Mustard Seeds Matter

mustard seeds--11-9-2017 blog

 

There is a legend about a traveler making his way to a large city.  One night he meets two other travelers along the road–Fear and Plague.

Plague explains to the traveler that, once they arrived, they are expected to kill 10,000 people in the city.  The traveler asks Plague if Plague would do all the killing.  “Oh no,” Plague responded.  “I shall kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”

Fear, whether real or imagined, can discourage us, overwhelm us, and strangle us.  Fear is widespread ranging from fear of failure to fear of war and terrorists.

***

The disciples of Jesus experienced many of these same feelings.  In Luke 17:5-10, we read of their beseeching Jesus to increase their faith. Perhaps this is a cry or prayer you may have said at one time or another, “Lord–increase our faith!  Help us believe enough so that we can do what it is that you have commanded us to do–help us to trust enough so that we can live as you say we should be living.  Lord, take away our fear!”

How does Jesus respond to their pleas?  Does he lay his hands on them and pray and give them more faith as they asked?  Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of the Holy Spirit?  No–instead, he says to them: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry, ‘be uprooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I imagine the disciples looking at one another with the unspoken question: Do you know what Jesus is talking about?

***

I think Jesus’ odd response to the disciples can be explained through the concept of “the butterfly effect.” The notion in chaos theory is that no matter how complex a system is the slightest change in initial conditions can have far-reaching effects, changing a system dynamically.  Edward Lorenz first observed and proposed this theory back in the 1960s when he was running computer models of weather measurements. When he entered even the slightest difference in the initial number in his equations, the resulting outcomes were dramatically changed.  His paper submitted for a scientific talk he gave in 1992 was titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

***

Might there be something in the butterfly effect that Jesus is trying to tell us?  Possibly that even the smallest intention and action toward following Jesus, toward doing the good, the smallest glimpses of that holiness and wholeness in the midst of our fear and brokenness can help bring the kingdom of God into being?

***

In the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom, an African-American, is wrongly accused of assaulting a white teenage girl and he is held in the town jail.  A group of white men approach the jail with the intention to lynch and kill Tom.  On the front steps sits Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, the moral center of the novel. Atticus’ daughter, Scout, runs to Atticus’ side and she watches the men. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds the right words that become a kind of mustard seed.

Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, “Hey Mister Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy ‘hey’ for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then Cunningham responds to Scout: “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey,’ little lady,” and he turns to leave. With Cunningham’s departure, the rest of the mob begins to break up and leave.

Scout offered a small, gentle reminder of God’s goodness.  And what she said was a mustard seed–nothing courageous and noble– because she saw Mr. Cunningham’s humanity and touched that humanity enough to bring him out of his irrational inhumanity. It was a “butterfly effect,” a tiny mustard seed that changed the events of that night.

***

I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy ….”

***

In this world where doubt, hatred, and despair reign so supreme, it seems almost impossible that such small seeds of faith, love, and hope have much chance of surviving.  No wonder we cry out with the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Remember:The slightest change in initial conditions—no matter how complex–can have far-reaching effects.”  Mustard seeds matter.

Prayer of the Week

Praying Hands--blog--11-2-2017

 

 

(We prayed the following prayer and words of assurance on Sunday and the words resonated with me. I thought I would share them with you!)

 

Prayer of Confession

Happy are those who turn away from the counsel of the wicked.

But oh, that counsel can be so seductive

it draws us in,

holds us fast,

distracts our priorities,

obstructs our capacity to love.

 

But we seek no obstructions, we reject wicked counsel.

We embrace God’s embrace.

 

For whatever ways we don’t, we confess.

In whichever ways we sin, we repent.

 

Hear our prayers, O God, as before you, we seek wholeness.

Silence

God of mercy, grace, reconciliation and goodness:

We are sorry for so much—

For words we cannot bear to say,

For memories we cannot bear to relive,

For thoughts we cannot bear to admit.

But you know our hearts.

Relieve us of our burdens,

Bind our hearts not to the unbearable but rather, to you.

So that, in all ways,

We may live in the joy of your salvation

And the delight of your loving embrace.

 

Words of Assurance:

Praise be to God, our sins are forgiven.

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

 

–Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ; Rev. Kaji S. Dousa

Telling the Truth

couple walking on street

My fiancé and I were walking in the early evening to the grocery store near the seminary where we lived. I had been worrying about this moment for days—really, for weeks and months. Our wedding day was four months away and I had yet to tell him about the extent of my personal debts. And I knew I had to tell him even though I was terrified and deeply ashamed about my disastrous finances.

As we held hands walking across the street, I took a deep breath and prayed for courage.

“Love, I need to tell you that I have a lot debt,” and the words began to pour out. “I owe back taxes, thousands still on an old student loan, and I owe my parents thousands of dollars.”

I began to cry as he walked alongside me in silence.

“Okaay,” he finally responded. “We’re still getting married.”

As we entered the store, we physically separated as I needed to be away from him as the feelings of shame washed over me. I also felt vulnerable standing in the harsh light of the store—I could see him and he could see me—and I felt exposed, wanting to hide. I could not, at that moment, see how courageous I was in finally telling my fiancé my deep, shameful secret.

We purchased our groceries, walked home, each of absorbed in our own thoughts. Finally, he said to me, “Either you have the best timing or the worst timing, telling me this as we walked in the dark to the store.”

I said, “I didn’t want to see your face when I told you.”

“Well, I’m glad you did and we will work though this,” he said.

Within a few weeks after telling my truth I received a check for a significant amount of money, my apartment rent was reduced, and we received many financial gifts for our wedding. Shortly after our wedding I began a job that enabled me to pay my back taxes and student loan. Most importantly, my parents forgave my debts, for their own reasons that they never shared with me. Nearly twenty-two years later, the only debt we carry is our mortgage.

Of course, this is not to imply that telling the truth will solve all of our problems but bringing secrets out of the poisonous muck into God’s healing light and love begins the healing. I believe, our problems begin to resolve as our healing deepens.

As I look back now, I see that telling my truth began to set me free from the shame and bondage of my debts.

I pronounce you wife and husband

Mike and Sarah (1)

 

Earlier this month I officiated the wedding of our eldest nephew on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I was honored they asked me to join them and I am grateful for their trust. As I reflected on the wedding this blessing emerged (unfortunately too late to use in the ceremony!).

Wedding Blessing (for Mike and Sarah)

  • *May you be silly and playful together;
  • *May laughter be the soundtrack of your home;
  • *May you delight in each other;
  • *May you be one another’s best cheerleaders;
  • *May you be kind to one another; (Always practice kindness)
  • *May you listen deeply to each other;
  • *May disagreements and arguments be resolved equitably and fairly;
  • *May you resist score-keeping between you;
  • *May you release slights and grudges;
  • *May you remember that you hold each other’s hearts;
  • *May you be patient with yourselves;
  • *May your love be strong and flexible;
  • *May you be brave and bold as you forge this new life together!

–With love, Aunt June

(Photo by Dennis Driedger)

I light a candle for …

candles-64177__340

 

I light a candle for my brother-in-law’s colleague who was shot in Las Vegas.

I light a candle for that kindergarten class who was told she wouldn’t be returning.

I light a candle for the families planning funerals and memorial services.

I light a candle for the medical responders who bear witness to the power of a bullet to damage human flesh and tissue.

I light a candle for the people of Puerto Rico recovering from natural devastation.

I light a candle for the families still waiting to connect with other family members in the Caribbean.

I light a candle for the people of Houston making new plans, meeting with insurance agents, clearing out destroyed homes and rotted furniture.

I light a candle for those family members who cycle back into grief, pain, and despair with each shooting massacre.

I light a candle for ….

Into the desert

joshua-tree-national-park-74399__340

I park my car on the roadside in the national park of Joshua Tree, California. I’ve spotted a big rock that is close enough to the road that I can see who is coming and but the rockis big enough to offer me some privacy.

I’ve come to the desert as another step toward moving from Los Angeles, California to Elkhart, Indiana to attend seminary at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I know attending seminary is God’s invitation, God’s calling, but I am reluctant to move from the city I love, from my home church, from my family, and from childhood friends. I have come to the desert to grieve and to release my Los Angeles life to God.

My decision to go to Joshua Tree National Park is an intuitive one, or perhaps a response to God’s nudge to go a place where I can experience God deeply, to follow Jesus’ example of going to a wilderness place to pray. My drive to Joshua Tree becomes a pilgrimage via concrete highways and my car. I drive in silence, preparing my heart and mind for the day.

After I park I settle on the dirt with my back resting on the large rock with my backpack beside me. I retrieve my journal, multicolored pens and pencils, a small box of matches, and a full water bottle. I begin to write all that I will miss when I move: the San Gabriel mountains, the Pacific ocean, the Pasadena Mennonite congregation, etc. I write and write and begin to cry. I want to yield myself to God’s call but surrendering is hard.

As I continue to write I begin to pray aloud, offering each line and image to God. Occasionally I sit in silence with my upright open palms resting on my knees—it is a position of release, of offering my life—again—to God.

After a while I walk around, gazing at the desert land and the expansive sky. My heart feels clear—not blank or empty—but clear from my intense prayer time. I am grateful for the deep silence of the desert.  In the book, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Christine Valters Paintner, writes: “The desert is a place of deep encounter, not a place of superficial escape. It is a place that strips you down to the essentials, forcing you to let go of all the securities you cling to in life ….”

I return to “my” rock and continue to pray: “I breathe in your love; I breathe out my fear.” Again I sit in silence in a position of yielding. As this prayer subsides, I return to what I wrote earlier and tear the pages out then dig a hole in the dirt with my hands. I continue to tear my paper until it is in small pieces then I place it into the hole and set it on fire as an additional gesture of relinquishing my Los Angeles life. As the fire subsides I pour water over the ashes and cover them with the dirt, tamping it down with my hands. I stand and offer another prayer: “I give myself to you, O God.”

Alan Jones wrote in Soul Making:

A desert of the spirit: a place of silence, waiting, and temptation. It is also the place of revelation, conversion, and transformation…It involves being “made over,” being made new, being “born again.” The desert, then, is a place of revelation and revolution. In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.

My experience in the Joshua Tree desert is a time of revelation, conversion, and transformation for me. As I relinquish the life I love to God, I understand that I love God more and am born again, again. I exit the desert experiencing a transformation—from grieving the significant transition of moving to anticipating the transition and what I would experience in my new life at seminary. I drive home in silence, absorbing this transformation.

Dangerous Readers

Dangerous Readers-A

 

My sister-in-law, a kindergarten teacher for more than twenty years, posted a photo on Facebook of three of her students engrossed in reading books. She wrote: “This makes my heart so happy.”

And there they were, the small chairs pushed against the wall, their feet on the ground, but their faces obscured by large books such as, Hop on Pop and Bunny’s Noisy Book.  Three girls all engrossed in reading. Young girls who read become women who read, and women who read are considered “dangerous” by some.

***

I couldn’t wait to learn to read.  A few weeks before I began kindergarten family friends visited our home after church. The older son, a few years older than me, was studying the Sunday comics. He had them spread open on the floor, while he lay on his stomach, chin resting on his hands, and one foot propped onto his other foot. I watched him reading those comics and it’s my earliest memory of envy. I was so jealous that he could read when I could not.

***

In her forward to the book, Women Who Read Are Dangerous, writer Karen Joy Fowler writes:

In 1523 the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives proposed careful male surveillance. ‘The woman ought not to follow her own judgment,’ he said, as she had so little of it. She should read only what men deemed proper and wholesome. He marveled that any father, any husband, would allow his daughter, his wife to read freely.

***

I grew up in a household of books, and my parents encouraged my reading by taking regular trips to the local public library where I checked out stacks of books.  My obsession for reading began early.

In third grade, my teacher read The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But she only read a few pages a day which was way too slow for me—I had to know how the story would unfold!  So I checked the books out from the library and hurriedly finished read them ahead of the class. When my teacher read the books, I then savored the stories like I was visiting with old friends.

And, as an early indicator of my future reading habits, when my teacher read a book that was part of a series, I had to read all the books in the series, whether my teacher was going to or not. I convinced my grandmother to take me to her local public library to see if they had a copy of Farmer Boy (from The Little House series) because my library didn’t have a copy. Fortunately, the library did have a copy and she borrowed it for me.

***

Fowler continued in the forward, with irony:

Women are too literal-minded for reading. Women are too sentimental, too empathetic, too distractable for reading. Women are passive, practically somnolent, consumers of popular culture, never realizing how, with the very books they choose, they participate in their own subordination.

Reading did lead me to challenge my subordination—perhaps as far back as the summer between grade 4 and 5. My other grandmother found a large box of Nancy Drew mystery novels and bought them for me which I promptly plunged into. And from that box of books I learned that a young woman could be smart, observant, a problem-solver, and the leader of her group of friends. Subconsciously Nancy Drew became a role model for me, distinct from the description of Christian womanhood I heard at church. My resistance against my own subordination took root because of Nancy Drew, girl detective.

***

Recently, a friend posted about a mother disciplining her daughter for misbehaving in class. The mother’s response to her daughter: “When we get home you’re gonna be sent to your room where the only thing you can do is read.” Many of us despaired that this mother was teaching her daughter that reading was a form of punishment. But my hope is this young girl learns the gift of being sent to one’s room to read. Perhaps, then, this girl could learn to love reading and become a dangerous adult woman who reads.