“Can you see deep down?” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Holy One, do You know me? Deep down can You see? All of the places in me? They just look at me And they simply laugh away. Sometimes it breaks me To wake up and see just me. I walk lonely ways. There are many simple ways That You might help me. My wounded, lonely spirit Cries sadly, Spirit.
Can you see my heart Spirit? You knit all of me knowing my bones and spirit? My sad cracked spirit? What could you possibly see You love me Spirit? The world needed me Spirit? Not hiding away? Not shunned or thrown far away From this life Spirit? I am confused by Your ways. Help me see Your ways.
I can see some of the ways With happy Spirit. When I walk down pleasant ways I trace Your ways– Fingerprints of You in Me. Marks of Your deep ways Show in the subtlest of ways When I slow to see The goodness that You must see In Your ancient ways. You draw me from far away. I can't stay away.
Things that I would toss away You bless through Your ways. You toss ideal away. Discard it away As You stitch up my Spirit. Weave, subtle Spirit. Bless my imperfect spirit As You work in me, As You work to renew me. Do not stay away. Open my eyes–help me see The perfect You see.
I can't always clearly see How You work away To form what You hope to see. Pain distracts, You see? Work in me Your calming ways. Bless my eyes to see The vision that You did see When You put spirit In my flesh by Your Spirit. Bless my soul to see The loveliness within me, the best part of me.
Holy One, you do know me. Though it's hard to see You are never far away. Teach me Your deep ways Until spirit knows Spirit.
Sunday mornings I lead worship at the Maine Federated Church. This past Sunday I spoke with our younger disciples about Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is a tricky psalm in places, so we focused on the first 18 verses. There are words about God surrounding someone on every side, words about God crafting someone with care, and words about God’s deep love.
As I shared with the kids, I saw reflections in their eyes. My eyesight isn’t the best, but there was hope and pain in those young eyes. Perhaps one or two had already been told they were not the wonderful kids I believe that they happen to be. I wrote this canzone to work into the struggle I have shared with them over the years. Can these words really apply to us? Can we move from doubt to belief?
For the record, this is the first truly complicated form of poetry I have attempted. I am not adept with the canzone or sestina, so I would adore kind feedback or recommendations of other poems in these forms I should check out.
Today I wrote a poem in response to quadrille challenge #72 on the Poets’ Pub at dVerse. I wrote the poem while having a cup of green tea, despite the words of the poem. Given the fact that I am baking stuffed potatoes in the other room, it is surprising that they didn’t make their way into the quadrille.
The challenge is to write a forty four word poem. I based my poem on a 44 letter poem I wrote based on the unitoum form, although it is not officially a unitoum as it is only three stanzas long. As a result, the related quadrille is not a proper pantoum, but does have the neat feature of having the letters in the last word adding up to 44 letters in a 44 word poem. I like the symmetry of that construction. In honesty, I personally enjoy the 44 letter poem more than I like the resulting quadrille.
Steep and Steep
Black leaves steep. Pour out Your Pot of fragrant tea. Fill your mug now.
As you sip your Tea think about life. Go slowly now. Ponder things and drink
Think about your life While there is Still time to drink And switch life up.
Today’s post is out of sync for most folks. I serve as a minister and thus operate on a different schedule than most of my community. My community consists of a majority of people (but not all) who either work weekdays or live in a cycle where weekends are normal. We have a few individuals who work shifts on weekends, but most either work those weekday jobs or have other purposes in their life (e.g. stay at home parents, retirees, etc.)
As a minister, Monday morning is a time when I prepare for the week ahead. Often that means taking time for reflection. My “Spiritual Renewal Day” is Friday, which is unfortunate as it means my only regular companions for my Sabbath are pets and my toddler. Saturday is a day fraught with community events, denominational events, children’s events, and complications with worship preparations. This past Saturday I had to choose between a historical society coffeehouse, a district training day in the United Methodist Church, the upcoming week’s grocery shopping, worship prep, and my daughter’s birthday party. I chose my daughter’s birthday party, worship prep, and grocery shopping.
Monday is not my spiritual renewal day, but Monday morning is a time my spirit requires me to slow down. Part of that slowing down is reading for personal growth, for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, for an upcoming book or Bible studies, or for upcoming sermons (although on principle, I rarely read anything on the subject I am preaching on the upcoming Sunday).
Today I began by reading further into Rev. Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” I find Mr. Muller’s writings to be interesting. From my reading, I have the feeling that we share a common attribute in introversion. I may be wrong, but I found his love of rest to speak to my introverted soul.
There are days when it seems as if Mr. Muller knows my heart. It feels like continual overcommitment leads to a violence against my soul (pg. 3). As a minister, I am often asked to be a voice or presence on nearly every committee, am expected (on my Methodist side) to hold each committee accountable to our common identity and purpose, to be present in the lives of the homebound and sick, to be available 24/7 for hospital calls, and am expected to lead in most forms of outreach.
The sense of needing to be everywhere for everyone is a common struggle among clergy. Many clergy struggle from burnout and many are accused of not being present enough when their families are falling apart, their relationships are crumbling, and facing loneliness. I have struggled with the constant pull of ministry on my life for years. I believe this common struggle is one reason Mr. Muller’s words struck so deeply with me today. In his chapter on “The Joy of Rest” Mr. Muller writes:
“The practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath, is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work. Ancient texts suggest we light candles, sing songs, pray, tell stories, worship, eat, nap, and make love. It is a day of delight, a sanctuary in time. Within this sanctuary, we make ourselves available to the insights and blessings that arise only in the stillness of time.”
“Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller (pg. 26)
When was the last time you woke up with the goal of delighting in being alive? I have had days where I have woken up with the goal of worshipping, the plan to sing songs or tell stories, but it is rare that I have woken up with the goal of delight. As someone who has publicly faced the challenges of mental health over the years, waking up with the goal of delighting in my life seems particularly foreign to my mindset.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to set aside time to delight in being alive? Many Christians struggle to fight for conceptual ideas like sexual propriety, the lives of unborn children, and other idealistic strivings. Laying aside those questions, what would life be like if we were to put a tenth of the energy we see poured into those causes poured into delighting in life? What would life be like if we gathered for worship Sunday mornings and said we are here to delight in each other’s company? What if we delighted in each other’s company?
In my mind, I see a church filled with people going past “Hey. Good to see you!” or “Hi. How are you?… I’m good.” What would it look like if we delighted in each other? How would that change the way we see church? How would that change the way we see our mission?
A church that focused on treating the Sabbath how Mr. Muller describes Sabbath is the kind of church I would love to be a part of as an individual. A community focused on songs, worship, delight, prayer, stories, and even in bringing love into our homes… there is a wonderful vision!
The other night something caught my eye when I was reading the introduction written by S. T. Joshi in “American Supernatural Tales.” Mr. Joshi was discussing a statement made by William Hazlitt in 1829 in the Edinburgh Review. Mr. Hazlitt believed the ages of ghosts had passed (along with ignorance and superstition) before the United states came into existence.
Mr. Hazlitt’s assertion itself did not catch my eye. What caught my eye was the way Mr. Joshi reframed the issue. Mr. Hazlitt asked:
“Since so much of supernatural fiction appears to find the source of its terrors in the depths of the remote past, how can a nation that does not have much of a past express the supernatural in literature?”
J. T. Hazlitt in the Introduction to “American Supernatural Tales”
How can a nation without a past express itself in supernatural literature? Does this question only apply itself to the original context? Can a nation with such a short memory for history express itself in these arenas?
This approach to the question intrigued me. How can one write good fiction that defies reality if one lives in an age where reality is black and white? Werewolves and Dr. Frankenstein’s monsters are entities of a time when such things were plausibly close to real, but just beyond reality. Our age is an age of scientific marvels, which is perhaps why our science fiction is extensive and excellent, but much of horror is jump scares and the monstrosity of humanity. Are there truly unique monsters in our age?
Mr. Hazlitt points out that H. P. Lovecraft wrote of William Faulkner’s tale “A Rose for Emily,” that: “… this is a dark and horrible thing which could happen, whereas the crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen.” For something to be truly weird, it could not possibly happen…
All of these things raise a question in me: Can the weird still happen? Can things exist that could not possibly happen? In an age when the internet, technology, animation, and raw processing power make almost anything imaginable come to the screen, does the weird still exist? Can the weird still draw us into a special place where the natural laws and rules of things no longer apply?
I ask this in all sincerity because I believe that Mr. Lovecraft was correct. A weird tale requires something that could not possibly happen. Also, God is weird.
We live in an age bombarded with information and with possibility. We are living in the middle of the longest government shutdown in American history, which would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. Some of the most unfathomably large comic book stories of a medium that is blessed to present stories from one frame at a time have been brought off of the paper onto the screen. The modern equivalent of gods and goddesses walk on the silver screen when stories of far-off worlds are not being portrayed. We live in a world of possibility.
Is there still room in the midst of all of that information for the world to find the weirdness of God? Can God be weird if we keep swallowing all of that stuff without pausing to chew? What’s more, does all of this make life better?
I love superhero movies and science fiction, but they are like everything else: they are good in moderation. I enjoy watching humorous videos and listening to Weird Al, but they are like everything else: they are good in moderation. When the mind is filled with too much stuff, there is less room for imagination, creativity, and weirdness.
I like the universe to be a little weird. I like there to be a space where the weird God can be set apart from reality. We used to call that set apart weirdness holiness. As much as I love science fiction and superheroes, can a nation with neither an attention span for the past nor space for palpable weirdness really engage with the weird? Can we engage with God? If the space is too crowded, is there room in ourselves to step back and take space?
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
Psalm 139:13-18, NRSV
Human beings are precious. The scriptures tell us several times and places that we are made in a very wonderful way. Psalm 139 tells us that we are very carefully created. The New Testament tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians, but the context of that passage does not relate (in my own opinion) to this discussion.
I have a very slow metabolism. My metabolism runs as the breakneck speed of molasses in a freezer. If I were to become a desert hermit, that would likely be an asset. Living in a society of plenty, I find it to be a bit of a liability. I used to weigh a lot more, have been hovering around the same weight for a couple of years, and fantasize about dropping lower.
One of my problems is that I don’t eat any meal but dinner on a regular basis at the same time. Dinner in our house is usually at almost exactly 5:00 PM. Every other meal is just wildly all over the place and breakfast is normally non-existent for me. This is a problem. I have been given a body and I want to take care of it. My ingrained habits are not helping…
I am trying to join my wife in being healthier this year. One way I am trying to do that is to find healthier ways of eating lunch. Rather than skipping meals, eating one big meal, or just constantly snacking my way through the less healthy things in our house, I am trying to be intentional about picking healthier food.
Perhaps that is why I am today offering up for public knowledge the best thing since sliced bread. Okay, the recipe is not that good, but it is pretty good and fairly healthy. I recently got a copy of “Polish Heritage Cookery” by Robert & Maria Strybel. It is a lovely cookbook with a lot of the heritage foods that I keep trying to cook out of my mom’s Polish cookbook, but with a lot better explanation. In other words, I keep messing up my mom’s recipes and needed help.
I was looking for something to make for church the other day and went to the new cookbook for help. I found a recipe for “korki z ogórków faszerowane” or Stuffed Cucumber Corks. I wanted something a little less carnivorous, so I kept searching. The next entry was “ogórki nadziewane twarogiem” or Cheese Stuffed Cucumbers. The recipe looked perfect, except I didn’t have farmers cheese. I substituted some neufchatel cheese and prepared the corks for Fellowship time after church. The recipe as written was not a healthy recipe but it certainly looked good!
The cucumber corks went over smashingly. The leftover were devoured and I went back to try the more carnivorous cucumbers on my own. We had some leftover Christmas Beef Roast from my favorite Irish cookbook. I made the salad according to the recipe in the Polish cookbook and it was good, but the calories were not so great. Additionally, it took weeks to prepare the Christmas roast, and I don’t have that time on a regular basis.
So, I tossed around the question in my head a few days. I wanted something rich in protein, tasty, variable, and more sustainable. I was throwing around thickening up cottage cheese, when I looked down the dairy case to find something very interesting.
Hummus! Pliable, versatile, vegetarian, gluten-free, and delicious hummus! What would happen if I were to take some hummus, take my seedless cucumber, and combine the two with the help of my melon baller?
So, without further ado: Hummus corks! A European/Middle Eastern mashup!
Ingredients: Cucumbers (seedless) and hummus…
The lunch that resulted from this recipe was a very light lunch, but it was decidedly tasty. In the future, I might recommend making this the night before and using the pieces pulled out from the corks as part of a salad to go with dinner.
This somonka is meant to be read as conversation between two lovers (alternating between bold and regular type) until the third voice enters in (in italics). What treasure awaits when these lovers are united?
I rest here alone I wait where few find the way I wait in the cold Nobody finds the still path no one turns my rusty key
I come my lovely! I seek you across the miles. You alone I seek. No one will still my sore feet Until you rest in my arms!
Come find me quickly! I grow weary of this place Where no one sees me. I keep something just for you– Deep inside with my desires.
No one can stop me! Here I am after so long. Did you wait for me? Let me draw you close and sigh As I smile and end my quest
Turn my key my love! Open the way to my heart! Twist and turn and pull! Pull open that which binds me! Come and find your heart's desire!
I will, my sweet one! Here I come to seek inside Places I long sought... Oh bliss, can it be? My love... My chest of old comic books!
Honey, are you there? Your mom says dinner is soon. What is that you have? Seriously? More comics? No, they're not graphic novels
Hold me close, my love. Touch me with your gentle hands. Carry me back home! She will never understand! She's just like your mom once was...
The church is founded on One who cares deeply for people outside.
The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Recently, I have been expressing myself a lot more publicly through poetry. Poetry is a hobby of mine. I enjoy writing poetry, was published in an anthology in high school, and wrote a collection of poems for my family the Christmas before last. I do not aspire to being a professional poet, do not claim the title poet, and certainly do not believe that I am creating anything worthy of being etched in stone. I know that poems like my villanelle for my youngest daughter will probably be considered overly sentimental and sappy to most people. It probably won’t make it into an anthology of the best poems of 2019.
Still, I have enjoyed bringing this part of my heart out and into the open. Interestingly, I find that certain people respond to my poetry on my blog from vastly different places in life. There are classically beautiful women writing about life, people who enjoy writing poetry behind profile pictures of cats, people writing poems about living in cities I’ll never see, and a thousand and one different people writing poetry that come out of life experiences far different from mine.
There are moments when I wonder how someone from such a different place in life could like my poems. Often, I look at their poetry and occasionally find myself blown away by beauty, truth, and wisdom that is far outside of my sphere of understanding. My poems often aren’t even a spark compared to their flames. Reading some of these poems are humbling, intriguing, and often shatter preconceptions. I feel drawn into a world different from my own.
Sometimes, I find that drawing out of the “safe bubble” of the church scary. What would the woman down the road think if she finds out her pastor read that poem about longing? What would the Bishop think if he knew I enjoyed and found beauty in that poem about staring over the edge of a bridge in despair?
Sometimes I become anxious about what people in the church would think. I then remember that the God I love is the God I see in Jesus. The Jesus I know was accused often of being a miscreant for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Jesus I know would probably enjoy a night at a poetry bar with people who were honest about their flaws far more than a night debating whether you round up or down when tithing your spices. The Jesus I know invited people to come near even when following him from that place of proximity often meant they had to make sacrifices. The Jesus I know would probably find beauty, sadness, grief, and loveliness in some poems I have enjoyed reading.
I honestly believe the church needs to relax sometimes and remember that God loves all of those people “out there.” One of my favorite churches was the church in the country which had a screen door leading into the sanctuary to let the sound, the smells, and the life of the world around it into worship. What’s even better, it bordered a farm which spread cow manure every spring. Worship with the scent of cow manure. If that’s not a unique incense for worship in the country, then I don’t know what else would qualify.
So, for those of you who read my blog for interesting theological commentary, I invite you to check out one of the people who like the poems I write. Most of them write some interesting stuff. For those of you who write poetry and often encourage mine, thank you for letting me be a part of your community. I love both sides of this blog’s community and thanks for letting me be a part of your online life.
The snow falls on a church holding one soul. Drifting snow causes roads to be treacherous or closed, but the space is full. The baptismal font is empty; yet echoes memories of families blessed. The carpet where chancel meets nave shows evidence of drips of communion juice. Tears shed by coffins never seem to stain. The stilled piano rings with neither spirituals nor hymns. The organ holds its breath. This place is quiet; yet it is not empty. Memories fill this place from altar to narthex.
The pews are all full. Deep snow is no barrier where memories dwell...
It is dark now, my little one. We rock beneath a long dark sky. We should sleep now, for day is done.
You've had milk. You've had your fun. Still house rings with your piercing cry. It is dark now, my little one.
Mom would rest like the long set sun. My voice cracks as my throat grows dry. We should sleep now, for day is done.
Soft song and pout seek battle won... I have sung many years gone by. It is dark now, my little one.
I'll hold you close–blanket-wrapped bun. My voice so soft–so close your eye. We should sleep now, for day is done. It is dark now, my little one.
Today’s post is a poem inspired by the events of last Monday night. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of an exasperated spouse and an inconsolable baby. Our baby was loud and she thanked me for holding her close by screaming right in my ear. Still, we rocked and I sang until peace fell at last on her troubled soul.
Was it the teething medicine? Was it that she was gassy? Was it that she just needed to wear herself out? I do not know, but she is the third child. I have rocked and sung through far worse.
“Hold the course both straight and true!” Winds buffet. We pitch and roll. “Everything will be fine!” The tiller snaps off…
“A Seaborne Dodoitsu” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Paperwork for our Annual Meeting is completed. It is now time to focus on the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which takes place towards the middle of next month. One of the greatest challenges I have found in the Academy is taking a lot of superb material and authentically engaging. I have read too many books and have great things go in my eyes, bounce in my brain, and eject themselves at the first distraction. Long time readers of the blog have noticed that this blog is one place I try to engage the material.
In Fleming’s work, the section is entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul” in the literal translation and “Guidelines for Discerning Different Movements, Suitable Especially for the First Week” in the contemporary translation. In all three translations, the conversation revolves around consolation and desolation.
Consolation, in my words, is when one’s spirit is aflame with the love of God in joy, drawn to the love of God is sorrow, or in any way grown in the faith, hope, and love that comes from God (and referenced in 1 Corinthians 13). Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Hence, it is when the soul’s love of God is smothered, the soul feels stripped away from the presence of God in sorrow, or circumstances arise in which faith, hope, and love are diminished in experience or (hopefully not) reality.
What drew my eye was the section referred to as Rule 5 and Rule 6, which can be found in sections 318 and 319 respectively. I think when we look at these rules, we find something that is a bit challenging. I will draw on Fleming’s contemporary translation for our discussion.
“5. When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or to come to a new decision. The reason is that in desolation the evil spirit is making an attempt to obstruct the good direction of our life or to change it, and so we would be thwarted from the gentle lead of God and what is more conducive to our own salvation. As a result, at a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us.
6. Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be. And so we might try to intensify our prayer, we might take on some penance, or we might make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith.”
In many ways, I understand what Loyola is driving at in these rules. I also acknowledge that these rules have done a great deal for the church over the centuries. I also believe they have value going into the future. In many ways, I am an outsider commenting on something which does not come from my own denominational tradition and mean no offense to those who hold these rules and experiences dear.
I also see a challenge in these rules for the modern church. For many churches, the American attendance pattern of worship has led people to enter deep periods of doubt and desolation. We are faithful to what we once found fruitful. Certain hymns, certain ways of acting, and certain patterns of life consoled and blessed us.
Life has changed. We who are still in the pews can end up facing the desolation of the spirit that comes with lower attendance numbers, people skipping once integral Bible study, or even quitting the church altogether. It can be a heavy blanket on the soul to find empty seats that were once brimming. We can find these words in our desolation to be wise words of advice. We choose to keep at the decisions made during seasons of consolation! What is more, we double down on commitment! We may not have formal penance in the Protestant church, but we could order twice as many tracts, invite that neighbor twice as often, and intensify our prayer.
The dodoitsu I put at the beginning of this blog summarizes the situation quite nicely. The waves are crashing, the wind is howling, the tiller is snapping, and the response can be to stand there saying “Everything will be fine!” In moments of doubt, we might call out to Jesus like the disciples! “We will drown! Don’t you care?”
I raise these concerns because I believe one concept of the sixth rule is integral. Sometimes we need to make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith. We may need to ask questions like:
Was my faith grown by the hymns or the fact I was singing about my faith with others?
Did that memorial item in the sanctuary grow my faith or was it the person who inspired it? What would the original person have wanted? Would that line up with our purpose?
If relationships helped grow my faith, are there places I can help others grow in their relationships? What if those places look different today than five years ago?
Would changing something small make a big difference? Would that small change affect everything or just cause discomfort for a while?
Occasionally, when we take time to examine ourselves and faith, we find that the things that consoled us were something different than we remember. It can be helpful to remember that things are not always how they once seemed.
There are times when the call is to stick to what you planned in a time of consolation. If you struggle with alcohol, a bad day is not the time for the drink you swore off in better days. If you struggle with anger, perhaps this is the moment when you should go walk off your frustration instead of face the person who is aggravating you. Struggles do not mean you should change your plan.
Still Loyola pointed out that some difficulties exist not as desolations but as consolations. When things go wrong it can be a reminder of how blessed we are to have God in our corner despite our struggles. When the boat is pitching back and forth, it can be a good reminder of how grateful we are for flotation devices.
In my 22 years as a committed Christian after my “heart-warming” experience, I have learned that few experiences are black and white. Some situations seem dire but end up being blessings. Some blessings seem wonderful but lead to challenging situations. Discernment is never easy, but there is wisdom in these words from Loyola. I have learned the value of holding the tiller with a loose hand. I have also learned the value of steering through the storm.
Gusts pierce old windows As I enter cold kitchen. The new year still creaks. Calendars change as snow falls. Aromatic tea wakes bones.
Silent draft reminds: You are blessed to be so warm! Howling wind reminds: Halloween is not scary Compared to homeless winter!
Poem crafted in response to Quadrille Challenge #71 by dVerse. I am currently decompressing from preparing for Sunday’s Annual Meeting at the church I serve by using the creative side of my brain. Too much analysis and planning leaves my creative side in need of expression. There are worse things to do at your desk while enjoying a sandwich and cup of tea!
Joyfully, I have recovered my writing laptop from the place where it was charging. Who would have guessed it was plugged in on my desk? The next thing you know, I’ll find my keys hanging on the key-holder by the door.
For today’s blog, I wanted to bring in an outside source from the kind of stuff I usually quote. I am a sincere believer that everyone needs to put their hair down occasionally. In fact, even the Desert Abbas and Ammas occasionally understood this idea. I adore the story of the hunter who comes across Abba Anthony and questions the good Abba about what he sees. The Abba and several other monks were enjoying themselves in the desert. The Abba challenges the hunters perception by asking him to repeatedly draw his bow and fire an arrow. In time the hunter protests. Overusing the bow will break it. Abba Anthony replies that the same is true of people. If you stretch them too much, they will break.
“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”
In the story, there’s a society where everyone can have what they need. People are offered an allotment and should have enough to live off if they are careful with how they spend their resources. Unfortunately, even in science fiction people are often people. A few particular lines of the story stuck out:
“Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on. Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or to me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food, but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the moments of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.”
Now, I underline my religious books on my Kindle regularly. I am 30% through this collection of short stories and this is the first highlight in the book. Let’s be clear that I enjoyed many of the stories. This quote from James Corey just leapt off the page at me in a special way.
I believe one reason it connected with me is my hobby of cooking. At this moment, I have am working on making a compound beef stock to enjoy throughout the cold months of winter. It has taken a lot of effort to make the beef stock. It would be far easier to just purchase a container of beef boullion from the grocery store, but there’s something deeper at stake for me.
I want my kids to have something true, something real, and something they can identify. I want my kids to recognize the taste of leeks and carrots in a stock. I want my kids to see how long it takes to cool and remove the fat from the top of the stock. I want them to understand why the food they eat at home tastes different from the stuff out of a can in the school cafeteria.
Truthfully, there are no bones left behind for the kids to see at the school. My kids see the bones the broth comes from in our house. When making chicken stock, they see the chicken paws come out from the freezer and into the pot. There was once something living and breathing that went into that soup. The vegetables they see cooked to oblivion to get nutrients and flavors into the stock? Those vegetables came from farms where farmers worked hard. In the summer, the kids often meet those farmers at the farmer’s market or at the coop where my kids see the chickens that produce their eggs.
I have a colleague named Grace Hackney who is big into the ministry of food through the ministry “Life Around the Table.” At the Academy for Spiritual Formation we have had several deep conversations on food and spirituality. We have various differences of opinions on small matters, but I agree with her assertion that the ways we feed our bodies affect how we feed our soul. Living out of a place of gratitude means not only giving thanks for what we have on the table but also being aware of how it came to the table. Proverbs 13:25-14:1 states:
“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty. The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”
Proverbs 13:25-14:1, NRSV
Proverbs is a book which is very black and white. There are righteous people who suffer want and there are wicked folks who have never gone hungry. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:45, the sun rises and the rain falls on people of all varieties. Still, there is wisdom to the saying “Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”
For me, stewardship means being able to trace back the foods I eat to the earth. If you hand me a chicken and vegetables, I can make broth. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but when pressed I can clean and cook a chicken. Grocery store vegetables are pretty, but if you hand me a bunch of malformed carrots, I can use them fine.
I am capable of these tasks, understand the effort they take, and thus do not throw useful things away without reason. In fact, I’m sure I drive my wife crazy with my obsession over leftover bones. I’m also certain she appreciates I can bring good food to the table for two or three days after roasting a chicken without driving up the grocery bill through the roof. I do so in part because there’s nothing more damaging to our budget than a grocery budget blown out of proportion or a trip out to dinner every night of the week. We have enough and some to spare in part because we do not let the foods we eat tear down the house in which we live.
We are trying to live out the wisdom of Proverbs 13:11 as a family: “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little with increase it.” There are days when the food on the table does not taste as good as the food at the restaurant, but there are moments when practice results in success. There are days when it is easier to just buy a kit from the store, but there are also moments when we turn the tide against the world insistent on telling our kids that any taste can come from a vending machine. Little by little we resist the drive to buy every shiny thing at the store. Bit by bit we regain what was once lost to us.
If death my friend and me divide, thou dost not, Lord, my sorrow chide, or frown my tears to see; restrained from passionate excess, thou bidst me mourn in calm distress for them that rest in thee.
I feel a strong immortal hope, which bears my mournful spirit up beneath its mountain load; redeemed from death, and grief, and pain, I soon shall find my friend again within the arms of God.
Pass a few fleeting moments more and death the blessing shall restore which death has snatched away; for me thou wilt the summons send, and give me back my parted friend in that eternal day.
Charles Wesley, “If death my friend and me divide,” 1762
I have been working on both the final reports for next week’s Annual Meeting at Maine Federated Church and last minute arrangements for the funeral of a beloved church member. Blogging has not been a priority for the last few days.
I wanted to share this poem by Charles Wesley for two reasons. First, I am using it during the service tomorrow. Second, I find it an inspiring statement of faith. You can learn more about Charles Wesley here!
I have been thinking about the nature of the church. I hold to the belief that the church is not only the house of God, but a place for the wounded to find healing. For me, it is natural to find strange folks in a church.
If I had a broken arm, I would go see a doctor.
If I had a shoe with the sole falling off, I would go see a cobbler.
If I had a broken laundry machine, I would call a technician to come fix it.
If the power line running into my house were to collapse and spark in my yard, I would call the electric company.
Why are people surprised the church has injured people in her midst? Would you be shocked if you found hurting people in a hospital? Would you be thrown if you went to look at cars at a mechanic’s shop and every car there was broken?
Thankfully, Abba Elias has a good word here. “What can sin do when there’s penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?” There’s wisdom on how we can see the life of the church.
What damage can sin do in the life of the faithful if they are penitent? There could still be damage done. Still, consider the following idea: A person might struggle with anger. If they are filled with that anger, what happens if they turn to God for help, and seek a way forward in a church community? Things might go wrong, but they’re also in a place where the community can support and help them. If they are truly penitent, what better place to be than in a community that understands sin and seeks to be free together? If they are not penitent, that’s another matter, but if they are truly trying to find a way forward, what better place to be?
On the other hand, what happens when we look at others who struggle, see imperfection, and then cut them off? What happens when we slam the door in their face? What happens if we see that person, decide they’re a hypocrite, and walk away? To put it another way, what happens when our pride blinds us to the reality that we all need healing? The church can pour out love all day long, but if you see love as a nasty dredged up swill, will you ever stop to drink that living water?
Luke 18:9-14 shares a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In that parable, two men were praying in the temple. One was a despised tax collector who approached God with humility. He beat his breast with sorrow and asked God for mercy.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, NRSV
The Pharisee was someone who considered himself superior to everyone around him, especially the tax collector. Jesus stood with the tax collector—humility was far more important than the self-decreed righteousness of the Pharisee.
Would it have helped the Pharisee to tell him he was loved? Of course he felt loved—he was the apple of God’s eye. Would it have helped to offer him a place of healing? He is no lowly tax collector! I think Abba Elias hit the nail on the head when he stated that sin can be overcome with penitence, but that pride can at least seem insurmountable by love.
Of course, Jesus did state that the Pharisee would one day be humbled. Was that humbling meant to bring the Pharisee to a place where he could find a place where penitence and love could find their way into the Pharisee’s life? I would imagine that Saul might tell us that there was indeed a way forward for the Pharisee. As Luke and Acts are two books connected by common authorship, one could see this parable as almost foreshadowing Saul’s experience. Of course, as my wise wife points out, that assumes the two books were meant to be read together instead of being meant as separate works. A later authorship of Acts might make this a happy coincidence instead of an intentional reference.
One of the first monastics of the desert, Anthony, is recorded as seeing the world through distraught eyes. To the left and right of the faithful there were traps and snares to ensnare. Behind and in front of the struggling there were further ways to entangle. Anthony cried out. What could possibly make a way through the challenges of life? Anthony believed humility alone could find a way.
“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.” ‘ “
I know as a person that I am not perfect. Truthfully, I am grateful that I have enough wisdom to understand that my imperfection does not separate me from the love of God. I believe that love reaches out to everyone who walks through the doors of the church without exception. I pray we all find healing together.
I stood in the rain Searching sky for a rainbow. A symbol of hope Was all that I sought above A wet hospital crosswalk.
This poem was inspired when I exited a hospital today after a lengthy visit with a family. It was dark, rainy, and the sun poured in despite my mood. If you have a pastor who regularly cares for you or your loved ones, I encourage you to offer them a bit of love.
There are probably moments where they too stand in the rain, looking for the hope that others need them to express. Indeed, I found my rainbow, but I will admit that I threw a temper tantrum and stood on the sidewalk until it showed up.
Today I spent my time in prayer focusing on Psalm 39. In my personal journey, today is not only the day of my birth, it is also the day when I gave my heart to God at fifteen years old. As such, spending my prayer time focusing on Psalm 39 might seem odd to many people.
I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.” I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:
“Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool. I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
“You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears. Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.”
Consider the words of the Psalm and there are passages which you will probably not find within a card on a rack in your local store. Well, some of them might end up in a “dark humor” section:
“Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.” (vs. 6)
“You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.” (vs. 5)
“You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.” (vs.11)
“Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vs. 13)
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am a passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” (vs. 12)
“Lord, let my know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” (vs. 4)
So, why would I spend my time contemplating this passage of all passages on my birthday? Why would I make the choice to pray about these words on the day I felt my heart strangely warmed and felt an assurance of my place in God’s love?
My heart was captured by the fourth verse of the Psalm. “Let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” As I spent time with these words, I thought about the tea in the wooden bin on my counter. I switched back to primarily being a tea drinker as part of my plan for 2019, and I checked our stash of tea to find it empty. A new bag of fair trade tea will arrive in a few weeks, so I am left with what is in the bin.
When the bin is full, there are many pots of tea ready to be made. A cup of tea is just a cup of tea. The tea may be enjoyable, warming, wonderful, and flavorful; however, it is still just one cup of much once brewed. When the bin is nearing emptiness, each cup is to be savored. When the bin is almost an empty box, every sip is a gift. There is something wonderfully deep about the paradox that scarcity makes something all the more precious.
Yes, my life is fleeting. Yes, even though today is a day of celebration in my house, it is healthy to remember that there will be only so many of these celebrations before I celebrate on another shore. Yes, these days are like a shadow, but the shadow shows me that there is life. Yes, what is dear to me on earth will eventually break down, rust, be eaten by dogs, fall prey to overactive kids, or just wear out; however, those things are just stuff.
I may not agree with the expressed sentiment that “God is punishing you by taking away everything you love.” I believe the 11th and 13th verses were likely born out of a dark place although there are moments when chastisement may be the only way forward. Many folks recovering from addiction have pointed to low points in life as moments when they were given a chance to recover and rise from “rock bottom.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some assistance is occasionally required to find that place of possibility. I would say sometimes things break and that may not be God punishing. Sometimes we have a bad day and it is not always the case that our days is terrible because God is glaring at us—I often find the opposite is usually true.
Despite my grief for the struggles endured by the Psalmist when composing Psalm 39, I am grateful for the reminder that this day is precious despite being one of many days. I am grateful for this life as fleeting as it may pass. One day, my time will come, and I hope people will realize I was grateful for what I had even as I sometimes struggled with the challenges. Today, I choose to read Psalm 39 with gratitude. I pray you find reasons to enjoy the precious nature of life.
Tomorrow morning we are celebrating Epiphany at the Maine Federated Church. Our liturgy and message partially rely on the later part of the first chapter of Second Peter. I have not preached much from Second Peter over the years, which is really a shame. In my opinion, Second Peter is an interesting book with wisdom that is clearly stated and applicable to life.
As an example, take a portion of the same chapter we are using tomorrow. Second Peter, chapter one, verses three through nine. There is solid advice in these words. There’s assertion about the world, a recommendation for response, and a rationale about why we would act in certain ways. The passage is succinct, clear, and helpful.
“[Jesus’] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”
2 Peter 1:3-9, NRSV
The world is ascertained to be a world that has been blessed by the presence of Jesus. Think about the words of this letter. We live in a world where Jesus’ divine power has already made available everything needed for a life lived with godliness. By Jesus’ goodness and God’s glory, we who have been called have what we need to escape a world of corruption and lust.
Now, I think it is still close enough to the New Year to state that in this new year, there may be things we want. The things we want often differ from what we need. I might want a Ferrari in my driveway, but I do not need a Ferrari. In fact, no offense to the people who would make that imaginary Ferrari, if I had one, I would likely be selling it as soon as possible as it is unnecessary for the life I seek.
There are many things we may want, but that does not mean those things are needed for a life in a world that is often driven by desires for power, wealth, stuff, and desires for people which often treat those people as things rather than individuals. Second Peter says that we have what we need to escape from the snares of that world. Jesus has already made available what we need. We may live in a sickened world, but the medicine is right there with us!
What does Second Peter recommend? Rather than passivity, the letter calls for action. Rather than being forced into submission, the letter calls for active rebellion from a darkened world. What does that look like?
Faith supported with goodness.
Goodness supported with knowledge.
Knowledge supported with self-control.
Self-control supported with endurance.
Endurance supported with godliness.
Godliness supported with mutual-affection.
Mutual affection with love
What happens when these things enter into the life of a person? Life becomes better. What happens when they keep on increasing? They keep a person from being ineffective and unfruitful. Second Peter calls the people to make every effort to engage on this journey founded in God’s grace.
Second Peter goes further to state that anyone who lacks these things is “short-sighted and blind.” They have forgotten the grace received from God. At first, that seemed a bit harsh to me, but thinking back through my own experience, I think there’s truth in these words.
I am a United Methodist minister and I am very United Methodist in my theology. I appreciate and draw a lot out of other Christian traditions, but in my heart, I am thoroughly United Methodist. Of course, I see United Methodism as one stream in the branching delta known as Christianity that follows God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the sea of God’s love, but I still love swimming in my waters with my beloved family in Christ.
Despite that love, there have been moments when I have come across United Methodist family who do not insist on these things. The church has had friends within her walls who have been quite cruel and forgotten their way. As an Elder I have studied our history and found examples of the church abusing folks when the way was lost. As a person I have experienced folks filled with anger rather than the love and mutual affection described in this letter. I have seen hatred, anger, and even lust for power blind people to what they are doing to others.
I have also met people from those other streams that I absolutely adore even though we are theologically very different. We would probably argue and have argued at times for hours about theological points, but we hold in common these desires. Their faith is connected with goodness, their goodness with knowledge… As such, we can completely disagree while still remaining in relationship with each other. In fact, I often find some of my strongest friendships have come about from such weird relationships with those who share in that common love that comes from Jesus.
I do not know about you, but I want to remain fruitful. The banner that sits at the top of my blog is a banner I often do not point out in blogs, but it is a picture I took on a mission trip. The flowers are growing on the barbed wire between two yards on the interface between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. If flowers can grow on barbed wire, then we can live lives which bear fruit. We already have all we need even if we sometimes want more. Let us live in that knowledge and keep seeking after goodness and hir friends.
Today was my wife’s grandmother’s memorial service in Olean. She’s being interred out west, so this was my family’s chance to formally pay our respects. The affair was meaningful, deep, and faithful. Grandma Betty was a really wonderful woman and I learned a lot about the woman whom I sat next to for many a holiday meal. Apparently her stories were not done catching me off guard even after she crossed to that other shore.
This evening I sat at our kitchen table and contemplated Ephesians 3:1-4. In particular, I was drawn to the concepts of mystery and grace. The contemplation was deep as I spent my time with these words. As I contemplated the growth of this one moment in time, I found myself caught in a million questions as I lifted questions to God in my heart.
“…for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…”
Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV
Contemplation roamed for quite a while on questions of whether this commission of God’s grace would be received well in today’s church. Would we welcome one of the villains of our stories into the doors of our church if he were to come in repentance? Would we welcome a former persecutor into our midst? Would we welcome someone who was passionately into another culture that many would consider counter-Christian into our midst? Would we have the grace to walk with them through transitions which are usually less dramatic than that of Paul?
I contemplated these questions for a while, but I kept being drawn back to the concept of mysterious grace. The early church was blessed by the unexpected life story of Saul of Tarsus. I have been blessed by unexpected stories too. I learned of a new unexpected story today at the memorial service in Olean.
I heard the story of a hitchhiker in the west who went to play at a tent revival with some friends. A local girl found God at that tent revival and hitchhiked to the Bible College where that hitchhiker attended. This young lady was a graduate of a class of 12. This girl from a very small area was married and had kids. Those hitchhikers were my wife’s grandparents.
Hope was not falling asleep easily tonight, so I was holding her as she settled while I prayed and contemplated. I realized in the middle of my contemplation that if it were not for some random person picking up a hitchhiker on the other side of the country nearly 80 years ago, my daughter would not have been in my arms. It was a powerful moment of realization. My blessings in this world would be very different if it weren’t for a hitchhiking evangelist getting a ride to a small town with a graduating class of twelve to lead a tent revival. My blessings would be different if those evangelists decided the small town was not worth their time.
Earlier today on the ride back from Olean, my daughter and I were listening to the audio book for “The Good Doctor” by Juno Dawson. In that audio book, the eponymous Doctor of Doctor Who made the statement: “There’s only two things I don’t believe in, and one’s coincidence…” Apparently, being a time-traveler makes you skeptical of randomness.
Now, I am definitely not a predestination proponent, but there’s something powerfully moving when you realize that your daughter possibly wouldn’t be in your arms if someone had not decided to give one of her great-grandparents a lift, but I would rather contemplate something besides an argument that has raged for centuries like predestination versus free will.
What I contemplated was the fact that there a lot of people out there who often look in the mirror and do not know where their life is headed. They see coincidence and fear stepping out of even partial safety to see what might lay outside their door. There are scary things out there in the world which are far more frightening than hitch hiking. People can become paralyzed by fears both of what might happen and what is happening. Here a few off the top of my head:
A person lives with someone who is physically abusive. Zie wishes to walk away, but what if zie loses his chance to see hir kids?
An alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but all of hir friends drink every weekend. What if zie ends up all alone?
A person wants to stop working at a job that is literally physically, mentally, or spiritually killing them. What if zie quits and ends up losing everything?
A person has a loved one (friend/child) who is doing something awful that might end up disastrously bad. Maybe it already has gone bad. Zie wants to say something or do something, but what happens if hir loved one walks away from zie forever?
These examples are but a few examples of how life can throw challenges that cause us to stop dead in our tracks in fear. What if our inability to move causes things to go awry? What if someone we do not know in 80 years will be a completely different person if we do nothing?
I don’t know who the person was who gave my wife’s grandparents rides across what sounded like a good portion of the western half of this country, but I am so grateful that they did. If you’re living in fear of doing something that might seem just as crazy, I invite you to have a conversation with a local religious leader, a counselor, or even a good friend. If necessary, speak to the police for an intervention or go to a support group to find help. Your bravery just might change the future.
Last night I posted a poem called “Pastoral Ghazal.” The poem was inspired both by events in my pastoral ministry and in my reading for yesterday in the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and specifically in the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. In the reflection for January 2nd, Dr. Jenkins contrasts the common imagery of justice being blindfolded with the conception of God reaching with both open eyes and mercy. The contrast was a powerful contrast. In my copy of this year’s Disciplines I highlighted the phrase “God, who wears no blindfold, insists on mercy in justice.”
Dr. Jenkins focuses greatly on how this conception of a God with open eyes affects our view of the social and moral order of our world. I appreciated his focus, but I was drawn into a different realm of contemplation by the reality of my daily ministry. While Dr. Jenkins view was broad, my focus was tightened by a number of things:
Administration: Our church’s Annual Meeting is fast approaching and there is paperwork that needs to be prepared.
Building and Grounds: The church is continuing to aim towards having greater accessibility while maintaining safety. One office day into 2019 and both of these areas came up in conversation.
Community: Situations arose where both relationships blessed my ministry and caused me to want to hide in a desert. Occasionally, those conversations were simultaneous.
Dreaming: Situations arose where I took the opportunity to “vision cast” different futures and alternative perspectives to people in my circle of influence.
End of Life Conversations: Self-explanatory
Fatherhood: My one year old kept me up until five in the morning when my alarm was set for two hours later…
To be honest, I could probably continue with this acrostic list, but I faced no alien xenomorphs and had no reason to visit the zoo. Ministry is a varied and challenging calling which often leads you up and down an acrostic list of challenges on a regular basis. This grounding in the daily activities of ministry drew me into a different sphere of contemplation. My contemplation led me to ask a very simple question: Does God see?
Theologically, let’s be clear: I do believe that God sees. The challenge is that the knowledge that God sees is a form of head knowledge. Life requires heart knowledge. There is often a great difference between seeing with the head and knowing with the heart. Some of the things I experienced reinforced both my head knowledge and my heart wisdom. Other experiences were unsettling.
I was reminded of the ancient philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the allegory, there were a bunch of people who spent their lives sitting in chairs unable to turn around. Behind them was a fire and all they ever saw was the shadows cast on the wall. Those shadows became all of reality to the folks in the chairs. Plato’s allegory delved into what would happen if those people ever were released from those bindings or came across someone who knew that there was more than shadow, but for my purposes, the image of folks strapped into chairs facing shadows is enough for my purposes. Honestly, the image of firelight and shadow is what stuck in my mind.
The challenge I recognized yesterday during my devotion is that any life has places where the reality of life impedes that journey from head knowledge to heart wisdom. I believe that God’s light fills the universe and will shine in the midst of the darkness; however, there are places where challenges create shadows. I cannot always see that light shining, sometimes only find the shadows, and occasionally cannot even see the shadows.
This reality of life is where my poem found life yesterday. Dr. Jenkins was focused on the vast, but I kept seeing places where I saw others struggling to see beyond the shadows. In that beautiful picture above, it would be as if I were sitting in the light with those who sat in shadow. Inches might separate us, but one place was a place of brightness while another was a place of darkness. Wisdom told me there are likely places where I sit in darkness surrounded by others who see beyond what my eyes perceive.
All of this is to say that I think we all have places where we sit in the shadows just as we all have places where we see the light. How do we compensate for this challenge? I believe the answer can only lie in community. Whether that community comes through family, neighborhood, or church, we all are made better by our relationships with others.
Are all relationships healthy? No, but I truly believe that there is a wisdom to living in community with those who will lovingly walk with you in your shadows while holding out their hands when they need help with their own dark places. Where do we see this in scripture? Here are a handful of examples…
Proverbs 27:17 tells us that one person can bless another just as iron sharpens iron.
Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of our calling to remain in community in a spirit that encourages our faith community. When we consider the challenges faced by the early church, this encouragement likely held some of the early churches together through persecution and troubles.
John 21 shares the story of how the community stood with Peter as he faced the challenge of his own past and the events of Good Friday.
I share these things to encourage you to remember the value of community today. There are days when it seems as if the universe is a cruel and awful place. Those days are exactly the days when it is helpful to remain with those who can walk with you through your shadows into the light.
Well back in 1900, Mr. Alexander Carmichael published the Carmina Gadelica. Well into the public domain, I wanted to take some time to look at an old poem this week. The poem appears under the title “The Blessing of the New Year” and according to Mr. Carmichael it was “repeated the first thing on the first day of the year.” Here is how the poem goes:
God, bless to me the new day, Never vouchsafed to me before; It is to bless Thine own presence Thou hast given me this time, O God.
Bless Thou to me mine eye, May mine eye bless all it sees; I will bless my neighbour, May my neighbour bless me.
God, give me a clean heart, Let me not from sight of Thine eye; Bless to me my children and my wife, And bless to me my means and my cattle.
“The Blessing of the New Year” in the Carmina Gadelica, 1900 CE
Looking closely at this poem and prayer, there are several things which show in the form and content of this work. There are directions to this prayer both in scope and focus.
The first thing I see is a shift of focus from the unknowable, to the seen, to the loved. In the first section there is a focus on God’s blessing for the new day, which makes sense as this is a prayer for a new year. Unstated is the reality that the year ahead is a mystery.
The poet marks that the day (or time) ahead has never been vouchsafed. Vouchsafe is a word that can have several connotations. Whether the meaning in this case is that the knowledge of what the day ahead might hold would be gracious, condescending, or a special favor, the poet asks for a blessing even without that knowledge. The poet desires a blessing understanding that their time ahead should bless God.
In truth, this prayer contains a leap of faith. Who knows what the year ahead will hold? The prayer begins with a request that has no real context. A blessing of plenty of drinking water is a different blessing in the midst of a desert than it is on the shores of a clean freshwater lake. The petitioner does not know what is to come but seeks blessing.
The prayer shifts in the second movement of the prayer. The request is made that everything which falls under the gaze of the eye be blessed. Beyond the unknown of where one’s path will lead, for most the world will be somewhat reliable. Neighbors will remain neighbors.
There’s an old phrase that says “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Often, after several years of living in the vicinity of a neighbor, what once was innocent can often become a source of great frustration. Music can be played too loud, barbecue scents fill a house if you are downwind, and occasionally neighbors have children who can cause a ruckus. I imagine this was an even greater challenge when one’s neighbors were more constant in the times leading up to 1900.
The prayer leans into this reality by proposing that the year ahead will include a blessing of one’s neighbor. Even before receiving a blessing, the petitioner sets off to be a blessing. While the petitioner asks that the neighbor bless them as well, there’s a mutuality there. In a time before cars and modern conveniences, the neighbor might be a blessing which could make the difference between life and death.
Finally, the prayer moves into the heart. It lifts family and means of provision up in this last section of prayer. We may find cattle to beodd, but consider that for some a healthy cow might mean the difference between living through a winter and starving through the end of the cold months. Prayers for wife and children are definitely patriarchal in composition, but this is a prayer from 1900. Leading into all of these relationships is a call towards God for a clean heart and to remain in the sight of God who sees all folks.
Consider that bit for a moment. There is no prayer here for God to turn away while there is abuse in the home or a lapse of judgment. There is a call for God to be near and to watch. The heart out of which all things flow is kept in the eye of God. That’s actually a pretty bold request.
So, what can we sum up from this prayer from 1900? Sometimes the best prayer begins with admitting you do not know what will happen, but seek to live with trust first and foremost. Similarly, even when we have had a rough past which included mistakes (which most of us will admit), there’s still a greatness to praying that God would keep an eye on us and grant us a better future. There’s also just something beautiful about a prayer that intentionally does not close one’s eyes to one’s neighbor.
If I were to rewrite this prayer for today, I wouldn’t focus on cattle, but I would remember how God has helped me find ways to bring food to my table. If I were to rewrite this prayer for my circumstances, I might not see my neighbor in exactly the same light as someone from 1900 who might see only this person on days of miserable weather, but I would consider that our neighbors are often the people we look beyond when we consider the problems of the world. If I were to rewrite this prayer, it would be different, but I hope that it would maintain the same movement of trust in God from the unknown future, to the parts of my life I see, and finally to the beloved parts of my life.