Snowshoeing on a Woo Hoo Day

Thich Nhat Hahn the Buddhist monk speaks about the practice of ‘mindfulness’. He says: “When I walk I know I am walking. When I eat I know I am eating. When I see I know I am seeing.” His words remind us to be fully present to what we are doing.

I recently heard a TED talk on the theme of anxiousness. Several presenters mentioned that as we multi-task in life our anxiety level rises in proportion to our busyness. Those who are least anxious are those who are able to live in the now, to be present to what is.

I was thinking about this a few days ago on a drop-dead gorgeous afternoon in Massachusetts. After a historic winter with over 8 feet of snow and numbing single digit temperatures, my wife and I went snowshoeing on a sunny Saturday and a balmy 30 degrees.

We went to a local state park whose trails were busy with cross-country skiers, snowshoeing and romping dogs. People greeted each other with: “Today is perfect!”

snowshoeing

After a long grey winter the days were warming, Spring was but a few weeks off and we

knew

that this snow which had seemed never-ending was to be enjoyed, even savored. As I walked in my snowshoes I tried to walk mindful of the beauty that was before me. I tried to be in the moment, pausing often to bask in the sun and enjoy the beauty of freshly fallen snow.

As I walked I knew I was walking. As I breathed I knew I was breathing. As I shouted:”Woo hoo!”I knew I was shouting.

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End of Christians in the Middle East?

In 1997 a Scot named William Dalyrmple wrote a book called ‘From this Holy Mountain’. He travelled in the footsteps of a Christian monk, John Moschos, who lived in the 6th century. Moschos went on pilgrimage to Christian monasteries in what are now the modern day countries of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. It was a time when the Christian majority was giving way to the growth of Islam.

Travelling in 1997 aided by the journal of this 6th century monk, Dalyrmple visited those same monasteries. A minority continued to flourish (particularly in Greece and Egypt), most however hung on with a few caretakers or in ruins. What he found was an uneasy coexistence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. But what seemed inevitable given the trajectory was a time when no Christians would remain in their historic homeland.

One area where Christians were thriving in 1997 was Syria, with approx. 20% of the population being Christian. Given that Syria was ruled by a secular dictatorship of the Assad family, minority groups including Christians were paradoxically allowed freedom of religion. The Christians worried what would happen to their fragile freedom if the secular dictatorship were replaced by Islamic extremists.

Now we see an unintended consequence of the destabilizing of the Assad government (as with the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The vaccume of power has unleashed widespread persecution of Christians. In today’s news it was reported that 150 Assyrian Christians were kidnapped by ISSIS (Islamic State) in NE Syria.

Assyrian Christians have been a community since the first century and are referenced by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:13. They have survived persecution throughout their history including an attempted genocide by the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1915. As a people they have fled from place to place seeking freedom to worship and walk in the way of Jesus.

Assyrian Christian

Today more Assyrian Christians live outside the middle east than within their ancestral lands. Even today they speak Aramaic which was the language that Jesus was believed to have spoken. For those of us who are Christian this little known group is a living link to the earliest days of the church and to Jesus himself.

Dalyrimple in his 1997 journey found holy places venerated by both Muslims and Christians where both groups lived and worshipped together. This was particularly true around places of healing and fertility where saints were venerated. Such places of common ground had occurred since the 6th century but now are rare.

Now Islamic extremists such as ISSIS have twisted Islam to fit their message of intolerance and hatred. If left unchecked a day may arise in the foreseeable future when there is no longer a place for minorities such as Yazides, Bedouins or ancient Christian sects such as the Assyrian Church. When that day comes all of humanity will be diminished.

Join me in praying for these 150 kidnapped Assyrian Christians and for all who suffer intolerance and persecution. Let us pray and work to build bridges of understanding and hope.

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Seeing Lent through Coptic Eyes

This past week 21 Egyptian men working in Libya were kidnapped by ISSIS terrorists and executed. They were murdered because they were Coptic Christians. They were forced to kneel in the sand and beheaded. Their martyrdom took place a few days prior to Lent.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. Ashes are placed in the sign of the cross upon the forehead with these words: “From ashes you come and to ashes you will return.” It is a somber day that reminds the faithful to be humble before God and to remember that from God we come and to God we will return.

From what I’ve read about Coptic Christians, this martyrdom is but one in a long series of persecutions over many centuries. The word ‘Coptic’ means ‘Egyptian’. The Coptic Church was planted by Saint Mark sometime between 40 – 60 A.D. For the last 50 years, Copts which comprise 6 million people or approx. 10% of Egyptian society have been routinely harassed by some from the religious majority while the government has often turned away from protecting them. Copts can rarely build or repair their churches, it is difficult to find employment and often have limited access to public education.

Yet the Coptic churches are full to overflowing with people and passion for their faith. In the suffering of Jesus upon the cross they see their own suffering. In the words of Jesus they find the capacity to persevere and to forgive: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.

Coptic Christians

In the West, particularly in Europe and increasingly in the United States many churches stand empty or near empty. Faith when practiced is often squeezed into a busy schedule one option among many. But for the persecuted Coptic Church the faith of the people is foundational to who they are and where their hope is to be found. For the Copts martyrdom is not something they seek but also not something they run from. For the Copts the Spirit of God that was alive in the life of Jesus is also alive in their gathered life.

This Lent I pray that I too may have a measure of the Coptic faith. For all Christians may we too have the clear sense that God’s Spirit and the Spirit of the Risen Christ is with us.

A comfort to the families who lost loved ones to ISSIS is their sure knowledge that the Christ who suffered and overcame even the cross was with their loved one’s when they died. Oh, to be in the presence of such a faith.

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Happy Agape Day

Heart in snow

Love in the Greek language has many manifestations. Eros speaks of the erotic attraction of two people. Eros refers to those moments of combustion when two people are physically attracted. It is a wonderful type of love full of passion. It is summed up in the phrase: ‘Va va va voom!’ Movies and images as diverse as Hallmark cards to the raciest films make a lot of money fanning the flames that come with erotic love.

Philia is another type of love. Our word fraternal is related. It speaks to those who are bonded by a deep sense of identity. People who share the bond of family or tribe have a fraternal love. At its best this type of love is beautiful as in the love of a parent for a child. At its worst philia can lead people, tribes and nations to war protecting themselves from those perceived to be a threat.

The ancient Greeks knew that love is complicated. They knew that eros and philia can bring out the best and the worst in the human condition.

2000 years ago an itinerant healer and mystic named Jesus was guided by a third type of love. The Greek word is

agape.

Agape is a selfless love that isn’t dependent on physical attraction,the bond of blood or tribe. Agape comes from a deep place both within and beyond a person. Such a love enables us to relate to people in a universal and expansive way. Paradoxically such a love is both detached and profoundly intimate.

Agape empowers us to serve without thought of what is in it for me. It transcends fear and leads to freedom. Freedom from bitterness. Freedom to forgive. Freedom from self-centeredness. Freedom from hate. Freedom to accept. Freedom to be.

coffee for homeless

How do we know when love is of God? When it is expansive, life-giving and self-less.

Anne Lamott writes: “If god hates the same people you do, rest assured you’ve created god in your own image.”

Agape is about becoming aligned with the wisdom of God. Jesus understood that we are a fragile species but with the Spirit’s help we are capable of loving more fully and freely than we every thought possible. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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In Praise of Paper Bag Princess

My daughter recently sent me a list of The Best Feminist Picture Books:
http://bookriot.com/2015/01/26/best-feminist-picture-books/ She prefaced this by saying, ‘this made me think of you’.

Twenty-three years ago my wife and I had our first child, a daughter. As a dad it was important to me that the stories we read didn’t follow the standard formula of the handsome prince saving the girl in the tower.

As a new dad I asked our local librarian to recommend books where the girl was the hero. She said there weren’t many books like that but a new book had crossed her desk ‘The Paper Bag Princess’.

Paper Bag Princess

The Paper Bag Princess is the story of a princess who’s had enough of waiting for her knight in shining armor, she takes off and vanquishes the dragon and then decides the prince (whom she rescued), is not worth her valuable time after he makes a rude comment about her appearance.

I thought, ‘this is the kind of book I want to read to my daughter!’ One of the qualities that attracted me to my wife is that she is a smart, strong, independent woman. In raising our daughters (another daughter would follow a few years later), our goal was to raise strong, adventurous, socially conscious young women. The Paper Bag Princess was a good place to start.

Twenty three years later our two daughters are launched. One is living and working in Los Angeles as she pursues her passion and the other is studying for a semester in Ireland with adventures ahead. Both are setting their own course and inspire me.

We continue to live in an a world that is too often sexist and misogynistic. Yet we’ve made progress in the last twenty years. In a recent listing of The Best Feminist Picture Books, there are many more books to inspire girls and boys to follow their dreams.

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Getting Ready for the Big Storm

People are fascinated by talk of a BIG STORM. The weather professionals heighten our anticipation giving us a step by step breakdown of the storms impending arrival. We rush to the store for milk, bread and batteries. Those of us with miles on our odometer hearken back to the Great New England Blizzard of 1978. Anyone who lived through it has a story to tell.

Blizzard of 1978

Storms have a way of bringing people together. In many ways it brings out the best in us. We tend to check in on our neighbors. My Mom age 92 lives in Rhode Island and looks forward to a storm because she knows her neighbors will look out for her. Today I asked: ‘Mom what will you do if the lights or heat go out?’ She said: “Paul and Sue down the street have a generator, they said I could stay with them.”

Storms also have a way of highlighting the precariousness of our neighbors who live on the streets. In the city I live efforts are being made to let people know that an emergency shelter is available. I think back to another community I lived in where a homeless friend named Rusty died of exposure.

On this eve of the storm we offer a prayer for city workers who plow our streets and first responders who do their best to keep us safe. And we offer a prayer for those of us who are most vulnerable.

Tonight weather experts tell us the BIG STORM will come. They think it may even be bigger than the Great Blizzard of 1978. My hope is that we will take good care of each other and afterwards have only good stories to tell.

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Counting Heroes

My friend Jerry counts heroes. It is his antidote to the daily barrage of negative news that come via our multiple forms of media. Under the premise ‘if it bleeds it leads’, those in the business of reporting the news often focus on stories that are violent and heartbreaking.

Such stories need to be told. But there are other stories too. Without a balance of stories that inspire, it can be difficult to get out of bed in the morning or have any semblance of hope.

In response to the challenges of daily living and the tendency of the media to highlight the negative, Jerry has taken to counting heroes. On a regular basis Jerry looks for stories that inspire and grace his life with meaning.

My friend points out that such stories are all around us, all we need to do is keep our eyes and ears open. Each story holds lessons and values that we can incorporate into our own life. Such stories inspire and empower us to live more fully in the present, to be optimistic and persistent in living out that which we value.

In the Sunday New York Times (January 15, 2015) I read an obituary for Robert E. White who was a career diplomat who served in every administration from Eisenhower – Reagan. He was a man who stood up for his principles, which reflected the values of the American people – a belief in democracy and human rights.

Photo of Robert E. White

Looking back on his career, Robert White wrote in 2001: “I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally dismissed from the diplomatic corps by Alexander Haig on behalf of President Reagan, for opposing a military solution in El Salvador in the 1970’s and 80’s.” He lived with the satisfaction of having stayed true to his core values.

Such heroes are all around us: People like Robert E. White. Teachers who go the extra mile every day for their students. Parents who sacrifice for the well-being of their children. The list of every day heroes is endless.

Yes, there’s lots of bad news and heartache in the world. Lots to keep us awake at night with worry. Yet, there are also heroes, well-known and little known, who remind us what a well lived life looks like, who remind us to hold onto hope even as we face the challenges of life.

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