Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July

The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives
in United States History
by James Juhnke and Carol Hunter,
 (2004) discusses the nonviolent approach of the Quakers
during the American Revolution
As a child, I loved the Fourth of July and look forward each year to going to the fireworks display at Nassau Stadium in Princeton. But when I grew up and became a Quaker, I began to question  the pervasive violence of July 4th--the orgy of fireworks that makes some parts of our cities seem like war zones. When I hear the line "Bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there," I don't think of the British attacking Washington, DC; I think of Hiroshima, Dresden, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, and the drones that now are permitted to kill anyone, anywhere in the world, as long as our President gives his imperial seal of approval. That's why I never stand up for the National Anthem.

As the Fourth of July approaches, it is worth noting that Quakers did not celebrate this holiday, and it cost them dearly:

"The First official Fourth of July celebration did not happen until 1781, but on July 4th, 1776 there was some celebration in Philadelphia (Wood 121-122). In 1777 there were more celebrations than that of the first year (122). That day was also marked by violence. That year some homes of the Quakers were vandalized because others believed the Quakers were not patriotic because they did not celebrate the Fourth of July (122). The Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July because of their religious beliefs (122). Quakers did not “celebrate holidays that commemorated military victories” (122).

We are a nation that imagines itself to be peaceful, yet is the "largest purveyor of war in the world," as Martin Luther King once said, referring to the US arms trade (where we are still number 1). Americans believe passionantely in the myth of redemptive violence, and equate freedom with violence, because we imagine our nation could not have become free without a bloody revolution.

The Quakers in Philadelphia believed otherwise. They sent emissaries to negotiate with the British. They refused to accept tea that had been taxed, but instead of throwing it into the Delaware River, they quietly paid the British merchants to take it back to England. They did what they could to avoid war, and I believe the Quakers were right.

The example of Canada and Australia show that it was possible to achieve independence without bloodshed. It took time and patience, and I'm sure, a bit of cunning, but think of all the lives that were saved.

The Quaker historian and theologian Howard Brinton once wrote an article called "What If," imagining what might have happened if the Quaker emissaries had been successful and the Americans hadn't fought the British. We cannot know for sure how history might have unfolded absent "the shot heard round the world," but Brinton imagines the world might have been more peaceful if the Americans and British had stayed on more congenial terms. Perhaps slavery could have been abolished without a Civil War. And perhaps the Germans would not have launched the Great War if the English and Americans were more closely allied. One thing I know for certain: Francis Scott Key would never have written a national anthem about "bombs bursting in air."

Another thing I know for certain: my fellow countrymen have strayed far from the teachings of the one who said,  "The truth will set you free."

I am grateful to Lowell Noble, author of "From Oppression to Jubilee Justice," who recently wrote a meditation on the Fourth of July that speaks to me as a Quaker. I make it a practice never to say the "Pledge of Allegiance" or sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" because I have already pledged allegiance to a higher authority, the Prince of Peace.

 A Fourth of July Meditation on the Pledge of Allegiance

by Lowell Noble

What does "one nation, under God" do? It provides "liberty and justice for all" its citizens. This remarkable phrase "with liberty and justice for all" is a concise and precise summary of both the Jubilee/Sabbatical laws (Lev. 25) and the New Testament kingdom of God (Isa. 9:6-7; 61:1-4; and Luke 4:18-19).

 The famous cracked Liberty Bell has this biblical inscription: "Proclaim liberty through all the land unto all the inhabitants." The full message of the Jubilee ties liberty (freedom for the poor and oppressed) with doing justice (restoring land to the poor). The Liberty Bell precedes the Pledge by 140 years. Both the Liberty Bell (1752) and the Pledge (1892) emphasize the same point---liberty---, as does the Declaration of Independence (1776)---"Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." But only the Pledge specifically ties liberty and justice together. If I were given permission to change one word in the Declaration, I would make the following change: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Justice."

 What would the priorities be of one nation, under God, that pursues justice; the needs of the poor and oppressed, widows and orphans, immigrants and ethnic groups (our equivalent to the despised Samaritans and Gentiles). Pure religion, according to James, is reaching out to oppressed and neglected widows and orphans. Contrary to the practice of the Pharisees, one nation, under God, does not "neglect justice and the love of God." (Luke 11).

 Are we, as Americans "neglecting justice and the love of God" or are we pursuing "justice and the love of God" as Job did (Job 29:12-17; NIV and Noble paraphrase):

I rescued the poor who cried for help
and the fatherless who had none to assist him;
The man who was dying blessed me;
I made the widows heart to sing
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and turban.
I took up the case of the immigrant
I broke the fangs of the oppressor.

If Job were living today, he might add:

I will stop unjust mass incarceration.
I will organize the church to close the racial wealth gap.

A nation of Pharisees would emphasize justice and the law of God---a legalistic justice. A nation under God would emphasize justice and the love of God---a loving justice.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Small Church with a Huge Heart for the Homeless

Recently, I had the chance to interview Pastor Henry Sideropoulos, a friend of Jill's who has a church in our area (Northwest Pasadena) where many of the poor and homeless live.  His church. aptly named Agape (the Greek word for love), moved into our area because of its commitment to help the homeless.

I deeply empathize with Pastor Sideropolis' concern, and am challenged by his question: are we willing to make room in our hearts and in our homes for the poor?

Let me repeat this challenge to each of us: would happen if each of us who has spare rooms  opened up our homes to house the 1200 or so homeless folk living on our streets and help them get back on their feet?
It isn't easy, as this story makes clear. But the alternative is dreadful. Do we really want to live in a city where homeless people die on the steps of our churches, as recently happened here?
I'm grateful to God for Henry and his small church for caring deeply about the homeless,  and for doing what it can to provide them with a place to stay and an opportunity for a new life.

A Small Church with a Huge Heart for the Homeless

By Pastor Henry Sideropoulos, as Told to Jill Shook and Anthony Manousos

 “We are a small church of 90 members with a deep commitment to helping the homeless. We became specifically concerned with the homeless when we relocated to the east side of Pasadena and began to congregate on Colorado Blvd. by the older small motels and hotels.  We hired Ben Donley as Assistant Pastor in 2004 because of his passion for the homeless. In 2006 we moved to Northwest Pasadena and have been worshipping and praying in this area ever since.  Our concern for the poor and the repressed led to our church members and leaders prayer walking around the neighborhood lifting up their needs to God.
“One of the first homeless persons our church helped was a woman named D.W. who was living in a hotel paying $50 a day. She was an OR nurse who got into trouble because of a man who abused her, took her money and destroyed her car and left her pregnant and penniless. She lost her job and became homeless. She sought help at our church and eventually came to live at my home. We helped her move into Beacon housing’s Agape Court and to obtain two part-time secretarial jobs. D.W. became a member of our church. She was able to bring her four kids from Alabama and they are also part of our church and our youth group. We are pleased that we were able to take her out of the dire conditions she was living in and to be able to unite her family. She is “giving back” through her healing ministry.
“This was the first of three families that our church helped in the early days of our homeless ministry. We helped another homeless family of five move to Ohio, and another we helped move to a village in Japan with their family.

“Another homeless man we helped was mugged and had his neck broken while he was staying in a hotel.  He had to wear a cervical crown and brace. We took him in but unfortunately he died when he fell and re-injured himself. We helped to arrange a wonderful funeral for him and his family who were touched by the love and support that was shown to their loved one in the final weeks of his life.
“There was a homeless couple we met in Northwest Pasadena whom we helped get a Section 8 certificate and a place to stay. They began to attend our church and found fellowship and support both in church and in one of our small groups at the home of one of our members.  Unfortunately, they were kicked out of their housing because of the mental issues they suffered from and two members of our church put them up in their own homes for a total of about eight months.  After that we helped them find a place to stay on Washington Blvd. and helped them move in.

“We also helped a mentally ill member of our church to get into Agape Court.
“We became interested in purchasing a property to help the homeless when my daughter Ariadne got a job working for Door of Hope, a transitional home for homeless families. My brother and I felt this was a great time to buy, so we purchased an 8-unit apartment next to our church so we could use some these units for permanent supportive housing. After attending the Homeless and Housing Network for several years, we approached the City Council and they approved $184,000 to renovate our apartments for affordable housing for 30 years. We also wanted to apply for a grant from the Low Income Investment Fund. They were eager to support us because we also had space for a daycare center for children. Then we hit a roadblock when some of the neighbors complained. We were given permission only to do 4 units of permanent supportive housing and that didn’t work for us financially. As s result, we didn’t get the money from the City Council. This plunged us into a financial crisis. Fortunately, our bank reduced our interest rate from 10 ¼ to 7 per cent. We are still struggling financially. If we could obtain a low interest rate much of our financial problems would be diminished.

“Two families now live in our apartments that are on Section 8. One came from Union Station and another from Door of Hope. One of the families—a husband and wife with four kids—have stayed there for three years and are fairly stable, although the husband struggles with a drug problem. The other is a single mom with three kids, one of whom has severe psychiatric problems. We had problems with her because she wasn’t paying her rent. She is now paying rent, but we feel it’s not a good fit.
“Five members of our church work for Door of Hope. Richard Benjamin, our youth pastor, has been the Program Director of Door of Hope for the last year and a half. His brother Adam was recently hired to assist Tim Peters, the director of Door of Hope, and Jessica Spicer and Anne Tan, two of our members, also work with children at Door of Hope. 

“As a result of our personal connection with Door of Hope we now have five formerly homeless families, now residents at Door of Hope, who are currently attending our church, some of whom have become or are becoming members. Some of them are receiving inner healing and one is leading a Bible study.
“We have an agreement with the Door of Hope that we will try to help “graduates” find affordable housing.”

Pastor Sideropoulos wrote up an inspiring message about a homeless man who died on our doorstep.

"This morning a friend of mine texted me that there was a lot of commotion in front of our Agape’s church building, on Washington Blvd.  I got there as soon as I could, to find a number of police officers and police cars, in front of our sanctuary, busy investigating and taking pictures of a homeless man who died, literally on our doorsteps, next to the Fire Riser!

:I found out later from one of our tenants from the apartments next door that he had had trouble with alcohol and had been to Huntington Hospital many times…the doctors could not do anything more for him.
"I am saddened, of course, that another homeless man has died in the streets of our City.

"God’s message is loud and clear: What is everyone of us doing for this frustrating, pernicious, embarrassing problem, that presents itself on our City’s doorstep?!
"What am I doing? What is Agape Christian Church doing? Project Housed is on its way to immediately house the most vulnerable of our homeless. Too late for this man!

 "I don’t know why he chose that spot to sleep off his last night’s food and drink. Is God trying to tell Agape something?
"We are doing our part, of course: He died on our doorstep because we are no longer in East Pasadena, where we’ve been from 1981 to 2006. We are here, in NW Pasadena. We are part of the continuum of care and are providing Permanent Supportive Housing for those who have been fortunate enough to be housed at Door of Hope, Union Station or other transitional housing and shelters.

"We have actually taken the next step…well, let’s give some more credit to God-God orchestrated this- some of our staff and members of Agape have been working and referring previously homeless families to our church! So we have the privilege of having previously homeless families now become
members, ministers and leaders at Agape!

"God for His wonderful works…in spite of our goals!
"But here’s what’s on my heart this morning: I can’t help but believe there is something else we can do. Something that’s simple, loving, Biblical, and organizationally more effective. Something that is right under our noses.

"It’s simply making a decision that we are going to house everyone of the 1200 homeless people that live on our streets and in our shelters occasionally, by making room for them in our hearts and in our homes!
"There, I’ve said it. Is it radical? Is it impossible? Is it dangerous? How many empty bedrooms in our houses? How many back yards are there in Pasadena? How many empty buildings waiting for…?

 "Even more important: When will the Church Of Christ rise up, come out of its silos, join hands and form the unbroken circle of love and compassion that Jesus was known for, when He walked the streets of this earth?”

The Gospel of John as a dramatic narrative, with a Zen Buddhist perspective

To prepare for our series on the Gospel of John, we invited people to our home to watch the film version of this story. As wikipedia explains: This 2003 film is "a word-for-word basis from the American Bible Society's Good News Bible. This three-hour epic feature film follows John's Gospel precisely, without additions to the story from other Gospels, nor omission of complex passages."

Wiki goes on to say: "This film was created by a constituency of artists from Canada and the United Kingdom, along with academic and theological consultants from around the world. The cast was selected primarily from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Soulpepper Theatre Company, as well as Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre. The musical score, composed by Jeff Danna and created for the film, is partially based on the music of the Biblical period."

With an outstanding cast, and quality production values, this film is well worth seeing.

Around eight people showed up for our home showing of "The Gospel of John." Among those present was my friend Joseph Prabhu, a professor of religion and philosophy who used to be an acolyte for Mother Teresa and a student of Ramon Panikkar, the great Catholic theologian; and Betsy Perry of All Saints. Neighbors and friends of Jill also showed up, making it a very diverse and interesting crowd.

It was powerful and fascinating to watch the 2-hour version of John's Gospel (the complete one is 3 hours long). As someone trained in literary criticism, I was fascinated by the narrative as a dramatic whole. In Jesus' time, people with dramatic gifts for storytelling would have memorized the entire story and told it to an audience in one sitting--just as we would go to a movie. (It is probably not accidental that each of the Gospels is about the length of a feature film or a play.)
I wonder if any theologian/scholar has approached reading/interpreting each Gospel as a self-contained dramatic narrative. Bill Lesher, a distinguished professor and scholar, told me that a scholar he knew had memorized the Gospel of John and recites it to his students. What a powerful experience that must be!

What leaped out at me watching and listening to the Gospel of John was the focus on the word "authority," which was used repeatedly for dramatic effect. Who has authority? Who has real power?
The Sanhedrin claimed to have authority because of its reliance on Scripture, the Torah of Moses, but Jesus blows that claim out of the water by saying that unless you have a direct connection with the Father, or at least believe in the one that the Father sent, you can't really understand Mosaic law. Pilate also claims to have authority and power, but Jesus makes it clear that Pilate's power comes from "above." Then there's the strange moment when Jesus gives Judas the bread soaked in sauce and "the devil enters him" and Jesus tells him to "do what he must do." Even there, it is clear that Jesus/God is in charge: Judas/the devil cannot betray Jesus without permission from God/Jesus, who has the ultimate power and authority.

(Quakers were drawn to the Gospel of John because he insisted that we need this direct relationship with God and the Inward Light of Christ and the Holy Spirit in order to understand Scripture and live a faithful life.)

The Sanhedrin's claim to authority is revealed to be hollow when they tell Pilate: "We have no king but the Emperor." At that moment, Jesus' claim to real authority is vindicated. The Jewish "powers-that-be" are in cahoots with Rome. Jesus is the true liberator, the Messiah, the Son of God.

 I was also struck by the irony in the final scenes. Caiaphas cynically tells the Sanhedrin "It is expedient that one man die for the good of the nation," not realizing that Jesus' death is in fact part of God's plan to save not only Israel, but the whole world. Similarly, Pilate is not aware of what he is really doing or saying when he cynically writes "King of the Jews" on the cross of Jesus. Pilate is doing this to irritate the leaders of the Jews, whom he has come to despise, but in so doing, Pilate has uttered a profound truth he is too worldly to understand. Jesus really is king not only of the Jews, but of the world.

The other device I noticed was how Jesus baits his opponents, saying outrageous things that force people to make a choice and reveal their true nature. In so doing, he unmasks the structural violence inherent in domination system, as well as how hard it is to break free of that system.

His baiting of the religious leaders reminds me of a Zen story about a samurai who went to a Zen master to ask if Buddhists believe in heaven and hell.

 The Zen master replied. "What a stupid question! I can't give you an answer because you wouldn't understand."

 The samurai became infuriated and lifted his sword to kill the Zen master.

 "Ah," said the Zen master. "Now you are in hell."

 The samurai paused to think about this strange response.

"Ah," said the Zen master. "Now you are in heaven."

Fortunately for the Zen master, the Zen master "got it," laid down his sword and became a disciple.

Jesus was not so fortunate. The powers-that-be didn't lay down their swords, but by killing Jesus, they revealed that they were indeed in league with the devil, that is, with the Roman authorities, and out of touch with God.

The last scene in which Jesus interacts with Peter is also a literary masterpiece. The way in which Jesus reveals that he has forgiven Peter for betraying him three times is brilliant. And the emphasis on "feeding my sheep" is a beautiful way of re-framing the Great Commission: to be lovers/followers of Christ, we must nourish people physically, spiritually and emotionally. What a beautiful way to end this Gospel!
(Speaking of "feeding sheep," Jill makes yummy cookies and other goodies for our gathering!)

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Subversive Wisdom of John

For the past couple of weeks we have held meetings in our home to discuss the "subversive wisdom" of John's Gospel. Homeland security, take note!

The leader of this study has been Bert Newton, a Mennonite community advocate and organizer of the Palm Sunday Peace Parade (where Jill and I met). Bert has just published a book with the provocative title: Subversive Wisdom: Sociopolitical Dimensions of John's Gospel, which has received accolades from two people I deeply respect. Ched Myers, the author of Building the Strong Man: A Political Rading of Mark's Story of Jesus, writes:

"This study of John's story of Jesus exhibits remarkable brevity and depth, passion and thoughtfulness. The often perplexing Fourth Gospel comes alive, both in its context and ours."

Jill Shook (my wife) writes enthusiastically:

"Subversive Wisdom provides a deeply biblical rationale for hope and courage to live Jesus' radical message, even when it seems all hope is lost. I recommend that every pastor and leader not only read this book but also teach it and allow it to transform their understanding of John's Gospel."

For the past couple of weeks, the Gospel of John has come alive in our home. We began by showing the film "The Gospel of John," narrated by Christopher Plummer--a powerful, word-by-word dramatization of this story. Around a dozen people attended. I'll say more about my response to this film in another post.

Bert began the first session of our study of John’s gospel by inviting us to role play.

“Who would like to meet the Jesus of John’s gospel?”

When a woman volunteered, Bert shook her hand and asked, “What’s your name?”


“Well, I am the light of the world,” responded Bert. “No one comes to the Father except through me. I’m telling you the truth. If you don’t believe in me, your Father is the devil.”

Then he asked, “How did my words make you feel?”

“Awful,” Cathy replied. “I felt manipulated.”

Bert went on to say that many pious readers of John’s Gospel don’t ask themselves why Jesus speaks in such a bold and seemingly offensive way. This isn’t how Jesus talks in the synoptic Gospels. In these Gospels Jesus is usually self-effacing about his role as the Messiah. He speaks in parables that refer to the Kingdom of God, not so much about himself.

Bert’s explanation for the boldness of John’s Jesus is fascinating and compelling: Jesus is “impersonating” Lady Wisdom of Proverbs who also speaks boldly, proclaiming herself to be the source of all that is true and good. Like Lady Wisdom, Jesus cries out on the street and claims that he offers the bread and wine of true life.

As we explored the parallels between the words of Jesus in John and Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, it became clear that the authors of John were drawing this comparison for important political as well as theological reasons.

“John’s Gospel turns the traditional patriarchal male stereotypes upside down,” said Bert.
Jesus validates the woman who washes his feet with her hair and with fine perfume. He not only lifts her up as an example to follow, he himself washes the feet of his disciples to remind them that his followers must be like her—humble and lovingly devoted to others. This is a far cry from the role that male leaders traditionally assume.

(Footwashing was also practiced as a form of hospitality among Jews. According to a Jewish wesbite, "The ritual washing of hands and feet has been an important Jewish symbol for generations. In Genesis, Abraham washed the feet of the three angels who visited him at his tent both as an act of welcome and as a token of his esteem." The Bible says that Abraham ordered water to be brought for footwashing, not that he did it himself. But the tradition is one that Jesus no doubt knew and was following.)

As we explored the text more deeply, it became clear that Jesus was affirming the aspects of God we traditionally associate with females and servants. He not only washes his disciples’ feet, he also feeds them breakfast when he makes his last appearance on the shores of the sea of Galilee. This is very different from the dramatic ascension to heaven in other Gospels. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ final message isn’t “proclaim my Gospel” but “feed my sheep.”

Bert’s reading of John opened up new perspectives for us and helped us to see the Jesus of John’s Gospel in a new light.

This week we explored the concept of the “Son of God” in relation to Old Testament teachings as well as the claims of the Roman empire. More will be said about this session in my next posting.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reflection for Kathleen's Day of Remembrance

"I am so happy to be back at this church," said Pastor Kathleen Ross, her voice quivering with emotion, "I can hardly hold back the tears." These words were spoken at Walteria United Methodist Church this Saturday afternoon three years after Kathleen's death at a special "Day of Remembrance" service. Around 50 people gathered for this special occasion, and many were moved to tears (I know I was) when they saw Kathleen's image projected above the pulpit and heard an audio recording of her spiritual journey--a sermon she gave 25 years ago at Orange United Methodist Church. (See

I decided to have this three-year memorial in part because it is a Greek orthodox tradition, and in part because this seemed like the right time to honor her memory and scatter her ashes. For the past three years, her ashes have been in an urn in my office. They needed to return to the earth from which they came so that Kathleen's spirit can soar free, and so I can move on with my new life and my new wife.

My new wife Jill was very understanding and was a huge help with this commemoration. She and I baked bread together for communion. It took us three tries because we had trouble with the yeast and the bread wouldn't rise, but we finally produced a beautiful and yummy loaf of white bread flavored with herbs from the garden. Kathleen's Greek orthodox cousin Karen said this was because of the trinity: everything spiritual has to happen in threes!  Jill also baked cookies for the reception afterwards.

During the service we sang some of Kathleen's favorite hymns, such as "Hymn of Promise" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Jill read Kathleen's favorite scripture passage, Roman's 8: 34-39:

"I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come nor power nor height nor depth nor any other created thing will be able to separate us form the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord."
There was also a time of sharing in which those who knew Kathleen had a chance to share memories. I shared a reflection which is included here.

After the service and fellowship, Jill and I went down to nearby Riviera beach and walked down to the end of the cove where there are few people and many rocks. It was a gorgeous day, with the wind blowing briskly and the sky vibrantly blue and wind surfers skimming across the waves. When we finally arrived at the rocks,  I kneeled down, opened the urn and carefully scattered the ashes as Jill watched, her eyes brimming with tears. Soon the waves began to wash the ashes away and we both had a good cry. It was hard, but good, to share this experience together as a newly married couple.

I am grateful to Jill for appreciating Kathleen, and understanding why she continues to be important in my life. And  know that Katheen would be well pleased that I have chosen Jill to be my new wife and spiritual partner. Jill is an amazing woman, one I am glad I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know and love.


    I am thrilled to be here with my friends at Walteria UMC. As Kathleen made abundantly clear in her moving spiritual journey, she loved the Methodist church, and so do I. Kathleen loved Walteria United Methodist Church, and so do I. She would be thrilled to learn that this church is thriving: its fledgling children's center is growing, its vacation bible school is flourishing, and its hotmeal program continues to be a place where God’s beloved community gathers each month, and where guests are treated like kings and queens.

    Kathleen would be pleased that this church continues to have a deep and ongoing commitment to the poor and to children—those for whom Christ felt a special love.
     I know that Kathleen would also be pleased that a special fund has been established in her name at Walteria United Methodist Church. Contributions to this fund will be used to help the homeless and the new Children's Center. Kathleen would be very happy to learn that this school is sharing with children the good news about God's love.
    When Jesus’ disciples tried to keep him from being distracted by a group of parents with their noisy kids, Jesus rebuked them, saying: “Let the kids come to me. You can’t enter the Kingdom of God unless you are like these kids.”
    I want to begin by sharing a story about Kathleen and children that she found embarrassing. As you know, Kathleen was always involved in starting children’s programs, and she was especially interested in reaching out to children who were unchurched. At the preschool at Del Rosa UMC, Kathleen started a chapel for these unchurched kids. She told Bible stories and taught them songs, with lots of gestures, and the kids loved it. Kathleen had a real gift with children.

    Well, one day Kathleen decided to put up pictures of Jesus in the room where the kids met for chapel. When some of the kids arrived early, one of them asked their teacher, “Who is that man on the wall?” The teacher replied, “That’s Jesus.” The child responded with the kind of absolute certitude that only children can muster: “No, it isn’t.” The teacher was taken aback. “What do you mean it isn’t Jesus?” The child replied, “It doesn’t look anything like Pastor Kathleen!”
    Kathleen was embarrassed by this story. But for me, this story embodies a profound truth. Anyone who lovingly shares the message of Christ with children becomes Christ for that child. In fact, any of us who shares the message of Christ with anyone becomes Christ for that person. The child understood this deep truth, and I have never forgotten it.
     Kathleen loved the poor and homeless, and was always doing what she could to help them. Through her example I came to realize how important it is that we have friends who are poor, and to do what we can to help our friends.
       Kathleen also loved people of different ethnicities, and that’s one of the most appealing things about the Methodist church: it is truly a rainbow community, with people of all races and nationalities. Kathleen loved to support and nurture start-up ethnic congregations, like the Korean congregation here at Walteria.
      Kathleen was a contemplative. At one point in her life, she wanted to become a nun, until she found out the Methodists don’t have nuns! I’m sure glad she wasn’t born a Catholic! Kathleen was also interested in healing prayer. During our cancer journey, we both went to a class on something called “laughter yoga.” As you may know, laughter helps the immune system, as Norman Cousins helped to prove. Kathleen tried laughter yoga to help with her cancer treatment. It didn't cure the disease but it sure made us feel a lot better. I'd like to share with you a video of Kathleen practicing laughter yoga with her guru.

   I don't know who has the better laugh, Elmo or Kathleen!
    Kathleen was my teacher as well as my wife. She taught me how to live like a Christian, how to love like a Christian, and how to face life-threatening illness and death like a Christian. And after her death, she continues to provide me with guidance and inspiration.

There have been many times when I have felt her presence, but one stands out as particularly memorable. It occurred about six weeks after Kathleen passed. I had to go to the DMV to have the title changed on her car. Because I dislike crowds, I decided to go to the DMV early so I could be the first in line when it opened. When I entered the DMV, it was utterly quiet. Then I heard a woman singing. She was a large black woman and she was singing “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
     She was the woman who was supposed to wait on me.
     As she sang, I joined in and the two of us belted out this hymn with lots of gusto. It was as if we were in church.
     When we finished, she and I smiled at each other. Then I spoke:
     “You need to know something about why I am here. My wife passed away six weeks ago and I am here with her death certificate so I can have the title changed on her car. She died of cancer and this is the song we sang together every morning when we got up.”
      This black lady and I looked at each other and we knew that this was a holy moment and that Kathleen was present. This woman shared with me about her struggles to be a Christian at the DMV and how hard it was sometimes to be loving when people are mean and difficult. And I shared with her some of my struggles. It was a precious moment when we connected at a deep spiritual level.
     Kathleen's death changed my life in many positive ways. I became much more open to the pain and suffering of others. People with problems came to me, and I could listen with more empathy. I visited the sick as Kathleen used to do. And I became the clerk of Pastoral Care in my Quaker meeting.
     I came to understand better the meaning and the power of Jesus' resurrection. Like me, Jesus' disciples were very slow learners. They didn't get the power of Jesus' message of love until he died. It was only when he was no longer physically present that they become empowered with the Holy Spirit and were able to practice what Jesus preached and exemplified.
    Since Kathleen went home to God, I have learned that Love never dies, and that those we love can live on in our hearts, if we let them, and empower us to live more fully and deeply the life that God calls us to live. A life of love and service. A truly abundant life.
     When Kathleen was diagnosed with cancer, she didn't despair. She did everything she could to be cured, but she also prepared to die like a Christian. She even prepared for her memorial service. She choose the hymns, the order of worship, and even the pastor she wanted to lead the service.
She also made plans for me in case she wasn't around. She knew that I needed a wife, and thanks to her, I was a well-trained husband, so she told a close friend of hers that if she passed, it was okay for me to get remarried. A year after Kathleen died, this friend told me what Kathleen had said about remarrying. I am grateful for Kathleen's thoughtfulness. It made it a lot easier for me to move on with my life.
      I am deeply grateful to God for my new wife Jill who embodies many of the qualities I admired in Kathleen. Jill and I met at the Palm Sunday Peace Parade in Pasadena; and like Kathleen, Jill is passionate about peace and justice. Jill loves Jesus and expressed that love by loving the poor and children. Jill started a tutoring program for low-income kids in Pasadena, and works tirelessly to help provide affordable housing for those in need. I believe that God brought Jill and me together to continue the kind of ministry that Kathleen and I practiced in our marriage. Kathleen provided the chalice and Jill and I made the bread for the communion. And Jill also made the cookies you’ll be enjoying afterwards. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us remember Kathleen by rejoicing and being glad in it.

The Secret of Happiness, According to the Apostle Paul

I shared this "secret" with guests at the hotmeal program at Walteria United Methodist Church this past Saturday. Every second Saturday around 60-80 people--mostly homeless, or very low income folk--show up for food and fellowship at this small, but big-hearted church. I have been part of this fellowship for many years and have come to see this motley, good-hearted group as my spiritual family. When Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a party in which everyone is invited, but the rich are too busy to attend, I always think of Walteria's hotmeal feast--where the homeless gather along with middle class volunteers of all ages and religious backgrounds, and there is an outpouring of love and friendship along with good homemade cooking. This past Saturday I shared this reflection just prior to the "Day of Remembrance" service for Kathleen, my wife of blessed memory. Many of those present knew and loved Kathleen, who was the pastor of Walteria UMC for six years and ardently supported the hotmeal program. After I spoke, several people came up to me and said how moved they were. One man, who was drunk and something of a comic, told my wife Jill: "I was almost moved." That was quite a compliment, coming from this sardonic gentleman!

Today I’d like to share with you the secret of happiness, according to the Apostle Paul.  Paul considered himself a happy man, even though he decided to give up his privileged status as a Roman citizen and a Jewish religious leader to live like Jesus and like the poor and homeless. Paul willingly and even gladly suffered many hardships as he traveled about the Roman empire sharing the Gospel of Christ. He was beaten up, jailed, and even tortured. But he was always content. He told himself, and us, to rejoice in the Lord at all times and in all situations. He knew that God gives us what we need, and so this is what he said in his letter to the Philippians (not to be confused with the Filipinos: as a preacher did at the World Conference of Friends, where people of different nations gathered).

"Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus."

Paul goes on to say:

"I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength."

I love the idea of being content with whatever we are given—whether it’s a full stomach or an empty one.  But I know it isn’t easy. I often found myself tempted to complain about this or that—my computer isn’t working, or my electrical bill is too high. But then I think: At least, I have a computer and I have electricity.

I’m glad that all of you here full stomachs today, but we never know about tomorrow, do we? I had a rabbi friend who was always happy and I wondered about why, so I asked him. He paused and thought for  a moment and then said, “I guess I’m always content because I never know what I want until God gives us to me.”

My teacher and friend Gene Hoffman used to say: “Treat everything that happened to you as if it’s something you prayed for.”

Wow, treat everything that happens as if it’s something you prayed for. That’s pretty easy to do when you are sitting with friends having a nice meal. But what about when you’re hungry, when you’re sick?
Many of you know that my wife Kathleen died of cancer three years ago. Soon after she got the diagnosis of cancer, she had a dream in which she heard the phrase: “Treat everything that happens to you as if it’s something you prayed for.”

That was a hard saying when you have cancer! Who in their right mind would pray for cancer!

Yet we would pray to be closer to God, closer to our loved ones and to our friends. We would pray to know what love is really all about. And sometimes that’s what happens to you when you or your loved one has a life-threatening illness. You learn how precious life is, and what a miracle life and friendship are, and you feel God’s presence as you have never felt it before. This doesn’t happen to everyone. You have to be open to what God has given you, and to see the blessing in the hard times as well as the good times.

Kathleen and I went on a cancer journey that wasn’t easy, or painless, but it taught us many important lessons. Among other things, we learned the meaning of true love. When Kathleen had beautiful long hair, I loved her. When she had chemo and her hair fell out, I loved her even more. I have always appreciated friendship, but when I went on a cancer journey with Kathleen, I came to realize how incredibly important friendship is. To paraphrase the Beatles, I couldn’t have gotten by without the help of my friends. And I couldn’t have gotten by without my faith in God. It was God who showed me the blessing that comes with having one’s heart broken. After all, Jesus told us:

“Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst after justice.”

The have-nots are blessed? It sounds crazy. Yet turn those beatitudes around and you’ll see Jesus had it right. Blessed are those who never mourn. If you never mourn, that means you’ve never really loved. Is that how you want to live your life? Blessed are the rich, the arrogant, the merciless and those who hunger for injustice.  I don’t think so. Anyone who lives a life of riches without mercy or justice cannot be truly happy.
Paul had it right. He had been privileged and he had been poor, and it was all good, as long as he was following in the footsteps of Jesus, as long as he was true to the Lord. I don’t just believe Paul’s words, I know them to be true from experience. And that’s why I can rejoice today as I remember my dear wife Kathleen of blessed memory and the song we used to sing every day during our cancer journey.

“This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Let’s sing this song together. [And sing it we did, with great gusto.]

Thank you, and remember that you are all invited to a special service honoring Kathleen at 1:00 PM. This service commemorates the third year since she passed away.  In the Greek orthodox traditions, widows and widowers make bread and have communion and then share their bread with the world. My new wife Jill and I made bread for this special occasion. We also have established a Kathleen Ross Fund to help the homeless and to support the Children’s Center here at Walteria UMC. I hope you’ll join us on this special occasion.