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8-13-17 The Storms They Are a Brewin'

The Storms They Are A Brewin’

Bob Henry

Indianapolis First Friends

August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

 

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 

 

As a kid, I always loved this story of Jesus walking on the water. I often hoped that one day I too would step into a pool, lake, or ocean and somehow be able to walk on water, sadly it hasn’t happened yet, and honestly, I am no longer trying.  Probably because if I only focus on that part of this story, I am most likely missing the importance of it all together. 

 

I had a professor who once said that we too easily get wrapped up in the miracles and divine instances of Jesus and skip right over the human aspects. Yet, it is often those human aspects that give us something to understand, relate to, and ultimately learn from. 

 

So this morning, I want to focus on what I think this text has been teaching us for quite some time about our daily lives. 

 

First, getting in a boat for the disciples was as ordinary as us getting in our cars to drive to work.  They knew the seas like we know the roads around our homes.  I am sure their boats often seemed to travel in the direction they wanted to go without a thought - much like the way we talk about our cars knowing how to get us home. 

 

The disciples...

●     were comfortable. 

●     knew the weather patterns. 

●     knew the warning signs.

●     were prepared, because...

●     were skilled fishermen.    

 

Yet, at the same time, Jesus was finishing the night’s lecture on the side of the hill and dismissing the crowds. I visualize an author’s book talk at Barnes and Noble where people are still mingling and wanting to get their book signed, yet Jesus has been on tour for some time and he is tired.  He just needs his space and some down time. I can relate to this Jesus.  He just wanted to put his feet up on a big rock, lean up on a tree and meditate to the sound of the evening bugs.  

 

Do you have this picture? 

 

Jesus is up on the mountain, most likely looking over the sea in which the disciples have just ventured out on. He most likely was aware of the storm that was a brewin’ because from his vantage point he could literally see it coming.  

 

I kind of assume that Jesus, as many of us, laid back, watched the storm come in, but in his exhaustion fell asleep.  Like I said, this is the Jesus I can relate to.

 

Yet, throughout the night as Jesus rested his eyes, the disciples fought for their lives.  This was not the usual storm.  Different texts scribe the storm’s impact in different ways.  Some say it battered the boat, others say it tossed the boat, one even says it buffeted the boat.  Stephen Tinkner says those aren’t strong enough words. He says,

 

“Actually, the original Greek goes further. The word used in the Matthean text is actually basinizo, meaning to torture. It conveys a sense of human suffering because it is used in some ancient Greek texts to express the application of torture to someone. So it is the middle of the night, the disciples are surrounded by a darkness we modern day light polluted people can’t understand, they are likely on a small boat, and a violent storm has surrounded and engulfed them. We can only imagine the fear pulsing through these disciple’s veins as the storm engulfs their lives.”

 

This was intense, folks.  

 

So maybe it was thunder or a bolt of lightening that jolted Jesus from his much deserved rest and meditation.  But the text says that Jesus went to them early in the morning. Many people immediately think it is dawn or as the sun is coming up, but I sense it was probably more like two or three in the morning and still pitch black (remember there were no lights on the boat, or lighthouses on land).

 

When people are under such stress and torture with very little sleep.  Well, you know...they don’t see things right. They had probably been fighting for their lives for hours in complete darkness, their internal clocks, their internal navigation, their nerves all had left them.  They had been battered, tossed, buffeted, and tortured - this was not what they were used to.  

 

Actually, it was custom that fisherman crossed a sea by staying in sight of land and traveling around the perimeter of the sea - instead of going straight across.  The text says that by the time Jesus realizes what is going on their boat was far from the land.  They were probably a bit discombobulated, but from Jesus’ vantage point, he could have seen their exact location through the lightening strikes or possible moonlight. 

 

Did Jesus walk on water to get to them - or did he appear to walk on water? Maybe he was on the shore and to them he appeared to walk on the water.  This is beside the point. 

 

The important thing is that he knew where they were and met them in their distress and urged them through their fear.

 

Let’s just pause at this point and turn this story on ourselves.  

 

Have you ever encountered a storm in your life that you were not expecting?  Not the ones that arise on occasion that we know how to get through or maybe even have taken precautions or made preparations for, but that unexpected storm that batters, and tosses, and buffets our lives leaving us feeling tortured and helpless?

 

The storm that…

●     knocks you off your feet. 

●     distorts your vision and abilities. 

●     has you crying out, SAVE ME!

 

❏    Maybe it was a marriage or relationship that took a bad turn.

❏    Maybe it was a deep depression or even suicidal thoughts that took over your mind.

❏    Maybe it was trouble or a struggle with a child or parent that was out of your control.

❏    Maybe it was a work situation that turned people against you.

 

And not all of these unexpected storms have to be personal.  

 

Societal storms surround us as well.

❏    Like the storm of impending nuclear war which has arisen in our world just recently.

❏    Or how about more recently - just yesterday - the storms of racism in Charlotteville,

❏    Or how about misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, that are gripping our world.

❏    Or storms of financial collapse, police brutality, economic inequality, human trafficking, lack of educational opportunities, impending pipelines on sacred ground…

 

And the list of storms could go on. 

 

We seem surrounded all the time by impending new storms that we are not expecting. Storms that when they arise debilitate us, consume us, and have us and our neighborhoods, and even faith communities incapacitated and crying out to be saved!

 

What Jesus asked of the disciples was rather risky.  He asked the disciples in this moment of utter unraveling to be bold, to step out, to not doubt their potential?

 

Fear often grips us, leaving us paralized. We default to survival. But God wants more of us than mere survival.  He wants us to step out and be bold and believe that we can make a difference in the midst of the storm.

 

I like how Stephen Tickner in a blog post described this boldness, he said,

 

“You see boldness isn’t arrogance, boldness isn’t bravado, boldness is what Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] called “creative maladjustment.” It’s having the courage to say and do the unbelievable, the counter-cultural, because we are strengthened in the fact that we are following in the path of, and trying to live like, Jesus.”

 

Peter was having a moment of creative maladjustment on and outside that boat.

 

Maybe Jesus is asking of us the same.  Maybe we need a “creative malajustment” to overcome the storms of our lives. 

 

❏    We need to say, we can make a difference in our marriages or family situations.

❏    We need to say, we are going to get help for our depression or suicidal thoughts.

❏    We need to say, we will make our workplaces better. 

 

And just maybe we as Quakers need some creative maladjustments.

 

It has been far too long…

 

❏    We need to say NO to racism in this country - that white supremacy is NOT accepted and hate is not the way to a better world.

❏      We need to say, we will stand against nuclear weapons and war and fight for peace.

❏    We need to say, we will speak up against misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia, police brutality, economic inequality, human trafficking, the lack of educational opportunities, impending pipelines on sacred ground…and the list could go on.

 

And just maybe we need to say, we believe we can take all this hatred in the world and transform it with love.

 

This is what Spiritual Guide Wayne Dyer often speaks about. He says,

 

“Transformation literally means going beyond your form.” 

 

This is what Jesus was asking of Peter and the rest of the disciples, and what God is asking of us.  Through the storms we must boldly go beyond our form to be transformed and to help transform this world.

 

One who went beyond his form and through many unexpected storms to transform this world was Martin Luther King Jr. and I would like to conclude this morning with his words:

 

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality...I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”  

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8-6-17 Garden Chaos

Garden Chaos

Indianapolis First Friends Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

August 6, 2017

 

This morning, you may have noticed we changed up the order of worship putting our time of silence and meditation at this point in the service just before the scripture reading.  At my previous church I labeled this time “Centering Down.”  To “center down” simply means becoming quiet, still and silent as the Meeting moves into a time of listening to the Spirit through scripture, spoken word, and waiting worship. After a brief time of silence we will read the scriptures and I will proceed to the message.

 

Let us take this time to center ourselves and enter into a time of expectant waiting and listening.    

 

[Pause]

 

Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSV) (Pew Bible p. 795)

 

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

 

_________________

 

A couple of weeks ago now, I mentioned the tag line “Making Visible the Kingdom of God.” And I said, First Friends is making visible the Kingdom of God in what I would call “Greater Indianapolis.” But this morning, I want to take a moment to discuss a little more about what that Kingdom really looks like through the eyes of Jesus. I think too often it gets confused or misrepresented - and that is usually because of how we interpret Jesus’ words.    

 

Jesus was asked on numerous occasions to explain the Kingdom of God. And his answers came in the form of short stories - which religious folk have often labeled parables.  Sometimes the stories were rather cryptic and took explanation in Jesus’ day (and even more in ours, since most of us don’t live in a rural agrarian society). Also, I must mention that many people throughout history utilized the parables to promote their own theologies and I believe some explanations have taken away the impact of Jesus’ example. 

 

So Jesus is posed the question, “What is the Kingdom of God [or Heaven]” and he answers with several different stories about a sower, weeds, and then to our text for today where he compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. The first couple of parables may have passed the ears of the disciples and followers of Jesus, but not the Mustard Seed. Actually, they probably would have laughed, chuckled, or even whispered to a friend, “Did Jesus just say Mustard seed?

 

For Jesus to compare the Kingdom of God to a mighty cedar [which he had done] was fine, but to compare it to what in Jesus’ day was a noxious, invasive, common weed, quickly got their attention. For us today, it would be like Jesus saying the Kingdom of God is like the climbing, coiling, and trailing perennial Kudzu vines that are ruining landscapes across America. Jesus’ audience would have been either in shock, think that he was being irreverent, or that he had somehow misspoke.  

 

I don’t know about you, but I grew up with this parable in Sunday School, someone once even gave me a necklace with a little mustard seed in it to wear to remind me that something very small could grow into something big - which often they implied meant the church.  It is true that mustard seeds are very tiny and grow rapidly into a bush - some as tall as 10-12 feet high. 

 

But I need to be honest at this point...I think there is a much more important meaning to this parable than church growth...and I believe it has a lot to do with quality not quantity.    

 

First, allow me to give us some information that may help us understand the radicalness of Jesus’ comparison of the Kingdom to the mustard seed. Some of these thoughts come from Quaker Daniel Coleman’s commentary of this parable:

 

You may not have realized this, but right off the bat Jesus is talking about breaking the purity codes of his day. In Jesus’ culture, people were not allowed to plant a mustard seed in one’s garden, as the gardener in the parable does. It was Levitical Law, one of many prohibitions about mixing things, such as, “Don’t wear clothing made from two kinds of fabric; don’t plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together; and yes even, don’t plant different kinds of seeds together.” Yet Jesus says this gardener sowed it directly into his field.

 

The ancient Jewish understanding of holiness, what they called kedosh, had to do with separating. It is understandable that this view developed when you consider that throughout ancient history Israel was a tiny nation sandwiched between great empires who wanted to swallow up and assimilate them.  To survive they needed their own separate identity.

 

You are probably familiar with what that kind of holiness resulted in... “purity codes.” Coleman described it this way,

 

If someone was deemed ritually impure (which PLEASE NOTE often had nothing to do with sin or immorality), such as a woman during her monthly cycle or a person who had touched a corpse or someone with a skin disease, they had to be excluded from the community and from worshiping God until they were purified.

 

By the time of Jesus, there were so many purity codes regulated by Pharisees that it was hard not to break the rules every moment of the day. All you had to do was eat the wrong thing or associate with the wrong person. Or like most of us gathered here today, we are breaking purity codes by dressing in mixed fabrics - I am sure there is someone in this meetinghouse this morning wearing a cotton-polyester blend .

 

But let’s stick with gardening. The gardener also had to keep her/his garden kedosh - holy and separated.  This meant each type of plant had to be kept separate from the others in neat, tidy rows.

 

So I think you might be getting the picture of why Jesus using the Mustard seed would be rather shocking.  If you planted a mustard seed in your well kept garden - gardening chaos would ensue.  Quickly the Mustard seed would take over the garden. Since the Mustard seed had lots of seeds, fast growing shoots would be coming up all the time all over your plot of ground - a gardener’s nightmare. The holy garden would quickly become less than holy - more like a holy mess.  

 

And did you notice what Jesus said at the end of the parable. Birds would be attracted to the seeds and come and make nests.  No…..Not birds!  That is the last thing a gardener wants in their garden. This is why we have scarecrows and pinwheels and moving distractions to get rid of the birds. 

 

Jesus, what in the world are you talking about?!  

 

The followers of Jesus must have been absolutely confused or otherwise laughing at Jesus’ comparison as if it were a joke or something.  Yet in reality Jesus wasn’t making a joke, instead he was painting us a picture of what God’s kingdom looked like and what following God’s example would accomplish. 

 

At first glance it doesn’t make sense, but Daniel Coleman helped give me some insights to why this is such a radical and important parable for us. Listen to what he says.

 

“When you look at what Jesus did throughout the Gospels (and remember, Jesus is the revelation of God), he kept breaking down barriers and disregarding taboos. He disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with sinners. He surrounded Himself with low-lives and outcasts and those who, socially, were on the margins.

●     Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with despised tax-collectors.

●     Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning Samaritans and even made a Samaritan the hero of His parable about loving one’s neighbor—another absurdity, which would have been highly offensive to many.

●     Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning the place of women in society and the segregation/marginalization of women… [and the list could go on, because]

●     Jesus disregarded many other cultural/religious taboos.”

 

So much so, Jesus, himself, would have been considered unclean most of the time by the Pharisee’s standards.

 

So here comes the kicker….What if Jesus saw kedosh, or what we have termed holiness, from a different perspective? [consider that for a moment]

  

Daniel Coleman turned to a quote from If Grace Is True, a book that several years ago opened my eyes to new ways of seeing. In the book, fellow Quakers Philip Gulley and James Mulholland talk about holiness in this way. I remember underlining this definition of holiness and reading it over and over to let it sink in. 

Holiness is God’s ability to confront evil without being defiled. God’s holiness does not require him to keep evil at arm’s length. God’s holiness enables Him to take the wicked in His arms and transform them. God is never in danger of being defiled. No evil can alter His love, for His gracious character is beyond corruption. This is what it means to say God is holy—God’s love is incorruptible. Holiness and love are not competing commitments. God is love. His love endures forever. This enduring love is what makes God holy. No manner of evil done to us or by us can separate us from this love. God transforms His morally imperfect children through the power of His perfect love. It is our experience of this love that inspires us to such perfection. Jesus said, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). If this verse was a command for moral perfection, our cause is hopeless. Fortunately, this admonition follows a command to ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44). Perfection is demonstrated not by moral purity, but by extravagant love. We are like God not when we are pure, but when we are loving and gracious.

 

 

Too often good-meaning religious people get obsessed by rules, laws, purity codes, and often take it to the limits by categorizing, labeling, and finally excluding people. Instead of being like the Pharisees of his day, Jesus put people first.

 

Instead of growing the church bigger as many have taught, the parable of the mustard seed is, at its heart, a teaching about radical inclusion.

 

I love how Daniel Coleman said it: 

 

“Jesus is saying, in effect, ‘If you allow the Kingdom of God into your midst, it is going to make a mess of your neat, tidy garden. It is going to break down your barriers of separation. It is going to attract and shelter the ones that everyone else tries to keep out. It is not going to look majestic and lofty and impressive, but rather, common and unremarkable and initially very small. But…, it will spread like crazy.”

 

So, First Friends what do we do with this parable of Jesus?

 

As Quakers we are known as common, unremarkable and smaller than other churches out there - but I believe as we continue to break down those walls of separations and open our doors to the Kingdom of God, great things are going to happen. Sure, outsiders will consider us absurd, taboo, even risky - but isn’t that part of our Quaker history? 

 

All I know is that God loves to take his people out of their comfort zones.  God likes to plant a mustard seed in our garden and make things a little messy, because then we have the wonderful opportunity of learning to include and love as God does.

 

First Friends, let us plant the seeds and prepare to welcome the birds!

 

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7-16-17 Members of One Another

Members of One Another

Pastor Bob Henry

Indianapolis First Friends Meeting

July 16, 2017

 

Last week was such a wonderful way to begin my ministry among you, our family wanted to thank each of you for such a beautiful morning and the “Oh Henry” reception. I haven’t had a an Oh Henry candy bar for years and forgot how good they are.  Thanks also to everyone who introduced themselves, I am diligently memorizing the church directory, but don’t have it quite memorized yet. So please give lots of grace - especially if I call you by someone else’s name or no name at all. (It might take a while - I still don’t get my own boy’s names right half of the time).  

 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Last week in my first sermon, I talked about the “Business of our Lives” and how we are to share the universal love of God. This morning, I want to give you a picture of what I see as a framework of our ministry priorities together here at First Friends.  It is not so much my vision or a mission, because honestly I haven’t been here long enough to know exactly who we are together and our unique contributions to our surrounding neighbors, communities, and workplaces. Yet, I believe the elements, which I will get to in a few minutes, transcend those pieces helping to keep us balanced and knowing ourselves as a meeting. 

 

Much like our children will discover this week in Vacation Bible School, God has created us just the way we are...and for a purpose.  And in this same way, I believe God has formed or created us as a meeting. God has drawn together each and everyone of us in this place for a purpose.

 

Author and activist Margaret Wheatley has said,

“Our twenty-first-century world is descending into aggression, fear, and separation. War, genocide, violence, slavery, pandemics, poverty, natural disasters – all these are commonplace in this new century, despite most people’s deep longing to live together in peace.”

 

The answer Margaret poses to our condition is simple... we need to “turn to one another” and realize that we need each other more than ever. It sounds simple, but we often take for granted those that are closest to us.

 

Do you realize that this meeting is not complete without each and everyone of you?  Just take a moment and look around you and notice the people in this room that you need in your life, or that have made a difference in your or someone else’s life, or that care, love, and befriend people that you may have a hard time reaching out to. I haven’t been here that long and I already sense your importance in my life and family.    

 

The truth is that we need each other here at First Friends. All of our gifts, talents, abilities, experiences, quirks and particularities are key to our identity and yes, ultimately our unique purpose. 

 

The Apostle Paul echoes these same thoughts in his letter to the Corinthians. He said,

 

1 Corinthians 12:14-18 (MSG)

14-18 I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

 

You are here at First Friends for a reason. We need each other.

I will never forget last year, when I was leading a book study on Phil Gulley’s book “Living the Quaker Way” at one of our local coffee houses in Silverton. There were about 8-10 of us discussing the chapter on community, when I read Phil’s alternate view to what many consider church in our day. Here is what he said:

 

“...there is another church....It is found wherever and whenever peace, joy, and compassion carry the day...It labors not for its own glory, but for the well-being of all people everywhere. It rejoices when the marginalized are included. It sees in its fellow beings not sin and separation from God but potential, promise, and connection. Wherever people love, it is there. Whenever people include, it is present. Whenever people join together in spirit of compassion and inclusion this church feels at home, for those virtues have been its priority from its earliest days. This church existed since the time of Jesus, but it’s benevolent spirit predates the Nazarene. It is not the province of any one denomination; its adherents can be found in every movement and every faith.  While others bluster and rant, its members go quietly and cheerfully about their ministries, determined to bring heaven to earth. This church seeks to learn, understand, and include. It is of the world, loves the world, and welcomes all people as its brothers and sisters.  Where borders separate, this community straddles the partition, refusing to let arbitrary lines rule their conscience and conduct. They are, in every sense of the word, members of one another.  Community and compassion are their bywords.”      

 

As I read those words aloud many of us were choked up, even tears flowed from some...and one of the members of that study said aloud boldly, “Now, that’s the church I want to be part of.”  Everyone at that study agreed.

 

That’s the church I want people to see right here at First Friends. Right here on our property, in our communities, in our parks, our workplaces, the restaurants we frequent, wherever we (the Church) find ourselves. 

 

In one of my former ministries we had a slogan that we took rather seriously, “Making visible the Kingdom of God in    fill in the city  .  We at First Friends are making visible the Kingdom of God in Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel, Noblesville, Avon, Zionsville, or name your town….We are making visible the Kingdom of God in Indiana.

 

Now, I have to be honest, it is not always that easy. It does take some awareness, some education, and often reflection and action together. And this is where those “elements” I spoke of at the beginning of my sermon come into play.  

 

Several years ago, I attended a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It was not your normal conference.  It was put on by three gifted visionaries - Rob Bell, Peter Rollins, and Shane Hipps.  The conference was titled “Poets, Preachers, and Prophets”. (I am still trying to figure out which one I am).  Over a lunch break, the friend I was staying with shared with me how Quaker principles and values had been instrumental in developing his church’s direction. His church happen to be Mars Hill Bible Church - the host of the conference. Since this was before I became a convinced Quaker, it was the first time I had heard about clearness committees and what he labeled consensus government (and remember - this was not a Quaker Meeting or conference). 

 

I was even more fascinated when he succinctly shared the following six words to describe his church’s main commitments.  He said, we at Mars Hill are committed to:

 

 

 

Roots                            (Looking Backward)

Journey                        (Looking Forward)

Wholeness                  (Looking Inward)

Community                  (Looking Withward)

Serving                         (Looking Outward)

Celebration                  (Looking Upward)

 

But he wasn’t done.  He then gave each of the six commitments directions. (Read above).

 

I found these 6 commitments extremely holistic in nature while helpful in developing foundations for a ministry’s purpose.

 

He went on to describe each of those in great detail, but in writing them down that day, they became solidified for me as a framework for priorities in ministry and I began to utilize them to bring a sense of balance to ministry.  Every meeting or church I have served has had different ways of expressing each of these 6 categories, but I believe they encompass the main elements of that church Phil Gulley described...and also gives us a foundation for our purpose together here at First Friends. 

 

Now, I could easily go through each of these and say where I see First Friends living into these 6 elements, but they are “fluid” elements.  They are always changing and developing and creating new opportunities and possibilities. 

 

My hope is that in the coming weeks, months, and years, we will utilize these elements to help balance out our ministry and Kingdom work at First Friends. My hope is that we will ask some deeper queries about how we see those 6 elements in our ministry and work at First Friends. Here are just a few queries I have written to get us thinking: 

 

What roots are important to look back on and embrace for the benefit of our world, today? What do we need to be reminded of and what do we need to learn from in our past? 

 

What journey does First Friends need to go on together?  In moving forward what might we have to leave behind or what might we have to take along?  Where might we need to get out of our boxes?

 

When looking inward, where is First Friends not whole? What or who are we missing? What would make us a more healthy, vibrant, and whole meeting?

 

What communities at First Friends are we creating and how are they helping us dwell better with those around us? Is community being developed in our ministries and are we becoming a faithful presence to the communities in which we participate, currently?

 

Who is First Friends really serving? How much of our serving is self-serving? In looking outside ourselves and our meeting, who truly needs to be served?

 

How are we celebrating our life together at First Friends? Are we able to see the reasons for giving thanks, remembering, and appreciating who we are and where we have been?

 

 

These are the queries I am pondering as I begin my journey with you. I hope you will join me in taking some time right now to ponder them in our waiting worship.

 

 

 

 

The following poem was used as the benediction during our meeting for worship.

 

The Journey Worth Taking

Sarah Katreen Hoggatt

From “Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices”

 

We come from far-off lands,

cultures apart, struggling to

understand a foreign tongue,

another viewpoint, another way to live,

to see, to hear God in different words.

We listen, opening to new sights, perspectives,

ways to love as we discover

we are unique parts of a greater circle,

distinctive expressions of the Divine Life.

Yet our voices together lift up the mountains.

Our chorus pulses the river down the outward

flow into a world needing to hear the rushing tide.

We are on a journey and it may not even

matter so much where we end up,

but that we rise up to take the voyage.

We speak the truth of our lives,

hear each other and are changed.

We can love without complete understanding,

Walking the light together while miles apart.

If in the tension we can find

the one light we are birthed from,

the thread through our stories,

we may discover we are brothers, sisters all

of one skin, one laughter, music, lilting, free,

if we can just find the courage to come together

And take the journey.

 

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7-9-17 The Business of our Lives

 

The Business of Our Lives

Pastor Bob Henry

Indianapolis First Friends Meeting

July 9, 2017

 

Sue the boys and I have spent a lot of time crossing the country over the last several years.  We have taken several different routes, stopped on numerous occasions to see odd road-side sights (everything from Wall Drugs in South Dakota to a giant Van Gogh painting in Goodland, Kansas), and then all the memorials, historical sites, and literal wonders of our beautiful country.  Two of those times we were crossing the country to start new ventures, one was for a funeral, and another was to take our oldest son to Huntington University (just up the road). 

 

What I have come to realize is that journeys are always filled with learning experiences, growth, and yes, occasionally some surprises. 

 

We are so glad our move back to Indiana was less eventful than our move to Oregon - where our moving truck broke down three times and then finally had to be changed out somewhere in Minnesota. The most eventful thing this trip was simply trying to get all of what we needed to live for the next two months into our van.  We packed and repacked it several times before departure. Every night as we stopped at the hotel, we slowly opened the back of our van in preparation for the explosion of items that had shifted on the move.

 

I believe one of the valuable lessons of traveling across the United States is taking in our nation’s history first hand.  It makes our history books and nation’s stories come alive. There is nothing like actually walking in the house and farm in St. Louis where future general and president Ulysses S. Grant worked alongside 35 slaves in his youth, or standing on the grave littered fields at Little Bighorn in Montana where the white man learned a horrific lesson, or taking a moment to pause on the porch of the home in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. began to formulate his dream. Or as Sam and I did on Friday, crawling into the garret of Quaker’s Levi and Catherine Coffin’s home to experience where slaves were hidden on their way to freedom. 

 

If we are willing for a moment to look past the shiny monuments and beautifully manicured parks and sites of our nation, we just might begin to see a deeper story emerging. What I have learned over the many journeys we have taken is that the stories behind our monuments, protected sites, and historic markers are often not all that we have been taught. They don’t always speak of “amber waves of grain” or “where the deer and antelope play” but rather of pain, war, discrimination, injustice and failure.  A foundation that I believe still haunts us as Americans. 

 

Whenever I come to a new place, I try and learn a little about it’s history.  Since I was born and raised just up the road in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area, I had Indiana history in 4th grade. I took a field trip to the replica of Fort Wayne and even walked down and saw Chief Little Turtle’s burial sight.  No one really explained to me then that Fort Wayne (or even the land right here this morning) was located on Miami Indian territory or how the Treaty of St. Mary removed the Native American’s from Indiana (especially right in this area of Indianapolis) and put them on the Trail of Tears. There is always more to our stories, isn’t there? 

 

Somewhat ironic, I found it interesting that the three meetings for worship that I attended at First Friends before becoming your pastor all had similar focuses to what I am talking about today. My first Sunday, your former pastor, Ruthie spoke of adventure and starting out with Lewis and Clark across America. My second visit, when we were here buying a home, was a presentation about Mary Bateman Clark’s fight to make sure slavery would not exist in Indiana by Ethel McCane and Eunice Trotter.  And just last week, we heard from Friend Jon Berry about the importance of “becoming a guest” to our Muslim sisters and brothers.   

 

I don’t think these experiences and teachings are a coincidence. 

 

Just last year, a church in Portland, Oregon, was worshipping as usual on a normal Sunday when a disgruntled person broke their silence, yelling at the pastor and the people causing him to be escorted out of the worship space - and what was he all upset about?  Well, the church was dedicated to loving ALL people.  His outbreak happened after the congregation shared these words of welcome together as they did each week: (You may read them in your bulletin in the reflections section.)

 

We are glad you are here this morning.  We offer our respect to the ancestors and descendents of the original people of this land, we invoke their presence with us.  And as well we say to everyone - members, visitors, friends…whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. 

 

Let’s admit it, we live in a hurting world.  Yet I believe I hear a prophetic call rising from the deepest places in our souls, from the crevices of our history, in the news stories on our TV’s, and from the depths of our Quaker heritage.

 

Do you feel it? Do you sense it?

 

I believe, and have believed for quite some time now, that it is our time as Quakers to answer that call.  Folks, we have so much to offer our ailing world.  It’s time we live out our uniqueness.

 

I think you would agree that our world needs some SPICE (that would be some Quaker SPICE) - we need to live more simply, more peacefully, with more integrity, as a community, and with equality.

 

Our world is crying out for the Quaker Way!

Quaker John Woolman, who heard the call of his day, referred to this as the “business of our lives.”  He said it this way,

 

“Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works, and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable - that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”  - John Woolman.

 

It was Jesus himself who in answering one of the teachers of the law of his day who had asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” spoke of this universal love...Jesus said:

 

29-31“The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” - Mark 12:30-31 (MSG)

 

As a pastor who has ministered for over 20 plus years, I have found those seemingly simple words to roll off our tongues, “Love God and Love Others.”   Yet as our own history shows, it just isn’t that easy. 

 

My hope is that over the coming years at First Friends, we will answer that call of universal love to all those we meet. That with passion, prayer, intelligence and energy we would LOVE well! Or as Quaker John Woolman said, 

 

To allow God’s universal love to influence our minds.

To take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted,

To increase the happiness of the creation.

 

We at First Friends can and will change the world we live in if we are willing to answer this call of universal love!  I am excited to see all the ways that we will do just that as I serve along side each of you in the coming days, months, and years!  I hope you are as excited as I am! 

 

Now, let’s take a moment this morning to join together in Waiting Worship and ponder our call and the queries provided for you in the bulletin. 

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6-18-17 The Prodigal Son - The Prodigal Father

The Prodigal Son – The Prodigal Father

 

Beth Henricks

 

June 18th, 2017

 

Luke 15:11-32

 

The Parable of the Prodigal Father by Trevor Burke

 

What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey

 

 

Today is Father’s Day, a day where we reflect on the men in our lives that have made an impact on who we are today.  As I was writing this message, I kept thinking about my own dad that I lost 12 years ago and snippets of his life kept popping up.  His love of sports, how he built an ice rink in our back yard every year, how he could eat 20 ears of corn in one setting, how good he was at playing the card game Rook, how much he loved my mom and me and my brothers.  I am sure that each of you today can recall some great memories of special moments with important men in your life.  I am thankful for the presence of not only my dad, but my late husband Jerry, my brothers and other men that have been and are important to me.

We often associate certain characteristics and attributes to fathers – strength, protection, provision, justice, fairness, loving and we often use this language and these characteristics of Father to describe God.  God as Father is probably the most common image we have of God and we regularly refer to God in a masculine pronoun.  Of course, God is neither male nor female, God transcends a role such as Father and is far beyond the characteristics we use to describe God.  And yet, our limited human minds must try to bring God into a place where we can grasp some reflection of God’s essence within our known relationships and the idea of Father is one place for this. 

Pope Francis recently said to a large crowd at the Vatican that calling God "Father" rather than simply "God" can deepen our spirituality and nourish our Christian hope.

"The entire mystery of Christian prayer is summed up here, in this word: to have the courage to call God by the name of Father," the pontiff said.

"Calling God by the name 'Father' is not something that can be taken for granted,"  "We are tempted to use the highest titles, which are respectful of his transcendence. But calling him 'Father' puts us in his confidence, like a child talking to his dad, knowing that he is loved and cared for by him" the pope said.

Of course, it can also be dangerous to focus on God as Father because some human fatherly relationships are destructive, are not intimate and not loving.  Having talked with several folks over the years that have deeply struggled with the idea of God as Father, I have become much more sensitive to avoid using masculine pronouns in how I speak about God.

But I still believe there is much for us to gain in our understanding of God to think about the best and most loving examples of this role of Father.  And this role of Father in the story that Dan read for us today is an insight into God’s essence that is really astounding.  This parable of Jesus is probably the best-known parable within Christian and secular circles.  It is a story that is rich and complex and helps us grasp some idea of the magnitude of God.  And it defies the traditional roles of Father that were customary of the first century.  

I have heard many messages on this parable before and usually they focus on one of the sons. The prodigal son asks for and takes his portion of his inheritance and wants to get away from his family and live the life he wants to live.  Of course, things don’t turn out so well for him and when he returns, the elder son shows no mercy, no forgiveness and becomes angry with his father.  While this story is usually called the parable of the Prodigal Son, I believe the heart of this story is about a Prodigal Father.  I looked up the word prodigal and I found words like reckless, extravagant, lavish and wasteful.  And certainly, the young son’s decisions do seem to fit these adjectives.  And yet, the Father’s love and grace in this story seem to be extravagant, reckless, lavish and wasteful.  The generosity of the father does not seem wise, just or fair.  Who gives half of their child’s inheritance just because they asked for it?  Didn’t the father in his heart know that his son would likely waste all this money?  And the father had to face the fact that this son didn’t want to be with him and chose to move far away.  What heartbreak the father experienced to have his son reject their life together. In the ancient world, the father-son (even adult son’s) relationship was a hierarchical one so it is even more shocking that the son would demand his inheritance by challenging his father’s authority and the father would give him his share of the property without saying one word or requiring certain things in exchange for his share.  How many times have I given something but expect certain activities, behaviors or outcomes in return?  Shouldn’t the father have disciplined his son instead of giving into his demands?  Whether we think this wise or not, the generosity of the father to the son is quite breathtaking and seems almost reckless.

 When the son returns home penniless, hungry and broken, the father not only welcomes him back to the home, the scripture says that he saw him a long way off and ran to his son and threw his arms around him and kissed him.  In the ancient world at the time, grown men did not run as it seemed undignified and a sign of a man out of control.  It would also mean having to bring public humiliation on himself by raising his cloak and exposing his legs to run and embrace the son.  Another example of reckless emotion and a break from the social norms.  When they embrace, the son can’t even get the words out that he planned to say asking his father to become a hired servant.  The father immediately calls his servants to bring the best robe, put a ring on his finger and offer a lavish dinner to celebrate the return of this son. 

The father’s extravagant grace continues toward the older son.  When the older son sees the return of his brother and this joyous celebration he becomes full of anger and refuses to go into the house which was a sign of great disrespect to his father.  He berates his father in a public way for his reaction to the younger son’s return.  The older son is full of bitterness and resentment and again the custom of the time would be for the father to discipline this son.  But the father’s reaction is one of grace as he says to the eldest son what joy to have been together for these years and certainly you know that all that is mine is yours.  He was hoping the older son could rejoice with him in the return of a lost brother.  The story ends there and we don’t know what the ultimate response was from his brother.

I think Jesus is giving us a window into the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace to us in the actions of the father in this story.  It is the father who takes the initiative to restore the relationship.  The son can only come within reach while the father is the one to offer complete acceptance back into the home.  The father is extravagant in his generosity to both sons.  He places no conditions in the restoration of their relationship.

Most of Jesus parables give us a glimpse into the transcendence and uncontrollable nature of God.  A nature that changes everything and turns our normal view upside down. These parables seem to want to correct our notions about who God is and who God loves.   No one gets what they deserve for God’s mercy is not contingent upon the actions of others.  God’s love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity.  A prodigal love for a prodigal people.  God is always waiting for us to return.

I have been reading Phillip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing about Grace this week.  He shares a story about a British conference a number of years ago on comparative religions where experts from around the world were debating about what belief is unique to Christianity.  They began eliminating possibilities – the Incarnation?  Other religions had different versions of gods showing up in human form.  Resurrection?  Other religions had accounts of return from death.  C.S. Lewis came into the room and when he heard what scholars were discussing, he said that it is easy to identify the unique contribution of Christianity to other religions.  It’s grace.  The idea that God’s love comes to us with no strings attached seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant and the Muslim code of law all offer ways to earn God’s approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.   

Doesn’t the world condition us to find a catch in every promise – we must read the fine print to know the conditions of our contract.  Yet here is Jesus describing an unconditional love that disqualifies no one.

Sometimes our vision of a father is one that demands our love through fear.  But the God that is the prodigal father demands nothing and is unbelievable in the generosity of grace and love. 

Henri Nouwen says “God rejoices.  Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness.  No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.”

 Phillip Yancey describes the gospel as nothing that we humans would come up with on our own.  Isn’t it just and fair to give more to the good people and give less to the bad people?  Shouldn’t there be some merit to our salvation?  Grace does not depend on what we have done for God but what God has done for us. 

The great theologian Karl Barth arrives at one definition of God after thousands of pages of writing – the One Who Loves.

 

As we enter our time of unprogrammed worship may we reflect on this concept of a prodigal father that offers grace that is lavish, extravagant.  How do we understand this grace in our lives?  And how do we show this grace to others?   I pray that your heart is open to the Sprit this morning.  If the Spirit is speaking just to you today, hold this in your heart and listen to the Spirit.  If the Spirit is calling you to share a message with all of us please be obedient to the Spirit. 

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6-11-17 Quakerism, Yesterday and Today

By John Moorman

Good morning! In less than three weeks Bob Henry will be here as our new pastoral minister. As we prepare to welcome him and his family to our meeting community, we need to take a little time to examine why we are here today. What brought us here to Indianapolis First Friends Meeting? Why are we here as attenders or members, active or not? What is there about Quakerism that speaks to us, individually and collectively?

 

I propose in a very short time this morning to briefly highlight the beginnings and present-day situation of our faith as a way for thought on the above questions. These questions are personal and each of us will handle and answer them according to their personal experiences, readings and searching for the Christ within.

 

George Fox is considered the founder of Quakerism. He was born in England at a time of political and social upheaval. George was a poorly educated individual who began his life working for a shoemaker. This shoemaker also kept sheep and cattle. George’s time in the fields with the sheep and cattle gave him an understanding and love of everything that God had made. As he put it in his Journal he was, “in unity with the creation”.

 

At an early age, Fox began his search for the reality of God that he could not find in preachers, professors, or others he approached with his questions and concerns. Finally, a leading came to him that, “There is one even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition”.

 

This was revolutionary. Each person can realize the presence of Christ within their own lives. Fox called this an opening. As Fox is quoted in the testimony of Margaret Fell an early convert and later his wife, “he spoke as followeth…How that Christ was the light of the world and lighted every man that cometh into the world; and that by this Light they might be gathered to God”.

 

Out of this conversion experience and various leadings, early Quakerism was developed. At its core was the belief that Christ’s presence could be experienced individually. There was no need for an intermediary to reach God. Fox was strong in condemning the “Hireling Ministry” found in the Churches of the day. They were hindrances to finding the presence of Christ within each person.

 

Some of the leadings of Fox led to early testimonies against the swearing of oaths, simplicity in dress and lifestyle, against the paying of tithes to the Church of England, and non-participation in wars and military life. These testimonies caused great difficulties for early Friends as they were seen by those in power as a danger to their positions, whether in the established Church, or Government at both a local and national level. As a result, many early Friends were imprisoned, died in prison, were killed by mobs, or by being executed by Governmental order, or suffered greatly for their beliefs including losing their land and homes. George Fox was beaten and imprisoned many times in places that would make today’s prisons look like palaces by comparison. He had to be a hardy man to survive into his 67th year. This in an era when the average lifespan was 45 years.

 

What enabled Quakerism to survive these early years when other small groups such as the Ranters did not?

 

There were several factors that enabled Quakerism to survive beyond its beginnings.

 

The first was that Fox was by all accounts a charismatic individual. His presence was powerful both in speech and prayer. William Penn once stated that he had never met such a powerful man in prayer as George Fox.

 

The second was that he made friends easily and was particularly effective in attracting to his side those who were more educated than himself and held substantial positions in English society. These individuals included William Penn, Issac Pennington, and Robert Barclay. As William Penn wrote in an introduction to George Fox’s Journal, “He was an original and no man’s copy”.

 

The message of Fox had its own inner validity, as William James said, “In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity”. However, no spoken word, in a time prior to modern communication methods, could survive unless it was contained within a written and intelligible format. George Fox did dictate his Journal, but without the exceptional work of Thomas Ellwood in editing it, it would not have reached publication.

 

Any movement, such as early Quakerism, must be able to attract minds capable of giving an intellectual structure to its organization and beliefs. These beliefs must appeal to other minds and be logically defensible. Robert Barclay did this for Quakerism. His “Apology” was a presentation of Quakerism that could be understood by literate individuals of the time. It helped place Quakerism as a biblically based Christian belief, rather than a small sect of questionable worth or value.

 

The third was that George Fox understood the need for organization if this faith was to continue and grow. His provision of the organizational setup of individual meetings, which then were members of a quarterly meeting, and then of a yearly meeting helped stabilize the early Quaker movement and brought with it the ability for oversight and the development of leadership as time progressed. The establishment of meeting elders gave each meeting the ability to examine individual leadings of members and provide guidance to meeting members if needed.

 

The fourth was that George Fox recognized that not only could Christ speak to him personally, but he could speak as well to others. This was not a personal religion but a community of believers.  As the light of Christ is given to you share it with others. This is not done individually but through a gathered community of believers (witness the formal name; Religious Society of Friends). As Steven Davidson states in the recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet, The Gathered Meeting, “In the gathered meeting, we experience what we seek as a religious community; inward confirmation in our personal faith, collective unity of purpose in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and a profound sense of the Presence”. As Fox would say, collectively we seek Christ’s presence in our lives. Thus, when Fox died, he was but one Quaker minister among many and the leadership of Quakerism was already passing on to others.

 

The form of early Quaker worship was unprogrammed. However, Fox and others could expound for hours during meeting on Christ’s presence in their lives, their leadings, and the importance of scripture to everyday life.

 

Any religion changes over time. Quakerism is no exception. As it has no creeds nor doctrines, it is more open to change than others. The Light of Christ within continually gives new leadings that while they must be examined by fellow members, eventually result in change in outlook and structure. It took over 100 years but Quakerism did disavow slavery as being against Christ’s will. Men’s meeting for business and Women’s meeting for business became the Meeting’s meeting for business.  Plain dress and plain speaking gradually were eliminated as society changed and became less ostentatious and stratified.

 

The outside world also affected Quakerism. Religious movements such as the Wesleyan and Holiness movements of the 1800’s, and individual Friends with strongly expressed concerns on Quaker views and practice all had a place in the changing structure of Quaker worship and belief emphasis.  Splits occurred among Friends meetings and Yearly Meetings and are continuing, regretfully, as I speak. As an Indiana based example, there are four Yearly Meetings with headquarters in Indiana; Western Yearly Meeting headquartered in Plainfield of which this meeting is a member, Indiana Yearly Meeting headquartered in Muncie, Central Yearly Meeting headquartered in Muncie, and New Association of Friends headquartered in New Castle. Three of these Yearly Meetings are currently affiliated with Friends United Meeting a world-wide association of Friends Meetings and Churches.  One, Central Yearly Meeting is independent. There are individual Friends Meetings and Churches in Indiana belonging to Yearly Meetings affiliated with Evangelical Friends Church -  Eastern Region and Friends General Conference, or independent of any further affiliation. Sometimes, I think that Quaker toleration extends beyond our faith, not within it.

 

I see the result of each schism as a loss of something that was vital to early Quakerism. Early Quakerism was Christ centered, mystical, prophetic, and evangelistic. It was grounded in the knowledge that the Light of Christ was present in everyone; that we as a community of believers could personally experience Christ’s presence. This experience must be shared with others and it was, with an evangelistic fervor. It was the intent of early Quakers that their experience would sweep the world and bring radical change. That intent was never realized.

 

Currently, Quakerism in its many forms has 377,055 members worldwide. The countries with the most Quakers are Kenya with 146,300 and the United States with 76,360.

 

So, what does this mean for Indianapolis First Friends Meeting as we await the coming of our new pastoral minister and his family?

 

One thing that separates Quakers from other faith communities, is that we have no lay leadership. Ours is a participative community of ministers who share their ministry joyfully with each other. Ministry is many things; singing in the choir or as separate individuals, playing music, preparing food for fellowship hour or special events, calling on individuals who are sick or in need of assistance, giving spoken messages, encouraging others in their ministry, keeping the building and grounds clean, up-to-date and in order, teaching Sunday school and assisting with Children’s Church, working with meeting finances, writing articles for Quaker publications, organizing events, providing opportunities for spiritual growth and enrichment, and many others that I have not mentioned.

 

What is your ministry? How have you been encouraged in it? Have you encouraged others in their ministry? If not, Why?

 

As our new pastoral minister comes let’s welcome him and his family into an active meeting that is a worshipful community responding to Christ’s presence in our lives. How can we prepare to assist him in his ministry as he joins us?

 

What can you say?

As we enter unprogrammed worship as a gathered community, let us be open to Christ’s presence among us. If you receive a message that is for you personally, keep it in the silence. If it is a message you feel led to share stand and share it with the meeting community.

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5-30-17 Forgiveness

A Need for Forgiveness – For ourselves and others

Beth Henricks – May 28th 2017

Matthew 18:21-22

Sources:

A Mother’s Reckoning – Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Sue Klebold

Center for Action and Contemplation, Richard Rohr

 

April 20th 1999 is a day that will never be forgotten in our history.  That morning at 11:19 a.m., two young men named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked onto their high school campus, Columbine High in Littleton Colorado with bombs and guns and killed 12 students and 1 teacher, injured 24 others and then killed themselves.  Their intention that morning was significantly worse than what occurred as the bombs they made did not go off.  Their intent was to blow up the school. 

Most of us remember that day with horror as we watched events unfold on television for days and tried to understand what happened and how to make sense of it.  This was the first significant school shooting in our history.   There was lots of speculation about the motives of Eric and Dylan, their families, home life and school life.  I remember wanting to get answers that made sense like they were abused as children, had abusive parents, something in their background that would somehow explain this tragedy.

We wanted to blame someone for this act and since Eric and Dylan killed themselves, we went after their parents.  How could Dylan and Eric’s parents not have known what they were planning?  How could they have been so clueless?  What in the upbringing of these two young men caused them to carry out this deadly attack? 

I do remember at the time thinking how awful life must be for those parents.  Not only did they lose their child, they had to live with the horror of what they did to others.  How could you ever go on in life with this kind of baggage?

I was in the car two weeks ago and heard Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother interviewed on a radio show.  I was fascinated with her story and immediately got her book, A Mother’s Reckoning Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.  Her story is heartbreaking.  She and her husband went into hiding after the incident and hoped that they would die.  This tragedy stripped away her own identity as she only became the mother of a killer.  And it showed to herself how tied up she had been with ego.  Sue had focused on wanting to be liked and a respected member of the community.  She had taken pride in her sons and their family.  After the tragedy, she had no respect and was considered the worst mother on earth.  All parents have regrets, but when a child commits murder/suicide the guilt and second guessing are constant intolerable companions. 

It turned out that Dylan was severely depressed with a perfectionist streak that made him the perfect counterpoint to Eric who really fit the description of a psychopath.  Sue did not recognize the signs of Dylan’s depression thinking his behavior was typical of teenagers.

Over the last 17 years, Sue and her husband had to file bankruptcy, they divorced and Sue got breast cancer.  It has taken years for Sue to put her life back together.  One of her friends asked the question – Can you ever forgive Dylan for what he did?  Her response to this question was forgive Dylan?  My work is to forgive myself.  She felt that she was the one that let Dylan down.  A murder-suicide is unthinkable.  Sue felt that she had failed to protect Dylan from himself and everyone he killed.

Sue had overwhelming negative feelings about herself.  She had raised a murderer without knowing it, a person with such a faulty moral compass that he’d committed an atrocity.  She had been a fool to not see what was going on. 

Sue has spent years coming to the point of forgiving herself.  She has finally realized that it was Dylan’s pathological behavior that caused this and not hers.  She has committed her life to working for suicide prevention and speaking out on mental health issues of young people.  And she has experienced forgiveness from some of the victims’ families.  Forgiveness at this level is probably the greatest act of love there can be. 

Forgiveness – forgiving ourselves can be one of the hardest things to do because we have to embrace our grief and confront our shame.  We do not feel worthy of God’s love.  Henri Nouwen says “Self rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved”. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”  God’s enormous love for us is present as we are right now.  In our brokenness, our shame, our ego, our pride.  God’s love is not contingent on us making some changes for the better (although that could make life better for ourselves).  We are God’s beloved as we are today.

Brene Brown, the scholar, author and public speaker says that “the death or ending that forgiveness necessitates comes in many shapes and forms.  We may need to bury our expectations or dreams.  We may need to relinquish the power that comes with “being right” or put to rest the idea that we can do what’s in our hearts and still retain the support or approval of others.  Whatever it is, it all has to go.  It isn’t good enough to box it up and set it aside.  It has to die.  It has to be grieved.  That is a high price indeed.  Sometimes it’s just too much.”

When we let go of this pain and truly forgive ourselves we are experiencing one of the greatest acts of self- love that we can ever do.  Jesus gives us two commandments –that we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.  We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love ourselves.  We can’t offer forgiveness for those who have hurt us, until we forgive ourselves of hurt and shame.

If I can accept this idea of forgiveness for myself, how then can I show forgiveness time and again to others? Can I really forgive others who have done terrible things or deeply hurt me?   Could I forgive someone like Dylan and Eric if my child were one of their victims?  How can we forgive anyone who has abused us?  I love this quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu – “To forgive is not just to be altruistic.  It is the best form of self-interest.  It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger.  These emotions are all part of being human.  You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things:  The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.

He goes on to say that “when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person.  A better person than one being consumed by anger and hatred.  Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.  If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.  You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person, too.

Forgiveness is not forgetting or walking away from accountability or condoning a hurtful act; it’s the process of taking back and healing our lives so we can truly live. 

As Eric read in our scripture today, Jesus commands us to offer forgiveness not just 7 times but 70 times 7.  I think this means that we must have a heart of forgiveness at all times.  Jesus is calling us to spiritual maturity in order to forgive our mistakes and others.  And Jesus commands us to do this because he knows that this is how we will experience healing within ourselves.  That we won’t let resentment and anger chip away at our core.  Forgiveness is the deepest expression of love.  Richard Rohr, the Catholic priest says  “ You can let go of everyone who hurt you, your former spouse, the boss who fired you, the church, or even God. You have no interest in carrying around negative baggage. Wisdom emerges when you can see everything, you eliminate none of it, and you include all as important training. Finally, everything belongs. You are eventually able to say, from some larger place that may surprise you, “It is what it is” and “Even the ‘bad’ was good.”

Friends, who do you need to forgive today?  Do you need to forgive yourself?  Do you need to forgive a family member?  A work colleague?  A friend?  Maybe it is someone that isn’t even alive but still has a hold on you.  As we enter our time of unprogrammed worship I pray that we will enter deeply without ourselves to truly examine our sense of forgiveness.  If God is speaking to you directly please hold this in your heart.  If God asks you to share this message with all of us please be obedient and stand up and share with all of us.

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5-14-17 - The story of Ruth and Naomi – an Unlikely Family

The story of Ruth and Naomi – an Unlikely Family

Beth Henricks – May 14th 2017

Ruth 1:8-9, 15-18

Resources:  Redefining Family in the Book of Ruth, Diane Jacobson (Word and World Volume 33, Number 1 Winter 2013)

Commentary on Ruth, Milton Acosta Benitez (Journal of Latin American Theology Vol 11, No 1, 2016)

 

 

I have been thinking about this message for Mother’s Day for several weeks.  It seems familiar and expected to talk about our mothers, on being a mother, honoring mothers, listing the attributes that we love and cherish and how mothers share God’s love in so many ways.  We have heard and read tributes all week about the power and influence of mothers in our world.   I love the story of the young state legislator from Tennessee, Harry Burn who in 1920 had to make a vote on whether to ratify the new amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote.  The vote was 48 to 48 and Harry had to decide what to do.  He had been publicly against the amendment, but on the day for him to cast his vote, his mother Phoebe Burn put a note in his pocket saying Hurrah and vote for suffrage!  Don’t keep them in doubt.  I notice some of the speeches against.  They were bitter.  I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.  She ended the note by saying be a good boy and put the rat in ratification.  Harry cast the deciding vote and the Constitution was amended.  Oh, the power of our mother’s influence.

 

On the surface, this is a joyful day of celebration and happiness.  And many of you feel this sense of joy today.

 

But Mother’s Day is way more complicated than what might appear at first blush or in the sentiments expressed in our Hallmark cards.  In this room, there is a full range of emotions and feelings about this day.  There are some that are still in mourning over losing their mother.  There are others that feel sadness in not having the experience of being a mother, or have chosen not to have children. Still others are in deep pain over broken relationships with their children or their own mother.  Some here have had less than ideal role models for a mother and are working towards breaking a cycle of dsyfunction within themselves.  I know some people did not come to Meeting today because it would just be too hard to sit here and listen to a message about Mother’s Day.

 

I have felt a leading in the last 2 weeks to talk today about families.  Of course, families get just as complicated as mothers.  Many people end up in therapy for many years due to issues with their family of origin.  I first learned this term “family of origin” in seminary in the last few years.  It is interesting to think that we have our family of origin but we can also have families beyond this understanding and the story of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible is a beautiful description of this enhanced view of family.

 

The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is only four chapters, but it is a story packed with pain, death, joy, loyalty, commitment and redemption.  It reads like a short novel and I encourage all of you to read this book this week.

 

The issue of what constitutes a family is a major theme identified in book of Ruth.  There is a redefinition of family with a focus on loyalty and love versus clan and blood relationships.   This was significant in the period of time this story takes place which is likely post exile for the Israelites.  Many Israelites had spent a whole generation in exile in Babylon and had left land behind in Judah.  The land was now occupied by poorer folks who had not been taken captive or foreigners that were brought to the land and forced to settle in Judah.  With Israelites returning from exile the question of land ownership was a significant one.  But even beyond the land, the questions surfaced of who are God’s people?  Who is included in God’s promises?  Who is in the tribe?  Who is part of the family? 

 

In biblical law, family issues were considered in the category of property.  So, if family disputes came up, they were turn to the biblical law to be settled.  This story of Ruth completely calls into question the idea of family issues being defined in the context of property. 

 

The story starts with a fine example of a traditional family with a father, mother and two sons.  But also with impending trouble due to a famine in Judah. This traditional family moves to Moab which is a national enemy of the Israelites.  The Moabites were considered an inferior people descending from Lot and his daughter.  Deuteronomy 23:4says that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord”.  The story doesn’t say why Naomi and her husband chose Moab but they now become foreigners, immigrants there.  And the trouble begins.  First the father dies leaving Naomi and the two sons to make connections in this foreign land.  The two sons marry Moabite women, probably to help establish themselves in this foreign land.  More disaster occurs with no children being born in ten years and both sons dying.  Wow – Naomi is left alone in a foreign land with two Moabite daughters in law.  This is not a family unit according to biblical law at the time.  This is probably why Naomi initially tells these women to go back to the homes of their mothers and fathers and find husbands there.   While Naomi might view these woman as daughters, she knows in terms of Biblical law there are no possibilities for her and she faces disaster with no means of support for her existence. 

 

Ruth completely rejects this conclusion with the speech that redefines family which Ann read to us today. Ruth is willing to leave her own mother and father and her country because of an act of devotion and love to Naomi.  Ruth believes they are bound together as family irregardless of what biblical law says.  For the sake of loyalty and love, Ruth is willing to become an immigrant in an enemy nation. What a radical commitment.    At first Naomi rejects this idea but Ruth is adamant. 

 

How will the Israelite community accept this?  At first, the community is shocked by the return of Naomi with Ruth.  And Naomi has become bitter about all of her misfortune and gives herself a new name, Mara feeling empty and alone without recognizing the gift of family that Ruth has brought to her.

 

Ruth comes to town as a foreigner and will do whatever work necessary to take care of Naomi and herself.  She does manual labor by gleaning the fields after the reaping of the harvest reserved for the poorest of the poor in the community.    She works on land owned by a man named Boaz who is kin to Naomi.  Through a series of schemes, Boaz joins this unlikely family unit marrying Ruth.  They have a child and Ruth, the foreigner from an enemy nation, becomes the great grandmother of King David.  This story shows that expanding the traditional understanding of family was crucial for the promised future of Israel and for the redemption of the nation.  This future includes a foreign enemy, an immigrant widow that is daughter in law, wife and mother.  Covenant and commitment out of love and devotion become more important than law and tradition.  And ultimately the Israelite community accepts Ruth as a Godly woman and compares her to other great women of faith.

 

Right from the start, Ruth shows her independence as she married outside of her own people, disavows the solidarity of her family, abandons her national identity, and renounces her religious affiliation.    Some Biblical scholars consider only Abraham as approaching this radicalness and he had a direct call from God.  Ruth stands alone without support.  A young woman commits herself to an old woman in a world where life depends upon men. 

 

At the beginning of this book we find famine and death.  At the end food and life.  Ruth brings together hope and hopelessness, death and life, pain and joy, loneliness and companionship, famine and provision, abandonment and redemption.

 

The family that had fallen apart at the beginning has been reconfigured.  The Jewish hatred toward Moab is turned around into a genealogy of national importance.   

 

I believe the story of Ruth gives us a glimpse in the heart of God and how God views family.   God’s desire is for our family to be broad and inclusive.  Many of us here today are in a place that we did not envision.  We are widows, have lost children, siblings and parents.  Our families of origin are diminished, gone or broken.  We can feel Naomi’s lament of loss and bitterness as God feels distant and our future might appear bleak and lonely.

 

But the story of Ruth describes the love that God gives to all of us including the foreigner. Our family will include people that come from tribes that have been our enemies.  God says they are family now.  God calls us to be in relationship  - to be family with folk that seem impossible.  The family of God is far beyond our comprehension.    Yet God’s love is beyond reason, rationale, conventional boundaries, and territories.   

 

So who is your family?  Do you have family beyond kin and tribe?  Who is in your family - this family of God’s love and calling.  And what are we willing to sacrifice for our family of God?  How do you forgive those in our family that cause us pain and hurt?  How can we live in the wholehearted center of God’s love with family?

 

I encourage you to reflect on these queries as we enter our time of unprogrammed worship.  If God is speaking to you directly, hold this experience in your heart.  But if God is giving you a message to share with all of us, I ask you to be obedient to the Spirit and share with all of us.

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4-16-17 - Jesus, a New Kind of King

Jesus, A New Kind of King

April 16, 2017

Beth Henricks, Indianapolis First Friends

 

John 18:33-38

Resources:

Christ our Hope: Daily Lenten Devotions by Henri J.M. Nouwen

A Wondrous Love: Lenten Devotional by Henri J.M. Nouwen and C.S. Lewis

Zealot by Reza Aslan,

Mystery – From the Journal Weavings: January/February 2006

 

What does Easter mean to you? 

 

As the second week in being your interim pastor, preparing an Easter message for today was a bit daunting.  Traditionally, this is the one Sunday each year where people come to church even if they are not regular attenders.  Many come to a service expecting wonderful music, beautiful flowers and an inspiring message.  We have definitely experienced the wonderful music today.  Choir thank you for opening our service with that beautiful anthem.  And Jim and Leslie, thank you for ministering to us through your song that touched my heart.

 

I am 57 years old and have been going to church since I was an infant so I am calculating that I have heard 56 Easter messages in my life.  It is the one time a year that almost every pastor from every pulpit across America is talking about the same story – that of Jesus death and resurrection.  It’s a familiar story and most of us know it well.  It is the conclusion of the story of Jesus in all four gospels.  The core of the story is essential to our faith.  Yet how can we read this familiar story again today with a freshness and an open heart to what this means for you?

 

What does Easter mean to you?  For many this story of Jesus death and resurrection is the foundation of their theology.  God sending his son Jesus to reconcile humankind to God through the death and resurrection of God’s son.  Jesus sinless life is sacrificed as a substitute for our sins and we are now God’s children.

 

For others, this story is more symbolic in representing the immense love that God has for each of us and that Jesus freely gives up his life as a way to show the world that death does not have to be feared, it is not the final answer and that love for our enemies and those who persecute us is the way to experience our own rebirth and resurrection.

 

There is no way to come to this story thinking we can ever understand it objectively.  There is such mystery and a sense of awe to the story and yet many have tried to domesticate it and condense it into a set of 4 spiritual laws that fit nicely into a pamphlet to share with others as a summary of faith in a tidy package. The magnitude of this story can never fit into anything tidy.  We must look at the life of Jesus in total to enter the mystery of this story. 

 

When we read the gospel accounts of Jesus life, we have to be aware that they were written 50 – 80 years after Jesus died and the accounts were put together in their narrative through the oral tradition being shared in the early house churches. 

 

This kind of explains to me why we don’t learn anything about Jesus life from the time he was 12 until he begins his ministry at 30.  That seems like a really important period in his development and I wish we knew more about it. 

 

When Jesus enters into his ministry, the Jewish land that had been promised Abraham had been invaded by the Romans.  Roman policy for all their captured land was to forge an alliance with the aristocracy in each city and make them dependent on the Roman overlords for their power and wealth thus insuring local leaders would be invested in the Roman imperial system. In the Jewish land this alliance was with the wealthy priestly families who maintained the Temple and were charged with collecting the taxes and ensuring order among an increasingly disgruntled Jewish population.  And they were richly rewarded for these tasks.  Rome knew that to control the Jews they must control the Temple and they did including the High Priest.   While this small group of Jewish leaders became very wealthy, the vast majority of the population experienced crushing taxes paid to the priestly elite on behalf of Rome.  Many of the landless peasant Jews were beginning to seek some kind of revolt. They were looking for a messiah that would re-establish the nation of Israel and rebuild the kingdom such as in David’s time.   What they knew through scripture was that the Messiah would come from the line of David, would free the Jews from occupation, would establish Jerusalem as God’s city and restore Israel.   

 

At the time that Jesus enters his ministry, there was a growing feeling among the Jewish peasants that the present order was coming to an end and that the Kingdom of God would be established here on earth.   They were looking for a messiah that was both political and religious to free them from occupation and restore Israel.

 

And Jesus begins to preach and to teach about establishing a new order where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  He declares that it is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.  He criticizes the priestly leaders for being more interested in power and rules than in showing God’s love.  He cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers and vendors selling sacrifices.  Jesus has a powerful message that advocates turning the economic system upside down.  He believes the content of one’s heart is more important than the adherence to Jewish law.  He travels over the countryside to share this message and performs many miracles and healings along the way.  He speaks in parables and stories to convey his radical message. 

 

The Jewish people are enthralled with this man and this message from God.  As he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people are shouting Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed be the coming kingdom of our father David. 

 

The Jewish authorities have been concerned about Jesus for some time and are now alarmed to the point of knowing they need to stop this movement.  They make plans to arrest him and put him to death as a traitor to the Roman Empire. 

 

It is a turning point in Jesus ministry when he is taken into custody.   He turns from action to passion.  After the years of teaching, healing and moving from town to town, he is now a suffering servant subject to other people’s actions.

 

And this is what changes the hosannas from Palm Sunday to the shouts of crucify him even when Pilate finds no case against him and offers to release him as is the custom at Passover.  The crowds say no and asks for Barabbas.   Jesus is not defying the authorities, he is not asking his followers to fight for him, and in fact he insists on no violence when they take him into custody.  How can he be the messiah – their hopes are dashed in re-establishing the state of Israel and being released from occupation.

 

What the Jewish people missed was the heart of Jesus teaching and this idea of king and kingdom.  Jesus was offering a new way of living in community but most of all a way of living in communion with God.  John 14:31 says I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.  Henri Nouwen says “Jesus speaks about his Father as the source of all his words and actions.  When he withdraws himself from the crowd and even from his closest friends, he withdraws to be with the Father…. All through his life Jesus considers his relationship with the Father as the center, beginning and end of his ministry.  All he says and does, he says and does in the name of the Father.” 

 

Jesus kingdom on earth is God’s kingdom and is not based on military might or political calculations, alliances and power.  It is a kingdom that takes the sting out of death.  The great paradox that Jesus shows us is that those who lose their lives will gain them.  CS Lewis says “the principle runs through all life from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self.  Lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day.   Submit with every fiber of your being and you will find eternal life.  Keep back nothing.  Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.  Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. “

 

 Jesus foresaw a world full of cruelty, violence and conflict including the destruction of his beloved city Jerusalem.  For Jesus, there is no happy ending in this life.  He could not solve this world’s problems in his ministry.  But he was faithful at all costs and became a suffering servant of God.  He showed us another way.   Jesus says if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

 

The story of Jesus resurrection was hidden.  He didn’t make a victory statement or to give proof to those that crucified him.  His resurrection was a sign to those who loved him and followed him that God’s love is stronger than death.

 

Jesus suffering love is transformed by death but not annihilated by it.   There is nothing we can suffer that Christ does not know, has not shared, cannot somehow use in love with us for the healing of the world. 

 

We have become obsessed with overcoming suffering.  Our call is to compassion which means to suffer with.  Our avoidance of suffering dilutes our witness to our Lord Jesus who took our suffering upon himself in love.  When we can’t enter into the sufferings of our sisters, brothers and neighbors, the Christ we embody is a shallow distortion of the Jesus we encounter in Scripture.

 

Our dear friend Ann Panah has been an inspiration to me and I am sure to many of you.  She has walked a journey of significant health issues and yet out of her suffering she shows us love and compassion.  She is always looking for ways to help us , to care for for us and to bring us together.  She has refused to allow her health issues to define herself.  The last couple of months have been very difficult.  And what has touched me in a significant way is to watch Ann’s husband Bob show his love to Ann through action.  Bob is not someone that most of us know well at all.  But in the last few weeks I have seen him devote himself to Ann, sleep every night on a cot by her bed in the hospital and advocate for her to the medical community.  He also has shown what true love and compassion looks like through suffering. 

 

Friends what does Easter mean to you?  I hope it means that we will be faithful no matter what the cost.  That our sufferings can give us prophetic hope of God’s presence. I hope that we do not fear death and that as a follower of Christ, we will take up our cross and help establish God’s kingdom on this earth.  One that loves graciously, gives freely and offers compassion to all.

 

As enter into our time of Quaker communion and expectant waiting worship, we are about to enter into the invisible and eternal reality of the living Christ.  Our unprogrammed worship isn’t something we do – it is a state of consciousness that we enter in to.  Be still and listen to what the Spirit has to say to you today.  Hold it in your heart if this message is for you.  Be obedient to the Spirit if this message is to be shared with all of us today.

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4-9-17 - True Love - By Dan Lee

Friends, unfortunately, due to technical difficulties we will not have this sermon recording online. We apologize, but please enjoy the written version!

 

True Love

By Daniel Lee

 

Do you have a favorite love story? If so, is it a story of enduring love? Is the story true or make believe? Is it happy, or heartbreaking?

 

When it comes to movies, my favorite love story is the 1953 blockbuster “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann and Gregory Peck as Joe Bradley. The movie is 64 years old, so I think it’s OK to give away the plot to make a wider point here today!

 

Princess Ann was a bored, frustrated, over protected dignitary visiting Rome. Joe Bradley was an ambitious American newsman assigned to cover her visit. Seeking adventure away from her many handlers, Audrey Hepburn’s character escapes by herself into the Roman night. She meets Gregory Peck, who doesn’t let on he knows she’s actually the princess. The two have a whimsical romantic day wandering Rome, but all along Joe Bradley the newsman and his photographer are gathering material for a tabloid tell-all on Princess Ann’s escapades. In the end, though, Joe and Princess Ann start to fall in love and he can’t betray her in the name of a news scoop. In the final scene of the movie, Joe sees the princess one last time at an official news conference in a grand hallway.

 

In the crowded room, Princess Ann and Joe the newsman stare at each other with big eyes.  After the news conference ends, the princess exits the stage. Then Joe, all alone, slowly walks away.

 

When he gets to the exit, Joe stops and gives a final gaze back. At this point in the move, I’m screaming inside:

 

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!” ‘Go back! Pound on the door! Yell for Princess Ann! Tell her you’re falling in love! Joe, if you leave now it will haunt you forever!’

 

But Joe doesn’t go back. He walks out the door, ending the movie.

 

 Joe Bradley’s decision to turn away from Princess Ann seems logical – they were from totally different classes and worlds. Their relationship wasn’t practical. Their love would have been forbidden! Yet Joe was so attracted to her that he sacrificed the news story of his career not to hurt her.

 

On this Palm Sunday I want to ask, what does this love story teach us about our own faith journeys? What can it teach us about our very reasons for faith in God?

 

It seems to me that many people are attracted by an almost cosmic force to the teachings, tenderness, and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, to the sense of community we feel when we worship, and to the notion of God as giving life a wider purpose to the universe.

 

Yet in the end, so many turn away in excessive in doubt, hurt, or heartbreak.

 

There are many reasons for this. Some people have been wounded by past religious experiences or interactions. Maybe you’ve been repelled by the words or actions of religious people.

 

Maybe you have lingering doubts…. We live in an increasingly secular age where faith is often portrayed as obsolete.

 

On this Palm Sunday, it’s appropriate to consider the words of the famous Hoosier satirist Kurt Vonnegut in his book entitled “Palm Sunday.”

 

“I’m enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far.” These words were part of a sermon delivered Palm Sunday 1980 about concern for the poor and how he’s seen Christians misinterpret Christ’s words about the poor always being with us to ignore helping them).

 

Vonnegut calls himself a Christ-worshipping agnostic. This is what he had to say about faith:

 

“What is so comical about religious people in modern times? They believe so many things which science has proved to be unknowable or absolutely wrong.”

 

“How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash? For one thing, I guess, the balderdash is usually beautiful – and therefore echoes excitingly in the more primitive lobes of our brains, where knowledge counts for nothing.”

 

Vonnegut’s words hurt. He’s enchanted by Christ’s message of mercy, yet he sees even the beautiful aspects of religion as balderdash.

 

Vonnegut speaks of religious ideas echoing in more primitive lobes of our brains. But is that really true? Are matters of faith and human experience – and of the human brain– really like two bumping fists? To the contrary, I believe, they are instead more like interlocked hands.

 

If we are open to receiving it, we find that cosmic spiritual force pulling us toward the divine. In 1931, Quaker Rufus Jones published a book entitled “Pathways to the Reality of God” in which he wrote:

 

“We see stars billions of miles away, only because something from the star is actually operating on the retina and in the visual center of the brain; and so, too, we find God, only because Something that is God – God as Spirit – is actually in contact with the spiritual center within us that is kindred to Him.”

 

Jones said we have a natural pull toward God just as God has a natural pull toward us. He called this “The Double Search.”

 

Several years ago I began a two-pronged personal study that convinced me that Rufus Jones is indeed correct.

 

On one hand, I studied the history, faith, and practice of Quakers. On the other hand, I studied the science on what brings humans lasting happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.

 

Throughout this two-pronged study, I kept seeing overlaps between the findings of modern science on human compassion and happiness and the practice and testimonies of Quakers as well as other Christian and faith traditions dating back centuries before the Quakers.

 

My favorite writer in this emerging field of study on the science of happiness and fulfillment is Dr. Emma Seppälä. She is science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

 

Dr. Seppälä’s specialty is researching what makes humans truly happy. She talks of two types of human happiness – hedonic happiness… This is the happiness of our pleasure centers – she calls this the sex, drugs and rock n roll types of happiness. For example, you get a short-term boost of happiness from buying something new or eating a big hunk or dark chocolate.

 

The second type of happiness is her primary focus – this is called eudemonic happiness. This is what gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a connection to others. In a religious context, I would equate eudemonic happiness with the word “joy.”

 

Dr. Seppälä takes a secular scientific approach but she readily recognizes the importance of spiritual and religious practices leading to a host of benefits, including making people more resilient in stressful times, more faithful in their relationships, and more satisfied with family life.   

 

On the “Spirit Matters” podcast, Dr. Seppälä was asked to define spirituality and this is what she said:

 

“What the science is showing is that altruism, compassion, and service, these are all things that have been relegated to perhaps a more spiritual or ethical realm of study. But now we’re finding that these are all incredibly powerful predictors of health, happiness, and well being.”

 

“Veterans who go off to war and have the same traumatic experiences as someone else are less likely to suffer post traumatic stress disorder if they have a strong religious connection. If religion is very important to them, for example, it has a protective effect as well.”

 

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of the ethics, a lot of the principles that have been touted for millennia by religious traditions are now being shown to be extremely helpful and extremely powerful in terms of their impact on our happiness.”

 

Could it be that science is in some ways catching up to some of the valuable lessons of faith?

 

In my opinion, the early Quakers were pretty ahead of their time when it came to brain science. Consider the value of Quaker testimony of peace as we learn about the physical and emotional trauma of violence in our world.

 

Think also of Quaker testimony of simplicity as we’re learning about all of the stress and anxiety produced by our modern multitasking materialistic lives.

 

But here today I specifically want to look more deeply at two fundamental Quaker values – silent worship and our testimony of community.

 

First, silence.

 

Quaker William Penn famously said: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

 

The heart of Quaker worship is this idea of direct communion with God; that God can speak within any person. Silence allows us to “center down” from outside distractions and listen for the still small voice of God. Many people coming to a Quaker meeting at first find the silence awkward or difficult but later come to realize that it is the silence that gives the spoken ministry its beauty and power.

 

Now, let’s look at what the science says:

 

In her book “The Happiness Track,” Dr. Seppälä wrote:

 

“Research on silence provides insight into what makes silence so powerful… In 2006, Luciana Bernardi was studying the impact of music on physiology. To his surprise, he found that not only did the music affect participants’ physiology (slower music reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing), but so did the moments of silence – which he had only included as a comparison measure.

 

“In fact, Bernardi found that periods of silence inserted between tracks of music were much more relaxing than the soundtracks designed to induce relaxation… Physiologically, taking a ‘silence break’ had the most profound relaxing and calming effect. Other studies have found that silence – despite being devoid of content – can help develop new brain cells.”

 

All I have to say is William Penn was way ahead of his time!

 

What about community? When I think of the Quaker testimony of community, I think about what may be my favorite passage in the Bible, John 15:12-17.

 

This passage is why we call ourselves Friends:

 

Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

 

This is the heart of the Quaker community. Close relationships bonded by love and intimacy. Think about the rich network of living in community here at First Friends – we worship in silence together. We celebrate and mourn together. We make decisions together in monthly meeting. We pray for one another and visit one another when we’re in need. We share pitch-in meals. We were, in every sense of the word, a community of Friends.

 

As it turns out, science is confirming that this exact sort of compassionate community also is good for our emotional and physical wellbeing.

 

One last time, I want to quote Stanford scientist Dr. Emma Seppälä:

 

“We all think we know how to take good care of ourselves: eat your veggies, work out and try to get enough sleep. But how many of us know that social connection is just as critical?”

 

“One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure…. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”

Recently, an article published by the Boston Globe went viral across the Internet. Its headline read: The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” The reporter who wrote the article, Billy Baker, even wrote a follow up article about the flood of messages he’s received from men – and women – across the world telling him they too feel lonely.

To look at this in the context of faith, Christ commanded us to “love one another” as friends. Not just friendship… but intimate, sacrificial friendship with a shared greater purpose. Living in community is not just a recommendation. It’s a commandment!

 

Faith is internal, but not individualistic. We find meaning by turning inward to experience what we call the ‘indwelling Light of Christ.’ But we thrive as part of a wider, caring community where we see that of God in others.

 

Quakers maintain that this direct experience of God is freely available to all people everywhere, if only they turn to it.  Ultimately, then, all of humanity is our community.

 

Consider this statement from William Penn’s book “The Fruits of Solitude”:

 

“The humble, meek, just, pious, and devout souls, are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

 

In the end, it seems the things that help us feel close to God and to one another – love, silence, community, compassion, and service among them – are many of the same things science is now finding that light up our brain for lasting happiness.

 

Could these be reasons for trusting our faith as being authentic? Quaker theologian Dr. D. Elton Trueblood said this in his lecture “The Trustworthiness of Religious Experience”:

 

“Millions of men and women, throughout several thousand years, representing various races and nations, and including all levels of education or cultural opportunity, have reported an experience of God as the spiritual companion of their souls.”

 

Given all this, I want to read aloud our queries for today’s silent worship. You can find these printed in your bulletins:

 

What first drew you to Quaker meeting, or what keeps you coming back? Does Quaker silent worship and the Quaker testimony of community help cultivate love, compassion, and fulfillment in your life? Can this be trusted as evidence of Christ’s ‘presence in the midst’ of your life?

 

Though we all have times of doubt and struggle, we don’t have to turn away like the broken-hearted newsman Joe Bradley.

 

We can believe in True Love.

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