Away and in danger

Thank you, Rosi Penner Kaufman, for this reflection as we approach World Refugee Day, June 20, 2018. 

This past Sunday during our time of praying together we sang these words from a hymn by John Bell and Graham Maule:

If the war goes on and the children die of hunger,

And the old men weep, for the young men are no more,

And the women learn how to dance without a partner,

Who will keep the score?

If the war goes on and the truth is taken hostage,

And new terrors lead to the need to euphemize;

When the calls for peace are declared unpatriotic,

Who’ll expose the lies?

After the service, an astute friend asked, “Which war?”

What a question. My sad reply is, “Choose one.”

In the past few weeks I have become aware of the war that is happening near us, on our borders,  between those seeking shelter and safety in the United States with their families and the U.S. government policies that justify border agents ordered to detain them. I read stories of thousands of children, some as young as four years old, forcibly separated from their parents and held in detention centers.

Next Wednesday, June 20, 2018, is World Refugee Day. I admit, refugee is a word distant from my personal experience. My grandfather might have been considered a refugee when he fled Poland to avoid military conscription. I’m sure there were hardships involved, but in 1890 there was never a question of whether he would be admitted to the U.S. He wasn’t alone, and he had family and a destination waiting for him.

The refugees today are CHILDREN. IN OUR COUNTRY. ALONE.

I hardly know how to express my lament. As is often the case for me, I look to music, trying to find something that we can sing together to gather our resolve to do something about this injustice. This is one of those times when I may have found something too powerful to venture singing in a worship service. Corporate worship has to take into account the experience of a wide range of people, including children. I was introduced to a text that, while it touches the lament of my soul, might be unsettling, especially for kids. The text is paired with the tune common for “Away in a manger.” The pairing of this text that describes fear, loneliness and the blatant disregard for life, with a tune we sing as a lullaby or hear our preschoolers sing at a Christmas program, is a powerful condemnation of how sheltered I am from the reality of this text. It is frightening.

Frightened refugee children don’t sing carols. They weep. And now I weep with them, frustrated that I don’t know how to bring about the hope of the third stanza.

*Double click on this song to make it larger.

 

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Running fever

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“..Let us run with perseverance the race set before us…” –From Hebrews 12:1

Rainbow Mennonite Church congregant Aaron Barnhart has what you might call “running fever.” He lives to run. Or is it that running is helping him to live? At age 53 he is at optimal health—down to his high school body weight and running 18 minute 5Ks.

Aaron’s running fever is contagious. And if you show any interest in his running prowess, he will pull out his running and dietary apps and charts that record his daily runs, mile splits, and what he has eaten that day, week, and, if you really want to know, the entire year. Running shoes, stretches, injury prevention, chiropractor recommendations, strategy—you get Aaron talking about any of these things and you may just find yourself later that day at the nearest running store, buying a new pair of shoes and stopping for a salad on the way home.

His success might make you think that Aaron has always been a runner.  But it turns out that he didn’t even make the college cross country team he tried to walk onto (maybe he should have tried running onto it). And he didn’t know how to work running into his life and career post- college.

Everything changed on November 11, 2000, when Aaron was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. After a successful initial clinical trial, his body eventually built up resistance to the treatment and in 2011, he was at National Institutes of Health (NIH)—this time running a physiological fever. His body had become immunocompromised. He was at death’s door. Thanks to a combination therapy trial, Aaron got back on his feet.

Just before one of his annual checkups at NIH, Aaron happened upon an article by the Olympic middle-distance runner Lauren Fleshman, “10 Reasons the 5K Is Freaking Awesome.” Realizing that he could take up running without the time commitment or battle scars of marathon training, he started his own Couch to 5K training that week. Aaron has been piling on the miles ever since. And loving most every minute of it.

“There is so much to learn about how to run more efficiently, never sacrificing the fun of running,” said Aaron. “Running is way more of a blast than I ever thought it would be.” Hence the meticulous charts, disciplined stretching routines, and his insatiable curiosity to train smarter, not necessarily harder.

Aaron counts himself incredibly fortunate. He is also not one to waste good fortune—hence his current running fever. “This is such a precious time,” he says matter of factly and yet wistfully, “I know how fleeting it all is.”

As a fellow runner, I asked for some running and training tips. “Don’t run with earbuds,” he tells me, explaining that he used to wear earbuds to listen to audiobooks or podcasts, but he stopped.

“I started to notice that almost every other runner I passed by was wearing earbuds. And I saw how the earbuds were acting as a bubble, isolating us from other people we passed by on our runs. That’s when I realized I didn’t need audio stimulation to make it through a 45-minute run, and I discovered that even a simple ‘good morning’ or ‘nice day,’ delivered without something jammed into my ears, connected me to my fellow humans in some small, but meaningful way.”

Aaron continues. “Running gives me an honest assessment of my place in the universe. We are human beings with all these infirmities, limitations, fragilities, and we’re all just trying to move along. The secret to a lasting running career is to train slow, build up volume and pile up miles.”

As Aaron’s pastor and running admirer, I hope to join him, as long as I physically can, in celebrating life, with each step, no matter how slow or challenging. There are no guarantees; injuries, diseases and crisis will and do take hold sometimes. This is something Aaron knows well.  Hopefully through it all, we will have those who cheer us on, who train with us, who offer healing and helping hands, urging us on in the races of life, whether a 5K or life itself, with a sense of drive, curiosity, perseverance, gratitude and hope.

Aaron

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Communal capes of blessing

As we prepare to join in a ministerial licensing service for Rosi Penner Kaufman this coming Sunday, May 13, I’m reminded of times I have received or led ministerial-related blessings and prayers. Here I am at my ordination service at Bethel College Mennonite Church.

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And here is what I wrote to a friend recently about this occasion:

I have great memories of being in the middle of team huddles. And so I figured this was just another team huddle with fewer high fives and sweat, and without a coach or teammates yelling at me. It was uncomfortable at first to kneel down, but when I saw my family and the community come forward, I sort of surrendered to the moment. I let myself be crowded for a moment, and affirmed. It took me back years ago, to when I was a little girl standing in a circle of worshiping adults, lifting my hands up to God, hoping I could reach whatever they were reaching for.

I don’t remember most of the words shared on ordination day. I fell into that place I go to sometimes when I pray, or when I stood at the free throw line during an important basketball game—where people, sounds, distractions drop off and I’m just there, alone but somehow not alone, in an empty, but not-so-empty space. Dear friend Kara, who I didn’t even know was there (last I knew she was living in a remote Alaskan lodge), was seated on the last row of the balcony. The next day she said that from where she was seated up high, the community draped around me looked as if we were forming some kind of communal, Mennonite superhero cape.

We won’t ask Rosi to kneel for the laying on of hands this coming Sunday. We will save that for a future ordination service, which we hope will be about two years from now. Still, as we join in licensing her toward ordination on Sunday, my hope is that we might sink into a place of deep prayer. May we affirm her gifts of ministry, and may we continue to form that communal cape of support and love, looking to the greatest superhero of all, Jesus.

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Prayers, spring and Leo

On Earth Day, April 22, we will compost our Rainbow prayers collected over this past year. We’ve done this for the last several years, as shown by these pictures.

 

Rosi found a beautiful hymn for this occasion, which you can listen to here:

Silence my soul these trees are prayers

              I asked the tree, tell me about God. . .Then it blossomed

          Silence my soul the sun is prayer. . .Then is shined

          Silence my soul the moon is prayer. . .Then it glowed

          Silence my soul the earth is prayer. . .Then it gave life.

This will be especially meaningful to do this coming Sunday given the fact that yesterday, one of Rainbow’s charter members died at the age of 95. His name was Leo and he would have been 96 on April 30. Leo came into the world in spring and he died in spring.  And during his long and meaningful life, Leo saw countless flowers bloom and die, bloom and die, and on and on. He was so thoughtful about the birth and death cycle of all things, including his own inevitable death.

A few months ago I asked Leo what his favorite spring flower was and he said the daffodils. They are the reliable and sturdy ones, often able to bounce back even after a late spring freeze.

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Daffodils blooming in Whitmore Playground.

And so in honor of Leo, this morning I held the cylinder of Rainbow prayers and recited this poem by John Keats called “A thing of beauty.”  May Leo rest in peace, and may our prayers, lives, and death blossom in God’s unfolding of time and eternity.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

 

 

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Scared. Scarred. Sacred. 

“The scared meal” was not how I had intended to advertise our Maundy Thursday communion gathering. I blame auto correct for that, although come to think of it, the disciples were surely scared, especially given Jesus’ talk about future suffering. And they were certainly scarred. These three words—scared, scarred and sacred—so close in spelling, get all mixed together in story of Christianity.

Think, for example, about the gospel accounts of the post-resurrection Jesus using his hands, especially the scar marks, to prove he was who he said he was. In the gospel of John, Thomas goes so far to insist on putting his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand on Jesus’ injured side. He would believe no other way. Following Thomas’ lead, many Christians today experience Jesus as One who stands with wounded hands, welcoming our wounds and scars, whether those wounds are physical or emotional, healed, still healing, or not healed at all. Jesus, the One who takes what is scary and scarred, weaving a more sacred path with us and for us.

Speaking of scars, when I first became a pastor I was shocked at how many people were willing to show me their scars, both physical and emotional. Today it is not so much shocking as it is humbling. So many of us have healed over scars that we are comfortable talking about and showing, others that remain hidden. And then there are those of us who have barely- healed or not-healing-at-all wounds, and we worry about exposing them to the elements or exposing them whatsoever.

Long ago, a hospital chaplain colleague went so far and suggested that “Show me your scars” might make a good future Sunday school class topic. Interesting to think about, I said, but probably too tough to pull off. Then again, by revealing our often hidden scars and wounds, we’d probably have plenty to teach one another about life’s struggles and possibilities, tragedy and resilience, death and resurrection. It could be sacred even. And most certainly scary.

For now, what I find myself compelled to try is to center my prayer life around the image of Jesus, standing with open, scarred and sacred palms. What if we would do this while imagining The Risen One’s welcome of us, scary wounds and all? And then what if we imagined rising with the One who is Risen, together weaving the more sacred path, scary scars and all?

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The matter of the body

This man (Joseph from Arimathea)  went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.”

-Luke 23: 52-Luke 24:1

These words from Scripture take me to a place just a few miles outside my home town, to a gorgeous plot of land outfitted with a small pond and cabin. This is where First Mennonite Church always held their Easter Sunrise Service. We’d arrive in the dark and my mom, who was often in charge of the service, would busy herself with service details. (Meanwhile I would start dreaming of cinnamon rolls and cider and whatever other goodies people were starting to bring.) Often misty or foggy mornings posed a problem for whatever Easter skit my mom had drummed up across the pond. I, on the other hand, have long thought the stories of Easter are more compelling while watching mist dance on water. The blurrier the drama the better. I suppose that’s because the matter of Jesus’ alive, then dead, then alive again body was (and still is) super blurry for me in terms of what it means. Still today, I much prefer to hear these stories at dawn under the canopy of a darkened, awakening creation versus in broad daylight or under artificial lights.

Fast forward 20 years and I found myself far away from my family and home town church at Easter. That year instead of spending Easter morning with loved ones by a pond, I was serving as a chaplain in a 600-bed hospital in downtown Chicago, standing under the canopy of artificial lights and sounds. Instead of sitting passively waiting for the Easter drama to unfold, I was now standing in the middle of real-life drama, caring for bodies born, alive, dying, and dead. Everything felt blurry as I sought to be present to family members who were facing their own blurriness, sometimes absolute darkness, that comes with grief.

The matter of morgue/funeral home preparations needed to come up eventually, but moving there often felt like its own impossible challenge. And then there was the matter of “late viewings.” This was sometimes available, within certain parameters, for family members who arrived at the hospital after a death, and after the body had been taken to the hospital morgue. I dreaded getting this late viewing page, and the nurses dreaded me coming to them, insisting that one of them come with me because I was too anxious to go alone. One night I couldn’t find anyone available to come with me, so I went to the morgue alone. It was quiet, except for what sounded like a faint, steady rhythm of some kind. Upon investigation, I realized that the nursing staff had not removed this individual’s watch, and so what I was hearing was the tick-tock of time. I had work to do and a family to invite in, but I do remember pausing to take in this mysterious moment in/of time. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

This moment of standing in the presence of a stranger’s deceased body, hearing the tick- tock of time, is one I have returned to often, perhaps as often as I return to the pond where Jesus’ movements through life, death and life again were first introduced to me. So often I feel overwhelming sadness for the endings that are part of life. Any concept of life after death still feels so blurry and non-sensical. But then I hear that tick-tock again, and as I did those years ago, I start humming the hymn to the beat of time, “My Life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentations….I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn, that hails a new creation.” And so as I go about Easter preparations this year, I find myself yearning to hear the tick-tock of time and this promise embedded within it, and live as if a new creation is always right around the corner, always unfolding.

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No bunny like you

“Wait, Ruth. What do bunnies have to do with Jesus?” I’m pretty sure the junior high boy at church who asked me this question last year quickly wished he hadn’t, because before he knew it, I was giving him some wild, off-the-cuff explanation connecting Jesus to fertility to eggs to sex. He sat there quietly, looking down at his feet and up at the door. I’m pretty sure he left the room before I was finished.

I thought about this conversation recently as I was interviewing someone known as The Guerilla Bunny. Check out the Bunny’s work on Facebook or Instagram!

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This particular bunny, who wishes to remain anonymous, probably isn’t getting much sleep these days because every year in winter and early spring, this bunny is busy painting between 90-100 eggs to “hide” early on Easter morning in a six-block radius in Stockbridge, MA.  I put “hide” in quotations because they are hidden in plain sight for the public to enjoy and take home (hopefully no more than one egg per person). If you consider the sheer beauty of these eggs and the time it takes the bunny, this is like receiving a $100-400 surprise gift on Easter morning.  Even though The Guerilla Bunny wouldn’t say this, to me it all sounds so biblical—like the women who traveled to Jesus’ tomb before dawn, and who had quite a beautiful surprise waiting for them.

The Guerilla Bunny tells me that the art of painting eggs goes way back, perhaps one of the oldest known decorative arts. Painted ostrich eggs, for example, believed to be from 65,000 years ago, have been recently discovered by archaeologists.  The decorated egg, writes Stephanie Hall, “has been an important symbol in many cultures. They are part of the creation myths of many peoples, the ‘cosmic egg’ from which all or parts of the universe arises. They often symbolize life, renewal, and rebirth. They figure in much of human folklore, used for healing and protection.”

As is the case with most traditions, the tradition of painting eggs spread and was adapted by people of different religious beliefs. Within the Jewish tradition, a pure white roasted egg is often part of the Passover Seder meal. Then Orthodox Christians in Mesopotamia took this tradition and dyed the egg red as a symbol of Christ’s blood. These red eggs are still prominent in the celebration of Easter in parts of the world. You can read more here: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/04/decorating-eggs/

Back to The Guerilla Bunny. This particular bunny began the tradition of giving away beautifully painted eggs in 2008. Why? In part, because the bunny struggled to relate to Easter in any kind of meaningful way. The bunny wanted to go beyond the usual pastel colors and symbols of traditional, orthodox Easter and reach deeper into the deep and rich symbols of dying and rising, death and renewal. When I pressed with more questions, the bunny said that ultimately it’s about adding some spark and light to a world that is often full of grimness. The bunny has always tried to address the scary, violent things in the world through and in art. It’s also a wonderful way for the bunny to get to know other cultures, and the images, colors, symbols and patterns particular to each people and tribe.  As the bunny paints each egg, the egg becomes its own, guiding meditation point as the bunny hopes that the right egg will end up in the right hands. It’s also an exercise in giving birth to something, and then letting go of what is born. Each egg is carefully and lovingly painted, never to be seen or held by the bunny again. The bunny leaves no trace of authorship and the bunny expects nothing in return. Amazing.

As Suzy Banks Baum has commented, “The Guerilla Bunny believes that random acts of beauty lift people up. And that people could use a good bit of lifting up these days.” Indeed.

Again, be sure to check out the Bunny’s work on Facebook or Instagram!

Maybe, just maybe, the bunny will be inspired someday to paint a Rainbow-striped egg.

Speaking of Rainbow, all are invited to our annual Easter Egg Hunt in Whitmore Playground on Saturday, March 31 at 10:30am! We have our own one-of-a-kind Easter bunny!

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