Let us Ramble: “The Natural World”

Okay, so today I wanted to put out a blog post that addressed something I hinted at in yesterday’s post. This is more educational than pastoral. Teaching is a part of the role of a pastor in the United Methodist Church, especially in times of crisis. Yesterday I wrote about fear. Today I write about applying faith to action.

Our world stands at a precipice. We have rushed up to the edge of a cliff and are looking off the edge. There is a need for wisdom and discernment in the world. A voice needs to cry out with wisdom! In a world with a thousand and one opinions for every person, there should be some place we can turn when things are out of sorts to find a consensus of wise minds. Yes, the Bible is one such place to find guidance, but nuclear weapons are not mentioned by name in the scripture.

Thankfully, the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing every four years. While I am not always a fan of everything that comes out of General Conference, there is one resource that I believe best expresses the heart of what good holy conferencing can create. Unfortunately, not many United Methodists read the words of our Book of Resolutions. The Book of Resolutions are non-binding on people within the church and as such are free to express our most passionate ideals while not forcing churches in wildly different circumstances to engage in the same behaviors.

Here’s what the 2016 Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (¶160.1) says about “The Natural World:” (my underlines)

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. Economic, political, social, and technological developments have increased our human numbers, and lengthened and enriched our lives. However, these developments have led to regional defoliation, dramatic extinction of species, massive human suffering, overpopulation, and misuse and overconsumption of nature and nonrenewable resources, particularly by industrialized societies. This continued course of action jeopardizes the natural heritage that God has entrusted to all generations. Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.

As United Methodists have gathered in Holy Conferencing, we have come to the conclusion as a global body that there are some things we believe about the world around us. We believe that this world is a world that is entrusted to us but does not exist entirely for us. Our planet has a natural heritage this planet possesses that abuses have caused us to damage and debilitate in some cases. Plants, creatures, and the earth itself all consist parts of God’s creation. We are called to care for this earth as caretakers and stewards.

While there are people who still argue about and around climate change, the vast majority of people understand that the deployment of nuclear weapons would be a damaging act that would do a massive amount of harm to the earth, the plants, the biosphere, and the creatures including humans. United Methodists believe that the way we treat the world can jeopardize the natural heritage entrusted to all people and all who live upon and in the world itself. As a people, we cannot abide the concept of nuclear war and the ramifications it has on human and natural life. We have the technology and we have the ability to develop non-technological responses (e.g. diplomacy, sanctions, isolation) to deal with tyranny without resorting to nuclear exchanges.

The suffering which would take place as the result of a nuclear exchange would be massive. As people of faith, there are many things we can do. We can pray for our leaders and for other world leaders. We can study peace-making and begin to create a culture of peace-making that can influence challenges like these in the future. We can also write or call our representatives in this earthly nation and ask them to express displeasure (and abject horror) to other leaders in the world about the possibility of a nuclear exchange.

Regardless of feelings of helplessness, questions of efficacy, or doubts about our own abilities, it is the obligation of stewards to care for creation. We are stewards of creation and we have an obligation to seek a way forward which will care for creation in the face of nuclear annihilation. To do anything less would be an abdication of our responsibility as caretakers of a planet that has given us all of the great elements that provide us life.

A Collect for these days: “Holy God, You are the One who stitched this world together. Knit together Your caretakers in action, deed, and love through your Holy Spirit so that we may work together to keep this world from being torn asunder through the most brutal and violent of forces. We pray these things through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Let us Seek: Do not be alarmed!

I was out in the world this morning. Cold or no cold, there are some appointments that cannot be put off. I had an appointment with a specialist that I had scheduled weeks in advance. I went to my appointment on cold medicine, advised everyone I was in contact with to wash their hands, and we made the best of things.

My appointment today was for a simple non-invasive type of treatment which took a few minutes. The doctor and I sat alone talking while she was going about her work. We began to talk and things went to deep matters in a few moments. I was not surprised. People often open up to me–I do not advertise that I am a minister, but I always seek to be polite and courteous. It can be amazing how quickly people come to trust you when you always say “please,” “thank you,” and tell them that you are grateful for what they are doing for you. I also believe that most people just want someone to listen.

She started talking about what she had heard in the news. She was afraid of what was happening in the world. She talked about intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and the idea that someplace as nearby as Washington could be struck, although she did not rule out New York City. As medicated as I was at the time, I wondered aloud about the fact that people feared nuclear attacks on the Hoover Dam and the dam at Niagara Falls during the Cold War. We talked about how frightening things are, how strange everything seemed, and she wondered what she would do if a war broke out. She was frightened. I commiserated, listened, spoke very little, and prayed for her fears in my heart.

The conversation reminded me of a passage in Matthew about the end times. Discussions of nuclear winter, nuclear fallout, and global conflict often remind me of the passage found in the twenty fourth chapter. Matthew’s gospel reads in verses three through fourteen: (Common English Bible)

“Now while Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.’

 

Jesus replied, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the Christ.’ They will deceive many people. You will hear about wars and reports of wars. Don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be famines and earthquakes in all sorts of places. But all these things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end. They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name. At that time many will fall away. They will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because disobedience will expand, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations. Then the end will come.’”

I first came to know this passage well through the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. In that translation verse six says “…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed…” These verses have all taken a vital place in my lived theology within this world of global information and easily spread global panic, but verse six has always rung out the loudest in my mind. As I lay on the table, I could almost hear a palpable voice repeating in my heart “you will hear wars and rumors of wars…” alternating with “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” 

My doctor was afraid this morning. I chose not to be fearful, but to be compassionate. What is the good news? In this context, I believe it can be best expressed earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. In verses twelve through fourteen in chapter eighteen, Jesus tells a parable: (CEB)

“What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one who wandered off? If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.”

I invite you to think about the promise which inherently sits within this parable. My doctor, like many individuals, has an uncertainty about the future. The world seems to be less than the ideal many of us were taught as children. Most of us lose a sense of the innocence of childhood as we grow into the world, and I personally believe that there’s a correlation between this loss of innocence and the traditional drop in church attendance that tends to happen at around the same time. Losing our innocence hurts.and events like those depicted in the news can send us back into our grief over our loss even if it has been decades since we first realized the world is broken. The world can seem to be a confusing place and our fear can isolate us.

Into those moments of fear, there is an ancient promise embodied in the person of Jesus. God does not want to lose one of those little ones. God cares about the lost sheep of the world. Even when it seems that the world does not care one bit for our fears, God does care and will walk through the valley of darkness to lead us all home. There is space for us at the table, there is space in the flock, and there is deep grace despite our fears for all people. God has come near, God has shown compassion, and eternal life will come to those who follow the Shepherd. As Matthew records in the twenty ninth verse of chapter nineteen, “…all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.

Friends, be at peace. God does not give as the world gives. Know that the path of a Christian is not an easy path, but there is a place of peace that awaits the end of our journey. Go! Be a blessing in a world of fear! Fight for justice and grace! Share the Good News! Walk with the lost sheep! Please, be compassionate

Let us Look: Jesus is Condemned

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.

While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.

I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”

It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.

Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.

Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.

Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.

I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?

Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.

So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.

“Jesus is Condemned to Death” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.

Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.

As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?

As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?

Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.

How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.

If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.

Let us Ramble: On Commitment

There is something foul afoot in the Dean household. My family was in the Olean and Buffalo areas this past weekend visiting with relatives. Every single one of them had a cold yesterday. Yesterday was a foul day full of a lot of phlegmy sounds.

When everyone had settled into bed for the night I drove into town to pick up supplies. Liquids, liquids, and more liquids. We also had begun to run low on that most effective of medicines. We were low on chicken broth. With three folks fighting colds and a father who has to keep his body healthy to resist the plague, chicken broth is a powerful thing to have around.

As I drove into town I thought about the evening that had almost taken place. I was supposed to go into town to play a tabletop game with a colleague and his friends. There were invitations for my family to enjoy a nice lasagna with my colleague’s family. As a very isolated introvert, it is the kind of event that is really healthy for me. When my family became ill, those plans had to be put aside. My family needed me. I drove and thought over the night’s events that could have been while remembering what had taken place in our kitchen while a chorus of coughs serenaded me from the next room.

Earlier in the day I set to work to make kluski noodles. When I was young, a hot bowl of wonton soup was my favorite cold remedy. Often, I wouldn’t even eat the wontons. I would just drink down the hot broth with gusto. As I grew older, I went to college where I learned that the Chinese restaurants in the vicinity were not up to par. Their broth was way too watery and the wontons were generally nothing to write home about. I was frustrated, looked for alternatives, and found kluski noodle soup at the store. The soup was really fragrant, the noodles were small enough to enjoy without scratching things up on the way down, and this was a great alternative to the wonton soup of my childhood.

I brought forward my love of this soup into my marriage. It was quite a sight when my wife and I would get sick My wife felt better when wrapped in her grandfather’s old robe. I only felt better when I had plenty of broth to drink. She’d wrap up and watch me sip cup after cup of broth. We both felt better, which was the goal. As the parent of two daughters, my plan has continued to work while the three of them fight over one bathrobe. You can always make more soup for more bowls.

So, I set about the task of making kluski noodles for soup. I asked for recommendations, received a wonderful recipe from my mother-in-law which her mother used to cook, and set to work. I measured, I sifted, I mixed, I realized I made a mistake, I corrected, mixed some more, and rolled them out before attacking with a pizza cutter. Here’s what they looked like when all rolled and cut.

Kluski noodles!

Not exactly uniform, but uniform isn’t the rule of the day when you’re making homemade soup. I set about making the broth. I was out of bone broth, so I used some dried chicken soup base and set out into the garden with a pair or scissors to attack the lemon thyme, sage, and parsley plants. Along with some ground peppercorns, a dash of garlic powder, and a leaf off of my bay tree, the soup base was ready to simmer for a few hours to mix flavors and fill the house with the smell of health.

I did not always know how to cook. While I am almost certain most people who have eaten in my kitchen would find it odd to believe, especially when I am feeling particularly miserable and tell people my fantasy of running away to become a cook in an isolated diner in someplace quiet like Maine or North Dakota. I actually was a horrible cook when my wife married me.

I learned to cook in seminary while my wife was working to make sure we had those niceties which do not come easily when you are getting an education on student loans. Due to my wife’s working with the developmentally disabled we had things like food, soap, and deodorant. I still believe that my classmates adored my wife for that last blessing alone.

I started simple with things like grilled cheese, which I had already learned to cook in home economics in school. I flipped the sandwiches way too often, didn’t use my nose to smell, had little experience, and burned the living daylights out of a lot of them at first. I practiced and I learned. Highlights of my first year of cooking:

  • I learned it is harder to burn things in a crockpot. Harder does not mean impossible.
  • I somehow made split pea and ham soup with neither split peas or ham!
  • I learned that Campbell’s soup is good in a pinch, but not sufficient alone to help a hungry Kayti make it through a shift at work.
  • I learned that I had an affinity for cooking eggs. We understood each other and my wife started calling me her “King of Eggs.” I still find that to be one of the nicest things anyone has ever called me.

I practiced, practiced, and practiced. When my wife became pregnant I began to practice cooking with the things she was craving, usually with mixed results. When my child came along, I began to look into soft foods like porridge. I began to steam things, sauté, and “unfortunately” finally left the seminary and became appointed to a place where cable was a part of our housing package. In other words, I was finally exposed to the Food Network where I became obsessed with people like Alton Brown. We still get the Food Network magazine years after telling our beloved parsonage committees that they do not need to pay for cable as it is neither helpful nor desirable in a house with small kids. I like my advertisements like I like my clickbait–easily ignorable in a sidebar, not blasting in my face decibels louder than a television program every three minutes.

In time I began to see cooking as more than a hobby. Cooking was a way I could bless the people around me, including my family. If you’re looking for me around 3:30 PM on an afternoon, the place to look for me is generally at the parsonage. If you come around 4:00 PM, you may even get an invitation to dinner if it is stretchable. I cook dinner almost every night because it is one way I live out my commitment to my wife “for better or worse.” The same love and commitment fuels me as a parent as I continue to push back against my youngest daughter’s whims against “weird” vegetables like pepper and strange food like “fish.” I have been given a gift, but that gift is not for me alone. In a paraphrase of the words of the Abrahamic blessing, God has said “I will bless you so that you may be a blessing to others.”

In continuing the story of the soup, I added some frozen turkey bits from a previously roasted turkey, some carrots, and yellow pepper to the broth about half an hour before my wife was going to be home. Normally I wouldn’t have added them so early, but let’s be clear here–sick people do not love crunchy vegetables. Softer carrots and softer peppers are good for the throat, especially as the pepper oils spread into the broth and slowly condition my youngest child to like the taste of peppers–I will win the pepper-war eventually. When my wife walked in the door, the slightly dried noodles were tossed in the pot. In a few minutes (far less time required than when cooking dried noodles), the soup was ladled out to salivating kids. A prayer, a blessing, and sore throats began to enjoy.

Yummy soup

My kids claimed it was the most delicious soup they’d ever eaten. My wife said it was really good. To be honest, it was pretty good. I drank a couple extra ladles of broth to make sure my body would stay nice and healthy.

As I collected my groceries and returned home, I thought about all of these things. I thought about the game that I had missed and the fellowship over lasagna that could have been mine that evening. I reflected and gave thanks that a perfect day had not occurred, but that my commitment to learning, practicing, and caring had allowed me to bring blessing into my sick family. Commitment is not always about the large things in life. Commitment is often lived out in the little things, like learning to plant herbs and use them to make a good cup of soup.

Rob’s “Kluski” Noodle Soup (makes… a lot of brothy soup that is easy on bellies and throats)

  • 1 gallon Chicken Soup Base (or skimmed poultry bone broth)
  • 2 cups of previously roasted turkey (small bits–I imagine any poultry would do, but I would recommend something chunky, not sliced. My wife would say to buy a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store and chop it up. I would tell you to reserve the bones and skin to make bone broth later, especially if people might be sick for a couple of days. Yes, I know that’s a beef bone broth recipe, but just substitute chicken. It works, I promise.)
  • 1 cup of sliced carrots
  • 1 yellow pepper, diced
  • 1 dash garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground pepper
  • Noodles!
    • 2 cups flour, sifted
    • ½ teaspoon salt (shh–I used the “No-Salt” my dad left behind to cut down on the sodium)
    • 2 Eggs
    • 2 half-eggshells of water (old recipe indeed)
  • 1 Bouquet Garni (tie together with enough string to tie it to the handle of pot so that you can remove it easily)
    • 5 sprigs (3 inches) of Lemon Thyme
    • 2 sprigs parsley with stems (3 inches)
    • 1 sprig sage (3 inches)
    • 1 bay leaf

First, make the noodles. On a clean surface, like a large rolling board or a silicone rolling mat, sift the flour and salt together. Make a well in the flour. Crack the eggs into the well. Work the eggs through the flour, which is surprisingly easier if you do it before you add the water. When thoroughly mixed, form another well and add the water. At this point, I use a spatula to make sure the water doesn’t escape until the dough is formed. Roll the dough as flat as possible and cut into the desired shape. Kluskis are usually about 2 inches long and maybe a half centimeter wide. I didn’t do a very good job at this part, but they still tasted good.

Bring broth to a boil. Reduce to simmer. Add spices and the bouquet garni after tying it to the handle. Leave it to summer for at least an hour. The soup will smell very lemony, but that’s okay. The thyme will not overpower the soup. With half an hour to go, put in the veggies and turkey. If the turkey is frozen, add the turkey a few minutes earlier and bring the broth up to a boil. I personally remove the bouquet at this point so the tumbling vegetables don’t break too many leaves off. The thyme lost several leaves, but after this long a boil, they’ll just slip down the throat with the broth without causing even a hiccup to the most sensitive of throats.

When you’re almost ready to eat (seriously, only a few minutes), set the table and add the noodles. They will float when nearly done. Taste one noodle (I use chopsticks to pull it out–kluskis are dense but should taste cooked through) and adjust broth if necessary, although I didn’t need to do anything. Serve with lots of broth to make unhealthy throats happy.

Let us Seek: Sovereign God, part deux

Sometimes, I argue with myself. My habit to write the next day’s blog post and schedule it for 9:00 AM the following morning. On occasion, I find inspiration to continue with a previous line of thought. Occasionally, I find myself arguing with both myself and my blog entry for the day.

This morning I posted about a reflection on the sovereignty of God. My post came about after reflection on scripture as seen through the light of a book I am reading for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. That book is “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer. In the book, the argument is made that the sovereignty of God is a sacrosanct concept. Adonai reigns so our world is seen in a different light.

I made the “mistake” of spending time in my devotions this morning, which is always a risky affair. I was working through one of my favorite resources, which is Upper Room’s “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” (henceforth, “Guide”) This resource is the very resource which led me to consider applying for the Academy in the first place. Before finding the Guide I had always seen Upper Room as that tiny little book which I took to individuals when I visited or handed out to folks when they wanted something to read to go deeper. The Guide was deep, methodical, and practical for me as someone who likes structure in their prayer life to balance out my lack of attention span–there is a reason my blog uses the phrase “Distracted Pastor.”

Quick aside, one of my colleagues at the Academy recommended that I take my new Worship Book to the artist formerly known as Kinkos to get it bound with a spiraling ring to make it easier to use. I took my Guide there and for less than nine dollars it is now far easier to use and has nice protective covers to keep it safe. Getting my devotional book bound with a ring was a great idea as I now don’t have to weigh the pages down while taking notes in my journal.

Look how easily it sits flat!

The plastic cover is a nice protective touch…

Anyway, back on subject, I made the mistake of working through the Guide and found myself reflecting on a passage that was the exact opposite of what our good Rabbi Miriyam Glazer stated. Mind you, the author whom the guide quoted is a Christian, so that is somewhat to be expected. Still, the cognitive dissonance has been bothering me as I attempt to stay with both readings.

The following excerpt is stated to be from “Prayer” by Simon Tugwell, a Dominican historian and author. The excerpt is found in the readings for reflection for this week.

“[God in Jesus] does not come in strength but in weakness, and he chooses the foolish and weak and unimportant things of the world, things that are nothing at all, to overthrow the strength and impressiveness of the world. As we saw earlier, he is like the judo expert who uses the strength of his opponent to bring him to the ground; it is the art of self-defense proper to the weak.

This is why, if we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispense or all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.”

I imagine most people can see the dissonance between these two sets of conceptions. On the Rabbi’s side we have a God who reigns. Adonai reigns; therefore, we have hope that the future can be a place of blessing. On the Dominican’s side we have a God who has entered the form of Jesus. There is a sense of a self-imposed weakness. God has nothing to give except himself in the form of Jesus. God has nothing to give except himself; therefore, we should not see God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire.

I have to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately side with Rabbi Glazer. My fear is that my reaction is very human. How could God do something so very foolish? Well, God does what God does. In the most ancient of addresses, God claims the name “I am who I am.”

The challenging part in the midst of all of this chaos is the reality that the Reading for Reflection in the Guide does not stand alone. The psalm of the week is Psalm 105. Psalm 105 is not a psalm of passivity. God acts deeply, thoroughly, and completely in the psalm to assert the placement of the people of God. A few examples:

  • The psalm invokes the actions of God in a time of famine through the servant Joseph. (Ps 105:16-23)
  • The psalm invokes the action of God in establishing a covenant with the immigrants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which will never be forgotten. God protects those immigrants with might (Ps 105:7-14, 42-45)
  • The Psalm invokes the powerful and sometimes brutal story of the Exodus (Ps 105:24-45)

The actions claimed in the Psalm are not the actions of a passive God of weakness. The Psalm claims the power of Adonai. Adonai reigns! All of this begs a simple question. Why did Bishop Job and Pastor Shawchuck, the compilers of the Guide, choose to include this passage for reflection? Was it merely to inspire there to be interesting thoughts in the minds of those who sought God this week? Even without Rabbi Glazer’s contribution to this conversation, Psalm 105 and this reflection seem at odds with each other.

I have been pondering these differences for several hours and I am brought to a place where I once again go back to things I learned way back in my philosophy classes at Roberts Wesleyan College. Yes, I was indeed the student who insisted with all of the depths of my heart that I believed that God could do the incredible. I believed that God could make a square circle.

The concepts was simple. Could God do something that was logically impossible? Could God create a rock so heavy that God could not lift it? That concept never stuck within me. I was obsessed with the square circle. Could God make an object that was fully a circle and fully a square? Such a logical fallacy seems impossible.

To say that I received a bit of mockery, ribbing, and even disdain at the time for the strength and consistency of my view is to put it mildly. I have since learned to live into that tension, especially as I lived into theology. Can God truly be fully human and fully divine? Can God really be the One God as expressed in trinitarian theology? Can God really care for humanity to the extent that God would come into the world in the form of weakness to engage in an act of strength that would help Jesus emerge as the victor who would break down the division of sin that had lasted for ages past? There are all sorts of paradoxes in Christianity. There are many koans to be considered.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? I have no idea. How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine? I have no idea. How can God create a square circle? I have no idea. How can God move in weakness and foolishness to save the world? I have no idea, but I believe that Jesus has done this thing quite beautifully.

What are your thoughts in regards to this contradiction? Do you have any ideas or reflections?

Let us Ponder: Sovereign God

Yesterday in the blog I was pondering the concept of knowledge. What does it mean for any religious or spiritual knowledge to go beyond being informational in nature to being transformational in nature? What does it mean for us to understand a text, a revelation, or a message from so thoroughly that it changes the ways that we authentically engage with the world and her creator? These were the sort of questions I was considering in my heart and in my soul yesterday.

As I read for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, I found myself entering into a new book from a new perspective. We were invited to read four books for the upcoming Academy and I decided to begin with “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.

I was considering the introduction to the book and Rabbi Glazer’s discussion of barriers that can interdict themselves between us and these works of an ancient faith when something caught my eye on the sixth page. Rabbi Glazer pointed out that “One barrier may be especially present for us Americans, who are unaccustomed to accepting, or even contemplating, images rooted in monarchy.”

The phrasing and content caught my eye as I had been considering the idea of what it might mean to be transformed by an understanding of the text. I was away last week and was disheartened by the news when I had returned. I was disturbed by the national conversations inspired by events on issues such as “How does someone speak appropriately as a leader to youth and children?” and “What does it mean to treat someone as innocent until they are proven guilty?” I read stories of foul-mouthed politicians and was disheartened. I truly regretted the state of affairs that awaited me in my news feed, but could I really see the power and possibility behind a Sovereign? I am not a fan of some of our elected officials, but surely the heart of democracy and the power of the social contract dwell deeply within my worldview. What could it mean to consider a Sovereign as a welcomed authority figure when I struggle to trust the officials we sometimes elect?

In the midst of these struggles I pondered the very Psalms being considered in the book I was beginning to read. The words that I read truly did come from a very foreign worldview. In truth, the foreign nature of the texts are sometimes what gives those text their strength. Consider the first four verses of the second Psalm: (NRSV, alt.)

“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Sovereign and the anointed, saying ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ The Sovereign who sits in the heavens laughs; the Sovereign has them in derision.”

In a nation where it seems like every political party is conspiring and plotting, it can be invigorating to consider a Sovereign above such matters. In a world where there is earthly power and might in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals, it is comforting to think of a God who considers such earthly might and power as being worthy of laughter. The very foreign nature of the texts presents a Sovereign that can be powerful in ways that are unimaginable in the midst of the plots and conspiracies of modern politics. Consider Psalm 19:7-9: (NRSV, alt.)

“The law of the Sovereign is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of Adonai are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Sovereign are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Sovereign is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Adonai is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Sovereign are true and righteous altogether…”

What if the reason the Sovereignty of God is so foreign is because it has become unimaginable to see a decree or a law that is not immediately shot down as insufficient or askew by another political party? What if the very wisdom of God is what makes God so foreign to us as a people? When was the last time any of us saw a politician and had the first word we would use to describe them be “righteous?”

I found myself moved to think about many Psalms as I thought about Rabbi Glazer’s assertion about the barrier between words of sovereignty and American principles. There are many other good examples of the foreign yet beautiful concept of God as sovereign besides those listed above. I found another passage in Rabbi Glazer’s book to be particularly moving: (pgs. 6-7)

“Despite the reality of terrible evil, despite the chaos and bloodshed that all-too-often beset human life, and despite human suffering; in the view of the psalms, it is because Adonai reigns that we can trust that justice and goodness will triumph in the end. To believe that God is ‘sovereign of the universe’ is to have the faith that, if not in our own lives then in the lives of generations to come, the blessings of peace will indeed someday spread over the face of the earth.”

This is a text written from a truly Jewish perspective, but I find comfort in the words. Evil and chaos are rather prevalent in our world. There are times when the news seems to deliver messages of injustice and resultant shock. This world and this nation are not at peace, but if Adonai reigns then there is room for hope. If Adonai reigns, then there is a possibility for a better world for our children. If Adonai reigns, perhaps we can move forward with the faith that justice will return and peace will overcome.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty that is transformational could really change the way a person reads the news, prays for the world, and seeks justice. It is interesting to ponder, but it is my prayer that such an understanding would first transform my heart and then the world.

Let us Ramble: Questions of Knowledge

When I was in college one of my favorite courses was taught by Professor Andy Koehl and it was on the very nature of knowledge. Epistemology was a wonderful course and it caused me to think deeply about how I knew the things that I thought I knew. Epistemology was a course that lent itself to navel gazing and deep contemplation about the nature of life.

Last Monday morning I sat and listened to a former Jesuit Priest and current spiritual director named Wilkie Au. He spoke to us about the nature of knowledge in a different way than Dr. Koehl had taught in college, which makes sense as philosophy and spiritual formation are two different schools of thought with very different purposes. Wilkie taught us about the nature of knowledge and challenged us to think deeply about the things we know about God.

Wilkie Au laid out the concept of knowledge having layers. Some knowledge is informational. I had a burrito for lunch on Monday and that burrito was filled with tofu. The knowledge of what I had for lunch is simply information which states facts. Information is static knowledge that does not change.

Some knowledge is formational. There are things which we learn that change the way we see the world around us—this knowledge creates a lens on reality which changes our perspective. The week before last my kids and I were listening to a podcast from NPR called Wow in the World which talked about the effects of methane from cow flatulence on climate change. The podcast challenged people to replace some of the protein they eat with insect or plant based protein. The information in that podcast changed my perspective and changed my lunch order from a beef based burrito to a tofu based burrito. It still tasted good smothered in hot sauce.

Wilkie finally challenged us to consider that some knowledge is transformational. The knowledge shapes, forms, and helps a person to live a life marked by authenticity. My listening to the podcast did not transform my life, at least not yet. If I were to live into the knowledge that my lunch choice could help make the world a better place, consistently move towards that truth, and eventually allow that information to change the way that I live my life on a daily basis that information could be said to be transformational.

Now, how does this affect a life of faith? I have lots of information about my God in my brain. I have whole reams of knowledge from my education which tell me about the themes of various books of the Bible, conceptions of the lives of figures from scriptures and history, and a lot of knowledge about the lived life of the church. A lot of that is information which is helpful, practical, and applicable. I also have a lot of knowledge which has helped to form my perspective. I know that God loves people, so I try to choose to consistently love people. I know that God cares for the hungry, so I support the local food bank and our CHOW pantry. This information forms my view of the world and even begins the beginning steps of transformation.

The question I am left with is whether I let the love of God become something that I know which begins to transform my heart and soul. Do I allow God’s love to go that deeply into my soul that it begins to draw out the deep parts of myself? Do I allow that formational knowledge to express itself in my actions so I begin the act of transforming the world around me? While Dr. Koehl might ask how I could know my neighbor is not the effect of the work of some Cartesian demon, Wilkie Au might ask me how my love of God might transform the way I treat that neighbor. How does what I know transform who I am into the image of Christ? For that matter, does what I know transform me into the image of Christ or does it drive me farther from the life of the Spirit?

As I said, we asked tough questions this past week. I continue to recommend you take the opportunity to experience an Academy if you have an opportunity.