Let us Ramble: Approaching Ten Years

Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.

Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.

Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.

taize-silence

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:

“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”

I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.

Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.

I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.

If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.

That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)

“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.

The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.

“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”

We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.

The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.

To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.

Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:

“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”

Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.

In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:

“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”

Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?

There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.

Let us Bake: On Cookies

I have a confession to make in the subject of baking. I am uncomfortable with the concept of making cakes. Not just the big ones that are covered in fondant or frosting—I am concerned with mini-cupcakes, cupcakes, sheet-cakes, bundt-cakes, and all manner of cake-pops.

I do not like frosting. I have told several members of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee that I have one nemesis when I spend time in the church kitchen and that nemesis is not a person. My kitchen nemesis is frosting. As a perfectionist, I cannot manage to get the frosting completely even on a simple cake (on even my best of days) and that bothers me deeply and fundamentally. I struggle with Shepherd’s pies for the same reason, but those I manage through just applying massive quantities of potatoes in thick layers.

By now I probably have established my dislike of frosting, but let me make absolutely certain you understand my feelings on the subject. I do not like frosting in my house, I do not like it with a mouse, I do not like it with a box, I do not like it with a fox… My dislike of frosting requires “Suessical” levels of description. I think you get the point.

Still, I live in a world that likes sweet things and I like sweet things. How do I cope with living in a world where people come to visit, we need to take a plate of something to share, or there’s going to be a rough meeting and everyone will be cranky? I cope through making cookies. Sweet, sweet cookies.

Not the frosted one mind you—cookies should be enjoyed without icing, as God intended. I would know as I have both a degree saying that I have mastered the divine and the slightest tendency to exaggerate!

So, I find myself cooking cookies a lot more than I ever did before I took it on myself to take on the lion’s share of the cooking in our house. As I have more luck being creative with savory things, I am always on the lookout for another cookbook, another magazine article, or another recipe from a church kitchen. I could use the internet, but people on the internet use things like “frosting” and I do not want to get my hopes up with a recipe just to find my arch-nemesis is hiding in the details.

My newest cookie cookbook. Yes, it is older than me. You can tell the age of the cookbook by the fact that “lard” is a common ingredient in a lot of the recipes… The recipes still look delicious!

I have learned a few things about cookies while practicing the art of making tasty things. Some of the things I have learned even have a spiritual aspect!

One of the first things I learned was that cookie dough occasionally needs to be refrigerated before use. I like working with bread and especially bread that rises in a warm place. I like watching it grow to gigantic sizes before being beaten down. There is something beautiful about thinking of those tiny little grains of yeast growing, living, eating, and creating little communities that make my bread taste better. I like to think of them as living little tiny lives in a symbiotic relationship. A couple may give their lives to make my loaf of bread, but millions of their relatives are grown, kept safe, and given a chance to live in a safe environment so that there will be more yeast tomorrow. They are domesticated micro-organisms and I like to think of them as being as happy as cows in a field.

Cookies are different though. There’s nothing happily growing in the cookies. Cookie dough tends to be sticky, messy, and goopy. Cookie dough can be hard to portion, hard to roll, and hard to make uniformly sized, unless you refrigerate it! With some cookie dough, refrigerating the dough takes a sticky goop and makes it manageable. What would have been a disaster when first mixed separates calmly from a scoop after the dough is chilled.

What spiritual lesson do I get from this? I have learned that sometimes you need to take a step back from a situation and allow time to cool your passions. I work in a church and often there are situations that make me “hot under the collar.” In my case, they make me feel hot under the clerical collar, and that’s a problem at times. When I wear that collar, I represent something greater than myself. While others have the luxury of being themselves, when I stand there in a collar I represent a part of the continuum of the clergy who will come before and after me. In fact, I wear the collar in part to remind me that I am fulfilling my call to ministry as part of a tradition and with a family of colleagues.

At times, when I get mad, I need to let myself calm down. Occasionally that means excusing myself from a meeting to take a walk around the sanctuary before returning. Sometimes that means circling the metaphorical problem a number of times before blowing a horn and hoping that things will come crashing down without having to go and get crazy in my own little Jericho. Occasionally, I need to just take a couple of deep breaths.

When I cool down, things tend to go easier. I have an easier time forgiving, an easier time being flexible, an easier time realizing when I have made a mistake, an easier time asking for forgiveness, and especially an easier time being the human who has to live under that collar.

I imagine that most people would find that life goes a lot easier when they give themselves time to calm down like cookie dough. Consider Proverbs 14:15-17: (NRSV)

The simple believe everything,
but the clever consider their steps.
The wise are cautious and turn away from evil,
but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.
One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly,
and the schemer is hated.

Second, I have learned the value of practice. When I first try a recipe, I generally do everything in the recipe the way that it is written. I found one recipe for a double-chocolate macaroon which was quite delicious as written. The coconut in the recipe was very tasty and the recipe as written was delicious.

I could keep enjoying that recipe the way it was written, but I have learned something valuable in all of my time in the kitchen. Practice widens the ability to experiment. I took the recipe, pondered the ingredients, considered the coconut, and then looked at the oven. I toasted the coconut in the oven to bring out the flavor found in the unassuming white shreds. From the outside, you would not know that the coconut had been altered. The coconut was covered and interlaced with two types of chocolate before being cooked and was no longer white regardless of what happened before making the cookies, but the taste of the cookies.

The toasted coconut dances with the chocolate. A steaming hot cup of coffee, those toasted coconut cookies, and a good conversation move a pretty good afternoon to an amazing afternoon.

The only reason that I knew how to move the cookies from good to amazing was because I spent time in the kitchen practicing. In ministry, as in life, there is value to practicing until you can not only know how to do a thing, but how to improvise based on the resources you have around you. Practice helps in public speaking, public praying, and musical performance. Practice helps you to be better when a friend needs comfort, when a neighbor needs a hand, when the world turns upside down, and when the unexpected happens. Life is better when you put in the time to practice, learn to improvise, and get to a place where challenges can be met with confidence and faith.

Third, I learned to forgive myself when I burn the cookies. Let’s be honest. Everyone burns cookies now and again. Learning to let go and move on with life is a life skill that we all need from time to time. Just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I first burnt bread, just as I had to learn to forgive myself when I messed up soup so badly it made me want to cry, and just as in all other things, I had to learn to forgive myself the first time the cookies were so hard I could break a tooth on them without a good soak in warm milk. The cookies burn, you salvage what you can, and you move on with life.

I hope these reflections on lessons from cookies helps you to think about what lessons you might learn from your kitchen, especially if you spend a lot of time in there like me. May God bless you as you learn from life’s mistakes and may you never be forced to frost something that is fine without it!

Let us Ramble: Strange Praise Music…

Recently, I picked up an anthology of poetic translations of the Psalms named “The Poets’ Book of Psalms” as compiled, edited, and introduced by Laurance Wieder. I have an affinity for collecting alternative translations of the Psalms. I have enjoyed Robert Alter’s “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” for several years now. I was recently introduced by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat to “Psalms in a translation for praying” by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

In the newest part of my collection of alternative translations to my tried and true New Revised Standard Version (the Wieder collection) there is a poetic translation of Psalm 150. Psalm 150 is part of the Revised Common Lectionary reading for today. John Davies, who lived from 1569 – 1626 CE translated this particular version of the Psalm. Here, from across the centuries, is John Davies poetic translation of Psalm 150:

“To him with trumpets and with flutes,
With cornets, clarions, and with lutes,
With harps, with organs, and with shawms,
With holy anthems and with psalms,
With voice of angels and of men,
Sing Alleluia: amen, amen.”

Some basic background on Sir. John Davies can be found here. To summarize, Sir. Davies was more than an Irish poet. Sir Davies was an attorney with a somewhat motley career which included being one of the most respected attorneys of the Emerald Isle and also being disbarred at different points. He has a very interesting political career both in Ireland and in England.

Regardless, in my corner of creation, Sir Davies’ poems are what most catch my attention a few centuries after their original publication. His work, while understandable, draws attention to various areas which a modern translation might miss.

My copy of “The Poets’ Book of Psalms.” Also pictured, the citrus tree my family gave me for Christmas two years ago and the Peace Lily which was a gift given to my family by a nearby church when my family moved to Maine, NY from Boonville, NY. Also, an essential oil diffuser which is a very calming addition to my home desk.

I enjoy this poetic understanding of Psalm 150 as a result of the way it draws attention to a timeless truth which I have come to understand in my own path through life. Let me point out the instruments used in the praise of God in this poem. God is praised with cornets, clarions, lutes, harps, organs, and shawms. I must say that I hear organs in worship on a regular basis due to where I serve and I do enjoy the harp when it is played well, but I do not hear much music on the radio played on cornets, clarions, or lutes. Upon first reading the translation, I did not even know what shawms might be, but after a quick google search, I did learn that it was a flute-like instrument. Shawms are not very popular on the radio these days.

The timeless truth these strange things point out is that the praise of God is greater than any instrument. There are no guitars, drum kits, d’jembes, or any of the instruments you might find in most modern praise bands. Still, in Sir Davies’ day, people praised the Lord with their own happy music. Holy anthems and psalms of Sir Davies’ day might be different from from any radio singles or YouTube praise chorus that might be produced today, but it seems that both types, although separated by centuries and cultures, praised the Lord.

Praise of God is greater than the instruments we use. When praise comes from the heart, it can be shared through a piano, a snare drum, an organ, some shawms, a bass guitar, a lute, a lyre, a harpsichord, a shofar, a bodhran, or a cowbell. I am thankful that this timeless truth is pointed out through paying attention to a very old poem from an Irish attorney.

Let us Seek: “All that is required…”

In pondering today’s scripture reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, I found myself thinking back to “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies” as first printed in the 1808 Discipline under the heading “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” In reading the description of the societies which gave birth to churches, there is much to ponder.

The classes which comprised each society consisted of individuals who would meet with a leader weekly to talk about how their own faith journey was progressing, find what was needed for life (whether that be encouragement, reproof, advice, comfort, etc.), and to collect what each was willing to give for the relief of their preachers, the church, and the poor. Each week (or (as I understand it) as often as possible in a circuit where the preacher would travel long distances), the leaders would meet with the minister to talk about challenges, which challenging class-members needed individualized attention from the minister, and to give funds to the stewards of the society. Those were different times with different understandings of what was expected of church members.

Having now given a, extremely basic overview of what classes were within the societies of yesteryear, I will share why I was thinking about the General Rules while pondering the reading for today, which is 1 John 3:10-16. There’s a line in the General Rules about how a person could become involved with those societies which sticks in the mind. The line says:

“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”

The General Rules go on to talk about how those who wish to continue in the societies that they evidence their desire to be saved through following guidelines on how to live life in terms of doing no evil (don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t profane the Sabbath, don’t engage in drunkenness, don’t engage in slaveholding, don’t quarrel, don’t buy or sell illegal goods, don’t charge unlawful interest on others, don’t speak evil of others (especially governmental leaders and ministers), etc.). doing good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, exhorting all souls towards God, helping others within the household of faith, being frugal, having patience, etc.), and attending on the ordinances of God (go to church, spend time with the word, take communion, pray, fasting, etc.).

Some of these concepts are a bit foreign to us. A lot of our churches would be in trouble if we felt that speaking poorly of governmental leaders or our pastors was grounds for expulsion or reproof. We might raise an eyebrow at someone for drinking too much, suggest counseling, invite them to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or simply pray deeply, but to expel someone from the church for even buying an alcoholic beverage is not a common standard for expulsion from church membership these days.

Times have changed over the centuries, but I continue to believe that there are still standards which we hold as church that continue to evolve. In some ways, we continue to struggle with some of the original concerns of the United Societies, but our role in the world has called us to be more vocal on other concerns.

Forgetting our identity as those who seek to live in this life as God’s people has proved disastrous in the past, such as when we forgot our call to avoid slavery as sin in the midst of the centuries that have passed since those rules were recorded in 1808. Forgetting our identity led to massive quantities of evil and suffering for those who were enslaved and in the souls of those who enslaved others. Forgetting our identity led to a grim chapter in our history which still has an effect today.

It is just as easy to forget our continually changing identity in the present as it was for those folks who struggled with slavery in bygone years. Reflecting on this reality, I pondered the scripture deeply in light of upcoming events.

This Saturday, April 21st, the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will kickoff the “Imagine No Racism” Campaign. We are gathering as a Conference to seek to imagine a better world without racism and (hopefully) with equity, and this gathering came to mind as I read today’s scripture. 1 John 3:10-16 reads this way in the New Revised Standard Version:

“The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What does it mean to desire to flee wrath by fleeting towards God? What does it mean to evidence that continuing effort by doing no intentional harm through our actions? What does it mean to do what is right in a world that is marked by racial injustice?

The very first message we heard, according to the writer of this epistle, was that we should love one another. First and foremost, the message was to love. How can we claim to live in love if we see people around us suffering due to their genetic composition? If Christ laid down His life for our lives, are we not called to do the same for each other? Does the need have to be as drastic as a life and death situation for us to be called to act?

I know many people who grew up with racial biases who would have nonetheless laid down their lives in order to save the lives of people (that they thought less of due to their ethnicity) due to their own moral, religious, and even political beliefs. To lay down one’s life is often a momentary decision and many individuals would have the courage to make that sacrifice in a moment.

I would love to say that those brave folks would lay down their privilege, their comfort, or their well-being over the long-term for those who are suffering from racial injustice, but I am not always certain that they would do the same over the (much more challenging) long term. In honesty, I would love to say that I know that I am perfectly laying down self-interest myself, but there is something to be said for the fact that moving away from “thoughts and prayers” for racial justice towards courageous acts to reassert equilibrium requires more than a moment’s courage or conviction for those of us who have privilege. I seek the courage and endurance to do so perfectly, but I often fall flat on my face. These words don’t come from a “holier than thou” stance. I often do not know how to move forward myself.

To move towards equilibrium will require more than most of us, including me, currently possess. It will require… imagination! Movement towards that equilibrium will also require the courage and character to do more than imagine, but it is hard to do anything but spin our wheels until we have an image of that more perfect (united) society in our collective mind and heart.

Although I hate to bring in my readings for The Academy for Spiritual Formation into yet another blog post, I am reminded of the writings of George Govorov. Theophan the Recluse (yes, that’s George Govorov) taught that growth in prayer must go through stages. I won’t quote a specific paragraph, because (as a friend put it) that particular chapter (the second) is kind of like a broken record.

  1. Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
  2. Prayer of the Mind: Prayer that has a resonance in the mind. There are no absent actions here. The prayer of the body is caught up into conscious thought and action through the mind. Each word is pondered in the mind, each movement is done with intention, etc.
  3. Prayer of the Heart: Prayer moves beyond word, thought, and deed to a place where it comes from the center of our being. Prayer of the heart does not preclude physical actions or pondering words, but goes deeper. In Bishop Theophan’s view, prayer of the heart is at the center of true prayer.

In Govorov’s view, moving through each stage of prayer takes time, effort, and dedication. For some, the place where they belong is in practicing with their body until rhythm is established. For others, there is a moment for letting the words rattle through their minds until it takes root. For other, true prayer requires the heart to work in concert with the body and mind. A person united in body, mind, and heart could truly enter into God’s presence through prayer until their soul was set alight through the Holy Spirit!

It is my hope that we would continue to go on towards Christ through events like the gatherings this Saturday. I pray we move past dwelling in the midst of death into living in a place of love. For some, that may mean learning new words and new actions. Prayers of repentance in the body might mean learning new ways of living, new ways of acting, and even new ways of speaking. For others, this may be an opportunity to connect our mind to things we are already doing. What does it mean to speak out for justice with words that are not platitudes but are deeply pondered? What does it mean to ponder the words of others instead of just listening with one ear and letting those words pass out the other? For others, this may be a moment to let the heart take hold of deep truths.

I am not certain where I fall in that realm of prayer for repentance. In some areas I am likely in one place and in another place in other places. Regardless, as I ponder the scripture today, I am reminded of my desire to flee the wrath that comes from living in the midst of death. May God give me the courage to have open ears this Saturday and to enter more deeply into a prayer which may take a lifetime or longer to comprehend.

This church in Sawmill, AZ helped me to grow as a person as I faced my own racial biases while on two United Methodist Volunteers In Mission trips. I cannot tell you how much I was blessed by the people of this small but mighty Diné church.

Let us Preach: “A Different Kind of Audit”

This open letter to St. John was shared from the pulpit this Sunday morning. Several folks requested I put it online for them to read again. Improvisational changes that were made on the fly are not included here. This is the manuscript that I read and adapted from this morning.

Date; Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Scriptures: 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Message: “A Different Kind of Audit”

April 15, 2018

St. John
Patmos Island
Greece circa the end of first century CE

Dear John,

(No friends, this isn’t that kind of letter…)

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. I am writing this letter to you today from the community of the saints found many centuries and many miles from Patmos. Tradition tells us that you spent your last days in exile in Patmos, although people wonder if you are the same John who scribed the book of Revelation. In fact, to be entirely honest, many scholars wonder if you wrote the three letters which have been ascribed to you. Did your students write those letters after your death?

To be entirely honest, while authorship is an intriguing discussion for a Bible study, I’m writing today because our community is celebrating the season of Eastertide. We’re looking at stories of the resurrection, pondering the words of 1 John, and wondering what is expected of us. We live in a different age, a different time, and in different circumstances. It has been nearly two millennia since you witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection. It has been nearly two millennia since Jesus told Thomas that those who did not see but believed would be blessed. It has been a very long time.

I’m the pastor of this flock and that means a lot of different things in this time and age. I am here to encourage and to train people in the ways of faith. I am here to educate and inspire people to seek after Jesus. I am here to proclaim mysteries that seem ancient to many of the people in my church. I am called to witness to the life, the teachings, and the blessings of life with Jesus. I am called to witness to the life, the warnings, and the challenges of life with Jesus. I am called and ordained to baptize, to share the Lord’s supper, and to proclaim the word of God.

Yet, I wonder… What must it have been like to have seen Christ in the flesh? What must it have been like to see him take fish and eat after he had died? It must have been much easier to say to people “I have seen these things with my own eyes!” How much power rested in your lips when you proclaimed these truths which are now considered practically ancient to people for the first time? How much did it change their lives?

In a world with such high infant and pregnancy mortality rates, did grieving mothers and heart-broken widowers weep with joy to hear of one who had shown there was life after death? In a world without modern medicine, scientific method, or basic understanding of things like germs, was it awe-inspiring to see people be changed by stories of Christ’s healings? Could you see the hope show in their eyes?

The people I minister with have their own struggles. We’ve figured out a lot about germ theory, but cancer has become a faceless horror in many life. We’ve learned many mysteries about the human brain, but we have people who are still lost in the midst of depression, anxiety, and grief. War still remains and I sometimes wish we had swords to beat into plowshares instead of bombs, bullets, and grenades. We still face a world filled with challenge, sorrow, and pain.

John, how did you get the people to understand? Was your personal witness enough or was it an insistent, consistent, and powerful reminder of who God was in their lives? When the world would not recognize them as God’s children, did you invite them to remember God’s claim on their lives? When they themselves lost hope, did you remind them that even the darkness of the grave could not overcome Christ? How did you get them to see? Was it all God’s work in their lives or was there something they needed to claim, to grasp, to believe in order to find hope?

John, I’m a Methodist and our founder John Wesley believed that God gave grace to each person to help them come to a place where they could encounter Jesus. He called it prevenient grace and it was a grace that was poured out on all people. He taught God’s love was a source of light to all people and to me that grace is hope. The world can come to know a God who can change people.

The letter we read invites people to become pure as Christ is pure. The letter we read invites people to understand that they are invited to live lives marked with righteousness and goodness. The people are invited to live lives which are desperately needed in my world John. How do I convince them to see the truth of this life? The world is dark, but they are being remade into the likeness of the invisible image of God. Jesus told them that they are the light of the world and sometimes it seems they forget that concept.

In our day there’s something called an audit. An audit is a very close examination. For many folks, this word makes people especially nervous around the date I am writing you this letter. Today is traditionally the day that taxes are due in this country and occasionally the tax collectors will audit what an individual says they owe. Yes, tax collectors are still unpopular nearly 2,000 years later. Some things must be cross-cultural.

I bring up the idea of an audit because audits are meant to keep people honest. A tax audit is a close look at how one calculates what is owed to the government. Do you remember when Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? A tax audit is meant to make certain that our Caesar is getting what our Caesar claims for things like roads, protection, etc.

How do I convince people that we all might need to do a different kind of audit for our own sake? If we are made to be in relationship with you, if our hearts and souls are meant to be filled with love for God and neighbor, if we are meant to be remade in the image of God, doesn’t it make sense to slow down and see where we are on our faith journey? Does it not make sense to take a close look in seasons like this one?

To put it in practical terms, let’s look at a scripture Jesus said he came to fulfill. Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). If we were to take a close look at our lives, do we see ourselves in the midst of Christ’s mission as people who are being remade in Christ’s image?

Christ came to proclaim good news to the poor. Poverty is about more than money. My people and I live in a world where substance abuse is claiming lives all around us. People are addicted to alcohol, opioids, narcotics, and a host of other substances. Some of the people who are in the midst of these addictions open their eyes in sobriety and only see hopelessness and death. When we look in ourselves, do we see people who have experienced the risen Savior? Do we see in ourselves children of God who walk in hope? Can we dream of a world remade in your image where the hopelessness they feel is overshadowed by life? Can we share with them a world in which death has been overcome by life? Can we dream of a world where people look at one who should be dead or a ghost and find a Savior who is alive?

Christ came to restore sight to the blind. Blindness is about more than sight. Blindness is a way of life. The blind are often forced to trust others with their safety, their wellbeing, and their journey from one place to another. The blind are vulnerable in ways people with sight are not. Can we proclaim a world where people truly see the way and find hope beyond death, a place where none of us can truly see? When we examine ourselves, do we see beyond the curtain of death? In other words John, how can I invite people to ponder resurrection beyond their sight?

Christ came to set prisoners free, to break oppression, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor. John, how do I invite people to take a close look and see if they are shackled to things that just drag them down? John, you knew favor. When we celebrate the Lord’s table, we do not often draw attention to the fact that you were right there, sitting by Jesus’ side as the powerful words we remember were spoken…

Actually, that’s not true. You were not just sitting by Jesus’ side. You were reclining with Jesus. You were at peace with a teacher you loved and who loved you back. For all the oppression of Romans and pressures from religious leaders that might stand outside the door, you were at peace with Jesus. For all of the people who were planning to bind up Jesus in chains and for all of the challenges ahead, you were at peace with Jesus. You, John, of all people, knew what it means to be at peace with the person who was revealed to be the very image of God made flesh.

How do I invite people to be at peace like you? How do I find ways to cultivate that peace within myself? There are so many things we let take us captive John. We live in fear of war and sorrow. We live in fear of cancer and heartbreak. We live in fear of loss. We have been taught that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As one who reclined with perfect love, saw that love resurrected from the grave, and as one who spent his life teaching others about that love, how do we believe like you believed? How do we live as you lived?

John, I realize that you cannot really write back. Patmos is another time and place isolated by nearly 2,000 years and a world of cultural differences. Still, perhaps the Holy Spirit can help us with answers to these questions. Your gospel did tell us that Christ would leave an Advocate who would teach us on God’s behalf. While I await God’s response through the Holy Spirit, I will say that I look forward to seeing you at the resurrection on the final day. Until then, may you rest in God’s peace.

May all honor, glory, and power be given to the God we both love,

Rev. Robert Dean
Maine Federated Church
Many miles and years in the future.

Let us Ramble: On being willing to fail

It has not happened often, but I have been asked a few times over my career as a minister for the best advice I have for people entering the ministry. I credit the scarcity of the question on the fact that I am completing my first decade of pastoral ministry on July 1st of this year. I have been asked a variant of this question a lot more often. How do you keep going in ministry?

I think this second question is prevalent as a result of a number of challenges faced by people entering into the ministry during this time. Our churches are tending to skew towards the higher age brackets, anxiety is rising, and often pastors are held accountable for the overall health of a congregation, even if they’ve been in an appointment for such a short period of time that there has been an inability for trust to be built, for change to occur, or for grief over the loss of a previous pastor to fully develop and be expressed within the hearts of congregants. Pastors are being placed in difficult situations which lead to poor health, poor moods, and unhealthy dynamics in personal and professional lives.

How do you keep going when a new church needs your attention but your daughter is grieving over the loss of her previous community? How do you decide between going to your daughter’s sports practice which you’ve missed two weeks in a row and helping set tables for a church fundraiser, especially when you know church meetings will make you miss her first three games in the upcoming weeks? How do you keep going through the thick and thin of a challenging time in ministry, especially if you don’t have a decade of relationships and trust to work with in your setting?

I give the same answer to both questions. You have to be willing to fail. I often hear the words of advice “Do you really want to die on that hill?” To survive on ministry, you have to be willing to die on some hills. I know that sounds crazy, but to survive over the long haul I believe that you have to be willing to sacrifice the easy path to seek after the life-giving death that comes with seeking after your ideals. I also do not believe this advice is for ministers alone. I think we all need to be willing to live out who we actually are in a very challenging world.

Let me give you a great example. I believe the best food is homemade. I know that there are great restaurants out there with wonderful food that I’ll never be able to make, but in reality, on a regular basis, the most consistent good food you can share with a family can come from your own kitchen.

Why? You know how your ingredients have been treated, you know how they were cooked, and if something goes wrong, you can adjust until you learn how to avoid that problem. You don’t need to rely on a cook that is paid an unfair wage, you don’t need to rely on a server that might be in a bad mood, and you don’t need to worry about the conditions of the kitchen. You can adjust the cooking to allergy needs or personal preferences. You know what is good and what is bad, and frankly, at least in our area, good ingredients like a nice roast and trimmings cost far less than a dinner for four at a restaurant.

How do you get to the point where that can be a reality? To bring the best to the table, you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to set an achievable goal and then seek after it heart and soul. You have to find a purpose that is worth your time and go after it, even if you’ll likely fail, because people cannot live on fast food alone. People need depth. People need macaroni and cheese made with carrots snuck in to get veggies into picky kids. People need a good marinated chicken breast that hasn’t sat in a refrigerator for weeks past when it should have been cooked. People need good food in their bodies.

My first attempt at gluten-free communion bread rolled to different thicknesses…

Let’s take this example as a good start. On Friday, my Sabbath (or as I like to refer to it my ”bread day”) I made my first attempt at making flatbread with gluten-free flour. To be fair, it is actually based on a recipe for Indian flatbread called roti. I substituted some Gluten-Free flour, tried to make the recipe as indicated, realized the dough was wrong, and began to adjust through the addition of things like binding agents and additional moisture.

The first attempt is gone. I rolled it too thin, decided to see how it tasted without eating breakfast, and then had a breakfast of far too thin roti which was both piping hot and delicious. I noted my problems, tried to roll it thicker, realized there was still a problem, added moisture to the edges, and tried again. All it all, I made six “loaves” of gluten-free bread, all of which probably won’t cut the mustard for use in church. It tastes great and a great tasting mistake is okay in my book, but it won’t do what it needs to do for my purposes.

Now, let’s say it will take three more attempts before I get this right. Maybe I’ll need to try something different a time or two. Perhaps chia seeds won’t be gelatinous enough to bind the bread together without eggwhite. Perhaps adding more xantham gum will make it taste awful. Let’s say I get to communion Sunday, bring something that is made to the best of my ability, and receive nothing but criticism. What will I do?

I can tell you what I will do. I will hold my head up high, take the criticism, and go back to the kitchen to keep working. Why? Why not take the easy path? Why not try another loaf of gluten-free bread that has been sitting on the shelf in the store? Why not buy the dough frozen? Why not quit while I am ahead?

The plain and simple reason why is that I do not want to quit. I keep going in ministry because I decide there are times when I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of that person who won’t come to communion because they’re embarrassed. Who am I to walk away when I know there is a concrete need in front of me? I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of making sure the means of grace is available to those person while we are all sharing from one loaf as one body of Christ. I am willing to die on that hill because it is better to die with integrity to my spirit than to live with a broken heart.

If you are going to be in ministry you are going to face difficult times. Ministers are many things. We stand up front talking about God and so people will take out their anger with God on us. We talk about inclusion in the body of Christ, so we will bear the brunt of criticism when a member of our church does something exclusive to hurt others. We are the person up front helping put together worship in a way that honors God and that might mean leaving out a favorite hymn of someone for a period that they feel is too long. We will face criticism for that as well. Doing your job as a shepherd means not everyone will be happy.

Spoiler alert: Those words apply to more than just ministers. Teachers, parents will complain. Nurses, patients will continue to buck the advice of the doctor despite your best efforts. Bus drivers, “the wheels on the bus” sung fifty times in a row might be a far better way to spend a given day than to hear cranky kids, wet from the rain, bicker all the way to school. All of us will be challenged and all of us will face situations that demand we make a choice of how we want to live our lives. Sometimes that will lead to us facing hardship, challenge, and occasionally persecution.

We will all face difficult times. The question as you face your difficult times is whether or not you can find things you are passionate about and be happy to die on the hill for that passion and for the sake of your own soul. To be fair, I have found that most people will understand why you are doing what you are doing if you explain it to them. Is gluten-free communion important to you? Explain it with passion, explain your willingness to keep trying, and express that this is one of those places where you have to maintain integrity with your own spirit and most mature people will try to work with you.

Actually, sometimes following your passion frees others to follow their passions. You might die on that hill, but when that resurrection love of God brings life back into your broken bones, you may just open your eyes to see people living into their own personhood all the more powerfully as a result of your example. People can be inspired by sacrifice as much as by success, and that’s important to remember as well.

In the meantime, if you are going through a hard time, whether in ministry or not, I want to encourage you to find a hill that you’re willing to die upon. Stand up for your heart and soul and sacrifice. Jesus taught us that “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Sometimes we need to stand up against that which we hate and be willing to find ourselves on the other side of our resurrection with life everlasting.

Let us Ramble: Common threads of grace

I have been working through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In particular, I have been working through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Nalamo and Translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer. I was reading through the second chapter when I was struck by the words of Theophan the Recluse on grace. Theophan writes in the section entitled “The prayer of the mind in the heart”:

“But no one is refused. Because all have grace, only one thing is necessary; to give this grace free scope to act. Grace receives free scope in so far as the ego is crushed and the passions uprooted. The more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God. And when the heart is fully purified, then this feeling of warmth towards God takes fire…Grace builds up everything because grace is always present in believers.”

Of course, as a good United Methodist, I was immediately drawn to these words on grace. John Wesley penned and preached a sermon entitled “Free Grace” in 1739, which was 76 years before Bishop Theophan was born. In that sermon, John Wesley wrote the following:

“The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all.

First, it is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver, nor on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions, for all these flow from the free grace of God. They are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it all. Thus is his grace free in all, that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but to God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and with him freely giveth us all things.”

I would like to think that Wesley’s work might have had an influence on that of Bishop Theophan, but given the time of the Bishop’s life, even as a scholar, it would be unlikely that Bishop Theophan would have been heavily influenced by a reformer like John Wesley within the Anglican church.

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Two books in a stand isn’t nearly as catchy a phrase as two peas in a pod…

 

Regardless, clearly both Bishop Theophan and John Wesley agreed on the power of grace, the presence of grace being available for all people, and the ability for that grace to build up everything and to draw us closer to God.

All of this being said, there’s a major difference in thought here. While Bishop Theophan believed that grace was free for all, he warns the people reading his work to take care not to stifle the spirit. He writes earlier in the same paragraph quoted before:

“He who turns to God and is sanctified by the sacraments, immediately receives feeling towards God within himself, which from this moment begins to lay the foundation in his heart for the ascent on high. Provided he does not stifle it by something unworthy, this feeling will be kindled into flame, by time, perseverance, and labour. But if he stifles it by something unworthy, although the path of approach of approach and reconciliation to God is not thereby closed to him, this feeling will no longer be given at once and gratis. Before him is the sweat and work of seeking and of gaining it by prayer. But no one is refused…”

There is a difference in understanding here. Although both John Wesley and Bishop Theophan believe in the power of grace, there seems to be a disconnect on how that grace can and will be applied. For Bishop Theophan, if there is a stifling of the grace of God, at some point there is a place where labor becomes necessary to achieve a reconnection to God’s mighty acts of grace.

For Wesley, while there is a strong connection to the concept of choice, the reality is that the good which is done by humans is done through God. Although our choices may lead to blessed events like the floodgates of grace being opened, the freedom of grace beginning to work fully within us, and a reshaping of ourselves into the further image of Christ, these are but streams of God’s grace, not the fountain of the grace itself. To put it another way, we might grow branches out from the trunk of who we are in Christ, but without the roots made in, through, and by God, we will achieve nothing.

I might be making too strong a point for the differentiation here, but let’s think about the difference. What if Wesley is correct that if God, putting a stumbling block between sinners and salvation, would be acting like a crocodile shedding tears “over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction?” To complete the quote “Free Grace” by John Wesley:

“To say that [God] did not intend to save all sinners is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.’ If then you say he calls those who cannot come, those whom he knows to be unable to come, those whom he can make able to come but will not, how is it possible to describe greater insincerity?’ You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying one thing and meaning another; as pretending the love which he had not. Him ‘in whose mouth was no guile’ you make full of deceit, void of common sincerity. Then especially, when drawing nigh the city, ‘he wept over it’, and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together… and ye would not…’ Now if you say, ‘They would’, but ‘he would not,’ you represent him (which who could hear’) as weeping crocodile’s tears, weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction.”

These words, like many of the words of John Wesley, are very strong. To be honest though, there’s some merit to what Wesley wrote. How could God say “I desire good for all” while setting such a high standard for a future with God after a stifling of that grace? Does not grace abound when one chooses to turn from sin?

Do we choose to continue in sin knowing this to be the case? I would say that would grieve the heart of anyone who loves God and is grateful for salvation, but I cannot believe that God would put a firm barrier that some could not overcome between their desire to find salvation and the achievement of that goal. Even if that warming of the spirit is simply an assurance of salvation, I cannot believe that God would slam that door so heavily.

How could one even desire to move past a place of futility if the feeling “towards God” described by Bishop Theophan is stifled and no longer free of charge? Would you turn to God for a path towards salvation if you had not desire in your heart to draw nearer? Would not such a journey become nearly impossible given the fact that the reward itself is something that can only be seen and felt by faith and not the eyes? A person might work at a job they hate because of a paycheck that comes regularly, but would they do the same job with the assurance that they would be paid when the job was complete? Would they do so if they did not even feel an iota of love or desire to be near and with the one who would bring that good into their life?

There is much to think about with these streams of grace. What do you believe about grace? Is it free to all? Is John Wesley’s desciption a grace which is too “cheap” in the words of Bonhoeffer? Is grace something else entirely? What are your thoughts?

Let us Ramble: Patience and Wisdom

The other day I woke up early to get a wood chipper to help remove some branches from the church property. Winter was windy, one tree had to be cut down, and we had lots of loose branches to handle. I arose early in the morning and headed out to pick up a rented wood chipper. On the way, I stopped to get a cup of coffee. Yard work is thirsty work, especially early in the morning.

I stopped at a nearby donut shop and noticed a huge line of cars in the drive through. The cars were literally lining up to zipper-merge from both directions in order to get breakfast, coffee, or whatever the people wanted. The number of people idling in line in running cars was staggering.

The view from my car window. License plates blurred because I’m a nice guy.

I thought to myself that I would probably have to wait in line for quite a while inside if the store were that busy. I walked in the door and there were three people sitting at a table while people bustled behind the counter. Otherwise, the donut shop was empty. I walked right up, picked up my order, and was out the door in less time than it took one of those cars to move one position in the line.

As I slipped into my car, I wondered about the situation. Every time I went to that particular location in the morning it seemed that the line outside was always longer than the line inside. I regularly walked in and out while people sat and looked at me through their windows. Nothing staggeringly new was taking place this particular morning. I long ago learned that patience is a virtue, but not the only virtue. Wisdom and experience taught me to plan to walk into the restaurant instead of waiting in line. It is simply faster at that location to walk in the door. It is even faster if you order ahead on their smartphone app.

As I pondered this I thought about all of the other times I have “waited in line.” There are things that I really wanted to have happen in my life, but I would just sit there and watch the world pass by outside the window of my life. I would sit behind a useless steering wheel which could do nothing as I was not moving, twiddle my thumbs, and wait for the world to magically become a better place.

Occasionally, over the years I have had the wisdom to get out of the car a couple of times. I am married and have kids because I decided to step out of the car and enter into a relationship with a wonderful woman. I continue to be married because I do my best to move forward with life despite challenges that I could easily blame on others. I can cook because I decided to stop just longing to be able to create good food and began to ask questions of people who I knew could cook. I entered into the ministry, sought after the best parts of myself, and battled my demons. I didn’t always get out of the car, but I have learned the value of not waiting for everything to be handed over on a silver platter.

Now, let’s be clear. I am all for understanding the value of patience. Still, while patience is a virtue, sometimes in life we need to step out of the car. I regularly hear people speak of the world around them in tones that imply a certain kind of irritated, frustrated patience is all that can exist. People wish the world was kinder, wish their workplace was friendlier, or wonder why their church does not have more visitors. The world is full of lovely wishes that never change a thing because they are not acted upon by anyone.

What if the answer is that we need to get out of our car? Yes, we can wait until someone else invites a stranger to church, but what if we were to extend that invitation? Yes, we can hope that people in the workplace would be nicer to one another, but what if we were to seek out ways to be nice? Yes, we can bemoan the world becoming a crueler place, but we can also seek to bring love back into the dark places of the world.

We don’t need to wait in line for someone to bring what we need to our window. We can go to seek it out. We have the capacity as people for wonderful things. Let’s do some of them!

Let us Ramble: Prayer and Worship

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of sitting in worship. My wife has been spending a lot of time with the good folks of the Newark Valley United Church of Christ. Once a month they have been having an evening worship service with communion. My family and I attend this service for two reasons. One, it is wonderful to support my wife by going to a church of her choice, which is a rarity as most Sunday mornings I am where I am appointed. Two, it is an opportunity to sit in worship as a person and not as the leader. Sunday morning is a time of worship for me, but I rarely get the privilege of listening to another preacher work through the word of God with the people of God.

So, Sunday night, Pastor Chris Xenakis, a colleague and the pastor of the Groton Community Church, was visiting to preach, serve communion, and lead worship. After his sermon, Chris said something to the effect of “Prayer is the most important part of worship. In many ways, all of worship is a prayer.” Pastor Xenakis is a wise man.

Chris’ words kept ringing through my ears after I returned home. After I realized that it was not going to go away until I figured out why it was bugging me, I went hunting through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I found the source of my distraction in “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology.” In that anthology, Bishop Theophan (1815-1894) of the Orthodox persuasion, is quoted as saying the following in the second chapter under the subheading “The test of everything”:

“Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”

The affirmation of prayer by Bishop Theophan is deep, thought-provoking, and reminiscent of what Pastor Xenakis said during the service. Prayer is seen in this concept as that which exists at the heart of everything. Prayer provides everything, drives everything, and directs everything. The bold statement is made that everything is right when prayer is right.

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My thought-provoking copy of “The Art of Prayer”

These concepts tug at my thoughts in deep ways. What is life but an act of worship? We worship when we use our resources to God’s glory. We worship when we choose to use our time wisely. We worship when we treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves with love. We worship when we tend to the world in which we have been placed. All of life can be seen as an invitation to worship. If all worship is a prayer, then truly prayer is at the very heart of our existence.

So, the question then becomes obvious. How do we know if our prayer is right? What litmus test can we apply to our actions, our stewardship, and our relationships that can show whether we are on the right track?

I believe the answer is love. Do our actions exhibit love? Do our prayers lead to more love? If God is love, then we should strive to be more loving. If God is love, then our actions should point towards the Source of love. If God is love, then we are invited to join in the great dance of love through Christ. I believe the true litmus test of our lives is whether or not we are sources of love like the one we worship and claim as our savior.

Inevitably, someone will question whether or not Jesus’ suffering was in line with the idea of prayer not allowing anything to go wrong. In the end, Jesus conquered his suffering and death. As a resurrection people, we are a people who understand that sometimes all is made well on the other side of suffering, struggle, and occasionally death. Can we be patient enough to allow all to be made well? Can we be patient enough to allow things to be made right even when it seems they all have gone wrong?

In the meantime, I am grateful that I went to the evening service on Sunday. It is nice to be in worship and to have the opportunity to both sing from the pews and to hear a good sermon. I will probably keep thinking about Chris’ words on worship and how Bishop Theophan invites us from across the centuries to ponder whether those prayers are the test of everything.

Let us Ramble: On Gluten-Free Communion

Today I intend to ruffle some feathers. I do not often choose to intentionally poke my head into controversial affairs, but I was recently the subject of several heated arguments around a practice our church has adopted for 2018. In 2018 our church is serving gluten-free communion bread to all people who come to the communion table.

I would love to say the most heated debates were in the church, but honestly, the church was not at the heart of the biggest debates. The biggest debates have taken place in my family’s kitchen. The phrase “Never discuss politics or religion” does not hold much water in a minister’s house. Discussions with family members often stray into religious matters and there are few things as capable of bringing consternation into a family meal than conversations around things held as holy as the sacraments. I am blessed to have an extended family who can live with differences of opinion as long as they say their piece. Regardless, I have learned to never bring this subject again during Easter dinner. I’m guessing it would not go over well at Christmas or Thanksgiving either.

Still, I am passionate about this subject, even as I understand the reticence of folks to having anything change. If a church has had the same type of bread for the past 50 years, it can be hard to understand why they need to change because of others. Would it not be enough if we were to put a couple of gluten free wafers on a plate? Why should we all have to “suffer” from having bad bread in order to allow one or two people an easier time coming to communion?

Well, I have theories and responses to those questions. First, let’s deal with the idea of having two loaves of bread. Consider the words from the “Service of Word and Table I” in the United Methodist Hymnal: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” While the body may be shared in other churches with different loaves, there is something powerful about witnessing that in the local church we are all sharing in one loaf as one body. There is no division when we share one loaf.

The other questions about suffering bad bread and about changing our own behavior will take a bit more nuance. I will say there is a thing called bad bread. Bad bread comes from people who have not taken the time to learn how to make bread. As we currently have a study based on the spirituality that can be drawn from bread baking, we are currently creating a crop of good bakers who may be able to rise (pun intended) to that particular challenge.

So, let’s go deep. In 2004 the church adopted the document “This Holy Mystery.” The document laid out the groundwork for the United Methodist Church’s understanding of the sacrament of communion. The document is a deep document, which has been reprinted in subsequent Books of Resolution, including the 2016 Book of Resolutions.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from “This Holy Mystery” found in the subsection labeled “Communion Elements.” The excerpt speaks on the use of alcohol at the communion table:

“Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations
have always used wine in the Eucharist. During the movement against beverage
alcohol in the late nineteenth century, the predecessor bodies of The United
Methodist Church turned to the use of unfermented grape juice. This continues to be the position of the denomination.”

There is a tradition of using alcoholic wine at the communion table. Despite that tradition, the United Methodist Church does not use alcohol at the communion table. We share in the unfermented fruit of the vine. Why buck tradition to engage in a practice that differs from so many other denominations? Our church felt a call to battle the spirits of spirits and we continue to stand against the abuses of alcohol. Consider what it says in ¶3042 of the 2016 Book of Resolutions:

“As God’s children and participants in the gift of abundant life, we recognize the need to respond to those who know brokenness from the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs in our world. The experience of God’s saving grace offers wholeness to each individual. In light of the reality of alcohol and other drug abuse, the church has a responsibility to recognize brokenness and to be an instrument of education, healing, and restoration.”

Consider the words and the implications of this responsibility to recognize, educate, heal, and restore those struggling with alcoholism. Our love of these individuals has moved us as a denomination to do something strange. We recognized the problem and as a church we chose to change instead of continuing to follow tradition. Compassion and wisdom moved the church to consider the challenge faced by individuals. The church was convicted.

If you are not familiar with life in most churches, change is a difficult idea. For some people, change is a four letter word. Despite the power of tradition, inertia, and complacency, an entire denomination decided to do something different for the sake of people who had a need. The church felt a responsibility upon recognizing the brokenness of individuals. This motivated them to do things differently.

I can personally attest that there are folks who do not come forward at communion because of a number of factors. Some people think those wafers are nasty and they usually are pretty bad. I have to agree and sometimes admit that the gluten-variety are no picnic either. That being said, if we’re serving wafers, which occasionally happens when plans go askew, we can all suffer together.

Some people do not come forward because of embarrassment. Why are they embarrassed? Sadly, snide comments about having gluten-free communion is one reason. Some people believe they are drawing attention away from communion if they confuse things by asking for something different. Some people believe others will judge them for “wanting to be different” even if they have an actual concern like celiac’s disease.

For these folks, I will name the brokenness. The Lord’s table is a place of welcome and grace. If embarrassment keeps people from participating in this means of grace, the situation needs to be addressed. To avoid the difficulty being faced by individuals for the sake of our own comfort is selfish. In United Methodist tradition, the sacrament is a form of blessing from God. Our lives are literally made better by participating in the sacrament. How could we look at the table, see there are people who feel excluded, and not work to address the situation?

In other words, if we have to choose between our gluten-filled tradition and the possibility (in our church the certainty) that a gluten-free change will help to bless more people, are we not obligated to consider a change? If the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, are we not obligated to make certain that they are welcome at the communion table? In this odd, strange, topsy-turvy world, doesn’t our own integrity demand action?

The bread to be and several tools. Bob’s Red Mill does not sponsor me, although we would be happy to pray for them if they mailed us a couple of coupons. Gluten-free flour isn’t cheap!

Now, I want to be clear. I do not believe in judging other churches or other ministers. Each church has to make their own decisions. As far as my ministry is concerned, I am always seeking to draw the circle of inclusion wider. I will keep trying to serve gluten-free communion as often as possible to make certain people are not left out. So, wish me luck as I seek to perfect gluten-free bread making despite the fact that I personally add extra gluten to the bread I make for my family. Pray for me as well, because it is difficult to educate when you only have a few minutes on any given communion Sunday.