Words from Cliff and Pastoral Notes

Living in Harmony with the Environment

Saint Paul’s captures the spirit of Chestnut Hill. Or perhaps I should say that Saint Paul’s infuses the Spirit into the spirit of Chestnut Hill. Perhaps both things are true. I attended the Visionaries Roundtable sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Conservancy on April 21. The architect Louis Kahn noted in 1970 that, “We can only know Chestnut Hill as a spirit…” His son, filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn added at the Roundtable, “Mid-Atlantic trees are like nowhere else. Nature and building are in such harmony here.” (Continue Reading…) Landscape architect Bryan Henes observed, “Landscape is a shared experience for everyone.” And organizer Shirley Hanson concluded that this place “is a fitting home for our souls.”

It is interesting that when speakers try to understand this place in which we live, whether consciously or not, they resort to religious language — words such as spirit, harmony, soul. All of this leads me to wonder, what is the role of Saint Paul’s in the future of Chestnut Hill?

Saint Paul’s is a sacred place at the heart of the mercantile district of Chestnut Hill. Hard by the bus turn-around, or what I like to call the SEPTA circle, we exist as a serene place of refreshment. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Our pocket garden Cooke Park is a little, private place where the world-weary can find peace.

Sited among twenty varieties of trees on our campus are our neo-Gothic buildings of locally quarried Wissahickon schist. First-time visitors and pedestrians who daily walk through our campus marvel at the natural and sacred beauty of Saint Paul’s. The majesty and grounded verticality of the buildings and trees encourage the viewer to surrender the illusion of self-sufficiency. They suggest the value of higher purpose and the reconciling strength of community. As Nathaniel Kahn noted, nature and building are in harmony here.

Place also influences character. Psychiatrist Esther Sternberg, who has done extensive work on brain-immune interactions, observes that some places “help us to live in harmony with the environment and sustain our health.” Saint Paul’s is one such place. At a time of ecological crisis, the sacred place that is Saint Paul’s directs all toward the possibility of new life that furthers interrelationship and the well being of all.

Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron observed that Chestnut Hill is very well positioned for development. “It has great transportation, and large lots that can be developed. New buildings,” she said, “invigorate a community. More population supports stores and churches.” As to the future, Rich Snowden of Bowman Properties, cautions there are no big ideas, only big values. “Be flexible and ready to manage change,” he advises. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, addresses this same needed discernment. Of the varieties of gifts, he mentions “the discernment of spirits” (1Cor. 12: 10). To discern the spirit of Chestnut Hill we need those sacred places like Saint Paul’s that point to spirit, higher purpose, harmony, healing, new life, and rest for our souls.


The Resurrection and Mental Health

This past week, I read a story about how Prince Harry dealt with the grief surrounding his mother’s passing. He was a twelve-year-old boy when his mother died in a horrible car accident. As a young boy, as a teenager, and as a young man, he buried his grief deep within. This led to many anger issues that he had to deal with. He sought help, and is now in a very good place. The interesting part for me was that boxing helped him in letting out that steam.

His story brings to mind the tragic death of an old man who was shot in Ohio. After shooting Mr. Goodwin, the murder suspect posted a picture of the horrific act on Facebook. (Continue Reading…) What in the world would lead another man to kill and then post pictures on Facebook? Was it to celebrate the horrific act? Was it an attempt to boast? Was it because life isn’t precious? Was it that this man who was a counselor was crying for help but no one heard him?

Whatever it was that led Mr. Stephens (who has since killed himself) to commit such a heinous crime and post it on Facebook could happen to any one of us. We may be dealing with some grief over the passing of a loved one. We may be angry at someone or something. But more than that, we may be dealing with mental health issues. We want to let out the steam that is boiling within us, but do not know how or are worried about being stigmatized.

The joy of Easter is a resurrected body and mind. Let not the shame of being stigmatized ruin your life and that of your loved ones. Seek help. Cry out. If no one hears you, shout all the more. That is the only way you can also be raised from the dead.

~ Manny

Glorious Morning

The Christian journey is one shaped by death and life, crucifixion and resurrection. But it is one that is uniquely marked by life. As challenging as the journey might be, our sustenance for the journey often depends on whether we consider the tomb to be still covered by the stone or that the stone was rolled away from the tomb.

On that glorious morning, two women who had been on a journey with Jesus could not stop themselves from going back to the garden. I do not presume to know the nature of the journey on which they had been all their lives. But I am more inclined to believe that theirs was one clothed in a kind of desperation particularly heightened by the events of Good Friday.

This past Sunday, Christians who had gathered to worship and celebrate Palm Sunday were attacked by the terror group ISIS. Why a group of people would kill others to make a point, whether religious or political, is beyond me. But I also know that like the two women, both the terrorists and the victims will think about the question of life and wonder whether the stone slab is on the door to the tomb or has been removed.

A few days ago, there was a story of a passenger who would not give up his seat on a United Airways flight from Chicago to Louisville. This passenger had done nothing wrong; he and others were asked to give up their seats. But because he refused, three law enforcement officials came and dragged him off the plane, leaving him with a bloodied face. All who were involved or observed this incident will contemplate the question of life and wonder if the door to the tomb is still covered or not.

In San Bernardino, a domestic dispute between two adults led to gun shots at an elementary school resulting in the death of an innocent student and critically wounding another student. Their families will ponder the question of life and wonder if the stone still covers the tomb or if the stone has been removed.

Our wanderings are many and varied. Our journeys are countless and diverse. And one journey inevitably intertwines with another, because we are people of relationship. For that reason, and that alone, we should always, always side with life and its dignity.

We celebrate a glorious morning because we too look for life even in the midst of death, and that’s what it means to be human. The resurrection of Jesus is about life and the hope that life offers. Easter is a glorious morning because the Glory of God cannot be contained in a tomb. We all think about life, however dire our situations may be. We also wonder about the stone covering the tomb. But if the glorious Easter Morning will bear any meaning for you, I invite you to think about life and be grateful for it. Happy Easter!

— Manny

Turning Jerusalem On Its Head

Jerusalem, first captured by David from the Jebusites, gained significant prominence when Solomon built a magnificent temple in honor of Yahweh. This beautiful temple became the envy of those who lived in the ancient Near East, and attracted pilgrims who came to worship or simply to admire its magnificence.  But the place of tranquility and the nurturing place of faith has also been a place of violence.

On Palm Sunday, we will celebrate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Biblical narratives talk of people cutting branches from trees and laying their cloth on the path of a donkey upon which sat the Son of David. The political establishment could not care much, because this act wasn’t threatening. However, the religious establishment could not let this sacrilege go by without any repercussion. In their response, they set in motion a series of events which would eventually lead to turning Jerusalem on its head.

(Continue Reading…) The story of the Passion Week reflects the human desire to be in control, to speak for God and to even kill ‘God’ in order to protect God. How wrong can we be? No one can control God, speak for God, or protect God. That is why God will rise up, even after the brutal crucifixion!

The One who comes to us as King, also comes to us as a Servant. The tasks of the King and Servant are not incompatible, and their goal is for us to look at Jerusalem in a new way. This way is summed up in these thoughts by an abbot of a Coptic Monastery of Saint Macarius in the Egyptian desert. He said this about Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, the Holy, is right here, in and around these caves; for what else is my cave, but the place where my savior Christ was born; what else is my cave, but the place where he most gloriously rose again from the dead? Jerusalem is here, right here, and all the spiritual riches of the holy city are found in this wadi.”

If the abbot found Jerusalem within his midst, even in the caves, then we too find Jerusalem right here in Chestnut Hill, right here in Philadelphia. It only takes the desire to create a space for the Holy. As we begin our passion journey, my prayer is for us to open our hearts and eyes to create and welcome the Holy in our midst, lift up the Holy around us and to make Holy that which isn’t Holy.

– Manny

How Big Is Your God?

Recently, Cliff spoke about the extent to which God nudges us in different directions as we seek to discern His will for our lives. Sometimes this nudging takes us to unfamiliar places or revives a passion for service. Wherever this nudging takes us or leads us, it is never lost on us that the hand of God is present with us, embracing and celebrating our moments of joy and comforting us in moments of distress.

Some of us are wont to minimize or even deny a nudge because of our view of the role God plays in our lives or the space God occupies in our lives or even the perceived distance between us and God. This reminds me of a story about a boy who asked his father, “Dad, how big is God?” (Continue Reading…) Looking up at the sky, his father saw an airplane and asked his son, “How big is that airplane?” The boy responded, “It’s small, Dad! You can hardly even see it!” Then the father took his son to an airport hangar. Standing in front of one of the airplanes, the father asked, “And now how big is this airplane?” The boy responded, “Oh Daddy, this plane is enormous!” At this point, the father said to him, “That’s how it is with God! How big He is depends on the distance between you and Him! The closer you are to Him, the bigger He is in your life!”

How big is your God? Is He so big that you feel His abiding presence in every area of your life to the extent that you can feel the nudge for mission, service, and ministry, or is He so distant that you feel little to no connection with Him? We can make God to be too small in our lives, but God can never be big enough, because the more we open ourselves to deepening our relationship with Him, the bigger He becomes.

I am sure you have heard this song before: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty there’s nothing my God cannot do.” As we ease through Lent, may we carry this assurance with us — our God is so big, so big I can look towards Easter with hope because there is nothing He cannot do.

– Manny