Author Archives: Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt

Making Holy

One of my favorite things about the holidays, right along side those Salvation Army bells ringing my heart awake again and again, is to rise before the sun and go down and sit in the glow of the Christmas lights for my spiritual practice. There, I always include Andrea Bocelli, with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, singing The Lord’s Prayer. And, each time I listen, I am absolutely certain I have been transported to heaven. There is no doubt! This morning, New Year’s Day, I woke especially early as I knew it would be the last morning for this my most special time with God – at least in the glow of those silver, red, green and gold starlight, star bright, lights.

Each line of The Lord’s Prayer, particularly when I say it in the language of Jesus, Aramaic, makes my heart quiver with some melody always new to me and I am left still, quietly suspended in some state of unnamed wonder. This morning, the second line has particularly captured my heart: Nethqadash shmakh, Hallowed be thy name. It feels appropriate for the New Year as Nethqadash means to make “holy” and, in particular, signals the need for a kind of clearing, a setting apart, of our most consecrated self for the purpose of preparing for a specific purpose.

To walk in the full awareness of our inner holiness brings the deepest humility. Unable to name, contain or fully explain that which created us, breathed us into life and sustains our every heartbeat, leaves nothing but silent gratitude in its wake. And, as Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is within (Luke 17:21 King James Bible), suddenly, we realize that we, being made in the image of God, are hallowed, that we too have a hallowed name, a unique vibration that point us in the direction of our true purpose just waiting and ready to serve the greatest good.

Hallowed in a time when it appears we have entered into the valley of the shadow of death. Hallowed when it appears truth and justice have become arbitrary and faith, hope and love mere sentiments. Hallowed when hatred has become sanctified as normal. Hallowed when intimidation and discrimination have become the status quo. Hallowed when the new Commandment given by Jesus in John 13:34, “Love one another as I have loved you,” has taken a back seat to personal and national aggrandizement. Hallowed when it appears we are no longer able to see, beyond color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, our brother, our sister standing there right before us.

Hallowed! This is our great charge! To walk humbly through this valley with our God; to raise the sword of justice and offer hope to all who suffer; to speak love when we hear hatred; to allow no one on our watch to be marginalized; to humbly and vigorously seek the true nature of love for others as our self; to practice adjusting our vision to see, regardless of circumstance, our brother, our sister right there in front of us, on the street or around the world.

Maybe then, just maybe, we may come to know the true meaning of Nethqadash shmakh…

To know, more fully, the great blessing of walking, humbly and courageously, right through this valley of the shadow of death…

making Holy…

Happy New Year Everyone!

 

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And the Bells They’re Ringing…

The holidays are not an easy time for many. Infused with emotions, they can make despair even more poignant and any expression of love feel cold and superficial. And, so it was for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863. His country was embroiled in a war he hated. His son had returned home with severe wounds. His beloved wife had died after a freak accident in their home two years before and he was sorely missing her. In his sadness he had written, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays. I can make no record of these days. Better to leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

But, on this Christmas Day, with the Civil War still raging, he wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells” which would become the beloved Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In the first part of the poem, he unabashedly records his despair:

I heard the bells on Christmas day.

Their old familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet their songs repeat

of peace on earth good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head.

“There is no peace on earth,” I said.

For hate is strong and mocks the song

of peace on earth good will to men.

Have there not been Christmases when we have felt the same? Have there not been times when those bells we heard rang empty, not true? But, toward the end of the poem, something happens for Longfellow. Let’s listen:

Then rang the bells more loud and deep.

God is not dead nor does He sleep.

The wrong shall fail. The right prevail.

Peace on earth good will to men.

 

Then ringing singing on His way.

The world revolves from night to day.

A voice, a chime, a chance of life

of peace on earth good will to men.

Somehow those bells rang more loud and deep and he remembered that God is not dead. No, indeed, for to know God is to know life! And, God does not sleep. Indeed not, for in each moment He is guiding, honing, sounding, walking, shaping us in, around, and through our very breath. And, suddenly, a remembrance, and a peace not-known-before bathes away despair leaving only the sound of those bells echoing through the chambers of his heart. And, Jesus’ words in John 4: 27 now rang true, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you: not as the world gives, I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

And, suddenly, we too hear the bells…as Casting Crowns’ version of this carol sings…

And the bells they’re ringing…Peace on Earth

Like a choir they’re singing…Peace on Earth

And in our hearts we’ll hear them…Peace on Earth

Good will to men

 

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing?

Peace on Earth

Like the angels singing

Peace on Earth

Open up your heart and hear them

Peace on Earth…Good will to men

In our Christmas worship, we gathered and sang out with full voice and unleashed emotion Peace on Earth…for we heard the bells a’ ringing…Peace on Earth…and we sang like angels singing…Peace on Earth…! And, as I looked out I knew there were some of us who were facing deeply challenging times and still…we stood and held together and with open hearts we sang out…Peace on Earth…!

 And, in that moment, I knew there was nothing we could not do – together…

So now, with those bells still a’ ringing, echoing through the chambers of our collective heart, I pray we too will hear those bells on Christmas Day…and every day…

Ringing out…Peace on Earth…Good will to men…

 A Blessed Merry Christmas Everyone!

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Don’t Tell Heaven…

Shhhhhhh…don’t tell heaven it’s not heaven. Let this be our special secret for I am absolutely certain I’ve found the real heaven right here on earth. You see, I’ve seen stars glistening over the rippled waters as many shades of blue play and fade into green and earthen brown on rocky shores. I’ve met the Spirit of the turtle that guards the dipping pond where I have submerged to reemerge again and again. I’ve felt the shelter of the deep blue dome of sky with its airy clouds as the Spirit of the wind whispered a slight chill of the change to come. No, this is not the land of milk and honey. It is a land as lush and pristine as it is untamed and raw. I’ve learned to walk with sure footing and clear eyes through this heaven’s gate for its landing is, at once, soft and thorny.

The Soul of this place thrives on its own terms – wild and free. It awakens within me some deep slumber scabbed over by multi-tasking, over scheduling and the bombardment of a world in escalating chaos. In just a few days, I am remined of how few clothes I need, how a most sacred object is my hair tie and how a blessing to the fish to thank it for its life is the true nourishment.

Within this heaven’s gate, I am stripped down, made simple and, on a bed of pine straw, sacrificed to the Spirit of the wild. And just as the wood gives its life to the fire so do I releasing into the scent of smoke all I carry not essential to the beauty and goodness of life.

Yes, don’t tell heaven it’s not heaven. But, tell all who may hear that heaven is near, alive and beckoning, all around us. Leave the familiar sidewalks. Escape the known way. Follow the silent call of the trail, once defined by footprints, now hiding beneath wispy ferns, dried limbs, soft mosses, dugout pits, wayward grasses, deserted stumps and delicate wild flowers.

Follow. It will take you deep into places unknown where heaven’s gate will open wide to welcome you…hone you…and, just perhaps, at long last, birth you…

wild and free.

Pictures below: The first, the road to the site off the main dirt road. The second, the path in at the end of the road. Third, the lake side of the site. Fourth, the pond side and, lastly, the turtle who oversees its depths. Enjoy!

Road to Site

Path to Site

Lake Side of Site

Pond Side of Site

Turtle

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The Mormons & Me

In my last blog, Or’ the land of the free and the home of the brave, I proposed one possible scenario, outcome, to the predicament we find ourselves in today. It does not have to be that way – if we choose to join our collective energies to create a reality pulsing with the consciousness of what I call true seeing and right action. Many of our great spiritual leaders have modeled this dual paradigm: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother ‘Saint’ Teresa. Each showed us how to carry the consciousness of light straight into the darkness of hatred and discrimination, political oppression and untold suffering.

Each saw and named what was occurring and then acted with intention to bring about an outcome capable of serving a greater good. Right action is the tide that raises all boats above old adages of winning and losing, good people and bad people. With clear intention, right action understands that there are no real winners until we all win and there is both good and bad in all of us. In sum, true seeing sees beyond the superficial dramas of daily life to reveal what’s common at the heart of all and right action seeks to highlight what is seen. Together, they become the ultimate expression of love.

And, as we seek to follow in the footsteps of the great ones, it behooves us to be ever vigilant of our inner motivations. Let’s shun self-righteousness and befriend humility. Let’s cultivate equanimity so as to avoid cowering in fear, turning silent with depression or spewing rage in reactive anger or, conversely, escaping into spiritual platitudes such as, “Just stay in the light.” No, true seeing requires right action. So, let’s rise fearless and strong with the sword and shield bestowed all true spiritual warriors called to defend the good.

However, all this talk just remains theoretical babble until we actually start to walk the talk in daily life. Below is one small incident that occurred a couple of summers ago that still informs me today. May it stir something in you as well…

I was gently swaying in my hammock tracing those elusive clouds floating in that deep blue sky when I heard voices. “Excuse me, Ma’am.” I looked up to see Mormon missionaries coming onto my patio.  Now, normally, I avoid all forms of proselytizing and politely turn visitors away as quickly as possible. But, on this particular day, I was feeling quite spacious and open and found myself inviting them to sit at my patio table.

As the conversation began, they casually asked what I did.

“I’m an interfaith minister,” I said. “I’m blessed to serve the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst.”

Silence. And then, the look we interfaith ministers often get when announcing our calling.

“I’m not sure what that is,” one of my visitors said. “Are you Christian?”

“I believe deeply in Jesus and in the Bible but I also believe God is expressed through all religions. You see, I’ve spent many years immersed in the spiritual practices from many faith traditions and everywhere I’ve landed I’ve found God – or, should I say, God has found me. So, in the end, I became an interfaith minister because I just couldn’t choose one faith over the others. I guess you could say that I belong to God, not to any particular religion.”

Then, hesitantly, “You believe in Jesus and the Bible but have you been saved?”

“Oh, my God, yes! A million times every day!”

Another pause. I sensed this was not a scenario covered in their missionary training. I decided to use the lull to ask something I’d always wanted to know. “I can imagine it must take such courage and conviction to take your faith door to door. Could you tell me more about that? I’d love to know what brought you to God and to sharing your faith in this way.”

Gladly, they each shared their stories and it felt truly wonderful to listen. What seemed like only a few minutes, in retrospect, soon turned into a leisurely visit in the summer’s shade. Along the way, we discovered both of our churches had been involved in quilt making for the needy and we even reflected upon the possibility of joining together in some kind of similar project.

As they left down the driveway, I was no closer to becoming a Mormon than they were to becoming interfaith but we were able to part sincerely wishing one another well. It felt to me like we had started something and I found myself truly hoping I would run into them again.

We are experiencing a deep religious, cultural and political divide in our country that has put our treasured democracy on life support. You could say that, in real time, my brief encounter with the Mormon missionaries represents a kind of microcosm of what is playing out on a national scale today with one critical difference: both my Mormon friends and I were willing to sit together, to share and to listen. While, of course, the goal of missionary work is conversion and, perhaps, they may have felt like they or I had somehow missed the mark, we were still able to part amicably. For me, it was not important to contemplate our religious differences or any desired outcomes to our conversation. I had sensed something beyond beliefs. It felt like we had connected not through a common religion but, rather, through our deep common love for God and that, for me, was quite enough.

And, perhaps, this is where we begin to play our part in restoring our democracy to full functioning so all of us can once again breathe free. I believe it is our charge to create conditions, one patio at a time, where every day people can share their stories of faith, challenge, perseverance and enduring love – stories that help us to both better understand one another and, as Providence may allow, take us all beyond understanding. We do not need to all believe the same way or share the same political ideology. We do need to be able to look at one another and find glimpses of ourselves.

With such true seeing, those of differing beliefs from our own as well as the immigrant, the person of color, the Muslim, all the faces of “the other,” particularly marginalized by our current administration, may slowly come into focus. And, just maybe, as a result, we may come to, more often, recognize ourselves. This is the very balm needed to take our failing democracy off life support and put her on the road to full recovery. For the truth is we can only find unity by embracing our diversity. Democracy requires it to thrive. Without it, she dies.

But, remember true seeing calls for right action. So, join me on the patio and let’s invite those we ourselves may perceive to be “the other.” Many may not respond but some may. Let’s begin the process of simple connection so the critical foundation may be laid upon which to broach the deeper, more divisive, issues. And, let’s never forget that unity, not uniformity, is the goal.

Our common humanity yearns for it.

Our democracy requires it.

And, the One known by many names calls for it.

Let’s rise up and say, “Yes!”

 

 

 

 

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or’ the land of the free and the home of the brave…’

It was the summer of 2035 in the American State. The old man woke to a spring in his step for his granddaughter, Hannah, was coming to visit. She wanted to interview him for a special project for an American History class. She had been a child when the change had come so was curious to know just what had happened, firsthand, from someone who had actually lived it.

As they settled into the lawn chairs, the old man felt a little nervous.

“Are you sure this is okay, honey? Who’s going to read this? You know it’s always good to be careful.”

“It’s okay,” Hannah said. “Just my professor will be reading it and he knows I’m doing this for my final project.”

“Okay. I’ll tell you what I remember. Just wish it had turned out different for you. But you were just a child so maybe it’s good you don’t have any memory of what happened or how it was before.”

“That’s why I’m doing this project, Grandpa. I want to know what happened.”

“Well, first thing you need to know is no one saw it coming. No one. We’d had all sorts of political trouble, riots, immoral stuff, even corruption before. But, until then, it seemed things could always be made right when they got off track. Too bad they don’t teach the Constitution anymore or you’d see what a good thing the original founders had in mind. Served us well until the change came.”

“So, what happened?”

“It all started, as you know, with the former President, Donald Trump. But, you have to go back before that to understand. Many say it began at a White House Correspondences’ Dinner in 2011 when Trump was the butt of jokes told mostly by then President Obama, you remember, the first black president. Jokes like that were told all the time at those dinners but they say Trump felt so humiliated he vowed right then and there to get revenge. And so, he decided to run for President and in June of 2015 he road down that famous escalator and announced his candidacy.

Right from the start it was clear he was totally different from anyone who had ever run for President – and not in a good way. First of all, he’d never held any kind of public office. None. And, mostly, he seemed to thrive on all the attention he got from saying shocking and even crude kinds of things. Like he would make up these names for his opponents, like “Little Marco” and “Lying Ted” and then put them down right in front of everybody. And, he’d talk about other nations in terrible ways, like the Mexicans, and then boast about how he could make them do anything. But, you know that wall we have now? We paid for it, every penny. Mexico never put up a dime like Trump said they would. And, he started the whole Muslim ban convincing everyone they were mostly terrorists. He didn’t seem to like black folks either. They say he had a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removed from the Oval Office and chose a man to be a senior advisor who had racist views on things. But, your Grandma thought the worst thing was the way he’d talk about women when he thought no one was listening or how he’d talk to women he didn’t like.

I thought, though, worst of all, was how he’d just make up things and then act like they were true. Like for years he claimed President Obama was not a legitimate president – that he was not born in this country and was probably a Muslim to boot. Or, like when he said there were thousands of people, Arabs, cheering when the twin towers came down on 9/11. There wasn’t any proof of that but, when he got confronted, he’d just double down. He could never admit he’d made a mistake or was wrong about something. That happened again and again.”

“But, grandpa, how could somebody like that have become president? He got elected back before the change when people had a choice.”

“You’re right. Not everyone thought what he did was bad and if they did they just turned a blind eye. In fact, truth be told, a huge part of the population felt glad for it. You see, and this relates to Obama, there had been a great collapse of things in 2008 just before Obama took office and it took a long time for things to come back. But, for many, things never really got better. Mostly, there was this whole part of the population that felt left behind. A few folks got really rich but many more just got poorer. Lots of jobs were created but few paid anything. There were others reasons too like machines were taking over many jobs but when you’re hurting you don’t care about reasons. You just want someone to see and tell you they can fix it. Trump did that. He told them he could make America great again – just like the America they remembered. And, they believed him. He became the “anti-government” candidate and they loved it.

And, President Obama had pushed things that weren’t too unpopular with many of them or with Christians either like gay rights and abortion rights. So, most of the Christians supported Trump too. He was able to bring all those people together. It was too bad though because he never really cared about helping people or changing the laws to please the Christians. The whole reason he was there was to get even with Obama.”

“So, how do you know that Grandpa?

“Well, it showed right after the inauguration. Instead of going to work on legislation to help all those folks who had voted for him, he wanted to prove that his inauguration had been the most watched in history and, in particular, larger than Obama’s. Actually, side by side photos of the events and transit ticket sales showed that wasn’t true but he refused to back down. That was when the term “alternative facts” got coined. Looking back, it was the first clear sign of what was to come.

Then lots seemed to happen very fast. The whole Russian thing – you remember, how they hacked into the election to benefit Trump. President Putin of Russia didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president. He hated her. He wanted a friendly ally – someone who thought like him and he got it in Trump. Do you know that when they actually met face to face Trump reached out his hand to Putin and said, “It’s an honor to meet you.” Can you believe that? An honor? Someone who’d just tried to trash our whole voting system – the only real way to tell if a country is free. We should have seen right then and there what was coming. Many believe that was why Trump never would release his tax returns like every other president. He didn’t want people to know just how deep his Russian ties really were.

Anyway, when the Russian investigations started heating up, out of the blue, Trump accused Obama of having wiretapped him in Trump Tower before the election. This really caused a stink. But, again, he never had to show any proof or apologize. No one ever held him accountable. That’s when I started to feel like we were really going down a bad road and I wondered if we could ever turn back. Later, he accused Obama for actually causing the whole Russian thing saying he could have done something when he was President. Anything to blame Obama. Then, about that time, he fired the FBI Director and tweeted more stuff about tapes that, they say, led to him being investigated. But, by then, it didn’t matter much because he’d already convinced many that the free press was the enemy of the people, except for the state sponsored channel we still have today. Any report that did not cover him in a good way was labeled fake. This was the next clear sign things were going bad.

Then, worst of all, to really get even with Obama, he tried to get rid of Obamacare, the biggest thing Obama had done. Oh, it had its problems for sure but it gave many folks insurance who, before then, couldn’t get it. Trump wanted to replace it with his own plan. Trouble was with the Republican plan millions would lose coverage and, even today, it’s why so many can’t afford to go to the doctor. Plus, the national insurance that used to take care of so many, new babies, old folks, the disabled and the poor got phased out. That was when your Grandma stopped going to church. She said she felt like all those Christians who’d voted for him and then just kept supporting him had really lost their way. She used to say it was not what Jesus would have done.

It took some time but he eventually got the best revenge ever on Obama. But, so many millions of people, including many of those poor folks who had voted for him, were hurt in the process. It was too bad but that was when it finally got real for them. They got to see firsthand what Trump’s America was really about and it wasn’t so great for them. But, it was too late. It was just awful.

“Why didn’t anyone do anything, Grandpa?”

Well, the Democrats and some brave Republicans tried but they were in the minority. It seemed like the most Republicans had decided they wanted to win above all. Way back in the beginning when they first saw the bad signs they could have done something – stopped him from running under their party. But, they saw all those crowds showing up at rallies. Oh, some gave lip service to being upset when he’d pull stuff but then they’d go right back to supporting anything he wanted, even praising him.

It all happened right before our eyes. Before the end of his first year, Trump was cutting back the press. White House press briefings became fewer and fewer and then sometimes all we got were audio recordings. It became harder and harder to actually see people from the White House getting questioned. And, he started only allowing a few people at important meetings. Worst of all, you could say that the truth had become whatever he wanted us to believe so only the state sponsored news channel was seen as respectable. All other channels were said to be running fake news and, eventually, got banned.

And, around the world, we started to become more cut off from the free countries because Trump kept doing things like pulling us out of the global climate talks supported by every other country in the world but us. Yet, he continued to cozy up to Putin making agreements with this leader he seemed to really admire. Oh, how we should have seen it coming.

In our old national anthem, it said we were the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Well, we’re not free anymore because, really honey, too many of us were not brave. I say “us” because I often look back and wonder why I didn’t do more. Instead, I have to say that, as a nation, we cowered. After all, we’d never had a bully in the White House before. And, that’s really what it was. We let all that terrible name calling of our fellow Americans slide.  We kept quiet when there was disrespect shown for people having a different view. We put our President above the law when we ignored all those phony accusations and made up accounts of things. We allowed open and free talking to go away when news casts that questioned the President were called fake and those always praising him were said to be doing good. Most of all, we forgot we were governed by what was called the rule of law – not by a ruler. So, now we have a ruler. But, really, we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

Hannah was silent. Then, she quietly asked, “What can we do, Grandpa? I don’t want my kids growing up here…how it is now.”

“Really, honey, you have to decide what you’re willing to die for because, you know, speaking out can be dangerous. It’s why we used to honor our veterans on Memorial Day. So many were brave enough to go and die so we could be free.” And, the old man suddenly felt a lump in his throat.

“Thanks, Grandpa. I’ll send you a copy of my project. And, I’m going to think about how I can be brave. I promise.”

As Hannah left, the old man felt a tear roll down his cheek. For the first time in many years he actually felt, dare he say it, almost, hopeful. Hannah was just like her Grandma. He knew when she put her mind to something, something was going to happen. And, as he walked back into the house, he surprised himself by suddenly humming an old tune…

“…or’ the land of the free…and the home…of the…brave.”

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