We’re pleased to present our 2018 Lenten Devotional.
Click HERE to download a copy!
We’re pleased to present our 2018 Lenten Devotional.
Click HERE to download a copy!
We’re pleased to present the 2017 edition of our annual Advent Devotional.
Click here to download a PDF copy!
In 2001, I shared with you this story that I believe is worth reflecting on once again.
Once upon a time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the water.
One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they put that person into the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child. They then placed her with a family who cared for her and took her to school.
From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river, and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them — taking the sick to the hospital, placing the children with families, and burying those who were dead.
This went on for years and the townsfolk not only came to expect the floating bodies, but also worked at developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some of the townsfolk became quite generous in their tending and a few extraordinary ones even gave up their jobs so that they could tend full-time. And the town itself felt a certain healthy pride in its generosity.
However, during all these years and despite all that generosity and effort, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend, and find out why those bodies came floating down the river.
As I’ve been reflecting on the unfolding events of these past few months, I recalled this story from Ronald Rolheiser’s provocative book: The Holy Longing.
This story challenges me to be more intentional about the whys of life, rather than simply accepting things “as that’s the way it has always been.” When we acquiesce to statements, behaviors, biases and beliefs simply “because” — we are like those well meaning folks in the town who responded to the situation in front of them, failing to ask the systemic question, why.
Why are there bodies floating into our town? What is happening upstream? Is there outbreak of disease that we may be able to help cure? Is there an oppressive government that is ruling its people unjustly? Is there a war taking place?
I believe that God longs for us to always stop — take a deep breath — and ask the whys of life. When we do, we’re more able to enter into the shoes of others. When we do, we can find ways to respond rather than react to what might be happening in government … on the local or national level. When we do, our perspectives widen helping us to understand the actions of those with whom we may disagree. This won’t necessarily change our opinions or beliefs, but our hearts can become more compassionate and open.
Think about it …. our lives and world could be significantly healthier — if we simply asked the question why before we respond.
Asking why with you,
Jeffrey Steven Gaines
I often find inspiration by the reflections of Richard Rohr of the Center of Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. This was true for me this week as I read the following that I’d like to pass on to you. I believe Rohr is right … we do not have to define ourselves by what went wrong yesterday, because we can draw upon the Life and Love we have right now. In fact, as Rohr writes: Life and Love are what’s real! Enjoy reading …
“The True Self is always humble. It knows that we didn’t do it right and that it isn’t even about doing it right; it’s just about doing it. Our True Self knows that everything belongs. That means holding together the good and the bad, the dark and the light, the sinner and the saint—which are two parts of me and two parts of everything. It is our participation in divinity which allows us to be this large.
Only God, it seems, is spacious enough to include everything. Humans need to expel, exclude, deny, and avoid. We just can’t hold very much by our private selves. Only God in me, only me in God, can hold the contraries. Forgiveness could almost be God’s very name and identity.
Our first forgiveness is not toward a particular sin or offense. Our first forgiveness, it seems to me, is toward reality itself: to forgive it for being so broken, a mixture of good and bad. First that paradox has to be overcome inside of us. Then, when we allow God to hold together the opposites within us, it becomes possible to do it over there in our neighbor and even our enemy. Finally, our worldview and politics change. We can no longer project our evil onto another country, religion, minority group, race, or political party.
Only the false self easily takes offense. The false self can’t live a self-generated life of immediate contact with God. It defines itself by the past, which is to live in un-forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only way to free ourselves from the entrapment of the past. We’re in need not only of individual forgiveness; we need it on a national, global, and cosmic scale. Old hurts linger long in our memories and are hard to let go. We must each learn how to define ourselves by the present moment—which is all we really have. I will not define myself by what went wrong yesterday when I can draw upon Life and Love right now. Life and Love are what’s real. This Infinite Love is both in us and yet it is more than us.”
Embracing the Life and Love I have today,
Jeffrey Steven Gaines
Like a tin of favorite candy, or a notebook of pressed flowers, I keep treasured memories. Opening the pages, the feelings, scents, and companions return. Like a scene from a guided meditation, a dream, or an unexpected song playing in my mind’s ear, they are rich with promise, able to speak into my life… offering pockets of sun to help me keep going with joy.
Colorado has been on my mind this summer. The summers I knew there were largely carefree, spent sitting beside my black cat on my parents’ back deck, soaking up the mid-morning sun. By afternoon, relaxing in the hammock, listening to the sounds of the swaying aspen. My cat carefully moving through the grass on the day’s hunt… until the first drops of rain caught on my face, the rocks began to darken, and the rolling thunder snapped. Jumping to the ground, swooping in to gather up my soft companion, making our way inside moments before the deluge came.*
With the memory of it, I’m there once more, even if just for a moment, drinking in the morning light. Transported, the cells of my body open like a sunflower following the sun. And then I am filled. The spirit of my cat sits beside me, melting in the warmth. Safe. Home. Like the first day of vacation. Finally allowing my body to let go of all tension.
In the spirit of filling pockets with sun,
*Excerpt from a sermon I preached July 16, 2017 entitled “…rain and snow from heaven…”
Image by Dietlind Wolf
The following sermon was delivered on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 based on Matthew 28.19 entitled: This is Resurrection!
In Matthew 28 is it recorded that “after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of God, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and greeted them. They came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”
Today we remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is the foundation on which the whole of Christianity rests, but do we fully understand it? No. Can I explain it to you so you’ll believe it? I cannot; and I won’t even try.
One can’t explain Mystery — one can only experience it. I can no more prove or explain the resurrection than I can explain love or prove the origins of the Universe.
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to wrap my head around Easter.
Oh yes, I believe that something happened that changed the lives of those present that morning.
Oh yes, I believe that something changed the world … as we know it.
Oh yes, I believe that Easter is about transformation and mystery.
What is hard for me, and my 21st century mind, is to relate to it. It seems too ‘other’ worldly … but is it? I’ve experienced earthquakes … and I don’t enjoy them, but I know what they are; I understand them. I’ve experienced death … more than I’d like to say. I don’t enjoy it, but I know what death is; I have experienced its sting and I understand this. I’ve even experienced angels, meaning, messengers from God (this is what word Άγγελος — angelos — in Greek means: messengers. Angel-messengers have confronted me, inviting me to look at my life and situations and people differently. In fact, many of you have been angels to me, whether you’ve been aware of this or not.
I know women and men, like the two Marys in the narrative, who stand by waiting, watching, serving and praying when death is imminent; when death occurs.
You might ask: have I ever seen anyone rise from the dead?
Actually, I have! I’ve seen lives turned around, I’ve seen forgiveness offered; I’ve witnessed medical miracles.
So, maybe it isn’t that Easter is so ‘other’ worldly, it is just so ordinary that we take it for granted which makes it extraordinary and mysterious. Like love: so ordinary, so extraordinary, so mysterious.
Reminds me of a movie popular some years ago, Chocolat. A woman, moves into a small hillside village in Burgundy, France and opens-up, during Lent no less, a chocolate shop. The mayor of this little hamlet is a very traditional uptight man of faith and during Lent one gives up many pleasures. One of which, of course, is chocolate! The town is split, some residents sneaking into her shop to taste some of this forbidden delight. The priest, finally of Easter Sunday, speaks what I believe is the truth of the resurrection; the truth about living Jesus’ commandment — to love one another.
In his sermon he said; “Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord’s transformation? Not really — no. I don’t want to talk about his divinity. I’d rather talk about his humanity. I mean — you know — how he lived his life here on earth … his kindness and his tolerance. Listen, here’s what I think: “I think we can’t go round measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, by what we resist, by who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.” (From the movie, Chocolat)
This is resurrection — when we open our hearts to one another …letting all biases fall away.
Victor Hugo in his magnificent historical novel, Les Miserables, describes how Jean Valjean (the main character) descends into a life where he becomes sullen and bitter.
Valjean, a common man, a laborer, caught stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family is sentenced to 5 years in jail. Those five years stretch to 19, and by the time Valjean is released he is soured and angry. His gloom deepens as he tries to get a job and cannot.
He had been marked as a criminal (and literally tattooed with the number: 24601). Hopeless and exhausted, he stumbles into the house of an old bishop who greets him with the hospitality and respect one would offer to an honored guest. Jean Valjean is confused by the Bishop’s generosity—this cannot be true—he was unable or unwilling to believe the genuineness of the Bishop’s actions so he steals some silver plates and flees into the night.
The next day the police arrive at the bishop’s house with the silver and captured criminal. Valjean, utterly dejected, is sure he’ll be returned to prison.
Confronted now by the man whom he returned generosity with treachery, the Bishop astonishes not only Valjean, but the police as well: “I’m so glad you’ve returned,” the Bishop said. “… in your haste you left the best behind, for I gave you these candlesticks as well.”
As Hugo narrates the bishop’s astounding words, he writes: “Jean Valjean opens his eyes and looked at the bishop with an expression no human tongue could describe.” Forced to release their captive, the police depart.
The Bishop handing Valjean the candlesticks looking him straight in the eye and calling him, “My brother,” says: “You no longer belong to evil, but to good. Today, I have bought your soul for God.”
This is resurrection!
For Jean Valjean … it was through a simple act of forgiveness where he died to his old life — reborn to a new one. Easter, my friends, happens whenever we open our hearts and minds and lives to one another; it is when we touch one another. This is the truth of the gospel.
Rachel Naomi Remen, a retired professor up the hill at UCSF, talks about an incident that happened to her when she was in her late twenties.
In her own words, Rachel writes: “at twenty-nine, because of Crone’s Disease, much of my intestine was removed surgically and I was left with an ileostomy. A loop of bowel opens on my abdomen and an ingeniously designed plastic appliance, which I remove and replace every few days, covers it. Not an easy thing for a young woman to live with, and I was not at all sure that I would be able to do this.
While this surgery had given me back much of my vitality, the appliance and the profound change in my body made me feel hopelessly different, permanently shut out of the world of femininity and elegance.
At the beginning, before I could (even look at my belly) much less change my appliance myself it was changed for me by nurse specialists. These white-coated experts, women my own age, would enter my hospital room, put on an apron, a mask and gloves, and then remove and replace my appliance. When the task was completed, they would strip off all their protective clothing, toss it away, and then carefully wash their hands. This elaborate ritual made it (even) harder for me. I felt shamed; I felt dirty.
One day a woman I had never met before came to do this task. It was late in the day and she was dressed not in a white coat, but in a silk dress, heels and stockings. She looked as if she was about to meet someone for dinner.
In a friendly way she told me her first name and asked if I wished to have my ileostomy changed. When I nodded, she pulled back my covers, produced a new appliance, and in the most simple and natural way imaginable removed my old one and replaced it, without putting on gloves.
I remember watching her hands. She had washed them carefully before she touched me; not after. Her hands were soft and gentle and beautifully cared for. She was wearing a pale pink nail polish and her delicate rings were gold.
At first, I was stunned by this break in professional procedure. But as she laughed and spoke with me in the most ordinary and easy way. I suddenly felt a great wave of unsuspected strength come up from someplace deep in me, and I knew — without the slightest doubt — that I could do this. I could find a way. It was going to be all right.
I doubt that she ever knew what her willingness to touch me in such a natural way meant to me. In ten short minutes she not only tended my body, but healed my wounds … and gave me another perspective on life.”
Several years ago, I attended a two-day event with Rachel where she shared a postscript to this story … some 30 years after the actual event.
On her way to the airport, a friend who was driving Rachel asked: “Were you ever able to talk with that nurse telling her what her action meant to you?” No, Rachel replied.
“You were at Stanford, right?” Yes. “A small community back then?” Yes. “And you never saw here again?” No. “Did you ever know her name?” You know, she mentioned it when she walked into my room, but I didn’t hear it. So no, I don’t know.
After a long pause her friend asked: “Maybe she was an angel?” Rachel was silent. She had never considered that as a possibility and never before wondered whatever happened to that nurse.
In those ten short minutes, it was as if God was saying through the touch of that nurse (or angel) … it’s not over yet: this is resurrection!
All of us are between our old lives and our new lives — between what was and what will be. Maybe it is this in-between-place that is the place of resurrection. The place where we are challenged; where we changed; where we ‘get it’ that we are loved.
Resurrection, my friends, is never static. In fact, people who experience resurrection are translucent: the appear to glow from the inside.
Can I prove this to you? No, but I do know people who are luminescent, they do glow from the inside. They are peaceful, centered, free. There is in them a sense of nothing hidden; all opaqueness is gone. These are people, in my mind, who live resurrection; who practice it daily.
I believe Resurrection is something we know when we experience it; like love.
I believe Resurrection is something like the forgiveness offered to Jean Valjean.
I believe Resurrection is something like the gentle touch of that nurse caring for Rachel.
I believe Resurrection is something we practice — it isn’t ‘other worldly’, on the contrary, it happens in the world where you and I live.
This is God’s promise to us. The more we practice it, the more freedom, interior peace and luminescence we’ll be able to share with the world … and this, my friends, is resurrection!
Christ is Risen: He is Risen Indeed: Amen!
Seeking the Risen One among us,
Jeffrey Steven Gaines
The Mission of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church (SAPC) is
~ to listen for God’s word for us today.
~ to model the radically inclusive welcome of God.
~ to tend the Holy in ourselves, one another, and creation.
~ to be the Christ in the world.