Smokey Bear Land

I grew up at the edge of a wetlands in suburban Rhode Island. This 100 acre wetlands became the playground for neighborhood children released from the prying eyes of parents. In that swamp the opportunities for entertainment were endless. In the summer we would catch frogs and turtles. In the winter we would skate on a pond and roast hot dogs over a fire.

All the kids knew this special place as ‘Smokey Bear Land’. There was no official designation, simply a name passed on by the children. It was a place to watch the wonders of nature unfold. I vividly remember coming across a family of Ruffed Grouse and running home as the mother grouse chased me from her brood. Another time my cousin and I found the dead body of a red fox and over the course of months we returned to watch the carcass decompose so that we could retrieve the bones and skull for a science project at school.

children in woods

In Smokey Bear Land (named for the mascot of the National Forest Service), we immersed ourselves in the cycles of nature. It was our playground and our teacher. In a time before laws protected such sensitive places we watched as homes gradually nibbled at the edges of the wetlands, from 100 acres to 50.

It has been a longtime since I was ten years old. But when I return to my old neighborhood I am glad that 50 acres remain. It is still a place where tadpoles hatch, birds nest and brook trout swim. Families still walk in the woods and are grateful that this wetlands continues to be a refuge, a home for neighbors who fly, swim, slither and walk.

On this Earth Day we know that such special places remain only because citizens like us demand and support legislation and zoning that protects. We know that all of life is interconnected and to be good stewards of our corner of the earth is a gift for the children today and for generations to come.

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Death Penalty for the Boston Bomber?

For two years the Boston metro area has been processing the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing. Four innocent lives were taken: Martin Richard age 8, Lingzi Lu age 23, Krystle Campbell age 29 died in the bombing. MIT police officer Sean Collier age 27 was murdered in cold blood. All had long lives ahead of them leaving behind family and friends. Over 200 others were injured, many losing arms, legs, sight, hearing. In truth the entire psyche of the region has been traumatized.

The perpetrators were two brothers Tamerlan age 26 who was killed during a manhunt by police and Dzhokhar Tsarmaev now age 21. This week a jury convicted Dzhokhar of 30 counts including conspiracy and deadly use of a weapon of mass destruction. Seventeen of the counts are punishable by death.

Now the decision of whether to put Tsarmaev to death is in the hands of the jury. The jury is asked to weigh what is a just and proportionate response to the monstrous act of murdering and maiming so many. Whatever decision they come to, the jury of our fellow citizens deserves our respect and gratitude.

Of course the debate as to what is a just and proportionate response is being debated throughout the region. Which is the most fitting punishment death or life imprisonment? What do you think?

Some argue that the death penalty is the most fitting price for such a monstrous act and a deterrent to others. Some believe that the death penalty is morally wrong and never acceptable. Others suggest that the Tsarnaev brothers were seeking martyrdom (in a perverted understanding of Islam) and that a death sentence would give the younger brother what he wants.

It is an open question whether the death penalty or life imprisonment will bring any degree of justice and closure to those maimed or who lost their loved one. Each person will seek their own path towards a measure of healing and acceptance and deserve our support and prayers.

While I understand the reasoning of those who call for the death penalty I can’t agree. On a deeply emotional and spiritual level I think the death penalty further inflicts an emotional and spiritual toll upon the psyche of a community. In short there is no such thing as a righteous killing.

Surely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev must and will be held accountable for the evil he and his brother committed. I don’t buy the defense strategy that the younger brother was a follower and not the leader. Each of us are accountable for our actions.

I believe that a life in prison is an appropriate punishment. With the loss of freedom this young man will be held accountable for this rest of his life. Will this bring a measure of healing and closure to those victimized? I hope so but I don’t know.

One lesson we have learned over these past two years is that there is a deep reservoir of compassion in the greater Boston area. Drawing upon this compassion has brought out the very best in us and provided an inspiring witness to our nation and the world. My hope and prayer is that we continue to draw from this deep reservoir in the months and years to come.

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What is saving your life now?

What is saving your life now?.

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What is saving your life now?

Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book ‘An Altar in the World’, tells the story of an old priest inviting her to speak at his church in Alabama. “What do you want me to talk about?” “Come and tell us what is saving your life now, ” he answered.

Brown writes: ‘All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to figure out was how to stay as close to that reality as I could and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.’

What is saving your life now? What does your life depend upon?

The art of life is discerning what is most important and then staying as closely connected as possible. It requires and open mind, heart and spirit to that which is life giving. It helps to recognize that life is dynamic and that which graces our lives with meaning may evolve and even change over time.

Mary Oliver is a poet who lives in Provincetown at the end of Cape Cod. Her neighborhood consists of a pond, scrub forest, beach and ocean. In her beautiful poem ‘Messenger’, she reflects upon what her life depends:

Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

photo of blue plums

What is saving your life now? What does your life depend upon?

In Christian theology the word salvation is from the Latin ‘salve’ which means to be whole, complete. What is it that makes your life more whole and complete?

As the old priest asks: ‘What is saving your life now?’

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Scandal

Scandal.

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Scandal

In John’s Gospel we hear:

‘Jesus knew that God had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’

This story presents a great scandal of the Christian faith. That Jesus the Son of God humbled himself and took on the role of a servant. As a servant he stripped off his robe and in his underpants knelt down to bathe and dry the feet of his followers.

Peter didn’t want Jesus to do it. In part I suspect because Peter realized that he would be asked to do the same for others.

There is something particularly intimate and humbling about kneeling at the feet of another, washing their dirty, smelly feet. There is something particularly unsettling about Jesus the Christ serving in such a way.

Last Good Friday Pope Francis created controversy when he visited a shelter for youth living on the streets of Rome. As with Jesus the Pope kneeled down, washed and kissed the feet of the young people. The controversy was heightened when Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a girl and a Muslim boy. He was rebuked by some in the Church because it was so ‘unseemly’.

Pope washing feet of youth

Pope Francis is being embraced within and beyond the Christian tradition because he understands the scandal of Jesus. He understands that God came in humility to show us how to live by showing us how to love. In Jesus we learn that compassion has come not just for some but for everyone, those who are like us and those who are different.

There’s something profoundly unsettling that God’s own child would come to serve in this most humble of ways. The great paradox of the way of Jesus is that the path to spiritual enlightenment comes only through a life of humility and service. Its a great mystery that we find our self as we give our self away.

As always the opportunity to serve and find is extended to you and me. May the scandal of Holy Week continue to unsettle and inspire.

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Moving Out

Elizabeth O’Connor was a co-founder of Church of the Savior, a radical church formed in the 1950’s in Washington D.C. She along with Gordon Cosby put into practice the core words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 40 “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.”

Never focused on brick and mortar this church opened free medical clinics, summer camps for inner city kids, workshops on leadership development, a hospice for street people, micro loans, and the list goes on and on. Always their work was rooted in the radical teachings of Jesus to love and include those of us on the margins. For this church, works of compassion and advocacy became a mystical place for meeting the risen Christ.

Evelyn O’Connor wrote: “When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.”

It’s been said that we live in a post-Christian era. In part this refers to our increasingly diverse culture that finds meaning in many places both religious and secular. The church is just one of many voices competing to be heard. In many ways this is good. It is easy to become complacent even arrogant when you are in the majority.

In many ways for the Christian movement the twenty-first century is similar to that of the first century. First century Christ followers like Paul, Peter, Lydia and Silas realized that they were but a minority voice and fueled by their passion went out into the public realm to share their story.

Two thousand years later we are once again a minority voice. The question is will we stay hidden away in isolated enclaves? Or will we like the early church, (and like Church of the Savior) be willing to let go of what is comfortable and familiar and become a part of the wider community where we can serve, learn from and share with a wonderful mix of perspectives and traditions.

photo of church aisle with open doors

It takes courage to leave the familiarity of what is. It means having clarity that you have something of importance to share. But it also requires a spirit of humility, that those with a different belief have something of value to offer as well.

In the fourth century, a bishop in the fledgling way of Jesus, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa said this:

“Do not think you must speak the truth to a Christian but can lie to a ‘pagan’. You are speaking to your brother or sister, born like you from Adam and Eve: realize all the people you meet are your neighbors even before they are Christians; you have no idea how God sees them. The ones you mock for worshiping stones … may worship God more fervently than you who laughed at them…. You cannot see into the future, so let every one be your neighbor.”

For those of us who love what the church can be and love the way of Jesus, this is a challenging and exciting time. The days of waiting for people to come to us are over. Are we ready to leave the safety of our buildings? Are we clear on what we have to offer? And, are we open to the blessings, the wisdom that other traditions and voices have to offer to us?

To say ‘yes’ is to be open to being changed. To say ‘yes’, is to know that we don’t journey alone. It was true in the first century and it is true today.

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