesus calls us to focus on others, and to stop spending so much time navel gazing.
When it comes to sin – our failings, our mistakes, our regrets – we are asked to look first at ourselves. As tempting as it is to spend our time critiquing others, we are asked to use all that we know about the Gospel to shape our own lives, not to judge the lives of others. I think this is where the Christian church has run off the rails in the past. We spent so much time making rules and laws about the behavior of others, we forgot to look at ourselves.
As Robin Fish says:
“The [Gospel] is a mirror designed to show you your own spiritual condition. It is not meant for you to check others out, but to check yourself.”
The Gospel is a mirror, in which we see ourselves as the deeply flawed and deeply loved individuals that we are. The Gospel is a window, in which we see the many needs waiting to be met. And perhaps it is also a doorway, opening us up to the greater world outside. Jesus shows us that there are indeed times for all of these.
But perhaps the hardest of these three is looking in the mirror. Because maybe when it comes to judging what is right and what is wrong in the world, it really does start with me.
“Our Western culture leans toward self-sufficiency and independence, and we often need to be reminded that we are part of a greater whole, that we are not alone in our longings and efforts for peace, justice, and healing. This is one of the great gifts of what we usually mean by “church”—a gathering of people in solidarity of purpose, praying and seeking God’s presence together.”
(Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations)
when the individualistic values of our culture imply that that is all there is.
Communities of faith embody this desire and root it in our experiences of a Greater Love. For Christians, this Love is expressed in the teachings of Jesus. For other traditions, Love is found in teachings and stories and experiences that point their followers toward a common good and a broader purpose. For all of us, it requires the discipline of living on two planes: that of the inner experience of a Higher Consciousness and the outer experience of living in covenant with others in such a way that the world is made better.
I use the word discipline because it takes practice to live on those two levels, and “church” is where we can practice together. It is always tempting to separate the two, because it is simpler to focus on one or the other. But the joining of the inner and the outer worlds of Spirit creates a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Each world feeds the other, even as they keep each other in balance.
We are in a time of great transition. Human beings are rejecting old ways of looking at the world, and traditional models of community are being re-examined and re-imagined. I believe that this is good. I believe that this is of God, and that we do not need to fear the changes we see around us. I also believe that though models of spiritual life and community may look different as we move into the future, the essential nature of “church” will remain the same: we are called, now and always, to join our “longings and efforts for peace, justice, and healing… to be a gathering of people in solidarity of purpose, praying and seeking God’s presence together.”
And so I end, as I began, with words from Richard Rohr.
“Find some way in which you can join in the life that is greater than your own. Participate in a vigil, sharing the grief and hope of your neighborhood or world. March with others to bring visibility and voice to an important issue. Make a pilgrimage to a sacred or violated site to connect your small place in time with a history and a broader meaning.”
May these words be a call and a direction for us, as we seek to integrate our inner and outer worlds, and join with the faithful everywhere in creating God’s Beloved Community, one small community at a time.
When I read these words recently, I knew I had to share them with you. In all my readings about “church,” this is perhaps my favorite description of what it means to participate in an
intentional community of faith. As I speak with Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims, I hear at root the same basic yearning I hear from Seekers of all kinds: the yearning to join with others in working for a better world. It is a deep desire to be a part of something bigger than our own separate lives, even
Love all God’s creation,
the whole and every grain of sand of it.
Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.
Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.
Once you perceive it,
you will begin to comprehend it better every day.
And you will come at last to love the whole world
with an all-embracing love.
~Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov)
We have a big, old, unwieldy magnolia tree in our backyard. It shades our deck and messes up our yard. It has two big branches growing out nearly horizontally, the result of very poor pruning on our part, I’m afraid. But whenever we decide to have those branches taken off, our daughters put up such a protest we always back down. You see, those two branches are apparently just the right distance from the ground to provide the perfect stepping stool for little girls to begin their upward climb. Both our daughters, now in their twenties, spent hours in the branches of that tree. They read, they sang, they spied on our neighbors, and one even worked out a system so that someone (usually me) could send up drinks and snacks and books, as (It involved a plastic bucket and a rope, and served her quite well). I put my foot down when she wanted a sleeping bag –spending the night in the tree seemed too much of a good thing. They loved that tree, the leaves and the bark and the blossoms, because held within it’s branches, they were intimately a part of God’s world.
Have you ever watched a child watch the world? Every bug is a marvel; every twig a sculpture. And the leaves! Oh, the leaves are objects of amazement – they can be green and too high to reach one day, and before you know it, they are falling all around you, orange and yellow and brown. Adults move through the same world as children do, but we are so busy and important and productive that we often don’t really look at what is around us. We rake the leaves and break the webs and shoo the bugs out of the house, and move so quickly we forget, sometimes, to see. So it’s good to remember being little, lying on our backs and watching the clouds, or to recall a time when we took the time to watch a spider spin a web. For those were the moments we first felt God’s grandeur and began to fall in love with God’s world.
If you can, try to remember yourself as a child in love with the trees and the bugs and the clouds. Sit with that memory, and let it wash over you. If you are having a hard time recalling those times, simply watch a child watching the world, and let his wonder carry you away. Better still, find a stick or a rock or a leaf for yourself, and let it connect you, again, to the “all-embracing love” that you first felt as a child: God’s love, linking you with all of creation.
If you want to know, then go and ask the wild animals and the birds,
the flowers and the fish. Any of them can tell you what the Lord has done.
~ Job 12:7
In my first call, so many years ago, I was privileged to be with a member of my congregation as she was dying. She was in the hospital, and was beginning her transition from this life to the next. Her eyes were mostly closed and she had not spoken for quite a while. I prayed quietly with her and after a few moments, I started to say the Lord’s Prayer. I noticed a slight movement in her hands, and I glanced at her face. She was silently mouthing the words along with me, all the way to the end. “Forever and ever. Amen.”
What a gift that prayer was to both of us. At our completely different stages, and in our totally different circumstances, it united us, both God’s beloved children, one in the Spirit. I can’t remember learning the words of the prayer– it seems as if I’ve always known them. Perhaps I learned them in Sunday School, or maybe my parents taught me, but most likely it was the constant repetition of saying them with others that placed the words in my heart, and sealed them there forever.
It is the one prayer every Christian knows, even though our wording may vary a bit. It is a bridge between communities and a constant in a changing spiritual landscape. Yet, we say it so often, we may be unaware of its affect on us. These words shape us over the course of our life, like drops of water subtly but surely shape the stones on which they fall. “Give us this day… forgive us as we forgive…for thine is the kingdom and the power…”
In my role as Chaplain, I am privileged to pray this prayer many times a week with different people: in worship, during prayer group, with individuals whom I visit. I am always moved by the experience: no matter how frail or forgetful, how distracted or isolated, these words are always there, somewhere deep inside. The very fact of having said them so often for so long makes them available to us, even when we have long forgotten other things.
So today, I offer these words to you again. Wherever you are when you read this, I invite you to take a moment to pray the Lord’s Prayer, savoring the words and phrases, and knowing that others in this community and around the world are somewhere praying them with you.
Forever and ever.
What does it mean to age gracefully? In a society so fixated on youth, what does it mean to embrace the gifts and challenges of growing older?
The second half of life, or ”the afternoon of life” as C.G. Jung put it, begins at around fifty, and contains within it a different set of tasks than the first half. In the first half of life, we are called to create our identity, establish our relationships, develop our work lives, sometimes raise our children. In the second half, we are called to be more settled, more internally focused, and to attend to the “smaller things of life” — no more needing to prove who we are, we can now decide to be who we are, as fully as possible.
Frederick and Mary Anne Brussat of Spirituality and Practice have created a list of what they consider to be the essential tasks and gifts of the second half of life:
- It is a time in our lives to put the finishing touches on our character for the fulfillment and confirmation of our true self.
- It is a time to nurture intimacy in our roles as spouses, parents, grandparents, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and community members.
- It is a time to explore everyday spirituality, discovering signs of the sacred in things, our homes, our bodies, our relationships, and more.
- It is a time to deepen and intensify our devotional life, learning more spiritual practices to supplement prayer and meditation.
• It is when we embrace it all — sunshine and shadow — excluding nothing from our hearts.
For those of us in the second half of life, it can be tempting to look at our aging as a diminishment as we focus on beauty changing, bodies slowing, and our human mortality. Yet what if we reminded ourselves that aging is a privilege not granted to everyone? What if we took advantage of the slowing down to go more deeply into prayer?
No matter what our age, we each have something to the world needs. For those of us getting older, experience, wisdom and perspective are the roots that nourish and stabilize our families and communities—if we let them.
“I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
~ Psalms 139
At every age and in every stage, we are God’s handiwork.
Thanks be to God!
Redwood City, CA
(Shared driveway with Smart & Final ~
We are at the end of the parking lot)
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