Seven Days of Silence (and no device)

"I am confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities.   Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices--jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort."
Oliver Sacks in "The Machine Stops" New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2019

                Exactly one hundred strangers, selected by lottery, gathered to observe a week of silence and meditation.  Almost a thousand people wanted in mainly because of the main speaker.  We were allowed to chat at the first meal Saturday night but went silent afterwards and were instructed to avoid all eye contact.  Sunday morning brought the "great renunciation" by which we turned in all devices to be locked away in the safe as if they were the most precious things we owned.  The daily schedule cycled through 45 minutes sessions of sitting and walking meditations with meals at 6:45, noon and 5.  An hour of Buddhist teaching was offered every night followed by more meditation.   I had plenty of fears and anxieties going in, wondering how I would get through the week intact.  I even imagined having to leave early because I just wouldn't be able to take it. 

                To my surprise and delight I loved almost every minute of it.  I was up for a new and challenging experience.  What a gift to be able to hand over the devices and leave the digital, virtual world behind and become more immersed in the real one.  And yet we often use our devices to escape the real world because we want or need to.  I discovered that at least in that setting I was happy to be as present as I could be to the here and now.

                Even though none of us knew each other and would not get to know each other in the normal ways to which we are accustomed, we became a community.  Gathering in the meditation hall several times a day to be in silence together was both strange and powerful and carried me through the week, reminding me of our much more familiar weekly gatherings when we do something so central and important to life.

              The humble and wise teachings of Joseph Goldstein were a highlight.  He is one of the first American teachers of insight meditation and one of the most popular writers and speakers on mindfulness. He taught us about the reality of impermanence, the interconnectedness of all things, the suffering caused by cravings and grasping, the freedom and peace that comes from mindfulness and awakening.  I got to meditate on these things and see how they are at work in my own life.  I did not encounter anything in the week that felt contrary to my faith.  God felt present but at some distance and I continue to ponder what that means.  Maybe it was just being out of familiar patterns and settings. The center used to be a Roman Catholic monastery and just before entering the meditation hall I passed stained glass windows of Christ at the table with the beloved disciple and Jesus praying in the garden.  I was so pleased that these reminders of my faith had not been removed. Upon entering the hall the custom was to look upon a statue of Buddha on a table and place one's hands together in honor of him.  With every session, encounters with Christ and Buddha were always immediately connected.  Images of them were on either side of the same wall. Indeed as we have been learning in our adult forum series, you can learn a lot about your Christian faith by knowing more about Buddhism (and other faiths for that matter). 

                Thank you for your support last week enabling me to attend this seven day silent meditation retreat in a quiet spot in north central Massachusetts (Insight Meditation Society). I hope it is the beginning of a more consistent daily meditation practice as I continue to learn more about how it works and why it's worth it. 

                It would be rather Buddhist of me to say that much of the week long experience cannot be put into words (how do you describe silence?).  But one more thing I can share is something called Metta meditation, a practice meant to stir up loving kindness toward loved ones, difficult ones, planet earth, and even the whole universe.  You came up in many of my sessions and one was directed particularly at you as a beloved community.  With all of you in mind as one, I wished for these three things:

                May you be happy. 
                May you be protected and safe from all harm.
                May you live with ease and well-being. 

May it be so,  Ross

In Solidarity with Tree of Life Synagogue

Dear Saint Paul Friends,
My heart, like yours, has been broken by the loss of life at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the expressions of hate shown to our Jewish siblings this past weekend.  The unspeakable violence that claimed the lives of eleven members of the congregation has left us shocked and deeply troubled.  We mourn and grieve with all those impacted by this violence in some special ways.

First of all, the killer targeted Jews whose synagogue partners with the refugee organization HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) to build an inclusive society that welcomes refugees, people who contribute so much to our nation’s fabric and economy. Many houses of worship of different faiths similarly welcome refugees. These values have always underpinned our nation and must continue to do so. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) has resettled over 500,000 refugees and migrants over the last 80 years.  HIAS has been at work the last 130 years and today 90 % of its clients are not Jewish and include Muslim refugees.  Today our planet has some 65 million refugees.

We stand in solidarity with Tree of Life out of love and compassion. We are also in solidarity as a congregation that has firsthand experience resettling dozens of unaccompanied refugee minors and young adults from South Sudan in a partnership with Lutheran Social Services of New England beginning in 2001.  Shortly after this resettlement began Saint Paul was targeted by the National Alliance, a white supremacist group that dropped thousands of leaflets on Arlington doorsteps just days before 9-11.  Later we provided a group home for undocumented Central and South American youth.   

We also stand in solidarity as Lutherans, remembering that in 1994 our denomination publicly rejected Luther's anti-Semitic writings, saying "We who bear his name and heritage must acknowledge with pain the anti-Judaic diatribes contained in Luther's later writings. We reject this violent invective as did many of his companions in the sixteenth century, and we are moved to deep and abiding sorrow at its tragic effects on later generations of Jews."  Almost 25 years of healing have happened but there is more to be done.

During worship on Sunday, we will continue to pray for the Tree of Life congregation and include in Sunday's bulletin the names of those who died.  I trust and encourage all of you to reach out to Jewish neighbors and friends with sympathy and prayer.  We want to do whatever we can to express our concern and tangibly act against such hate and anti-Semitism.

After 9-11, the late Fred Rogers who lived near the synagogue, was asked to film a public service announcement.  "We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairers of creation.’’ Rogers was a Presbyterian minister and used a Hebrew phrase that is part of a Jewish congregational prayer, calling for acts of kindness to improve the world.  “Thank you for whatever you do," he said,  "to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbor and yourself.’’ 

Faithfully, Ross

From our (refreshed!) Pastor

Twelve weeks ago I drove away from church.  This week I return ready to be back and grateful to have been gone.  Family and friends have tracked the time with me and recently wondered what the last couple of weeks have been like.  "I want to go back to work!" was always my answer.  I have been blessed at St. Paul to have now taken four sabbaticals and I clearly remember each time the desire to be back here before the time away was up. 

Here was something I took with me last May: Wheat Ridge Ministries defines a ministry sabbatical as a period of time . . . when ministry leaders and congregations set aside the leader’s normal responsibilities for the purpose of rest and renewal toward sustained excellence in ministry.  A ministry sabbatical is not an extended vacation nor is it an academic sabbatical that normally involves extensive study. A ministry sabbatical is a release from the routine of the call for the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual well-being of the ministry leader.

The last three months have been a great sabbatical. Body, mind, and spirit have been renewed.  The time with family and friends, and time alone were the best and most important elements.  The time off (especially evenings and weekends) meant freedom to travel all over the country to visit adult children, a beloved mentor, and nine different churches in five states.  The time… was such a gift. 

I was fed spiritually by the diverse worship experiences in First Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon, Bethesda Lutheran Church in Bayfield, Wisconsin, Wooddale Church in Minneapolis (not Lutheran!), Trinity Episcopal in Copley Square, Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bethesda, Maryland (my home church 40 years ago), and Congregational (United Church of Christ) churches in Winchester and Cambridge.  I also worshiped at Redeemer Lutheran in Woburn and University Lutheran in Harvard Square.  I got to worship with Janice and be a regular member of the congregation.  While we were often among the younger folks in church and saw no more than a total of ten children in all those churches combined, worship was lively, the communities seemed healthy and all of the sermons were good!  It was inspiring and rare for me to see and experience so much of the church on Sundays. 

I backpacked alone for a spell in the White Mountains and communed with silence and nature.  This fellow--looking a lot like Jesus--came walking toward me early one morning, above the tree line, in bare feet.  You can see why I wondered. We greeted each other and had a wonderful and deep conversation about the meaning of life.  Maybe it was him! He hikes everywhere in bare feet. It was one of many memorable moments of just trying to be fully present.  And if you noticed the mountain-man beard, don't worry, I will look normal when you see me next! 

So, I am thankful for the time I’ve had; I know most pastors don’t get to take sabbaticals. But more and more churches are starting to realize how valuable they are.  Indeed, rest is important to all.  Sabbath is woven in to the fabric of life, even as God commands it and calls it holy.  We need rest every day, every week, and sometimes for longer spells.  Perhaps you've had some time off already this summer or August will be the time.  I hope and pray you can move into that sacred space quickly and savor it. 

As I return and I'm reminded that "it's not possible to board a moving train with a perpendicular leap." Even in August I will need to run alongside for a while to catch up with the church's momentum.  I am grateful to be back!  Feel free to call me to reconnect or share any urgent concerns.  

Faithfully,  Ross

The Down Side of the Reformation

As we prepare to celebrate Reformation Sunday here at St. Paul, it seems fitting, and in the spirit of the Reformation, to tell the whole story, or at least the rest of the story. One of the ongoing reformers of our day is Stanley Hauerwas, an American theologian and professor at Duke, famous for continuing to call the church out on its sins. What follows are some reflections and notes from one of his lectures 20 years ago..

Even as a Methodist, Hauerwas hated Reformation Sunday, reminding us that it does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We Lutherans and many others want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name 'Protestantism' is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. But indeed, Protestantism has become an end in itself through all the mainstream denominations in America. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church's division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.

What if the Catholics are right that salvation consists in works. Hauerwas writes: "To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of-or perhaps better, because of-the world's fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ's death and resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we have been made part of God's salvation for the world so that the world may know it has been freed from the powers that would compel us to kill one another in the name of false loyalties. All that is about the works necessary to save us."

Indeed we Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. Instead we celebrate it partly because we no longer know or experience unity in the church.

Roman Catholics know and experience unity because they have an office for it in the person of the pope who watches over some 1.2 billion souls. It is rather extraordinary that all those Christians hold together in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.

Catholics know that their unity does not depend upon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

Consider this difference: Protestants say, "How much of the faith do we have to believe in order to remain Christian?" We too easily think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than the Catholic sense of unity that comes through the celebration of the sacraments. Once Christianity becomes reduced to a matter of belief, as it clearly has for Protestants, we cannot resist questions of whether those beliefs are as true or useful as other beliefs we also entertain. Once such questions are raised, it does not matter what the answer turns out in a given case. As James Edwards observes, "Once religious beliefs start to compete with other beliefs, then religious believers are - and will know themselves to be consumers of values. They too are denizens of the mall, selling and shopping and buying along with the rest of us."

Hauerwas notes that Catholics do not begin with the question of "How much do we need to believe?" but with the attitude "Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!" Isn't it wonderful to know that Mary was immaculately conceived in order to be the faithful servant of God's new creation in Jesus Christ! She therefore becomes the firstborn of God's new creation, our mother, the first member of God's new community we call church. Isn't it wonderful that God continued to act in the world through the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe! Mary must know something because she seems to always appear to peasants and, in particular, to peasant women who have the ability to see her. Most of us would not have the ability to see Mary because we'd be far too embarrassed by our vision.
Therefore Catholics understand the church's unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another.

In Luther's day he was right to point out that the pope and the church had become unfaithful and corrupt, but at least Catholics preserved an office God can use to remind us that we have been and may yet prove unfaithful. In contrast, Protestants don't even know we're being judged for our disunity.

I realize that this perspective on Reformation Sunday is not the usual one. But remember that Luther never intended to start a new church. He meant to reform the one he belonged to. The usual perspective is to tell us what a wonderful thing happened at the Reformation. The Reformation brought freedom. No longer would we be held in medieval captivity to law and arbitrary authority. The Reformation was the beginning of enlightenment, of progressive civilizations, of democracy, that have come to fruition in this wonderful country called America.

And yet what a disaster it was for the Jews, who were made out to be even more "other" than Catholics. Luther utterly failed to see that justification by faith through grace is a claim about the salvation wrought by God through Jesus to make us a holy people capable of remembering that God's salvation comes through the Jews. When the church loses that memory, we lose the source of our unity. For unity is finally a matter of memory, of how we tell the story of the Reformation. How can we tell this story of the church truthfully as Protestants and Catholics so that we might look forward to being in union with one another and thus share a common story of our mutual failure? How might that perspective change the way we celebrate the 500th anniversary?

So on this Reformation Sunday long for, pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation - not mainly or only as a celebratory moment, but also as the sin of the church. Both-And. Now more than ever we pray for God to heal our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity in our midst between classes, between races, between nations. Pray that on Reformation Sunday we may confess our sin and ask God to make us a new people joined together in one that the world may be saved from its divisions.

Prayers for Presidential Candidates

"I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." - 1 Timothy 2:1-3
            Timothy's admonition seems particularly timely in this election season.  "The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know," is how The Message translates that first verse.  A colleague of mine commented recently that he thought the presidential campaign thus far has been about as godly and dignified as a bar fight. Who knows what's to come in the remaining weeks? Whoever is chosen, it will be an unusually historic election.
            I'd like to invite Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to stop by Saint Paul for a visit, not at the same Sunday morning service mind you, just to greet us--nothing too political. I trust that we are diverse enough as a congregation that there would be some who would love to meet and hear from each of them. And I know there would be lively debates among ourselves, expressing admiration and good will, distaste and even contempt for one candidate or another.
            If they stayed for the whole service they might notice that we often pray for rulers and those in high positions, but not often by name. Perhaps the names are left out because if we get too specific we cannot pronounce them without some of us shuddering. But our leaders all have names. I remember that the writer of First Timothy is a follower of the one who told us to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Both candidates deserve prayers from friend and foe alike.  
            We pray for our leaders and future leaders because, like it or not, like them or not, we need them to lead wisely and well, so that "we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."
            Those words remind us of qualities that are precious, rare, and endangered in this political season. Quiet. Peaceable. Godliness. Dignity.
            Just uttering these words seems like a kind of prayer. And an urgent one at that.
            P.S.  Our prayers are often at the intersection of religion and public life. We wonder anew what churches can and cannot do or say in the political arena. What does the first amendment say and how did in get included? What is the balance in living our faith and being patriotic? On Monday September 26 at 7pm you are invited to join a webinar sponsored by our church on the topic of Religion and the Constitution led by Thomas Cunniff, Assoc. General Counsel for our denomination.  Log in at

Sunday Worship

  8:30AM | Worship with Holy Communion (without singing)
  10:30AM | Worship with Holy Communion (with singing and streamed to Facebook)
  11:30AM | Coffee Hour

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