Let us Ramble: Tall Curbs and God

The other day I sat in a Dunkin Donuts outside Syracuse looking out the window. I was in the city for Annual Conference and was beginning the day with a cup of coffee before heading to the OnCenter for the day’s events. I noticed a table outside the window. It was a beautiful table in a very pragmatic sense. It had three benches and a fourth side open for a wheelchair for folks with accessibility needs. I was really excited to see the table!

accessible-table.jpg

The table in question…

Unfortunately, the table was in the middle of a grassy section surrounded by a mulched landscaping filled with shrubs and over an 8” curb. The only section without mulch was in the middle of a very busy driveway with very fast traffic, For anyone with a wheelchair to get to the table it would require either a very capable individual or a significant amount of help. It made me shake my head. I am assuming that the person who purchased this table had wonderful intentions, but that those intentions were blocked by poor planning. I imagined it would drive me nuts if I wanted to sit there on a nice and sunny day but could not make my way to the table.

I was reminded of this moment in the past two weeks while reading through a book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr when the following quote came to my attention: (pg. 12)

“On some days we struggle to feel anything—certainly not some magnetic mystery tugging us toward intimacy. The most important question is, are we accessible? Can God get in? Or, is our need for certainty so overpowering that it become a prison walling out even the divine? Whatever our inclination, God is always calling us beyond what we can see with the naked eye.”

Reading these words on the nature of approaching the scriptures reminded me of that table outside Dunkin Donuts. I want God to be active in my life. I want to hear the Word ringing throughout my heart and my soul, but let’s be honest. The Word of God is not always a safe word. As Hebrews 4:12 says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Sister Wiederkehr even points out: (11)

“The Hebrew people believed that one could not see the face of God and live…When I am confronted by God’s Word, I am sometimes able to recognize that some change is needed in my life. Ordinarily I name this piece of growth, transformation. Of Course, the other side of transformation is that until I am able to integrate the change into my life, with a certain acceptance it feels more like death.”

I want God to be in my life but the Word of God is a dangerous word that can transform my life in ways that I cannot always anticipate. As much as I love Micah 6:8, sometimes it softens the reality of the spiritual life. I can often convince myself that I can enact justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God in ways that are comfortable for my soul. The Word of God sometimes calls me to a humility that can be difficult to bear. Enacting justice sometimes means letting go of my own privilege and that is neither easy nor comfortable.

So, am I accessible to God’s movement in my life? Have I grown beautiful shrubs that are less ornamental hedgerows around my heart and effectively more like a maze or labyrinth? Have I created places where God’s word can easily reach my core or do I have the tallest of curbs creating a subtle barrier? Am I willing to allow God into my heart and soul if God might bring discomfort, challenge, or even death to some bogarted piece of my soul or being that I would keep from God?

These are difficult questions for me to answer, but I believe that they are questions all Christians must be willing to consider. Do we love God enough to ask these kinds of tough questions? Here are a few questions I could have asked myself in years past (which I personally struggled with for many years and still have my moments of struggle—I imagine you have your own difficult questions):

  • God created both my wife and me. We were blessed into a partnership in this life together. We are compatriots and companions on this journey through life. Culturally, the world does not always agree with that viewpoint. Does my place in the family as the father mean that I have some kind of special privilege when it comes to who changes the baby when the diaper is dirty in a restaurant? Am I willing to support restaurants with changing tables in one bathroom and not another?
  • Does my view of human sexuality keep me from sharing God’s love with someone because they disagree with me? Does my comfortable place of inclusion within my culture keep me from asking tough questions about how my view affects others?
  • I tend to see God’s love in my life as a source of blessing which sometimes spills into the physical world. Is it right to get angry at a member of the Seneca Nation because they would like restitution for events of the past? Is it right to get upset because my father [owned] a piece of property within disputed territory? As a person who is a member of the most affluent ethnicity within one of the most affluent nations in the world, can I ethically believe that I know what a member of the Seneca nation believes or feels?
  • God created the earth in wonderful ways! It is full of good creatures and good people. So, where’d that meat come from in that cheeseburger I just ate? Did the hen who laid the eggs I ate for breakfast ever experience an open field? Who grew and picked the coffee beans that I used to brew my coffee? Did they have the capacity to eat as well as I did this morning?
  • God created the world and the people who live upon it. God has created and blessed the people who comprise many nations. Can I truly believe an America first view of the world when we’re just living here? If we’re theologically tenants and temporally just passing through, is that kind of viewpoint just, fair, or righteous?

The Word of God is sharp! It can lead to very difficult places when we allow it into our hearts. So, is my heart accessible or not? Do I want that kind of accessibility when it could change who I am in a heartbeat? If I say that i do, what am I willing to put before God to make that a reality? Will I look on God if it might mean personal sacrifice?

Let us be Ramble: Poetry in a Jumble

Hello from the land between one space and another. Last week I finished up the last of the Annual Meetings for the two halves of my church charge. Next week we are welcoming a new Administrative Assistant into our church office. I have been without an assistant (during the day) for four months and things have been a little chaotic around the office.

This is the land between one moment and another. Exacerbating this time between moments is the fact that our preschool program is off on a field trip this morning. This church is a very quiet place today. I am taking advantage of the quiet to sit in our future assistant’s office to work and pray today. I am trying to imbue the room with prayer in an attempt to be a blessing to our new assistant.

A few minutes ago I was sitting in the quiet and reading through my next book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I began to enter into the next book on my list which is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. In many ways, this book is very different than the last book that I read for the academy. This book is focused on entering into the text and helping readers to grow deeper in their own time in scripture. There is less exposition and more reflection. Regardless, here is what Sister Wiederkehr writes on the very nature of entering into a quest for the word of God: (pg. 8)

“It is not easy to find the Word of God in the midst of a jumble of words. The secret is connection. A community of words connects with each other and somehow in that connection we discern God’s Word for us. Praying with the white space between the words, sentences, and paragraphs is also important. The artist in us needs white space—our place of waiting, listening, and being. White space is the womb and the tomb in which we abide. We will experience birth, life, and death there, as we keep vigil with the Word of God”

As I reflected on these words in this empty space a few things stuck out to me revolving around the white space and the connections between words through spaces. This paragraph was incredibly effective at drawing things out of my depths.

The first place this paragraph took me was into the present. I am sitting in a church office which is unoccupied by an assistant at the moment. My wife has been assisting before and after her work, but in general, this office has been empty. It is a white space. Melissa sat in this place and blessed this community. Bonnie sat in this place and blessed this community. My wife has sat in this place in a different way in an attempt to make space for the person who would follow her.

Soon our new assistant will begin her own ministry of blessing from this place. She will do things differently. She’ll connect to some traditions out of Bonnie’s methods and some tradition’s out of Melissa’s methods. She’ll create her own traditions and methods. Soon this place will begin to be reshaped by her presence in our midst. In the meantime, this sacred space is empty, quiet, and waiting in stillness. This is a holy moment—this is “the womb and the tomb” where a new ministry will be born, live, and someday conclude. Hopefully that conclusion will be many years and many blessings from now. This is a sacred white space.

The second place this paragraph took me to in my reflection was to Annual Conference. The entire idea behind Annual Conference is supposed to be “holy conferencing.” Somewhere in the midst of all of the debate, motions, and rules of order there is supposed to be a place where the Holy Spirit works, moves, and expresses itself through the people gathered together in prayer and discernment.

This paragraph reminded me of Annual Conference because of the sacred white spaces. I recall Cathy Hall Stengel standing up in conference this year asking the bishop where there was space for people not on two sides of a particular issue to express their voices. She called for white space. I recall JJ Warren standing up and expressing his call to ordained ministry when the doors had been closed on him due to his sexuality and requesting room to respond to God’s inevitable and unavoidable call on his soul. He was requesting that creative white space be made for the Holy Spirit to call the people God was calling into ministry.

I recall many moments where there was a need for creativity, grace, and kindness. Places were required for life to be born, live, and conclude through the power of the Holy Spirit. There needed to be white spaces before all became an unending cacophony of noise without rest, meter, or even tonal structure.

These thoughts came out as I pondered this selection, but I also found myself drawn to the concept of the connection of words. If everyone carries a bit of God’s image within them, then there is a bit of God’s creative word in all of the people we see. Sister Wiederkehr wrote (pg. 9) that “Every person you encounter during the hours of your day is a word that God has spoken into the world. You too are one of God’s spoken words. And now God speaks through you.” We are connected to each other through the very fact that we are part of the poetry God is writing in this moment.

My brother in Christ Kevin Nelson from Schenectady First United Methodist Church shared the African concept of “ubuntu” on the floor of Conference last week. He translated it roughly as “I am who I am because of who we are.” In my mind, his view of connectedness draws from this idea from Sister Wiederkehr nicely. We are who we are because of the voice of God spoken into each person at the table.

Why do we seek justice? The people we seek to help each carry a bit of God’s poetic word in our midst. Why do we seek love, mercy, and grace? The people who need these things (including ourselves) are all bearers of God’s creative word. Why do we comb through the scriptures listening, abiding, and trusting in God’s encompassing love? We do these things because who we are as a people has called us into a poetic dialogue with scripture. The words on the page, the words in our lives, and the white spaces between connect to create something beautiful.

Is this easy? No! In retrospect, the very first sentence of the quote I referenced above has proven foundational in all of the places where Sister Wiederkehr’s words led me to reflect today. It is definitely not easy to find the word of God in the midst of the jumble of words we come across in life. Even discounting the carriers of God’s words who like to honk car horns, cut people off, and act less than kindly, the words in the Bible itself can be jumbled, confused, and distracting.

As I do enter into the word myself this day, I will do so realizing the challenge within me. Following Sister Wiederkehr’s advice, I will wait for God, read God’s word, spend time listening to what was written with an obedient heart, pray through where God is leading me, and finally abide in the midst of the jumble. With God’s blessing the word of God expressed in my life will join in the dance of poetry found within the scriptures. Together it is my prayer that I will join in the great proclamation of God’s love and compassion.

Let us be Grateful: “God’s Unconditional Love”

Today I finished the first book of four that I need to read before the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am grateful that I have finished reading the book as it was a very deep book. At times it felt as if the book was so densely packed that I would collapse under the weight of the ideas.

I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au presented a book which looked at shame from a lot of different directions. They wrote at length about the internal and external sources of shame. They provided exercises to enter deeply the ideas they were sharing and provided examples of what some of those exercises might look like when put into practices.

This book was a great book. I am grateful that I had a chance to read through the book and am equally pleased that one of the author’s will be one of my instructors at the upcoming session of the Academy. I look forward to going into the concepts explored in the book with the author.

I would invite you to pick up a good book if you have not taken the time to read something that challenged you to go deeper into your passion in a while. A lot of people I know find a million and one excuses to not read including the bane of free time known as the internet. I invite you to slow down and find a good book. I invite you to try this book out for size. If you aren’t into that subject, I will tell you the next book on my hitlist is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr.

Let us be Grateful: Annual Conference Gratitude

So, if it isn’t clear, yet I am posting about something I am grateful on a regular basis through the month of June. I ordinarily don’t post on Saturdays, but as I am already at Annual Conference. I might as well take the time to try and be a blessing by pointing out where I have seen God over the past few days.

  • A bold speech by a young man named JJ Warren about his struggles with the church. He was bold and powerful in his words. He spoke from the heart and I was glad he was my brother in Christ. I look forward to the day when his cry for justice comes to fruition.
  • A bold correction from a seminarian who would not allow one viewpoint to stand as the only view which could be considered the “traditional” interpretation. She took her tuition money and put it into good use!
  • A powerful moment where I talked with someone on the other side of an issue. We refused to allow our differences to make us anything less than brothers in Christ.
  • Watching a young man named Ian use his voice with power and skill.
  • Connecting with a very intelligent man named Kevin. Sara is a blessed woman.
  • Watching people receive permission to make speeches that were neither for nor against on the floor of conference in a challenging moment. It was good to see people have a place to speak where there is often only stifling opposition.
  • Celebrating the life of my best friend in ministry on Thursday night. Celebrating the continuation of life with 9 other folks over Indian on Friday night.
  • I had someone who I used to pastor and now work with as a colleague ask if I’d be their spiritual director.
  • Celebrating the commissioning of a good friend this afternoon. I know it hasn’t happened yet, but I am still incredibly excited already.
  • Going to the Cokesbury table and walking away without buying anything. To be fair, there wasn’t a ton available on spiritual practices and that’s what I am really interested in at the moment. Mostly just curriculum, Bibles, and kitsch.
  • Realizing that I’ll have a new child in my arms at the next Annual Conference. That is pretty awesome.
  • The moment I realized that the best response to someone scowling at me for wearing the rainbow stole I bought for my wife was to smile with my warmest smile. I gave them the one I reserve for my kids, my wife, puppies, and babies.
  • The stories at the worship service led by Young People. “Jesus doesn’t call us to be comfortable!” “I feel valuable:..” “We can set the example for the rest of the church.”
  • The mom of a kid who is crawling around near me. I told her that we were expecting a kid after such a long time as just parents of kids who talk, walk, read, and so forth. She told me she had kids the same age as mine and that life will be fun and that it will be okay.

Let us Ramble: Peace, my friends

In the mid 2000’s I was reentering the United Methodist Church. I wanted to be a delegate to the Western New York Annual Conference. I was told by my pastor that we already had a delegate and I did not know about Equalization Members. I still went as a guest (out of pocket) and sat with our Associate Pastor who had to be present, but was a member of another Annual Conference. We laughed about our mutual feeling of uselessness. I was still at the table. We talked about human sexuality. I prayed a lot because I had neither voice nor vote. I prayed and felt helpless in light of a people who each sought God’s will in their own way.

In 2017, I was an elder. I really wanted the vote to go my way. I was bent over in prayer while everyone else was praying. I prayed and felt helpless in light of a people who each sought God’s will in their own way, including me.The vote didn’t go my way. I sighed, looked up, and smiled at the guy in front of me. He was on the opposite side. We had nothing in common but for the fact that we were both bowing down in prayer while everyone else stood and sung.

We talked about my kids. We talked about their squabbling. We talked about their love for each other when anyone else said or did anything to hurt their sister. We talked about how families fight like nobody else, but they are still family. We walked away as friends. No, we walked away as family. I told him the names of my children and he smiled. He will be praying for them. He will be praying for me. I will be praying for him.

Today is today. Tomorrow the sun will rise. Fear not. We are still family.

Let us be Grateful: The Epiphany at Denny’s

Two words are circling through my mind this morning. I am thinking about connectedness and gratitude. I was (and still am) sitting in a Denny’s with a hot cup of coffee thinking about Annual Conference when my server came up to my table. She’s been the ideal server. She substituted a cup of yogurt for my fruit because I am allergic to melon, has made certain that my cup of coffee is full, and has not called me “Hon” once (pet-peeve of mine—I am my wife’s hon and her’s alone).

I was thinking about the people I saw yesterday and smiled at this nice server. She walked away but stopped. I looked up and I saw her rubbing the back of her neck with the look of someone who has worked too many hours in a row. I wondered how long she’d been standing in those black shoes and hoped they were comfortable. She was standing with that slight tilt related to back pain that my physical therapist has scolded me about in the past. I was moved to pray for this nice person.

She reminded me about the reading I was doing for the Academy for Spiritual Formation yesterday. I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” It is a good book by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I was telling Polly at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School table that the spiritual density of this book caused me twice as many headaches as the books her faculty had assigned me to read in seminary. The density that led to distraction yesterday was the following quote about the story of the Bent-Over Woman in Luke 13:10-13: (pg. 103)

“This woman symbolizes all of us, both men and women, when we feel unable to stand tall and face life head-on. Some of us are crippled by shame, the dreadful feeling that we are defective and unworthy of love. Some are handicapped by emotional wounds from childhood. And some are diminished by the oppression of prejudice and discrimination, and unjustly denied equal access to educational and work opportunities. The burdens of life can at time be so heavy that it is not difficult to identify with this bent-over woman.

Jesus’ awareness of this crippled woman’s hardship and his care for her is a story of consolation. Made whole by Jesus, she becomes a symbol of hope, reminding us that the risen Jesus responds to our suffering in the same compassionate way.”

I can see where the authors are coming from when they think about this story. If you don’t remember the original story, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a woman who had been struggling with what the scriptures called a “crippling spirit” for 18 years came into view. He was busy teaching in that synagogue but compassion overrode his busyness. Jesus was pulled by his compassion into action. He spoke, he healed, and she was finally free.

I am reminded of the fact that not everyone is bent over, but we’re all in the same boat when it comes to needing to know a compassionate and loving Jesus. The authors state this clearly when they say that we are all in need of a consoling and compassionate Christ.

I was reminded of this strongly by yesterday’s Annual Conference session. I was reminded of this in my life while sitting alone at lunch missing my own family who stayed home to be in school this year and the best friend who never let me sit alone in all of our years together at Annual Conference. I was reminded of this as I sat with my friend’s widow and our mutual friend Harold at the Memorial Dinner. I was reminded of this when the Bishop unexpectedly sat down at our table for dinner but was so busy running in and out with Conference business that I asked a District Superintendent if he knew any way that we could guilt him into sitting still and eating dinner as an act of self-care. I was reminded of this when I saw old friends from across the connection who were excited to reconnect with me as a part of their past and as a part of their future. I was reminded of this when I talked with someone who was a new minister last year and was wondering about the challenges of the ordination process ahead of him. There are so many places where I saw people in need of this compassionate love of Jesus. I see the reasons that this story of a consoling Jesus gives hope because we are a people continually in need of hope.

I am reminded of this compassion as Annual Conference begins today. I am reminded how everyone we stand across from on any issue or debate is still a sister or brother in God. I am reminded of the connectedness that we all share in our need to know a compassionate God and to share that compassion with both each other and with all of our neighbors. We are all interconnected in our love and in our need to be a people following the compassionate Christ. This is good news and I am grateful to be connected with my sisters and brothers as we begin another day together.

Worship begins in an hour, my coffee cup is empty, and I have a good tip to leave for my server. See you all in session!

Today’s post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers at Annual Conference and to one awesome server who is currently waiting on 60 Amish folks from a tour bus. God bless her…

Let us be Grateful: The Compassionate Christ

Today I spent some time reading at a coffee shop before Annual Conference began. I knew that it was going to be a long day, but I am less than 2 months from the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I want to make some progress even on days like today.

I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au wrote that caught my attention today. This passage speaks of the work of Ignatius of Loyola: (pg. 91)

“Ignatius invites us to imagine the three persons of the Trinity hovering over the earth, witnessing the sufferings of humanity—people of diverse races and cultures, of various sizes and life situations, all struggling and seemingly lost. The sight of human suffering moves the three persons of the Trinity with compassion, and they decide that one of them should become human so that this divine compassion could be perceived and felt by humans. So they decide the second person, the eternal Word, should become human; thus ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14)—or, in the poetic language of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the Word ‘Pitched his tent among us’ (eskenosen)”

I agree with the authors that this approach to the incarnation story is powerfully conceived. I also believe that this passage does an excellent job at pointing towards one of the most powerful truths about the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus is the incarnation of compassion in a way that is both thoroughly and deeply powerful.

I am grateful for the idea that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was an act of compassion. Here are three places that I saw the incarnational Jesus share compassion through the hands and feet of God’s people:

  1. I saw a colleague and friend bravely call on the Bishop to use more inclusive language when he asked the people to stand for a vote. There were people who could not stand and her compassion and courage in the situation raised the issue which culminated in change.
  2. I saw my wife drive up with the girls all the way from Binghamton for the express purpose of supporting our friend Kristin and honoring her husband Michael during the Memorial Service. She connected her feet with her compassion. It was beautiful.
  3. A colleague and friend saw me deep in grief as I sat down in opening worship with neither my best friend nor my family and came over to give me a hug when I really needed it. Compassion incarnate.

Let us Ramble: Brief Reflections on Opening Sermon

Brief reflections on the Bishop’s opening sermon…

First, I agree that the why of ministry should not change often. What we do in the church must always be in flux. How we do ministry must always be in flux. The why should be stable, but I sincerly doubt it will never change. The first century Christians altered the world because a prophet came claiming to be Son of God. The why of ministry changed in that time. The words of the Great Mystery tells us that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” The why is guaranteed to change and if we say this is the only why God will ever supply then we may miss out on the truth and movement of the Spirit. If Jesus’ mission was the end of the story, the Gentiles would still be on the outside. The Spirit may still move!

Second, James would probably have issues with focusing only on prayer. What good is it to say “Go, be warm, and eat!” when that person laxks a place to go, no warm coat, and no food? James invited the early church to always hold prayer and blessing in a partnership with action.