March/April Issue

Thursday
Apr032014

Hope

It’s a random memory really, happening sometime in early January of 1989 while visiting my maternal grandparents. I was thirteen years old. After saying hello to grandpa and removing my shoes at the front door, my mom and brother still fiddling with their own, I was the first to walk into the kitchen and greeted my grandmother. She was at the stove putting the kettle on to boil for tea.
“Tommy,” (because everyone who knew me before college called me and still call me that) “did you hear Emperor Hirohito died?”

“Yes, I did.” I replied.
And then the rest of the family entered followed by commotion and what not, that the Monarch’s passing did not come up again during our time together.
I’ve often wondered about that abbreviated conversation. Why did she ask? What did she mean? Was it simply chatting about current events or was there more? Why didn’t the subject come up again? Was my grandmother processing with me something about his passing? I never brought it up again or asked her about it.
Emperor Hirohito, more commonly Emperor Shōwa to Japanese, was born in 1901 and succeeded his father and became Emperor of Japan on Christmas Day, 1926. He inherited an empire undergoing significant economic and military expansion and quickly becoming a world power. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, by 1937 was at war with China, and in 1940 was allied with Germany and Italy. On December 8, 1941 in Japan, (and December 7th in Hawaii) Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. Following World War II, the emperor was not prosecuted for war crimes as many other government officials were. The Empire of Japan officially ended however, with the implementation of the Constitution of Japan on May 3, 1947 in which the emperor retains a ceremonial role as the head of state, but as it is not a constitutional monarchy, the emperor possesses no reserve power. The emperor of Japan has long been associated with the Shinto religion. He is considered a direct descendant of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, goddess of the universe. Her name means shining in heaven. As such, historically, the emperor carried a divine association. The Japanese name for Japan is Nippon and Nihon which mean "the sun's origin and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun.
My grandmother, Hisae Clisby, née Ihara, was born the daughter of Hitoshi and Kiyoko Ihara, on April 11, 1931, in Shimonoseki City, Yamaguchi, Japan. She grew up in a small village in a very much working class family southwest of Hiroshima in Imperial Japan. By the end of 1941 Japan was at war with the United States. She was 14 when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945 near the end of the war. She spoke very little of that time period, except to say that the entire countryside was on fire. She and her family survived and took all of their few valuables to a nearby river. My grandfather, Harry L. Clisby, served in the Army during the Korea War. While on furlough in Japan he met my grandmother. They married on Dec. 17, 1952 and moved to the States and were married for 57 years until Harry’s passing. She was an army bride who quickly became an American, learning a new language, a new culture, a new way of life.
To be fair, the post war years were that way for many. The whole world was learning a new culture and a new way of life. But specifically, I wonder how my grandmother did it. Coming from “the old country” and learning and adapting in the new. It’s the immigrant story. But with a particular East meets West twist. Still it’s been lived out millions upon millions of times. The multitude of things she must of considered and processed over the years, changing understandings and comprehensions, world views and paradigms shifting. How did she do it? How do any of us? The tensions we exist in as worlds and ideas collide can be mind-boggling.
If there is one element, one reality, that I’ve been clinging to during these last few weeks it’s been hope. March is a rough month. Weather-wise we yearn for Spring. Our bodies and souls have grown weary with winter. Yet March only gives us glimpses and tastes of sunshine and warmth only to be snatched away by snow flurries and more frozen nights. (Often, April does this too.) March is also Lent, a dangerous time for introspection, but also an opportunity for hope. This week’s lectionary passages speak well of this muddled time and place in which we dwell. A resurrection for Lazarus, and yet so much pain, that even Jesus weeps. A valley of dry bones whose “hope is lost,” but who receives the promise of God’s Spirit to restore them. Even the Psalmist exhorts us to “hope in the LORD.” Hope.
March is also a month of meetings: meetings for Classis and committees and other denominational commitments. These meetings are also a lot like winter in that they can sometimes be draining both to body and soul. Gathered together the Body—or perhaps we forget we are the Body?—struggles with the changes that our church and world are undergoing. Our understandings are shifting (or not shifting at all) and we find ourselves stuff with conflict and tension. This can be wearying. Even painful. But every now and then, it can bring us closer to hope. A hope that can move us to experiencing and practicing grace. Therefore, I’ve been clinging to hope.
Having just finished with one big meeting last Monday and on my way to another one on Tuesday morning last week, I received the phone call during the 30 minute layover, 8 am at O’Hare. My grandmother had passed away the day before.
As I began, I often wonder about that abbreviated conversation about the emperor. My grandmother was raised in a typical Japanese home, religiously and culturally Buddhist Shinto. She was still culturally speaking, Buddhist Shinto. She believed in God and had an understanding of Jesus. (Although, I do not know if she would call him Lord. She was not a church-goer.) Still, I wonder. She grew up at a time when the emperor had god-like status. Moved to a nation where that same emperor had a complicated narrative, and she certainly lived to see him in a different light. Rolled with the variety of punches that life brought. How do we make sense of such things? How did she?
I don’t know. So I hope. And Hope is real. I hope.

 

Thursday
Mar202014

Lenten Lengthening

Tom is away this week attending the Steering Committee of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. In his place we introduce the Rev. Leah Ennis, an RCA minister who serves at the North and Southampton Reformed Church in Churchville, Pennsylvania.

The word “Lent” comes from a root word meaning “lengthening,” like the lengthening hours of sunlight which will bring the long, warm days of summer. Normally during Lent we think of giving something up for 40 days as we approach Easter, so as to prepare spiritually before we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. This year, perhaps more than any other Lent before it, I am finding myself being lengthened – stretched – just like the days that are rolling out before me. And what I’m giving up, is mostly what I thought I knew. What is lengthening and stretching me? Well, at the beginning of this year’s Lenten season I found myself in Israel-Palestine. Now there’s a place that could stretch anybody in any number of ways. It’s true. I was there on something of a peace-seeking conference  called "Christ at the Check Point" at Bethlehem Bible College. I was also able to see and expirence many biblical sights by the leadership of Marlin and Sally Vis through "Light for the World" study tour.
...So there I was in Israel-Palestine, like so many before me, beginning a pilgrimage of sorts. Far outside my “comfort zone” in the middle of a modern-day “war zone”, seeking to learn about peace and reconciliation from real everyday peacemakers – both Palestinians and Israelis – who are pouring their lives out for others. These are the ones taking the road less traveled, risking their own security and even acceptance by their communities, all for the high calling of waging peace. These, my new and largely unsung heroes of deep compassion and understanding, would share their lives, homes and stories with us. Stories of brokenness, and put-back-together-ness, stories of pain and suffering, of radical forgiveness and overcoming all kinds of barriers to reach out and understand the “other” in their lives. All stories, ultimately, of conspiring for good in courageous, clever and creative ways.
As a disciple of Christ, along with other Chrstians, I was pushed to look beyond the polarity of being either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli towards envisioning a solution for both communities and 
building on the prophetic traditions of each other. I am called to seek out the truth, look at it straight in the eyes, and take the courage to tell it.
Having had the opportunity to visit Palestinians in their homes in Refugee Camps and Israelis in their homes in Settlements, I was moved to tears by all of their stories of loss, survival, fear, anger. I realized how much they had in common-- both Israel and Palestine have killed the 'other' and have been victims of loss themselves. (To be remphasize for clarity: this isn’t about “taking sides” or saying Palestine is good and Israel is bad. Rather, as followers of Jesus, we are invited to humanize both sides and partner together to create a shared future of forgiveness, equality, and human flourishing.)
How we, as Christians, see this issue reflects our theology and ultimately how we see Jesus. Jesus is in the business, if you will, of humanizing people – ALL people. In Jesus, the “land” is holy in Jerusalem, but also in the whole world. Every square inch of the cosmos is holy and it takes God’s holy people to join in God’s mission to reconcile all of it to God’s way of shalom or salaam. I don’t yet know what this experience will mean for my own future. I know that I will never be the same as I now have heard so many stories of loss, grief, fear, tragedy, but still a glimer of hope. I also realize that I’m invited to never forget the struggle for justice and peace. This, I suspect, will have profound implications for my home church’s call to just-peacemaking both in our neighborhoods and in Israel/Palestine.
To read more about the conference Rev. Ennis attended you may like to read this aritcle.

 

Thursday
Mar062014

Journeys of Faith Together

Watching the Olympics in the last month has brought me back to ten years ago when I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Republic of Georgia—just a few hours southeast of the Olympic host city of  Sochi—and join with a couple of friends who were finishing up their stint with the Peace Corps. There we spent some time participating in an environmental camp for Georgian youth, then traveled around the country with my friends sharing with me some of the best places and people they encountered while living and working in Georgia. Following this, we spent two weeks backpacking around Turkey, from the Black Sea Coast, down through the arid southeast, back up through the central region of Cappadocia, then east to Ephesus and Istanbul. About a month’s travel in all, it was an incredible journey!
One of the many highlights was a couple days spent in the city of Şanlıurfa, less than an hour north of Syria in the far south of Turkey. Şanlıurfa, more regularly just called Urfa, has a population well over 482,000 people and a written history that dates back to the 4th century BCE, but the city may actually date nearer to 9000 BCE. Tradition has Urfa as the birthplace of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, with Urfa having previously been seen as Ur of the Chaldeans. (This claim is firmly disputed, however, with another location in modern day Iraq.) There is in the heart of the city a cave that is identified as Abraham’s place of birth. Near the cave is the mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman and the Balıklıgöl or “Pool of Sacred Fish” (connected to a miraculous legend about Abraham and his faith), as well as the beautiful gardens of Gölbaşı. I can not over express how beautiful a place this is, the people included, and their warmth and hospitality especially.
Urfa is a pilgrimage site for many children of Abraham who come to journey to the place of his birth and recall his significant faith. (Remember that Abraham is seen as Father of the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) From all over the world people travel to see the birthplace of Abraham, tourist and pilgrim alike. They line up, take off their shoes, and in single file stoop in to see the cave. In all honesty, I don’t remember much about that experience other than doing it. It was ten years ago now. Profound of a location as it may be, I don’t recall any great enlightenment or remarkable spiritual experience. (That happened on a different day in Urfa, in a different place, and for a different reason.) Still, the visit and the journey itself makes you ponder Abraham’s journey—both literal and spiritual.
Many years later I had the opportunity to travel with other Reformed Church members  from around the country on a peacemaking delegation to Palestine and Israel and specifically to the city of Hebron in the occupied territory of the West Bank. Hebron too is a beautiful and ancient city, although the occupation makes for tragically profound challenges on its Arab residents. Hebron, called also al-Khalīl, is known as a place of great Judaic, Christian, and Islamic significance. There is much biblical witness and traditional lore built upon it, however the most significant is that it is the site of “The Cave of the Patriarchs.” The book of Genesis records the purchasing of property by Abraham that is later used as a burial place for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca,  and Jacob and Leah. Where now stands the Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque, tradition has the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs lie below.
I relate these places and instances here because I identify Lent primarily as a journey and movement of faith. On the second Sunday in Lent the lectionary reminds us of Abram, who would become Abraham, and his journey:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Genesis 12:1-4a
The epistle lesson for the day even more explicitly connects Abrahams journey—and his righteousness—with his faith. And ours.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Lent is a journey of faith.
But there is something else going on, and perhaps the reason why I’m rather fixated on Abraham and his journey is how it connects with ours and specifically the specter of death. Lent is a journey with Christ, as he journeys to the Cross, and certainly towards the celebration of Easter and the resurrection. But the very real aspect of death is part of that journey. We carry it with us. Abraham’s travels, from his birth, life, death, and reckoned righteousness are connected with our own. But—and maybe this is precisely the point of my fixation, if you will—the place where Abraham is laid to rest is not the end of his journey. Nor of ours. Our faith moves us on to something more. And it is “our” faith, a shared reality. 
The Psalter lesson for the above passages is 121, familiar words that are proclaimed at almost every funeral I’ve ever been a part of: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth,” and “The LORD is your keeper” and “The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”
Lent is so often a very personal and individual kind of experience and practice. “What are you giving up?” or “What spiritual discipline might you be participating in this year?” But last night as my congregation gathered and began our Lenten journey together with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes and heard those difficult and somber words, “from dust you came and to dust you shall return,” I was not struct by how personally sobering that sentiment is, but rather, how profoundly communal this experience is, of how shared our faith can be. We journey with Father Abraham. We journey with Christ. We journey with one another.

 

Thursday
Feb202014

Imagination 

 

 

When I last wrote here on the Twelve, I wondered about the role of play in faith development and becoming disciples of Christ. Specifically concentrating on a recent study of toddlers playing with their food where they learned the names for such foods much quicker, more rapidly expanding their vocabulary because of the tactile play involved, I wondered if there was a kind of corollary in the discipleship process. As I said a month back, this inquiry was coming out of a concentrated pondering of the prologue of the Gospel of John and especially the verse, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” I postulated, “If we are born again, if we are to become like children, if we are disciples—students and followers and learners of Jesus—it follows that there are ways that our development as such happens. And not trying to force it here, but how does play—something that is so basic, so common, and so important in child development—factor into our spiritual development? If playing with our food as toddlers facilitates cognitive abilities and language acquisition, can play also—or even, need it—function in our becoming better disciples?”

 

 

Some were quick to point to Godly Play, a tool used in many churches’ children’s ministry programs. As defined in its website:

Godly Play is based upon the recognition that children have an innate sense of the presence of God. All they lack is the appropriate language to help them identify and express it so it can be explored and strengthened. The Godly Play approach teaches classical Christian language in a way that enhances the child’s authentic experience of God so it can contribute to the creative life of the child and the world.

As when children “play” with their food and thus more readily expand their worlds by expanding their language for that world, Godly Play does likewise for Christian language expansion.

 

That was indeed what I was initially wondering. However I also wondered if there is more to this, “but if play hasn’t ‘played’ a role in one’s development, is the church worse off because of it? Are there many of us who have stunted development because of this?” If one thing to wonder about ways to enhance children’s discipleship, but what about adults who have delayed or stunted Christian formations in their past?

 

Which is why I want to jump from the foundational aspect of play to the equally relevant aspect of imagination. It seems trite to say, but I’d reckon many of us would confess it to be true, that something happens to us in becoming adults, that something is lost along the way, and that is our ability to imagine, and we are much the lesser for it. 

 

Robert Krulwich of NPR’s Radiolab comments on this wonderfully in a piece on Krulwich Wonders: Robert Krulwich on Science, a NPR blog:

There's a book by the novelist China Mieville that describes two cities plopped one on top of the other. One is large-scale, the other smaller-scale, and while they live in entangled proximity, both cities have the same rule. Each says to its citizens, pay no attention — on pain of punishment — to what the "others" around you are doing. See your own kind. "Unsee" the others.

 

In the novel, most people comply. They may be in the same place at the same time, but learn to not notice. A few, of course, break the rules and watch — even talk to one another — but they are cursed with restless, wandering eyes.

 

When I was seven, I had those eyes. I was keenly aware of a world superimposed on mine. It was littler than mine. But I knew it was there. I could imagine it at will. In my version, I could see my little people. But my little people rarely saw me.

 

I'd be in my bedroom with a toy speedboat. I'd add passengers – small railroad figures (also from the toy store), the ones sold by model railroad companies. I'd place my little people on the boat, or into the "water" (made of crinkly cellophane sprayed with Gillette "foaming" shaving cream to make tumbling waves, which hid tentacles of giant squid — my dad's pipe cleaners — looking scarily for something to squeeze to death). And I'd watch beautiful ladies with luggage spilling into the sea, getting oh-so-close to disaster ... unless I decided to rescue them, which, sometimes, with my giant hands, I did.

 

I spent hours and hours with my little people. That was my world.

 

“That was my world,” Krulwich says. Which speaks volumes on the loss of imagination as one grows up. But he contrasts and compares it with the world in which two Parisian artists are living, Pierre Javelle and Akiko Ida, who have “wonderfully ridiculous imaginations” and use them to create wolds of ship captains and sea monsters out of dinner table settings of spaghetti and meatballs. They create intricate photos of little people, figurines of soldiers among pomegranate bombs and workmen blowing up shriveled raisins to become plump grapes. Tap on the above link to see the photos and I dare you not to have a glint of a smile at their creations.

 

We need imaginations to see the world more fully. Even to see the worlds! Perhaps that is the reason why God sees fit when gifting us with the Spirit that “the young shall see visions, and the old shall dream dreams.” Dreams and visions, while not the same as imagination, incorporates it muchly, and is a basic gift of life in the Spirit. Not to even mention Jesus’ own admonition, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (I’d certainly want to be careful of proof texting here but imaginations is at least a small part.)

 

I think Jesus himself had to use his imagination as he grew up and most especially in his ministry as he learned what it meant for him to be the Christ. But I think it was also necessary for him as the son of God to use as he learned to be fully human. And for us too, as children of God! And especially as the church, what does it mean to be salt and light, to be a blessing, to be holy and righteous? It takes imaginations able to dream and have visions of God’s actions in our world.

 

Perhaps you saw the internet sensation a few months ago of the Kansas City couple, Refe and Susan Tuma, who pose their children’s plastic dinosaurs each night in November so that their children can awaken to see what mischievous play their toys have gotten into each evening. Refe explains their reasoning: “Why do we do this? Because in the age of iPads and Netflix, we don’t want our kids to lose their sense of wonder and imagination. In a time when the answers to all the world’s questions are a web-search away, we want our kids to experience a little mystery. All it takes is some time and energy, creativity, and a few plastic dinosaurs.” 

 

What I’m getting at is the wonder and imagination of our God. Even the mystery. 

 

Could we imagine it?

Thursday
Feb062014

Vortices

Today we welcome a guest blogger to The TwelveThom Fiet is pastor with the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, found in God's Hudson Valley. Thanks, Thom!

At what point do we move from being philosophical about this winter to slipping into brooding, then annoyance, then, heavens, threatening to move to Coral Gables with the other manatees? I remember my father usually snapping in the beginning of March, the month in Michigan most laced with betrayal. He was buoyant for eleven months, but I feared March would force him to drink heavily from a Styrofoam cup, or become a member of the Tea Party, or wearing plaid again, or descending to bass fishing.

This winter, with its polar vortices, one after the next, has brought many of us to the point of secular sobriety, some wearing a blank stare at Adams Fairacre Farms (last week my cashier could not identify an avocado).

It's got me thinking about waiting, and how often that theme we find embedded in one story after the next in the scriptures. Waiting. Abraham and Sarah. Joseph. Moses and his people. Ruth. David. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Noah (who drank from a Styrofoam cup). There is an awful lot of waiting in the Bible. Even God is loitering, the man at the bus station tapping His nicotine fingers, staring up at the godless departure board, nothing much happening; get close and He is telling the same stories, each one we finish for Him. His Son lifts the matter to a cosmic level when he tells his disciples and all the world to wait for his return. That was a million manatees ago. A long dog walk of barren carcinogen waiting if you asked me.

Seeing how often the subject arises, is there any redemption in the waiting, when it is no longer funny? Is there any redemption when the winter causes us to forget the name of an avocado? As bad as that.

Even in the deep winter of our lives, when it seems endless and numbing, is there some ray of light and warmth to be found?

Many of us have had more than the cold on our minds this winter. While we wait, some of us fight for our lives as we greet our fifth tumor into this world. Others add another loved one to the chorus of those we must grieve. Job transitions found our way to us, not a single one born in a dream. Some witness relationships freezing over into a block of ice.

Even so, as we wait, new friendships are forming. God tells a new joke and we all laugh. Cards from hypothermic hands are being written and sent. Love is being made somewhere under the covers. Prayers, hot at times, are lifted up to the eves. An old friend finally climbs out of his snow drift. We finally read that book on Lincoln. We tie a new fly. Students are nodding in comprehension. Avocados are at last named. Christ tells us to hang on a little longer, and we do. It is beautiful, especially in the waiting, in this winter that will not let us go.