Know When to Hold Em, When to Fold Em, and When to Just Walk Away- John 15

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
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Tools to prune branches.

I didn’t think that the yard work I did last Monday would turn into the subject of a sermon, but it fits perfectly with Jesus metaphor of vines and branches. My lilac shrub and this vine plant that I can barely stand needed to a cut, so with the beautiful weather, I didn’t want to miss my chance to trim a little of the plants. Here is a piece of the branch that I cut.

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What Jesus is talking about as fruit is faith. We can be confident he is talking about faith because he gives a clue. He says that those who are not bringing forth fruit will have to be pruned and thrown away. This is because they apparently are not drawing their life from Christ who is the Vine. They are cut off from Christ. Consequently, they are cut off from life. Their lives are fruitless and dead. They must be pruned and taken away and ultimately thrown into the fire. On the other hand, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” This is to say that Jesus has already cleansed, pruned, and trimmed his disciples that they might be able to yield the proper fruit. This is an essential point in the text…. They did not cleanse themselves. They did not make themselves fit branches for bearing fruit. Jesus himself furnished them with the righteousness to produce their fruit acceptable to the Divine Vinedresser.

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The point of all this pruning work is so that we “abide” in God. Really, the heart of John’s gospel message is to abide in Christ love.

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So, this week, I want us to think about the fruits of our faith. Jesus says it like this, a good tree bears good fruit. And in our text, Jesus is the vine. God is the vine grower. We are the branches and expected to bear fruit. We cannot do so unless we abide in the vine.

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Like the shrubs I trimmed, God removes branches that don’t bear fruit. God prunes those that do. God is glorified when we become disciples and bear fruit. And what this fruit is not spelled out.

But, we might take a cue from Paul, who wrote about bearing fruit long before John wrote his gospel: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…”(Galatians 5:22) If we consider this interpretation of fruit, love, peace, joy and such as the fruit, then John is saying we find these by dwelling in Christ.

Here’s this morning’s take away – the branches (disciples) cannot bear fruit (good works) apart from the vine. Our good deeds come from God. And if the branch tries to bear fruit apart from the vine, it will wither. Focus in abiding in Christ first, and the branch will eventually bear fruit.

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Being connected to Christ is the only way we can honestly know we are connected to the source which provides life.

It seems to me that in every parish I have served, there are a some who worked their fingers to the bone trying to do good at some point they flamed out. They weren’t connected to the vine. It’s our only source of energy, and we need reminding that we have to stay connected to Christ, the source of life. Some of us, rather than discerning God’s direction, operate frantically. Worship and prayer were secondary to some. I’m all for helping people, but without the spiritual food and drink, we will all eventually run out of gas.

Our spiritual lives are the food we need for a life of ministry, a life of walking the way of the cross. We can’t get there on our own. We need the energy from the vine to keep up going. So many of us take on too much and eventually we wither, like the seed that fell in rocky soil and then was withered by the sun because it didn’t have the depth of root. Even though some folks meant well, they got crispy from not receiving nourishment and fade away.  

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What are the things in my life that God calls me to Hold, Fold or Grow in my walk with Christ? Maybe I need to think about rearranging some of the priorities and values I profess to have??? Perhaps I need to do something more?  Possibly I need to cut back???   Pray about it and remember through your baptism your connection to the source of life.

And this week I want you to consider what you immerse yourself. What would it be like to immerse yourself in love? Specifically, what would it be like to immerse yourself in the love of Christ – to love as Christ loved?

Let us pray…. Amen.

Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

“Keeping the Edges Hot” a Reflection on Matthew 25

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Each year, after we hear God’s promise of eternal life on All Saints’, we focus our attention on the return of the Son of Man. When we reflect our awareness to what happens around us, it seems to be fitting that following our remembrance of God’s promise on those who have already entered eternal life through our commemoration of the saints, at some point, all we have known and will know will come to an end. We call this the cycle of life, and while our culture does it’s best to distract us from thinking about the end of things, the gospel calls us to be aware of the reality of life.

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         Jesus tells the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as a way of inviting our attention to the details of our life. In a real sense, it is a parable about spiritual literacy which, according to our passage means being alive to what life is telling us and an awareness of the presence of God in the darkness of the night.

         There are all kinds of delightful and essential things that are happening in front of us, but we often miss most of them because we are either too busy to notice or not awake to realize what is happening. Which seems to be Jesus point in telling this parable.

         This past week in our confirmation class, our class discussed how Christianity is similar and dissimilar to other world religions. Our youth talked about Buddhist and how meditation can lead to Nirvana or an enlightenment as a life path. Buddha says everything in life comes down to one thing- staying awake and being aware. And you remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Watch and pray,” Jesus says. “Remain with me.” He tells the disciples. And yet, the Bible reports that the disciples are unable to remain awake.

         God is in the details, and if we are not paying attention, we will miss the message. Paying attention requires disciple and practice. As a community of faith whose core is the Gospel message, we lift up and affirm our spiritual practices as a way in which we remain aware of the presence of God as a way to express our faith in Jesus Christ as a different way to live and be in this complicated world.

What does it mean to pay attention? Being alive and awake in the case of Jesus parable is to live intentionally without reservation in the here-and-now. To be attentive, we must put ourselves in a place where we are open and receptive and entirely present. This takes work and practice. There is no one “right” way to practice an awareness. Psychologist tells us based on brain scans that people who have a spiritual practice of consciousness and alertness have created more Alpha waves in their brains which in turn translates into a less stressful life and peaceful feeling. And conversely, if we are not aware and alert we can be distracted and eluded from what is supplying energy to our lives a thousand times over.

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         How often has each of us not fully embraces those moments of grace, epiphanies, and great insights because we have been too wrapped up in a hurried pace of life? Too busy to slow down to appreciate the good stuff that gives our lives meaning.

         Spiritually, too many Christians are just playing church. Just going through the motions. We say we want to follow Jesus as long as following Jesus fits nicely into my schedule and doesn’t require any time or monetary commitment from me. We might show up on a Sunday morning, but the message we come away with doesn’t do for us what it does for some of the other folks. We might not be aware of God’s presence in our life because we haven’t given any thought to the matter. And then we are in a rush to start the week ill-prepared because we’ve been so busy during the weekend that by the time Monday rolls around, and we get to the office, God’s message of life and meaning is as distant to us as last year’s vacation. Like the foolish bridesmaid who was ill-equipped for the darkness of the night, they were not alert for the moment at hand.   

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         Each day, each moment has its own needs. Each day has its own set of thoughts and words. Are we living in tune with what God is speaking to us? Because as the parable expresses no moment is trivial since each moment in time contains a spark of the divine. If we are not aware and present, we miss what God is speaking.

         Jesus parable of the bridesmaid is like our reminder of God’s grand banquet that is spread out before us, and God desires that we partake and seize the present moment to recognize God’s presence with us without any regret for the past or the future. Pledge to yourselves this moment and let the moment teach you. Surrender yourself to the moment and make it preach to you because the quality of each moment we are aware of the Life inside us determines the quality of life we lead.

         Where do we start? “Pastor, how can I be more in tune with the life that lives inside of me?” How can I be like the bridesmaid who was alert and awake? The starting point in the recognition that we are already on the journey. We can’t attain the presence of God anymore because we are already entirely in the existence of God. What is missing is our awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us with every breath we take in. Maybe the best way to be aware is not so much about what we need to learn or even attain, but rather what things do I need to unlearn so that I am more aware of God’s presence?

         I mentioned that our confirmation students class time was about world religions. Some might wonder why it would be essential to teach the students about other religions when we are instructing them in faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a fair question to ask, and I would answer that all religious teachers without exception have recognized that we humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.

         And what that might mean for many of us is that to be aware of God’s presences in our lives, we have to accept what is often difficult to realize that it is God who walks alongside the problematic moments in lives. That’s why Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Stay awake! And Remain watchful.” We have to learn to see what is there because if we want to remain awake and engage in spiritual practices remember what a spiritual exercise is designed to do – religious traditions help us to get rid of the illusions we hold so that we can be fully present. Spiritual methods exist to help us see who we are, what is happening in life and what is True. On the contrary, our mass culture is like scales over our eyes. We only see life through the material eye which will always desire to acquire more and more.

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   So then, if we are to believe and take to heart these words of Jesus, then we must start with what spiritual teachers coin a “beginner’s mind.” That is to be aware of the voices inside us that presume that we already see what God wants us to see. A beginner’s mind starts with the reality that I know nothing and has everything to learn. A beginner’s mind understands there may be no sufficient answer and that the questions we ask or more important than any answer given. A beginner’s mind is merely an awareness. An awareness that we cannot live in the presence of God, but rather that we are entirely surrounded by God.

         St. Patrick said it like this: “God beneath us, God in front of us, God behind us, God above us, God within us.”

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         To be aware and live means that we cannot earn God. We can’t prove ourselves worthy of God, but rather than that to be awake and alert is to be attentive to the reality that God is already present and because of that, we can enjoy the present moment. Right here. Right now. For sure, there are moments when this happens smoothly for us. When life makes sense, and all is right with the world.

         But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. Jesus pushes us further to see past our social edges. Can you see the image of Jesus in the least of your brothers and sisters? How about your enemies are those whom would cause you harm? Notice this parable says nothing about commands, or church attendance, nothing about church law. Jesus parable is only about our ability to see.

         Perhaps what it means to have oil in our lamps is when we can see the image of God where we don’t want to look and see, then we know not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus. Amen.

 

God’s Great Reversal – Matthew 20:1-16

I’m going to share a truth that we know is true, but for some reason, it’s easier for us to deny it.  The truth I’m speaking of is that sometimes life just isn’t fair.  It’s a reality that sooner or later we’re all going to face.  It’s best that we are learning this fact while you are in your first half of life than waiting until old age to discover this truth.  In fact, you can learn this truth in nursery school – Sometimes lives deals us lemons.

Sometimes that’s the way things happen, isn’t it?  Sometimes life isn’t fair.  So we learn to deal with the unfairness.  So, let me tie this life reality in with the Gospel text today.  It’s a crucial point that I don’t want you to miss in the text.  Saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying that God isn’t fair for two reasons.  First, of all, because God doesn’t owe you and me anything at all.  Like Luther said on his deathbed, “It’s true.  We’re all beggars.”  And second, God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s justice works.

Saying life is not fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair because God doesn’t owe us anything at all.  In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, the very opposite is correct.  We owe God everything:  our time, our talents, and our treasures.  The very life that lives inside each of us has been gifted to us; even the breaths that you take, the clothes on your back, the food that is prepared for you, even your health to some extent is a gift from God.   The simple fact is:  God doesn’t owe us anything.

As active disciples of Christ, we commit our lives to God.  We resist the urge not to show up or to sleep in on our Sunday morning to worship God.  We spend our hard-earned money and resources to support the work and ministry of our congregation.  We spend time in prayer and the study of Scripture when we could be golfing or some recreation.  Our confirmation students could do something with their one hour on Wednesday nights other than talking about faith formation.  You see, as active Christians, we follow Jesus, the landowner into the vineyard, where we are called to do the work of God.

For us, active disciples of Christ, things may not always seem the way we would like.  It doesn’t seem fair to us that some deserve God’s grace when they don’t even show up or participate.  We are the ones, after all, who’ve done most of the work, we tell ourselves.  The laborers in the parable that began picking the first hour of the day picked more grapes than those who started picking the last moment.  If that were to happen today, there would be an uproar; labor strikes and unions would lash out. It is only right that the reward for our work should be consistent with the time we put into our efforts.

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But this parable has nothing to do with economics, at least in the sense that we understand the economy.  It is not a description of how employers should treat workers.  It is, after all, a description of how God works in the kingdom of heaven.  God’s goodness may or may not be entirely understandable.  We don’t fully understand the grace of God.  And based on this parable, we may indeed think that God doesn’t operate fairly.

God’s not fair, according to our limited human reasoning.  In fact, if we put ourselves in the place of the laborers who started at sunrise or midmorning or even early afternoon, we have missed the point of the parable.  Jesus is the one who works from sunup to sundown.  Jesus is the one who has borne the burden of the day and heat.  Only Jesus has earned us salvation.  The grace is that God still calls us towards God’s self and gives us the full wage.   God offers you the promise of salvation, not because you have worked hard enough but because Jesus has done it for you.

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God gives us more than we can ever earn.  The Bible teaches that the wages of sin are death, but it is God who gives life.  The laborers in the vineyard all received a full day’s pay regardless of the hours they worked.  We have all been given salvation, irrespective of the sins we’ve been under.

And perhaps even more remarkable is that God has entrusted us to do God’s work.  In baptism, we’ve been given the work of a lifetime, and at the table, God renews us and then sends us out as labors to plant the seeds of God’s word, to speak to those who have never heard and to proclaim the word anew to those who have fallen away.

ripe-47423__480.jpgRemember that the kingdom of heaven is a gift, and in a way, we’re all latecomers, aren’t we? In Christ, it’s never too late to come home to the mercy of God. Thanks, be to God.  Amen.

 

 

Experiencing the “Wild Goose Festival” July 13-16, 2017 |Hot Springs, North Carolina

After my family returned from our time in Mexico, we hopped in the car for the nine-hour drive down to North Carolina to experience the “Wild Goose Festival” located in a small mountain town of Hot Springs.

If you haven’t experienced the festival, you should.

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What is the Wild Goose?  Simply put – the Wild Goose is a Celtic image for the Holy Spirit.  The metaphor of a wild goose is one which evokes the image of an active, beautiful and utterly unpredictable pattern of flight.   The wild goose is about adventure and surprise with a new variable direction.  The flight of the goose is one that is taking in a community.  Geese share a common direction, and they honk together in a manner that supports the other geese.

The festival is committed to being an inclusive community rooted in the Christian tradition of radical hospitality (welcoming all people – of faith, or no faith), non-violence, always evolving, and relationships between people matter.   Conversations are bold, and questions are most important.

The Wild Goose festival is perhaps best described as a gathering for the arts, music, spirituality, community, social justice and for those who are seeking a common humanity by breaking down stereotypes and the social imagination of North America culture.

 

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Participating in the conversation, “The Spiritual Parenting Revolution” with Lynyetta Willis

 

I attended a few workshops during my time at the Goose, although there are over 200 such workshops that attendees can pick from what is of interest to them.  On Saturday morning I attended a workshop entitled, “Conservatives are from Mars and Progressives are from Venus:  Finding Our Way in Another World.” The speaker, Jennifer Ould, invited us to think about what it might look like to invite and welcome those who are against us, and to include those who would like to exclude us.

If we want any sort of meaningful change in the world, we have to practice new ways of engaging each other and recognize in our own selves our anxieties and defenses that diffuse our ability to remain open to dialogue and to meet our fears with loving nonviolence.

I enjoyed participating in “Jams and Juice” with my family.  “Jams and Juice” is like karaoke for kids, or Beer and Hymns and hymns (minus the beer).

 

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My daughter, Linnea, along with others singing at “Jams and Juice.”

 

Another great session was one on personal relationships entitled, “The Value of Burning Bridges” hosted by the speaker, Melissa Greene.  Melissa spoke about the importance of burning bridges when, at times, it is necessary to move on from a relationship that is no longer healthy and life giving to allow a stronger, sturdier bridge to be built in place of the unhealthy ones.

 

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Melissa Greene discussing the value of burning bridges

 

I really enjoyed Beer and Hymns held each night at eleven.  It’s a beautiful thing when people sing together.  For many, this is a spiritual practice.  “Beer and Hymns” is the event that is just what the name indicates.  Local musicians including guitar, mandolin, according, banjos, djembe drums, washboards, play ‘spirit’ lead hymns that are played faster and louder than normal.