Let us Reflect: The Inertia of Love

Why do we do all of this church business? I was sitting with a friend at a local restaurant discussing the challenges of the church earlier. We talked about the people that we loved and the challenges they had faced. Our mutual affection for various individuals was very obvious. It made me wonder about how those friends and loved ones have been doing in recent years.

Why do we do all of this church business? I was standing in the kitchen at church talking with a parishioner about the challenges of denominational life. One wrong set of directions from MapQuest and suddenly there’s no chance of making it to a meeting. One wrong set of directions and suddenly there are thoughts of letting people down. We were talking about how colleagues and friends gently rib us when we miss meetings. We smiled at the fact that there is not only room at the table, but the chair is often pulled out and waiting for us.

Why do we do all of this church business? I have a theory that I would like to propose. I believe one of the many reasons that we engage in the act of church business is that we are victims of a strange set of relational physics. I believe the church is a place where we see the effects of the inertia of love.

An object in motion stays in motion. A person in love stays in love. Think for a moment about the people you grew up with in your church. Very rarely are they perfect people. Some of them might have a bad reputation in your memory because they were a bit cross or a bit temperamental. I would imagine others have a fond place in your memory after teaching you in Sunday School, teaching you songs, or even going camping with you on a church retreat. They did wonderful things and you came to love them.

I remember Rev. Lange. He wasn’t my pastor but a retired pastor who went to our church. Every Sunday he’d come up to me and shake my hand. I remember it fondly because the first time I went to shake his hand I learned that he had lost his thumb. He laughed really hard at that point and then smiled at me every time we shook hands after that first Sunday.

Rev. Lange wasn’t perfect in the least, but the way he smiled, the humor with which he approached the world, and the content of his good character made a deep impression. To this very day, I would not hesitate to stand up for this man. There is an inertia to the love and respect I have for him that has lasted years after his passing.

Many of us who are in church leadership have the same love for the church. As a Campus Minister why their ministry is important and I would bet most of them will come to the point where they say “When I was a student…” Ask a camp ministry worker about their love of camp and I’d bet they’d regale you with a tale about a great camping ministry. Ask a minister… Ask a church planter… I believe that we all have our own love and affection for the places that we have seen Christ in the church.

I believe that love is also why it can be hard to see that inertia at work in times of challenge. We all have our own inertia and while they often run parallel there are often moments when they go on a different course. There’ll be conflict if there are only so many dollars for ministry with people under the age of 35. Camping ministries, campus ministries, and youth groups can love each other, but there will be tension. Speak about the power of funding for electronic ministries and you will find someone passionate for the printed word of their youth. I think there’s a place where the inertia of love can be challenging.

For me, I think what’s most important is to recognize the love we hold for our ministry and each other. Keeping my eyes open and seeing that love in other people is especially important to me as I prepare to head out to Annual Conference. I pray that we all keep our eyes open and recognize God’s love shared in each other.

Let us Reflect: Life between denominations

Today is a day of transition for me. Last week I attended the 54th Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. After celebrating the Ascension of Jesus Christ and Memorial Day in my town, I am preparing to head out to Syracuse for the 8th Session of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As a pastor at a Federated congregation I am authorized to serve as a minister within the United Church of Christ even as I serve within my ordained capacity as an Elder within the United Methodist Church. I serve within the one church and have my membership and service within the other.

A relative of mine once said that it must feel like I am being constantly torn in two. I often get asked questions about the local church’s way of being, questions about how I balance responsibilities, and questions about how I manage to make all of the meetings. To be fair, I often ask that last question. Yes, it can be challenging when you have twice as many denominational meetings as many of your colleagues.

This time of year is often difficult for me professionally. I go to one denominational meeting. I celebrate the successes, embraces the challenges, and mourn the losses of colleagues and friends. I proceed to then go to the other denomination’s meeting. I am again called to celebrate the successes, embrace challenges, and mourn losses. I often share ideas that are working within the other church with friends from the others. Sometimes that is accepted as a good thing. Occasionally, I am told to keep what I am saying to myself. For the record, people are not necessarily being mean—tradition has a very bad habit of enshrining itself as unchangeable.

I was pondering this strange place between congregations the other day at the meeting of the UCC. In the middle of a prayer for the ministry of the UCC I was drawn to think about that balance between denominations, Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention.


As I thought through this prayer I was drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the words. The Spirit of God is indeed shown in each person. The blessing of the Spirit is not just for our own life, but for the good of all. Each person is blessed and called to be a part of God’s ongoing work in the world.

The Window

In this office window hangs a plastic stained glass window of a boat at sea. It reminds me of the call to be a missionary, especially as it came from my first pastoral parish (Canisteo First UMC). Next to the window is a cutting of catnip for our cat from a member of our local UCC Society here in Maine. The bush outside has peeked in at ministers from both denominations.

I am a blessed man. I am blessed while going about my service with the community of saints that span two denomination. I am blessed to be able to see the connections and relationships between the two churches. I am blessed to Christ’s body in each of the lives of the saints. Some are United Methodists, some are members of the United Church of Christ, and all are a blessed part of God’s body.

Yes, balancing two denominations is somewhat challenging. Yes, the number of meetings can get a bit long. Yes, some days I am just plain lucky that my head is firmly attached to my neck. I am blessed to be in this strange place. This place is more beautiful than most people know.

Let us be Honest: This is long enough to be a treatise

Welcome to the longest blogpost that I have ever written… Also, I am going to go ahead and state that I’m writing this as a well-educated, white, Protestant male who has a lot of privilege. I use a lot of “we language” to talk about the overwhelmingly white church. I own it and am trying to learn new ways of being.

Yesterday I share a quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. I adore Walter Brueggemann and I really loved the quote. Here’s what it said: (original quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional “A Way Other than Our Own”, pgs. 2-3)

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”

I received a bit of pushback for sharing this concept by a few people that come from a different place in life than I am. In particular, a colleague and friend of mine said that there was no context for the quote. I normally wouldn’t mind letting Walter Brueggemann stand up for himself as he’s a world famous theologian who has more street credit with people in almost every corner of the church. I normally would leave it alone, but my colleague was just the most openly vocal person. I respect him for his openness and boldness. Such boldness is a gift in this profession.

I have private messages questioning my patriotism, my theology, and in one case my integrity for daring to share such divisive words. I decided to respond on my blog so that I could create lots of links to sources.

I do not mind people questioning my patriotism. I stood in the rain for over an hour waiting to pray for God to bring comfort into the lives of people mourning soldiers who passed in the service of this nation. I stood glumly and thought of my friends in the armed forces who have lost friends. I listened to people complain about the rain. To be fair, it was really cold and wet. I have learned to have thick skin due to the circumstances of my ministry.

I do not mind people questioning my theology. Theology is necessarily limited by the person who is approaching the divine. I stood in the rain and prayed at the beginning of the service. The Baptist minister who believes different things than me about God prayed at the end of the service. We don’t need to agree to show love and respect to each other. Theology is always a matter of perspective unless you know all things, in which case you’re navel gazing because only God knows everything.

I do get a little irked when people question my integrity. I stood in the rain to pray for others so that they might have comfort today. While standing there I realized that I have no place to rest my bones. Following Jesus has meant that I no longer have a home like many of the people that I serve. I find home in my loved ones, my community, and even in my relationship with God, but there is no grave for me to rest within at the end of my days. My responding to God has led me to forego that blessing. That takes commitment and is more than a little disconcerting.

I am a servant of the Most High and I do my best to live out my service well. My quest is to live out that service with integrity. I have decided that I am going to respond to these criticisms in the best way that I can. I am going to respond with a defense of this statement and encourage others to engage in the conversation. I mean no disrespect to those who disagree with me, but there comes a point where one must be clear, concise, and accurate when talking about challenging issues. I might not be concise, but I pray this is both clear and accurate.

So, what does Brueggemann say:

  1. There’s a crisis in the US church that has nothing to do with the theology wars that people love to engage in between liberal and conservative camps.
  2. The crisis has to do with an abandonment of the identity found in our Christian identity which is best expressed in the faith and discipline connected with our baptism into Christ.
  3. We settle for an identity that is partially patriotic, consumeristic, violent, and affluent. I think it is safe to say that Brueggemann has a negative view of this approach.

So, let’s get into this. Is there a crisis in the US church? Well, the Pew Research Center might be indicating that there is a problem. Attendance is dropping and the mission of the church according to Matthew 28:18-20 the purpose of the church is to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

There’s a numerical issue that might show a problem, but why is that issue taking place? Is this the problem or a symptom? Are we the victims of a cultural shift or is it more insidious? Matthew 28:20 says that Jesus will be with us when we do what we’re supposed to be doing. So, what is going on?

Do you remember that point where Walter Brueggemann talks about violence? We were called to make disciples of all nations. We were called to teach them, love them like Jesus loved them, and to embody what Jesus commanded. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. Jesus taught that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to Jesus.

When I was a teenager I read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” We were called to embody and teach love. We broke promises. We killed women and children. We believed in a manifest destiny that destroyed cultures, families, and bordered at times on cultural and physical genocide. If it makes you feel sick to your stomach you aren’t alone. The General Conference of the UMC engaged in a sincere attempt to draw the church into repentance in 2012 and voices in our church have been asking us to continue that work ever since, but we continue to bring violence to our sisters, brothers, and neighbors over subjects like pipelines and corporate rights. We should be sick to our stomachs. This isn’t the way that Jesus taught us to live. We were called to teach people to live as Jesus’ commanded us. If we have trouble seeing where Jesus is at work it may be our own fault.

In seminary trusted friends invited me to consider reading further. I was invited to read books like “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I was invited go on trips to places like Window Rock, Arizona where I stood by the graves of soldiers who died for our nation. I talked with widows whose loved ones made it home safely and could only find work in uranium mines. I stood in the middle of a tribe of proud people and saw how the culture that I had been taught to love and honored had crippled a noble community, tribe, and nation. I shook my head when I realized there were no trees in the town of Sawmill because they’d been shipped away to build the impressive towns populated by people who looked like me. I wept openly by the statue erected in honor of the Windtalkers who served so proudly. My heart broke in pieces because the Jesus I know would not have done these things.

It goes further. I’ve married a woman who has stood in the towns where my nation dropped nuclear weapons on women and children. I’ve read about the 200,000 people who died in the name of expediency. Most of them died from burns, but some of them died when the pieces of the place they called home flew through the air and killed them. I have stood by sights where Confederate soldiers stood up for their rights to own other people and thought about how their blood was shed into the very water which once carried people as property from one nation to another.

As a lay person I have served food to hungry people on the streets of Rochester and done my best to give dignity to folks who are in need of food in the communities I have served as a pastor. I have seen people die when basic needs like health-care have not been met. For the want of an antibiotic I have seen people sicken and rest on their deathbeds. I have seen that our nation is not perfect. I have seen it with my own eyes and my eyes have wept with pain for what they have seen.

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. It was a challenging time and the beginnings of division were starting to tear apart the connections of the young nation. Lincoln said the following:

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

I truly believe Lincoln’s fear is our reality. We have become a people who believes that we have a manifest destiny which can and should control the lives of people around us. Some people feared the other. Mob violence was tearing apart our nation as people oppressed and fought against people that they saw as property. Their fear was that the other would ruin the future, much like we are afraid of the terror that others can bring into our lives. Lincoln pointed out to the people that the true danger was coming from within. His fears would prove true. The way of being the early American nation was headed was leading to soldiers, neighbors, and families slaughtering each other all across this nation.

We are a people who it seems honestly believes that we have a right to control the lives of people around us. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. We preach our doctrines on television and demand that we bring prayer back into schools because we honestly believe that the people praying in the school will pray in ways that will agree with our beliefs! We would cry bloody murder if someone called for Islamic prayer every morning before school, but we are okay with it if we are the ones leading the prayers. We do the very things that Jesus told us not to do and it is killing us. This idolatry is killing us very quickly. We need to repent.

Brueggemann questions the connections between patriotism and our baptismal identity, but he isn’t the first. Consider the works of the prophets who came to the people of God cajoling, pleading, begging, and trying to convince them to remember whose they were. Consider the judges who asked the people not to seek an earthly king and how their decision caused grief, destruction, death, and exile. Consider Jesus who refused to be an earthly ruler and was crucified for His trouble.

How many books of the Bible are filled with these stories? How many times does God call on the people to repent of their earthly addictions to power and greed? How many times does God call on people to live lives marked my love, kindness, and humility? How often can we read these words and not understand the most basic of messages? Do we need to live out Lamentations in addition to Jeremiah?

I am a child of this nation. I have to live a life which honestly reflects on who we have become as a people. We were a nation of immigrants and we murdered the people who lived here before us. We were a nation of refugees from the struggles of an old world and we imported people as slaves from another part of the world. We were a nation that stood up to Hitler’s terrible acts. I do not doubt the importance of those actions and honor those who died to put an end to the Holocaust. That bravery does not change the fact that we are also the nation who nuked civilians (including women and children). Knowledge, history, and experience have taught me that my identity cannot rest in my place in this nation. If my identity as an American is all that defines me, then history teaches me that a prophet is needed, because this is not good.

Violence like the violence that we have brought into the world is like the violence that is described before the flood in Genesis. Arrogance like the arrogance we have shown through depopulating a nation, enslaving others, and mistreating our own neighbors is absolutely horrendous. This arrogance is like the arrogance that led to the Tower of Babel. This is not good.

I truly believe that Walter Brueggemann is right. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the red letter words of the New Testament brought through Jesus. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the call of the prophets. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to define ourselves less by where we happened to be born and more by who we have chosen to become in the life.

I am a Christian who happens to be a United Methodist. When I share in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s table it is with the understanding that you cannot share in the body and blood of Christ if you’re not ready to partner with Christ in the ministry of undergoing suffering. I am a minister in the United Methodist church. When I baptize a child it is with the honest expectation that the child must come to a place where they believe in their own faith and identify with their own baptism into the life and death of a man who suffered.

In my own personal theology these beliefs are not optional. I have already said that I do not need people to agree with me, but on my end they are a part of our identity as Christians. If we cannot find our identity in Christ then we have lost our way and need to pray for forgiveness. As the foundational documents of the Methodist movement say all that is truly required to enter into the society of believers is ““a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.”

If it makes people feel better, the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ just affirmed their belief that God’s vision for the church is to be “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” They connect this to their mission which is to be “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” Seeking justice requires repenting of the things we do that cause pain.

For that matter, during the benediction at the American Legion’s service in the rain this morning, the Baptist minister around the corner lifted up Jesus Christ as the soldier who laid down his life so that people of every nation would enter the Kingdom of God and find salvation. By the way, Pastor Jim prayed a really powerful prayer. I’m looking forward to hearing more as time goes on.

For that matter, here’s a pretty good work of theology by a Roman Catholic scholar written on the subject of patriotism and our Christian duty is a pretty good bit of research too. By the way, it was written only a few months after 9/11. I still find it to be very relevant 15 years later. Too old for you? Here’s Pope Francis calling people to move towards justice and mercy earlier this year.

Baptists, Roman Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ, and even United Methodists like me. If you’re keeping track, that’s every denomination that has a congregation in the hamlet of Maine. We may worship different, but we all seem to be united in understanding that salvation rests in Jesus and that Jesus calls us to repent of our sins. We might not agree with what that looks like, but we all seem united in understanding that God is calling us.

As for Brueggemann’s words on affluence and consumerism, I realize that I have probably annoyed enough people already. I can go into that another day if people desire. The long and short of it is that I personally believe that John Wesley got it right. He did earn all he could and save all he could. He also gave all he could and died with less than 30 pounds to give away despite having an annual income of 1,400 pounds. It is said that he never had more than 100 pounds on him, which is pretty impressive given how easy it must have been to hoard his wealth instead of using it to bless others.

Let us Ramble: Opinions and Call

What do you think is the role of the pastor in a church? Are we prophets? Are we priests? Are we bearers of the light? Do we embody and carry tradition with us? Are we all of these things?

I took a ride after eating lunch today so that I could think about these questions. I preached a particularly somber sermon in church today about the importance of Memorial Day. I remembered the lives of folks who gave their lives for this country and I encouraged people to think about the reason we have this holiday. I encouraged people to seek peace in their lives and to work for a day when we no longer need to add names to the list of loved ones who can no longer come home to their families.

I was immediately questioned about my viewpoint after the service ended. I needed to know more history, I needed to change my point of view, and I needed to change what I believe. To be fair, I had been expecting someone to say these things, so it wasn’t a real shock to me. These kinds of conversations happen pretty often in the life of a pastor.

The conversation did raise questions in my mind though. I don’t require people to agree with me. I do my best to be humble and to consider other points of view, but sometimes I wonder what people actually want out of me as a pastor.

I went to Roberts Wesleyan College and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. My education at Roberts Wesleyan would come to $151,976 in today’s economy. My seminary education would cost $57,440 plus the cost of books. Effectively, the educational process I have undertaken would cost around $210,000. I underwent this educational program willingly and without regret. I began ministry as a pastor when I was 26, so that effectively means that my education would be about $4,500 dollars for each year I serve (If i make it to mandatory retirement at 72). Effectively that’s a little more than a tithe of my income every year just to pay for my education even without student loan interest.

On top of this educational requirement I am required to undertake ongoing continuing education and development. I take all of this education and I am sent out into a local church where I am expected to help educate my congregation. I am trained to teach orthodox beliefs and to teach practices that line up with the best traditions of orthopraxy.

So, why are people continually surprised when I do my job? I don’t have my master’s degree because I was bored one day. I earned my degree in order to use it and hopefully use it well. I am not studying the spiritual disciplines because it is something to do or because I need to continue to engage in continuing education. I am training so that I can teach the practices as well as put them into practice in my own life.

I am a pastor. I do not get paid a ton of money and a lot of it goes to pay for both my education and my wife’s education. I do not have easy hours or a cushy job. I carry God’s love into the world in courtrooms, coffee houses, and to people’s porches. I sit with the sick and dying. I visit with those who cannot come to church anymore. I grieve with the mourning and I celebrate with those bringing life into the world. I am a pastor because I am called to be a pastor. I am a pastor here and do my job here and now because this is where God has sent me for this season in my life. I am right where I am supposed to be at this point in my life.

So, why are people so surprised when I do my job? I wouldn’t be being faithful if I did not take what I do in my ministry seriously. I would not be being faithful if I didn’t tell the truth even when it doesn’t line up with people’s preconceived notions. I would not be being faithful if I did not occasionally raise the questions that absolutely need to be raised.

Let us Seek: Broken Images

Yesterday afternoon at the Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ we had a break between our afternoon session and our evening meal. I spent the time preparing for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was distracted from my inevitable comparisons between the Annual Meetings of the two denominations I serve. I was distracted by reading through my favorite (and technically only) book on shame, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy called “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write on internalized images of God and perfectionism: (pg. 85)

“As in Jesus’ time, much of the inner suffering that people struggle with today is abetted by an impoverished religious imagination that is unable to envision a God of unfailing love-a love that embraces all of us unconditionally just as we are. Instead, our projections of a harsh and demanding God leave us with feelings of shame and a sense that we have disappointed God. Many of us are burdened by a strict conscience that demands perfection, thinking this what God wants. We have an image of holiness that is out of reach for the simple reason that perfection is beyond our grasp. When we inevitably fail, we feel guilty and ashamed and are confirmed in our belief that we are unworthy of God’s love.”

The honest truth is that I could spend this blogpost talking about the idea of a frustrating and badly-considered image of God from a personal perspective, but I believe this may be a case where personal ministry experience might be helpful. I have walked with many folks who have struggled with understanding a God that accepts them unconditionally with their “warts and all.” A lot of people have difficulty seeing God lovingly walking with them during challenging moments of life. The situation is like trying to see clearly through a broken window.

"Abandoned Church - view through broken window" by Nicholas Mutton

“Abandoned Church – view through broken window” by Nicholas Mutton

I remember walking with a brother in Christ who did not understand how God could love him. The man was lonely, sad, and isolated. He wanted to be in a relationship badly, but every relationship ended up in disaster. While he would love to believe God loved him unconditionally, it was hard to believe. God loved him and understood that he was lonely. God loved him even as he felt lonely. I believe God was compassionately and completely in love with this man. That man could neither see nor believe in that love easily.

I remember walking with many people over the years that were absolutely furious over the death of a loved one. Some people were angry with God because their loved one had passed away. Other people were resolutely angry that their loved one had done the things that led to their death. How could God love them when they still feel anger towards someone that they love? How could God love them when they are angry with God? Faith in God’s unconditional love can be difficult to obtain when anger is involved. It can become very difficult to understand that God loves a person despite the anger that they harbor in their souls.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking situations are those that involve abuse. While God is neither male nor female, it can be difficult to trust in the love of God when someone is abused by another person. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and caring mother hen when a woman in your life has engaged in abuse. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and protective father when a man in your life has engaged in abuse. Moving beyond parental images, trust can be difficult to carry into new life with Christ as your brother when a brother has been abusive.

Walking through the challenges of life can make it very difficult to trust in God’s love and grace. The images of God that a lot of people carry around in their lives are often powerful and unjustly harsh. These images do reinforce a lot of challenges that people normally face in their lives. Praying with sincerity after a heartbreaking crisis can be almost impossible if God seems to be stern and foreboding. Seeking forgiveness for situations where everything has gone downhill can become impossible when God seems hard, cruel, and unrelenting. The weight of shame can be overwhelming when you believe that God could never forgive you for what you have done in your life.

So, what do we do with this? Well, I do not want to hamstring a future blogpost, but I will say that my family and I listened to the new NPR podcast “Wow in the World” this afternoon. The very first episode spoke about an article that was recently published by researchers from the University of Montana on the benefits of gratitude. A quick synopsis of the research is that there is a strong correlation between expressing gratitude and a person’s well being.

If a person can make their life better through regular expressions of gratitude then I believe a similar theory can be proposed. I would suggest that there may be a correlation between the health of a person’s image of God and what opportunities that person engages in to experience a loving God. Regular spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship might help to reinforce a loving experience of God. The authors of the “God’s Unconditional Love” argue persuasively about the use of imagination to go deeper into the scripture and consequently into God’s love.

I would also suggest that engaging in compassionate acts alongside God might assist in retraining one’s heart to see a loving God more clearly. Volunteering with the hungry, assisting with rehabilitation programs, working to build and repair homes after disasters, and thousands of other opportunities exist to engage in ministry alongside a God who is neither hard nor callous to people’s pain. Partnering in ministry with others to seek God through compassionate acts might allow someone to understand God’s compassion for their own lives and souls more clearly.

In the meantime, my hope and prayer is that God might be gracious to you. May you see the love of God in your life.

Let us Reflect: Purpose

What does it mean to have purpose? How does someone define purpose? What does it mean to be successful in ministry? I ponder this as I sit and listen to Rev. David Gaewski speak to the state of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. I ponder success as I listen to the good news that the Conference has created 20 newly affiliated congregations. I ponder success as I listen to words about a course correction around sacred conversations around questions of race and white privilege. I ponder success as I wonder about the variety of voices around the room. I wonder about the folks who are present and the folks who are not with us today.

I wonder about these questions and more as I ponder the alteration of the mission statement of the New York Conference. The new statement reads:

“Our Mission: ‘United in Spirit, and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.’

Our Vision: ‘United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.’”

Rev. Gaewski has invited us to consider the question “How can we make disciples of Christ and how can that take place in our context?” Rev. Gaewski speaks of a movement of evangelism into (in my own words) a movement towards deeper discipleship. We are invited to be seeking the well-being of folks for the betterment of the world. We are invited to do these things boldly.

As a United Methodist who serves in this context, I find myself moved deeply. The UCC is seeking to be bold about inclusion. The UCC is seeking to be bold about loving everyone. The UCC is seeking to be a church that seeks justice for all people. This is a bold mission to undertake.

Is this different than the United Methodist mission? Is the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world radically different than a vision of being united in Christ’s love with a just world for all? Well, yes. These are different goals with different purposes.

Is it better to speak of justice or to speak of transformation? Is it better to be bold about loving everyone or about making disciples of everyone? I serve in a place where both missions have a role in the life of my congregation. I don’t know that I could or should decide, but I’ll be thinking about these sorts of questions.

Let us Ramble: Wild Lettuce

Have you ever found a blessing where you expected none? A few days ago I went outside to take a picture of a zucchini plant for another blogpost when I noticed something bright green alongside the path through the garden. I looked closely and I found a wild lettuce plant!

Random lettuce plants!

Now, it wasn’t truly wild in the sense of being unexplainable. Last year we planted lettuce and some of it literally went to seed. All winter long it snowed and the dogs trampled over the garden. All winter long the path nearby was assaulted by shovels and ice removing salts. All winter long this section of ground underwent abuse.

This spring the earth had a gift for me before I even had a chance to till and plant. The lettuce was light, fragrant, and delicious. I know this because I gobbled down a leaf immediately after I took this picture. The leaf was quite tender and tasty.

It makes me wonder what other blessings are hiding just beyond my sight. I should keep my eyes open! There may be pumpkins hiding around the corner!

Let us Seek: Ascension Day!

Happy Ascension Day! Luke 24:44-53 reads: (NRSV)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

English: "Ascension of Christ" by Benvenuto Tisi

English title: “Ascension of Christ” by Benvenuto Tisi

Today is the day when the Western church has traditionally celebrated the Ascension of Christ up to heaven. By coincidence, today is also the day that the Eastern church celebrates the Ascension of Christ! No, those dates do not always align! Here’s an article why the dates of Easter differ from an Eastern Orthodox perspective!

As we celebrate this Holy Day, here are a couple of things you might wish to think about as we celebrate:

  • Not many modern churches celebrate the Ascension of Christ with large worship services. In particular, Protestant churches have tended to shy away from this celebration. As a result, do not expect to find Ascension Day cards at the grocery store. As a result, a good family activity might be drawing a picture of what it might have looked like and mailing it to a loved one.
  • Despite not being regularly celebrated in Protestant churches, churches which follow the traditional liturgy of communion silently reference this event every time they celebrate communion. The liturgy refers to the resurrection in the eyes of many when it says “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” In reality, Christ cannot come again without having ascended. Sidenote: All three parts of this great mystery have an unspoken component in my eyes. Christ was born before he died. Christ is risen and remains alive. Christ has ascended and Christ will come again.
  • Ascension is an important part of the two major historical creeds of the church. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both reference the Ascension. The poorly named Athanasian Creed also refers to the Ascension. Something about this event caused the early church to tie it into the most basic form of catechism within the church.

We hope you have a most blessed day and that you spend some time thinking about the Ascension of Jesus Christ! May God bless you on the journey through life today!

Let us Ramble: Tomato Border

Today was a busy day around the parsonage. Next Monday is Memorial Day and the town’s parade route runs right in front of the church and the parsonage. I will be occupied for the next few days, so today was the last real opportunity I had to straighten up the yard before the parade. There were obvious tasks to accomplish (plant the garden and mow the grass), but there was another challenge that needed to be faced.

Last year was the first year where we had tomatoes against the side of the garage. We tilled up the ground, planted the tomatoes, and then quickly learned how much more prolific they were than we had expected. Each of the cheap metal tomato cages died an agonizing death over the course of the summer. The tomato bed was a real disaster by the end of the summer.

This year we made plans. We researched methods of controlling the tomato plants more effectively. We learned about something called the Florida Weave and planted posts to support the plants. We mulched the ground in the fall and put some good nutrients back into the soil this spring. We scrounged through the leftover stones from the church’s septic project and put a stone border next to the tomato bed. It looked really nice.

Unfortunately, the stone border was not very good at dissuading the grass and weeds that wanted to grow into the tomato bed. For weeks I’ve been consistently and constantly fighting back against the encroaching lawn. Today I decided that I had enough.

We were planning on planting the garden tonight and I had been wanting to start an herb garden. Unfortunately, we went a little overboard with starting seedlings this spring. There was simply not enough room for what we already had prepared to plant. I looked at the problem of the grass and the problem of not having a space for an herb garden.

I thought about a comedic science fiction audiobook that I had recently listened finished. In that audiobook, humans were colonizing another world and the creatures on the planet found them tasty. They built fences but the creatures burrowed underneath the fences. The solution saved the people was placing steel bars under the fence to dissuade the hungry aliens.

I was struggling with an aggressive plant which wanted to attack my colony of tomato plants. I needed space to plant herbs. I built a fence and I sunk the roots below the reach of the grass. I buried thin cinder-blocks on their sides. The grass couldn’t get under the cinder blocks. I filled the holes with dirt and suddenly I had room for herbs and flowers! I could make the border wall functional, effective, and pretty!


A geranium in the border wall

In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Proverbs 19:8 says “To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.” Last year one of the best ways I loved myself was to learn that I had made a mistake when I planted my tomatoes without a plan. I took that wisdom, understood how I needed to change, made a plan, and now I have the hope that I will find a way to prosper with my tomatoes in this new year.

I do not know if the herbs will succeed in the new planter-wall. I hope that they will, but I will seek a spirit of wisdom regardless of the outcome. In the end, I hope that I will approach next year with understanding, wisdom, and an even better plan.

The Catapult

via Daily Prompt: Catapult

My family has had two cats over the past few years. We have lived on church property and we need to deal with church mice. One of the cats had extra toes. My wife says she should keep her name. She called the cat Debbie. I called it Thumbs. Thumbs was a great mouser for many years.

The second cat is a black cat named Pepper. I’m allergic to cats. I didn’t need to rename this cat. Pepper makes me sneeze when it gets in my nose. Pepper make me sneeze when she rubs against my face. The name fits. Pepper is not the greatest of mousers.

Thumbs was very relaxed. Pepper seems a bit uptight. The two are almost completely different cats in terms of personality. I personally think it is because Pepper can’t operate the catapult. We have to get rid of those church mice somehow…

Let us Seek: Blessed Relationships

For me, today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary are falling on blessed ears. In particular, I feel very blessed by one verse in the selections. 1 Peter 3:8 immediately drew my attention when I read through the readings this morning. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the verse says “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” The New International Version translates this passage “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” The old school King James Version translates this passage “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:”

While I don’t often read The Message, 1 Peter 3:8-12 is a good read as well:

Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.

Whoever wants to embrace life
and see the day fill up with good,
Here’s what you do:
Say nothing evil or hurtful;
Snub evil and cultivate good;
run after peace for all you’re worth.
God looks on all this with approval,
listening and responding well to what he’s asked;
But he turns his back
on those who do evil things.

I was drawn to this passage today because I was reminded of the value of loving others yesterday. I had a good long conversation with a colleague who has been slowly becoming a friend since the creation of the Upper New York Annual Conference. We talked about the future of the church over a delicious Persian lunch and talked about our own journeys in her church after the meal had ended. Our time was a blessing.

It reminded me of many conversations that I have had with other colleagues and friends over the years. The time together reminded me of late night debates and conversation in the dorms, dining halls, and at BT’s with my friends from Roberts Wesleyan College. The time together reminded me of sitting at study groups at a diner on Route 104 and over the bookstore counter in seminary at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The conversation reminded me of the relationships I have built at Annual Conferences with my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church first in Buffalo as a part of Western New York Annual Conference and then at the OnCenter in Syracuse with the Upper New YOrk Annual Conference. The time in fellowship reminded me of the deep conversations that took place and the relationships we have built at Silver Bay and in Rochester through the Annual Meeting of the UCC which I shared with newfound sisters and brothers over the past few years. I was reminded of all of these blessed ministries through time with a colleague who is becoming a friend.

The next two weeks are going to be very busy for me as a pastor. There are a lot of meetings to attend for both of the denominations that I serve. There are a lot of things that I will need to get done in order to do the very best I can in those situations. While I imagine that the UCC Annual Meeting will not likely be very stressful for me (due to the very congenial and loving nature of the folks that I generally have experienced during those meetings), I know that the UMC Annual Conference will definitely have moments of tension and stress. I am entering a very busy time in my year, but occasions like the one I engaged in yesterday remind me that there are blessings ahead.

The Message tells us to snub evil and cultivate good. How does one cultivate good? You cultivate good in the garden world by taking good care of your soil, maintaining healthy plants, and keeping pests (and pets) away from your plants. In time, plants grow because you care for them. I imagine that the next few weeks will have many opportunities to cultivate relationships. I pray that I take the time to cultivate good in the midst of all of the challenges.

One of our zucchini plants in hand-tilled earth!

The King James Version reminds us to have compassion for one another. In situations of stress and challenge, can be easy to desire victory at any cost. The act of having compassion is an act which can be a blessing in situations that naturally lead to division. The act of receiving compassion is an act which can be a blessing in situations that naturally lead to withdrawal from relationship. King James Version of this verse reminds us to enter into a reciprocal sharing of compassion. Compassion passed around a circle of folks just like we pass around the cup during communion. The body and blood of Christ for everyone around the table–the compassion of sisters and brothers for all in the family.

The New International Version binds together compassion with humility. In this translation we are reminded to go beyond compassion for others. We are invited to enter into humility. We are invited to humility when we live in a world where there are groups calling for win/lose scenarios. Humility in victory might mean not letting it go to your head. Compassion and humility in victory might mean sitting in grief with those who believe different than you. Humility in loss might mean taking the long view of matters instead of taking it as a critique of your position, your belief, or your character. Humility and compassion in loss might remind you to look beyond yourself even as your grieve. Hopefully, humility and compassion might lead us to seek situations where there are no winners or losers. We might be led to places where we are family instead of combatants.

The New Revised Standard Version reminds us to have tender hearts. This challenge might be greater than any other challenge for those of us who have been in the trenches of denominational squabbles for years. I am reminded by my friend and colleague that there is room for tenderness and growth in relationship even when everyone at the table has had challenges in their past. There is still room for love and growth in hearts that often wear suits of armor into challenging meetings. If we can risk being vulnerable, there may be places where even hearts broken with grief and loss can find new life.

I am thankful for this verse today and for all the colleagues and friends who have shared love with me over the years. I am grateful that love still rests at the heart of what it means to be Christian.

Let us Ramble: Contemplating Charcoal

Unsurprisingly, my family and I have spent a lot of time outside this week. In the rural areas around Binghamton this week has been one of the first truly nice weeks of the year. We’ve spent time grilling dinner out on the porch almost every night this week.

A few years ago I was converted to charcoal grilling after a few years flirting with propane grills. Are charcoal grills somewhat inconvenient? They require a little bit of extra work but I adore the smokey taste they impart to the food I grill.

A few weeks ago (in this particular blogpost) I noted that a particular passage stuck out to me from a book I was reading for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The excerpt was from the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun. In particular, this was the passage that attracted my attention from the section entitled “Practicing the Presence” (pg. 72):

“Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives. Through many small pauses we begin a habit of turning our heart toward God.”

I was sitting on my porch while waiting for the charcoal to warm up when I was drawn into a spirit of contemplation. I use a chimney charcoal starter to ignite my charcoal before grilling. I was drawn into a spirit of contemplation as I watched the charcoal begin to burn (with the help of a little lighter fluid–I was cheating when I took this picture).

My rusty but trusty chimney charcoal starter!

The idea of the charcoal chimney is a simple concept. You light paper underneath the charcoal and that begins to heat up the bottom layer of charcoal. As that layer begins to burn, it sets the charcoal above on fire. In time, the whole of the charcoal catches on fire and it is time to spread the coals and grill.

As I watched the excessive and unnecessary flames pour out the top, I stopped to think about how the charcoal chimney is supposed to work. All it takes to function properly is patience, a little bit of newspaper, and a match. The chimney starter is simple and effective when the charcoal is in good condition, the breeze is low, and the match actually lights the paper on fire.

I have spent a lot of time working with churches that desire to grow. Some churches are always looking for a great new idea which will bring young families into the church. Some churches are seeking to figure out why certain families or individuals have stopped attending church regularly. A lot of churches are always trying to find that silver bullet which will get them where they want to go as a church.

I have also spent a lot of time working with individuals who are facing struggles in their lives. Families have struggles, coworkers are aggressive, and sometimes the neighbor just will not act neighborly. People seek help and look for a silver bullet to fix their problems. I know this is true because I have been also guilty of seeking silver bullets for my own problems.

As I stared at the excessive and unnecessary flames pour out of the charcoal starter I came to a realization. Just like the flames were unnecessary on the charcoal starter, we often unnecessarily look for big solutions to problems. One of my favorite passages is Micah 6:8. In that passage the Lord tells Micah what is required of people like you and me. People need to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

How many times would a culture of kindness defuse the huge problems which seem to require silver bullets in the church? My experience tells me that kindness can often defuse situations very quickly.

How many times would a little humility fix problems in the lives of individuals? Well, I can tell you that my life would have fewer problems if I decided to have a bit more humility and followed through with that decision.

How much better would our charcoal start if we were to stop pouring excessive amounts of solution into challenges that just require patient faithfulness? When we set ourselves about the tasks of life, would things taste more like the grill and less like lighter fluid if we were to focus on real solutions instead of quick solutions?

I really have to hand it to this idea of intentionally focusing on God in quiet moments. I am grateful that I have begun to find more quiet moments to turn towards God. I also need to get more newspaper. There is going to be a lot more grilling to do this summer and I am going to try to cut down on the lighter fluid.

Let us Seek: Shipwreck ahoy!

For today’s blog I thought we could spend some time with one of the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. Today’s readings include a beautiful passage from the Book of Acts. I believe that this passage has a good word for all of us. The passage I am referring to reads: (Acts 27:7-12, NRSV)

“We sailed slowly for a number of days and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, and as the wind was against us, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmone. Sailing past it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea.

Since much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous, because even the Fast had already gone by, Paul advised them, saying, “Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.” But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. Since the harbor was not suitable for spending the winter, the majority was in favor of putting to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, where they could spend the winter. It was a harbor of Crete, facing southwest and northwest.”

The Apostle Paul has been a leader in the church for several years. Paul had also been a leader within the religious elite of the Jewish people before converting to Christianity. Paul was a leader who knew how to convince others to his point of view.

Paul still manages to end up on a boat that is headed into a shipwreck. Paul may be spirit-filled, wise, and a leader of others, but Paul is still on a boat that is going on a very perilous journey that will end in disaster.

"Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast" by Thomas Butterworth

“Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast” by Thomas Butterworth, ~1810 CE. Located in the “Yale Center for British Art”

Have you ever felt as if you are on a boat headed for disaster which you cannot control? We all have moments in our lives where things seem out of control. We all have moments where we could tear out whatever hair we have in frustration. Interestingly enough, most of us know that on occasion everyone faces these moments in our heads but we still refuse to believe it with our hearts.

When you read the Bible it becomes absolutely clear on many things, but let’s focus on one point in particular today. Bad things happen to good people. Whether you are Job, Abraham, Paul, or even Jesus Christ, life involves moments that are neither avoidable nor pleasant. Job was considered a peerless person by Christ (Job 1:8) but still loses almost everything. Abraham is called into a new life and a new covenant multiple times by God, but still needs to rescue his nephew from captivity (Genesis 14). Paul (as previously stated) was shipwrecked despite knowing that the journey ahead of him would lead to disaster. Jesus Christ was crucified–the cup of suffering was not taken away.

Jesus Christ also stated (Matthew 5:44-45) that we should “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” While he was speaking of love, Jesus taught the same truth that I am trying to express in the midst of his lesson. The sun rises and the rain falls on both the good people of the world and on those with a propensity towards evil.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ does not mean that everything will be perfect. In fact, being a follower of Jesus Christ often means that you will face difficulties. The promise made to believers is not a promise that they will be free from challenge. The promise God makes through Jesus Christ is that we will not be alone in our challenge.

We who follow Christ are given hope through the love of God. We who follow Christ are given presence through not only the Holy Spirit but through the powerful presence of Jesus in our lives. Consider the words of John 17: (NRSV)

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

If Christ is the messenger, then we are the recipients of the love he carried into the world for us. That love is deep, powerful, and meaningful. The thunderstorms of life will strike, crash, and thunder around us, but we have the love Christ has planted in our hearts. Paul the Shipwrecked wrote this in Romans 8: (NRSV)

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

My friends, Paul’s words speak for themselves. May you have faith and trust even as the boats of life carry you into the storms. May God help you, comfort you, and give you peace. May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

Let us Seek: The Cabbage Crisis

Our church’s food pantry had a problem last summer. We had a MASSIVE donation of cabbage. We received hundreds of pounds of cabbage. We had lots of cabbage. The cabbage was beyond the capacities of our refrigerators and we literally could not get rid of it fast enough. The overabundance of cabbage was a bigger problem than you might think. We needed space for other donations of things people need regularly. We could not accept donations of milk or eggs because there was too much cabbage. We could not accept donations of deli meat or cheese because there was too much cabbage. We had so much cabbage that the stuff we could not refrigerate was going bad. We donated as much as we could to a church member’s family who raises pigs, but apparently even pigs get tired of cabbage.

We came right up to the point where the volunteers at the food pantry were going to simply toss it away when I decided to do something about the situation. I did my research, I went on a small shopping spree, and I got to work. I made five gallons of sauerkraut.

Pastor Rob with five gallons of cabbage, salt, and water in July of 2016. Yes, it was incredibly hot that day.

Yes, I made gallons and gallons of sauerkraut. Now, New York State law does not allow for processed food to be distributed to folks unless it has been processed by an approved professional company. So, this meant that I had five gallons of sauerkraut on my shelves. Five gallons of sauerkraut meant that we learned a lot of recipes over the past year that use sauerkraut. Sweet and sour meatballs are my personal favorite.

Yesterday was a beautiful day and we needed to decide what to put on our hot dogs. I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes over just having ketchup or relish when I remembered what was in the garage. A few minutes later I was enjoying a hot dog with sauerkraut and ketchup. The hot dog was delicious.

The most delicious hot dog I ate yesterday!

So, why do I share all of this with you on my blog? I share it because there was a moment last year when everything was coming apart at the seams. The cabbage was literally becoming a thorn in my side and in the side of all of our volunteers. Just the smell of cabbage was beginning to get bother people in a real and powerful sense. The situation was becoming a miniature crisis.

All it took to turn the situation around was for someone to do a little research, put in a bunch of hard work, and to transform a negative situation into a positive blessing. My family had healthy meals this past winter because of the cabbage that was driving people nuts. My hot dog went from good to great because of the cabbage that even pigs were getting tired of eating. Opportunity was hiding in plain sight.

I do not know what situations you may be facing in life today. I do know that not every situation has a silver lining. I cannot promise that there is an outcome as positive as the situation with the cabbage, but I can tell you one thing that is absolutely true. If you do not open your eyes and look around then you may never know what possibilities you are missing.

Consider the following words from Jeremiah 29:10-14: (NRSV)

“For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

Jeremiah’s words are set in the scriptures during a challenging moment in history. Trouble is on the horizon and Lamentations will show exactly deep a sorrow will fall on the people of God. Jeremiah’s prophecies are set in a time of doubt about the future. There was likely a real and powerful doubt at play in the hearts of all those people who heard Jeremiah’s prophecies and believed his words.

Despite these doubts and troubles, Jeremiah leaves the people with a word of hope. There was a place for redemption and hope when all of the trouble had come and gone. Will the seventy years ahead be a very difficult time? Of course the situation ahead of the people will be grim. Even Jeremiah will be filled with lament when everything comes to pass, but even that darkness will not last forever. God cares about the welfare of the people. God will make a way and allow the people to find both God and hope. God will hear their prayers again. God will gather the people in with open arms.

I do not want to belittle whatever situations you face today. Everyone has their own challenges and sometimes there are no silver linings. I do want to invite you to open your eyes in the midst of your challenges. Sometimes there are blessings in the stinky cabbages of life. Not always, but sometimes there are possibilities. I invite you to have courage and to have faith.

Let us Ramble: Christian koan?

Yesterday I was working through the same book that I have been reading through for The Academy for Spiritual Formation over the past few weeks. It seems like every Monday begins with a cup of coffee and the same book. Inevitably, my brain melts before the coffee cools. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. This is a dense book with a lot of good concepts and ideas.

One of the brain-melting ideas that took a hold of me this week revolved around the idea of a Christian “koan.”The authors say this on page 63:

“Many years ago, when Wilkie was in Kyoto studying Zen meditation, this practice of gazing on the crucifix was endorsed by an unlikely source, a Japanese Zen master. Yamada Roshi told him and his fellow Jesuits that the cross is the Christian koan and that contemplating it was a path to enlightenment. A Zen koan is a riddle or surd (e.g. ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’) that baffles and stills the busy mind, so that an intuitive flash of truth can seize one’s awareness.”

This idea struck me as being very interesting given my background as a United Methodist. In his sermon “Spiritual Idolatry” John Wesley (one of the founders of the Methodist movement) clearly stated that he believed the Roman Catholic practice of using icons was a form of idolatry. John Wesley was not a fan of this “Romish” practice.

Now, let’s be clear. I do not believe that John Wesley only spoke and preached words that were beyond reproof. In some cases (like in “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”) I believe John Wesley was dead wrong, Despite all of my troubles with his works, I do believe that John Wesley wrote and spoke with all of the integrity he could muster. In short, I tend to give John Wesley the benefit of the doubt.

I do not believe that John Wesley would approve of the idea of a Christian koan, which I honestly believe is sad. I believe that there is some validity to what Yamada Roshi taught Wilkie Au. The authors go on to state that Yamada Roshi taught the Jesuits studying in Japan that excessive rationality often stood between people and God. The crucifix as a koan does an excellent job of being simple enough to help a Christian go beyond rationality into a place of contemplation where inspiration can take root.

After my brain stopped sparking I contemplated the idea on and off again. It kept setting small fires in my mind, but I had a few thoughts that I believe were helpful.

First, if the Jesuits focused on the crucifix, does it change the nature of the inspiration to contemplate the empty cross favored by Protestants? How would a focus on resurrection alter how one comes closer to God? What does it mean to us in our contemplation that the means of death inflicted by the world stands empty and defeated? Does pondering the very differences lead to the excessive rationalism Yamada Roshi was warning about? Would it be helpful to break through a barrier for a Protestant to contemplate a crucifix or for a Roman Catholic to ponder the empty cross?

Second, what koans have I experienced in my life? When I regularly went to the same Young Life camp first as a student and then as a leader I remember watching the same tree growing out on an island in the lake. Contemplating the tree led me to places where I found inspiration to get through some of the most difficult spiritual struggles that I faced as a college student. I know that I have stared at a campfire many times while praying through challenges as an adult. Were these koans or just convenient places where my focus rested until I saw Christ?

Finally, what’s wrong with an icon? John Wesley’s idiosyncrasies aside, is there anything wrong with using an icon? As a young Christian I enjoyed reading both John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. In reading stories filled with allegorical characters I found a way of contemplating deep things about my own spiritual life. Is using an icon to go deeper in one’s faith different than using a work of fiction? Is using an icon to focus in and grow deeper in the faith different than using a sermon like a lens to focus on a truth in the scriptures?

As I said earlier, this book causes my brain to smoke. On the positive side, if my brain is overheating then I have an excuse to always be letting hot air out of my mouth.

Let us Seek: Diving into the pool

Yesterday was a terrifying day for me. I went swimming and I was scared.

Allow me to give all of you some context to my terror. At the end of March I underwent a cornea transplant in my left eye. When my patch was removed I was told several things that I should immediately cease doing in my day-to-day life. First, no lifting of heavy objects. Second, nothing that would raise my pulse too much. Third, absolutely no swimming or getting chemicals in my eye.

Over the past few months I have done my best to avoid lifting heavy objects. A few weeks ago I was told that I could exercise again. Last week I was told that I could go swimming again.

Now, I love to swim. Swimming is one of my favorite things to do in the world. I love being in water and swimming long distances. I may not be able to run due to my back and my ankle, but I can consistently swim farther than most people can run. I’m not kidding or bragging when I say that I like to swim long distances. I often swim at the YMCA until my skin begins to react to the chemicals, which happens to me after about 2 hours. I really do love to swim…

My love of swimming is great, but it took me a week to build up the courage to go to the YMCA after receiving permission. I was certain that my eye would immediately have problems the moment that a single drop of chlorinated water made it into my goggles. I was also convinced that tightening them to the point where water would not be able to get into the goggles would lead to a tight seal that would create a pressure that would cause damage to my cornea. I was terrified that something would go wrong for the entirety of the last week.

I was scared. I did what I try to do whenever I get scared about something irrational. I faced my fear and I went swimming. My eye didn’t pop out from over exertion. My cornea did not dissolve when some water made it into my goggles. Nothing went wrong in the slightest… Well, technically I did chicken out in the name of being reasonable and only swam for 45 minutes. I am told that there is nothing wrong with a sensible amount of caution.

I am reminded of a story from the Bible as I think back to the moment that I entered the pool. The whole of nation of Israel was standing next to the Jordan in the third chapter of Joshua. The people of God were finally ready to enter the promised land, but one last thing needed to take place. The people needed to cross the Jordan. Here’s what it says in Joshua 3:14-16: (NRSV)

“When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off…”

I love that the people of God are waiting to cross the river, but first twelve priests have to carry the ark into the midst of the river. They are told that the river will stand still, but the water only stands still after the twelve enter into the water. Can you imagine being the person who steps in first? Can you imagine the movement of the ark continuing forward and moving you closer and closer to the swollen river? Can you imagine the feeling of the current tugging at your toes while you carry the ark of God into the water?

It had to be a tense moment when the priests first stepped into the water. The priests still stepped forward into the river. They had to have had courage to take those first few steps in faith.

We all sometimes need to be reminded that courage is often a necessity in life. We all have moments where we wonder if the river will stop, if an eye will survive a dip in the pool, or if everything will be okay. Sometimes we all need to step into the river with courage.

Let us Ramble: Peter and Grace

I’m sitting and pondering as dinner settles itself down in my children’s tummies. One child is putting away laundry while another gets clean before putting on pajamas. The lawn has been mowed, the laundry is moved along, and I have a list of the things I need for my wife’s Mother’s Day Dinner tomorrow night. This is a good time for reflection.

I keep bringing myself back to Peter’s words in today’s scripture reading at church. I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the whole passage, but continue to find myself drawn to Peter’s words. Peter says in Acts 15:8-11: (NRSV)

“…God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

I keep thinking about how remarkable well Peter expresses that saving work of Jesus. When I was younger I kept hearing a theological concept that fits well here. The concept was that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

The ground is level because we all are equally blessed by Jesus Christ. Conceptually if nobody is righteous outside the grace of Jesus, then we are all equally blessed. There are neither super Christians nor subpar Christians. Instead, we are all equally blessed to be sisters and brothers of Christ through our adoption into God’s family.

This concept is a powerfully gracious concept, especially when so many people seem intent on pushing others out of the door of the community of God’s children. There are still many people who will happily share the rules and regulations of the yokes that they believe make people righteous centuries after the time of the Council in Acts 15. Christians have practically made an art form out of the practice of setting rules for ourselves and especially other people.

What would it look like if we all lived out of this perspective? What if we spent more time focusing on how the grace of Jesus Christ spreads into the lives of others than on whether or not they follow the rules our culture has placed upon us? What if we became a people who were as transformed by this grace as the man who spoke these words in Acts 15? What a world that would create…

Let us Seek: Sarai’s Exclusion

Today’s lectionary readings contains one of my favorite passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The lectionary reading contains the call of God on the life of Abram which includes his wife Sarai. Here is what Genesis 12:1-3 says: (NRSV)

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

I adore this story for several reasons. Allow me to list a few:

  1. I’m an itinerant preacher. I am drawn to stories where God says “Go to the place I will show you.” It is my hope that God would lead me in the same way.
  2. I adore the fact that the blessings Abram will receive will be from many people and the curse will hopefully only fall on one entity. I love the optimism of that promise. Unfortunately, verse 3 has been translated many different ways. I remain optimistic and still find hope in these words, especially as my preferred translation (NRSV) has lines that fall in “pleasant places for me.”
  3. Abram’s life will become symbiotic to the world around him. As a result, his life causes “all of the families of the earth” to be blessed. This is about as far from an exclusivistic promise as one can get in the scriptures. All families means all families.

I love this story, but not everything is “sunshine and rainbows” between me and this verse. I struggle with this story for several reasons.

  1. Sarai is an important part of Abram’s story. She’s his partner. Her child will be a beloved part of the promise. It seems as if Adonai makes an assumption that Sarai and Abram will understand her role. What happens when you assume? A woman named Hagar is abused. Ishmael comes into being, which is wonderful for Ishmael’s descendants, but there are less abusive ways to bring life into the world.
  2. Abram’s call divides both Sarai and Abram from their families. I would like to say that the call of God does not require sacrifice, but that would be a lie. I am saddened that these sacrifices are required, but sometimes they are necessary.

While there is nothing that I can do about the second challenge, I will say that an awareness of the first challenge can easily bear fruit. What if we use Sarai’s exclusion from the call as a spur to ponder our own words, our own thoughts, and our own prayers? What if we take this as a reminder to focus on something beyond ourselves and beyond our own perspective?

"Abram's Counsel to Sarai" by James Jacque Joseph Tissot

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, 6 x 8 1/8 in. (15.2 x 20.7 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York

I was recently invited by a friend to the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library Book Sale in Ithaca, NY. While perusing the shelves I found a book called “Prayers for an Inclusive Church” by Steven Shakespeare. In that book, on this Sunday the following collect can be informative. I’d like to share a prayer in order to analyze the form, structure, and word choice. It is based on John 14:1-14:

“Generous God,

whose way is love,

whose truth is searching,

whose life is freely given

in Jesus Christ our Lord:

As you have opened for us

your house of many rooms,

so may we make a place

for the rejected and unloved,

and share the work of peace;

Through Jesus Christ, the image of God


It is a very solid prayer and well written. I would recommend most of my clergy colleagues think of this as a good resource. Regardless, in taking Reverend Mr. Steven Shakespeare’s prayer as an archetype of a prayer with inclusive tendencies, we can note several things about the prayer construction: (Please note I’m using the etiquette recommended by the Church of England who ordained Mr. Shakespeare. Their etiquette is different than standard American etiquette)

  1. Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer refers to God with a gendered designation, but one which refers to a being in the Christian tradition which includes the image of humanity in all forms of gender. It isn’t perfect, but English is also not a perfect language.
  2. In Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer Jesus Christ is referred to as Lord, but this makes sense as Jesus Christ is generally considered male. The Lordship of Jesus is less of a challenge than the Lordship of God as Jesus is strongly identified with a particular gender, but not always. There are various books available about trans-theology including “Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach” by Virginia Mollenkott which explores other interpretations of Jesus’ gender and how that affects our view of gender.
  3. Mr. Shakespeare clearly makes an attempt to open the borders of the blessing. If Abram and Sarai are called to create a blessing to all of the families of the world, then this prayer sees that blessing as being inclusive. God’s way is love, God’s truth searches, and God’s life is given freely. Jesus’ blessing causes people to make space for the rejected and the unloved. There’s room for Ishmael and Hagar in God’s blessing. This blessing extends that grace.
  4. Mr. Shakespeare extends God’s welcome to us into the act of working towards peace. In a world which is filled with lives that often become insular to outsiders, Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer invites the blessing to become manifold in the work of our hands.

With these ideas in mind, I believe we can use Sarai’s exclusion as a spur to inclusion. Here are a few first steps:

  1. Be careful of gendered words. Be careful even if you think these concerns are hogwash. If you pray in public, think through your word choices. There is generally no need to stir up unnecessary trouble between sisters and brothers in the faith. Complications complicate things and life is complicated enough without doubling down on trivial matters.
  2. Consider the scope of your prayer. If you are praying with or for a small group, work an expansive vision into that prayer. If you are praying with a large group, include the vastness of their impact into your prayer. Why pray that an individual would be a blessing in their family when they could be a blessing in their family and neighborhood? Why pray for a church group to get along when you can pray that they get along and expand their love into the community? Prayer changes things including what we ourselves deem possible.
  3. Be wary of the barriers that you might unintentionally erect in your prayers. Does God see things your way? Does God see that town-line, those railroad tracks, or that border as a barrier to blessing? If not, why do you? Sometimes your prayers and thoughts may be the very thing blocking your ability to see the leading of God. Sarai couldn’t see that her disbelief was a barrier. She laughed when God’s inclusion stretched out to include her. Be wary.

All of this being said, if you are involved in worship planning, I believe you should get a hold of Mr. Shakespeare’s book. It is quite lovely and a good resource.

Let us Seek: Flowers in the cold

The last few nights have been very cold in the town of Maine, NY. I have gone to sleep with a prayer on my lips as I curled up into my bed. Each morning I have gone outside to check on the tomato plants and marigolds that have been hiding under burlap covers. I have pulled aside the cover and I have expected the worst case scenario to have taken place. This is what I saw as I pulled aside the burlap this morning…

Oh! The horror of it! A bright orange flower greeted me in the midst of happy tomato and carrot plants…

This beauty of a red and orange blossom also had been clearly struggling with the weather.

I had assumed that the very worst case scenario had occurred. Nothing had gone wrong with the plants. I had the same fear the night before, but nothing had gone wrong with the plants. I have assumed that something terrible would happen every night of this weekend. Nothing went wrong with the plants. They are all perfectly fine.

I occasionally have to remind myself of something very basic. I don’t need to go looking for trouble. Theodore Roosevelt was once quoted as saying “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” George Washington is quoted as saying “Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” Jesus clearly taught that we should not worry about tomorrow. Consider this passage from Matthew 6:28b-33: (NRSV)

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I know these statements hold a lot of wisdom. I still catch myself being needlessly worried. Am I really so worried about tomato plants? Why do I choose to live in fear of a summer without tomato sandwiches? Why am I concerned that there won’t be enough tomatoes to sauce and preserve for quick meals when we’re all tired after the baby is born? Why do I choose to live this way? What does that say about my own relationship with God?

I’m clearly not in the same league as those flower blossoms. May God bless me with wisdom as I slow down to enjoy them before their season in the sunshine comes and goes.

Let us Ramble: Apple Blossoms

Today I would like to go back to a book that I have been using as a reference guide while doing my reading for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The following excerpt is from the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun. In particular, this passage is from the section “Practicing the Presence” (pg. 72):

“Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives. Through many small pauses we begin a habit of turning our heart toward God.”

I was “practicing the presence” this afternoon as I was waiting for my kids to get home on the school bus. It has been very cold the last few nights and I have been concerned for the plants that I have planted and tended around the parsonage. In particular, I have been concerned for the apple tree that was so prodigious our first year but suffered from frost damage on the apple blossoms last year. I do not have the resources to properly protect the tree. I pray for the tree. We use what we have…

Anyway, I went up to the tree while waiting and tried to slow down. I had been preparing dinner as a surprise for my wife and had been busy mincing, shaving, and slicing vegetables for dinner. I needed to get to work shortly after the kids got off the bus to have dinner ready in time. I was feeling a false sense of time pressure, so that particular moment was a good moment to slow down.

I stopped and stared at the apple blossoms. The blossoms were absolutely gorgeous. Don’t take my word for it–look at these beautiful blossoms!

As I looked at the blossoms I came to realize something. There were no pollinators at work. The weather was a bit breezy and a bit cold. The blossoms were in bloom, the pollen was ready to be spread, but there were no bees! All of these beautiful blossoms would be out and ready, but no bees were taking advantage of the treasure trove of pollen.

As I looked, slowed down, and sought to find the presence of God I realized something. Our lives are full of opportunities to go deeper in our relationship with God. There are opportunities to explore our faith all around us. We can get to know God better by taking fifteen minutes to pray before starting our day. We can grow in our knowledge of the scriptures by spending time reading through the Psalms before we dig into our lunch each day. We can spend time with a spiritual director or an accountability partner going deeper in our faith. There are so many opportunities to go deeper in our lives.

As I stopped and went into God’s presence I realized those opportunities are like the flowers on an apple tree on a cold day. They are all over the place. A moment or two is all it takes to cover ourselves in God’s presence like pollen covers a bee. As we drink in God’s presence like a bee drinks nectar we spread the blessing of one part of our faith to another. As we come across others that blessing can spread from our lives into theirs. There are so many opportunities if we spread our wings and leave the nests of our own comfort.

I am very glad I took a moment to slow down and seek God’s presence. Hopefully I will be wise enough to continue finding moments where God is present in the midst of the busyness of my days.

Distracted by Panic

via Daily Prompt: Panicked

The phone rings. I greet the caller, answer questions, and look around before hanging up. My office is my world most mornings. My time is filled with notes to send, calls to return, and things to ponder. I look over to the stack of four books, but there are only three. I will have to run home as that book is on my to-do list.

I dash in the door a few minutes later. The dogs are excited. The cat could care less. I am thinking about a ringing phone with a frustrated person wondering why I have not answered the phone. I stumble over my daughter’s jacket. I careen into the kitchen while promising to have a word with her when she gets off the bus.

As I dash through the kitchen I gaze longingly at the coffee maker and the tin of cookies sitting nearby. The tempting tin is waiting for the kids. I filled it with cookies just last night. I bet they would taste great right about now. After all, the tin might be waiting for me. I think of my office phone ringing. I run into my office. I search for the book. I find nothing.

I dash in the kitchen again. I see the book sitting underneath a clean coffee mug. I remember that I left that breakable mug there to remind me to slow down that morning. I’ve been getting too worked up lately. The mug was a reminder to slow down.

I look at the coffee maker. The coffee maker is still warm and ready to brew. I pop in a pod, smell the coffee as it brews, take a sip, breathe deeply, and then I think of the phone. I can practically hear it impatiently ringing.

I rush in the door as the phone rings. I sit at my desk with the still warm coffee in my hands. I greet the caller, answer questions, and look around before hanging up. I breathe deeply, take a sip of the smooth blend, and look at my pile of four books… I remember where I found the mug as I count to three. Well, at least I have a cup of coffee.


Let Us Seek: Holy Moses!

Today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary draw something a bit personal out of me. In particular, I am drawn to ponder the reading from Exodus. I’ve had many images in my mind of Moses over the past few decades of my faith journey. It has been twenty years since I gave my life and my heart over to Jesus. I have spent a significant amount of time since then reading and pondering the scriptures.

Yesterday, while reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, I read about the practice of visualizing what you read in order to reveal your own internal image of God. When I apply this practice to the idea of seeing Moses after twenty years of study, I will admit that it is hard to describe what I see at first glance.

To be clear it isn’t the following image…


I’ve never watched Heston’s portrayal… Sorry film buffs–it has not happened by this point in my life.

To be honest, my vision of Moses has been deeply affected by my sense of humor. I don’t have permission to copy the image, but this is my work computer’s background (We miss your cartoons ReverendFun.com). My honest impression of Moses when I stop to pray is somewhere between these two images. Moses was serious, intense, and challenged continually. I imagine I’d tear my hair out with the stuff he had to deal with, but I also think that Moses had to reach a point of frustration where he’d have to either laugh or cry. I prefer to think of him as laughing.

All of that being said, I honestly believe that I have never stopped to dwell on the idea of Moses as a father. Was he married? Yeah. His Father-in-Law gave him some really great advice, right? I can easily remember that story. He had two sons. Exodus 18 names them as Gershom and Eliezer.

Gershom’s legacy is that his children become priests for the Danites until they are carried off into exile (according to Judges 18). 1 Chronicles 23 says that Eliezer has one son, but that son had a lot of children. The legacy of both children is tied to the tribe of Levi, but what challenges me is not the legacy of Moses’ children, but the very act Moses is called to engage in shortly after today’s reading.

Moses is called at a burning bush and must go to confront Pharaoh. The people are crying out in anguish and Moses is called to go out to do the right thing. Moses has children and following God will mean that Moses will leave his wife and children with his Father-in-Law Jethro. Listening to God’s call will require Moses to walk away, if even for a short while.

I have two children. My two daughters are shining jewels that challenge me to be a better father and provoke me to occasional fits of face-palming. I have another child on the way, which is pretty exciting. Walking away from one’s children is a hard idea for me to swallow, but isn’t that exactly what Jesus confronts several people about when they resist his call? In Matthew 10:37-40, Jesus says: (NRSV)

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

While I am challenged by Moses’ call and his ability to walk away from his children, I must admit that there is something common in the call on Moses’ life and the call on our lives. We are not called to simply live lives that fall in pleasant places. We are not called to lives where we can always call the shots while remaining faithful. There are times when the call of God supercedes our desires and that can be incredibly painful, but pain is not always a bad thing.

I am grateful that this passage reminds me that God is calling us to a lifestyle where things are not always easy. I am grateful that the scriptures do show that Moses is eventually reunited with his children and with his wife. I am grateful that Moses was not left alone in the wilderness but was brought into a place of safety and refuge by Jethro. I am grateful Moses created a family with Zipporah.

My image of Moses may always remain the man pulling out his hair or the young man from the cartoon, but I am glad there was more to Moses than what I see in my image. Maybe as my hair turns silver I can remember Moses’ story and have an explanation as to why Heston’s hair was graying in that old movie.

Let Us Seek: Tastes good, less malicious!

In considering the Revised Common Lectionary readings for May 2nd, I am immediately drawn to the reading from 1 Peter. Indeed, these verses seem almost magnetic after a long week that has devolved (or evolved) into prayer more times than I can count. Whether it is reading an article on Facebook or having newspaper clippings handed to me out of today’s local paper, I have been regularly driven to a place where I have felt a need to lower my head into my hands and pray. As a result, I find this scripture magnetic. 1 Peter 2:1-3 says: (NRSV)

“Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

I find these words have a certain magnetism because they are both incriminating and freeing to me. I find them incriminating in the sense that there is a part of me that wants to be angry and malicious. When friends, neighbors, and colleagues are hurting due to the actions of other individuals and special interest groups, I want to make that pain stop, but my professional avenues to address these issues are limited. This situation is extremely frustrating to me and to many others.

In the midst of these frustrating situations, I hear a voice in these scriptures. Is God good? Yes. Have I experienced the goodness of God? Yes. Which do I long for more–the pure, spiritual milk or vengeance? I long for something better than maliciousness. I hear the voice of God calling and the invitation is to both faith and relinquishment. I am called to have faith in the God I know is good and to let go of my desire for vengeance. It is time to let go of anger, hatred, and frustration. I know there is a part of me which feels frustrated and allows that anger to fester into malice, but with God’s help I can move this place from one of incrimination to one with freedom from my own anger.

Let me try and explain it another way. In our church this past Sunday we read the story of Stephen in Acts 6-7. One of the details that has always slipped my attention is the last thing Stephen does before dying. Stephen asks God to forgive the people who have caused his death. Like Jesus, Stephen decides that it is more important to forgive than to have vengeance. The sense of forgiveness that Stephen exudes and that Jesus modeled reminds me of the promise Paul makes about how the protective peace of God (which surpasses all understanding) when we make our requests known to God with joy (Philippians 4:4-7).

Forgiveness, peace, and trust all seem to dwell in a symbiotic relationship in a life of faith. For me this smorgasbord of faith is at the heart of what Peter is referring to in this passage. God is good and forgiveness, peace, trust, and friends all seem to flow from God’s goodness in a very consistent manner. These gifts are freeing and I feel freed when they take the place of anger in my heart and mind.

Does any of this mean I will advocate for righteousness any less? No. I will continue to advocate but I will also remember to do so without malice. I have tasted and seen that God is good. I will serve God with that truth in my mind partially because of the blessing of today’s scripture. I am thankful for the gift of this scripture.

Let Us Ramble: Differing Loyalties

Today I am working through a book I am reading for The Academy for Spiritual Formation. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I reached the end of a chapter and a difficult question is raised in the “Spiritual Exercises and Reflection” section. The statement which is tripping me up this morning reads: (pg. 32)

“God asked Adam and Eve, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ In a similar way, imagine God asking you, ‘And who told you that who you are is not enough?’ What comes to mind as possible sources of shame in your life?”

This blog is not where I openly reflect on the personal aspects of my journey. My personal thoughts on shame belong in my prayers and in my journal, but there is also a professional side to this question which is echoing through my mind.

I was approached yesterday and asked indirectly if I’d be preaching on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. I tend to go on vacation on those weekends for several reasons. First, they are low attendance weekends and I like to celebrate with my extended family. For the last few years I’ve been invited to go on trips with my father and his wife during the Fourth of July weekend in particular. As a consequence of the 24/7 nature of my position and the busyness of my father those weekends were the only weekends I saw my father over the past few years, so I definitely took advantage of a chance to spend time with my father while he is still around and we’re both in good health. I believe that it is better to spend time now than to regret spending too little time later in life.

Second I struggle with the very nature of balancing my dual-citizenship. On earth, I am a resident of the United States who enjoys citizenship. In heaven, I am a citizen of God’s kingdom through the love of Jesus. The one citizenship is temporal and fleeting and the other is permanent and eternal. Meaning no disrespect to the country of my birth, I have made vows to serve my permanent nation and thus sometimes find the disconnection between the two disconcerting.

A great example of what I mean falls today. Today has been proclaimed Loyalty Day by the President of the United States. One sentence of the proclamation reads “The loyalty of our citizenry sends a clear signal to our allies and enemies that the United States will never yield from our way of life.” Why does this bother me? Jesus taught that we should live with a humility that requires an ability to be able to follow the Spirit even when it leads to strange places.

What would the church be like if Peter had said “I understand you want me to eat these things you have called unclean, but I am loyal to my Jewish heritage. I will never yield from my way of life.” What would the church be like if the lack of yielding led to the exclusion of the Gentiles? Even laying that aside, what would our nation look like if our loyalty led to an inability to look squarely at issues like slavery or Women’s Suffrage? The church sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, but was definitely involved in those conversations. Loyalty is admirable, but where do our loyalties truly rest as Christians? Do we never change our way of life even as that way of life hurts our neighbors and destroys the land our neighbors called home before my ancestors even left Europe? Where does my loyalty lie?

Consider for a moment that this is also International Workers’ Day. This celebration was placed on this date to honor both the old tradition of May Day and due to the proximity to a bombing which took place in Chicago called the Haymarket Massacre in 1886. The workers had been striking for an 8 hour work day so that they would have time to do simple things like care for families, participate in society, and not simply exist as a work force. Today this day is generally downplayed in the United States, but as a minister of the Gospel I am aware of how much blood, sweat, and tears were shed by my sisters and brothers over the centuries to help care for folks who were orphaned, widowed, or disabled by poor work conditions. Clergy have advocated, provided care, and reached out to people in need on this day.

So, which do I celebrate today? Do I celebrate how I should be loyal to a temporal nation or focus on a movement my sisters and brothers fought to bring into the light? Would you want that choice?

I’ll always celebrate Memorial Day as I recognize that many sisters and brothers paid the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to live out their faith. I understand they weren’t perfect, but I can happily celebrate Memorial Day. I simply wish people would understand why ministers struggle with their dual-citizenship. Most of us in denominational settings have vows to keep and we must always tread gently.