Let us Ramble: An Arresting Quote on Charity

Recently, a college classmate of mine from years ago asked a question on Facebook. If I could write a paper on any female spiritual figure in history, which person would I choose? I love open-ended questions and spent a couple of days perusing the answers until late Thursday morning. I had been working on collecting reports for our Annual Meeting and had just completed a report for a member who is in need of a bit of a hiatus. In other words, I was out of coffee, had been up worrying about my infant with a fever most of the night, and was a bit bleary eyed. I took a few moments to look at my bookshelf for something that I could peruse for a few minutes while my wits came back around to meet me and the next item on my agenda.

My eyes fell on one of my favorite books from a few years back. I came across “The Mirror of Simple Souls” by Marguerite Porete. My edition is from “The Classics of Western Spirituality” of Paulist Press in 1993 and was translated by Ellen L. Babinsky with a preface by Robert E. Lerner. I immediately thought of the post, remembered that nobody seemed to have mentioned this wonderful author, and jumped to share with my old college friend.

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My copy of Marguerite Porete’s “The Mirror of Simple Souls.” I recommend it highly!

I picked up my copy, began to peruse, and then began to laugh. Did you ever wonder what would get a woman killed by the inquisition in France in 1310? Well, writing in vernacular French didn’t help. What made me laugh was the translation of a part of the trial where the inquisitor is shocked that not only did Marguerite not burn her copy of her book after a former bishop ruled it heretical, she kept thinking it was a good book, and dared to send it to another bishop as well as other simple folks “as if it were good!”

I do love a woman who believes in herself and her God! She spoke the language of the people, cared about the people, and kept on believing in God’s call on her life despite the challenges! Authority should be respected, but let’s be clear—Marguerite Porete saw authority abused and relied on her faith in the highest authority of all! Here was a woman who makes me smile!

I began to spend a few minutes browsing over the pages while working up the courage to go across the way to heat up a cup of coffee. I was reading along when something caught my eye worthy of a blog post and inspirational enough to get me to hold off on grabbing that cup of joe. Here’s what is translated from the fourth chapter of Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls:

“Charity is such a wise merchant that she earns profits everywhere where others lose, and she escapes the bonds that bind others and thus has great multiplicity of what pleases Love.”

I love this concept. As I pen this blog post for Monday morning, I am drawn to think about charity. Charity has many roots and I do not pretend to be an etymologist, but I noted with enthusiasm that the Online Etymology Dictionary stated that around the time of Marguerite Porete’s life, charity became connected with the concept of the affections we ought to feel for other people. In my own imaginary world, there is a distinct correlation between these facts!

I think about the ways we ought to feel for other people and how that inspires us a lot on Mondays. Recently, my primary visitation day for going to visit people in their homes or in care-facilities is on Mondays. As this is posted online (unless something goes askew) I am likely riding in my car down to visit one of our saints in the Triple Cities. Some of these visits are easy to accomplish as the saints in question are lively, ask deep questions, and appreciate a good visit. Some of these visits are heartbreaking at times when the saints are struggling.

When we consider how we ought to feel for others and then when we let those feelings affect who we are as people, we are entering into the purest form of charity. Charity is not meant as something begrudgingly given, something scowlingly given, or something unfortunate that has to happen in order for the charitable person to to be one of the good people. Charity is our opportunity to live into the same gracious love as our Lord and Savior first showed us. Charity is our opportunity to become the hands and feet of God and to enter into the dance of God’s love. Charity is an amazing thing!

Marguerite’s concept arrested my eyes because of the simple beauty of the idea. Charity finds profits where others lose. Charity finds freedom where others find fettering chains. Charity abounds in what pleases Love. These ideas are so simple and beautiful.

How can charity find profit where others lose? Perhaps it is because charity, when birthed by love, sees things through different eyes. The world says that you will never get rich by taking weekends off from work and volunteering to play basketball at the YMCA with kids. You will never get rich volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club or with your church. You also cannot buy the love those kids may come to have for you as a person. You cannot buy their affection, their love, their admiration, their imitation, or any of the other blessings that come being involved in a ministry of charity. You will never get rich with money—you may become rich with love.

How can charity find profit where others lose? Sometimes it is because love follows love. In the spring of 2013 I witnessed the worst community fire of my career in Boonville, NY. The church I was serving became a hub to help provide food, shelter, space for the American Red Cross, and information for the people who were displaced. Do you know what happened when we tried to buy lunch for the people who were displaced? We were matched by others and nobody went hungry. Do you know what happened when we started to collect clothes? The fellowship hall was filled with blessings. Every time we tried to give what we could, others joined in with us in charity. Perhaps you may find no personal profit in engaging in charity, but sometimes the love of God seen in you inspires others to bless those around us.

How does any of this promote freedom? I believe charity breaks the bonds that hold us in place. Often we get trapped within our own prisons by tradition, by circumstances, by our own limitations, and by our own imagination. There can be freedom when charity invites us to feel for others like we ought to feel, when charity motivates us to move past feeling to action, and when charity finally overwhelms our prisons.

The week of the fire in Boonville wasn’t just a holy week. The fire took place during THE Holy Week. We had to cancel our extra services on Thursday and Friday to care for people in need. We worshipped across church lines with Presbyterians and Baptists that week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively.

They welcomed us as guests and opened their hearts and church homes to us. What kept us from worshipping together before? Pride? Maybe. Tradition? Probably. Silliness? Definitely. I never enjoyed worship services so much as when we came into those churches, sat exhaustedly down, and we were welcomed and loved despite our tiredness and our Methodist personhoods. We United Methodists made space for others and through charity we found the freedom to look beyond our doors. We had the freedom to find our family and spend time with them. The family of Christ worshipped in a holy way that week.

When we engage in charity, we find ourselves in places where we can build up an abundance of love. I will likely be thinking of Marguerite’s call to charity was I walk through the doors of Bridgewater Rehabilitation or one of the United Methodist Homes this morning. I pray that you would find places to fall in love with God, to love your neighbor, and to connect with who you ought to be—someone filled with holy charity, freed by grace, and abounding in love.

Let Us Ramble: Random Chinese Food

Last night I had a meeting at the District Office in Endicott. It had been a long day between having a snow day for the kids and needing to get ready for Sunday. My wife had a meeting out of town and swept in the house twenty minutes before I needed to leave with a cute and cuddly baby that I had not seen all day.

We tried to talk as the family ate the huevos rancheros that I had cooked for their “breakfast for dinner.” The elder kids also wanted to talk with their mom. My wife and I did not have a chance to connect before I needed to leave. I sat in my car in Endicott and tried to think of something I could do to connect with my wife. I realized how hungry I was, looked at what I had eaten for dinner, and realized I probably needed more than 150 calories. It turns out one tiny tortilla with one egg is not exactly filling.

I brought home a container of mystery Chinese food. I literally walked in the restaurant, looked at the chef’s specialities, found something I had never tried and did not understand, and brought it home. It turned out to be a shrimp and vegetable dish with a nice light sauce. It was rather tasty.

Some days it takes work to connect with your spouse. As we ate Chinese, our baby was fussing and crying at us both. I took chopsticks full of rice in between moments of putting her pacifier back in place. The baby did not really settle for hours. It was not an easy evening after my meeting, but my wife and I found moments together over a new experience and a new food.

Marriage takes work. Even when everything seems to be going perfectly, marriage takes work. I am glad that I took time after a very long day to connect with my spouse.

Let us Ramble: Snowbanks as a Metaphor

On this past Christmas Eve I found myself preaching at church. Most years that would not have been news, but this year I was on paternity leave. My good friend who was providing pulpit supply was under the weather, so I pulled together a sermon based loosely on what I had been reading. I had been spending a lot of time reading the 1973 translation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God” produced by Cistercian Publications. My sermon was effectively revolved around the concept that we should love God and celebrate Christmas because it is a celebration of Christ becoming the incarnation of God’s love for us.

As I type this blog entry, the sounds of my two elder children are pouring in through the door between my church office and the church nursery. Outside it is still snowing despite the fact that the snow day my kids prayed for last night has become the reality of today. By the road there are piles of snow building besides cleared paths. The piles are growing with every pass of the snowblower. The snow keeps falling despite the fact that I asked it to stop nicely. The snow will keep falling because the snow is stubborn.

As I was pondering the snow this morning, I came to a realization. Technically, I had two realizations. First, I realized that the snow would be breaking my back if it were not for the blessed snowblower. I injured my back last year and have had to become very careful with how I use it in order to keep from injuring it again. If I were to lift up that much snow my back would be destroyed.

Snow is beautiful until it falls down the back of your shirt.

Second, I realized the snow could be seen as a great analogy. The snow is heavy, deep, and weighty. In the same way, the love I owe God is heavy, deep, and weighty. So, let’s draw in Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard writes (on the eighteenth page):

“‘What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given me?’ In his first work he gave me myself; in his second work he gave me himself; when he gave me himself, he gave me back myself. Given, and regiven, I owe myself twice over. What can I give God in return for himself? Even if I could give him myself a thousand times, what am I to God?”

So, God gives us two gifts. First, God created us. To bring in some language from Psalms, we are knit together in the womb by a loving God. We are created in the image of God by God. How in the world could we ever repay God for such love? Can we give anything to God that wasn’t made possible by our creation in the first place?

Second, God recreates us. Bernard writes (a couple of lines before the previous quote): “He spoke and they were made. But he who made me by a single word, in remaking me had to speak many words, work miracles, suffer hardships, and not only hardships but even unjust treatment.“ God went to extraordinary lengths to take me as a broken person and provide a path towards redemption through Jesus Christ. What could any of us do to repay that much kindness and love? What gift could we offer?

What God has done is like the snow falling from the sky. Try as I might, there’s no way that I could ever lift all of that snow. My debt to God for his loving creation and remaking of my life is deeper than any snow drift I could shovel, heavier than any snow falling from the sky, and utterly beyond my ability to shovel, melt, or remove. God’s love is like a blizzard and there’s no way that I can ignore the weight and the effect it has on my life.

Ultimately, all that we can really do is accept the gift of God’s love and respond as best as we can with the love we have in our hearts. The love of God will keep falling down on the beloved children God has adopted, May we respond with grateful hearts!

Let us Ramble: Solitude, Faith, and Community

A noise tickles my ears as a buzz begins at 5:59 AM. My phone buzzes and begins to flash. I wake up early to check if the paths need to be cleared of snow before the teachers and staff of the church community arrive. After a cold time clearing up the snow with my snowblower and a headlamp, a hot shower to warm up chilled bones, and a hot mug of coffee, I settle at the table with my notebook. Soon, as the eggs bake for breakfast sandwiches for my wife and children, I will find myself digging through the Revised Common Lectionary.

This day I am flicking through the story of Saul being chastised by Samuel for caring more about what his people want than what the Lord required. I write a poem about Saul’s predicament while thinking and praying about what God’s message for Saul says to me as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, and as a pastor. The words are deep this morning as my heart struggles to make sense of the story of God’s chosen one being rejected for his actions. I weigh the passage carefully with others that have been dwelling in my heart.

I find these moments of devotion while the room fills with the smells of cooking breakfast to be sacred. They are not always perfectly isolated. Sometimes I finish my poem while my kids are making cocoa across the room. Occasionally a crying baby will interrupt this time with her needs. It is a time that actually gets interrupted regularly towards the end, but it is also one of the most sacred moments of the day. Even with interruptions, the ground I walk upon in those moments is holy.

In these moments of personal devotion, I sort through my dreams and prayers from the recently passed night. In these moments of personal devotion, I find inspiration that often affects the way I live out my faith life. In these moments of personal devotion, I often find the fuel that feeds quiet prayers for the community which follow. Have I read about love? Standing in the window, cleaning up dishes, I pray with love for the people in my church and community who are in need. Have I read about sacrificing for others wellbeing? I find inspiration to pray for the bus drivers who pass by the window. The personal devotions of my morning feed my time in prayer and help me to do a better job at being a part of a vibrant church community.

Henri Nouwen, in his book “Discernment” wrote (on the tenth page of his book):

“Communion with God alone in prayer leads inevitably to community with God’s people, and then to ministry in the world. But it is good to begin this spiritual movement in solitude…When we are alone with God, the Spirit prays in us. The challenge is to develop a simple discipline of spiritual practice to embrace some empty time and empty space every day.”

For myself, the moments in my day that are emptiest and have space for the Holy Spirit are between checking the paths to see if they are clear and when my children get out of bed. The time that I spend alone with God in those quiet places strengthens my relationship with God. That strength then leads towards others.

Invariably, my time with God tends to lead towards other people. Sometimes my prayers are led towards my family, but more often than not, I find myself drawn to pray for situations around me in the community and in the church. I want to be clear about this fact. My personal devotions do more than inform my prayer. My personal devotions empower my ability to pray. If the spiritual life of a Christian is a river, my time in personal devotion is one of the springs where that spiritual life finds the living water.

When the Spirit prays in us, our lives change. If you look back at a number of the great figures of Christian history, a lot of them speak about powerful moments of connection with God. Some of the descriptions of these moments can induce a blush! These moments of intimacy with God generally did not come out of a place of constant action. If you look, most of these moments come in lives marked by time spent with God. Like any relationship, a relationship with God that is healthy requires time spent together.

So, how do you begin to discern the right time for spending time with God? The first thing I suggest to people who ask me in person is that they chart out their day in blocks. What regular patterns emerge in your daily life? I found myself needing to wake up early to take care of sidewalks for the winter. As such, for this literal season, a period between that daily chore and when the rest of the day began emerged. For some people, there is a lull in the late morning, especially if you are retired or work a second or third shift position. Each person is different and taking a look at your regular patterns can help you notice places that are empty.

Second, if a person cannot find those moments of free time I suggest that there be moments in your day that might be better used doing something else. Back when I tried to engage in evening devotions despite my tiredness, I used to spend my mornings before the girls woke up listening to the news. The news often made me anxious, led to me feeling inordinately stressed at the beginning of my day, and often served more as empty noise than something of substance. I was better served by spending that time with God than spending it listening to the news. I still check the news later in the day, but I first ground my heart and my soul in God before facing what the world will throw at me.

Third, I often suggest that you begin with a simple devotion. There are wonderful resources available through many fine publishers. A trip to a local bookstore will often provide a lot of helpful options. Our church provides copies of the Upper Room Daily Devotional and we would work with anyone who wanted to explore one of the other options available. There are also a number of reading plans available through places like Bible Gateway that can help you to explore your Bible over a set number of days. Even the United Methodist Hymnal has a pattern for daily worship and prayer in the rear of the hymnal. There are many options available.

Fourth, try new things on occasion. If you, like me, enjoy the Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, consider using the Book of Common Prayer for a season. If you enjoy using Our Daily Bread, ponder trying out the Upper Room for a time. If you are going through a dry season, it might not help if that season is supposed to be teaching you something, but if your situation is simply fatigue—a change of pace might help.

What suggestions do you have for starting a time of personal devotions? Have any practices been particularly helpful?

Let Us Ramble: Hobbit Holes and Worship

So, I decided that I would spend a day doing a light-hearted blog post. The blog has been pretty dense since I returned from paternity leave, which reflects some challenges behind the scenes of ministry. In the midst of everything, I found myself needing to read to my infant the other day. She would not calm down without hearing my voice while rocking back and forth. I decided to read to her, looked through my Kindle purchases, and began to read her “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In the very first chapter, Bilbo encounters Gandalf. Gandalf is seeking aid in an adventure. When Gandalf expresses difficulty with finding someone to join him, Bilbo replies: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”

I started to laugh when I read this passage. I found humor in the fact that Bilbo will definitely go on an adventure, but also because I am aware that the hobbit acts a lot like me! Over the years I have truly enjoyed several versions of “Bag End.” In the apartment that we first shared when I was in seminary, I took over the walk-in closet in our living room and turned it into my office. I spent many hours under a single incandescent light bulb with books of theology, an aging computer, and a cup of coffee. It was definitely my own little hole in the ground. To be honest, it was absolute bliss…

Since we left that apartment, I have not really had a hole to hide in of quite the same caliber, but I have enjoyed several offices over the year. The closest I have come is my current home office which is filled with plants, garden gnomes, and within sight of several rather tookish children that enjoy their own adventures.

Two of my favorite garden gnomes sit right next to the computer desk in our “library.”

I can understand the enjoyment of a space. There is something safe and secure about being in a familiar place with reminders of pleasant days and happy nights. If you invest a space with a lot of happy cups of coffee, hours of research, or even just time spent happily interacting with friends, a space can become pretty comfortable. In fact, it can be hard to walk away from such spaces sometimes…

There is a challenge that comes with living in a land where adventure can come from simply stepping outside of one’s door! Winter is here in the United States. With winter in this particular location comes things like snow, ice, and slush. This area is by no means the snowiest place that I have ever lived. To be entirely honest, it is actually the least snowy location where I have ever resided, but less snow is not the same as no snow.

Some Sundays, freezing temperatures strike and nobody is at the church. Some nights we would have a committee meeting but there’s a forecast that keeps us from having anywhere near quorum.It can be really frustrating to deal with winter adventures, and sometimes we seem to embody the spirit of Bilbo Baggins. “Go to church? In this weather? We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”

So, here is some advice for people in church leadership during winter:

  1. Love other people. I have been quoting Hebrews 13:1 a lot lately. In that verse we are reminded to “let mutual love continue.” Sometimes people will let us down and not make it to a meeting. Love them. Love them. When you are done, love them some more. Yes, they might take advantage of your love and continue to engage in the behavior that bothers you, but extend love first. All mutual love comes from someplace and we must be willing to love first. I am reminded of the passage I read the other day in “Ways of Imperfection” by Simon Tugwell. In that passage, on page 18, Tugwell points out a story where abba Poemen was in a conversation where several monks were discussing how to deal with a monk who kept falling asleep in church. After several rather strict ideas are suggested, abba Poemen is reported by Tugwell as saying: “If I see that my brother has gone to sleep, I cradle his head in my lap.” If ancient monastic Egyptians can understand the idea of compassionate loving in such circumstances, certainly we can as well.
  2. Consider the circumstances. If you have a meeting with a saint who cannot drive after dark or on roads that might be challenging after peak maintenance hours, do not plan that meeting when things might be iffy. Roads (in our area) are often sketchy after dark and first thing in the morning. A little prior planning never hurt an administrator or worship planner. Late night services might fit the mood of an occasion like a “New Year’s Eve Prayer Vigil,” but be aware your worship time and the weather that surrounds it might affect some people in ways beyond their control.
  3. Consider situational problems. If someone no longer comes because they slipped in your parking lot, consider ways you can make your parking lot safer. Alternatively, ask someone (or go yourself if you are able) to walk with them from their car into the church meeting. Again, a little prior planning is an integral part to good leadership.
  4. Let things go. Nobody is helped when you dwell on things you cannot control. The weather turned sideways and your one absolutely perfect sermon of the year was heard by five people? Well, that happens sometimes. It is better to let go of your frustrations than to let them take root in your soul. You are a walking temple of God. Do not track dirt into your heart.

Those are four pieces of advice for leaders of churches during the slippery months. Do you have any other suggestions? What has worked for you?

Let Us Ramble: Nineveh and Change

I would like to begin this entry by pointing out that I sometimes struggle with the work of the Council of Bishops. I find that they often equivocate on challenging issues and I long for firm statements marked by honest reflection on scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. I long for deep statements based on the discernment that comes from the Holy Spirit. I sometimes feel disappointed, but that’s what happens when imperfect people gather together. Disappointment happens and that disappointment is inevitable. I still respect that body of leaders and consider their words carefully.

So, when I see statements like the one made last week by the Council of Bishops, I find myself doing more than simply paying close attention. I practically cheered when I read the Council of Bishops refer to racist behavior as racist, harmful behavior as being harmful, and urging on United Methodists to call for an apology from President Trump. These unequivocating and straightforward statements were startling coming from the voice of the bishops of the United Methodist Church. I would expect such words from an individual bishop, the General Board of Church and Society, or even individual conferences, clergy, or churches. As it would be almost impossible for the General Conference to gather globally to release a real-time call for repentance, this is probably as close as a statement can come to being a statement on behalf of the church. In the very least, such unity among so many of the leaders of the denomination is a powerful statement. My wife summed it up when she looked it up last night after we discussed how the statement had affected me. She simply said: “Wow!”

So, today I am honoring their request to call for an apology. To be honest though, I do not believe an apology will be enough. I want to call for repentance, but not just from Donald Trump. I believe we have an illness in our society that has allowed us to bring this kind of behavior to the highest levels of leadership. I believe we need to take a long, hard, and somber look at ourselves.

This past weekend the Revised Common Lectionary scripture included John 1:46. I did not preach out of the lectionary this past Sunday, but I know many of my colleagues did preach out of that prophetic moment in scripture. Jesus is beginning his ministry and calls Philip to follow. Philip comes across several of his friends and invites them on the journey with him. One of them, Nathanael, asks Philip if anything good could possibly come out of Nazareth…

Many of my colleagues point out that Nazareth was one of “those places.” Recent national news has focused conversation on several of “those places” in our own world. Could anything good come out of Haiti? Could anything good come out the heart of Africa? Could anything good come from one of “those places?” How are those places tied to the people who live in them? What does it say about the descendants of those places when we speak it such hateful terms?

As many of “those places” are filled with people created in the image of God, many of my colleagues had a field day, but I avoided the temptation to lash out. Today is a national holiday celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose ancestry arose out of one of “those places.” I wanted to save my words for a more fitting day like today.

So today, I wanted to begin with a story. The story is an old story and was once passed from family to family and from community to community until it was written down.

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in a far off land. The people of this kingdom were wicked, cruel, and hostile. The king was powerful, mighty, and by no means innocent. People affected by the people of this kingdom cried out to God on account of the kingdom and the great city within it. God heard the cries of the injured, saw the wickedness of the land, and sent a prophet to tell them that their end was coming. For three days the prophet walked across the city and stated their fate.

People burst into a panic. They stripped off their fine garments and covered themselves in sackcloth. They stopped eating—mighty and meek, all of the people joined in mourning. When the king of the kingdom heard the news, he joined in their grief, he sat down in ashes in garments made of sackcloth. He decreed with his nobles that all would join in the great mourning. Humans and animals together joined in the mourning.

God saw their repentance and changed their fate. Their humility and repentance saved them from their own destruction. The prophet was not exactly happy about the situation, but repentance came to that city.

Those of you who enjoy your Hebrew Scriptures probably realize that I was retelling the story found in the book of Jonah about the city of Nineveh. In my career I have preached several times about the story of Jonah being swallowed up and many more times about how Jonah needed to learn about compassion, but I am not certain that I have ever preached on the subject of what happens in Nineveh itself. Nineveh, the great city and all of her people, has sadly become a bit of a means for other lessons in most of my sermons, messages, and reflections.

Yet, I find myself drawn to Nineveh as I consider recent events. In the translation that goes by the name the New Revised Standard Version, Hebrews 13:1-3 says:

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

The author of Hebrews calls on the church to do many things in this chapter of scripture. We are called to things like mutual love, empathy, compassion, and even to simply remember what others are going through in different circumstances. We are warned not to forget our duty toward hospitality, for who knows when we might seek to entertain strangers and instead find ourselves in the company of angels?

As a Christian, when I hear words like those shared by the President of the United States last week, I find myself appalled. When the door is slammed shut in the face of people and places where there are serious problems, Is slamming the door in the face of those facing modern struggles really all that different than the people of the early church forgetting those struggling in prison or facing torture? If these conversations really do go hand in hand with conversations around harder standards for asylum seekers, then we need to realize that the words of Hebrews might apply directly to us without much interpretation.

it is my great fear that we are slamming the door in the face of not only angels, but in the face of people created in the image of God. We are slamming the door in the face of those who call out for justice to a God who listens. When we willingly forget our duty to Christ by neglecting love, compassion, empathy, and even memory, we are doing something incredibly wicked. Do we actually believe that we are so unique as a nation that we are above reproach? Where does that kind of blindness come from as a people? Do we forget that God is ruler above nations and not for nations?

Surprisingly enough, when I googled the phrase “sackcloth suit,” there were entries and sponsored ads. Unsurprisingly, the Brooks Brothers suit Google tried to sell me was not made up of sackcloth. In honesty, looking back into Catholic tradition, there has been a history of “hair shirts” made of irritating haircloth meant to inspire discomfort and thus inspire humility, which is quite fascinating. Looking at the history of the practice, the rarity of practice in modern times, and it seems unlikely that I could find any hairshirts at the local mall.

Of course, that’s probably a moot point. I have difficulty seeing sackcloth on many of the folks that I see when I walk past an interview on a television in a store, in restaurant, or on my Facebook feed. I will say that I did go out of my way to pick up a swatch of burlap while out after church yesterday and attempted to make a burlap necklace. I can tell you two things:

  • First, I’m not great at arts and crafts.
  • Second, wearing it for a couple of hours was a real irritating experience. My neck was itchy, irritated, and it made my shirt look terrible. I was considering wearing it for Lent, but it was so difficult to wear without being noticeable that I am going to have to consider alternatives if I am seeking to practice my piety before God and not before other people.

My terrible necklace, wound around my wrist, so you don’t need to see the hints of gray beginning to show up in my goatee…

The attempt did answer a really important question for me though. Is it comfortable to go out of one’s way to repent? Oh, heavens no. The King of Nineveh and the people of that place must have been really uncomfortable and very motivated. They went out of their way to not only refrain from food and drink, but went further to introduce a level of discomfort into their life that must have been incredibly frustrating.

The Council of Bishops is correct. President Trump’s words were racist, are offensive to all people of God who believe that the people of those nations are made in the image of God, and they caused a significant amount of harm both internationally and domestically. President Trump needs to repent. We need to repent also.

I say these things as someone who has needed to do a significant amount of repenting in his own life. I grew up on Grand Island, NY. I grew up believing the Seneca Nation was trying to take away our hometown and I had a lot of very strong opinions about the Seneca. I grew up among a people who looked at the native population of what was my hometown with a less than Christian light. Let’s be honest, at times I was downright racist. I thought of reservations in ways like our President speaks about other sovereign nations like those named last week.

I was wrong. The things I believed were wrong. The way I acted in my heart towards my human sisters and brothers in the Seneca nation was wrong.

My change in attitude started thanks to a band called Five Iron Frenzy singing about social justice and introducing me to a book. I read“Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown as a teenager and it confused me greatly. The stories I read were so unlike the stories people had shared throughout my life.

My convictions continued to change when I was invited to go on a Volunteer in Mission trip to Four-Corners Native American Ministries. I was broken down further in my heart while helping fix windows in the homes of widows, standing underneath the Window Rock in the heart of the country of the Wind Talkers, looking over American flags flying over the graves of brave patriots and warriors, and walking through the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, AZ. My best friend Michael (rest in peace, my brother) stood with me under a blue sky as I began to confess my sin and my struggle underneath the eye of Window Rock. It was Michael who told me that I had a lifetime of amends to make and that I would have to keep working at things. I have sought to challenge and grow in my understanding since that day and since that conversation.

I was so ignorant and so foolish to accept as normal what I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker as a kid. I never had an issue with hanging around North Buffalo near my grandmother’s house, even as the neighborhood changed from a primarily European neighborhood to a more diverse neighborhood. I was happy to spend time within walking distance of a comic book store and a “Record Theatre.” (Thanks for the memories Mr. Silver…) I didn’t care who lived between Grandma’s house and my comics and my music. To this day, I still feel more nervous on a reservation than I do in a city, but I know this one thing to be true: If I believe that God’s image is in all people, then all people are worth treating as children of God, whether they live in a city, on a country road, in a Haitian village, on the coast of Africa, or anywhere in God’s beautiful creation.

I do not aim criticisms at the President of the United States lightly or from a place of superiority. I have been complicit in my own biases over the years. Still, truth must be held as truth. Evil is evil. Racism is racism. There is a severe need for not only an apology, but for true repentance when we engage in the acts of accepting and advocating for evil.

The old phrase of Rev. Charles F. Aked stands true as much today as it was in the fight against the abuses of alcohol: “It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.” As a people, we cannot in good conscience stand by in times like these without calling for repentance. What’s more, we cannot in good conscience stand by without examining our own behavior and seeing if we are also in need of repentance.

May God help us all in these challenging times. May we move towards repentance without hypocrisy.

Let us Ramble: Humility and Community

This year in my annual report to the church there’s a strong statement. I wrote in November and revised earlier this month the idea that “ We need to remember that we are a community unified and united in purpose.” I did not make this statement lightly as unity within the body of Christ is one of the most challenging and most important characteristics of a healthy church.

You will notice I did not write the phrase “uniformity” as the goal is one of connection and not utter conformity. Unity and unification around a concept is important for any community, but especially a religious community. To borrow from Henri Nouwen (on the ninth page in his book “Discernment”) we should be united around the idea of our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

There is nothing as antithetical to unification around this desire than arrogance. Arrogance leads us to believe it is okay to ignore God’s call to simple concepts like talking to people instead of about people. Arrogance leads us to believe that we are better than each other or better than those called to particular ministries. Arrogance leads us to engage in a lot of the behaviors that hurt and harm churches.

I think Bernard of Clairvaux puts it well. The saint from the 1100s has been translated (by the Cisterian Order in their 1973 critical translation) as saying “If ignorance makes beasts of us, arrogance make us like demons. It is pride, the greatest of sins, to use gifts as if they were one’s by natural right and while receiving benefits to usurp the benefactor’s glory.”

Now, what’s interesting about this quote is that Bernard prefaces it by pointing out that everyone should know two facts: what they are and that they are not who they are by their own power. Bernard states clearly that everyone needs to know that they are who they are by the gift of God and to accept their role with humility.

Leaders in the church (both lay and clergy) are called by God to places of leadership. They are given gifts and graces to fulfill their role. It is great arrogance to both take these gifts for granted and to ignore the responsibilities that come with them. Bernard warns strongly against dulling one’s blessing by forgetting one’s call and forgetting the purpose for which one has been blessed. Bernard, holding a very strong opinion, writes (pardon the 1970s language of translation)

“When a man, promoted to a high dignity, does not appreciate the favor he received, because of his ignorance he is rightly compared to the animals with whom he shares his present state of corruption and mortality. It also happens when a man, not appreciating the gift of reason, starts mingling with the herds of dumb beasts to the extent that, ignoring his own interior glory, he models his conduct on the object of his sense. Led on by curiosity, he becomes like any other animal since he does not see he has receive more than they.”

Leaders are called to live up to the blessings they have received. One of the greatest challenges that faces me as a United Methodist Elder is the echoes of the words spoken by Bishop Marcus Matthews over me at my ordination. I was told to “Take thou authority…” The bestowed authority is an authority that comes with challenges that are well addressed by this article from Ministry Matters. Nonetheless, it is a promotion that comes from a place of high dignity within my tradition.

On my desk there’s a list of people with arrows. I was ordained by Bishop Marcus Matthews, who was ordained by Bishop James Kenneth Mathews, who was ordained by Bishop Benton Thoburn Badly, who was ordained by Bishop James Mills Thorburn, who was ordained by Bishop Edward Raymond Ames, who was ordained by Bishop Robert Richford Roberts, who was ordained by Bishop Francis Asbury, who was ordained by Bishop Thomas Coke, who was ordained by Archbishop Potter, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Church of England, which was born out of direct apostolic succession from the beginning of the church.

There’s a high calling to the authority that was passed to me by Bishop Matthews. To ignore the weight and the responsibility of that calling would be a great sin. My authority as an Elder in apostolic succession comes with a great responsibility to not only maintain the standards of my office but to lead with integrity the people of God towards our one great and true desire.

Bernard’s words are not simply for leaders though. Believers in the church who are called to follow (both lay and clergy—especially if clergy serve in an episcopally based system or in a system where there is discernment of the body held over the discernment of the clergy) are called to know who they are, where they are, what is expected of them, and to accept the gifts granted to them by God with humility as well. Leaders are gifts from God often sent to teach us things that come unnaturally without help. Do leaders make mistakes? Yes, but they are often present to teach us things beyond ourselves.

As an Elder in that line of apostolic succession, I am also called to be a follower. I am asked to respect the bishop who has been discerned and sent to be the leader of my Annual Conference, am asked to respect my District Superintendent and the clergy who are called to assist in leadership through both the Order of Elders and the Board of Ordained Ministry. I am called to respect the Annual and General Conference, the Book of Discipline, the Book of Resolutions, and even to consider the non-binding words of the Council of Bishops with respect. I am called to participate in the life of the Conference and to use my voice, but I am also called to be a part of a system that is larger than myself. I am even called to consider the advice of the folks that I am called to lead, even if obedience is not required in that last situation due to the traditions surrounding both freedom of the pulpit and the role of the pastor within my church tradition. The calling to be a follower is as integral to my leadership as my call to be a leader.

In both these roles there’s a role both for knowledge and humility. Bernard writes:

“We should, therefore, fear that ignorance which gives us a too low opinion of our selves. But we should fear no less, but rather more, that which makes us think ourselves better than we are. This is what happens when we deceive ourselves thinking some good is in us of ourselves. But indeed you should detest and avoid even more than these two forms of ignorance that presumption by which you, knowingly and on purpose, seek your glory in goods that are not your own and that you certain are not in you by your own power.”

Bernard (in context) is talking about more than just physical goods. Bernard previously calls accepting praise for the spiritual blessings and spiritual roles that God has granted and gifted ability for to be no less than vainglory, which is excessive pride and vanity. Goods in Bernard’s view are more than just physical things. All that we have is given to us for the glory of God. When we claim anything as rightly ours by our own hand, whether it be a pair of jeans, a work of art, or a paycheck, then we are missing the point of why we have what we have in this life. To tie it back to Henri Nouwen, we have what we have for our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”

It is the greatest arrogance to take what we have been given for this one purpose and to use it to do the exact opposite. God is love and calls us to love. If we turn what God has given us to purposes of hate, isn’t that rightly named demonic? God calls us to care for the least of the children of God. If we hoard what we have from God to the detriment of those who need us to be the hands and feet of Christ, isn’t that the very heart of arrogance? Aren’t such acts drawing away or usurping the very glory of our one true benefactor?

When we are blessed by God we are called to live for that one true desire. When the Holy Spirit works and weaves within us, the tapestry is meant for God’s glory. When the Son grants us life and a place within the family of God, we are called to follow his teachings instead of our own.

Let us Ramble: Holy Movement

I have been working through some books lately on spiritual formation. One of them is “Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life” by Henri Nouwen. I am finding it a rich feast of a book which is written to people of all sorts. I highly recommend it if you enjoy a good deep book!

I found myself pumping my fist to one particular passage on the ninth page. Henri Nouwen writes:

“Those who live lives worthy of their calling have been ‘reborn from above’ and are able to see with the eyes of faith and hear with spiritual ears. Their lives of discernment are characterized by single-mindedness: they have but one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things. In the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, they live the truth and seek to ‘come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (John 3:21 NRSV). Such persons are so caught up in God’s love that everything else can only receive its meaning and purpose in the context of that love. They ask only what questions: ‘What is pleasing to the Spirit of God?’ And as soon as they have heard the sound of the Spirit in the silence and solitude of their hearts, they follow its promptings even if it upsets their friends, disrupts their environment, and confuses their admirers.

People reborn in the Holy Spirit with spiritual understanding come across as very independent, not because of psychological training or individuation but because of the fruit of the Spirit which ‘blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes’ (John 3:8). Spiritual rebirth is an evergreen openness to let the spirit of Jesus blow us where it pleases.”

At various times in my career I have been accused of being too quick to bolt out the door to situations beyond my understanding. There’s some truth to the accusation, but I have to admit that sometimes people love that I have this tendency. I will be praying and I will feel a need to call someone and I will call at just the right moment. I once felt the urge to pull into a hospital and went into the wrong entrance where I met a colleague whose wife had just been admitted in need of a prayer and a hug. The Spirit definitely blows where it pleases and I find nothing so exhilarating as coming across the Spirit at work! I have come to embrace that part of my spirit that loves hearing that quiet voice.

This sign is sitting in our church garage. I want to mount it over my desk!

Of course, this tendency to be always on the move is a very Methodist kind of tendency. Read the Book of Discipline of the UMC and you will eventually find the historic examination put before every Elder before full admittance into ministry. In ¶336 of 2016 Book of Discipline you will find the 19th examination to be in the hard-coding of ministry for United Methodist pastors. That examination asks

: “Will you observe the following instructions? Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary…do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.”

I believe Nouwen’s evergreen openness to the Spirit works very well with the historic nature of the Methodist circuit riders. When the road and the circuit used to be before you there was a world of possibility with infinite opportunities. Encouraging circuit riders to never idle away the time made sense. Again, this was not meant to be done in fear of God’s anger but instead to aid an easy conscience in the minds and souls of those called to ministry.

Nowadays, I think that these words are often lost in our culture. To believe that we should never trifle away time is something this is bucked against even within religious circles and the idea of never spending more time than necessary someplace is beyond most of us in the ministry world. Between office hours, worship slide creation, bulletins, and other things that tie us to a desk it can be easy to see why such thoughts of intentional movement are beyond most of us. We are often ensnared by the very things meant to help us accomplish ministry!

There is a part of me that misses the idea of intentionally seeking that disruptive still small voice of God. Let’s be honest—I long for that voice on a regular basis. Do you long for that voice? Do you thirst to know what pleases God and feel passionate about joining into that great ministry? If so, my friends, I invite you to listen, to seek, to discern, and then to follow.

Let us Ramble: The Will of God and Disappointment

So, I am coming up to the end of my paternity leave. I have been spending a lot of time caring for an infant, two older children, and their mother over the past two months. There has been time for bonding, time for cooking, time for laughing, time for crying, and a lot of time for reflection while changing diapers.

In the midst of this time of leave, I have been reading a number of books. One of those books is Simon Tugwell’s “Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality.” Tugwell’s book begins rather strongly with some strong words of admonition. Tugwell speaks of the many moods that the church has held over the span of her life. In my own words, it seems that Tugwell believes that the church has been timid, self-assured, arrogant, humble, bold, and headstrong at different points in her life.

With all of these moods in her past, in times of crisis there are often a myriad of directions in which she can wander. I do not find this particularly shocking as I too have a myriad of directions that I can travel to when under stress. Sometimes I snap at the stressor, occasionally I shrink back, sometimes I have patience, and sometimes I will do something completely different. Tugwell, on the very first page of his work, makes the admonition that in “a time of confusion like our own, when people become disillusioned with the church and with christianity, should be a salutary, educative time, when we face the facts.”

Tugwell proceeds to point out that the church must struggle through questions and seasons of disappointment. I believe there are two reasons why Tugwell is correct in inviting us to confront our disappointment..

First, as Tugwell himself argues, the church is not about fulfilling our hopes, dreams, and ambitions. As a minister, at moments I daydream of coming into a packed church which is filled with parishioners on a Sunday morning. I know lay leaders who have dreamed of people begging to bake for coffee hour or for acolytes who will always light the candles perfectly without any need of guidance. Many people have hopes, dreams, and ambitions about life in the church, but Tugwell is correct. The church of Jesus Christ does not exist to fulfill our own will, but “is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God.”

What does that mean? I do not believe that means forcing our views on others, but it may mean realizing the things we desire and the things that God desires are often very different. I might want to have a perfect acolyting moment every Sunday, but that child who cannot walk without assistance may be called by God to have a role in lighting the candles. Involving her might mean doing something different, like setting up a temporary ramp or assisting her up the stairs. Allowing her that role in the life of the church may cause us to end church five minutes late. Are those five minutes my time or God’s time? My view of what should be may have to go unfulfilled and that can be disappointing. My view of what should be might have to be discarded entirely, but the church of Jesus Christ does not exist to do my will but God’s will.

Second, hinted at by Tugwell, but not entirely fleshed out, is another reason why a church following Jesus might be frustrating and frustrated. Tugwell, while referring to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Antioch, writes on the third page of “Ways of Imperfection:”

“[Jesus] is our true life, and apart from him we are only ghosts, masquerading as human beings but lacking substance. Faith is the beginning of life, but this has to be fulfilled in charity, and this is a practical matter, involving generosity to others, patient endurance of insults, gentleness, and above all else, belonging to the church, in communion with the bishop and his clergy.”

If Jesus is our true life then we are called into newness. I had professor in undergrad named Dr. Casey Davis who always spoke about the “already and not yet.” Christ is our true life and in Christ we have circumcised hearts! We are already living into that new life but to be entirely transformed has yet to take place. We will live into the fruits of the Spirit fully and completely. We have already begun but the complete fruition of that task has yet to be accomplished. We are already becoming more like Christ but that transformation is a process that can take a lifetime and usually longer.

Disappointment is necessary because we are living in an imperfect world as imperfect people. We should face that disappointment and imperfection with open eyes and courageous hearts. Despite our best efforts, we are but ghosts. Our righteousness is like a rag compared to that of Christ. The church is disappointing at times because it is full of people on their way towards Jesus. When the church is purified and enters into glory, she may lose everything about her that disappoints, but we are still on the journey. Tugwell is right to invite us to be aware of our situation.

So, what if we look at disappointment with the church as an opportunity? What if we find places in the midst of our disappointment to find the will of God? Where are we being led? What opportunities and adventures lie in our future when things are not perfect? Where is the voice of God leading us? What can these up and down moments on the journey teach us about the will of God and where we should be led?

One last quote from Tugwell this morning. On the seventh page, Tugwell quotes the writer of the didache as saying: “If you can carry the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. If you cannot, do what you can.” What if instead of focusing on our challenges, we do what we can?