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

Amen”

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.