Aug 28 – Messengers from Beyond

August 28, 2016

Exodus 3:1-14;  Luke 1:8-20

Rev. Ginger Taylor

Sometimes the voice from beyond comes with flashing lights (as in the Moses incident), sometimes with the fragrance of burning incense (as in the case of Zachariah and Elizabeth).  According to Biblical testimony, at least, even when pyrotechnics are involved, we human creatures are still inclined to prudently resist the voice from beyond.  In the Moses incident, he wants the credentialing secret name.  In the case of Zachariah, he just cannot get into the extraordinary announcement and memorable consequences result.  Mary, you may remember, when greeted by an angel during her adolescence, “ponders these things in her heart,” she hesitates before accepting the news of the voice from beyond.

Angels are not unique to Jewish and Christian legends- they appear in Muslim literature, folk lore from diverse cultures, modern pop media too.  Angels are reported to guard you, to guide you, to companion you during life’s journey.  Sometimes they appear in quasi-human form, sometimes as animals- a raven, for instance.  Often they are portrayed as strangers- you might think of them as undocumented immigrants…Sometimes they are invisible.  Mostly they are mysterious visitors who bring an unexpected message of not entirely welcomed good news.  Freedom from enslavement for instance or the announcement of a child to a barren couple.  Maybe news that is too good to be true, so why get up your hopes again?

Given that messengers from beyond are famous for disguises, how do you distinguish the true voice from the false?  Which messages do we trust and what, pray tell, might be the criteria?

Though fanciful, angels stories provide an opportunity for discernment- what announcement shall we take to heart?  Take to be so trustworthy that we invest in it?  Zachariah was not ready to head out to Target’s to invest in a crib and stroller, that’s for sure.  He was asked to trust that something new, something beyond his past experiences, that something new would intrude into his settled domestic life.  That announcement stunned him, but not Elizabeth, apparently.

Angel stories provide an opportunity to ask:  “Is there anything new under the sun?”  “Should we invest in the announcement that a new dawn might actually bring a new day?  Angel stories also ask us to consider: Does the “act of history” as President Obama has said, ” bend towards a peace and justice and wholeness in which we are invited to participate?  Or are we wedded to “same ole, same ole”?

This is not the same as “do you believe in magic”.  Rather it is a call to an orientation, a life choice, to be open to something new under the sum and resist the urges to shut down on voices that come out of nowhere to challenge pre-conceptions.  I think of our past human assumptions about animals, for instance:  that they do not communicate (wrong);  that they do not use tools (wrong);  that they do not use logic (wrong):  that they do not experience emotions (wrong)…

When push comes to shove for me- I ask:  what will we teach our children on these accounts?  Which legends, parables, poems, fairy tales?  Which voices are narratives to live by?  Do fishes come to listen to unperturbed stones at the river bottom?  Could it be true that there is something new under the sun?

I tend to be more of a “know one when I see one” type than the kind who catalogues abstract attributes of angels.  Let me introduce you to an angel who appeared (in all places!) in the New York Times on August 7, 2016.  Maybe you read about him?  An angel in disguise (no feathery wings, no white robe).  Nevertheless, one who brings good news from beyond in the face of enslavement…whether psychological, spiritual or political…and in the face of barrenness, not restricted to childlessness.  I think this particular angel is true to type, at least Biblical typology.  He’s more the kind described to us as “you have entertained angels, unawares.”  His voice calls people out of hopelessness into expectancy.

The angel featured in the New York Times has a name- Mr. Aeham Amad- and he is a musician.  What he lacks in training, he makes up for in passion.  He comes as a stranger, a refugee from Syria, to Wiesbaden, Germany, where he brings a message from beyond, with a piano and a voice of wailing, as he performs “in a quiet German town with fairy tale spires.”  He remembers “his pulverized, starving neighborhood” from which he “embarked on a strange career by playing concerts in the rubble” of Syria.

“In a Germany deeply torn between embracing and fearing the million immigrants, who have arrived in the past year, Mr. Ahmed, 27, has set himself the task of putting a human face on his fellow refugees…The mission has become more urgent lately, after Germany was shocked by two separate attacks in which refugees linked to the Islamic State tried to kill civilians.”

“Onstage Mr. Ahmad flatters his listeners, reassures them, owns them.  He tells of his flight from bombs,, hunger and repression.  He sings of minarets and church bells calling for peace…He declares:  terrorism has no religion’ and that refugees come to build Germany, not to harm it.”  In other words, this foreign voice from beyond declares that there is something new under the sun- minarets and church bells can ring in peace.  ”Before the Syrian catastrophe Mr. Amad, a 3rd generation Palestinian refugee and a song of a blind violinist (now how promising a resume is that, I ask you?), he was a piano teacher and a music shop salesman.  Now his message of resilience (against any reasonable predictions) has made him Germany’s most popular refugee.  What he wants is (to give people) a beautiful dream.”

“Many of Mr. Ahmad’s enthusiastic helpers see aiding refugees as a part of Germany’s moral burden, atoning for it’s Nazi past.  When the local newspaper reported that he needed a piano, he was offered 30.  An illustration of that old saw about “our better angels” I’d say.  An illustration of the voice from beyond who calls for transformation of the ugly past into a goodness not within easy reach.  Mr. Ahmad confessed, “I failed to change anything in Syria, but here I might have a chance.  Echoes of the Beatles’ lyric, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

For Koinonia, a place of spiritual yearnings, existential questions appear.  Will we?  Despite evidence to the contrary, will we respond to a voice from beyond, disguise perhaps as a double refugee?  How will we invest ourselves, despite evident frailties, despite any misgivings?  How will we respond to the voice that beckons to discover something new under the sun? Will we receive good news as does Zachariah?  Or as does Elizabeth- who welcomes fruitfulness after a long barren journey.

There will be angels, Koinonia.  There will be angels.

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Aug 21- Checking Out and Checking In

August 21, 2016

Ez. 3:12-15;   Mark 10:13-16

Rev. Ginger Taylor

At the Gunnison Library on a July evening a young author, Shannon Gibney, came to read from and prompt a discussion of her book:  See No Color.  Somewhat biographic, the novel explores the wakening of Alex, a bi-racial adopted girl in a white family.  She has identity reconfigurations with which to struggle like any early adolescent – that is a main developmental task, if we dare to remember.  While this story is truly universal, particularities of racial identity, family identity pertain.

Shannon the author, surprised me when she noted (and I do believe her) that a novel is categorized as “young adult” whenever the protagonist is a youth.  I was horrified and I have struggled all month to come to terms with this literary segregation – maybe even literary exile- of young adult protagonists.  Just one problem is that adults would miss out on some fabulous literature,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Huckleberry Finn.   And adults segregated from adolescents already, will forget to appreciate the vibrancy and the poignancy, and the sheer hilarity that often characterizes youth.   Even more problematic , we adults may get stuck in our own age bracket and forget how much there is to learn from and to be inspired by adolescents in that unique stage of human transformation.

I don’t want to over sentimentalize what may be experienced as a painful period for kids and parents both.  As my husband used to say when he was a headmaster on opening day addresses to middle school parents:  “Raise your hand if you’d like to be a 7th grader again!”

On the other hand the stage of life where one’s main task is dis-identifying with past unexamined assumptions (like parental dictums) has a wildness and excitement that provide experimentation, edginess, and creativity along with some feelings of dispossession and alienation.  All of my adult life, until my husband retired from school work, I was privileged to live among teenagers.  I confess I thrived on it.  I leaned so very much; gained so much joy and wonderment.

And now I learn that in fiction categories young adult literature is supposed to be a no-go zone for, ahem, those of a certain age?  I protest!

When Jesus is remembered for his comments on children, he brings a prophetic (unsentimental) voice and reminds the gathered, admonishes the disciples, that we adults must take upon us the attitudes, the orientations of children in order to receive the blessings of a good life.  (Jesus was not talking about anything faraway, but rather about a bountiful here-and-now.)

I concur with that prophetic statement; and others that support it – i.e. when the prophet scolds his contemporaries for failing to join in with dances and music,  that they are called to reveries of life.  Or in a parabolic story of Jesus’ 13-year old self, he abandons the family caravan to (astonishingly!  assertively! even arrogantly!) teach the teachers in the temple Torah interpretations.    Then there is the unique story of the adolescent serving the bread and fish to the hungry crowds, implicitly acting as priest who handles the sacred objects and serves all these needy adults the holy meal.  Radical, huh?

We adults worry about teenagers, try to control their excesses (scary, huh?)  etc. etc.  What happened to learning from them how to access the deeper experiences of living out loud?

An article by Frank Bruni in the Sunday Times (Aug 14, 2016) entitled  To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti presented some thoughts about the experiences of Dylan Hernandez, 17, who attends a Catholic  high school in Flint, Michigan. Dylan notices,  I quote: “an awfully huge percentage of my friends, percentage of  skewing towards the affluent, are taking mission trips to Central America or Africa;  it rubs me the wrong way.”  Though he thinks his friends are well intentioned, they seem not to notice poverty (or reflect on it) unless it comes with an exotic trip.  Dylan has volunteered extensively at the Flint YMCA where he tutors.  He says that these Flint kids would love it if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.

Some of the more cynical college admissions people regard these excursions as a “bloated genre” in admissions essays, and believe that these essays are written by affluent kids of ambitious parents to pad resumes… “My concern” says one “is that students feel compelled to do these things – forced – rather than feeling that they are answering a call.”

I was elated to think that Frank Bruni was reporting on the lives of real teenagers and their situations in an article addressed to adults – hooray for him!  Hooray that editors did not segregate them into a teen magazine.   The article also acknowledged that some of these affluent teens sent off on a mission trip by arguably selfish motivations really were transformed in heart and mind.

That’s a category of adolescence  being open to transformation, which we adults may lose sight of at great peril to our souls!  Poets and prophets and novelists remind us! If only we don’t put their words on separate shelves not intended for adults.  Dang it all!

The teenage soul exercises the capacity to (as Mary Oliver says) “vanish at least a dozen times into something better.”  That is  genius offered to adults by youth if only we take notice.

If only we would “check out” of our regular, seemingly preordained duties and commitments, into the lap of imagination, we would offer ourselves to “call,” to transformation.  Of course some of are resistant to this because as adults we often prefer “the bird in the hand to the bird in the bush”  – a little wisdom proverb that is awfully true, if not very inspiring.

So here are some things to do to shift consciousness, seek transformation, open yourself to call:  Listen to children, to adolescents.  See if you can be bold enough to experiment  with your persona even re-consider your core identity – try on a child’s perspective.  Read Room in the voice of a 5 year old (don’t see the movie, it comes much more from the adult perspective.)   Read Salvage the Bones set in Mississippi just before Katrina.  You like movies?  See Beasts of the Southern Wild, where the protagonist is 6 or so.   See some Johnny Depp movies like Gilbert Grape or Edward Scissorhands, whose mother gets a new haircut every time Edward gets anxious.

I have a friend who took on the attitude of adolescence (Dianne had a head start since she taught high school and got to be up-close and incredibly impacted)  She opened herself to transformation as she faced retirement.  All those years she had done as expected, almost always a “good Lutheran girl” (though there were a few acting-out incidents but I am sworn to privacy.)   Dianne , married with 3 kids, she and her husband had been civic-minded, church going, high school teachers for decades.  True, Dianne had departed the strict teachings of Missouri Synod Lutheranism for a Congregational Church. Dianne was highly successful, had a good pension, and a community and family more than ready to see her slip into a retirement of Sunday school administration and family ministrations.

Something happened otherwise.  She had an unexpected encounter with a transforming voice; she says it was a “god-thing.”   Dianne checked out of the pre-ordained retirement expected of a truly nice, but maybe way too imaginative, rural town woman.  She checked into her own soul.  She checked in with her childhood aspirations.  She checked out of parental expectations and she checked into the poetry and music of the spheres.  She checked out of social expectations and she checked into her deepest, dearest beloved self.  She dared to share her shy sense of call to a world not prepared to affirm.  She said it over and over.  She said it loud and proud.  She was not much encouraged.

What she wanted was not practical.  It would cost time and money.  Distance herself from aging parents and husband.  She was too old.  A new career would take her out of a good settled life.  She would be disturbing the natural order.  Yep!  It’s all true and she did it!  And disruptive she has been, as disruptive as an adolescent on some sort of inspired quest.

Someday soon Dianne will be ordained as a UCC minister.  She already pastors 2 small churches and has instituted a terrific alternative religious education program for adults that includes several seminary professors.  I guess you could say she’s doings things backwards- She is acting as a minister first, getting ordained later.  I guess you could say she took on the mind of youth and entered the holy space of transformation.

Mostly I am talking about the individual journey here- but truly I hope we explore these from a perspective of a collective journey, as well.  Mainstream churches could use a big jolt of the juice of adolescence – experimentation, bold explorations, checking-out of tired concepts and forms.  Checking-in to soulful excursions that appear risky and may well be regarded as off the map…  As Koinonia re-shapes, revitalizes, reconfigures, expect surges of vitality along with any insecurities.  All of it is part of checking-out and checking-in.  Trust this time of transformation.  I trust you will vanish at least a dozen times into something better.  Better for what’s needed in this community of Grand Junction and beyond; better for the collectives of spiritual centers which are the fruits of Koinonia, better for the individuals who have not yet found Koinonia, better for those who are here now and long for soulful vitality.

This interim time, a time of disorientation, leads to a blessed re-orientation, fruitful and joyful.

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