Let us Ramble: The Cannon

I was gardening a few minutes before it happened. I spent the majority of the day getting the tomato patch ready for a good season. I pulled weeds, I measured space, I marked holes, I prepped the area, and finally planted the tomatoes. We planted 3 cherry tomato plants, 2 slicing tomato plants, and 3 paste tomato varieties for sauces. It had been a really productive day. I even planted flowers. I came inside and this is who I was…


I was this guy from the circus. I was climbing on life’s cannon. I avoided the news all day, avoided Facebook most of the day, and was ready to climb into the cannon of life. I was totally ready for what life had for me, because if life gave me lemons, I could use them to add a certain amount of acidity to my tomato sauces.

Then I read the Judicial Council’s decision on the election of Bishop Oliveto. I immediately felt like the man from the circus in the following picture…


Do you see that blur? That’s a person being fired out of a cannon. I know this because my phone took a continuous stream of photos and that’s the guy! You’d better hope that pad is in place when this happens, because that is really fast.

I felt like this man being shot across an arena when I read that article not because I am a member of the LGBTQI community–I am pretty much as heterosexual as people come. I did not feel like a man being shot across an arena because I have any relatives that are out of the closet–they’re all heterosexual as far as I can tell. I have no familial investment in the LGBTQI community as far as I know.

I felt like a person being shot out of a cannon because these actions come across to me as neither right nor righteous. We live in a world where there are children being driven from homes by war, greed, and hatred. We live in a world where children are forced into exploitive circumstances where they are taken advantage of in the most criminal of fashions. We live in a world where we are regularly discussing the possibility of nuclear war between North Korea and the United States on a nearly daily basis. We live in a messed up world and THIS is where we are spending our time and energy. If you’re reading frustration into my words, congratulations. You are correct. I am totally and completely frustrated by what has happened.

We act as if God is losing sleep over what two consenting adults do in a loving relationship but is okay with the effects that our personal investments and privileges have on people around the globe. Continuing to waste time and resources on the oppression of a community that has individuals who exemplify and exhibit the gifts of the Holy Spirit is simply and completely confounding to me.

Let me put this another way. If I call the pizzeria down the street and ask for them to send me the best pizza they have, the pizzeria might make any of a number of pizzas. They might send a black olive pizza, a cheeseburger pizza, a pepperoni pizza… The possibilities are endless, but I know this: if I ask them to make me a great pizza I’ll probably get a great pizza.

We ask God to send us leaders and then we get upset when God sends us leaders who don’t fit our conceptions of what is acceptable. We ask for God to help lead us forward into this new millennia and new century and then we get frustrated that God continually asks us to accept who we are sent instead of who we would prefer. We’re given talented leaders like Bishop Oliveto and we respond by threatening any group of clergy with punishment that would even consider electing another person like her.

Is it any wonder that someone who was ordained to help care for the body of Christ feels like he has been shot out of a cannon? I just wanted to worry about my tomatoes and now I’m worried about my church bleeding out over the massive wounding we just gave ourselves. I think we’ve all just been launched into the sky. I pray we have a soft landing.

Let us Ramble: Images of the Police and God

The other day I read a sourceless (but probably not apocryphal) story about a police officer sitting at lunch with her partner when a conversation between a mother and her son was overheard. The child had been acting up and the mother was losing her patience. The mother pointed at the two police officers and said “You see those police officers over there? They take bad kids like you to jail if they misbehave.” The officer stood up, walked over, and said to the child “Don’t worry. We don’t take children to jail. We take bad parents there instead.”

The story was meant to inspire people to not tell their children that the police are the bad guys. If a child gets in trouble it becomes harder to help them if they truly believe that the police are going to hurt them. The fear children learn about police officers from others causes the children to be less safe in the long run.

The story re-entered my brain as I was reading through the first few chapters of “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In the introduction to the book the authors note that a lot of people carry two images of God with them. They carry the image that they are taught and verbally profess, but they also carry the image that is formed by their interactions with others, especially caretakers and parents. The authors call these images of God the professed image and the operative image (pg.2-3).

Looking at the story of the police officer’s interaction we see a great example of this kind of learned behavior. The child is likely taught through school programs, teachers, and neighbors that the police are there to be helpful. This image is reinforced every time they see an officer in a car with the words “To serve and protect” written on the bumper. If pressed the child might say that the police exist to help. This would be the professed image of the police.

At the same time, the child is being taught by his mother that bad boys are taken away by the police. The child is being taught that the police effectively exist to lock him up when he misbehaves. The child is being taught that they should avoid the police and this image may last for years in such a deep place that the child may not even remember. The child is going forward with two ideas in his head. He says the police are there for his benefit and yet believes (at some level) that the police exist to hurt him when he misbehaves.

I wonder how much this duality truly exists when it comes to divine education. I serve in a role as a pastor. I teach people about God on a regular basis. I tell people about the love of Jesus, the kindness of Jesus, the graciousness of Jesus, and that God deeply and truly cares for them. I try to teach this idea at a deep level.

At the same time, there are people who constantly and consistently undermine this idea. Yes, sometimes it is a parent saying that God will take them as a bad kid and throw them into a fire where they will spend all of eternity, but I honestly don’t believe many of the parents that I meet work out of that theological place. This idea is reinforced while flipping through television stations past an angry televangelist, while walking past the angry man with a sign screaming through a bullhorn, while talking with friends and relatives who have had bad experiences with hellfire/damnation preachers. All of these influences add up and in a world where there are a million and one places to get information it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that God sometimes ends up with a reputation as being someone who cannot and must not be trusted.

This whole concept begs a question or two for me. How does the church survive when there are so many people teaching the exact opposite viewpoint that we share of a loving and caring God? How do we help people connect the image of God they profess to the image of God that is acting on a level that might even exist below their conscious thought? How do we help people peel back the layers and find the God of love and grace below their misconceptions?

I know I have done my best to help my kids understand that police officers are good people by making sure they know how much we respect their Uncle Stefano (who is a police officer). We treat officers with respect and do our best not to speak poorly of the police (even when we don’t agree with everything that has ever been done by police officers). We do our best to connect our children with a positive image of the police.

I wonder if we might do the same thing by connecting our children to people who carry the love of God around with them in their everyday lives. I think that means making certain our children are involved in a Christian community and supporting that community as best we are able. I also believe that means doing our best to embody the faith we profess as opposed to the poor parts of the faith we may have inherited from others. I think it’ll take a lot of work.

Here are three things I think need to become a reality for this work to succeed:

  1. Caregivers and parents need to be aware that their viewpoints often help to educate a child about the role and nature of God. A lesson is taught when a child is dropped off for Sunday school by a parent who leaves to have “me time.” Awareness is necessary.
  2. Pastors, Sunday School teachers, and even parishioners need to be aware that their vocal-voice is not the only voice children hear. Our voices need to be compelling and backed up by our actions. We cannot sing “Jesus’ hands were kind hands” before saying terrible things around the table over a cup of coffee while expecting kids to remember only the first message. Our kids will hear both messages.
  3. Sometimes we need to state the obvious in worship so that the obvious is heard more than once or twice. Why do some churches have constant communion? Yes, there’s a theology of grace, but there’s also a richness to hearing words of grace and forgiveness regularly. Why do some churches repeat a creed or affirmation of faith every week? Perhaps a child needs the consistency of hearing the same message in order to combat the messages they see every day in the world.

What other things do you think the church can do to connect the professed beliefs of the church about God with their operative images of God? What have you seen work in your lives?

Let us Seek: Jonah and Judgment

In today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary we find that there is a good deal to chew upon… Well, I assume too much. I figure a famous prophet like Jonah would have been well fed enough to require a good chewing. No, my wife doesn’t laugh at my jokes anymore. I think she’s afraid to encourage me. She doesn’t realize or at least admit to me that it is too late. That ship has sailed and I do my best not to be swallowed by whales.

Anyway, obviously today’s readings include a section from the story of Jonah. The section of Jonah includes the speech which Jonah makes from within the whale before being spit ashore. His voice comes to the Lord (in the temple (of course…that reading clearly points to a very solid temple-centric theology)). Jonah owns his place in the depths and offers a promise of sacrifice to God. Others turn to idols, but Jonah will come with thanksgiving to the temple. Jonah is effectively owning his place at the edge of death, is operating out of a place of desperation but hopefully also honesty, and is claiming that deliverance belongs to God alone. Jonah is spit out by the fish and reaches a place of safety.

A reading of Jonah will show that Jonah still doesn’t really care about the people of Nineveh. He waits for their destruction before the end. He waits for the Lord to destroy people who call on God to relent. Yes, he waits for God to do to others what he does not want God to do to him. Really, for being such an effective prophet Jonah does not understand mercy.

To be fair, it appears as if understanding is contagious as the reading from Matthew contains the statement made by Jesus to the Pharisees that no sign will be given but the sign of Jonah. Jesus rises from the grave after three days and Jesus seems to state quite clearly that the people of Nineveh will stand in judgment because they repented after Jonah came. Their ability to stand in judgment comes from their willingness to repent when the word comes from Jonah.

I wonder what this could mean for us as a people. It is likely that early readers saw this as a condemnation of Jewish people and it has been used many times to foment anti-semitism, but I’d like to push past that point. The world doesn’t need any more anti-semitism.

I wonder if there aren’t communities out there who have at one point or another found themselves surrounded by enemies with weapons that were more than willing to slaughter. I wonder if they called out to God, God relented, and a word was spoken to “the fish” willing to swallow them whole. Could such a community stand in judgment over other communities that are more than willing to use violence to get their way? Could such a community stand in judgment over communities that enter into the pond of life to eat other fish and consequently risk being eaten? It is a bit off the original point, but is this a possibility as we read texts like these?

How many places have we been forgiven only to hold that same place in judgment over another? How many places have we found grace only to turn around and deny it to others? How many times do we effectively act blindly towards our neighbors while ignoring our own shortcomings?

When will Jonah learn? When will we learn? The God who scares the sea walks in our midst with hills skipping away. We should learn well. We should do so in a timely fashion. Whale teeth aren’t small and I bet they hurt.

Let us Pray: United Methodists and Magic Fish

Today I am in prayer for the United Methodist Church and I am reminded of a story referenced in last weekend’s Doctor Who episode. In that episode, the Doctor speaks with his companion Bill about a cautionary tale called “The Magic Haddock.”

In the story of the Magic Haddock, a fisherman catches a fish which offers the fisherman three wishes in exchange for freedom. The fisherman wishes for his son to be home from war and for 100 pieces of gold. The Magic Haddock grants his wishes, but not as expected. The man’s son is slain in battle and returns home in a coffin. The man is offered 100 pieces of gold in gratitude for his son’s service. Heartbroken, the third wish the man makes is that his first two wishes would be undone.

It is a story that reminds me of the Tale of the Monkey’s Paw that was a part of one of the Simpsons Treehouses of Horror when I was a child. The moral of the two stories is the same: You never know what you will get when you make a wish, so you’d better be careful of what wishes you make in your life. It is a common tale that relates back to many tales of genies, d’jinn, devils, and other mythical figures.

A lot of people are making “wishes” about what will come out of this Judicial Council meeting or out of the special meeting of General Conference in 2019. I am someone who is sitting on the sidelines and wondering if the wishes we are making might have disastrous consequences, especially as we have folks praying in extreme opposite directions. We need the Holy Spirit to be at work in these events for the future to have hope. We need the Holy Spirit to be at work in us for the future to have hope. We need the Holy Spirit for our wishes are often to our own detriment.

May God bless us and give us wisdom. May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. May God help us to be the church.

Let Us Seek: Lakes and Canoes

In today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings, I find a bit of a disconnect between the Psalm and the reading from Judges.The Psalm describes the coming of the Lord in fantastic ways. Psalm 114 asks questions of the sea and the mountains. Why would the sea flee from before the Lord? Why would mountains and hills skip away like wild animals?

A better question might be what kind of person could cause such a reaction to take place? I don’t know much about the seas or hills around the holy land beyond what I have read, but I can certainly tell you that North American lakes and mountains really don’t care what humans want of them (although we’re certainly doing our best to have a powerful impact on them).

When I was really young I was a Boy Scout. Yes, I was a Boy Scout and my troop loved to go camping. One year we went on an epic trip into the wilderness of Canada. We piled into canoes and went out into the wilds of Canada. We got into our canoes, paddled for miles, got out of our canoes, carried our canoes, climbed into our canoes again, paddled again, go out again… until we were in the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful and wild.

At one point a member of my group and I were canoeing when the boat capsized. I tried to stand up and my leg was stuck in the mud. I pulled and pulled until something gave…painfully. My scouting friend went to get help and I laid on a rock in the middle of the wilderness in insane amounts of pain. I could barely walk when I got back to camp and twisted my ankle further portaging the canoe on the way back. It was painful, it was traumatic, and the lakes did not care. The mud that I begged to let go of my foot did not care. The hill I tripped on while portaging the canoe did not care.

The Psalm describes seas and mountains as caring about what this God does. The implication for me is that this God is so far beyond me that I cannot imagine how powerful this God might be. It defies explanation. It defies science. This defies everything I experience about reality.

So, why is this silly Judge questioning God with something as simple as wool and dew? Does Gideon just needs a bit of reassurance or is he trying not to push his luck? Does Gideon not know what the seas and mountains would do? The whole Judge based system seems like it led to a lot of problems, but putting these two readings side by side really emphasizes how strange the perspectives of individuals can be at times.

Of course, I sometimes question whether it is reasonable or not to ask God for a good crop of apples this fall. God can make mountains skip, but it sometimes seems too much to ask God to keep the frost away from the blossoms for a few weeks. Perhaps this is why I was not called to be a farmer. Most faithful farmers I know have a deep faith that doesn’t seem afraid to ask for help with crops. Most of them are also bold enough that they’d likely continue to believe regardless of what the wool did the next morning.

In the meantime, I am thankful that I love a God who is so powerful yet lives out of a place of love and grace. I am thankful that I do not have the power of God as I would likely not use it very well. I will give thanks that I am beloved as a goofball who prays for apples and worries about the faith of people with wool. At least I am pondering and I know that is a good start.

Let Us Ramble: Fishing and Shame

This morning I made a terrible mistake. This morning I picked up the first book of many that I will be reading as a result of my time engaging in the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The book is entitled “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and is written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au out of Loyola Marymount University and the CH Jung Institute of Los Angeles respectively.

I say it was a mistake to dive into this book because I was unprepared for the depths to which this book would delve so quickly. I started keeping a list of potential blog-entries and had to stop after a few pages. This is a book that will require chewing, digesting, and redigesting later. I wish I had a brain as effective at digging through ideas as a cow’s stomach can be at munching through grass. I need a good four brains right about now.

Let me explain what I mean through an example. A question was raised in the book on the effect of shame in our spiritual lives. Shame can affect the way we relate to other people in our lives, but do we stop to think about how shame can affect the way that we see God? My first reaction is that shame definitely affects the way that we see God. The authors are right when they say that shame affects all of our relationships.

Let me give an example. When I was first married I decided that I wanted to be a fly-fisherman. I may or may not have watched “A River Runs Through It” a few too many times. I bought a pole, broke a pole, bought another pole, built a pole traveling case to protect the pole, learned to cast, and I spent hours sending a piece of yarn back and forth over the yard. I cast, cast, and cast again. I was pretty happy with my casting.

Unfortunately, I had two problems. First, my vision was beginning to deteriorate due to keratoconus and I couldn’t see very well into the water to find fish. I needed help learning where to cast as I couldn’t see what I needed to see below the surface. I had to learn to read the surface. Second, I didn’t know all that much about how to reel in a fish once I caught it. I knew I needed to strip the line, but I wasn’t quite sure how that worked. I kept casting and casting.

On our anniversary my wife and I went camping. I went fishing at the lake shore by the campsite. I caught a little fish and it went flying behind me. I didn’t even realize I caught it. My wife found it hilarious. She mounted a little plastic fish as a playful reminder of my encounter with a wild fish. It was funny, but I stopped fly fishing. I was so embarrassed by my fishing that I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone for advice. I was ashamed of my ability. I stopped because it was easier than admitting my failure to any one of a number of friends who would have gladly helped me.

Shame stopped me in my tracks. The question becomes whether or not there are things in my life that stop me spiritually just as hard as my fear of being “found out” as a bad fly-fisherman. Yes, there certainly are things that weigh me down through spiritual shame.

When I was a kid I had a nightmare at a summer camp that the devil was going to steal my soul after a particularly rough Bible study told us about sin. The camp counselor was loving, kind, and helpful, but let’s be honest, I still carried around the image of a God who would abandon me to such a fate if I didn’t do things just right. I still carry that idea around. When people talk in church about shortcomings of an institution that is far larger than me, I sometimes see that divine head shaking at me. When people talk about younger folks who don’t come to church, I sometimes see that divine head looking at me and challenging me to do something worthwhile and amazing. I live with a lot of shame that more than likely doesn’t belong on my shoulders alone. I do live in a community, so why does everything that happens feel like it is my fault alone?

Jesus said that His yoke was easy. Why does my shame add such weight to the things I carry through my life? Why does the church (or at least church folk) sometimes seem to have an addiction to that sense of shame? Why does shame put a weight on all of us? Is shame what is killing the church rather than people who sometimes act cruelly and (ironically) shamelessly? Interesting questions to ponder…

Meanwhile, I both recommend this book and invite you to be careful. There’s a lot to chew on in these pages.

Let us Seek: Beloved Partner

So, when I consider today’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary I see an unintentional correlation between two texts that are clearly unrelated. One of the readings is from the fifth chapter of the Song of Solomon and another is from the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians.

Do you know what stands out to me in this portion of the Song of Solomon? No? Well, I’ll tell you! It is one of the final descriptions of the beloved man. He is described as having legs like alabaster columns and smelly cheeks. His lips are like lilies dripping with a liquid that smells like burial spices. He has a body made of ivory encrusted with sapphires. He is described in ways that are altogether flowing and altogether over the top. He’s clearly well liked, but I want to draw attention to that one final description. The final thing she says in that chapter is “This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.”

What is the final compliment that can be made of this wonderful man? He’s not only beloved. He is her friend. The relationship between these two is not simply about physical attraction. The relationship includes friendship and I believe that is truly important.

Now, I love my wife with all of my heart, but she’s changed over the years from the beautiful bride that I married after college. She’s grown wiser in her eyes and she’s grown more lovely in her ways. She’s gained intelligence, character, and tenacity. Over time I have come to love her deeply and that love grows deeper each time I am reminded of one fact. She’s not just my beloved. My wife is my friend and her friendship is the fragrance that makes her more and more lovely…

As our marriage has gone on I have come to realize that her friendship is deeply important to me. As such, ten years into marriage I am as interested (if not more interested) in being a better friend to my wife as I am in being a handsome husband. I heard somewhere that: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a person who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30, alt.)

Here’s where I see the connection to 1 Corinthians. Paul has been writing chapter after chapter of advice to a community that is divided on multiple fronts. Paul has been trying to draw them out of their challenging behavior in an attempt to draw them back into life a loving community. Paul is working very hard to convince them of this reality when he writes the words from our reading: (1 Cor. 15:1-4)

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…

These words are an attempt to reiterate a major truth of the epistle. Jesus Christ is the one who is ultimately at the core of the Corinthian community. Paul believed that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were integral to the community of faith. Jesus’ work molded and transformed the ways in which the community lived, fought, and struggled together. To forget this integral truth would be to forget the very thing that made them into a community.

Ultimately, Paul’s call on the Corinthian church is also a call on us as a community. I personally hear it as a call that applies to my own marriage. Jesus’ life was marked by love, sacrifice, and servanthood. My relationship with my wife should follow Jesus’ example. I may appreciate how her teeth look like shorn sheep, but ultimately, her looks aren’t what is first and foremost important. She’s the woman I love, the woman I honor, and the woman who I am called to be a friend to for all of my days.

I normally would offer advice on how to be a better friend to your partner or spouse, but the best advice I have is to love them like you like to be loved in their shoes. Please note, I don’t mean that your partner wants what you would want–love them as if you were them and had their interests…

My father-in-law also once said don’t buy gifts that come with electrical plugs. Apparently he was into solar power before it was cool…

Let us Ramble: Dryness

Lately I have been thinking about dry bones. I have been feeling a bit dry myself. Perhaps it is the number of things that have been rapidly changing in my life, the busyness of the Lenten season, the stresses of being a pastor of a smaller church in a small town, or simply the constant headache from not wearing my glasses while my new cornea heals… Regardless I have been feeling like a bunch of dried out bones.

One of the books I have been reading lately has been “A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds” by Reuben P. Job. In that book, a poem by Joyce Rupp is quoted named “Dry Bones.” In that poem, the following stanzas are recorded:

tiredness grounds me

into a quiet stupor

of the spirit.

I yearn to be inspired,

to be lifted up, set free

beyond the place of deadness.

the struggle goes on,


and you and I, God,

we exist together

with seemingly

little communion

Joyce Rupp goes on to state her belief in God feels stronger than ever despite the challenges she is facing. It is quite beautiful. I recommend both Joyce Rupp’s works and Reuben Job’s book because they each have their own beauty. I think that beauty is quite apparent in the words above…

I share these words because I know what it feels like to have tiredness wear me into a quiet stupor of the soul. I feel the dryness of my bones in a place of deadness. I yearn, I call, I seek, and yet here God and I exist together. The dryness is overwhelming sometimes.

Surely, the biblical quote you might lift up to me is the offer to the woman at the well. Doesn’t Jesus offer a living water that quenches this thirst? As a pastor, shouldn’t you (of all people!) know that these dry patches aren’t necessary when the living water dwells with us? Shouldn’t I know why these patches take place and be able to just walk through them into a bright future without a bit of dryness?

No. I do not know why there are dry places in life. Paul (in Romans 5:3-5) might tell us that suffering leads to endurance, character, and ultimately a hope that does not disappoint, but even with those words strike me as not explaining why there are dry places. The dry places may lead to this blessing, but I cannot tell you perfectly why any of us face dryness. Couldn’t there be an easier way?

Ultimately, all I can tell you is that almost everyone faces dry places in life. Almost every person sooner or later finds themselves in a place where they have moved away from the mountain top experiences, entered the valleys, and started wondering what happened and why. It is something that has happened to everyone from Mother Theresa to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, how do we live through these moments? I think Joyce Rupp hits it right on the head. We exist together with God in the dryness. We call out in prayer, we yearn, and when words fail us, we exist together with God.

One story I did not personally touch on during Holy Week was that one moment where Jesus says some simple words. Jesus says “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). John says that it is to fulfill the scriptures, but even so, it is a simple statement. Jesus is thirsty. The source of the living water feels thirst.

I can co-exist with Jesus in my dryness because I believe Jesus has been dried out too. Jesus knew thirst. Am I being too literal? Possibly, but I imagine the prayer in Gethsemane was a moment of dry thirst. Jesus prayed “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Go further back to the story of the temptation. If Jesus wasn’t actually hungry and thirsty when the devil offered rocks like loaves of bread, then was he truly tempted? In my dryness, I see the image of the invisible God. The image of God shown in Jesus is an image that knows difficulty.

I am pretty dry these days. I’ll still stay here with Jesus. I invite all of you who struggle with dryness to spend time with the One who knows dryness. Christ came, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. Even if we have to wait in the desert, Christ will come again.

Let us Seek: Might and Superheroes

Today’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are a bit challenging in a modern context. In the NRSV, Psalm 118:14 says that: “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” The reading from Joshua recounts the crossing of the Jordan into a Promised Land. Joshua’s campaign will be a bloody campaign. Mary’s experience in Matthew’s Gospel is far more shocking and frightening than the gospel reading we shared on Sunday from John. Jesus is described as being as having an appearance like lightning. The Mary of Matthew does not confuse Jesus with a keeper of the garden. This telling leads modern folks like me to ask which Gospel tells the truth of Easter morning, even when we’re wise enough to realize that gospels written decades apart would likely vary significantly.

In choosing a selection from these readings to ponder in our daily blog, I am drawn to ask a question. What does it mean that the Lord is our strength and might? Sure, Jesus appears as lightning in Matthew, but Jesus is also the man who willingly went to the cross. Jesus does exemplify strength, but this is not the strength you see very often in our culture.

Consider for a moment the representations of strength shown in modern cinema. In a few short weeks my daughter (who loves superhero films) will likely be asking me to take her to see the newest Thor movie. In that movie, Christopher Hemsworth will show strength in the person of Thor. He will face the Hulk in a battle and it will be powerful, but powerful in a way I doubt we’d connect with Jesus. A few weeks later, it is likely I will be asked to go see Gal Gadot portray Wonder Woman, because she is powerful and my kids are growing up in a house where we can accept the existence of both DC and Marvel comics. She’ll probably enter into a world of war while defending the person played by Chris Pine. James Tiberius Kirk would likely be shocked to know the actor portraying him in modern films will be defended by a woman far tougher than either him or Mr. Spock (it is true, sorry…), but he’s a fictional character without real emotions. Neither Kirk nor Wonder Woman would likely be accused of carrying the strength lived out in the person of Jesus.

Indeed, I’m a red-blooded American male, but even I understand that any of these characters would likely be a better pick in a game of dodgeball than someone like me. They’re strong, they’re tough, and none of them express the same kind of strength as Jesus. The question is whether real life requires Jesus’ strength or the strength of superbeings…

As a Christian reading this selection from the Psalms, I am reminded first and foremost that the Lord is my strength. My reading is affected by my very real and personal understanding that the strength which I rely on is found in the person of Jesus. When I read other words from this selection (vs. 22) around the idea that the rejected stone has become the chief cornerstone of a building founded on God’s work, I am led to ponder the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus.

None of the fictional characters of the movies that my daughter might want to see will bear the strength required to become the chief cornerstone. Are they kind of cool? Well, yeah. Do they bear the strength required to bear a Christian forward in an uncertain world? No. In fact, my knowledge of superheroes has taught me that the power and might of superheroes often leads to the loss of the people they love. Jesus makes a promise in John 17 about the people in His care and I believe that this promise holds true even as Gwen Stacy, Carol Ferris, and Colossus are left behind by the heroines and heroes that love them.

Here are three suggestions that might help a child to understand the difference between the strength of superbeings and strength of Jesus:

  1. Invite your children to participate in ministry with people who have real and present needs. Work on a Habitat for Humanity home, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or invite them to go on a trip (with a trusted group like UMCOR) to a mission field in another nation. When they see the need of the world it will help them to understand that most problems that people face require a strength that goes beyond the will and power of a superbeing. They need the loving hands of God as expressed through the body of Christ.
  2. Introduce your children to great literature. This may seem counterintuitive if you are not naturally a lover of books, but there is something about reading through the events of great figures of history and also great moments in fiction that may inspire your child to think about the world around them.

    Why is Star Trek so egalitarian in approach to different life forms? Why do the Jedi see the force in all living beings? Why does Doctor Who care so much about doing the right thing? Why did the Greeks stand so firm against the invading forces of Persia? You can find people dealing with deep issues if you look deeply enough into works of fiction and works of history. Most of those issues require an answer deeper than the average superbeing can provide. If you’re a part of that conversation you can invite your children to look deeper. Also, if your kids love books they can’t afford to get into too much trouble. Books cost too much and libraries have had their funding slashed in most places.

  3. Listen to the news with your kids and do your best to answer their questions. My kids regularly listen to WBNG on NPR One as we drive to do our errands. We do this together since my dad used to listen to WBFO with me in the garage when I was a kid.

    My eldest asks questions about the world and I am sometimes forced to learn new things to answer her with integrity. To be entirely honest, she sometimes asks questions that go far above what I understand about the world. When we discuss things like economic disparity (“Why can’t they just move somewhere other than Syria?”), violence (“Why would someone kill someone on Facebook? Why didn’t God stop them?”), or even school issues (“Why are kids hungry and why wouldn’t people give them the same lunch?”), I am forced to go deeper into the issues myself. When we seek answers together we both grow. This is a good thing and as you both grow, you’ll hopefully both come to understand the nature of true might a bit more clearly.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. As always, experiment and find out what works for both you and your family. Blessings!

Featured Image Comment: You go Lidia Valentin. You’re tougher than me by a long shot! Thanks Wikimedia Commons for sharing an image of such a strong and respectable weightlifter!

Let us Seek: Holy Clothes

Even though Holy Week is over I want to continue reflecting on the daily scripture readings found through the Revised Common Lectionary at least a few times a week. Today’s readings include the following passage from Colossians. This is Colossians 3:12-17:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

I love the idea of clothing your body with love. Every morning I get out of bed and I choose the clothes I wear. If it is a day where I’m just with my family, it is usually just a pair of jeans and a goofy t-shirt. If It is a day where I’m going to be in the office or going on visits, I put on a clergy shirt and literally clothe my body with a collar–a symbol of my office, my calling, and a reminder to my own heart that I am a servant. If I am going to be leading worship, I might clothe myself in an alb, robe, and usually a stole. I wear a wedding ring except when I’m playing my hand drums (as the metal would ruin the drumhead). I clothe myself in many ways.

The idea of wearing love and letting it bind everything together is both heartwarming and powerful. It is the cloak that covers against a winter chill. It is the garment that wraps you and keeps you dry like a rain slicker. It is the undershirt that touches you and keeps you comfortable and safe even as you wear a scratchy but warm wool sweater.

It is love that comforts and connects all of you as you let Christ dwell in you. It is love that surrounds you as God’s love fills you with wisdom, leads you into song, teaches you gratitude, and is with you in the midst of every challenge you face. It is love that ties together the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness that marks the life of a Christian. It is love that covers all–even the goofiness of Christians like me!

Love is an important thing. For my family, it is increasingly important. Love can help us through all matters and my family could definitely use love along with the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness that are part of the wardrobe. As the months go on, you’ll learn why if you keep reading this blog.

Meanwhile, may you find the key to your wardrobe! May you find that there is adventure the likes of which C.S. Lewis would dream of as you try on the clothes of faith from the back of the rack. May you live in peace and may the God of peace clothe you in love!

Let us Ramble: An Easter Examen

It was Easter afternoon and the ham was cooling in the oven when it happened. I was offered a ride from one room to the next in a wheelchair. I could barely walk after falling down the stairs during church (while carrying and then wearing communion juice) and suffering (what was later discovered to only be) a severe contusion on my left foot. I was invited to ride as I could barely stand. The nurse said “You don’t get offered a free ride often. You should take it pastor.”

It was Easter evening and my wife was sitting on the couch after a very long day. She looked exhausted. She said to herself “I wish he had emptied the trash or changed the litter box before hurting himself.” It was Easter evening when I slid down the stairs on my bottom cradling a garbage bag full of kitty litter before limping it to the garbage. My wife chided me but I kept listening to the rock and roll in my ear buds as I fought my way through the task.

In hindsight, I am glad that both things occurred. A big portion of that relief comes from the fact that it is two days later and I’m doing significantly better after resting and icing my bruise. A bigger portion of the relief comes from what I see when I look at these actions.

The Examen is a spiritual discipline connected to many different sources but especially to the practices of the Roman Catholic leader St. Ignatius Loyola. I know, I’m United Methodist. Why am I pointing towards the practices of a Roman Catholic? Well, to over simplify, God is bigger than the denominational divides and wisdom sees wisdom wherever it lies… Anyway…

The Examen is a prayer practice that helps me to personally see what is good in my life by revealing the presence of God in ordinary moments through reflection. IgnatianSpirituality.com (a ministry of Loyola Press) identifies the following as a simplified approach to the Examen:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

Let me be honest, I obviously ignored the fourth point when I picked two moments out of my day in my reflections on Easter Sunday for prayer. The two moments I focused upon were the moment of accepting the ride and the moment of carrying the kitty litter to the trash to help my wife.

I saw God’s presence in the moment when I was proffered a ride in several ways. First, the nurse was a relative of a church member and I saw the compassion that her parent shows in her life at the church. I saw God’s love expressed through her kindness. I also felt God’s presence in an invitation to practice humility by accepting a ride instead of fighting my way down the hall with my considerable and obvious stubbornness. As I prayed through that moment I found a connection between these actions and God. It did lead to gratitude and to a sense of blessing.

I saw God’s presence in the moment when I was carrying to kitty litter in several ways. First and foremost, I recognized that there was compassion in my heart towards my wife’s plight and exhaustion. The same considerable and obvious stubbornness which had been a hindrance earlier was properly applied to assist someone else in need. In the right context, that stubbornness was a blessing which came out of God’s own arsenal. Was it a bit silly? Probably. Was it unnecessary? Yes. Was it an act of compassion and gratitude for all my wife had done for me that afternoon? Absolutely. I could see God at work in my motivation. I did not do it because I was simply stubborn. I was not upset with my wife for her forlorn statement either. It came out of my own sense of God’s call.

I write all of this down for the internet at large in order to express how taking time to go through the act of the Examen did help me to grow deeper in my faith through a very painful moment. In honesty, I was a bit annoyed with myself and with that staircase before I stopped to engage in this old practice. My prayer changed my day. When It was over I had found my center, found my hope for the next day, and was prepared to move past the pain into healing.

There have been many times in my life when I have been deeply blessed by engaging in the Examen or even in the daily act of journaling the best moments of my day along with my hopes for the next day. I would invite you to take a look at this spiritual discipline if you are struggling to find ways to go deeper or even struggling to find ways to look at your own life with different eyes.

Here are my three suggestions on how to engage in this practice:

  1. Set aside time in the same place each night. Maybe you travel and it cannot be the exact same place, but even engaging in that old (yet useful) tradition of kneeling at the side of your bed might be a place to start. Starting off with the intention of creating a consistent pattern helps. If you’re married or have a roommate, you may wish to warn them before starting this practice. It is strange to stumble upon someone kneeling in silence–they may think something is wrong. Yes, I speak from experience…
  2. Set aside a set number of days when you’ll intentionally engage in this practice. I suggest you do this even if you decide to begin with just two weeks of attempting the Examen. Make a plan to attempt this practice and then follow through to the end. I do not recommend just saying “I’ll do this the rest of my life starting tonight.” If you can make it through a week, make it through a week before going for two weeks. Celebrate your successes and a pattern will establish itself in your life in a more natural fashion.
  3. Ask a religious friend to journey in this practice with you. Get together after a week or two in order to talk about your experience. If you do not have a friend, look into finding a spiritual director who can assist you in this practice. You may even be able to find a spiritual director who can meet with you mainly over the phone and only a couple of times face to face throughout the year. I recommend a group like Spiritual Directors, International to help find a reliable and vetted director.

So, that’s my introduction on this Blog to the Examen. By the way, I grabbed the kitchen trash on the way to the garbage can with the litter. If you’re going to be stubborn, you have to be tough.

Let us Seek: Holy Saturday Reflection

When I was a younger pastor I served in a town with a Wesleyan Church. One year on Good Friday they hosted the ecumenical service for the town. As we gathered they showed a video clip of a preacher speaking over the image of the cross, the tomb, and finally a light glowing behind the rock. The words the preacher was saying (to an epic rock background) were “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming!”

It was powerful imagery, but it kind of threw me off a little bit. What about Saturday? What about Holy Saturday? As a child I thought about it as a day of waiting and silence. As i learned more about my Polish heritage I learned there were places (especially in Poland) where special baskets of food for the celebration were brought to the church for a blessing. I’ve learned there are a lot of traditions that surround this most holy day.

For me, the fact of the matter remains that it is a day of rest in my heart. Partially this is a part of my celebration from my reading of the texts. The story places this day as the Sabbath during that most holy of stories and I don’t mind entering into the silence.

The other side of my experiencing this day as a day of silence comes out of an understanding of music. There are so many notes throughout the week and there are many events. This day is a good day for a bit of silence before the music resumes. Music rhythmically that does not have rests ends up being rote and repetitive (in my mind). This is a beautiful day for that moment of rest before the crescendo.

However you celebrate Holy Saturday, I hope that you’re blessed today. Remember, the sun rises on Easter!

Let us Seek: Holy Thursday Reflection

As we progress through Holy Week, we reach Maundy Thursday. In some Christian traditions, today marks the begin of a remembrance that begins after the Maundy Thursday and lasts until Easter. The three-day remembrance is seen as a special season of the year known as the Holy, Easter, or Paschal Triduum.

For me the Paschal Triduum has always had a strange place in my own devotional life. At various points in my ministry I have celebrated Good Friday with a Cross Walk (think stations of the cross marked by readings and often shared by various churches in an ecumenical fashion), celebrated a special service on Good Friday, and have opened the church for prayer and reflection. Holy Saturday has often been a time when I’ve spent the day in silence or doing acts of kindness for others.

Even in the midst of the celebration of the Triduum, Maundy Thursday has always had a special place in my heart. John Wesley taught that the act of communion is a gift of grace that extends a real and powerful benefit to the people of Christ. I have always found the act of communion to be a deep and meaningful expression of God’s love and grace. As such, I find the celebration of the remembrance of that first communion to be incredibly meaningful.

Today’s lectionary reading covers a great deal of that celebration, but beautifully it tells the story through the eyes of the Gospel of John. I usually default to Luke’s Gospel in a lot of my own theology, but the beauty of John’s remembrance of that night is powerful and life altering.

In John’s lectionary reading (13:1-17, 31-35) the story told does not revolve around communion but instead around the washing of feet. Jesus knows that the end of His journey towards Calvary is near, so John tells us that Jesus takes on the role of a servant. Removing his outer garment, Jesus wraps himself in a towel and washes the feet of His disciples.

The Lord of the Universe, the One we crown with many crowns, the Lamb upon the throne spends some of the last moments of His time alone with His disciples washing their feet like a servant. The King who was, and is, and is to come wraps Himself in a towel and washes feet with humility before inviting His disciples to remember what He has done and to do likewise in their own lives.

I truly believe this passage is one of the most challenging passages of Jesus’ ministry because it reminds us of the true order of things. No servant is greater than their master. Our Master humbled Himself. Our Master did not assume the place He deserved, but He took the place that He knew that He must. This is the revealed Image of the Invisible God.

Verily, the place of a disciple is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. The next day will be challenging. Let us continue this journey and understand that we go further on the journey towards resurrection having first had a lesson in humility. Easter may be triumphant but triumph comes through first submitting to God’s will and doing so with humility mixed with grace. May God’s grace guide us down the challenging paths as the Triduum begins…

Let us Ramble: Moving Children

Today’s post is a bit personal. This post comes from a place deep in my heart and is for my colleagues who live with young children.

It happened on a Friday afternoon. My eldest daughter came home, dropped her bag on the floor, slumped on the bench in our kitchen, and put her head in her arms. I want to be clear about this–my daughter always hangs up her bag. She is a creature of habit. There was no conversation about a snack, no prattling (yes, if you read this someday, you prattled every day after school) on about what happened at recess, and there was no comment about her sister. I walked over and she had tears in her eyes.

It happened on a weekday morning. A colleague reached out and started sharing about a child who was intentionally isolating from friendships because a district superintendent might call and the new friends that could be made would be stripped away. I didn’t know you could see tears through Facebook messenger.

It happened on a Friday evening. A bunch of us clergy families were hanging out and letting our hair down (or leaving off shiny scalp-wax in my case (that was a joke)). We were enjoying a good time together when I noticed one of the youngest kids was struggling to hang out with the others. It was obvious the kid wanted to take part, but was just hanging back. The child wasn’t used to being around other families after a few moves.

What was the cause of all of this struggle? I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I can speak for my daughter. She was crying because her classmates were going to have a sleepover, but since she was new to town she wasn’t invited. She was left out and didn’t know what to do next. Tears were flowing down her face from the sheer pain of it all. How could she make friends? These kids had known each other in some cases since before birth. How could she make a new set of friends when all of her classmates were happy with the friends they had?

I have been talking with colleagues around these issues for years as the parent of a kid who has lived in five different cities in the nine years of her life. I have an affinity for this subject, and I just want to lay a couple of things out there for my colleagues as someone who can definitively say that he has experience in this area.

  1. It is okay to hurt on behalf of your child. Yes, you may have been called into ministry, but it is okay to understand and acknowledge that your call has had an effect on your loved ones. There is nothing sinful about noticing the pain it has caused, acknowledging that pain, and grieving that pain. I have had moments where my daughter and I have had to grieve together. Having compassion for your child is neither a sin nor is it a case of having doubts about your call.
  2. It is okay and a good thing to talk with colleagues who have gone through similar struggles. Often it helps to know you are not alone. If nothing else, I hope this blog post tells you that you are not alone. Keep in mind, if you make friends with colleagues with children in similar life circumstances, they may be there when your kids start dating later in life. You’ll probably need all the help you can get then…
  3. Most communities have resources you can tap into if you have no place else to turn. Talk to the counselor at your child’s school. Call your local association, district, conference, or episcopal office and see if they have resources for you. If you’re the pastor of a non-denominational church, speak with one of your denominationally-based colleagues and ask for an introduction to resources they may have in their church. If a local church pastor called me and said they needed help, it wouldn’t matter what church they belong to as my ministry calls me to be compassionate and to love my neighbor. Reach out!
  4. My most concrete advice is this: spend time with your child and let them know they are loved. Yes, you may have just moved to a new city and have a million and one people who want to see you. Yes, you might have an annual meeting coming up and there’s so much paperwork. Spend time with your child. Love them and let them know that you love them. When you’re finished, love them some more.
  5. Believe in your child. Their confidence begins with your confidence in them. They may be the toughest most challenging kids in the world, but they still need affirmation and to know that you believe in them. A child who knows that they are believed in is a child that can face anything.

Kids are tough. We don’t need to and shouldn’t abuse them, but in my experience the average kid is smarter, wiser, and more resilient than most parents are willing to admit. I think this is a natural response from watching them try to eat crayons as small kids. Your kid may need a little extra love, care, and maybe a bit of counseling if things are getting out of hand, but most of them are tough. After all, that these kids came from us and we are called into one of the most challenging and mind-bogglingly audacious professions on the planet.

Believe in your child. Believe in yourself.

Let us Seek: Holy Wednesday Reflection

Today is Holy Wednesday and for me Holy Wednesday has always been the last deep breath before the plunge. This afternoon I’ll be headed out to do the last (planned) visits before we begin the craziness of Maundy Thursday (at least it is a bit crazy around here), the solemnity of Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday, and the riotous celebration of Easter. Today is that moment where it seems all clergy take that last deep breath.

With that being said, today’s lectionary reading does not leave a ton of room for that deep breath. It is emotional, deep, and troubling. To be entirely honest, I feel strange writing a blog post about it in my bright clergy shirt. It feels very dark. In choosing an image to match this feeling, I chose a painting of Jesus’ giving His Farewell Discourse to the 11 remaining disciples as painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the 14th century because of the person who is missing from the painting.

The lectionary reading is found in John 13:21-32 and technically took place on Thursday of Holy Week. In the reading, Jesus reveals that someone at the table will betray Him. There is a moment of confusion and John is approached by Peter to ask who will betray Christ. A piece of bread is dipped in wine and given to Judas. The scripture says that after Judas receives this bread that Satan enters into Judas. Judas is sent to do what he must do and the actions of the evening are set into motion.

I must be honest, I do not like this reading. One reason I am not a huge fan of this passage is that I know this reading has been used to disparage the act of sharing communion by intinction along with Mark 14. I honestly do not like people who use scripture to disparage a meaningful act of communion with God, especially when it is not really an airtight argument.

Another reason that I struggle with this passage is simply the wording. Judas has been traveling with Jesus. Judas has the very best teacher, the very best friend, the very best guide, and the very best leader. Judas has the ideal situation to learn about the heart of God and Judas still just falls away. Judas is taken by the tempter and that is very discouraging to me, especially as his journey ends in suicide.

I have to be entirely honest. I wish that Judas’ story ended differently. Don’t you? Judas does betray Jesus, but the scriptures seem to imply that this is simply what must be. Judas has journeyed with Christ, shared a few loaves and fish with thousands, been sent out to preach with other disciples, and been a leader. In Acts, Judas’ place is filled by another disciple because Judas’ role had been very important in their life together. I wish Judas’ story ended differently. I wish it with all of my heart.

This reading hurts me down to my soul. Perhaps it is a good thing that we remember that Judas was a person on the day before his betrayal of Jesus. Judas’ story is a tragedy that leads to one of the greatest gifts of history. Even so, it is still a tragedy.

May God bless all those folks who are tempted to head in the way of Judas. May God help lead them into the path of folks who can invite and guide them back onto the path of life.

Let us Ramble: Humility and Writing

As I’ve been composing blog posts for Holy Week I have found myself continually challenged by entering into the conversation. I realize that I preach every Sunday and that I practically live in the middle of the conversations people have around the spiritual matters in their lives. Often the words I say on Sunday morning or at a Bible study have a major impact in the lives of a few individuals, but those words are transitory and momentary. The words that I say are often sacred but they live in one sacred moment.

The words that I type are far different. These words that I am typing right now will likely be accessible for the rest of my lifetime. There is a possibility that these words may exist in some form or another for the rest of human existence in this mortal coil on either backup drives or backup clouds. As some have said, nothing on the internet is truly ever deleted.

This concept gives me pause. Who am I to enter into these conversations? What place do I have at the table? Do I really believe these words will have an effect on the future? What’s more, shouldn’t the work of a preacher by necessity be something that is transitory, personal, and passing? Where is my humility?

It gives me pause, but I am not going to stop writing and I am not going to stop sharing. I will admit that I clearly am a person that occasionally needs a dose of humble pie. Okay, occasionally I need two doses. I do not assume that I am going to say something profound and life-changing, but I do know that I will say things that are honest and true to the best of my ability. What am I bringing to the conversation? I am bringing my heart and my soul–two of the most sacred things that I possess.

It is not humility to assume that you are worthless as a person. One beautiful thing about Holy Week is that it is a story about Jesus going towards the cross, death, and resurrection because Jesus cares about people like you and me. To assume you are worthless is effectively to say that Jesus paid too much for you out of love. I do not believe Jesus thinks that for a moment. I think Jesus loves you.

Humility might be better described as having perspective. You might make mistakes and it is a humble act to admit to them in an attempt to change. You might struggle with your identity as a person and struggle with depression. Humility might mean owning your struggle and going to a doctor.

Humility might also be seeing that through all of the struggles you go through, God still has a love for you. If we hold these treasures in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7), there is something sacred about taking that treasure and offering it back to God. God desires to take you in both heart and soul (Luke 13:34), offers to wash you from being red as scarlet to being as clean and fresh as newly fallen snow (Isaiah 1:18), and has this desire for all of humanity (John 3:16-17).

In the end, that is what I am trying to do through this blog. I am trying to offer my heart and my soul. I may not be able to stand with the giants like Wesley, Luther, Calvin, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Thurman, King, Jr., Nouwen, or Rauschenbusch, but I can offer what I have been given back to God and my community. I hope that it is a blessing.

Let us Seek: Holy Tuesday Reflection

Today is Holy Tuesday. The gospel reading today reflects on conversations Jesus had around His purposes and around God’s glory. It also goes deeply into life issues. The Revised Common Lectionary reading for today is John 12:20-35. This is what verses 23-26 say in the New Revised Standard Version:

“Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.’”

We’ve followed Jesus through all of Lent. We came down that mountain into the valley where there were sick folks, hurting folks, and upset folks. We followed Jesus as He continually reminded people to turn away from their understanding of how a Messiah was meant to be and to act. We followed Jesus as He kept reaching out to the poor, kept reaching out to folks in need, and kept upsetting the religious leaders.

Now we’re invited to follow Jesus as He approaches Gethsemane. We’re invited to follow as Judas betrays with a kiss. We’re invited to follow as the world stands by as Jesus is tried and convicted. We’re invited to follow Jesus up Calvary. We’re invited to watch the sky darken.

Sometimes I don’t want to follow Jesus on this path. Let’s be honest–Holy Week grows gruesome. Holy Week would be the nastiest and worst of events if it weren’t for Easter. Some years I’d like to just say “Look at the time!” before running off to make a cup of coffee until Sunday. It is beautiful, it is deep, and sometimes I would rather have a simple broth than dig into the theological beauty of Holy Week.

Still, we must follow. We must because this is Jesus we’re following. Whenever we gather around the table to share in the Lord’s Supper it is this story that we speak to each other. Whenever we see suffering in the world around us, it is this story that reminds us that God entered into human suffering. Whenever we see people claim earthly power, authority, and greatness, it is this story that enters and can inoculate us from the disease that can easily carry us away into realms where we connect earthly power with divine right. This story is foundational–we must follow.

What’s more, we must walk the same path. This story effectively changes the way that we look at the world around us and how we relate to the world around us.

Let’s say we’re rich and we’re powerful. Perhaps we’re as powerful as the President of the United States. We have wealth, riches, and an army sworn to do what we decide. How do we act? Well, let’s be honest. If we’re going to walk like Jesus, it is going to change the way we look at the world around us and change the way we act. Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted. Jesus was executed and his words weren’t threats or screams of anger. There was painful moans, I’m certain, but the words shared were words of forgiveness and words of grace. Jesus didn’t cajole or argue. He invited criminals to paradise despite what they did. If one is to follow Jesus it changes the way you live your life, perhaps especially if you had power, riches, and followers. To follow Jesus might mean you lose your privilege only to gain eternal life.

Let’s say we’re a public school teacher. Perhaps we’re the best teacher in the world and not one parent comes to your classroom to explain your job to you. Perhaps the parents who try leave your classroom apologizing and planning to write a nice letter. Perhaps you have offers to go and lead in the most prestigious private school in nation whenever you’d like. If you’re going to walk like Jesus, it very might well change your way of life. How? Jesus willingly cared for the very people who came to “take care” of Him in the Garden. Even in the midst of being taken to suffering, Jesus stopped to heal one of the very people who came to persecute Him. The kid screaming at you in your class might be a royal pain, but what would Jesus do with this child? Would Jesus show love and kindness? Would Jesus have grace in the midst of the suffering this kid will likely inflict upon you? To follow Jesus might mean healing that kid’s ear and that act might change your life.

I think we honestly each need to follow Jesus on this journey. It isn’t a pleasant journey, but let’s be clear. Few of us live perfectly pleasant lives. If we want to learn to live out our lives well, we might need to learn to lose in order to follow Jesus. If we want to learn to live out our lives well, we might need to learn from someone who can change us. In the way of Paul, we may need to live out our own ministries in life resolving to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

In the meantime, it is my prayer that this journey would be a blessing to you. May we all learn to follow and to let the Grain that died multiply within us.

Let us Seek: Holy Monday Reflection

Throughout Holy Week I have the goal of reflecting on one of the lectionary scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary each day. For today’s gospel reading we see Jesus at the house of Lazarus in Bethany. It is revealed in the text that Lazarus is being plotted against by the chief priests in Jerusalem as Lazarus’ resurrection was causing a stir in conjunction with the ministry of Jesus, but that isn’t what immediately catches my eye when I consider this story. Consider verses 1-8 of chapter 12 of John’s gospel.

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judea Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ’Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’”

I find this story to be interesting for several reasons. As a person who studies the nature of the scriptures and how they were transmitted through time, I often wonder if the comments for the reader were written by the author or by one of the helpful folks copying the words throughout the centuries. Judas is at least acknowledged as a disciple by this account although his discipleship is clearly cast into question by not only his betrayal but his apparent greed in the eyes of the author.

I also find it interesting because this is the story of a family that still seems to be coming to grips with a majorly traumatic event. The previous chapter (11) recounts not only the story of Lazarus’ resurrection but tells us that Jesus was forced to go to Ephraim as a result of plots to take his life. As far as we know, this is the first real opportunity after some time had passed for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to see Jesus. One of the reasons the chief priests seem frustrated with Lazarus is that Lazarus’ proximity to Jesus raises issues that now require his removal from the equation. This could be a sign that Lazarus hadn’t been near Jesus and raised these issues until this moment.

If this is the case and this is one of the first opportunities for response after the events of Lazarus’ resurrection, then this story becomes powerful. Martha is serving, Lazarus is sitting, and then Mary enters with the perfume. She anoints and uses something as precious and personal as her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. This kind of act is not something that one does for just anybody. It is deeply intimate, deeply personal, and deeply emotional.

Into this moment we find Judas Iscariot stepping in and scolding. He is concerned about the waste of money. He sees the price of the perfume as the issue, but he’s missed the point. We all know that Judas has missed the point. How? Mary and Martha had lost their brother Lazarus. He was gone and he was restored. History is filled with people who would give anything for a few more moments with the person they have loved and lost. I am a pastor who believes in the resurrection and even I have people in my life I would give almost anything to see again for just a few more minutes. Mary and Martha are given the opportunity to do something incredible.

In the face of such a blessing, who wouldn’t care about money to say thank you? Perfume can cost a lot, but think about the gift that they have just received. Who cares about the money? Who cares about the cost?

I think we can all take a couple of things away from this story.

  • Some things are important most of the time, but are utterly worthless when seen in the big picture. An old phrase states “You can’t take it with you.” In the long run, would you rather have more money in your bank account or more time with people you love? If you knew tomorrow was your last moment, what would you do with your time?
  • There’s a time and place for stewardship and there is also a time and place for gratitude. I cannot say enough that sometimes we place stewardship on such a high pedestal that we forget to be grateful for the non-monetary blessings we have in life. I’m not advocating for wastefulness, but Judas clearly missed the point about what was most important. Sometimes we do the same thing (but hopefully without betraying people to their deaths).
  • We don’t need to be aloof with our emotions. Mary is clearly someone who was in touch with how she felt about Jesus. There is nothing wrong with Mary for feeling deeply about Jesus’ place in her life. Sometimes we need permission to feel and Mary gives us an example of how we can fee deeply, passionately, and still clearly have the love of God in and around our lives.

As Holy Week continues, I hope you find a place of blessing in these scriptures. May you feel deeply and thoroughly connected to Jesus.

Let us Ramble: Stillness and Listening

One of the many tools in my toolbox is the book “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” which was edited by Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck. The following quote was a part of this week’s readings and it is from “Spirituality for Ministry” by Urban T. Holmes III.

“Many persons, ordained or not, live in a fairly constant state of noise, with their unresolved past and the uncertain present breaking in on them. They lack a still center and it is only for such a quiet point that we can listen attentively. When I was in my first parish, which was located in the middle of the city, a constant stream of indigents came through. One came into my office and wanted to tell me his story. I sat as if to listen but was deeply troubled inside over some issue now long forgotten. I remember I was fiddling with a pencil. The man stopped his story, looked at me and said, ‘Young Father, the least you can do is listen.’ He was right. There was no still center in me.”

I find this quote to be inspiring. If you come by my door on any given day you might catch me at prayer. When I’m praying in my office I hang up a blue poster I had made over my office door’s window. It looks like this…

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The quotes I put on that door-hanger are there with great intention. The Henri Nouwen quote always catches me in much the way that the quote from the Guide catches me. Nouwen was right–a life without that quiet center can easily become very destructive.

I don’t know Father Holmes myself, but I would wager to bet that he would tell you that his inability to focus himself into stillness did damage that day. I know that there have been moments when my inability to find that silent and still place led to great destructiveness. Sometimes that destructiveness came out of a place of violent response without care and sometimes that destructiveness came out of a place where I was unable to respond with intentionality instead of reactivity. The fact of the matter is that a lack of stillness made me unable to be the person I needed to be in those moments.

Of course it isn’t easy to enter into that stillness. In the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun, the following quote on silence always strikes me as true:

“In quietness we often notice things we would rather not notice or feel. Pockets of sadness or anger or loneliness or impatience begin to surface. Our own outer agenda looms larger than our desire to be with God in silence. And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time. Everything we notice in this struggle can become an invitation to prayer. Like a can opener, the silence opens up the contents of our heart, allowing us deeper access to God than we experience at other times. As we remain in the silence, the inner noise and chaos will begin to settle. Our capacity to open up wider and wider to God grows. The Holy One has access to places we don’t even know exist in the midst of the hubbub.”

I am betting that Father Holmes found a bit of himself on that day when he was unable to find stillness, but I wonder what depths could be achieved if he had the presence of mind to enter into stillness before listening.

I often find myself in a completely different place if I slow myself before I enter into deep conversation. The stillness I find in silence can enable me to listen to others while being aware of what is in my own silence.

When talking to a pregnant mother I might easily be distracted into talking about what it would feel like to become a father again. Thankfully my own periods of stillness have revealed a desire in me to want to change that particular subject to revolve around my family. As a result I can actively resist my own temptation. The same is often true when I enter into conversations around rough childhoods, difficult relationships, and forgiveness. It is in learning to be still and silent that I have become a better person when it comes to having conversation with others about their lives.

In truth, silence is never especially easy, but it has many benefits. What challenges do you see to silence in your life? Does the inability to find that still center affect the way that you go about life?

Let us Ramble: Distractions

Martin Luther is translated as saying “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” I often laugh at this saying because there are so many distractions in life. There are entire days where the only consistent thing in my life is that there is something or someone hollering for my attention. The first three hours in prayer? I am sometimes lucky to carve out the first three minutes before the knocking and ringing begins.

With that being said, I want to make a case for allowing ourselves to be distracted. I do not mean when driving or doing something incredibly dangerous. I think we need to allow ourselves to be distracted from lives that can often be overly scheduled, overly planned, and overly busy.

Last fall I was driving to and from the Veteran’s Home in Oxford, NY. It was a quiet fall day and I had been incredibly busy running from visitation to visitation when it happened. I was driving over a hill when the light of the sunset caught the leaves as they were blowing out of the trees. There was riot of reds, yellows, and browns caught up in the golden glow of the sun. It was breathtaking. I was moved to tears.

I had been so focused on what I was doing that day. There were places to go and people to see. I had run into Wegmans and barely slowed down to talk to a church member and her husband because I was focused on getting Swiss Cake Rolls for a homebound gentleman who can’t get out. I ate lunch in the car while parked in a parking lot texting. I had started the day in prayer but had not taken a moment to breathe since the day had begun. I was rushing until God effectively painted a picture of majesty and I rushed straight into the midst of God’s glory on stage.

The exact term for the spiritual discipline of focusing on the glory of God revealed in creation is VIsio Divina. A quick Google search will reveal there are books and resources in spades on this concept. For me Visio Divina is summarized as praying with one’s eyes.

I think it is very hard to engage in that type of prayer if we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted from life. Sometimes, we plan things so tightly that we don’t have time to notice, time to see, time to perceive, or even time to pray. Holy distractions are necessary sometimes.

So how do we make ourselves available to holy distraction? I have some thoughts.

  • Start every day with three hours of prayer like Martin Luther. If you cannot find three hours to pray, then at least begin the day with a prayer that your eyes would be open to see and perceive what is around you. You might be surprised how a quick prayer to open your eyes can help you to see far more than you expect.
  • Set aside time for Sabbath rest. Do not spend all of your time working, playing, driving, and doing the things of life. Take a half-hour for a walk with a friend to see how the world around you looks. Sit with your thoughts for a bit while looking over a valley. Go to the library and find a book with pictures of the plains of the Serengeti or the Rocky Mountains. Sit with that book for a while and see God’s fingers in creation.
  • Take a moment at the next red light to look at the sky. Just don’t forget to keep an eye out to see when the light turns green.
  • Tie a string on your finger first thing in the morning and only take it off after you’ve seen something God has created to be beautiful.

There are a million and one ways to be distracted by God’s creation. May your distractions be good distractions and may they be welcome when they come.

Let Us Ramble: Light and Darkness

So, last Thursday I had a cornea transplanted onto my eye. At first I thought that the eye-shield was going to be the most annoying part of the recovery process. I learned the truth when the covering was removed. Light hurts and it hurts a lot.

Yesterday was Sunday morning and a parishioner was on the phone with a gentleman I was praying for in the church parking lot. She waved me over to talk with the gentleman on the phone. The only problem was that the sun was out and she was parked in the light. I reached the edge of the shade from the church, stepped out, and recoiled. I covered myself with my arm and suddenly realized that I had just pulled a move straight out of a vampire movie.

Over the course of a couple of hours I went from a denizen of the day to a creature of the night. The following verses have been altered from Psalm 130 to fit my recent circumstances: (NRSV, morning changed to sunset)

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope: my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the sunset, more than those who watch for the sunset.”

Last night I literally caught myself getting excited about sunset. When the sun went down I literally grabbed my keys, hopped up and down, and then went out to Wegmans where I walked around with sunglasses getting the things my wife asked me to grab if I was going to go out of the house anyway.

It made me think as I went to lay down to sleep. When was the last time I was that excited for the dawn? For that matter, when was the last time I was that hopeful and expectant on God to show up in a set of circumstances?

I was waiting for this surgery for three months. You would think that waiting for surgery would be a moment where I waited with anticipation, but to be entirely honest, I felt myself surrounded by prayer and felt a sense of peace. I was relieved when they found a cornea and I was excited when I saw one blurry and distorted sight, especially as the phantom extras of keratoconus were gone–it was just a blurriness, which was a vast improvement. I felt relief, excitement, a titch of concern, and a million and one other things, but was it more than the excitement which a watchman has for the dawn or even a transplant patient waits for the darkness?

Perhaps this is privilege at work. I have lots to pray for and lots to care for, but let’s be honest. My life is surrounded by an illusion of safety. The police are a phone call away, the fire department is around the corner, and the ambulance squad is literally a couple of hundred yards away. There are no invaders on my borders and frankly the biggest nuisance animal in my life is a squirrel who keeps driving me nuts. I live a sheltered life and I generally don’t need to wait for the dawn.

The question I have in this moment is whether or not I can learn to appreciate and live with those who do not have the same certainty and sense of security. Can I truly appreciate what it feels like to be unsafe? Can I truly understand what it might be like to not have trust in the institutions around me? Can I live into those places where others are not as privileged as me? Can I work to either share that security or reject it when it comes at the cost of others?

Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. Perhaps this is a moment where I can sit in the dark and think about what it means to want flee from the things that make others feel so safe.

By the way, I don’t say “Blah, blah, blah…”