Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey


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You Can’t Be Hateful and Grateful – by Steve Nootenboom

Somewhere in my childhood, I got the notion that it was OK to complain. Looking back, I’m amazed at how many years I let the blessings of my life go unnoticed. I now see gratitude as 100% choice. It has nothing to do with my external situation. But it wasn’t easy learning this lesson.

My wife and I were mission workers in the Philippines. One day we went to a poverty-stricken village where people lived on a garbage dump, making their homes out of scrap. We came across a woman who had just birthed a baby in the midst of that squalor. I gave her all the money I had left, some pocket change, and my wife gave her a pair of Levi’s and a Bible.  The woman’s joy at our meager gifts was incredible.

That was a sobering incident, and I wish I could say it transformed me. But my life didn’t change much after that; I was just haunted for years by those scenes of poverty.

In 2008, I survived the market crash better than most, but in 2009 our beautiful home was taken from us through the shady manipulations of a bank. I was angry to the point of getting physically ill. I had no sense of gratitude for anything, and I was filled with a growing bitterness that bordered on hate.

Then, an acquaintance who had lost everything in 2009 told me that she had never been happier. She had begun a simple discipline. Every day, she would not only list the things for which she was grateful, she would also speak them out loud.

With nothing to lose, I started my own list. Honestly, on the first day, I could only think of two things. First, I still had my wonderful wife in spite of losing just about everything else. Second, I still had respect from my children.

From there, slowly, my daily list began to grow, first with obvious things, then with small details I had too often overlooked. I even started timing myself to see how quickly I could bounce back after getting a disappointment. When I first started this new behavior it would take an average of two or three days before I could lift my head and start seeing the benefit of something gone terribly wrong.

That brought me to the loss of my home. I remembered something an old cowboy friend of mine told me, “Steve, never waste a good crisis; learn all you can from it.” Eventually, even though it was painful, I came to feel grateful for the theft of my home, because it has given me so much freedom and mobility.

Today, I’m able to spring back from disappointments more quickly than I ever imagined.  One of my little jokes when people know my situation and wonder how I can be joyful, is this: “The bank that burned me on my home drop kicked me through the goal posts of Zen mastership!”

I am the main beneficiary of learning to choose gratitude, but the benefits spill over to everyone around me. No one wants to hang around with someone who is ungrateful. It’s a bummer!

When I show gratitude, it’s like a magnet that draws healthy people to me. It’s irresistible. Being grateful brings me into the moment, the “now.” The past is regret, the future is anxiety, but my “now,” my present, has become wonderful and I AM GRATEFUL.

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Steve Nootenboom is an artist, filmmaker, and builder. He and his wife, Tanya, have been married 36 years and have four children and six grandchildren.  Steve and Tanya have pioneered two churches and aided in mission efforts to China, the Philippines and Mexico.  Steve still enjoys rock and ice climbing, sailing and hang gliding. The two of them are living a migratory lifestyle visiting their children and grandchildren. Check out Steve’s Facebook gallery page here.

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No More Jam on a S_ _t Sandwich – by Cyndi Wunder

I was sleepless last night. You know those nights, when you wake up at 2 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep? For me, lately, those have been nights of deep gratitude. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.

I get busy, super busy, and I overthink. Sometimes I get busy so I won’t overthink.  There is always something that needs doing. There is always an old memory to ruminate over to remind myself how I messed up. My mind climbs up on its hamster wheel and off we go.

So, this middle of the night thing? When I awaken slowly enough, and the overthinking is caught off guard, I become aware of this deep thread of love which underlies, supports and sustains my life. If I am smart enough, or tired enough, to just stop and notice, it’s incredibly lovely.

When I’m able to be still, I find myself resting in this gratitude. This gratitude shows up when I allow myself to be vulnerable to love. That sounds easy, but we all know it isn’t. It’s hard because love touches us deeper than anything else, and when it isn’t answered by love in return, or when there is loss, oh wow, that hurts! It cuts so deep.  It feels so vulnerable that I want to pull away from it. I start up my overthinking and consider all the ways love is lost, hurt, injured, or bereft. You know, so I’ll be prepared, my heart and soul armored and hidden away, just to be safe. It takes stillness and surrender to just sit and let it be, to let myself be loved. I don’t know that I could do it without the stillness, the comforting dark of night. So these long nights of deep solitude are transformed, and they are transforming me.

I have never been able to engage in the positive thinking so often recommended. It has always felt like a little jam smeared on a shit sandwich. It is too often the advice given to someone who is hurting. “Oh, it’s not so bad, you ought to practice gratitude,” as if that will make whatever is hurting OK. Gratitude is not an antidote to injustice. It is not a fence to ward off grief. The pain of life is real, and gratitude is not here to erase it. Gratitude is the tender awareness of a love so deep it slips into the dead of night, into every crack and crevice where pain and loss threaten to bring despair and hopelessness.  It is the moment you taste the beautiful sweetness of the breath you draw—when everything is squeezed out of you and you aren’t sure you can take another.

This gratitude is not created by willing myself to notice all the blessings I have. I’m adept at finding painful things, too. This gratitude shows up when I notice that even the painful things are suffused with love. It shows up when I notice that even the most awful things are still held in this love and that somehow, even against my will sometimes, I am sustained by this love. This gratitude shows up when I surrender and accept that this love is really, truly, for real, and it just keeps showing up, really, truly, here for me.

Cyndi

Cyndi Wunder describes herself this way: “I am a country girl with a can-do attitude, and I pastor a small church in Lodi, WI. I spend most of my free time with my dog Sheamus and my horse Tango.”

 


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Church Celebrates 40 Years of “Special” Ministry

Each Sunday as I looked out from the pulpit, theirs were the first faces to greet me—the FISH Class, a weekly gathering of intellectually challenged adults at Ridglea Presbyterian Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Following their Sunday school support group, they attended worship and always sat in the front pews.

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of this compassionate ministry. It was founded by a trio of women: Catherine Beard, Hazel Reed, and Helen Luckett. Hazel had a special needs daughter; Catherine, a grandson. Together, they asked Helen to play piano for the class’s weekly singing time. The name FISH was a simple reminder that Jesus calls us to be “fishers of people.”

Eventually, Helen took the helm, and now, at 94 years old, she is still there alongside four original members. The class calls Helen “Sunshine” because of her bright smile, but also as a tribute to the illuminating counsel and support she gives them through all the seasons of their lives.

Ridglea recently went through the painful sale of their historic building, which was just demolished. They are now leasing space as they proceed with plans for new construction. In the interim, all ministries—including the FISH Class—remain on track, and Helen looks back over four decades of service.

“When the class first started,” she says, “most of the members of our church did not know a mentally challenged person unless they had one in their family. It was an era when there was almost a sense of embarrassment or shame. People kept their special loved ones out of sight, out of mind. At first, our members were uncomfortable and would even avoid contact by walking on the other side of the room or sanctuary. But today, they are as much a part of our church family as anyone else.”

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As a former Senior Pastor at Ridglea, I testify to its warm inclusion. My special needs son, Kristoffer, now 21, was instantly embraced by these gracious folks.

I have other fond memories. I loved those Sundays following a Special Olympics event, as we had a chance to celebrate the victories of FISH Class members. When you see special needs adults standing before you, proudly wearing their medals on their chests, you understand the motto of the Special Olympics: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

The FISH Class influenced me another way; they helped mold my approach to preaching. I began to ask myself a critical question. Would I be able, at least in part, to share a message that touched hearts and minds across a wide range of intellectual abilities? It gave new meaning to Jesus’s admonition, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Helen is currently training a protégé to succeed her. I asked her to name the greatest lessons she has learned while serving these 40 years.

“Patience, patience, patience,” she says with a chuckle. “But also a joy for living! They have given me a wonderful sense of purpose all these years.”

The FISH Class has received accolades from numerous organizations in their community, including The Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens), and the Presbyterian Night Shelter. A few times a year, the class makes sandwiches for the shelter’s homeless residents.

“Until you have made sandwiches with the FISH class, you have not lived,” says Helen, laughing. “It’s total chaos. Everyone has their own method, but in the end it somehow works. We don’t have to do the things the same way!”

I pray that Ridglea Presbyterian and the FISH Class will continue to demonstrate this message of love and inclusion for another 40 years!

 

 


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I Am…

I am an old man with false teeth, my face like a blade in the wind.
I am a radiant saint, my feet barely touching the earth.

I am an immigrant mother, clutching my child at the border.
I am Gaia, shedding tears for all humanity.

I am a priest who serves in obscurity.
I am the one who thrills to His hands washing my feet.

I am a baby born addicted and alone.
I am the orphan who sees adoptive parents peering through the glass.

I am the palsied man hobbling across the finish line.
I am the special Olympian, resplendent with my medal in the sunlight.

I am an Unknown Soldier, the unsung soul in countless watery graves.
I am a drop in the ever-swelling tide of Redemption.

I AM

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We DESPERATELY Need “The Overview”

My daughter lovingly calls it my “coming out,” a booklet I wrote about the universalist spirituality evolving in my life. Called “Invitation to The Overview,” you can freely download it here.

The central image comes from space explorers. It is called the The Overview Effect—a term coined by writer, Frank White—that moment when we turn and see our planet suspended in the vastness of space. For everyone who experiences it, this vantage point is life-changing, transforming their view of Earth and humankind’s place upon it. EyeHere are firsthand words.

“Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.” – Sigmund Jähn, German Democratic Republic

“For those who have seen the Earth from space, and for the hundreds and perhaps thousands more who will, the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us.” – Donald Williams, U.S.A.

“A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.” – Taylor Wang, China/U.S.A.

In America, we no longer have a vision of what unites us as a country, let alone what binds us to humanity across the planet. Nationalism is not only ascendant in the United States, but in many other countries. This is regression, a return to tribal thinking, a reversal of our necessary evolution. It could ultimately destroy us.

I love New Zealand President Jacinda Ardern’s recent speech to the U.N., counterbalancing President Trump’s dismissal of globalism. After acknowledging our many international challenges, Arden said the following.

“If I could distill it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand it is simple and it is this.  Kindness. In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any.”

In his Teachings on Love, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of upeksha, a Buddhist concept that means equanimity or nondiscrimination. He says, “Upa means ‘over,’ and iksha means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indifferent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination. (This is) ‘the wisdom of equality,’ the ability to see everyone as equal…In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.” 

What if we internalized The Overview, tucking it like a pearl of great price into our hearts and minds? What if it caused a fundamental paradigm shift? What if national boundaries remained for governmental purposes, but we saw them from the global vantage point of our human family? What if the current conflicts that divide us were eclipsed by our critical need to create planetary tolerance, to galvanize our collective will and protect this pale blue vessel sailing in space?

Perhaps the deepest lesson I have learned in America’s current climate is that ALL of us—both progressive and conservative—can fall prey to the judgement and hardness of heart that disconnects us from others. We can ALL become complicit. Repentance and a change of behavior are necessary.

It begins by asking ourselves some hard questions. Do my politics, faith tradition, or life philosophy contribute to unity? Am I compelled to find peaceful dialogue with others, no matter how alien their worldview seems to me? Or, am I simply setting myself apart with an air of superiority?

It behooves all of us to pray the final words of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

 We DESPERATELY need The Overview!

 

 


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Of Sonograms, Ahab, and the Right to Choose

The young woman, daughter of a struggling single mother in our church, came to my 41259138_10215320604042836_1044465149362044928_noffice with a cloud of confusion surrounding her. She had just discovered she was pregnant, and her young lover—backed by his family and their money—was demanding that she have an abortion.

“I don’t know what to do, Pastor,” she said. “I feel like I’m too young to care for a baby, and I know I won’t get any help from his family if I decide to give birth. I’ve got so many feelings. Mostly I’m angry…pissed off at him and myself for not being more careful. But I’m also afraid and sad…”

Her voice trailed off as she hung her head and quietly cried. After a few moments, she looked up at me.

“What do you think I should do, Pastor?” she asked.

“First of all,” I said, “please know that whatever you decide, I will always support you.”

“I appreciate that,” she said, “but still, what do YOU think I should do?”

“I am deeply opposed to abortion,” I said. “My personal belief is that life begins at conception, and that the genetic material setting the stage for your child’s life is already present. I feel it is wrong to violently end what God has begun in the womb. But I also believe that as a man I can’t make decisions about what women decide to do with their bodies and their futures. That is why I am pro-choice, even though abortion seems tragic to me. If you can’t care for this baby, you might consider adoption as an alternative. But I truly mean this…whatever you decide is between you and God. I will always support you.

“What does your mother think?”

“She kind of surprised me. I expected her to freak out and lecture me, but she said that even though she would help with a baby, the decision was ultimately up to me.”

She sat up straighter in her chair, and it struck me how the magnitude of this choice was weighing on the shoulders of a 16-year-old teenager. She would never be the same.

“Thank you for sharing with me,” she said. “I still don’t know what I am going to do, but I appreciate everyone’s concern.”

“Of course,” I said. “You can talk to me any time you wish.”

I listened some more as she spoke about her relationship with her boyfriend. Then we had a prayer together and she left.

That memory returned recently when I saw a sonogram of the twins inside my daughter-in-law’s womb. My grandchildren are taking shape so quickly–small human beings, their features emerging. I’ve heard the arguments regarding unwanted infants born into poverty. I fully realize that the world is plagued by overpopulation, and that millions of children go hungry or suffer from violence. Still, a child in the womb is one-of-a-kind, an emerging creation like no other. What a miracle!

The confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have emboldened anti-abortion campaigners, most of them angry, self-righteous men. I read a comment in a recent editorial. It said that overturning Roe. v. Wade has become like Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick. Some will pursue it any way they can, supporting politicians whose morals are contrary to everything else they believe. In this one area—limiting a woman’s choice—they have the narrow-minded zeal of jihadists.

For myself, I hold fast to a key component of my faith tradition—that God has given each of us the sanctity of our own conscience, free from the dictates of other human beings.

That young woman made her decision, then returned to church two weeks later. I welcomed her with a hug.

 

 

 


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That Damn List on the Altar

She calls it her altar—a small, squat table at one end of her bedroom. Every morning, she sits on a pillow in front of it, lights a candle or two, and practices mindfulness, bringing OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAherself into the Presence. The altar is lovingly decorated with icons from her spiritual adventures around the globe: a spray of white sage gifted by a member of the Taos Pueblo, a Mayan-style amulet from a shaman in Cusco, a Celtic cross from the Iona Community in Scotland, a picture of her and her “sisters” dancing under a full moon near the ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

And then there’s the list. “That damn list,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. It was sent to her recently by close members of her family, a step-by-step outline of how to find the salvation that comes “only” through Jesus Christ.

When she received it in the mail, it stabbed her heart with multiple levels of grief. She knew once again that her path and the path of her loved ones were continuing to diverge. She knew that despite her efforts to foster mutual acceptance, there was no room for her brand of spirituality in their eyes. She grieved because love in all its fullness would not be mutually experienced in their relationship.

But she also felt the bile of anger, an acid taste that surprised her. It told her that she had not fully healed from her time among conservative Christians. She felt twinges of animosity towards their “our way is the only way” theology. She resented their efforts to reduce her rich complexity to either/or categories, a sickness she sees in our world at large, especially America. She even felt some recrimination towards herself for all the energy she has expended seeking the approval of others.

So, what did she do? She placed the list in a prominent place on her altar, unavoidable whenever she sits down to meditate.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because that list represents an area in my life that still needs healing, a buried resentment that is keeping me from freedom. My goal is that someday very soon, I will look at that list with only unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion towards my family, praying that God will surround them with the grace that leads to acceptance.”

Then she chuckled. “Meanwhile, I call it that damn list.”

After our conversation, I sat in my study and mulled her words. I recalled the countless times I have counseled people about the need for forgiveness during my decades of ministry. I thought of the metaphors I have used, including my favorite from Lewis Smedes, the “forgiveness guru.”

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

I ask you, dear reader: do you have a “list” in your life? A memory of a person or incident that stakes a dark claim to territory in your mind and spirit? If so, I ask you to seize the truth so clearly demonstrated in my friend’s life. Growing spiritually requires discipline and focus. We can heal, but it takes mindfulness. Moreover, the tools we need can be found in many world traditions and faiths.

Though my friend will not be called “Christian” according to any orthodox definition, her reason for pondering that “damn” list is one of the most Christ-like behaviors I have encountered in years.

As Jesus reportedly said, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”