Week Two of a Guided Meditation: “Retreat!”

The three Wise Men left the baby Jesus’ manger with joy in their hearts. The rest of their story, however, is lost in the jumble of history. What we know is that the Holy Family’s “manger” moment was quickly replaced by sheer terror. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Retreat! Get out of Dodge! A deluge of evil is about to come upon you!”

Joseph was not born stupid. He gathered up Mary and their newborn baby and, in the dead of night, beat a hasty retreat to Egypt.

Is it not bizarre that Jesus began his life in full retreat? If Jesus truly was the Messiah, a processional, rather than a retreat, should have commenced. Everybody should have joined in crowning him “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Regardless of the absurdity of a Messiah in retreat, now we know that the baby Jesus’ retreat eventually became an advance; an advance not meant to give Jesus political and military control of the world, but rather an advance that ignited a powerful movement of the spirit intended to connect humanity heart-to-heart with God.

Every year at St. Paul’s Church in Newport, several military officers attending the Navy War College and their families affiliated with our church. I never met more gifted people than those men and women. One Sunday, I struck up a conversation with a Navy Commander. He recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I said, “You must feel very proud that the Taliban is in full retreat.”

He replied, “Pastor John, do you know that to retreat is an offensive maneuver?”

His answer baffled me, but in hindsight his words appear prophetic. The Taliban retreated, but, sadly and tragically, only long enough to reorganize and resume the fighting using a different strategy.

When we encounter difficulties in life, we often feel compelled to barge ahead. Sometimes, however, it is better to retreat, re-think our strategy and then advance using a different tactic. I often counsel people in trouble and turmoil to retreat and hand off, at least temporarily, their problems to God. Why not rest, regain strength and give consideration to using a different strategy? After all, as Red Adair once said, “When you are up to your rear end in alligators, you forget that you came to drain the swamp!”

As life goes on and on, consider using retreat as an offensive maneuver. Some folks reading this post are “up to their rear end in alligators.” Retreat! Deposit your troubles in God’s hands, relax and regain your strength. Then, ask the Divine One to help you develop a new strategy before moving forward.

For those of you who are successfully advancing right now, bring to mind someone you love that may need to retreat. Pray that God will give your loved one the strength to “let go and let God.”

REMEMBER, if it was OK for Jesus to retreat, it must be OK for us to do it too!

John E. Holt. Cotuit, Massachusetts

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Week One of a Guided Meditation: “Thrilled and Excited”

This is the first of four posts designed as a guided meditation. My hope is that you will find a moment to pause and reflect upon these thoughts as your life goes “on and on” in 2016.

Inserted into the Christmas story is the appearance of three Wise Men shortly after the birth of Jesus. The Bible says that the Wise Men were “overwhelmed with joy”, but another translation says that the Magi were “thrilled and excited.” Why not? They had followed a star and hit the jackpot. The star led them to the one they believed to be the Messiah. Overwhelmed with joy! Thrilled! Excited! Living the dream! All of the above! There really are no words to describe how they must have felt at that moment, but they fell to their knees in awe and gave their gifts and hearts to the one who later became known as the Christ.

We all experience moments of overwhelming joy, moments that are thrilling and exciting, when we feel as if we are ‘living the dream.” These moments may not rise to the level of the Wise Men stumbling upon a Messiah, but we all wish we had more of them, because such moments take root in our souls. They find room in our hearts. Then, when life loses its thrill, when sadness dampens joy, excitement gives way to the “same old, same old” or a dream or two lies shattered at our feet, we can reach deep into ourselves and resurrect a “manger” moment; a moment of awe that reminds us that God is never far away, that we may stumble upon “a can’t-get-better-than-this-moment” that lies just around the corner.

For me, the most recent “it-can’t-get-better-than-this” moment was the first time I held my grandchild Samantha in my arms. I have never felt so much love and joy. It was thrilling, exciting and she was, and always will be, a dream come true.

The miracle of birth, in and of itself, is miracle beyond words that should drive us to our knees in awe. As St. Paul wrote in one of his letters, the “things that have been made” prove the existence of God. Holding Sammy in my arms for the first time provided me with the assurance that God is never far away. When the dominoes of my life are falling, I can reach into my soul and resurrect that “manger” moment and then whisper to the heavens, “My Lord and my God!”

As usual, I have no idea where you are as your life goes on and on. I do not even know who may be reading this post. What I do know is that some are grasped by the thrill of victory, while others are experiencing the agony of defeat. Most of us, however, are stuck somewhere in between the two. No matter where you are, however, when you read this post, reach into your soul and bring to mind “a-can’t-get-any-better-than-this moment.” Remember a moment of overwhelming joy when you were living the dream. Then, in awe let your heart whisper to the heavens, “My Lord and my God!”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

Peace Be Unto You! (As Salamu Alaykum)

I first met Farid at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Providence, Rhode Island. I was the newly appointed Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. Farid was the leader of Rhode Island’s American Muslim community. During the years that I served the council, Farid and I worked together on many projects. We were both deeply committed to making peace and bringing people of different faiths together to make a difference in our community and in our world.

When I first met Farid, I did not know anything about Islam. As a matter of fact, prior to sitting with him at dinner, I do not think that I ever met with or spoke to a member of that faith community. Farid’s gentle and loving nature immediately impressed me and, over the next several years, I was honored to accept Farid’s multiple invitations to attend many different Muslim gatherings. What I discovered was a community that reflected Farid’s peaceful and gentle nature. Because of him and his community, I know, with great certainty, that those now being labeled as “radicalized Muslims” do not in any way mirror the true nature of the Islamic community. Furthermore, “radicalized Muslims” who engage in terror cannot possibly be followers of that faith. They are an evil distortion of true Islam.

It makes me weep when I hear, far too frequently in these troubled times, ugly, angry, judgmental and sweeping generalizations made about those who practice Farid’s religion. Such vindictive judgments come from the mouths of people who should know better or should, at least, become a bit more acquainted with the Muslim community before spewing forth such venom. Hate what is evil, but do not hate out of ignorance.

For months now, I have stopped at a convenience store to pick up my morning caffeine fix. The cashier at one of the stores I frequent is a native of Pakistan. I cannot say that we are BFF’s, but if there is no line waiting to check out, we have talked, more than once, about his religion as well as about my religion. He is as kind and gentle as Farid. His spirit reflects well the essence of his faith.

The last time I was in the store, nobody was around, so I said to him, “I have wanted to say this to you for awhile and I hope my words do not offend you, but I am so sorry for what is being said about Muslims. It makes me both mad and sad. Please know that I respect you and I respect your religion.”

He said quietly, “Thank you. You are the first person to say anything like that to me.”

I replied, “I am glad that I did. See you the next time in.” Then, I took a sip of my Super Big Gulp caffeine drink and headed off to work.”

One of the most well known stories in my religion is that one night, centuries ago, in the skies above a shepherd’s field, a heavenly host of angels sang of “peace and good will to all.” I have a hunch that those angels did not categorize some as deserving of “peace and good will,” while excluding millions of others based solely upon the actions of an evil few. Please make note that the angels sing of a peace and good will that come down from the heavens to ALL, not only to those of a particular religion or to a privileged few. For those who seek to limit God’s peace and good will only to those of their particular faith, I have to ask, “What do you not understand about the word ALL???”

This Christmas, my prayer is that a sense of calm will descend upon us. I pray that angry, sweeping judgments made about far too many good people will cease and, when those of us who attend church on Christmas Eve sing of peace and good will, we will also seek to do good and live peaceably among ALL who walk God’s great earth. The Divine One, born in a stable in Bethlehem, expects nothing less of us.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA

 

An Early Christmas

Has anybody felt like canceling Christmas this year? I was ready to the pull the plug on it. Of course, I am required to go through the motions. A Christmas church supper, a children’s pageant and three Christmas Eve services are all part of my job description. I planned to go through the season with an outward enthusiasm that masked an inner disillusionment. How can we even think about “peace on earth and good will to all,” when unmitigated evil is running rampant in our world? My mind was fixated on a grief-stricken woman and her six kids in San Bernardino. The senseless and horrific act of terror that took the life of a good husband and father as well its impact on so many other lives made me feel as if it would be sinful to sing, “Joy to the world!” If the Prince of Peace “is come”, then the Prince of Darkness clearly is slapping him down. As my mother-in-law often says, however, “Just do it, then it will be done.” Just get Christmas done, Pastor John, then it will be done.

Leave it to some kids to snap me out of my Christmas funk. Not just a few kids, but over a hundred kids who put on quite a show last night at the Riverview School on Cape Cod.

Riverview School is amazing. It provides an incredible education for severely challenged kids with disabilities. It also creates a loving and joyful home for those kids, many of whom have been repeatedly bullied by their peers in the “outside” world. The goal is to educate and teach them living skills that will enable them, not just to survive, but to thrive upon their graduation.

Last night, joy was epidemic at Riverview School. It was as if you could pick it out of the air, put it in your pocket and carry it with you. The music director started the concert by asking the student body, “Whose house is this?” In unison, they shouted back, “Our house!” Then, the dancing and singing began. Every dance and song was performed with an enthusiasm that I have rarely witnessed on any stage. The student body encouraged every act with cheers, clapping and some even danced in their seats. The kids were really into it, but all of this did not prepare me for the finale.

After a number of small singing and dance groups graced the stage, the director stopped the show and told the audience that it would take about five minutes for the 96 members of Riverview School’s “Deja View” Chorus to make their way onto a very small stage. The kids entered stage left in small groups. Some of them walked to their spot on stage laughing, clapping and dancing. Others moved slowly into place, due to their disabilities, and then waited patiently for the music to begin. The kids called out to one young woman, who was clearly frightened to go on stage, and encouraged her to join them. With such support, she summoned up the courage to take her seat and, eventually, she began to sing. That alone did me in, but the “Deja View” Chorus was just getting started!

The kids and the band played and sang their hearts out. With laughter and smiles, waves to the audience, clapping and dancing, love flowed like a “never ending stream.”

Love cannot be defined.

Love is not limited by words.

Love is lived.

It is transmitted heart-to-heart.

Over ninety-six kids gave us their hearts last night and love found “room in the inn” at Riverview School.

When the concert ended with students and alumni singing “Feliz Navidad,” my wish was that the whole world had a seat in that auditorium. Their singing was a wake-up call that peace, good will, love, hope and joy still live within the realm of the possible.

These words were written about a birth that took place several thousand years ago: “The light has come into the world and darkness cannot overcome it.”

Last night at Riverview School, light overcame the darkness.

Christmas came early.

Pastor John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA

Dad Lives!

Four decades and two years ago, my father, Theodore Henry Holt, died at the young age of 49. That is a long time ago and much has happened since and continues to happen now. Perhaps it is my chosen career, but regardless of the reason, the old cliché holds true when it comes to my journey: “There is never a dull day!”

I thought about Dad quite often last week as I visited my Mom in Pittsburgh. Due to dementia, Mom lost the last vestige of personal freedom. She moved from independent living to personal care. It is never easy to move, especially at 94, but Mom is adjusting well. We are breathing a sign of relief that she is safe and receiving excellent care. It certainly is our turn to take care of the amazing woman who, for so many years, took great care of us. Thanks Mom!

My primary task during her move was to go through her file cabinets. I organized her papers into three piles. The first pile was reserved for documents that we needed to secure for future reference, such as her will and power of attorney. The second pile headed for the dump or the shredder. The third pile contained items that related to our family history. While making my way through that pile, Dad often came to mind. I found, among other memorabilia, his birth certificate, death certificate and his military service record. I cannot believe how emotional it was to go through his stuff, but there was a poignant moment to come that transcended anything I felt sorting through his stuff.

I was driving to our attorney’s office. On the way, I passed our old church and the cemetery in which Dad is buried. Neither one pulled too hard at my heart strings. It was when I passed a wooded hillside on a road less traveled that my emotional thermometer rose quickly. It was on that hill, in those woods, that Dad used to take his boys on hikes. I pulled over and parked in a small, dirt lot. I could not believe it. The path we took from the parking lot up the hill still existed. As a light rain pattered on the car roof, I decided not to go up the hill. Instead, I sat in the car and let the wonderful memories of those days come flooding back.

The hill is not very steep, but to a small boy it was Mt. Everest. Near the top, we stopped to rest. Dad lit a campfire. We toasted some marshmallows. Then, we climbed a tree. Sitting amongst the branches, Dad told us stories that he never dared to tell in front of Mom. He even said, “damn” once or twice! That was a huge “no-no” in our God-fearing family. As the fire subsided from flame to embers, we climbed down out of the tree. We put out the fire via what Dad called “an act of nature,” (We peed on it!) after which we hiked back down the hill singing crazy songs that my Dad invented and headed home.

As I sat in the car thinking about hiking with Dad, something that I say frequently at funerals popped into my head: “Memories are a gift from God. As long as we have one memory of somebody we love, that person still lives.”

Dad lives.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA

 

 

Whatever Shoe Fits….

Last Sunday in church, I was minding my own business, while our Director of Children’s Ministries led the children’s time. Actually, I was reviewing my notes for the upcoming sermon and not paying any attention at all to what was happening. Then, it was strangely quiet. I looked up from my notes. Everybody in the church was staring at me. Our director was motioning to me to join her. Sheepishly, I wandered over as she told everybody that it was almost my birthday and the kids wanted to wish me a happy birthday and, on Thanksgiving Sunday, give thanks for ME! They also prepared a very funny video that ended with the kids shouting, “Pastor John, we love you!” To say I was deeply moved is an understatement. I was blown away.

The kids wrapped it up my giving me the gift of a book that they created. Its title is as follows:

“NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD,

WITH HEART AND HAND AND VOICES…

To Pastor John, with love from your

“Awesome Rock’n Kids”

After the service was over, I sat in my office and thumbed through that book. What the kids wrote and the pictures they drew, reduced me to rubble:

Pastor, John you are so kind and & a great bowler!

You are so funny…we love u pastor john!

I love you! Go Steelers.

I love you paster John by the way the Patriots are way better than stealers!

Pastor John, I am so blessed to have you!! You are the world and our insparations!!

You Rock 🙂 PJ

There were a couple dozen more expressions of love, but I suspect that you now understand why a page of my Awesome Rock’n Kids “Love” book is still a bit damp from a tear or two. Those kids in a few minutes made my day (Life!).

Last night at 3 A.M., I laid in bed wide-eyed. My mind raced like a hamster in a wheel as I recalled the violence in our world: A video released of young man shot 17 times on the streets of Chicago. Terror attacks in Paris and a plane shot down over Egypt killing hundreds of people. A policeman and two others shot and killed at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado. So much violence: “Why, Lord, why?” Then I remembered what a guy said recently: “We have so many bad kids. It’s no wonder everybody is killing each other. I am scared for our future.”

As I lay there troubled of mind and heart, our Awesome Rock’n Kids interrupted my negative stream of thought and a “still, small voice” whispered to my soul: “It’s not the kids.”

It’s NOT! There is no such thing as a bad kid. The grown-ups are the problem. Grown-ups can either create a loving and caring community that inspires our kids to make the world a better place or create a harsh, hateful environment that fills children with a rage that, too frequently, incites violence. Grown-ups are the ones who teach our kids to love or hate. Do not scapegoat our kids! As the Good Book says, “The sins of the fathers and mothers are visited upon their children,” to which I would add this addendum: “The love of the fathers and mothers is visited upon their children, too!” Whatever shoe fits, we grown-ups have to wear it.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus Was Jewish!

I attended a clergy meeting at which our Bishop led a Q&A with pastors from across our Conference. It took a turn for the nasty when somebody asked why so many non-Christian organizations rented space at one of our church conference centers. The woman who asked was quite alarmed that yoga groups rented space. She pointedly told us that yoga had its roots in the Hindu religion. She suggested that we should not allow Hindus or other non-Christians to use our camps and conference centers. After all, God “saves” only Christians and those who believe in any other religion are destined to be judged negatively. They are worshipping the wrong God!

My experience is that it is utterly useless to argue with such narrow-minded people. They have already made up their minds. I did, however, have the urge to confess my “sin” of permitting two yoga groups to use our church. I also wanted to shout out, “For God’s sake, woman, Jesus was Jewish!” In her way of thinking, Jesus would not be permitted to hold a meeting or visit one of our conference centers. After all, since Jesus was Jewish, he was not “saved” and was clearly worshipping the wrong God.

For the record, Jesus was never Christian. He never had any intention of founding a new religion. I would argue further that Jesus had a strong dislike for religion in general. He was not interested in such human inventions. What motivated Jesus was the odd notion that what really matters is that we love God and love each other. Those who do yoga can love God. Those who confess the Hindu religion can love God. Even those who do not embrace a particular religion can love God. And those who are religious, non-religious or anti-religious can also love each other. Forget religion and live love! Our world would be a much better place if we did!

Religion is taking a beating today. It deserves it. When any group of people suggests that they have exclusive access to God, they are arrogant and delusional. The tragic result of such exclusivist thinking should make us nauseous: People fear God and struggle to love themselves. Even worse, a multitude of murdered souls sleep in the earth due to “it’s my way or the highway” religions. The only good reason for any religion to exist is to create what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community;” a community in which God’s love is given and received. If a religion cannot manage to give and receive such love, it ought to liquidate its assets and give the proceeds to take care of those who are lonely, lost and in need. After all, that is the “how and the why” the Jewish Jesus lived.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA