“It is grace, nothing but grace…”

I write this blog post for posting a few days before the beginning of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I write this blog with a lot of questions in my mind. What will happen over the next few days? What effects will that gathering have on the church as a whole?

My questions about the future have been inspiring questions in my mind. What does it mean that we are a “United” Methodist Church? What does it mean that we have deep divisions in our unity? Have we missed something?

I recently started rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I have been pondering the nature of Christian community, the life of someone who had to make incredibly hard decisions to remain as faithful as he could, and it is nice to read about the life of someone who is not United Methodist during these troubling days. Still, Bonhoeffer has always been troubling. I found the following quote calling out for contemplation:

“Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” page 4.

Bonhoeffer writes this quote in the midst of contemplating how rare it is for Christians to live in community. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus himself lived a life that involved isolation during many of the major events of his life. Jesus was alone even in the midst of the crowd for many events of what we call the “passion.” Bonhoeffer points out the lonely lives lived by many of the apostles, missionaries, and even individual Christians throughout the centuries.

Reading Bonhoeffer is always challenging, but these words were particularly biting in light of the upcoming events in the life of my denomination. Have we honestly thanked God that we have each other? Have we thanked God for the privilege of living in community with one another? Have we seen our living together as anything but a gift of unmerited favor?

Honestly, when I see some of the vitriol in the community of faith I share with other Christians I do not always see people thankful for grace. I have seen people stand there and say “You do not belong in the church” when they are only in the church by the grace of God. They have been given the blessing of belonging to a body of faith. They have been given a grace and it seems as if that grace is taken for granted.

How many Christians over the centuries longed for a place to belong with other Christians? How many of our churches exist because people came together to have a place to belong? Are we turning our back on that legacy of grace? Are we so thirsty for law, structure, and power that we would burn our community of grace to the ground if we do not get our own way?

It is far easier to tear down than to build something. It is far easier to destroy than to give life. As we head into General Conference, I am praying we remember that we are only together by the grace of God. I am praying that grace prevails.

An Amusing Story

This week I am attending the second last session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. One of the things I have found at the Academy is a community of souls who are diverse and beautiful. There are also several folks who love awful jokes. So, while I did pre-write these posts, I thought I would share a joke that I have been working on for other folks who love bad jokes. It is a twist on a joke out of a book my kids gave me.

Two friends lived their entire lives next door to each other. Their families spent time together, their kids played together, and they were really great neighbors. Every year they would go hunting for water fowl and the friends would sit together for hours.

Over time one of the friends began to be bothered. It seemed like everything in life was grand, but his friend always found a way to look at the downside of things. If there was a rainbow, he’d complain about the rain. If there was a bumper crop of zucchini, he’d complain about eating the same thing every night. If he went hunting and did not reach his limit, he would complain about bad luck despite having birds to clean and feed his family. This man loved his friend, but it was increasingly difficult to find a sense of humor about his friend’s tendency to complain.

He became obsessed with pointing out the little blessings, but his friend seemed oblivious. After a few years of this, his long patient and helpful hunting dog passed away. Sure enough, his neighbor started complaining about how tough it was to train a new dog.

Nevertheless, the optimistic friend started training a little pup. Being a religious man with a sense of humor, he named his dog Jesus. “Jesus was always there for him.” “Jesus just wanted a closer walk with him.” You know the kind of jokes…

He loved the pup and started his training. He was shocked to find that when he began to train the dog to retrieve fowl the dog would walk on water to the bird to retrieve it. It was a miracle! He was shocked, awed, and finally thrilled that he at last had a chance to show his friend that not everything was bad in this life. There were miracles all around if we stop focusing on the terrible stuff all the time.

So, one day the two men go hunting. The man doesn’t tell a soul about his dog’s gift. Soon enough, the bird dog was sent to go get a downed fowl. The dog got out of the boat, walked over the pond, picked up the bird, and came back.

The friend was quiet and thoughtful for a moment. He slowly turned to the proud dog owner and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry. First you lost your trusty hunting dog and now this. You just have the worst luck.”

The dog owner was flabbergasted. He asked how his friend could possibly look at this is something less than wonderful. The friend looked him in the eye, squeezed his shoulder, and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I don’t think your dog can swim.”

Our dogs Lily and Wolf. They approve of this joke.

Alouette Ode to Psalm 150

Praise God with loud drum.
Praise God with low hum.
Praise God with rocking guitars.
Praise God with your voice.
Praise God with your choice.
Praise God beneath all the stars.

Breathe deep as you strum.
Breathe and let soul thrum.
Breathe deep and cry with your heart.
Breathe with open mind.
Breathe deep and be kind.
Breathe, rise, and make a fresh start.

“Alouette Ode to Psalm 150” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Today’s poem was inspired by Psalm 150. We’ll be reading the psalm this Sunday in church. I wrote it in the “Alouette” poetry form. I tied together the two stanzas by rhyming the first two lines in each stanza.

My process was to envision the first stanza as a response to God’s Presence (which echoes powerfully in Psalm 150) and the second stanza as the body breathing in preparation of living with that Presence in the world.

A Poem Born in Prayer

What happened to you?
I was raised in your old pews
And was taught deep faith.
I don’t recognize all this.
I lament what I now see.

It was not easy.
You remember the good things.
In my family
There have always been battles
As people work through this life.


Can we just go back
To the time of innocence 
When it all seemed well
Before our eyes were opened
And we saw through the curtain?

Those days were hard days.
People fought to bring the light
To entrenched evils.
People died to get us here
Where martyrs may yet come forth.


What should we do then?
Everything seems far too large
For my human hands.
Where should we go in these days
When all may be asked of us?

Let us go to pray
At the feet of my Lover.
My Love is as near
Now like once in Babylon
And in cold dark Roman cells.

Come near to the fire.
No fiery furnace burns hot
as my Love’s passion.
The days ahead may yet burn
But you will always be loved.

“A Poem born in Prayer” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

I wrote this prayer poem in a conversation between my soul and God. The bold parts are a personification of the church. I was reminded in that time of prayer that nothing in the church was ever perfect. We cannot go back. The only way is forward.

Isaiah and Climate Change

Tomorrow we are looking at Isaiah 45:9-13,15-19 at our church service. We will be focusing on the call of the community to live with a purpose, but as usual, church is only so long and there is more in the passage that is worthy of our time.

In particular, I wanted to take a moment to look at the last two verses. In the NRSV, the Isaiah 45:18-19 calls out for attention given our world’s modern challenges.

For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it a chaos,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
“Seek me in chaos.”
I the Lord speak the truth,
I declare what is right.

Isaiah 45:18-19, NRSV

God does not create the world to be a jumble of chaos in the scriptures. God created a world that was meant and is meant to be inhabited. The world is very carefully crafted. Indeed, we live in a beautiful world filled with majestic creatures.

To be blunt, a lot of those beautiful creatures are going extinct and huge swaths of the earth are struggling to cope with human induced climate change. For the entirety of our existence, humans have had an impact on the world. We systematically hunted certain animals to extinction over the course of our existence. Now our behaviors are bringing extinction to creatures not through the use of a bullet or arrow but by changing the chemicals in streams, filling oceans with plastic, and removing habitats through intentional deforestation.

To me, this is an outrage and an offense to both the gift we have been granted and the world which we received. This world was meant to be inhabited just as the hotel has rooms that are meant to be rented. We are invited to this world like someone invited to stay at a friend’s house for a season. If we were to treat a hotel room like we have treated our world, we would be charged to repair the damage. If we were to destroy our friend’s house, we would likely lose that friendship. Why is the way we treat this world seen differently?

I would invite you to consider whether we are called to treat our world better. More information about climate challenges can be found here.

The Thrush and Bonhoeffer

Have you ever stopped to wonder whether life would be different if we paid closer attention to the world? Would life be different if we focused on other matters than those that preoccupy us?

Recently I was reading a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents in April 1943. Eberhard Bethge translated the version I was reading. The letter I was reading was written on the fourteenth of April. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden; I hope that Renate’s wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer as translated Eberhard Bethge in “Letters Papers from Prison”

If you are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s story, Bonhoeffer was arrested for taking very public stances against the Nazi regime in Germany and for engaging in espionage. He was executed for his crimes during the last days of hostilities in 1945. Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent Lutheran martyrs of the 20th century.

Bonhoeffer is writing to his father at the beginning of his imprisonment in the letter I was reading. They had separated Bonhoeffer from family, from his fiancee, and from his community of faith within the confessional church. Bonhoeffer was facing charges which could easily lead to his execution.

What catches my eye is that Bonhoeffer notices the thrush in the prison yard. He could have obsessed over his imprisonment and isolation. He could have focused on being confined in his cell for long hours at night or being neglected simple things like shoelaces and shaving cream. In the midst of everything, Bonhoeffer notices the thrush.

I am not imprisoned in my home. I have access to the world around me and my children are a regular part of my life. There are so many things I could focus on in life. I could notice the sound of my daughter singing to herself, the blessing of having a partner who helps me to be a better person, or a million and one other things.

Instead I find myself focusing on matters that are not helpful. Do I have opinions about politics? Yes, I most certainly have opinions. Do I have an obligation to speak out against abuses? Yes, I most certainly have times when I must take a stand. There are many things I could focus on in this moment.

We all have only so many days in this world. What do we notice as we spend our time under the sun?

I pray that my calling in the world will come with the awareness that Bonhoeffer seemed to possess. Will I miss the thrush? I pray that I do not miss the thrush in my life today. May I gain blessings through all the little things.

Love is not easy

I wanted to post a post for Valentine’s Day that is a reminder that love has never been an easy thing to handle. Stalwart figures from church history faced challenges when it came to issues of love.

  • We don’t know the story behind this aspect of his life, but St. Paul clearly had opinions of marriage and love which may or may not have been the result of personal troubles. He believed the time in this life was short and wrote the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28 (NRSV): “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.”
  • The Desert Abbas and Ammas genuinely discouraged romantic entanglements. Some of them even refused to talk with folks that might lead to even the risk of their being attracted romantically.
  • The monastic movement generally promoted and engaged in celibacy. There were exceptions and times when individual monks went astray from their vows, but most monastics certainly faced a challenging life.
  • Martin Luther started a whole reformation movement without the support of a life partner until he married an escaped nun named Katherine von Bora. He literally snuck her out of a convent in a fish barrel.
  • Generally every relationship with a woman in John Wesley’s life ended poorly.

Lots of people struggled with romance and romantic desires through the history of the church. If you are alone today, it is good to know that you are in good company. I would invite you to know that you have worth outside of a romantic relationship, that you are a beloved child of God, and that the fourteenth of February really is just another day.

On a less romantic note, I recently found this excellent recollection of the situation that arose between John Wesley and Mrs. Beta Hawkins. While they were certainly not in a romantic relationship, here’s a few of my favorite highlights of that interaction:

  • “Sir, you have abused me! You have insulted me! And I am going to put this pistol ball through your brain!” Then she pulled out a pair of scissors and said, “And I’m going to cut that long hair!”
  • Wesley grabbed both her hands and she fell on top of him on the bed. He called out to the maid, “Get her off! Get her off!” Beta called out to the maid, “You hold him still or I’ll shoot you, too!”
  • Dr. Hawkins came in. “What is that scoundrel doing in my house?” he exclaimed. “Sir, what are you doing on top of my wife?” Wesley replied, “Sir, I am not. She is on top of me! Get her off!”

I pray that your day goes a lot more smoothly than John Wesley’s day once did. Also, if people really don’t like you and may shoot you, don’t go alone to their house. That’s always a bad choice.

Preparing to Help

Frost covers a world
In need of kind and warm grace.
Are you called to act?
Ice over living water
Is often broken by love.

“Ice and Love” by The Distracted Pastor. 2019

Today we awoke to a house surrounded by ice. Ice is a wonderful gift in the middle of a hot summer day in a cold drink. In the middle of winter, ice can often be a challenge more than a slight inconvenience.

For the past few hours I have been working at deicing the church parking lot in anticipation of upcoming events at the church. I have made little headway and our local radio station is predicting further ice tonight.

While broadcasting salt across the ice this morning I thought back to the times in my life when I worked with the homeless, especially during my college years. I thought about the challenges faced by folks who want to the right thing to help someone, but do not know what to do. If you give someone money, will it be used wisely? If you give them a flashlight, will they trade it for something else?

One of the first lessons I learned is that you cannot control what others do. If you bless someone with a flashlight, they might trade it for something else. If you offer them a blanket, they might exchange it for a drink of something untoward. You cannot control what other people do, but that does not mean that there are not concrete things you can do to help others.

Here are a few of things I would suggest:

  • Blanket Blessing
  • Hot meal
  • Handwarmers
  • Gift Certificate

Keep a blanket blessing in your trunk. I suggest a warm blanket that is not large or bulky. Roll that blanket up with two pairs of new thick, warm socks, a knit cap, and a pair of gloves. The time to make these blessing blankets is not now. If you wait until end of season sales, stock up on the gloves, hats, and winter socks when they’re on clearance. Set a limit to what you want to do next winter (e.g., one set, five sets, ten sets) and store them with your winter snow brush. Put them in your trunk when you put your snow brush back in your car next fall.

Offer to buy someone a meal instead of giving them money. If they are hungry, ask them if you can buy them something to eat and then follow through. If you do not have time to sit with them, offer to bring them drive-thru or takeout. Offer to get them a hot drink with the food. The heat goes a long way. Note: Some people will say no to your offer or try and convince you to just give them the money. Use your best judgment, but I would suggest you offer the food and hot drink.

Instead of offering people money, buy a box of those chemical hand warmers at the end of the season. Offer them to people who are out in the cold. It is a simple gift. As a caution, check the expiration date if you’re buying for the next season. Unlike the blanket blessing, they expire.

If you live in a semi-rural location or in a location with more local businesses than chain restaurants, talk with a local restauranteur. Ask if you can buy a certificate for a “meal” complete with warm drink, food, and the tip included. If you talk with a small business owner and explain what you are doing, they may help you out. This may be something that ends up being traded, but if you are concerned it is still better than giving money.

A Senryu for my 200th Post

“Hey Candy. Crush me!”
I laugh. The gummy bear flew.
Twenty six pounds hurts.

“Gummy Bear Senryu” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

I wrote this senryu to play a little bit with the “Games Night” theme at the dVerse Poets’ Pub. I have played enough video games to realize that it is sometimes fun to pretend not to know anything about them.

This poem is inspired by a twenty six pound Gummy Bear that you can actually buy. Who needs chocolates for Valentine’s Day? Seriously though, you could kill someone with that thing. I imagine it’ll make an appearance in a Dead Rising game at some point if it hasn’t already.

By the way, this is my 200th blog post! I have others scheduled for the next few days, but I wanted to say thank you to everyone who keeps encouraging me by reading and enjoying my posts, even when they’re silly. Blessings to you.