Reflections John Mason & Yvonne Fisher

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John Mason

My name is John Mason, and if you are wondering where you have heard that name, I am one of members for whom you are asked to pray each Sunday morning. Because I have gone through 57 treatments for prostate cancer and lymph cancer, and I am still experiencing ongoing pain, you are asked to keep me in your thoughts and prayers. My pain is significantly diminished by medications which make me terribly sleepy, and cause several conflicting side effects on my bladder and gastro-intestinal system.

Advice columnist, Ann Landers, once wrote that we will recognize we are old when we talk about specific body parts, so I will not carry this part of my Reflection any further this morning. But please call me if you want to know more!

1.     The Bible passage I actually chose for my Reflection is a well-known story about the Apostle Peter. If you are like me, you probably identify with dear Peter in so many ways:

2.     He is brash: “Thou art the Son of God!”

3.     He is opinionated: He publically quarreled with the Apostle Paul

4.     He is quick to anger: “Peter, put down you sword”

5.     He is passionate: All were moved by his Pentecost message

6.     He is brave

7.     He is cowardly: “He heard to rooster crow a third time

8.     He is proud

9.     He is judgmental: “Ya gotta convert to a circumcised Jew before ya can be a gentile Christian”

10.  He is committed: “Lord, I will never forsake you!”

11.   He is presumptuous: “Lord bid me to join you on the water”

Peter is a fairly well-rounded totally human character, and I love the good and the bad and the disappointing stories and myths that surround him. You remember that story of Walk on Water Peter, right? We don’t have a lot of details as to why he said to Jesus, “Bid me to join you on the water.” Jesus certainly did not make the proposal because he knew Peter better than Peter knew Peter…

1.     Was it Peter’s own heart challenging his belief in miracles?  Did he simply doubt and have to test his own faith?

2.     Was he chided by the other disciples to “prove you are a man” by this insane proposal to walk on water?

3.     Was Peter trying to show the others how truly spiritual he is?

4.     Peter was among those who had asked the Lord, who would be first in the Kingdom of Heaven. and here was his opportunity to rise quickly through the ranks to spiritual leadership.

So I title my Reflection this morning, “SO YOU THINK YOU CAN WALK ON WATER?” Walking on water is actually the latest iteration of Phariseeism in the new millennia. It became part of the church in the late 60s when Barry Goldwater and Dwight Eisenhower warned against its rising in their political party. The conservative Church has now become a huge political power in the United States. Like Walk on Water Peter, those who practice this new Phariseeism act as if they too can walk on water.

1.     As a young pastor I wanted to believe I too could walk on water. I have been so much like Walk an Water Peter that it scares me, and sometimes it scares those who are close to me even more.

2.     Like hidden racism and homophobia, hints of Walk on Water Peter still surface from the core of my being.

3.     As a young teen, I was very passionate about matters spiritual.  I was consumed with the question, “How can I know God’s will for my life?” Once I knew the will of God for my life, I was encouraged to tell others the will of God for their lives, and I did, in a most cavalier way.

4.     I went forward in my church and made a profession of faith that got me my “Get out of Hell Free Card” at the very early and impressionable age of 15.

5.     I walked what was called the Romans Road to Eternal Life and I was therefore guaranteed my place in heaven

6.     I was “born again,” or so I was told.  I understood it to be a major singular life event, not the beginning of a major life process.

7.     I went to the best Christian University money could buy, one that called itself “The World’s Most Unusual University,” whose radio call letters were WMUU in Greenville, South Carolina.

8.     I didn’t walk closer to a college girl than 6 inches, and I certainly didn’t touch or kiss one because that was tantamount to foreplay. For me, that was not a problem, because I had absolutely no desire for those kinds of things. My sexuality struggles were much greater and more damning!

9.     I was so spiritual at 17, even with my hidden celibate sexuality, that I had to have a “Christian” education, even though my parents thought I was bat-sh-something crazy when I chose to attend the cult-like Bob Jones University. (My parents never got their own “Get Out of Hell Free Card,” so their educational opinions never mattered to me or to anyone who had that blessed card).

I learned catchy little sayings and judgmental habits on those days, like:

1.     We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with those who do!

2.     God said it. I believe it. That settles it!

3.     Woman was created for man, and wives must submit to their husbands in all things. Girls came to college for their MRS, not their BA or BS.

4.     We were all saved to win souls for Jesus (“The Primary Objective,” the Great Commission)

5.     We are the salt of the earth, saved to judge the sins of those outside the church, but to “judge not lest you be also judged” by those inside the church. We see the results of this mindset in the sinister ministries of the Duck Dynasty clan, Jimmy Sweigert, and the Josh Duggar family in yesterday’s and today’s news.

6.     If you don’t believe like we believe, then you should leave the church or suffer excommunication. (I was excommunicated on my 23rd birthday because I dared declare we are here to love people into the family of God and not to alienate them over silly theological issues. I was a terrible Calvinist!)

7.     If excommunicated, I was not be spoken to by members of the congregation who were to cross to the other side of the street to avoid eye contact and conversation. They did.

8.     “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate,” means to not associate closely with those who have not been born again, to the extreme of starting our own Christian schools, our own Christian universities, our Christian political societies, and our Christian businesses. Remember the “Moral Majority?” It was neither moral nor the majority, but perception is everything, until orange hair and “fire and fury” come together in the person of a professed Presbyterian. Progressive Christians seek a way to disassociate from bad theology and cling to that which is good, a theology of love and acceptance of the other.

9.     Homosexuality is a choice, and homosexuals have no place in the church and will taint our life and convert or abuse our children if allowed to be a part. And yet we know that nobody in their right mind would choose to be bullied and abused by our churches, our schools and our businesses as homosexuals have been bullied, disenfranchised, and even killed for the cause of righteousness by many of our churches, in our public and private schools and universities, and by many businesses. Choose to be straight and you will be straight is a lie from the pits of hell.

10.  Movies are sinful and should not be attended by Christians. Hollywood has been taken over by Jews and Progressives and the vice they put into movies. Condoned anti-semitism, Islamaphobia, trans, and homophobia run rampant in most churches today.

11.  “Rock and Roll will Rot your Soul” and at BJU you made sure you never listened, to avoid demerits which could get you expelled

12.  Even one drink of alcohol will get you shunned at church, and expelled from conservative Christian colleges

13.  Be in the world but not of the world.

There is this great battle over who knows and lives the Truth (with a capital T). Who defines how we should live? If someone has the Truth, they have the mind of God. If I have God in my pocket. I can speak for God on the greater culture, in the Congress, in state legislatures, in City Council meetings, but only if I am a man, because women are to remain silent…

14.  Born again Christians cannot believe in evolution because that is to disbelieve the literal truth of the Bible and the disbelief of any Truth threatens the very foundations of Christian faith. If one Truth tumbles they all tumble.

15.  Children of God cannot believe that abortion is acceptable. They cannot believe a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body supersedes the right of the Church or the State to make those decisions. No Christian man would tolerate such intrusion.

16.  A praying knee and a dancing foot never grew on the same leg. Now I can’t dance. I used to sorta dance before I got my “Get out of Hell Free Card.” Although rhythm is a God-given gift, I had to give up a bunch of my dancing friends when I got that card. I had to be careful that I did not respond too much to the rhythm and beat of any music. Today, I sit on the back row beneath the balcony here at church, and I have seen ushers boogying to some of our less than Presbyterian: music. I almost got up and joined them once, but then I remembered my last dance, where the woman I danced with said, “Thank God that’s over.” I am not sure what she meant exactly. Even though my dance may look like a seizure on the call 911 scale, I am not ready to give up dancing. I may still again be excommunicated from my church, or expelled from my University.  Or maybe not.

I think I have stopped trying to walk on water until tomorrow comes. When Walk on Water Peter stopped trying, he sank. It wasn’t a bad thing that he sank. He sank back into reality. He got all wet. He needed to get wet to be a part of his community. Peter found out that there was really nothing he could do to make God love him more, including walking on water, and there was nothing he could do to make God love him less, including being submerged in that same water. He found out that God loves him without conditions, and God loved him so much, that He would not leave Peter where he was, in the drink. Water is the beginning of our community experience. So you think you might one day walk on water? Are you sure? Are you secretly hoping to try, to make that one truly great impression?

 “When I was a child I thought as a child and I spoke as a child, but now that I am a man, I think like a man and I speak as a man, and I have put away childish things.”

Thank you so much for getting your feet wet by listening. And please come dance with me!

* * *

Yvonne Fisher

This week’s Gospel reading from the lectionary opens with Jesus going to the mountain alone to pray while the disciples are off shore in a boat when a storm hits and they become afraid and Jesus appears to be walking on the water toward them when he says, It’s me—Don’t be afraid. Then Peter says if it’s really you saying don’t be afraid then tell me to come to you and Peter steps confidently out and then sinks until Jesus offers his hand and says Be Not Afraid.

We are like this Peter phenomenon—surrounded by famine, flood, wars, racism, and addiction, while partisanship and mistrust threaten our democracy. We long for solid ground and faithful communities—and then we see him calling us to him saying Don’t Be Afraid as he takes our hand.

As many of you know, for the past 15 months, I have been mainly at my grandson Bennett’s bedside as he slowly recovers from ALL leukemia which started with no symptoms at age 6 until a massive brain hemorrhage occurred on a Sunday morning. He was then flown to the nearest children’s hospital in Hartford Connecticut where a pediatric brain surgeon would perform an 8-hour surgery to stop the bleeding to save his life. Bennett hung on between life and death for a few weeks. In May 2016, he was stable enough to be transferred to Memorial Sloan Kettering in NYC where he remained until December when he was moved to Blysthedale Children’s Hospital returning to MSK intensive care in January when he suffered meningitis and a blood clot. He continued to fight with his amazing spirit of determination and recovered enough to be able to come home this May returning for the weekly chemo treatments at MSK. He is still home where he has nursing care night and day and Occupational and Physical Therapies. Although unable to walk, he is able to talk, laugh at jokes and especially the funny antics of his 10-year-old brother John. He is reading now and beginning to do some movements of his legs while sitting. With the aid of special equipment, he is able to stand for 60 minutes during his physical therapy. Just last week, through the generous gifts from individuals in this church and others to a Caring Fund for Bennett, he is able to be transported for family trips in the new van equipped for his wheelchair. His medical team says with children’s recovery it is like reading tea leaves, they cannot predict what his recovery will be but his brain scans are promising and he is young. The cancer too continues to be in remission with each test and his maintenance chemo treatment will continue for another year.

Bennett’s positive determination has been a source of inspiration for his family and medical team (affectionally called the B Team) at home and the hospital. My daughter, son in law and brother John have kept their courage and hope and are an amazing team.

For me this has been a spiritual journey like no other as I grappled with doubts, fears, grief, and pain trying to accept something I cannot change in my beloved grandson’s life. My family and I could never have continued the journey without the prayers, emails, prayer shawls, text messages, support and love of this community and also the community and elementary school of North Salem, NY as well as and many other friends and extended family all over the country and world. After my son in law Ryan, editor of Popular Mechanics, interviewed Joe Biden and his son, Hunter for a magazine article about father/son relationships, Biden talked about how the love and support of family and friends helped him through the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident and then the death of his son Beau to cancer. When he heard about Bennett, he called Ryan and offered the resources of his Moon shot Cancer Committee whose aim is to make more therapies available to more patients, while improving the ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage.

Dr. Jon Walton, minister of The New York Presbyterian Church of New York City (a church similar to SPC) visited and prayed many times at the hospital and preached a sermon that the act of praying from the church community and others is an act of love for all those prayed for.

 The words of Jesus Be Not Afraid are mentioned many times in his ministry and they became my mantra during this time. How do we face and accept the painful realities of life some of the givens of human existence—things that cannot be changed. I prayed the Serenity Prayer often: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Dr. David Richo, psychotherapist and author says there are 5 unavoidable givens of life that we ALL face:

1.           Everything changes and ends

2.           Things do not always go according to plan

3.           Life is not always fair

4.           Pain is a part of life

5.           People are not always loving and loyal all the time

6.           How do we all find serenity in accepting these realities of life?

Comforting for me are the words from our gospel today when Jesus  says: Be Not Afraid  while in the raging storms of life. He also said: My peace I give to you, don’t let your hearts be troubled and don’t be afraid; and again when the father of a dying son asks Jesus to heal his son, Jesus said on the way to see the son, Don’t be afraid. This search for serenity is a continual quest that brings us to our knees as we pray to let go and trust God as we try to accept these givens of life.

I have attended SPC for 41 years and I have witnessed the faithfulness, love and compassion of this praying congregation over those years. Bennett visited the Sunday Studio three years ago, when he was 5. When he got in the car, the held out his arms and said “God loves everybody”—he truly GOT the message from this school of love.

In the last 15 months, I have sensed the prayers of the praying community of SPC and others while in the hospital with Bennett. Many of you still tell me that Bennett is in your prayers every day. Prayer is a big part of this school of love. Even if we don’t know how or what to pray-- we are told in Romans that when we don’t know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes with signs too deep for words. This congregation embraces and practices contemplative prayer through prayer groups, Taize services, retreats and Sunday morning seminars. Franciscan Father and author Richard Rohr says “we need contemplative practices to loosen our ego attachment to certainty and retrain our minds to understand the wisdom of paradox.”

In the midst of the pain, when I could not pray, I was comforted by knowing that others were praying for Bennett and our family. I am forever grateful for this loving community and for Bennett’s amazing medical team of doctors, nurses and therapists.

Letting go and Trusting God in these unavoidable givens of life is another way of facing our fears and like Proverbs says: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.

May we be given the outrageous audacity to step out into raging waters as Jesus calls us and may we find the courage to trust ourselves enough to keep trusting God.

Let us remember the words of Jesus as we face our fears: Be Not Afraid I am with you.

And the words of Hafiz: Keep holding hands and praying for each other in this beloved community as we go through dangerous terrain facing the givens of life.

And what Randy often said: Life is difficult but Grace abounds.

In closing hear the words of Howard Thurman, the African American author, theologian and civil rights leader: In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, and hope to despair.

 May it be so.