Isaiah 11: 1-3, 6-9
Romans 12: 9-13
Matthew 19: 13-15
REFLECTIONS ON A STILL LIFE
(ON FINDING THE L KEY, A LUNCH BUCKET, THE MYTH OF SYSYPHUS, A TEQUILA COMMUNION, PADDINGTON BEAR AND RUSTIC STEPS)
Today’s sermon probably could fall under the “Self-Help” category. Which is rather ironic as I confess I’ve always been rather contemptuous of that genre.
I’ve always found it to be overly narcissistic and self-referential, thinking that there are bigger and more important issues that need to be addressed. Plus, the titles of such books are frequently too precious and corny, and if you read the books they rarely deliver on what they promise.
In fairness, some self-help books actually do have some integrity and merit, and if truth be known, they’ve been a part of our progressive theology for long, long time.
Horace Bushnell, for example for whom Bushnell Hall and Bushnell Park are named was a congregational minister up in Hartford who is sometimes referred to as the father of Christian Education. He would argue that nurture is at least as important as nature.
In the Gospel of John, it says, “we have the power to become children of God.” In other words, being a child of God is something we can work on; we’re all a “work in progress” as we say.
Likewise, John Wesley spoke of “going on to perfection”, not in the sense that any of us ever can be perfected, but given the right kind of nurture, by others and by ourselves, we can, little by little, become more like the children of God we were created to be. Wesley created a system or a method by which incrementally we could make progress toward that goal of Self-fulfillment or Soul-Realization. Thus was coined the name of that denomination, “Methodism.”
These ideas are deeply rooted in the Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophy.
One of my favorites in that tradition was an Italian philosopher by the name of Pico Della Mirandola. In his essay, “On the Dignity of Man”, he says,
Thou art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou Canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes. Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the Higher natures which are divine…
Let then a certain holy ambition invade the mind, so that we may not be content with mean things but may aspire to the highest things and strive with all our forces to attain them: For if we will to, we can…
Let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory.
I don’t know about you, but I would hate to lose that Renaissance philosophy. Given all the very noticeable failures or even the depravity of the human spirit, and God knows, we don’t have to look too far to see such evidence that would leave us totally despaired, paralyzed by hopelessness, but as for me, I’m tired of the cynicism of this age. I think we need any and all reminders of the capacities of the human spirit. We need reminders that yes, we were “fearfully made, but also wonderfully made”, that there are dimensions of the human spirit widely, even universally unexplored, that each one of does indeed have the power to become “children of God.” Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t a “method” by which we can make incremental changes, but I do believe in that philosophy. I believe that we are each one of us God’s greatest gift to the world, and if we want the world to become a better place, a good place to start is with ourselves.
The great psychologist, Robert Jay Lifton said in one of his books, “We live by images…”
I can’t claim to understand exactly what he meant by this, but for me, it’s a reminder that some of us, if not all of us, need images or pictures to remind us of our true identities. In their use of icons, I suspect that our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends know, perhaps instinctively, what this means. For me, these icons or images don’t have to be of the usual or traditional variety but anything that reminds us of where we are, who we are and what we want to become.
For each of us those images will be different, and so in this rather unusual collage or “Still Life” that I have assembled on the communion table, I offer these “Reflections on a Still Life” only in the hope that you might put together your own “Still Life.” What are the images or pictures that remind you of your own true humanity and the work and prayers that need to be done to reach that goal?
“Let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory.”
So, here we go. On finding the L Key. On the communion table and on the front cover of your bulletin, you’ll see a photograph of an Olivetti typewriter, and if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s missing the “D” key. The typewriter in this photograph is similar to one that Corinne brought over from Aberdeen, Scotland when we were married, and it was on this typewriter that I wrote most of my early sermons here in Old Lyme.
Where the “D” key was supposed to be, there was a sharp metal spike, and so I found to my bemusement, that almost unconsciously, I would avoid using that key, which meant that words like “devil” and “demonic” and “damnation” were avoided, which was fine with me as they weren’t really a part of my theology anyway, and if and when I did need to use the “D” key, sometimes, the sharp spike would draw blood. Suggestive, perhaps, of how all sermons should be written in blood!
Anyway, we long ago donated that typewriter to the White Elephant Sale. (I’m still awaiting my $2000 tax deduction!) I had long since forgotten about the challenges of that portable typewriter until this last winter when it was discovered that I have what is called Polyneuropathy which adversely affected the ulnar nerve. The outward manifestation of this was that I woke up one morning to find that the outside fingers on my right hand no longer “cooperated,” shall we say.
One of my first concerns was what impact this would have on my ability to type. (It also meant I would have to give up my hopes of becoming the next 3rd baseman for the New York Yankees.)
Now, I don’t know how many millions of times I’ve used a typewriter, but I would be hard pressed to tell you where each of the keys is, but somehow, our fingers know where they are. Of course, it’s not really the fingers, but another dimension of the mind. It’s like Stephen Curry and Lebron James and their jump shots. If you asked them the mechanics of what they do and if self-consciously they tried to show you how it works, chances are they’d miss their shots. But it’s truly a thing of beauty to watch them when they’re “in the zone”, no longer thinking about the mechanics but sinking one basket after another.
It’s sometime called “muscle memory” and I’d like to suggest that it’s at least suggestive for the Christian education of our children. I want our children to “practice the presence of God” as Brother Lawrence would say, I want them to practice acts of love and kindness such that it becomes for them like Muscle Memory for the Soul, such that regardless of what challenges they may face in life, I want them always to be able to find their way to that all important “L” key.
If you look at the keyboard, you’ll see that the “L” Key is on the far right and would ordinarily be reached by the ring finger on your right hand.
Now, missing the “D” key is one thing, but not having use of the “L key” is catastrophic for us all. Any preacher knows that one should hit that “L key” as often as possible, for of all the many words, too many words we preachers use, nothing is more important than that little word “love” – love for God, love for ourselves, love for our fellow human beings, indeed love for all Creation underscores how important that L key is.
Back in the first century, Rabbi Hillel said anything and everything that needs to be said about God and Humanity could be said and said very simply, standing on one leg – “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” That’s it. All the other creeds and laws and by-laws and theologies and systematic theologies might be helpful commentaries and footnotes, but everything that is essential can be said while standing on one leg.
Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The first time I tried to type after my surgery, I discovered something rather interesting. When I tried to use the “L” key, I looked down and saw that it wasn’t the usual finger that was doing the work, but rather, unwittingly, unconsciously or subconsciously, it was my middle finger reaching over to hit the key, as if to say, “don’t worry little buddy, I’ve got your back.”
This tells me that there are capacities to the human spirit, reservoirs of resilience and tenacity that would be good for all of us to tap. When knocked down or knocked back or knocked out by life’s vicissitudes, there’s always another way to that “L key.”
Of course, I didn’t need my fingers or a typewriter to figure this out. This is something I learned from many of you. Over the years, I have been astounded by how so many of you have found your way, quite miraculously, to the L key. Despite overwhelming personal tragedy and grief, despite the loss of your children, some debilitating illness or rejection, I have seen how time and time again, those who have suffered so much, metaphorically speaking, have “found their way to the L Key.
And in doing so, please never forget. In the love and kindness and courage you exemplify, you are the curriculum of this church. When children see your Love in all of its wonderful manifestations, that then becomes a part of their own “muscle memory” for the soul.
The next item in my Still Life is actually 3 items – a lunch bucket, a copy of Albert Camus’ book, The Myth of Sisyphus and a bottle of Tequila. I wager this may be the first time that a bottle of Tequila has been on this table.
It may be trite; it may be a truism, but it’s a truth we too often forget – that our failures can sometimes be our best teachers.
Now, when we preachers start confessing our sins, some understandably, given my profession’s propensity for such sins, automatically expect to hear a juicy Jimmy Swaggert kind of confession.
My failure was not about a wild night that started with a bottle of Tequila. Actually, my sin was far more egregious than that. If Paul Tillich is right that Sin is not any particular thing we do but more a state of being in which we’re separated from someone else, separated or alienated from God or separated from our true identities, then I am guilty of sin, to be sure.
Back when I was in college, I worked as a laborer for a construction crew in Indianapolis. My labor foreman or ramrod, as he was also called, was a Mexican American by the name of Prezzy. Perhaps because of Prezzy there were a number of other Mexican Americans as well. Whether they were legal or illegal immigrants, that was not even a question that was asked in those days.
For whatever reason, Prezzy took a liking to me, and during our half hour lunch breaks, he would take my lunch bucket and throw out my bologna sandwiches and share some of his tacos with me instead.
I would sit with Prezzy and the other Mexican Americans in an old beat up car with an 8 track playing Mariachi music full blast, and yes, every now and then, someone would pass around a bottle of tequila. It was only a half hour lunch, and it wasn’t as if anyone was trying to get drunk; no, it was more like…. More like a Tequila communion.
Well, after several weeks of this, I started bringing a book with me to work, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. And so while the rest of the crew was in Prezzy’s car eating their lunch, I sat on a pile of 2 X 4’s and read what I could of Camus’ book during those 30 minutes.
This lasted only 3 days. On the 4th day, I went to look for my lunch bucket and it wasn’t there. Only later and indirectly did I learn that my lunch bucket had been buried in a pile of freshly poured concrete.
In retrospect I smile when I think of my lunch bucket, bologna sandwich, Hostess Twinkie and The Myth of Sisyphus all entombed in concrete at a power station in Indianapolis.
But over the years, this incident has been an invaluable teacher for me. I could analyze myself ad nauseum. Maybe it was the Sunday School in which I was brought up in which I promised never to have alcohol touch my lips, a promise I had broken even long before this incident. Or maybe it was just an “innocent thing” on my part. I am to philosophy and theology as a pirate is to a treasure map. I figure that one more book, and I’ll have it all figured out. Such is my arrogance. So, maybe forget everything else, I simply loved reading that book. Then again, heaven forbid, maybe what I did was rooted in some latent or blatant form of racism…. A College kid listening to Mariachi music and sipping Tequila! I don’t think that’s what it was, but it really doesn’t matter, because that’s how it seemed to Prezzy and my Mexican American friends.
When this finally dawned on me, I couldn’t believe how stupid, and not only stupid, but also how cruel I had been.
Nothing was ever said between us, but another thing I learned in Sunday School is that there is this blessed thing called the Ministry of Reconciliation, redemption and forgiveness. So, shortly after figuring out what had happened and the Sin I committed, I invited Prezzy and all my other laborer friends over to our family’s home where I asked Prezzy to teach me how to make tacos, a recipe that we still use even to this day. And yes, as we sat around the table enjoying Prezzy’s tacos, we also passed around a bottle of Tequila… Call it a Tequila communion.
Now, we come to Paddington Bear.
Michael Bond, the author and creator of Paddington Bear, died on June 27th at the age of 91.
The first book about Paddington Bear was published in 1956, and it tells the story of a stowaway bear from Peru who arrived at Paddington Station in London. Given the number of children who became refugees after World War II, this illegal immigrant bear became identified with all those from a foreign place in need of kindness and hospitality. On every Paddington Bear, there’s a little tag that reads, “Please Look After This Bear.”
So, I’d like to offer this bear as a gift to the Sunday School children of our church in honor of all the Paddington Bears, all the refugees who have enjoyed such wonderful kindness from you and your families. Laos, Burma, Burundi, Rwanda and now most recently, Syria. “We live by images”, Robert Jay Lifton said, and I hope this bear will be a visible reminder of St. Paul’s uncompromising admonition, “Practice Hospitality.”
But also, and this is most important, Paddington Bear represents not only refugees and stowaways but also the rest of us as well, for in a deeper sense, we are all in need of someone else’s love. In reading the obituary of Michael Bond I read with interest how late on a Christmas Eve in a department store in London, he was looking for a last minute gift, a stocking stuffer for his wife. He looked up and saw a toy bear sitting all by itself on a shelf, looking rather forlorn and unwanted. So, I love how Michael Bond reached up and bought that bear, and it was out of this that he created the story of Paddington Bear.
Further, I hope this Paddington Bear will be for our children but maybe for the rest of us as well, a reminder of a spiritual truth, and that is that we are all refugees, citizens of a Far Country, citizens of a Fair Country, far distant from all the unfairness of these earthly shores. We are all as the philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “unheimlich” or not at home in this world. Or as the poet Wordsworth said and as Plato said before him,
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The Soul that rises with us, our Life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness..
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
We’re all stowaways from that sacred place. That’s our origin, and if all of us Paddington Bears would only be true to ourselves, that could be our destiny as well.
Our true home can never be with those who trumpet stars and stripes forever in ever increasing decibels. Rather our home is with another stowaway, one is also far too often left alone up on a shelf, one who quietly bears the stripes of his own persecution and crucifixion, one who refused to compromise on the principles of his citizenship in that Far Country, one who even on the cross, somehow, miraculously, found his way to the L key, saying, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
We may not know it; we may not realize it, but we are also refugees of that Far Country, dropped off at birth at Paddington Station. May Paddington Bear remind us of this Truth.
Finally, the rustic steps.
When I retired, I knew this church was in good hands when Steve elected to lead one of our Tree of Life journeys to Israel and Palestine, and not only that, he decided to bring his 9 year old daughter, Sabina, with him.
When they got home, I deeply appreciate how Steve found some rustic steps to make it possible for Sabina to bear witness to what she had heard and seen. You could see it in her eyes, a passion to share with others the injustices she had seen, the friendships she established with those from a different culture 5000 miles away and the responsibility we all have to work for justice and for peace.
As she stood in this pulpit, standing on those rickety steps, I was reminded of the image of a child in the scripture lesson from Isaiah that Lowell read this morning:
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain..
And a little child shall lead them.
“We live by images…”
As she spoke I also thought of our scripture lesson, those familiar words where Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me…”
For me, this is not only about allowing little children to come and be cuddled on Jesus’ lap. It’s also an open invitation to let them know that they are needed in the great prophetic ministry of the church –to stand with Jesus, to take a stand for all that is good and decent and true, to speak out against hate and fear wherever it appears, to be unfailing and unflinching in their efforts to speak truth to power, to stand with Jesus in defense of those who cannot stand it any longer, those in need of hope and a better future for their children.
It was as if Jesus was saying, “Allow the children to come unto me…” for I need them now, more than ever. I need their enthusiasm, I need them to stand on whatever steps or podium they can find and give voice to their dreams of a better humanity. I need their idealism, and I need their unrelenting passion.
You know, if you’re a young family and you’re looking for a church, and you’re looking for a place that will be disconnected from the world, a place where your children can grow up isolated and dissociated from this troubled world in which we live, forget about it! This is probably the wrong church for you.
For here is a place that teaches its children to be Citizens of the World. Here is a church where children go to homeless shelters in New London or New York; here is a church where children are encouraged to go to Haiti or Palestine or Cheyenne River or South Africa, and when they get back home, they’re encouraged to stand on these rustic steps and bear witness to what they have seen.
We don’t want to infantilize our children; we want to empower them. We want them to “compete with the angels in dignity and glory.”
About the time I learned of the death of Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear, I also heard the horrific story of the immigrants who died in the sizzling, suffocating heat of a truck in Texas.
I give thanks that here is a church that teaches its children to burn with righteous indignation at such reports. Here is a place where we want them to grow up to have the heat of their indignation be commensurate with the searing heat inside that truck.
Jacob needed a ladder to be assured of angels, and Noah needed an oversized boat to believe in a more promising future, but as for me, I find hope in simple rustic steps from which a child can peer out over this pulpit and offer his or her own voice of conscience. Celestial ladders and big boats cannot compare to a child on a step stool with a message that has to be heard.
May the prophetic witness of all our children lead us – as Isaiah said. May we be led by their example to hit the “L” key just as quickly and as often as we can. Amen.
The Rev. David W. Good
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut
Revelation 21:1-5 and 22:1&2
“In Difficult Times You Should Always Carry
Something Beautiful in Your Mind” (Pascal)
On a recent sweltering summer day, as I hurried out of the Big Y parking, my eye spotted the following advertisement in the form of a bumper sticker:
“Natasha’s Soul Cleansing”
As I made my way home, it dawned on me that I should have paused and taken down the details. Who is Natasha? And exactly how does she cleanse souls? I’ve been ruminating on the bumper sticker ever since. Does Natasha offer a “quick fix,” or does the process necessitate a whole series of sessions?
How does one cleanse one’s soul? It’s a worthy question for our times. For, I believe, we live in an era one could describe as an age of zerrissenheit. The German word zerrissenheit means a state of being when everything seems to be torn to pieces; Webster defines it as a time internecine strife. All around us, things seem to be falling apart. The center does not hold. Our inner spirit feels unsettled, and often anxious. If the soul can be thought of as a kind of stabilizer – an anchor – for the human spirit, then in a time of zerrissenheit we are adrift, tossed about by the chaotic forces around us.
Just this past week, The New York Times, featured these prominent stories: The drastic depletion of soil all across the middle African continent, caused by over-farming, over-population and climate change is precipitating extreme drought. Famine is the unavoidable consequence. Right now severe famine threatens more African countries than ever before in history.
There is dangerously escalating tension between our country and the rogue leader of North Korea; as well as between our country and Russia. We read about strife in Syria, and growing tensions in Venezuela and Poland. We read about the fractures and turmoil permeating our own national legislative bodies, leading us toward a kind of national paralysis. And complex allegations of corruption that swirl around our highest offices.
Now, obviously, I have no integral or personal part to play in any of those world or national struggles; but just staying abreast of the news can leave me feeling bewildered, and defeated and exhausted. Perhaps the same is true for you. So particularly in these times, I think it is imperative that we protect and guard and care for our souls.
Each one of us might have a different answer about how best to nurture and protect our souls. I return often to those words from Pascal, “In difficult times we must always carry something beautiful in our minds.” I think of that as a soul-redeeming prescription.
Rainer Maria Rilke said that in difficult times we should endeavour to stay close to one simple thing in nature. The Celtic mystic, John O’Donohue writes that “When the mind is festering with trouble or the heart torn, we can find healing among the silence of mountains or fields… or find solace in listening to the simple, steadying rhythm of waves. Stillness overtakes us. And we can then let go of the tired machinations of the ego.” How many of us suffer, in the middle of the night, from “the tired machinations of the ego?”
Rilke goes on to say, “When we go out into nature, clay is returning to clay. We are returning to participate in the stillness of the earth which first dreamed us… Solitude gradually clarifies the heart until a true tranquility is reached.” (from The Invisible Embrace of Beauty; John O’Donohue; 2004)
The thirteenth century mystic, Meister Eckhart, urges us to cultivate a style of mind that can reach through to an inner stillness and calm. “The world cannot ruffle the dignity of a soul that dwells in its own tranquility,” he says. (O’Donohue 2004: p 18)
In our scripture reading from the prophet Ezekiel, we read;
“Everything will live where the river goes…there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
There is an old wooden bench on an outcropping of ledge a few hundred yards from our back door. Out there it is entirely possible to look up at the leaves of the oaks and birches and maples, and be awed by the intricate symmetry of the patterns in their leaves. Out there it is entirely possible to imagine being clothed in the green of the forest – being swallowed up by its lush bounty. Out there it is entirely possible to be restored by sunlight and brilliant blue skies and clouds that race past in the wind. Out there it is entirely possible to be humbled by the skillful power of a red-tail hawk in flight, or soothed by the haunting song of a mourning dove at break of day. Out there it is entirely possible to drink from a solace that comes from the deepest regions of earth’s mysteries. Out there, to borrow from the words of Ezekiel, one can find oneself in a sanctuary. A sanctuary of healing and restoration.
If it were possible to strip away from the world the competition, the lust for power, and the insatiable desire for possession of territory that drives so much of our strife, do you think it we would finally come to understand and make real those words from Revelation that come so close to the end of the New Testament?
“ Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I heard the voice of God saying, “ Behold, I make all things new.”…and I saw a river of the water of life, bright as crystal… and on either side of the river was the tree of life.. and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…”
That’s a vision worthy of time spent on the old wooden bench, living inside one’s imagination and hearing over and over again the words of Proverbs: “Without a vision the people perish.”
I believe it was Ghandi who said we cannot have peace in the world, unless we have peace within our own hearts and minds and homes.
There are other ways to be healed in the womb of mother earth, to be restored in the sanctity of nature. If you are a kayaker, try floating with the current in May, when the river runs strong from the winter run-off. Journey through the meandering waterways of Selden’s Creek. Let the wild, brilliant yellow iris etch their beauty into your memory so that, as Pascal said, you can “carry something beautiful in your mind” at day’s end. Hear the osprey as they cry out to warn you to keep your distance from their young. Notice the clarity of the cold water as you float along – so clear you can see all manner of vegetation beneath you. Look for the pickerel weed with its tiny purple shaft of bloom. Commune in this sanctuary without walls.
The Greek word for “the beautiful” is to kalon. It is related to the word kalein which is included in the notion of “call.” When we experience beauty, we feel called. “The Beautiful” stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. (abridged from O’Donohue 2004: p 13)
Earth is rich in healing power. This sermon is not only a call to reach for beauty and hold it fast. But it is a call to live in reverence for the earth – to see it and understand it as a sanctuary – as the sacred work of the Creator. Mother Earth is vital. She is alive. She is beautiful beyond any description. She nourishes us from the bounty of her womb- not only with everything that we eat and drink, but also with a solace that comes from the deepest regions of her mysteries. We are privileged to be one strand in what is a wonderfully, awesomely-woven web of all creation. And I believe that what we cherish we will protect with all the strength we can muster.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, in a poem entitled “Renascence,” gives us these words:
“I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart.”
What if we really understood creation to be an emanation of God, the Creator. How then would be tread upon it? Surely with reverence, being careful not to rob from it the treasures upon which future generations will depend. Surely we would honor its beauty, and sit with reverence in its sanctuaries.
In difficult times, you should always carry something beautiful in your mind.
During these past summer months, the children of the Hamou family, the Syrian refugee family that arrived in our community last May, have been having swimming lessons in our pool. A member of Christ the King, Mike Rafferty, is their teacher. And every once in a while it’s a real treat to watch the lesson, and admire their progress. Having never had the privilege of living near the water before, they have had to overcome a certain level of raw fear.
They are doing pretty well now. But swimming does not come naturally to them, so they have to concentrate intently on Mike’s every instruction. Learning to swim seems to be serious business to them. As we stand by, we hear Mike holler, again and again, “Breathe. You’ve got to remember to breathe!”
I tell that story as a kind of metaphor. You and I do have important work to do as people who seek to be followers of the one we call Jesus – as people of conscience and compassion in a time of zerrissenheit. We’ve got to stay attentive to the news – as painful as that can be- and engage in whatever issues we believe we can influence. But immersing ourselves in the beauty of nature, spending time in the sanctuary of creation, is like Mike’s admonition to breathe while we’re working hard. Breathe. You’ve got to remember to breathe.
I’m going to leave you this morning with a poem by John O’Donohue, entitled “Bennacht.” Bennacht is a celtic word for blessing.
“Listen! a sower went out to sow,” and right here Jesus begins to recite his very first parable. Jesus used these brilliant picture stories, these extended metaphors, simple images, to explain somethingunexplainable, the Kingdom of God on earth, the way of God here and now. He used the familiar – it’s like a pearl, the biggest, most beautiful pearl you can think of. It’s like buried treasure, if you were digging in someone’s field one day and found treasure. It’s like a sower who goes out to sow seed. And yet, I don’t know about all of you, but I find most of these parables well, kind of confusing, and confuse the disciples they did, every single time he told one!
So, when the disciples were alone with Jesus they ask him – so, what’s with these stories Jesus, we don’t understand them, why are you using them? And here in this passage in Mark, Jesus explains why he speaks in parables. He states, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;12in order that – then he quotes the prophet Isaiah – ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” Oh, that explains it! Now I get it! Wait, what? Even his explanation of why he tells parables, is confusing! But what the disciples didn’t ever quite understand is that these parables were supposed to be confusing. How easy would it be if we had all the answers, if we were told just exactly what and how to believe, how to serve God, what precisely God was like and what God expects of us! These pictorial images were meant to cause us to stop and really think.
And we know that stories with vivid images work – think about the word beauty, what comes to mind? It means nothing until we think of a beautiful face or a gorgeous flower. Or the word, good. It means nothing until we think of an act of kindness or a blessing given. Now think about what Jesus was trying to describe, the Kingdom of God, the way of God. Something that they couldn’t and we can’t ever fully understand. So, he uses their experiences to open their minds in a way they could understand, but to also confuse them a bit. Why? Because we can’t ever come close with our words to describing God. So, with each story or parable Jesus told, we get merely a glimpse of wonderful mystery of God.
Listen up! A sower went out to sow seed . . . but this parable, unlike some of his others – like the wheat and the tares, the bride and the bridegroom – have you ever studied those? This parable actually seems pretty straightforward, right? These listeners were mostly farmers after all, here is a picture of what happens when people listen to God’s message, the good news of Jesus: God is the sower, God’s Word is the seed, we are the soil, so, a sower goes out to sow seed and . . .
Some seed will fall on the hard, trampled path, so as soon as the farmer leaves, the seed is either trampled on or the birds swoop down and gobble them up. These seeds are like people who hear the word of God, but don’t try to understand it, it makes no difference to them; the forces of the world, the adversary, takes away the word from their heart; so that it becomes hidden. Maybe these are a little like some scholars or maybe some radicals who know the word, can recite the word, explain all about the word, through interpretation and critique, exegesis and critical analysis, but do not absorb the word into their hearts, into their lives.
Other seed will fall on rocky ground, huge rocks which form a layer of dirt over them, appear quite good but the soil is actually so thin that the seeds sprout quickly and as soon as the hot sun hits them, they wither away. Anyone who is a gardener in the state of CT, can relate to these seeds, what is it my husband says about the CT state flower? Oh, yea, it should be called granite. Or in the case of where we live in Lyme, sand, all sand and rocks. These seeds are like people who at first hear and receive the word of God with such joy that they listen eagerly, sign up quickly, but it just doesn’t take root, it’s just fluff without the costs involved, they believe for a while, but the first time they are challenged or tested, the first time they fall on really hard times, or are offended, that’s it, they leave the faith.
Other seed will fall amid the thorns, thorns which grow with them and eventually choke them. These seeds are like people who hear the word, absorb the word for a while, start out with good intentions, attend church, volunteer, but then as they wander on their way, they are choked or distracted; tempted by all of the attractions and business of the world, or they are so taken up with worries and cares of life, duties and responsibilities, that they stop listening, stop trying to live each day as a disciple of Christ.
The best seed is the seed that falls into the good ground, the well-ploughed land where the soil is deep and the seeds take root and grow and grow, sometimes bringing forth fruit one hundred-fold! These seeds are people who have a good and honest heart, spiritual believers who are ready and eager for God’s message, they hear it, hold onto it tightly, take it in and their lives are forever changed. Who bear the fruits of the spirit, bringing forth – what our children learned in Sunday School all year – the fruits of: patience, kindness, joy, self-control, faithfulness, gentleness, love – one hundred times over.
This all makes perfect sense, right? We should all be like good soil, take in the word of God and bear fruit. Simple – I get this one! But when you really study this parable, as I have this past week, really study it, it actually doesn’t make sense at all! God is like the sower? What kind of farmer scatters seed just anywhere – not a smart one! And the word used here for sower is similar to a tenant farmer, which was not a wealthy farmer who could waste a bunch of seeds, this is a poor farmer where every seed counted. God is like this, really? God sews seeds all over the place, on terrible soil, wasteful places, where it is doomed? This is as if God is standing in BJ’s parking lot throwing seed where seagulls fly about, trucks trample through, carts run everywhere, and God expects some seeds to grow there?! And what kind of preacher is that? Who preaches the word to people who don’t listen and maybe never will. Why doesn’t God just make us all hear the word, receive the truth in our lives and force us bring forth good fruit!
Do you ever think, if I were like Jim Carey in the movie “Bruce Almighty” or George Burns in the movie “Oh God” – if I were God, if I had God’s power, I could do such a better job! Everyone would believe! I would certainly prevent us from ever going to war, there wouldn’t be any trouble with the Russians, the President would have been . . . let’s not go there . . . there would definitely be peace on earth; there certainly wouldn’t be any starving people, terrible criminals, and diseases like cancer; I know I’d have figured out a way to prevent all-natural disasters, stop tectonic plates from moving, volcanoes from erupting, tidal waves from destroying. A wise God wouldn’t just scatter seed all over the place. Or would God?
Would God, would our God who gives us free will, who gives us this planet to protect and take care of ourselves, and all who live here, who believes in us always, no matter how many times we fall short; would this God continually reach out and try to touch our poor unbelieving, wavering hearts, hoping that one day, one day something will seep in and grow, something would bring us just a bit closer to understanding this kingdom of God? Yes, our God would do that. Okay, I admit it, maybe God is better at this than I am.
Besides, anyone who knows about planting, knows that part of the process of creation, of growing, is kind of hit or miss, you must give plants freedom for each to grow in its own way, try many different methods to help things grow; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it’s always a mystery. Its why my rogue cucumber plant that just appeared in the middle of the walkway is producing the best of the crop and why suddenly all my carrots died. The fact that my husband and I can grow tremendous things in our huge boulder-filled sandy back yard is a God-given miracle!
So, I ask you, what is going on in your life that keeps the word of God from living in you, taking root and growing? Or is it? If not, how can you turn over the soil of your soul so that it will receive and nurture the word from God which can give you new life? Our lives are filled with well-trodden, overlapping and sunbaked roads like the inner terrain of this parable. There are many soils inside our spirits, places where sometimes seed is impossible to take root, when our minds are shut off and we become self-focused, where weeds of fear and doubt choke us of hopeful messages, where we become obsessed with that latest craze and wander away. There are times when we are filled with great joy at the power of the word proclaimed, commit ourselves to Christ, serve faithfully in the community, and there are times when the power of suffering, chaos, and pain causes us to fall into great disbelief, and we quickly forget that hope and grace. While our faith is full of weeds, it is also full of the possibility of new life; moments when we pull off a good harvest of God’s word. God knows this is possible and constantly turns our weakness into strength. This parable about how, God’s seeds of faith and hope are continually being sown all around us.
So, one day when my daughter was about 12 or 13 she turned to me and said, “you know mom, I don’t ever want to have kids.” I said, “well, why not?” She said, “because I’ve watched you mom and they are WAY too much work!”
Listen up; mothers and fathers! There once was a sower who went out to sow. Isn’t this explanation of God’s word, isn’t this parable, also a lot like parenting?! We scatter seed, we throw out words of wisdom, advice, and council; we teach, preach, discipline, and guide, and a lot of the time, it feels like our children and sometimes our grandchildren, just aren’t getting it. There’s a reason why there are books out there like “Yes, your teenager is crazy!” (which actually I highly recommend to any parent of a teenager, it’s very comforting).
We must admit that at times we try a bit too hard to control our children, force them to grow in the ways we want them to, only to realize we must give them freedom to grow, freedom to figure it out for themselves, to mess up, fail, gain confidence, mess up again, use their imagination, develop that crazy brain, and develop some kind of common sense. We know there are times when our words seem to fall upon a path only to be completely forgotten, gobbled up by whatever takes over their lives, usually it’s their iPhone, twitter, blog, or dance, hockey, art classes, soccer, you name it! We scatter and scatter our words – – hey, wouldn’t it just be easier to skip the three kids who just can’t seem to ever get it right and just concentrate on the one who seems to be absorbing all we are teaching, the one who seems perfect – today that is! Why do we keep trying and trying? Helping them make that volcano science project, reading the same book 10 times in one night, explaining how to do a math problem over and over again, driving them to visit 25 different colleges, why do we do it?
Because every once in a while, we wake up on Mother’s Day – or Father’s Day – and see that precious child in the doorway with that tray of soggy French toast and that beautiful card still wet with paint – and we sigh – and think we’re doing okay with this parenting thing, they get it, they appreciate us, they are growing and learning – until we go downstairs to the completely destroyed kitchen. But we had that one moment! ** Every once in a while, they turn to us and say, like my daughter did when she finished college – “I get it mom, I understand all of the sacrifices you and dad went through for me to make it.” And we smile. Until they ask if we have any money, again. But we had that one moment!!
A week ago, my daughter and I went to the play, Dear Evan Hansen. It is a musical about a high school senior with a social anxiety disorder who finds himself amid the turmoil that follows a classmate’s death. It’s extremely powerful. This young man is raised by a single mom who is always trying to help him. Scattering seeds. In the end, she sings a song called “So Big, So Small”, some of the words go like this:
“I knew there would be moments that I’d miss and I knew there would be space I couldn’t fill and I knew I’d come up short a million different ways and I did and I do and I will, but like that February day, I will take your hand, squeeze it tightly and say your mom isn’t going anywhere, your mom will stay right here.” (1) Wow – I can’t even read the words without breaking down. Sowing seeds of love.
Inside each of us and each of our children and grandchildren, are all kinds of soil. God calls us to be good soil, to simply try our best to live by God’s word, but God also knows we are busy confused people – we have businesses to run, children to raise, careers to develop, families to take care of; we live in a world where there is tremendous entertainment to distract us; and hardship and suffering all around us.
Like those first listeners, they too had serious doubts, moments of questioning, they needed assurance that God would always be with them through it all, always sowing new seeds of hope; for “was not Jesus’ sacrificial death the ultimate throwing of the seed far and wide? From the death of that one man, has not a life come forth that has changed the world? Does not the seed of that sacrifice, of that forgiveness, of that victory over the powers of sin [and death] – plant itself in the human spirit?” (2) God isn’t stingy with the seeds, God scatters them everywhere – for God’s love is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, so that we might grow in faith and love. And God will not stop sowing seeds, until the entire world, God’s entire kingdom, blooms a hundredfold.
So, in my garden there is growing the plant from the seeds of a 600 lb. Pumpkin. We shall see what grows. Listen up! There once was a sower who went out to sow seed . . . Amen.
“So Big/So Small”, from the Musical “Dear Evan Hansen”, Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Fearon, Dr. Dana, “God’s Failures and Successes”, 6/9/1996.
It is a pleasure to be here with you all this morning. As some of you know, I began my ministry here and served as an associate pastor of the church for about five years. This community has also been a part of my ongoing journey with the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. Donations from this church got our program going and financial support and volunteer hours from this congregation continue to be a vital support for our work. I am grateful to this remarkable church on so many fronts.
As I prepared for today I found myself looking back over my own history with FCCOL. My involvement here actually began 20 years ago when I first came looking for a church after moving to Lyme from New York City. I had always felt a draw to the spiritual life but was also, quite honestly, deeply conflicted about Christianity.
I had been taught since childhood that being Christian meant believing certain things about God and more specifically believing certain things about Jesus. Many of these “mandatory” beliefs were real stumbling blocks for me. In particular, I could not find a way to worship a God who required the sacrifice of a beloved son to repay some past transgression. Also high on my list of things that didn’t make sense was the idea that simply saying one accepts Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior was the key to salvation. These are just the top of a long list of problematic beliefs I had been told were critical to calling oneself a Christian.
So I came to FCCOL as an uneasy seeker. I was lucky to find a vibrant worship community but also privileged to have the chance to learn from David Good who was the senior minister when I came. To shorten the story considerably, David helped me to see that there were multiple ways of believing and introduced me to a whole new progressive theology that made so much more sense. David shared book after book with me and I read each with intensity. I came to see that there is a way of believing that made the Christian tradition persuasive.
But it has slowly become clear to me that there is a problem defining Christianity as primarily about beliefs…even if those beliefs make sense. I, and many other observers of the religious scene today, have increasingly concluded that believing (even things that made sense) has been very much overemphasized in our Protestant tradition. Beliefs matter…beliefs can be very helpful on the spiritual path but they are secondary to what for me has become the more compelling goal—a practice based spirituality.
What matters most in a practice based spirituality is not so much what we believe but what we do. Not the talk we talk but the walk we walk. Not what we think so much as how we act in the world. Not so much the clarity of our mind as the fullness of our hearts.
I don’t think this idea is actually anything new. I think we find it everywhere in scripture. Our reading today is a case in point.
The focus of the story is a man left for dead on the side of the road. The story says nothing about him and as his clothing has been stolen there is nothing to identify who he is—he could be a Jew…he could be a gentile…he could be rich or he could be poor. The only thing we know for sure is that he is hurt and in need.
Three characters come face to face with this man in need. The first two are people who believe all the right things—a priest and a Levite. They know the scriptures…they know the commandments…they know the rites…their religious beliefs are high on their priority list. And yet despite believing all the right things…despite being models of conventional religion… they choose to walk by the man on the side of the road.
Onto the scene comes a Samaritan. Jews hearing this story in the time of Jesus would be immediately on guard. Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders. To the Jews of Jesus day Samaritans worshiped idols, refused to acknowledge the temple in Jerusalem, provided refuge to lawbreakers and failed to follow the laws of Moses. And these different beliefs made them the greatest enemy of the Jews. Jews would not talk with Samaritans and Jews would add days to a journey to avoid even setting foot in Samaria.
And yet, despite believing all the wrong things about God…. the despised outsider does the right thing and cares for the man by the side of the road. His believing may have been wrong but his practice was right. Jesus makes absolutely clear to his shocked audience that what matters is how the Samaritan responded to the man in need not the Samaritan’s beliefs about God. What is most important, I hear Jesus saying, is not belief but action. The emphasis on action continues into Jesus’ instruction to the lawyer “go and do” likewise. The lawyer had come to debate theology and Jesus turns his question around into an admonition to act.
What I would like to explore a bit today is why the action of stopping for the man at the side of the road is more important than all the right beliefs and perfectly executed rituals the priest and the Levite might undertake with great devotion. Share why, I propose, it matters more what we do then what we think. Why the path to a deeper spiritual life must be grounded in a commitment to action.
I would begin by saying that Jesus does not hold up the Samaritan’s actions as a model because the Samaritan had some rules based obligation to stop. Much contemporary religion sees the spiritual life as some sort of a business deal. Good deeds get added to the plus side of the ledger and sins to the negative side. The balance in your account determines your fate in the end. In this way of thinking, the Samaritan was right to stop because of some future reward he would receive for his act. But I think this way of reading the story is too shallow.
Instead, I would propose that stopping arises not out of an obligation but is rather the natural consequence of a deep connection to the true wellspring of the spiritual life.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 [The lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10)
In the lawyer’s own summary we can see immediately the true center of the spiritual life—love. Love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. It is love to which we are instructed to give all our hearts, soul, strength and mind.
If that is true, what we need is not so much schools of theology as schools of love. And that, my friends, is what I think we have in the life, teaching, death and ongoing presence of Jesus Christ. The Jesus of history and the living Christ of the present are not objects of worship. Jesus and Christ are not something that we are expected to believe things about. Rather the Jesus of history and the Christ present today in every molecule of creation are doorways through which we are invited into the life of love…guides inviting us to learn the doing of love.
Now the love to which Christ points is something much bigger than the concept of love we often use in everyday life. Spiritual love is not mainly a feeling and it is not reserved for a few. Spiritual love is not limited by our personal preferences—the love we see in Christ will extend to people we don’t like. And the love we see in Christ has no boundaries and, at its best, encompasses all of creation. In the gospels we see this over and over as Jesus extends his love past every boundary of class, custom, geography and religious belief. We see it in the wide-open welcome Jesus offers to all including so many people who had been labeled as unworthy by the society of his day.
We see this love without limits in our story today. The man laying beaten by the side of the road was probably a Jew. If he had encountered the Samaritan in the market place he might have treated the Samaritan as an enemy. But, for the Samaritan, who is living out of the center of love, these barriers, and even personal preferences, mean nothing. In the ordinary way of loving we can have a small circle of “loved one” and leave everyone else on the outside. In the Christ like way of loving, everyone and every aspect of creation is within our circle of care. For the Samaritan, the beaten man was naturally within his circle of care. This is what love does.
In our common way of thinking, love can have a strong self-serving element. We often value love because it lets us feel better about ourselves. This kind of love is a bargain, I give to you and you give to me. When that bargain no longer works in our favor, we move on. But the love of Christ is completely other focused. The objective of spirit filled love is the well-being of the other. The goal of spirit filled love is to act in ways that bring wholeness and life to others. This doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit from this kind of love but our own needs are not the focus.
In the gospels we see this over and over. The action of Jesus is building up…making whole…bringing new life. He does this reengaging the excluded—the lepers, the poor, the sick, the outcast–back into the community that can give them life. He does this by healing the sick in mind, body or spirit wherever he goes. He bringing back together what is broken. The way of Jesus is the way of self-giving so that others may have life. As John has Jesus say in one of my favorite passages in scripture, “I came that they might have life and have it in abundance”.
We see this in our story today. While the story is short, the most words are devoted to detailing the acts of healing: the Samaritan poured wine and oil on the man’s wounds, he bandaged them, put the man on his horse, took him to an inn, invested what was needed to secure the man’s care and returns after a few days to be sure all is well. The Samaritan does not simply stopping the bleeding…does not just get the man to a safe place and leave. This is over the top selfless care for another…relentless rebuilding what is broken. This is what love does.
In our common way of thinking, love is a feeling we have…something that can live in your mind…that can be stored up as intention without action. We can imagine, for example, that it is possible to love the earth and yet do nothing to preserve and protect it. But when you look deeply I think it is clear that by its very nature love is something you do. Love is most deeply an action…a verb not a noun…not something you have and hold but something that you share and give away. Love is one of the few things that you create more of by giving it away.
In our story today there is just one clue to the Samaritan’s emotions. He felt pity. But notice that this was not a static emotion rather the story says he was “moved” by pity. The feeling of connection to the stranger by the side of the road moved him to action. This is what love does.
So if this kind of expansive love is the goal of the spiritual life…then the spiritual life must be about doing love. By its very nature a faith that is pursuing love must, therefore, be focused on practice…must be nurturing the heart as much as the head…must be continually manifest in actions that advance the ways of life for all of creation. Such a faith has room for beliefs for mind and heart are tied together. But such a faith keeps a keen focus for the tangible fruits that emerge from any set of beliefs.
Living this kind of faith committed to the doing of Christ like love is a challenge in a world filled with divisions…a world where watching out for number one is almost a mantra…a world that presses hard upon us with so many demands.
But I am increasingly convinced that doing the work of love is the deepest calling and expression of the spiritual life. I do not mean to minimize the challenges. We face the reality that thousand or even millions lay beaten and dying on the side of our modern road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Not only our neighbors but the very plant we inhabit has been beset by bandits of many types leaving so many and so much of creation around us half dead by the side of the road. It is a very real and very difficult task to figure out the specific work of love any one of us is called to undertake at any particular time.
It is easy to be overwhelmed. But if we go back to the nature of love we will find support. I have recently been very moved by the work of the Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr. I cannot do justice to even a few of his insights today but I want to try to share one part of the path he lays out. Essentially for Fr. Rohr (and many others) we can love as Christ loved only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be fed by the immense, unlimited, unconditional love that is the foundation of the universe. Father Rohr has reimagined the doctrine of the trinity to help us with this.
We all have a surface knowledge of the teaching that God is mysteriously one while also being three: what we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Father Rohr this paradoxical teaching proposes the radical idea that that at the very heart of God is relationship. God can only be one by being in relationship. And what is true of God Father Rohr says is true of everything that God created. The universe…our lives…the natural systems we live in are all defined not mainly by parts but by the relationship between those parts.
And the energy that creates these relationships…that makes the many one… that provides the energy that gives life, is love. A mysterious, self-giving, whole making, life giving, unlimited, unconditional love is continually moving…acting…flowing between the various manifestations of the holy. Love is, for Father Rohr, always on the move and always doing the work of whole making.
In an image I just love, he describes this triune God as like a waterwheel. Love spills from the Father into the Son and from the Son into the Spirit and from the Spirit back into the father. There is a very famous icon of the Trinity called the Rublev icon. It shows three figures sitting around a table of welcome. In large part their features are exactly the same and yet small details indicate that one is the Father, one the Christ and one the Holy Spirit. Their gestures and their gaze create the feeling of circulating love. Unique and yet one. Distinct and yet bound together in an endless flow of love.
And in the icon there is also clearly a fourth seat at this table of welcome. That seat is intended to draw each one of us into this flow of love. Everyone, the icon implies, is invited to be part of this flow of love…receiving and passing on…receiving and passing on…receiving and passing on. I think the point is that we can do the work of love only if we are open to being filled by the love coursing through the universe. There is no need to earn this love—it is universally available. There are no requirements and no limits to this love—it is always flowing freely. Nothing can stop this flow of love. And yet this love is offered as invitation not mandate. Love does not impose itself on the unwilling but stands ready to enter any willing heart.
So how can we “go and do likewise” as we walk a road littered with victims? You may be surprised to hear me say that I think the process actually starts with a kind of believing. We need to dare to believe that God is love…that the love of Christ is planted deep in every heart…. that we are endlessly invited to drink from the waterwheel of love…that love never ends….that we are created to love. This act of imagination and the desire to welcome this love opens the door to recognizing the presence of God as love that surrounds us and lives within us in every moment. And as we know love we will be able to do love. We may know and do in small incremental steps but once we have primed the waterwheel the process has started.
For each of us that doing of love will look different. This is not a contest and it is not a race. What we can do today may be quite different than what we can do tomorrow. But whatever doing we are called to it will carry the marks of love—it will bring life to ourselves and to others, it will have the marks of peace…it will build up and it will serve.
The roadside is crowded with the wounded. But the powerful flow of love that cascades through the universe provides more than sufficient energy for the work of healing. Our task is to open our minds and hearts to that love letting it flow through us as acts of love that bring life.
First Congregational Church in New London
In my usual fashion, I will begin this morning with a story from Haiti. For those of you visiting today, my husband, Ted, and I founded a scholarship granting organization in Haiti 13 years ago. We began with 32 high school students and today offer scholarships to over 400 students from kindergarten to university bachelor degree study. In January, we opened our new Education Center that supports education in the region through tutoring, teacher assistance programs, literacy courses for adults and many other special educational programs. The Center also offers a permanent base for our work in Haiti and houses our 16 staff members and tutors.
With my backpack full and my day planned, I set out on foot from the hotel where we stay to the new Education Center, about one mile away. It was a Monday morning, and we had opened the Center the day before with a grand celebration. I had a work team meeting me, and we were going to tidy up after the big party and start to organize the new offices. I walked out of the driveway unto the busy corridor, where motorcycles and trucks, filled with travelers and supplies, travel much to fast alongside the people on donkeys and those traveling on foot. But that is where I saw her. A little girl in rags, alone, who looked to be the size of a four-year old was struggling with a very large and heavy container of water on her head. She took a few steps, staggered a bit under the weight, and put it down, waited, and went through the process again. Concerned about her safety on this busy corridor, I rushed to meet her. Now most children are afraid of ‘blancs,’ especially those who live in remote areas. But when I approached her, she gave me the biggest, sweetest smile that grabbed my heart in an instant. I observed her big hard belly protruding like a pregnant woman’s and I noticed her hair was turning red, both telltales of malnutrition. “Ki kote ou rete?” (Where do you live?), I asked. She mumbled something that I couldn’t understand, so I picked up her water jug, took her by the hand and we walked down the corridor together in the opposite direction from where I was going.
Seeing her alone on the corridor at her tender age was disturbing. Most Haitian parents are good parents; they may not be able to provide enough food for their children, or be able to send them to school, but most children are protected from dangerous situations such as this one. This little girl should not have been on this treacherous street alone with the task of carrying the families water for the day. I felt angry. In the 18 years that I have been traveling to Haiti, I have only become involved in the care of a child twice, because I understand that Haitian family life and their cultural norms are very different than in the U.S., and I do my best to not interfere, but here was another case where I couldn’t stand by.
After a short walk, we came to a house in a terrible state. Half of the house had fallen down and was in a rubble heap, and the other half looked as if it would meet the same demise in the near future, yet here is where she lived. There was a young woman about 16 years of age and a man about 45 years old sitting on the remains of the front steps. They were very surprised to see me with this little girl. In my best Kreyol, I asked if she lived here, and they confirmed that she did. I followed with a statement on her need to be protected, and that she shouldn’t be on the corridor alone. The man answered, ‘She has no mama and no papa; they are dead.’ I told him I was sorry, but now she is in his care and he is responsible for her. He repeated, ‘She has no mama and papa; they are dead.’ I replied, “But she is hungry and needs food,” and he answered, “We are hungry too.” I learned that he is her uncle and the teen-aged girl is his daughter. Throughout our brief conversation, the little girl never once let go of my hand. I asked her her name, and she answered, “Remmie,” and I learned that she was 5 years old. Curious, I asked her what she had to eat that day. She answered, ‘water.’ My heart was breaking. I gave the uncle $50, and told him to buy some food for his family, and that I would return later to check on Remmie. She clung to me and didn’t want me to leave. It was hard to go, but I promised I would return.
As I walked toward our Center, I saw a neighbor who had seen me with the girl, he confirmed the little girl’s parents were dead, and she came down from the mountains to live with her uncle about 6 months ago, and he didn’t want her. The neighbor thought she was in training to be a restovek and that is why she was made to fetch the daily water. I asked him what can done to help this situation? He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘This is the Haitian life.’
A restovek is a child in Haiti who is sent by family members to work as a domestic servant in exchange for room and board, because the family lacks the resources to provide for the child. Oftentimes, the child comes from the rural areas in Haiti and moves to a city with a family with some means to provide care. Yet the reality is that many of these children are at grave risk for physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They rarely receive any education. The Haitian culture tolerates this system, because they see it as a way for the child to survive, yet the international community defines the system as modern-day slavery and child trafficking. I read that over 400,000 Haitian children work as restoveks in Haiti today and some are here in the United States as well.
With all this on my mind, I tried to work the rest of the day, but I caught myself feeling sick over Remmie. My heart was breaking, “What should I do?” I continually asked myself. I was leaving in 3 days, and I couldn’t take her home with me, and it was clear the uncle and his daughter did not want her and could not provide for her. Later that afternoon, I returned to Remmie’s house. Before she saw me, I watched her sitting on a pile of rubble, and she was holding a pair of pretty, black sandals, wiping them with her rag of a dress. The sandals looked too small for her, but it was clear she loved them and tried to keep them clean. I saw nothing else for her to play with. I called her name, she looked up and ran to me and hugged me. It was as if she was begging me to take her. I asked the uncle and he agreed that I could take her to the hotel with me for a few hours.
Kettelie Petit Loute, is one of our staff members who runs the primary scholarship program. You may remember when she visited our church several years ago. I told her about Remmie earlier in the day, and she joined us at the hotel to meet the little girl. She brought with her some books, a coloring book and crayons for her. While Remmie was coloring, perhaps for the first time, I tried to feed her some mashed mango, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t eat it. She just drank water. I know with malnutrition, eating becomes painful after a while. Kettelie and I talked about her situation, and we agreed to put her in our scholarship program, so at least she would receive an education, and we could keep track of her as well. I was glad about this, but it wasn’t enough, and it was hard to return Remmie with her books and crayons to her uncle.
The next few days, I continued my visits. My heart was breaking, and I was having trouble sleeping at night. I thought to myself, this is the danger of getting involved in Haitian family life – because what can you do to help? There is no social service agency, there is no one to help with these sorts of cases. Everyone is struggling to provide for their own families and cannot take on another mouth to feed. Food insecurity is so great. Everywhere you look there is someone who needs your help. It is very easy to get overwhelmed with the constant need.
Ted and I try to focus on our work in education, and when asked daily for money, we say that we cannot help them because all our resources are going toward our scholarship program. I justify this statement in my mind by the knowledge that we cannot possibly help everyone, and that is true. Naturally, we are very kind and friendly and listen to their request, but we simply do not help unless we see it as an emergency. Sometimes I feel ashamed of myself, as I walk by someone that I could have helped, that probably needed it, and I had money in my bag.
I am sure you have had moments like these too, for example when you are in the city and you walk by a homeless person asking for help. How do we as Christians justify walking away from a needy person knowing in our hearts Jesus’ parable of the ‘least of these’: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you? Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” That parable haunts me in Haiti.
But when I saw Remmie alone on the busy corridor. I didn’t hesitate, I immediately knew I should help. To not help in her case, truly felt wrong to me. And when she smiled at me, a total stranger, there was something in that smile and in her eyes that felt familiar, leaving me with no choice but to get involved. Perhaps it is because I have a 5-year old granddaughter, and I couldn’t bare to think of her living in this condition, or maybe it was the way my heart felt and a strong intuition that felt as if God was telling me to do something for her. I am not sure, but I heeded it.
The day before we returned to the U.S., I saw Kettelie at the office. I once again shared my concern for Remmie. I couldn’t bare the idea of leaving her in that terrible living condition, and I truly feared for her life. And then God answered my prayers. Kettelie told me that she had talked with her husband Hugue, and they agreed they would take Remmie to live with them. I couldn’t believe me ears, I burst in to tears and hugged her and thanked her and hugged her again, because I know Kettelie and Hugue are wonderfully kind people and would take very good care of Remmie and love her as she needs to be loved. “Can you legally do that?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied,“ if the uncle agrees.” It is that easy in Haiti to move a child permanently to another family. Kettelie has one daughter who is 12 years old, and she said “Bithja has always wanted a little sister, and I am not able to have more children. Remmie will be a blessing to our family.” I was overjoyed with hope and happiness and incredibly relieved.
That afternoon, without Remmie knowing the plan, I said goodbye to her, and Ted and I returned to the U.S. During the next few days, I waited with nervousness for the news. Finally, Kettelie shared with me that she visited the uncle and he agreed to the plan. Remmie was now with them and adjusting to her new situation. Within a week, Remmie was calling Hugue and Kettelie, “mamma and papa.” Kettelie took her to the hospital for an examination. Remmie was suffering from malnutrition, pneumonia, and worms. She was put on medicine, vitamins, and a special diet to reacquaint her with food. She was also given pain pills to help her eat. Kettelie bought her new clothes, and she entered the kindergarten class in Ecole Flamboyant, where Kettelie is the principal. Through the months that followed, I watched through “WhatsAp” a little girl slowly return to better health. And I learned that Kettelie and Hugue have begun to officially adopt Remmie as their own daughter.
During our last two trips in April and this past June, I have seen Remmie, and we spend time together. She is very affectionate to me, and I am called her grann. I will always have a special place in my heart for this little girl and give thanks to God every day for Kettelie’s generous response to Remmie. I feel as if God truly participated in changing Remmie’s life.
The experience of Remmie has caused me to struggle more with the needs of the people, especially involving children. How do we know who to help and who to walk away from? There are several on my mind that I still regret not helping. Their little faces haunt me.
My first thought is that we must follow our heart and trust our intuition, having faith that God will guide our actions, as long as they are based on pure love and kindness. What follows may not turn out as you hoped, but at least you were true to yourself and were guided by faith. The second thought is that our actions must never be self-motivated, but purely for the good of another. It is a great feeling to help a person in need, we all know that, but we always must be sure that the help we give is the help that is truly needed by the other. For example, there are many people on the streets who ask for money for food, yet their intent may be to buy drugs or alcohol. In a case such as this, it is not in their best interest to give them the money, but you could buy them a sandwich, or make-a-donation to an organization that supports the homeless or those who are addicted. The same is true in Haiti, Ted and I generally do not give money, but if the request is for medical care, for example, and we want to help, we will pay the medical bill directly to the hospital, if it is to help with a child’s education, who is not in our program, we give the money to our staff to pay directly to the school. It is in everyone’s best interest to have truth, love and faith be the guiding principles of our giving.
Children are especially vulnerable in Haiti and all over the world in places of poverty, war, occupations, and inner-city violence, and we all need to strive to support organizations that protect and care for these little ones. The Gospel writers portray Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd,’ one who dearly loves and cares for children, calling them to him. I think we all feel a special call to care for these little ones and it is particularly hard to bear when we witness their suffering.
As we become more deeply involved in the fabric of Haitian life, it is a challenge to live our lives as faithful Christians with the Bible in one hand and our work in the other. For me, I am comforted with the faith that God is with me always, and I know in my heart that God supports our work and knows my every thought, struggle, and deed. Even though at times, I doubt my actions, and know I am not perfect, God stands by to guide me through it all, just as God guides you throughout your lives. I felt this so strongly after Kettelie agreed to receive Remmie in her family. It was a prayer directly answered with the very best solution for everyone. As I hugged Kettelie in gratitude and immense relief for receiving Remmie, I felt as if I was hugging the Good Shepherd too – the Good Shepherd, who had found one of his little lost sheep and brought her home. Amen
Our 2017 Stewardship Campaign is called “Investing in Our Church’s Life-Changing Mission” and, as part of the new campaign, we’re inviting members both old and new to “step up.” Our stewardship fund accounts for more than 4/5ths of our annual budget, supporting the vital ministries that engage and challenge us, lift our spirits and sometimes even change our lives. We welcome – and are grateful for – any and all donations.