Tuesday, October 9, 2018

...All...




Picture above entitled "Draw the Circle Wide" depicts a diverse group holding hands and there is an intentional break in the circle to keep it unbound and allow all to enter.


"...All..."

Rev. Paul Mitchell


Vashon United Methodist Church

October 7, 2018

Hebrews 1:1-4;2:5-12; Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16





Recently I attended a strategic planning session for the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank board. The facilitator helpfully defined “vision,” “mission,” and “strategy” this way. Vision is the world we want to see. Or in our case, as a faith community, it is the vision we understand God wants to see. Mission is a description of our role in bringing about that vision. Strategy is the broad outline of ways in which we exercise or implement our role in the vision. In our case at Vashon United Methodist Church, I think our welcoming statement comes very close to a “vision” – with a little bit of mission thrown in. Read it with me.
“Considering the extravagant love God lavishes on us all, we at Vashon United Methodist Church extend our welcome to people of all ages, races, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, family structures, economic situations, and faith histories. Our desire is to be known for mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion. We follow Jesus, who offered radical hospitality to the lonely, hurting, hungry, and homeless. Come, explore this great love of God with us, and work beside us to transform the world.”
Do you see how this describes a vision? All are included in God’s love. Since there’s nothing we can do about that, the implication of our vision is that we want to be certain all understand and accept that. God’s love for all does not come about because of our action. But conveying the message that God loves all is our work, along with others who also know this truth, in order that all come to know it. “Mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion” require us to strive for understanding of the other as well as to assist the other in understanding us. Our vision is of a community that collectively follows in Jesus’ way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. Our vision is one in which we actively seek and collaborate with partners in our vision.
Our mission, should we decide to accept it, is “inviting all to share in the Christian journey.” It’s simple on the surface, but I think it has profound implications for us for the world we live in. Since it was crafted more than a decade before our welcoming statement was adopted, I doubt that it was understood at the time to describe our part to play in that vision on inclusion. But that mission may indeed be what lead us to understand our vision. This congregation has been on quite a journey – perhaps without a comprehensive map. And yet it has found a way through the wilderness. Indeed the “all” in “inviting all to share in the Christian journey” may have been the beacon that lit the way.
Having found our way thus far, we are now at a crossroads. As we noted two weeks ago in our open after-worship meeting, we are working from a deficit budget and currently are in the red for the year. In this already anxious time, financial insecurity heaps on more anxiety. It doesn’t help to pretend it will go away. In fact, as followers of Jesus, who showed us that the end is not the end, and that surprising new life lies beyond the loss of what we hold most dear, we can face this adversity as a gift – an opportunity to reevaluate the strategies we employ to fulfill our mission. Perhaps about three years ago, the leadership of this congregation arrived at a way of categorizing our strategies – “Grow, Tell, Go.” They are not strategies in and of themselves, but they hint at the ways in which we hope to engage in our mission. Indeed, if we could in some significant ways grow, tell, and go, we would sail through the crossroads. For now, though, we may be at the proverbial Vashon four-way stop.
“You go.”
“No, you go!”
Who goes first?
The Gospel text is very clear about who goes first. The passage from Mark today is part of the longest teaching sequence in that Gospel. It begins and ends with the admonition that the last shall be first in 9:35 and 10:31 – like bookmarks around this teaching – signifying the core of Jesus’ teaching according to Mark. Its essence is that the work of Christ is to bring the outer circle, the marginalized and forgotten, into the middle. It addresses the status of the “greatest and least, outsiders and insiders, aggressors and victims, males and females, children and adults, and rich and poor,” writes biblical scholar Ched Myers. He continues, “This is not offered as a mystical paradox. It represents a concrete ethic that begins, following Jesus’ Jubilary logic, with the situation of the “least” in each of these social relationships.”[i]
Who goes first?
In the Kindom of God, the children do, who are – especially in the context in which the Gospel was written – the last. Children were, and sometimes still are, little more than property. Today, we could well use the welfare of children as the primary measure of our fulfilment of the Gospel imperatives – of our adherence to Jesus’ way. When it comes time to make a difficult or consequential decision, we ought to say, “Is it good for the children – all children?” Nelson Mandela said “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Mandela was perhaps riffing on Gandhi’s earlier statement that “The true measure in any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” I often think that Gandhi was a better follower of Jesus’ way than most self-proclaimed Christians, and even he was not perfect in his use of power – especially in the treatment of women who were drawn into his mesmerizing presence.
The treatment of the most vulnerable is exactly the central point of this longest teaching passage of Mark. In each case, it is the individual or the party or the group that has been most excluded that Jesus chooses to include first in the “all” of the kindom of God that is already and not yet. The children are emblematic of the powerless, innocent, and vulnerable. If we are to enter the kindom of God, we too must become powerless, innocent, and vulnerable. Only God can make us innocent. But we can distribute power in myriad ways, and we can, knowing that we are joined together in the Body of Christ, choose to become vulnerable for the benefit of those who have no choice.
I’ve been reminded that even children are not always innocent. They are brutally honest until they are taught to lie. They are prodigally generous until they learn that what they have to offer is unappreciated. Many sermons on this text paint a saccharine sweet picture of children. But children in Jesus’ time, as in most of the world today, do not resemble the depictions of children in Norman Rockwell paintings. Still, the concrete ethic of full inclusion of the least does not rule out the metaphorical use of “child” in the text. In fact, the word that is translated “child” in Mark – more broadly includes “lesser one” or “slave” or even “descendant.” Early disciples of Jesus called themselves by this term as a way of indicating their subordination to their master. It implies humility and openness to the teaching of the master. And that is the attitude that Jesus calls upon if we would follow him – if we would enter the kindom. For “all” to be included, we must take up less room.
Are there any who are not included in our “all?” Of course there are. And mostly, we narrow our “all” unintentionally. We do not include persons who are blind, and our efforts at including those who are losing their hearing or mobility are incomplete. We do not include speakers of Spanish. Our style of worship requires some degree of familiarity to be comfortable. We expect people to sit quietly and sing loudly. You get the idea: our “all” is not really “all.” I have been speaking of our “all” – the degree to which we draw the circle of inclusion. But there is another “all” to consider. It is the all that is described in the passage from Hebrews. It is the degree to which God draws the circle of inclusion. It is a very wide circle. The Christology presented in Hebrews is dizzyingly high. All of humanity is drawn up into God’s “all” in Jesus Christ. Listen to Hebrews again:
“Who are we that you should be mindful of us? We are mere mortals, and yet you care for us! You have made us little less than the angels and crowned us with glory and honor.”
It reiterates Psalm 8, which itself places all of humanity in the company of angels.
Beloved, as we continue in the coming weeks to explore the meaning and direction of our mission statement, and prepare to decide how we will fund it for the coming year, remember this. As God has drawn all humanity into the kindom of God’s glory through Jesus Christ, so may we draw all into our ministry. Listen to these lyrics from the original version of “Draw the Circle Wide” by Gordon Light and Mark Miller.
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.
Let this be our song: no one stands alone.
Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide...
God the still-point of the circle
Round you all creation turns
Nothing lost but held forever
in your gracious arms
Let our hearts touch far horizons
So encompass great and small
Let our loving know no borders
Faithful to God's call
Let the dreams we dream be larger
Than we've ever dreamed before
Let the dream of Christ be in us
O Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.
Let this be our song: no one stands alone.
Open every door!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Blessed to Be a Blessing



Picture above entitled "Fallen Youth" depicts just a hand lain palm-up on the ground, alluding to the youth having been mortally wounded or killed.


"Blessed to Be a Blessing"

Rev. Terri Stewart


Vashon United Methodist Church

September 30, 2018

Acts 20:7-12; Matthew 5:1-11; 6:10-20






Hello! I’m Terri Stewart. I’m a pastor in the United Methodist tradition and am appointed to extension ministry with the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition which is umbrella’d by the Church Council of Greater Seattle. I work with youth affected by incarceration. I have about 150 volunteers across the state of Washington that work with youth. In my organization, we basically have six programs: traditional chaplaincy, mentoring, retreats, internships, advocacy, and peacemaking. Today, I want to give you a bit of a window into peacemaking.
Peacemaking Circles are a tradition passed to us by the Tagish and Tlingit First Nation people and by Saroeum Phoung of Kampuchea. It is a restorative justice diversion program that takes felony level youth crime transgressors and invites them into a process that restores their relationships with the crime survivor, the community, and their family. It is often described by outsiders as something like, “So, they all come together and talk and have a kumbayah moment?” At a very simple level, that is true. But it takes months and months of kumbayah moments and hard work for a transgressor to arrive at a moment where they are accountable for their actions and wish to repair their relationships. It is simple in the same way therapy that heals traumatized people is simple. The simple part is that we talk. The hard part is that we heal. And if we compare that to the traditional justice system, we know that we are doing something they are not.
One of the young men that we worked with, we’ll call him John, came to Peacemaking after committing a criminal transgression at the age of 16. He is a legal immigrant from Mexico. He came here when he was 12 years old. His mother has diabetes and finds it hard to work because of her pain. His father works in a restaurant. As soon as he could, John got a job working at the same restaurant. John’s life became one of school, work, sleep, repeat. There was little joy and a lot of pressure to contribute financially.
In John’s own words,
“The night of this incident, I felt a little pressure because I knew that soon I had to start contributing more to my family financially. I love my family. I love them so much and I respect them. My parents have cared for me my whole life. My dad is a dish washer at a restaurant and my mom almost never works because she is sick with diabetes. We struggle to pay the rent.”
On the night of the incident, another young man invited him to join him in a robbery. This would be a way for John to get more money to help his family. They robbed someone using a deadly weapon – a machete. That is felony robbery – or in the vernacular – Rob 1.
This is when John, like Eutychus, fell to his near-death experience.
Our scripture reminds us of the hazards of lengthy and boring preaching. Paul was talking on and on and the young man perched in a window, falls asleep and then falls to his death. Paul checks on him and says, “It’s okay, he’s alive.” And goes back to preaching. Eutychus is taken away and the people were greatly comforted.
Is this really our standard for life-giving preaching? That nobody died? I hope not! Maybe we should have disclaimers in our sermons, “No human subjects were harmed in the making of this sermon.”
I wonder how many times we read this scripture today and point at the young man for sitting in the window, saying, “That’s not where kids belong?” Expecting him to change his behavior and prevent his own harm rather than asking the question, “Why is Eutychus sitting in the window?”
Why would Eutychus be in the window? It could be hot in the room and he wants a breeze. It could be crowded and he can’t get to the center. He may feel unwelcome or that he doesn’t deserve to there.
Whatever the reasons are that Eutychus is at the margins, we know he falls to his near-death and is taken away in an ancient equivalent to an ambulance. And church goes on. As if the important part isn’t that this young man has probably shattered some bones. It is more important, judging by Paul’s behavior, that the gathered community continue listening to Paul talk on and on.
This is a little bit what it is like in the traditional justice system. Its wheels keep on turning regardless of a young person’s particular situation. John fell out of the window and crashed to the streets in desperation. He wanted more. More money for rent, shoes, food. John heard what society was preaching, the acquisition of stuff, and it wasn’t available to him. He was put near the window by a society that did not open to his family to create a place of safety and security. And when he fell, when he let go of traditional society, the justice system caught him. And even as a first-time crime transgressor, because he was guilty of Rob 1, an A-level felony, he would have served up to two years in a maximum security juvenile detention center. This is exactly like Eutychus being carted away with broken bones. John would be still alive, but he certainly would not be healed and whole.
It was at this point that the prosecutor, Jimmy Hung, a heroic man in my book, decided to ask Saroeum Phoung and the gathered Peacemaking Circle Team to intervene both on John’s behalf. Jimmy did not want to see a first-time crime transgressor with a fragile family structure go to jail in Chehalis for two-years. Jimmy asked us to help and we answered, “Yes!”
Because of Jimmy’s courage, the story changes dramatically. Rather than having a young man cut off from the center of society, the center of the room, barely able to see what is happening, we moved him to the center of a process designed for healing. This is the only hope young people such as John have. When they fall to their death, people like Jimmy, Saroeum, and the members of the PCT are there to perform a near miraculous healing. Or rather, to encourage young people to begin their own healing journey.
The work of the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition cuts across counties. I engage youth in a variety of settings including state-level facilities in Snoqualmie, Chehalis, and Naselle. I spend about two-days at King County detention and the rest of my week is roaming through state Juvenile Rehabilitation facilities across the state. What I have found is great difference between counties on how they treat youth. The most egregious example I have encountered was a 12-year old from Clallam County who was incarcerated for two-years for plotting to harm his abusive parents. Now, in my mind, it is the parents who should have been incarcerated. What this raises up for me is that we need to work together, across principalities, to learn about what helps bring healing and transformation.
In scripture and in life, the youth that we work with have fallen to their near-death from a window. And as in scripture and in life, the young person survives, but not without scars. What I know at a heart level from working with incarcerated youth is that these are not youth with crime problems, they are youth with trauma problems. Richard Rohr says, “Pain not transformed is pain transmitted.” These young folks become expert at transmitting their pain to others. The pain of not being accepted, the pain of their own crime victimization, the pain of being a non-traditional learner, the pain of being the victim of xenophobia and racism. But it is even more concrete that generalized pain. There is a study of incarcerated juveniles using the Adverse Childhood Experiences measurement tool. Now, you might say that we all have adverse childhood experiences. But these experiences are specific childhood traumas.
The ACES score measure 10 types of specific childhood trauma: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three.
There are, of course, many other types of childhood trauma — racism, bullying, losing a caregiver, homelessness, and so on. The ACE Study included only those 10 childhood traumas because those were found to be the most common traumas across large populations of people. Those traumas are also well studied individually in the research literature.
As a side-note, I think it is important to note that the large populations that was studied that we compare everything to averaged 56.1 years of age, 52.1% were women; and 79.4% were white.
Comparing this to youth who are incarcerated in Washington, we find 70% young men and 50% are youth of color. That is a far cry from the college-educated, white women that were studied. I would propose that if we asked African Americans or Native Americans what their most frequent traumas, we would find a different list. Or we might be find that we need to expand the list to include traumas that white people do not typically have to face.
Even without including the specific traumas that people of color have likely have experienced, studies show that 50% of incarcerated youth report four or more ACEs, compared with 13% of those in the original ACE Study. This is significant because, compared with people with zero ACEs, those with four ACEs are twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to attempt suicide, seven times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to inject street drugs. They’re more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more depression, more auto-immune diseases, and more work absences.
This is one reason that it is so important to deconstruct racism in our context. We have to know that this ACEs study that all of our institutions uses for our youth who are incarcerated is based on a white experience and a white definition of trauma. To help deconstruct racism in our context, I would like to invite you to come and explore race with us starting on October 11. It is vital for the future of our youth that we examine the unseen premises that impact our social conditions.
So, these studies have shown direct links between higher than average ACE scores and incarcerated youth.
Metaphorically, our youth fall out of a window and rather than stopping to heal them, we send them on their way, but not in an ambulance, we send them to juvenile detention facilities. I wonder what it would be like if we paused long enough to heal youth as they experienced trauma rather than pushing it off onto the justice system which is not especially known for its ability to heal.
With John, because of the courage of Jimmy Hung, we were able to begin Peacemaking Circles. In this process, the crime transgressor has to start out knowing their own guilt. You cannot lead people to healing if one person denies they have done wrong. As we worked with John for his own healing, it became apparent to me that John had difficulty with language and learning. If you met his family, you would meet his articulate older brother who had been in the US just as long as John but whose English was much more expansive. John, even after four years of school, was still barely able to speak in conversations with us, needing a translator. I will never forget it. Our first circle we were together and a colleague and I listened to him and we just looked at each other, stunned. Our unspoken question was, “How has this kid gotten into 10th grade without an educational intervention?” After our circle, we went to the school and inquired into his schooling. He was in an alternative school that plopped him in front of a computer expecting him to be self-motivated and able to read and learn in this manner. He had no IEP, no 504 plan, or there was no translator to help him. It is no wonder he didn’t like school.
Because of the peacemaking circle process, we were able to see a problem that no one had cared to address. I wonder how many people in the room with Paul saw the young man in the window and wondered if he would fall.
And then they did nothing.
Through peacemaking, we were able to begin the healing journey for John. He has worked on his relationships with his family and the community. Most importantly, he is committed to going to school and the school, and John, knows that we have a community of watchers with our eyes open.
John’s journey wasn’t easy and it took about a year and half to go through all the circles. In the end, a goal is to have the crime transgressor write a letter to the crime survivor. This is very difficult. For John, it was his own shame that stopped him from being able to write the letter for the longest time. In his own words,
“That day, when I decided to rob you, I remember that I told you, “Give me all your stuff.” You told me to please not do anything to you because you had family. Then, I looked into your eyes and I saw that you were afraid and I realized that this was something in my life that I was never going to forget. You probably thought that you would never see your family again and that your family would have to pay for my mistake. Maybe you wondered if you were going to live or not. In that moment, I thought about my family too and I put myself in your place. In that moment, I realized that I was just like you and that you have a family who loves you just like me. I am very ashamed.”
When John read his letter to the gathered community in circle, nearly everyone was crying. Today, John is 18 and is still on his healing journey. This year, a cousin and his girlfriend were shot and killed. He struggles but has a community around him which was not present before. His ACES score is high in addition to the social ills of xenophobia and racism and his personal challenges with learning. But, he is earnestly striving. The restorative justice process of peacemaking circles allowed John to move out of the window into the center of the room and to be surrounded by people who love him.
I wonder what would happen if we all found ways to transform our communities so that those who are on the margins, perched on the windows, were in the center of our lives and had access to resources and power? Or at least had people who would love them enough to help them access resources! Somehow, this seems to me exactly what Jesus would ask us to do.
When Jesus tells us, in part:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The beatitudes speak to blessings on youth such as John, for they are surely the poor in spirit. They also speak to blessings that the beloved community participates in…the church that recognizes and honors the image of God in every human being. For that is surely God’s righteousness. A righteousness centered in love of God and all our neighbors. A righteousness that leads to the kingdom of heaven. The question is, are we courageous enough to claim the blessing and to become an invitational presence to others perched on the margins so that they, like John, can begin a healing journey grounded in love.
Shalom and Amen.



May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies be upon you and all you love and pray for this day and forever more. Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Compassionate Sky


Picture above entitled "Sky" depicts an expansive stretch of empty desert with a cloudless blue sky.

"Compassionate Sky"

Rev. Paul Mitchell


Vashon United Methodist Church

September 23, 2018

Philippians 2:14-18; Mark 1:1-12





A few years ago, a friend from a church I had previously served called me from out of the blue, at a time of day when I knew he was at work. I knew instantly that something was wrong. A member of that church had died. The man was in his early forties with young children. The children had attended the weekday preschool at the church and the family had shown up for worship on occasion – mostly for Christmas and Easter and then more often when the dad started his battle with cancer. Few in that large church knew who the family was unless their children were in class together. My friend’s daughter had been in preschool with one of the children, and then again twice since entering elementary school. My friend sounded almost groggy, subdued, sad.
He said, “There’s nothing like this kind of loss to remind you what really matters.” He couldn’t say much more. I asked him if he was out on the road or at home in his office. He was home. I asked if he had been outside.
“No.”
I said, “Bill, go outside, under the sky….”
Both death and the sky can put things in perspective for us, but the sky is open to possibility, even if it’s raining. Well, that day it wasn’t raining. It was glorious, and it is just what Bill needed. No words could console him. Nothing could tell him that he would never face the loss of his own daughters, his wife, his parents. The sky had nothing to say, no story to tell, no consolation or advice – none of which were needed by Bill in that moment.
The psalmist proclaims,
“the heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
Unlike earth, humanity, and mountain, sky is intangible. You can’t touch it, despite the evocative poetic phrase “touch the sky.” The sky is not a place or a thing. It cannot be owned – though during the years I was practicing architecture in New York City, there was plenty of buying and selling of the sky through “air-rights transfer.”
The sky seems to go on forever – unlike our individual lives, it is unbounded. That thought is captured in the phrase, “the sky is the limit” – meaning, of course, there is nothing restricting the subject at hand. But to the pre-scientific mind, the sky was a thing. It was a barrier, a limit, a lid on creation. They even called it the “firmament” – as solid and tangible as earth.
It was as mysterious and beautiful as its Creator, carrying signs, messages, portents, life-giving rain, and death-dealing storms. Just imagine for a moment, the night sky before electric lights or airplanes, before the haze of industrial particulates that we have become so accustomed to that we don’t see them anymore.
I remember lying on the grass at Wesley Acres, the United Methodist campground in rural North Dakota when I was a teenager. It was in a valley and about twenty miles from the nearest town. On the summer weekends when I was a camp staffer we could shut off the yard lights and stare up into the cavernous night sky after the campfire had died down.
The Milky Way was so bright and distinct, we could just reach out and touch it. Earth seemed to drop away. You might even say we were in the sky, that the sky had come down to meet us, to include us in its embrace. Almost we could hear the stars singing. We felt so very small, so insignificant, and yet so loved, that we were given the gift of the sky.
We could hear God whispering to us,
“You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
You see, I don’t have any trouble with the image that Mark portrays at Jesus baptism – the sky opening and the voice speaking. I’ve had that experience. And I don’t have any trouble believing that there is a baptism of the Spirit for every child of God, and I believe that is it is inextricably and inexplicably bound to the open, intangible sky.
But I also don’t believe the sky is just up there. For one thing, our astronauts have passed through the sky and looked back on earth and humanity through it. Close your eyes for a moment and remember that image that they sent back of the little blue marble we live on. As wind/breath/spirit, the sky enters into us, into our lungs, into our cells, making our bodies the true union of earth and sky….
It’s a matter of where we choose to establish the line between earth and sky. Perhaps it’s a matter of living in the gap or the overlap – the both/and – the already but not yet. Can we live on earth and in heaven at the same time? Jesus thought so. He said that the kingdom of heaven literally “realm of sky” – was right at hand, as near as our breath, written on our hearts.
When we are baptized, we are saying that we fully expect the sky to open and the Word to enter our breath just like a wind. We fully expect that God will speak to us as well that commendation of who we are, whose we are, and that we are beloved.
The coincidence – the oneness – of human and divine made it possible for Jesus to hear that message of unconditional love virtually simultaneously with his baptism. For us, that message may come before or after our baptism, but part of baptism is expecting the message.
One caution though. Remember what happened next in the three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke? Forty days in the wilderness. Temptation and trial. Doubt and challenge. We should expect that too.
The message that the sky brings puts life in perspective, but it does not spell out in detail how we should respond to the next challenge. We do not as Christians, strictly speaking, believe in the purported messages of the Zodiac. As tempting as it might seem, and as uncannily accurate as my horoscope sometimes seems, stellar birth signs are less Christian than Christmas trees or Easter bunnies. Still, that silent voice of empowerment and inspiration may come one day from out of the “blue,” and we may hear it, if we form ourselves to receive it.
I’d like to share a story that doesn’t have much to do with the “sky,” but which does have a lot to do with hearing that voice and responding with compassion when we are called.
One of the responsibilities of Nate Sears, a landscaper working at a housing complex on Cape Cod, is to check the piers at the adjacent beach for storm damage. One morning he was doing just that when he spotted a ten-foot pilot whale coming toward shore. He watched for a moment. He then saw a second whale, and a third, each one heading for land.
Stunned at first, Nate watched the approach of the whales in awe. Then his concern took over. Since it is not unusual for whales to beach themselves on Cape Cod, Nate knew that this was the probable intent of these large intelligent mammals.
He summoned a neighbor, who ran to call the National Sea Shore Service. Knowing the whales were coming so fast that they would be on the beach before help could arrive, Nate quickly waded out in the direction of the closest whale.
He caught up with it in waist-deep water on a sand bar. The whale was thrashing about, and Nate could see cuts on its body from the rocks and sand. Trusting impulse, Nate placed his hands on the whale and held them there.
The thrashing stopped.
The whale became completely still….
Nate said in that moment he became aware that this was the whale’s first encounter with the human species. It seems that both human and whale were operating on something other than experience, each trusting the other in an encounter that neither had experienced before.
After the whale had grown calm, Nate gently turned it around and pointed it away from shore. The whale began to swim back to sea. Nate approached the second whale. Again, he simply placed his hands on the creature and its thrashing stopped. Once this second whale grew still, Nate turned it away from shore. It, too, began to swim out.
By this time members of the National Sea Shore Service arrived, and they helped Nate turn the third whale back.
Frequently whales that threaten to beach themselves and are rescued come ashore in another location. That does not seem to be the case here. For whatever reason, the whales returned to their natural habitat without further incident. Although there is no proof, it may be that their encounter with Nate’s calm energy and his willingness to simply hold them, reorient them, and gently send them is what made the difference.
Nate knew nothing about whales. It was not his responsibility to help them. He was not prepared or equipped to “save the whales” that day. But at that place where the waters above and the waters below meet, where earth and sky touch, Nate heard a silent call and responded. He baptized those whales, repenting them toward the sea and the life that God intends for them.
We each have our responsibilities, our tasks, our duties. As we execute them we are placed in the world in ways that may yield an unexpected call from the sky to intercede on the behalf of God – if we are watching for the signs, and responsive to them. Each one of us stands on a shore, on the cusp of the known and the unknown.
Each one of us encounters systems that have strayed off course. Each of us has the capacity and power to risk an encounter that exercises cherishment, imagination, agency, and care, that realizes compassion and inclusion, forgiveness and charity. This week, as we look to the sky, as approaching autumn brings clouds and colors, sunshine and rain, let’s be open – like the sky.
Let’s be more than open. Let’s expect that God is calling us to see and hear the opportunities to gently intervene, to enter into the surf, to place our hands on life, to hold it and turn it, and send it back to the horizon where sky meets life. Thanks be to God for the gifts of Word and Spirit and sky.
Amen.