Grace from Gary

grace ɡrās/noun
  1. 1.
    simple elegance or refinement of movement.

Sandhill Cranes and Small Frogs

posted Jul 2, 2018, 6:43 AM by Penny Skildum

It’s a Sandhill Crane!
I’ve never seen one before and at the time I had no idea what it was, but there it was in the little pond by my house. My dog, Iris, and I were on our daily early morning walk on the trail around the pond under clear blue skies. I looked over and there it was on the far side of the pond.
And it happened.  I’ve never had it happen to me before. It seemed like a slow motion movie. This large bird spread its wings and began to fly... right toward me. It gracefully gained altitude and then it pooed all over me!
It was wonderful and disturbing at the same time.
For many it seems we live in wonderful and disturbing times. It seems a lot of people are getting pooed on - immigrants, Muslims, voters, non-voters, ordinary citizens, children, adults. The poo seems to be of Biblical proportions. I think cats and dogs may be living together.
So yeah, you may be feeling like things are smelling a little like a ripe diaper. And yes, there is real pain and suffering in that poo. But no matter how bad things may smell and look we still haven’t given up.
Here’s how I know.
We are still showing up for each other. We are reaching out to people we know are hurting in ways that are profound, wonderful and compassionate. We are still helping each other clean up our messes.
We are still being moved and broken by the sounds of young children separated from their parents and siblings rather than growing hardened after hearing it for the hundredth time.
We are still seeing funny videos and laughing.
We are still hearing our favorite songs and singing along.
You see it is by showing up and being moved and laughing and singing that the poo slowly becomes fertilizer for a better tomorrow.
I know a young girl who walks around sanctuaries to pick up small frogs in her hands to put them in a paper cup so she can carry them outside and put them where they can thrive. It doesn’t matter they may pee in her hands; it matters they can thrive. I don’t know if they thrive or not, but I know because of her they have a chance.
It’s a small thing but very wonderful.
Life is always amazing and wonderful and worth the chance, even when it's messy.
Grace from Gary

Jesus’ Resurrection: Out of the Tomb

posted Jun 5, 2018, 6:58 PM by Penny Skildum

This is the second reflection of Resurrection, you can find the first at:
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Ecumenical Version of the Apostles’ Creed
“To put it bluntly, not even a credulous nonbeliever is likely to be persuade by the various reports of the Resurrection; they convince only the already converted. The same must be said about the visions (of the Resurrection). None of them satisfies the minimum of requirements of legal or scientific inquiry.”
The Resurrection, by Geza Vermes - pg. 141
A Time and A Place
We live in a time and a place where modern legal, scientific and historical inquiry do not align with our ancient Sacred Story. The Resurrection of Jesus is the center of what is central to the Christian faith; Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascending into heave. What could this all mean?
Those of us who grew up Christian have a handed down understanding of Jesus’ resurrection that, not only goes back to our childhood, but is also reinforced by generations of the forbearers of our faith. This pre-understanding of Jesus’ resurrection that we have inherited emphasizes a historical-factual understanding, in both hard or soft forms. The hard form is committed to biblical inerrancy and sees Jesus’ walking out of the tomb as factually, literally, historically and infallibly true. The soft form knows each Gospel has a different story of Jesus’ resurrection, but the gospels all reflect a basic factuality of an historical event. So central is this historical factual understanding of Jesus’ resurrection for many Christians that, if they can’t except it, they cannot be part of the Christian community of faith with integrity.
Maybe an emphasis on a factual-historical resurrection of Jesus, as if it could be photographed, gets in the way of seeing how the first followers understood his resurrection and how we might re-understand it.
The first followers of Jesus do not live in the modern world that developed out of the Western Cultural Enlightenment that aligns history and factuality supported by scientific inquiry. Yet, the profound significance of Sacred Stories is that they share a different perspective and perception that modern historical, factual, scientific inquiry offers.
For our ancient forebears of faith, the idea that somehow resurrection needed to align with history, science and fact literally never entered their minds. Resurrection aligned with their time and their place.
Methods of Inquiry
Today much of what we understand is based on a scientific-factual method of inquiry. We could say that the ancient world was based on what we could call a political-religious method of inquiry.
The vast majority of New Testament scholars agree that the message and mission of Jesus’ life can be summarized as, “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). This makes sense within a political-religious method of inquiry. The opposition to Jesus’ message and mission by the retainers of the Roman Empire makes sense within a political-religious method of inquiry. Jesus’ death makes sense within a political-religious method of inquiry.
From a scientific-factual method of inquiry the resurrection and ascension of Jesus’ doesn’t make sense; base on a political-religious method of inquiry it makes sense.
In a time and a place when the Roman Emperor was proclaimed the “Son of God and Savior” on the currency throughout the Mediterranean world; understanding Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension makes sense from a political-religious method of inquiry. When heaven is understood as God’s throne room ascending to heaven and sitting at the right hand of the King makes sense from a political-religious method of inquiry.
For the earliest followers of Jesus, the significance and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection was that the living Spirit of Jesus was present with them. Through their political-religious method of inquiry it was God who reigned in their midst and would one day rule the world through the continuing, ongoing, living Spirit of Jesus; not Caesar.
Jesus is Lord
First, the followers of Jesus experienced the risen, living Jesus in their midst. Then they proclaimed Jesus is Lord. This is the earliest message and mission about Jesus’ resurrection as represented by the Apostle Paul within thirty years of Jesus’ death he wrote:
Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God later they embodied that proclamation in our sacred story.
Philippians 2:9-11
This makes sense within a political-religious method of inquiry. This is not only religious language, it is political language.
The last things that happened in the process of the Christian sacred story was Jesus embodied in resurrection through resurrection appearances. The stories are meant to bring flesh and blood to the experience, message and mission of resurrection. Resurrection did not begin with Jesus walking out of the tomb, that was the last step in it’s development. Jesus’ resurrection it the story of his life giving, spiritual presence within his community.
Before resurrection was fixed to on paper it was lived in people’s lives and community.
Jesus’ resurrection, for the earliest followers of Jesus, is the God of Life’s living response in the person, message and mission of Jesus that those with power and authority tried to destroy by arresting, interrogating, torturing, and executing him.
Inquiring minds about resurrection can bring new perspectives and understandings to the Gospels; Jesus life, message, mission and death; and new life after his life.
Today resurrection automatically brings historical, scientific, and factual questions. This is not true for the first followers of Jesus; for them resurrection automatically brought political religious questions. Who is Lord? Who is Savior? Who proclaims the will of God? Which mission and message shall I support, the One which crucified Jesus or the One that brings the person, message and mission to life again? The Christian Sacred Story is the answer to these questions.
“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mark 16:6) This is the essence of resurrection. For us, as for the first followers, do we look Jesus still in the tomb? That’s the question that needs to be answered.

What a Movie Can Teach Us About Uncertainty, Loss, Love and Life

posted Apr 30, 2018, 7:21 PM by Penny Skildum   [ updated Apr 30, 2018, 7:24 PM ]

It’s all been leading up to this, 
Avengers: Infinity War.
Practically since its announcement has had fans, bloggers, and writers alike buzzing with theories about how this climactic chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would end. Which of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would make it out to live in another sequel? What state would the planet, or even the galaxy, be in when the dust settled at the end of the final scene? And just how bad could Thanos, the movie’s giant purple space monster, be?
Without spoiling anything that hasn’t already been discussed, Infinity War states its intentions very early on, and mostly sticks to them: this is not going to be a purely fun outing. Characters you love are going to die. The heroes we’ve been rooting for all these years may not always end up on the winning side. And the big bad? He’s more complex, and more threatening, than we thought.
Previous Avengers movies were about the challenges of building and sustaining and a community. Infinity War is a sobering reminder that even the biggest, strongest communities sometimes face adversity that results in sacrifice, uncertainty, and loss. This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s gathering of characters both beloved and new, and throwing them into a brutal endgame. It’s a Good Friday movie, too, putting those left standing at the end into their own version of Gethsemane.
Thanos is an intergalactic warlord who seeks five infinity stones; the time stone, the mind stone, the reality stone, the power stone, the space stone, and the soul stone to complete the Infinity Gauntlet, a weapon that gives the wearer control of the universe. Thanos wants to use the gauntlet to wipe out exactly half of life across the galaxy. The meat of the plot involves the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy meeting up and joining forces after Thanos shows up on Earth in search of the time stone, possessed by Doctor Strange and the mind stone, possessed by Vision.
As for Thanos, Infinity War gives him a backstory and a mission that infuses the character with a surprising amount of sympathy. He’s not, as it turns out, totally evil. Instead, he’s that most dangerous of villains: one who wholeheartedly believes that he’s doing the right thing, yet what he is doing is fatally flawed. Thanos is on a crusade and nothing or no one is going to stop him.
Throughout the movie there is character explorations and relationships both new and established that make the film’s final battle that much more heartbreaking. Friends lose friends and mentors lose protégés. The resulting world is left in utter chaos, with the outcome uncertain. We leave our heroes in a moment when all hope seems lost.
But we know that hope still exists. For one thing, Marvel’s got more movies in the works. But more importantly, Infinity War is part of a story tradition that follows the same pattern — one that goes all the way back to the Bible. Characters setting out to change the world experience success and transformation, then darkness to the point that it seems light will never come again. Biblically, we know what happens — Jesus is crucified, then there’s resurrection, and a message of new life and transformed. In Marvel terms, we know the second half of Infinity War is coming next year, with movies introducing new characters on the way.
This story isn’t over yet, and there’s reason to believe the pain will make way for life and new growth to come.
So, it is with resurrection faith.

Resurrection: Life in Lifeless Cement

posted Apr 2, 2018, 8:01 AM by Penny Skildum

“These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…” (Acts 17:6)

I was once at a four-day clergy seminar on resurrection led by a female, Asian theologian. Her understanding of resurrection was so unique that one of my colleagues asked, “Do you believe in resurrection?” I will never forget her answer, “Yes, I see my grandmother every day.”

The word that we know as “resurrection” in the original language of the New Testament is anastasis, it is a compound word made of the word for up, ana, and rising, stasis. Resurrection is an up-rising.

The Experience of Resurrection
Before there are the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and his resurrection appearances we find in the Gospels there is the proclamation of the living Christ presence with his followers who experience his living presence with them.These experiences and its proclamation began in Jerusalem at its earliest a few weeks after Jesus’ death, maybe within a few months, most certainly within a year.  Most or all of the twelve disciples were part of this group that lived in Jerusalem, most notably the disciples Peter and John were part of the leadership, they were among the earliest ones to proclaim and experience Jesus’ resurrection. However, the most significant person within this group was not a disciple but a brother of Jesus named James. Within a few years another person whose name you may know became an ally of this group, Paul.

From Jerusalem this groups’ proclamation spread throughout Israel and the Mediterranean world, into Syria and possibly as far as India. The best witnesses we have of this movement that began in Jerusalem are the letters of Paul and the book of The Acts of the Apostles that we find in the New Testament.

Possibly within months, certainly within a few years, Jesus’ followers were proclaiming God had raised Jesus from the death in “three days,” on the first day of the week; on the first day of a new creation… as Paul phrases it, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Connecting Jesus’ Death and Resurrection to his Life

This group in Jerusalem was the most influential followers of Jesus after his death and framed the message that was proclaimed about Jesus until the mid-sixties CE (Common Era), but they were not the only group. At some point early on a group of non-Israelite Jews had to leave Jerusalem because one of their members named Stephen was killed by the authorities. They moved to a city in then the Syrian province of the Roman Empire on the Mediterranean named Antioch.

But there is another group, possibly a more influential group when we ponder the development of the Gospels that left Jerusalem, even earlier than the non-Israelite Jews, to go back to Galilee; if they even came to Jerusalem in the first place. This was a group of anonymous followers of Jesus who were with him in Galilee during his ministry. The core of their faith was not the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus by God but the teachings of Jesus as they experienced his resurrection presence with them. They met at least weekly on Sundays, if not more often, to reflect on what Jesus said and did, and how it impacted their lives. They developed an oral list of Jesus’ teachings along with a few events from Jesus’ life, including his baptism by John. By the late-fifties or early-sixties CE this group had written a list Jesus’ teachings and a few events of Jesus’ life that is now call The Sayings Source or Q or The Q Gospel.

By 66 CE Israel was in open, violent rebellion against the Romans. By 73 CE the Roman military machine had rolled across Israel devastating its land, villages, cities and people. The culture and society that had organized the Jewish people in Israel, and therefore the small Jesus Movement within it, completely collapsed. It is within this context that our first Gospel, Mark, was written. It was the author of Mark that connected mostly the events of Jesus’ life, but also a few teachings of Jesus, with his death and resurrection.

Mark’s gospel is often called a story about Jesus’ death and resurrection with a long introduction. It was written sometime around the year 70 CE, forty years after Jesus’ death. While the author of Mark was the first to connect Jesus’ life with his death and resurrection; authors have been doing it ever since.

Two of the earliest to follow Mark’s lead were the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each author had a copy of Mark’s Gospel in front of them and a copy of the source we now call The Sayings Source. These two sources were used as the overall structure of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Sometimes Mark’s gospel and The Sayings Source are copied word for word. The authors of these two gospels also added some of their own events to the stories of Jesus; most notable, their unique Christmas stories.

But for our purpose, the authors of Matthew and Luke added their own versions of Jesus’ resurrection and story or stories of his resurrection appearances. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written sometime after 85 CE, fifty-five years after the death of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John incorporated unique resurrection appearance stories, possibly sometime after 100 CE, seventy years after Jesus’ death.

Resurrection in Lifeless Concrete   
This does not mean the appearance stories appeared out of thin air. As we have seen the resurrection of Jesus has been central to the Christian faith since its beginning, even before it became a legal religion within the Roman Empire, when it was decriminalized in 313 BCE.

By 400 CE seeds had been sown which eventually brought a break between the Catholic, meaning Catholic as the universal sense, into Western Orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054. There were many reasons for the Church splitting like an earthquake into Western Orthodoxy and Eastern Orthodoxy, but one of the significant differences was their understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. The same thing happened again during the Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther in 1517.
The point is - the understanding and experience of the resurrection and Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, which continue to this day, have evolved. These stories are meant to inspire our souls and spirits.

Unfortunately, in the religious culture of the United States which too often emphasizes the Bible as the literal and verbatim truth of God and where adhering to doctrinal beliefs are more important than faith, Jesus’ resurrection and his resurrection appearances have too often been set in lifeless concrete.

Does life take hold within concrete? I think it does. What is needed now is a new Up-Rising of God. This will be the topic of my article for next month’s newsletter.

That’s How It Works

posted Feb 28, 2018, 8:01 PM by Penny Skildum

It’s always interesting when, during a casual conversation, someone asks me “So, what do you do?” When I let them know I’m a pastor I usually get one of three types of responses, something such as:  “When did you accept Jesus?”, silence or “I don’t believe in religion anymore.” It is the third response which  is most interesting. Many people in the United States don’t believe in religion anymore. 

Traditional Western Christianity is about accepting a certain set of “beliefs.” Yet many of these truths contradict what modern Western Civilization knows to be wrong. Traditional Christianity means believing there is a divine being who lives in a heaven somewhere, someplace who created heaven and earth. That Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary yet is completely human. That Jesus Christ died for our sins and who will come again to raise the quick and the dead.

For some Christians it also means the universe was created in six days, Jesus walked on water and raised the dead and everything else the Gospels tell us about Jesus literally happened: that he was raised from the dead in a physical body which his disciples could see and touch.

The most beloved and well-known passages in the Gospels emphasize the importance of believing, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV). On Sunday mornings as a child, when I confessed my sins I was forgiven with the words, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Of course, my pastor meant those baptized like Lutherans baptized and those who believed like Lutherans believed.

For much of my life these beliefs helped me organize my life. They were ideas basic to giving meaning to my life. But for me, as for many, I slowly questioned these traditional beliefs of the Christian faith and began to rearrange what I believe.  

I began to believe differently. I believe in God and Jesus and in holy Spirit. I believe in the Bible as my sacred story; I believe in the Church as a community of everyday saints; I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation and Jesus’ way of non-violence. I believe in resurrection and the power of Life. I believe that “God so loved the world” that the power of such a love is the most significant transformational power in the world. That love is mostly clearly seen through faith in God through Jesus Christ. But my understanding, my idea, of each of these has significantly changed.

What I believe, the ideas I hold most dearly, still are the basis by which I live. But they are just that, ideas. While they help me be faithful they are not my faith. They are the concepts, feelings and thoughts; the ideas, which are fundamental to who I am. They inform my life, they help me be faithful. But they are not faith; they inform whom and what I can trust and where I can best place my commitment and loyalty. These are the elements which make for faith: trust, loyalty and commitment. What I believe informs my faith; faith and belief are closely related but they are different.

I have lost faith in much of what I used to believe. However, I believe in everything I trust; my beliefs inform my commitments and loyalties;  I’m open to growing and changing. That’s how life works. 

Many people can no longer accept the traditional beliefs of the Christian faith. But some way, somehow we are all faithful; we still trust as well as have commitments and loyalties;  our faith always changes and grows. That’s how life works.

The 4th Mindfulness Training

posted Jan 30, 2018, 7:41 AM by Penny Skildum   [ updated Jan 30, 2018, 8:14 AM ]

An Open Letter to the Citizens of the United States About
Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Dear fellow citizens,
I would like to share with you the 4th Mindfulness Training, “Loving Speech and Deep Listening1”.
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

“Mindfulness” is a trend in personal growth and professional development. There has been a lot of research done on its benefits and many business and school districts around the United States are using mindfulness to help their employees and students focus. Mindfulness is a meditation technique that can be used by almost anyone, almost anyplace.

One of the leading spiritual leaders of the world, Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh has developed 5 mindfulness trainings to support and strengthen, deepen and broaden mindfulness meditation. When Martin Luther King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace prize in 1967 he called him “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence2.” Learning the techniques and practicing mindfulness meditation have great benefits but embracing the five trainings are the transforming aspects of mindfulness.

This is what Thich Nhat Hanh says about the Five Mindfulness Trainings:
The Five Mindfulness Trainings are one of the most concrete ways to practice mindfulness. They are nonsectarian, and their nature is universal. They are true practices of compassion and understanding. All spiritual traditions have their equivalent to the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in ones-self, in the family and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.

All five mindfulness practices are transforming, but it seems the fourth mindfulness practice has significant relevance for us today. It seems we have forgotten how to talk to each other let alone how to listen to one another, and it is causing much suffering in our nation.

I think it could help us with personal and social self-awareness: “I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person.” It may help us and news corporations present information in a way that is more discerning: “I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” These seem to be fundamental aspects to good citizenship in a civil society.

Don’t forget, we’re in this together, after all. It would be good to figure out solutions that bring us together. It can start with a determination to speak lovingly to one another and listen deeply to each other.


The Mixed Nuts Metaphor

posted Jan 15, 2018, 8:51 PM by Penny Skildum

During the year 2002, U.S. companies sold $783 million of mixed nuts incorporating four or more varieties, mostly in canned form, representing hundreds of millions of pounds. [1]

Walk into any store that sells mixed nuts, pick up the can, and hold it in your hands. You are holding in your hands an example of the changing, strained, strange, and anxiety producing times we are living in. Fifty years ago, you could not have found a can of mixed nuts in any store in the United States. Many of the items you can go into a store and pick up today were not around fifty years ago. We put a can of mixed nuts into our grocery chart without a second thought and we don’t realize how much the world has changed so we can enjoy them at home. At the store last week, I picked up a can and turned it around to read the ingredients. This is what I read: “Contains products from: Brazil, India, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, U.S.A., Vietnam.” Amazing! I stood still in the snack aisle pondering the impact of a complex world that brought this can of mixed nuts into my hands. This is the Mixed Nuts Metaphor.

The bowl of mixed nuts that may have been on your dining room table during the holidays is a concrete connection to geographical areas all around the world. The Mixed Nuts Metaphor reminds us that our planet is connected geographically in ways we have never been before. Indeed, a storm in Brazil or India or Ivory Coast or anywhere else on this planet visits me in my home in ways I cannot comprehend. We MUST realize we live globally connected, unless we are willing to give up our mixed nuts .  .  .  and cell phones and computers and pacemakers and TVs and .  .  .  well.  .  .  artificial intelligence.  .  . and . . . well.  .  .   most of the things that are part of all our lives. The Mixed Nuts Metaphor also reminds me that communities of people whose heritage connect them, and me, to Brazil, India, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey, and Vietnam probably live within ten miles of my home address. These citizens live in every state of this Republic we share. Not only are we geographically globally connected, we are relationally connected as citizens of the United States with people from all around the world.

Everything is changing and profoundly affecting each of us as individuals, as citizens of Minnesota, the United States and the planet, that is the reality behind the Mixed Nuts Metaphor. Everything we see and touch, every second we are alive, every inch that we exist in and every second of our lives we are globally connected; from the mixed nuts we eat to the climate change we are experiencing.

The Mixed Nuts Metaphor is meant to be a playful way to make a very important point. We are living in a time of transition that the world has experienced in at least two thousand years! You may agree or disagree that this is true, but the transition is not casual, and it will not pass away or end anytime soon; from a historical standpoint it is just beginning. We are living in a great emergence of something brand new, and as Christians of whatever stripe, we are watching the formation of a new presentation and perspective of faith. We are on the edge of a birth and early life a new type of Christianity. Open a can of mixed nuts and enjoy the time we are living in.  
1 U.S. Census Bureau (December 2004). "Roasted Nuts and Peanut Butter Manufacturing: 2002"

A Musical Overture of Peace

posted Dec 1, 2017, 5:02 PM by Penny Skildum

Glory to God living in the highest heaven and
on earth peace in humans living with divine good will. Luke 2:14

Translated by Gary Walpole

I often imagine a lot of singing and dancing going on during the Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke.

An angel comes and sings a duet with Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, while they dance in the brightly lit Temple. Once Zachariah’s wife Elizabeth learns of her pregnancy she sings a moody melody about disgrace being taken away while sitting in seclusion under a full moon.

The same angel comes to a young, unmarried Mary singing about becoming pregnant and dancing a tango which Mary is hesitant to join, resisting God’s favor as much as possible until she finally and reluctantly is bound to the invitation.

Finally, the two pregnant women meet and sing an upbeat rock tune while the two, yet unborn, babies dance with joy in the womb.

Each scene of the Christmas Story in Luke evokes the possibility of singing and dancing. Indeed, many scenes have been composed into music.

The central scene of the Christmas Story is the birth of Jesus; with an angelic birth announcement being sung by a choir of angles to shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep:
Glory to God living in the highest heaven and 
on earth peace in humans living with divine good will.
The Christmas Story in Luke is the Overture to the rest of the gospel. An overture is the instrumental music which draws on themes that are to come within the musical or in this case the Gospel of Luke.

For fun you can check out the overture of Jesus Christ Superstar by clicking on the link below and see if you recognize any of the music:

The Christmas Story serves as an overture because it is the tale of a single human being living with divine good will to bring peace on earth.

Then, follows an amazing story.

Jesus’ life becomes one of divine good will lived out to bring peace on earth. Peace does not come magically, easily, or without effort.  Peace is not solely of God’s doing. Peace comes when human beings are filled with divine good will.

With Jesus’ life as an example, peace comes when we make common cause with others as Jesus did with his disciples. It comes by offering food and healing and justice. It comes when power is used for the benefit of others.

Peace comes when we can hear Jesus say to us in the Sermon on the Mount: there are ways that reconcile and that keep covenant, ways of letting our words be truthful, ways of being peacemakers and loving our enemies, ways to invest in being governed by grace and restoring justice.

Peace comes by losing a sense of self and a willingness to center ourselves with divine good will. Peace comes only when we think peace on earth is the most important thing to live for.

We see peace when Gandhi led a Salt March in India and when Martin Luther King Jr. says with a loud voice, “I have a dream!” It comes when Jesus loves the enemies and oppressors of his people even as they put him to death.

It is the Christmas Story for our day, a time when we are filled with divine good will that brings peace on earth.


posted Nov 27, 2017, 4:05 PM by Sue Fried

by Pastor Gary Walpole

“There is within all of us an intimate connection between the will to survive and the need to feel useful to something or someone beyond myself.”

Barbara Kingsolver-- Small Wonder


Why do we work? You would think such a question would have a simple answer. Yet there are hundreds of different reasons given by thousands of different people. To put bread on the table. To do something I really enjoy. To make a name for myself. To maintain a certain standard of living.  To achieve financial security.

Why do you work? At home, outside the home, as a volunteer, for pay, for play, at raising children, at loving? It’s all work. Life itself is work.

The first thing each one of us did may be the hardest and most wonderful work we have ever done; as newborns all covered with slime, with great effort, we drew our first breath to jump start our sticky pair of lungs; then there is the wailing for connection to the blurry sights we see through our newly opened eyes. It doesn’t get any easier after that, but it can remain as wonderful. This first inhale/exhale, blurry eyed moment pretty much sets the rhythm for life, wherein needing and giving are of one piece.


Work is not something we do five days a week for forty hours, if that is even possible these days. We work twenty-four/seven/three hundred and sixty-five days a year for all our lives. Work is the rhythm of life.

Work is more than what we do, it is remembering every effort of our lives can be useful, meaningful and wonderful when it serves a common good. Good work is inherently useful. In all the areas of life that we work, usefulness is like a touchstone without which all the other reasons for working tend to grow void of wonder and meaning. If we grow old without having given ourselves to others and something more important than ourselves in an intentionally useful way, then we will have succeeded in deftly pulling a treasure chest up a great hill only to open the lid to discover that it holds a collection of fool’s gold.

There was an Italian, born in the twelfth century, into a family that was eager to endow him with a life of ease and irrelevance, he walked away from that chest of fool’s gold he was expected to tote up the great hill and devote his life to being useful. He saw himself as the hands of God working in the world. He lived his life seeking to make himself useful to others. Francis died in 1226, within two years he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX. We know him now as Saint Francis and you may know the prayer that was written centuries later that bears his name.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love.

Why do we work? This may be a useful perspective and a meaningful beginning to the good work we are, and you are doing.

Burned: The Power of Awe

posted Oct 1, 2017, 6:11 PM by Penny Skildum

Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me with a live coal taken with tongs from the altar. Touching my mouth with the coal, the angel said,
“Look. This coal has touched your lips. Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.” (Isaiah 6:6-7)

One experience of awe.

How can we describe a moment of awe that is beyond description?

Around 2,750 years ago a priest of the God of Israel had a powerful experience of awe in the Jerusalem Temple.

That experience is described in the sixth chapter of the book in the Hebrew and Christian sacred writings that is named after him, Isaiah.

It is a story of Isaiah in the presence of the sacred or divine. It was both humbling and affirming, where the foundation of the Temple shook and was filled with smoke. An experience where Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then a fictional, sacred creature called a seraph flew to him holding a live coal from God’s altar and touched his lips saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah’s response, when the God of Israel asks, ““Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah’s affirming response, “Here am I; send me!”

This is probably not Isaiah’s literal experience of awe and wonder, it is a creative and imaginative effort to put into words what is at its core indescribable. It does not mean that Isaiah made up a non-existent experience of the holy or sacred, it is an expression that is deeply human; moments of wonder when we feel the presence of something vast that transcends the understanding of ourselves and the world.

I think the story of Isaiah gets it right, we all have experiences of fiery awe that burned themselves onto our lips yet we cannot put into words; they transform our souls and transcend our concrete reality into something beyond ourselves.


What are the results of experiencing awe.

But what is even more wonderful is how awe impact our lives.

In May of 2015 a study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that tried to measure the impact of awe on an individual. The study used a series of experiments to examine different aspects of awe. Some of the experiments measured how predisposed someone was to experiencing awe; others were designed to elicit awe, a neutral state, or another reaction, such as pride or amusement. In the final experiment, the researchers induced awe by placing participants in a forest of towering eucalyptus trees.

After the initial experiments, the participants engaged in an activity designed to measure what psychologists call "prosocial" behaviors or tendencies. Prosocial behavior is described as "positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship." In every experiment, awe was strongly associated with prosocial behaviors. In a press release the lead of the study, Paul Piff talks about the impact of awe on those who participated in the study and on individuals in general.

“Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you're at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.

Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sorts of effects—people felt smaller, less self-important, and behaved in a more prosocial fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.”

Indeed, it seems awe promotes one of the most important prosocial characteristics advocated by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, loving-kindness.


How do you experience awe?

Piff and colleagues summed up their findings on the importance of awe in their report saying:

Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean. Feeling amazed at the birth and development of a child. Protesting at a political rally or watching a favorite sports team live. Many of the experiences people cherish most are triggers of the emotion we focused on here—awe.

Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. Future research should build on these initial findings to further uncover the ways in which awe shifts people away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.

Matthew Fox, a present day religious leader and thinker describes awe as an “awareness of wonder everywhere.” Wonder is open to all of us and has been experience by all of us somehow and at many times. It is our ability to be aware of wonder that opens us to awe. Awe is an everyday reality and it is wonderful just to take a few seconds or minutes to pause, allow myself to experience it and immerse myself in a sense of loving-kindness.

Northern Irish singer/songwriter Van Morrison's song, Sense of Wonder, seems to sum up the essence of awe. The link below will take you to a video of the song with images put together by an individual envisioning “myself walking along a forest path and remembering various events in my life, both big and small.”  Wonderful, I hope you have time to listen to it.

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