Reflections by Ethel Hornbeck and Jerry Thomas

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Matthew 10:24-39
Jerry Thomas

A Blessing to West Virginia
Good Morning. I’m going to talk about three things: today’s scripture lesson, a long-forgotten recollection of high school football, and some of the problems of West Virginia, which this week marked its 154th birthday. I’ll suggest how the scripture lesson might bear upon the current plight of the Mountain State and our planning for missions.

The scripture lesson, Mark 10: 24-39 is too long to read in a short reflection, so I will quote some of the verses. In the reading, Jesus is preparing the apostles with a pep talk before they go out to convert “the lost sheep” of Israel, a mission fraught with danger. He seeks to prepare and arm them against the violence and challenges they will face.

This passage has been described as a rabbinic form of teaching called “a string of beads,” a series of brief proverbial observations and admonitions strung together along the thread of a single theme.

In the reading, Jesus calls for an apocalyptic severity and a fearless, self-denying dedication from his apostles. Over the centuries, the spirit of this call has produced martyrs, Christians willing to die rather than compromise with the powers of oppression. Few of us today identify with this kind of commitment. But the spirit of the scripture and the words of Jesus can inspire us to go beyond our 21st century comfort zones. At SPC we oppose racism and welcome all no matter who they are, where they come from, or where they might be in their spiritual journey. We are moved to openly oppose challenges to human freedom and justice and to support missions to fight poverty. But most of us, devoted to the Lord of peace and love, would find that some beads from Matthew’s string give pause: Some examples:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

How do we connect our modern imaginations with the harsh militancy of these words? Thinking about this I recalled my long ago time as a football player. In 1957 and 1958, I was in my last two years at Pineville High School, down in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. Then, as now, the coal industry faced a deep recession and many miners lost their jobs. Some of my friends’ families moved to Detroit or Newport News in search of jobs before their children graduated.

High school football, then as now, provided a popular diversion from the problems of the day. Coalfield towns took their football seriously. Because our high school was smaller than most, it became almost a patriotic duty of any able-bodied male student to go out for the team. Most of us were small. Our coach pushed us to play bigger than we were. We played schools with bigger and better players. He had to get us ready to go out on the field against the likes of Big Creek of War, the school attended by Homer Hickam and his fellow Rocket Boys of book and movie fame. Homer’s brother was one of the bruisers of Big Creek. In 1957 they also had hulking players with strange names who didn’t even speak English, being recent refugees from Communist Eastern Europe.

Of course the perils faced by our undersized eleven do not begin to compare to the challenges faced by the twelve apostles, but our coach had his own string of beads. I remember him saying to us something like: “If you guys don’t listen to me and do what I tell you, those guys from Big Creek are gonna kill you!” Wow! Such a pep talk made teenagers quake in their cleats! But it got our attention! Nevertheless, as usual, Big Creek beat us, this time by 26 points. We never crossed the 50 yard line! We won only one game that year. 

The next season, we dropped Big Creek. Our coach came up with a new bead on his string, teaching us a new formation pioneered by Army. Called “the Lonesome End,” it made us more competitive. Because I was pretty fast, I got to be the Lonesome End. We won a few games and maybe learned something about discipline, working together in a common cause, and facing big challenges.

These days, as power companies switch from coal to more environmentally friendly and cheaper fuels, and coal companies find more ways to produce coal with fewer workers, Southern West Virginia suffers even more than in the 1950s. Unemployment grows. Tragic numbers turn to opioids for relief, leading to addiction and a plague of early deaths. The environment suffers from mountaintop removal mining. Housing deteriorates. Schools, counties, municipalities and social services lack adequate funding. Health suffers from a high incidence of serious diseases and inadequate medical care. Young people despair of the future. Frequent flooding adds to the woes.

We here share some of these problems. The New Yorker recently featured neighboring Martinsburg and I-81 drug trafficking.

In the face of these somber circumstances we might wonder what Jesus would call upon his disciples to do. We at SPC long ago committed to being “a blessing to West Virginia.” Our youth groups have helped with Habitat and other housing improvement projects in coalfield counties. Members of our congregation have played leading roles in championing the development of alternative energies. We take pride in being “solar powered.” We also have supported former SPC staffer Brandon Dennison and his efforts with the non-profit Coalfield Development Corporation in Wayne County. As we plan for the future and assess our West Virginia mission efforts in the spirit of Matthew’s militant Jesus, and in the face of the crisis, we should do at least what we have done before and prayerfully consider WHAT MORE we might do to be a blessing to the people of West Virginia. AND MAY IT BE SO!

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Psalm 86
Ethel Hornbeck

"In those moments when we are really and truly awake to what already is, everything changes."

So Mary Ellen was scheduled to do our second reflection for today, but could not be with us—news that I received just yesterday. When in doubt (or in panic!), I always figure a psalm will help, so this morning I will offer a few passages from our psalm for the day, and make just a few comments about where this might take us.

I’m reading from Nan Merrill’s lovely paraphrase, by the way, which we use often here at SPC. She offers us lovely, fresh, prayerful language for engaging these very traditional words; it is a wonderful resource for prayer.

Psalm 86 (Nan Merrill)

Give ear to my cry, Eternal Word, and answer me, for I am in need of You. Awaken new life in me, as I yearn to do your will; dispel the ignorance of my ways, as I put my trust in You. You are the Beloved; be gracious to me, Heart of my heart, for with You would I walk all day. My soul is uplifted, as I abandon myself into your hands.

For You are kind and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon You. Give ear to my prayer, Compassionate One; listen to my heartfelt plea. In the time of trouble, I dare to call upon You, for You hear the cry of those in need.

Be present to me and receive my prayer; imbue me with strength, and help me to release each fear. Pour forth your Light into my soul, that all that is hidden in darkness may come forth into awareness. For You, O Beloved, are my Redeemer and my Comforter. Amen

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been in conversation with several people who are really struggling with darkness of one kind or another—darkness inside, darkness out there in the world, and very often both at the same time. Most of us have been or will be there.  So I love this particular line from Merrill: Awaken new life in me.

It brings immediately to mind one of my very favorite spiritual teachers, Anthony De Mello, who talked often about waking up as THE primary task of our spiritual work and lives.

De Mello, by the way, was one of those fabulous interspiritual pioneers—he was a mid 20th century Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist, who also happened to be deeply rooted in Hindu spirituality. In his teaching, he brings together the deep wisdom of the west and deep wisdom of the east, and winds up something way bigger than either one.

And it is from that place of deep and interconnected wisdom that de Mello talks about “waking up”. In those moments when we are really and truly awake to what already is, everything changes. We all have those moments, by the way! And once in a while, we might even notice.

So, spiritual practice is not about earning the favor of an angry deity, or convincing an absent deity to pay attention to our personal to-do list, or even achieving some great state of enlightenment. Its really all about allowing ourselves to wake up. To be awakened.

In the opening pages of his marvelous book Awareness, de Mello declares this:

“Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence. You know, all mystics—Catholic, Christian, non-Christian, no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion—are unanimous on one thing: that all is well, all is well. Though everything is a mess, all is well. Strange paradox, to be sure. But, tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.”

Merrill, by the way, composed her entire collection “Psalms for Praying” in the midst of the worst darkness of her entire life. Her husband had left her with small children to raise, she was unemployed, and desperately alone. She turned to the psalms. She said she didn’t so much compose these paraphrases as hear them, and let them wash through her. And so, she wrote them down. And they have become a source of light and life for countless other people. Waking up sometimes has quite surprising consequences!

O Beloved, awaken new life in me.

In the days ahead, pay attention. See what comes up. What new life, new thing, new prayer, new opportunity might the Holy One be inviting you to wake up, to see, to claim? Pay attention! Wake up! And let me know what you find!