Reflections on Taut Dough

Over the last week at Maine Federated Church, our daily devotional has focused on the subject of the spirituality of bread baking. A while back, our church used Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines” as the basis for a small group study. Last week we delved into the same subject using additional resources. In particular, we delved into the science of bread baking through “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee and Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza.”

This morning the Maine Federated Church is shifting to a week studying the Ascension, but I am not leading an Ascension service or a Memorial Day service. I am preparing a loaf of bread to go with dinner. Leading a church without an online worship service in the midst of the pandemic has been frustrating at times. I understand the rationale behind the church’s decision to proceed digitally in a way that is inclusive to all people in the congregation, but it is unsettling to wake up Sunday morning with time to bake bread.

To be entirely clear, while I am frustrated, I believe with all of my being that the church has a responsibility to reopen in a way that is measured and safe. I do not believe that we should rush into a dangerous situation that can endanger lives because any politician says that it is time to open. I also own the fact that this is my opinion.

Yeasty scents come from under this kitchen towel!

Today I am working with a recipe from Ken Forkish’s book. In particular, I am making a loaf of whole wheat bread to go with dinner. Overnight, water, flour, and a little bit of yeast fermented on our counter in a container. This morning, I combined the biga with additional water, flour, salt, and yeast to create a dough. Over the last few hours, I have sat with the dough as it continues to grow across the room. Yeasty scents fill the air and lead to thoughts of life.

One of the parts of the bread baking process which is in my thoughts this morning is the folding process recommended by Ken Forkish. I have folded the dough four times and have noticed the dough growing more and more taut as the process continues. The folding helps to give structure to the dough and itself is very interesting. When you first uncover the dough, it seems like a sloppy mess. After a few gentle folds, the dough begins to show a structure that seemed impossible moments before.

The tension in the dough continues to amaze me. Without the stress placed on the dough, the dough would end up a messy pool of liquid. When the dough is stretched, the dough develops the structure that will make the bread incredible.

Think about what spiritual lessons might be drawn from a parable rooted in this practice. We all want to live in communities that never face tensions, but can we be shaped into the communities we are meant to be without the occasional pressure or stressor? Just as a knife cannot be sharpened without the pressures of honing or as an athlete cannot grow stronger without challenging practice, can a community grow stronger without facing the occasional struggle? Can an individual grow into their potential without facing difficulty?

To be clear, there’s something to be said against stretching the dough to the point where it rips. Dough can definitely be overworked, but dough can also be underworked. How would the bread turn out if a person just put the ingredients into a bread pan without mixing?

As a minister, I have witnessed congregations that were unwilling to engage in healthy challenges and stretching. Most of them have struggled and some of them have closed. As a person, I have witnessed in other lives and have lived through portions of my own life where an unwillingness to engage in difficult situations led to terrible consequences.

When we live with the goal of never facing difficulty, we often become weakened to the point of uselessness. While this is a difficult time in life, it is my hope that the stretching we are all facing might strengthen us over the long run. May God bless you all this Sunday and keep you well.

Fresh from the oven!

Beanbag Haibun

Well worn bumpy sacks wait to be released anew in another home. Adults loose a sigh as boxes begin to swell with children’s treasures. Children pack away items all will trip over in a few months time. Parents ponder why long dusty beanbags take space both now and later.

Sweet smiling children
will fill a fresh and new place
with “priceless” treasures.

“Beanbag Haibun,” Distracted Pastor, 2020

Spring Scarecrow Haibun

The scarecrow lay prone. Pumpkin head in cold wet mud: weighted base cast down. Crimson chested birds peck for brave spring early worms as humans shiver. Lifted and shaken, the scarecrow hangs in her dress: wrinkled by Jack Frost. A child sees her friend risen from the muddy pit: arms open to hug. Windchimes dangle low: ringing out their joyful sound beside laughing child…

Run, little daughter!
Laugh, giggle, chuckle, and play!
Enjoy this moment.

“Spring Scarecrow Haibun,” Distracted Pastor, 2020

Enthusiasm for today…

Empty streets below skies
blotted by ashen hued puffs.
No voices carry on cold wind
As footsteps seem noisy intrusions...
This is a still place...

Listen within. 
My soul breathes,
heart beats:
life.
This is a still place...

Yesterday it rained a lot here. From morning until evening, the skies were filled with rain and the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing. The few walks that I took with my dogs and children were taken on streets drenched in rain. The streets were mainly empty, which is pretty normal in quarantine. The cold rain only made the walks chillier, the yards emptier, and the entire area’s mood more somber.

For the last few weeks of quarantine, I’ve been slowly reading through Richard Rohr’s “Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.” I say that I’m reading it slowly because the price of Kindle books has taught me the wisdom of rationing books during this time of stillness. My personal budget for books has not grown even as the time to read them has increased…

The book is interesting. I do not always agree with Fr. Rohr’s writing, but thankfully my beliefs do not require me to agree with someone’s entire belief structure to glean wisdom where I find it. Let’s take this idea from Fr. Rohr which strikes me as particularly interesting on page 96:

If contemplation teaches us to see an enchanted world, cynicism is afraid there is nothing there. As a people, we have become cynical about ourselves, our world, our future. Some rightly said, “The problem is no longer to believe in God; it’s to believe in humanity.” We’re tremendously under-confident about what it means to be human. For many secular people today we live in a disenchanted universe without meaning, purpose, or direction. We are aware only of what it is not. Seldom do we enjoy what it is. Probably it is only healthy religion that is prepared to answer that question. Healthy religion is an enthusiasm about what is, not an anger about what isn’t.

Richard Rohr, page 96 of “Everything Belongs”

Yesterday, the world was empty, wet, cold, and windy. The weather outside was fairly to quite miserable. The news on the radio was not very warm and cuddly. I could have easily chosen to be angry about the world. I could choose to embrace anger, anxiety, fear, or despair.

Instead, I smoked a turkey that we froze in our freezer last fall. Earlier in the week I brined the turkey with a homemade brine. We thawed the turkey in a brine for five days. We brought the brine to a boil before cooling to room temperature prior to submerging the turkey. We smoked the turkey with cherry wood chips with brine in the water pan. With three hours left, we put potatoes underneath the turkey to smoke and to be flavored by any drippings falling from the turkey.

The turkey three hours before dinner. Confession: I forgot to take a picture when finished due to the busyness of the moment.

The day could have been thoroughly miserable, but there was opportunity to find joy even in the midst of a dark world. We cannot choose the world in which we live. We can choose how we try to approach the difficulties. Sometimes there are neurochemical challenges which require medical help, patterns of habits which are detrimental, or a propensity towards anxiety, depression, or fear; however, we still can make a choice.

Last night, we had smoked turkey with smashed smoked potatoes. The turkey was moist and flavorful, the potatoes were tasty, and the inevitable cranberry sauce was devoured. We have enough leftovers for the next few days today and turkey broth cooking in the slow cooker. Even these moments can be beautiful if we choose to find a reason for hope and joy. Perhaps you’re not a cook or have nobody to cook with, but this day is still the day we have for today. We can choose to be enthusiastic about what is rather than angry about what is not.

Brine Recipe: For every five pounds of turkey: 1 clementine sliced into wedges, 1 tsp prague powder #1, 1 tsp peppercorns, ¼ c brown sugar mixed into a brine made with enough water to submerge the turkey)

“People who are in good health don’t need a doctor; sick people do.”

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Today we’re reading through Matthew 9:9-13 as a people. In Matthew 9:12 of The Inclusive Bible, the words which comprise the title of this post are spoken by Jesus. Jesus states freely that people who are in good health don’t need a doctor, which leads to a question: If Jesus is in the process of bringing life into the lives of poor, then why is the “Doctor Jesus” spending time with people who could objectively be seen as rich?

In my opinion, there’s a common misconception about church. People believe that church is a place for people who have everything together. It is common to find people who find church people to be self-righteous, judgmental, and hypocritical. Interestingly, Jesus did not seen to spend his time with the people who had everything together.

People could objectively look at the scriptures Jesus and see a hypocritical teacher who says a blessing will fall on the poor while spending time with the rich., but is that truly the message we should take away from the story? Jesus does not say the rich are healthy. In fact, Jesus implies the people who he is sharing a table with are not healthy. Wealth does not equal spiritual health in Jesus’ eyes. The tax collectors and notorious sinners are ill: the doctor has come to make a “house call.”

Throughout this week, Jesus will stretch our understanding of what it means to be wealthy and who is in need of blessing. May God give us wisdom in a world that glorifies riches and sometimes isolates on a pedestal the very folks who need loving and healing community the most.

The “Jesus problem” is noticed…

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Today we are looking at Luke 6:6-11, which contains the story of Jesus healing a person with a withered hand. The story is an interesting one and certainly lends into the story of Lent. The last verse of our reading indicates that the religious scholars and Pharisees left the synagogue on that day looking for ways to do something about their “Jesus problem.”

The Lenten journey is one which ends in the events of Holy Week. There is no Lent where Jesus ends the season without suffering on the behalf of the people God loves. The desire of individuals to take care of this Jesus problem increases as the season progresses.

What’s interesting to me about this approach to Lent with the Beatitudes is that we see how a portion of Jesus’ teaching affects both Jesus’ life and potential the lives of the people who hear his teachings. Jesus offers healing to a person with a withered hand and the people walk away with sinister thoughts in their hearts.

I wonder how the person felt whose hand was healed upon that day. If it were me, I am doubtful I would have walked away grumbling about what Jesus had done. I would likely celebrate the unexpected blessing that came into my life.

This Lent, God may have something for us. God may give a blessing into our lives which we may not be expecting. God may give a blessing to us that we do not believe we deserve. God may bring a piece of radical healing into our lives, especially if we find ourselves struggling to find our place in this world.

I pray that God is with us all tonight and into tomorrow as we prepare to enter into worship. May God add blessing to our lives and may we celebrate it together in worship tomorrow.

“What have you to do with us?”

Today is the first Friday of Lent. As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” The devotional is available off Amazon as both a Kindle book and in large print on paper.

Our reading today focused on Luke 4:31-37. The passage immediately follows our passage from yesterday. In the passage Jesus of Nazareth is approached by a person who is “possessed” while in nearby Capernaum.

Jesus is asked two questions: What does Jesus have to do with them and has he come to destroy them? Jesus frees the person of their condition, but the questions remain. What has Jesus come to do?

This Lent, that’s really the question we all must ask before we dive into the matters found in the beatitudes. What has Jesus come to do? Jesus’ teachings can radically affect the way we interact with the world. What has Jesus come to do in our lives?

One of the things I am appreciating about both using this devotional and writing this devotional is that it approaches Lent from a completely different angle than most Lenten studies. It is my hope and prayer that spending time in less traditional scriptures might help us to see things differently this season. What has Jesus to do with us? What might Jesus want to do in our lives?

Only time will tell how things will look, but I believe Christ has come to bring grace into my life. Things I have done may need to be discarded, patterns in my life may need to be destroyed, but I believe that at the end of this journey and Lent I will find myself alive in Christ.

Nazarene Privilege

Today is the first Thursday of Lent. As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” Today is the last day that the devotional is free on a Kindle, on the Kindle Cloud Reader, or both.

Our reading today focused on Luke 4:14-30. The passage speaks about the proclamation of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus reads from Isaiah. Jesus proclaims that the words of Isaiah have been fulfilled:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19, NRSV, where Jesus references a portion of Isaiah 61:1-2

The reason we are looking at this in our devotional is a perceived connection between the proclamation from Isaiah and the radical words of the Beatitudes. The poor are blessed and here Jesus proclaims that the blessing is good news. In the original reference which Jesus is references, Isaiah also points out that the mourning will be comforted.

What’s interesting to me is the way that the Nazarenes are frustrated that the blessing will not begin in their midst. Their community has sheltered Jesus’ family, despite Jesus’ colorful birth narrative. In this gospel in particular, Jesus is effectively born under taboo circumstances. Jesus is not conceived in a culturally acceptable time-frame. They are pleasantly shocked the carpenter’s son is able to surpass the traditional role of a carpenter’s son until Jesus proclaims that they will not receive preferential treatment.

Interestingly, there’s a very common word in modern circles that describes what the people are experiencing. The people of Nazareth feel entitled to be blessed first for having a role in Jesus’ life. They are expressing a sense of privilege. Surely, Jesus must bless them first, right?

I have three daughters and one of them is still getting used to the idea of clothes. In particular, she wants to dress herself or wear nothing at all. The other day I captured the perfect image of her point in life.

This is not how pants work…

Yes, that’s my child trying to put pants on over her head. I am aware that there’s a pants trick going around the internet where you put your legs in one side of the pants and your body through the other side, but that isn’t in her wheelhouse right now. She was genuinely confused about why the pants weren’t working.

The people of Nazareth are genuinely upset about what is happening. Jesus is not supposed to act this way as a child of the community. What Jesus is doing in saying he will not go out of the way to bless his hometown is beyond the pale of proper behavior for the people of Nazareth. They feel a sense of privilege which does not find this acceptable.

Yesterday, we talked about how the call of Lent is to “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Many individuals find themselves in the midst of a slog of a pit in their lives. As a minister and as a Christian who has engaged in evangelism on regular basis before entering into ministry as a professional, I came across many people who effectively said that their regular attendance at church, their being a good person, or even their family’s devotion meant that God should immediately bail them out of the tough parts of life.

To be brutally honest, there are times in life when that kind of belief is simply not consistent with how the spiritual life works. There are situations we face where we have to do more than notice we’re in the bog of life. We are called to repent of what led us to this place, turn towards God, and believe the gospel. Occasionally that belief is best manifested in honest attempts to step forward with faith despite the difficulty.

There’s truthfully moments where God will walk with us, but we must let go of that privilege. If you’re addicted to some substance or behavior, you may need to believe while you choose to not engage in that behavior or entering into dangerous places. If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, you may need to believe while regularly taking medicine to help your body function. If you’re grieving, you may need to believe while understanding there are stages of grief you may have to experience.

Sometimes, we each need to understand that the pants go on our legs despite our belief that they’ll work the way we want them to work. The humility that comes with a lot of Lenten practices can be an excellent place to practice what may become necessary on your journey.

May God bless us today as we ponder what we each might take for granted in our spiritual journey. May God help this to be a fruitful day.

Ash Wednesday

Our church is beginning a journey along with many in the greater Christian Church today. Several of our members are gathering with our neighboring churches to begin the Lenten journey with an ecumenical service in a few hours. We will sing, pray, and reflect on our lives as Christians.

As a church we’re working through a devotional that I personally prepared called “The Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Journey.” Through tomorrow the devotional is free on a Kindle, on the Kindle Cloud Reader, or both. Writing a devotional for a season is a new experience for me, but I found the practice of putting in the work to be fruitful for my own spirituality.

Today’s entry focuses on the passage which lies behind the majority of the devotional. The passage we read together today is Luke 6:17-26 and the focus of the devotional is a phrase out of the United Methodist Book of Worship. The liturgy for the Ash Wednesday service uses two distinct phrases during the imposition of the ashes.

The first is very traditional: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This phrase has a lot of depth, especially as it is echoed in the traditional words during many memorial services. There is a direct correlation with the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The second phrase is also traditional. Our devotional is focused on the words of this phrase. “Repent, and believe the gospel.” When using this phrase, the Lenten journey begins with two instructions. We are called to repent. We are called to believe the gospel.

Photo from Chenango Valley State Park in Chenango Forks, NY

Often, the call to repentance is a major part of Lent. Repentance is not simply a matter of feeling guilt. The call is not to live in shame. Repentance is the process of recognizing your failings/shortcomings and turning towards God onto a better path.

In truth, there are many places in my own life where I feel as if I were walking through a field like the one in my picture. I walk along while looking at the sky until I find myself tumbling into the freezing cold waters below. Sometimes I know there’s a pit nearby, but sometimes I wander into the murky freezing water without any warning.

Repentance is about more than simply acknowledging that there’s a problem. Repentance is often about realizing that the only way out of the pit that we find ourselves standing in is with the help of God. Many people who have found themselves dealing with anything from an addiction, grief, depression, or chronic anxiety might tell you the ONLY way out of that pit is often with God’s help.

The reason I love this particular phrase on Ash Wednesday is the idea that we are called to believe. The photo I showed you is a desolate one, but did you notice the birds? There’s life down in that pit of freezing water. The water is cold, the situation would be miserable if you were trying to climb out the opposite side, but there’s still life.

The call on us today is not only to repent on this journey, but to believe in the gospel. Jesus Christ can work in our lives this Lent. The Holy Spirit can guide us through the darkest of our days throughout the years. Our Creator can create life in the midst of our lives. Let’s repent, and believe in the gospel.

Free Kindle Devotional

Hello friends,

I’m busy burying myself in a more traditional book at the moment, but I did want to say that the Lenten Devotional: In the Path of the Beatitudes is available as a free ebook from Amazon this week from this morning through Thursday night. Please feel free to use it! There’s a second edition planned for next year with all of the grammatical errors repaired and a few added resources. I even have an editor lined up for the second edition, but please feel free to try out this version!

The print cover looks like this! The photo was taken up just outside Fort Ticonderoga in New York State this winter by yours truly.

Lenten Devotional!

Hello friends, I have not fallen off the face of the earth. I have been focusing on working on longer works lately. One of those products has finally come to fruition.

I recently created a Lenten Devotional based around the teachings of Christ on the Beatitudes. It isn’t perfect, but my first attempt at publishing can be found on Amazon as both a Large-Print Book and as a Kindle ebook. The book is called: “In the Path of the Beatitudes: A Lenten Devotional.”

I hope that it can be a blessing to folks who want to spend some time reflecting on the teachings of Christ during the season of Lent. The devotional has daily scripture readings, a reflection, and journaling/discussion questions for personal growth.

Blessings!

Rice, Quinoa, and Berry Casserole

Today for lunch I cooked the following recipe for my kids while they were home from school. My kids love berries, but I rarely cook with berries. I decided to offer them a treat today by adapting a recipe from one of my Polish cookbooks. My mother was Polish and cooking Polish food brings her to my thoughts and mind; however, I also wanted my kids to have some protein in their lunch. I adapted the recipe to include quinoa for protein, local honey to help boost the business of our local co-op, and used frozen berries picked by my family at a local farm earlier this year (and subsequently frozen). The recipe fed four of us (a dad, a middle schooler, an elementary student, and a toddler) lunch with seconds and still had enough left over to send with the kids for lunch at school tomorrow.

This recipe is adapted from the “Rice & Berry Casserole (babka ryżowa z owocami)” recipe from “Polish Heritage Cookery” by Maria and Robert Strybel. Various changes to the recipe are found here, but I highly recommend you purchase the cookbook and try out some of the recipes.

Rice, Quinoa, and Berry Casserole

  • 3/4 c Quinoa
  • 3/4 c Rice
  • 1 1/2 c Milk
  • 1 1/2 Water
  • 1 tsp Vanilla
  • 2 pinches of Cinnamon
  • 3 Eggs
  • 1/2 c Honey, divided
  • 1 1/2 pounds of berries (blueberries are my family’s favorite, but I am betting other berries would be equally delicious, especially blackberries)
  • Shortening to coat dish
  1. Rinse quinoa and rice to remove both the starch from the rice and the bitterness from the quinoa. Strain through a very-fine mesh strainer. Here’s the one I use…
  2. Cook quinoa and rice with milk and water. For the purposes of today’s photos, I used white basmati rice and cooked the rice in a rice cooker. This left browned portions that my family doesn’t mind, but cooking the mixture on a stovetop can remedy the issue if you do not like browned rice and quinoa bits.
  3. While rice and quinoa are cooking, bring 1/4 c of the honey and 3 eggs up to usable temperatures. I brought the eggs up to room temperature and heated the honey until it was easily pourable (but not hot enough to cook the eggs). Whisk together the 1/4 c honey, 3 eggs, cinnamon, and vanilla in a bowl.
  4. Preheat oven to 375º F and use the shortening to grease an overproof casserole dish. We used a large casserole dish to help with portion control.
  5. Combine cooked rice and quinoa with egg mixture. Fold together until mixed, but do not overly mix. Divide mixture in half.
  6. Place half of the mixture into the casserole and flatten with a spatula or spoon. Place berries on top of first half of mixture and drizzle remaining quarter cup of honey over the berries. Top with remaining half of mixture.
  7. Cover and bake for 40 minutes. Top with either a drizzle of honey or a sprinkling of powdered sugar.

Untitled poem from a dream

Dreams like fog drift out from the depths of night.
Troubled thoughts steal all the warmth from our bed.
Hazy glimpses of events filled with fright:
I dream of habits I would bury dead.

Cold winds blow down the dreamy lane
Where dreaming guilt weighs down my soul.
Eyes open to a world more sane
As thoughts bend to the night's dark hole.

A staccato heartbeat
Slowly calms itself down.
I live where fingers meet
As soul seeks Heaven's Crown.

I would forget
Dark dreams untrue:
Part ways and yet,
Guilt clings like dew.

O God...
Bless me...
Break rod...
Free me...

Below the sun
I kneel and pray.
I seek the Son
By light of day.

Sunlight burns away fog
Revealing ways to see
Not all is miring bog.
There is much good in me.

Drifts lift to reveal a good heart
That seeks to be a good parent.
Terror unveiled to have a start
In desire to straighten parts bent.

I cannot change past nor keep dreams away
But sunlight reveals that the day has come.
Fog burns away over a cold clear way
Where any future has yet to become.

Cinquain: Light Falls

CreakyHouseMan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D.
For the record, I’m the CreakyHouseMan
Light falls
On empty path
Through woods by still waters:
A shrouded path for another.
Light falls
...

This poem is dedicated to a church member who passed away this last weekend. I’ve visited him for over five years in various facilities as he’s fought through various struggles. His journey is now beyond my sight and in God’s hands…

Butterfly Garden

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

    let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

    let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy”

Psalm 96:11-12

I was in a grumpy mood this morning and decided to slow down to see the beauty of God’s creation. Sometimes the best way to combat frustration and anger is to intentionally focus on God’s blessings…

All of these pictures were taken by me and are published through Wikimedia Commons under my username “CreakyHouseMan” [CC BY-SA 4.0]. All photos were taken in the Parsonage Butterfly Garden at the Maine Federated Church in Maine, NY.

Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling”

Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling
Date: July 28, 2019
Scriptures: Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

“We know through painful experience that
freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Let us pray:

God, give us the strength to approach You. Help us to be bold and to choose to listen to what you say to us. Bless us and keep us both now and forever. Amen.

I have spent the last week seeking wisdom. A few weeks ago an idea started spinning up in multiple people’s minds and spirits. I have been praying through not whether I should listen to God’s calling but how it will look in my life.

I read through a book by a church leader named Paul Nixon that was called “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” I heard bold words about leadership, following God’s calling, and changing church culture. I dreamed through what it meant that my heart was warmed by Paul Nixon’s set of choices on how a person approaches leadership. Could I choose to be bold over being mild? Could I choose to ac kkt now instead of later? Could I choose life over death? As a leader, I have always had a calling, but this felt deeper.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the words in your bulletin that we read. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He wrote it to a group of white clergymen who insisted that Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham were unwise. Dr. King insisted that the oppressed must demand to call for their own freedom. He insisted that the people rise to claim their freedom.

I pondered these words as I thought about our world. Dr. King was talking about a far more insidious and evil problem, but the words still kept filling my head with thoughts and dreams.

I identify as a millennial and my generation is very spiritual but divided from traditional organized religion. I have had many conversations with people my age who have said “Church is boring,” “Church is hypocritical,” and worst of all “Church doesn’t bless me–all it does is hurt me and people I love.” I have also had these same conversations with disaffected people both younger and older than my generation.

The thing is that I know these things may be true for some people, but only because the church has often forgotten the mission or left it behind to be more comfortable. This reality is tragic.

Look at what the Colossians are told: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

When I think about what I was taught about Jesus Christ as a child, I remember being taught that Jesus loved me, that Jesus cared about what was going on in my life, and that I always had a place in God’s house. When I was a teenager, I gave my life to Christ because the Church had taught me that when everything went wrong, I had a Friend and Protector in Christ Jesus.

When I accepted that love, when I placed my identity in that strength, and when I learned more about Christ, I was thankful. I abounded in thanksgiving. Why? I abounded in gratitude because Jesus Christ’s love was closer than my right hand. When Paul says continue in the love the church taught me as a child, I see a love that means the world to me. There have been times in my life when I would rather have been separated from my arm than separated from that love.

People in my generation and people in general are oppressed by misinformation–the misinformation they have about God does harm. They do not understand how powerful God’s love can be for their lives. It hurts my soul to think people do not learn of this love because they think church is boring or irrelevant. This kind of good news brings joy and meaning to life! It breaks my heart to think people would come to church and see the church as some place harmful rather than some place beautiful. Such things are holding people in my generation down. Such things are breaking hearts and causing pain. Such things should not be.

I thought about the quote from Dr. King, I thought about what I was reading, and I wondered. What would it look like if we took the parable Jesus tells as a story with a message for us? If we were to believe that Jesus cares for our neighbors and if we were to ask God to lead us through breaking through those barriers, do we believe God would not answer? Would a parent give a child a scorpion instead of an egg for breakfast? Would a parent leave the door unanswered if their small child knocked on the door asking to come in? Of course not. I love my kids, I may love sleep, but if they came asking for something they needed in the middle of the night, I would get it for them. The same holds true for my friends–I may wish to stay in bed, but if they needed help, I would get up and help.

It is my belief that God wants to help too. As I have listened to God, respected friends in the church, and my own soul, I believe that God is preparing us for something new and exciting. I think we are facing multiple challenges and that obstacles are being thrown in our way, but I believe these are attempts to put something in the way of those who call out from the edges. I hear their cries: “Love me!” “Welcome me!” “Welcome my kids!” “Welcome my parents!” “Welcome my brokenness!” “Welcome my weirdness!” “Welcome me!”

It has become such a call in my thoughts that I am asking a question of myself: Who is knocking? Am I knocking on the door asking for help of God? Is God knocking on my door to ask me to pay attention to the least? Are the people knocking because they need something better?

The thing is that the things we believe divide people from the Jesus’ love aren’t there. Are they too loud or too lax compared to what they should be? Well if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they drinking too much at the bar or spending too much on clothes? Well, if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they unlike the people we knew growing up in church? Well, if that’s a sin, that has been nailed to the cross.

One of the amazing things about Paul’s words is that the act of forgiveness described is always listed in the past tense. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well you were forgiven at the same time that people 200 years ago were forgiven. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well, the people down the street were forgiven at the same time. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well the people who haven’t been born yet, haven’t done terrible things yet, and haven’t asked for forgiveness were forgiven at the same time as us. We have all been buried with Christ and resurrected with Christ.

When Paul speaks of not being taken captive by false ideas and puffed up ways of thinking, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to think of what Christ has done. People were telling them that eating non-Kosher foods would damn them, but Paul tells them to stop believing the lies. People were telling them that there were Sabbath rules that had to be followed, but Paul told them to stop believing the lies. Their salvation did not rest in the rules but in Jesus Christ.

I went to church as a young man at my father’s church on Grand Island. I grew up believing that I had to wear the nicest clothes, sit quietly, and always behave perfectly. When our church launched a contemporary worship service, we started to attend worship with a bass guitar, clapping during worship, and with people who led worship in jeans. It was weird and I kind of rebelled against it for a long time as I tried to come to grips with the differences. I had come to my own faith in Christ, but could worship take place in church with guitars and clapping? Wasn’t that a youth group thing for when the adults were all off having coffee somewhere and couldn’t stop us?

I came to realize that worship wasn’t about sitting perfectly still or being perfectly dressed. Worship was about God. I knew God loved me as who I was, but it took me a while to realize that the Sabbath laws of Sunday morning church did not make me a good Christian. Only God’s love made me a Christian in a first place. All of my salvation came down to the actions of Jesus Christ, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the love my Creator. When Paul tells me to continue my life as I was rooted and built up in Christ, I find my own roots have strength not in tradition or historical accuracy. I find my roots only have life where they are connected to the love of God.

What is God calling me and others to do? Honestly, we’re still discerning what that looks like, but one thing is clear: If it will succeed, it will only be because it is founded on God’s love. How does that old hymn go?

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Let us pray…

Whole Life Challenge: Day Eight

Today was a “core day” and my first time working out with a medicine ball. I wanted some variety from using my weight set, so I picked up a slam ball from the local sporting goods store. A lot of the exercises for the core can be done on one’s back, which reduces the risk of my throwing my back out. I was excited.

After two exercises, I went back through the list of potential exercises and looked for a light workout. I decided a twist was my best bet. All I had to do was hold the medicine ball straight out and twist from side to side.

My arms were engaged in an isometric exercise of holding the weight of the medicine ball in place while my core muscles worked in an isotonic manner. The first few reps of each set were easy. By the end of my last set, I was exhausted from holding the ball up at arm’s length.

As I showered up after stretching, I thought about how stress is a lot like an isometric exercise. You get used to holding the weight. Often the weight is not great, but as you carry the weight, it feels heavier and heavier.

My wellness exercise for the week is to “do nothing” for ten minutes a day. If you’ve ever held a heavy weight and let it go, you might find your arms automatically rise. Doing nothing felt like that today. My “arms” automatically raised as I did nothing. I had to keep focusing on just being present.

It is my hope as I lead that the spirituality I share is a blessing and not a weight. I would hate to think I’m weighing folks down. Too many people treat religion as a burden for me to believe that religion is always a blessing. If it were, people would line up to go to church.

I am reminded of the final verse of Psalm 23. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” I often read this as goodness and mercy in my life.

What if the previous verse means something we often ignore? What if the anointing is to a holy purpose? What if the goodness and mercy spread to all we pass? What if we are the means of goodness and mercy? That’s the life I want to lead. I want my leadership to lift people up, not provide a weight that grows heavier and heavier.

Whole Life Challenge: Day Six

I have been struggling for the past few days. My chest has been sore and healing from the muscles I worked out earlier this week. Today I was scheduled to work out my upper body. I had a great deal of apprehension about working out.

Psalm 27 speaks about fear and trust. The third verse says: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” (NRSV)

I did not wake up very confident about my chances against the army of weights. I still worked out despite my concerns. I not only worked out, but I completed every set I began. It was close, but I succeeded.

People are often afraid of things they really need not fear. There are good reasons for concern, but fear as an abstract emotion is something that usually can and should be conquered.

If God does truly love us, then God’s love can help cast out our fear. This is my hope as I go to lie down for the evening: that I would face the night without fear of cramps and with confidence that I will rise to meet the challenge of “leg day” tomorrow.

“Still Morning”

Still morning with blooming lilies outside my window…
Steel cut oats linger in salty water
As coffee scents waft in the humid air.
Gray light trickles in through old still windows
As lazy flies begin to greet the day.

All is now quiet as mother and child
Bask in dream filled worlds beyond human reach.
The dogs sleep without a care in their heads.
Only the black cat watches with my soul.

If I could keep this moment in a jar
I would save it for darker days to come;
Yet, each day comes once and fades far away.
So, I sip and enjoy while I still can.

“Still Morning” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Whole Life Challenge: Day Five

Pizza sits nearby.
Salad fills up my belly.
I sip cool water.

Tonight we bought a pizza for a meeting with some folks from the church. We planned and shared a salad before going to the meeting. I was okay with my big mug of water.

There is something to be said for the five P’s: “Prior planning prevents poor performance.” If we are all in a battle for our wellbeing in both body and soul, then we should plan to be prepared.

As a minister, I don’t stand up Sunday morning without preparing to preach. As a Christian, I don’t walk through life without praying and studying the scriptures. As a person, if I wish to be healthy, then I need to prepare to be healthy in my actions.

Whole Life Challenge: Day Four

Today I shared lunch with a parishioner. She was injured over the weekend and my afternoon appointment had been canceled. I brought her a wrap while I enjoyed a salad.

After a few days of avoiding bread and cheese, I thoroughly enjoyed my salad. The chicken was tasty, the vegetables were fresh, and it was a great meal. It did not need a giant diet soda or a bag of chips to make it a good meal.

I often overlook the simple things for something extravagant. When I think about my life, I often think about the big and pressing issues. Do I overlook the salad in my life? Perhaps my own assumptions are a reason stress affects me how it does.

Sexist worldview of the Hebrew Scriptures set aside, this reminds me of Proverbs 21:9: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” Ignoring the cultural differences between then and now, a spouse was a blessing in the ancient world in a very real and concrete sense. The proverb seems to say it would be better to have peace while going without the blessing than to have the blessing while living in misery.

Perhaps we are stressed because we seek such blessings when we do not need them. Perhaps life would be more blessed if we lived more simply.

Whole Life Challenge: Day Three

Today I lifted a significant amount of weights for the first time in several years. I used to have a home gym, but it was a loaner. Getting ready for the Whole Life Challenge, I kept my eyes open for a used gym on Craigslist. Today I had my first real workout.

About half an hour after working out, I was sitting on the floor after stretching. I went to press on the edge of the couch to stand up when the bench press and pull-downs struck my chest muscles. They were sore, tired, and were happy to have me fall asleep on the floor. As I type I can feel each individual muscle tighten as I type and reach for the mouse. I never knew I used my chest muscles when using my computer. I was going to go to a town meeting tonight, but I don’t think I can lift up my shoes in order to put them on.

There’s an old phrase: “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” There’s a theory that this saying originated out of an interpretation/translation of Proverbs 16:27. I don’t see the connection between that verse and the old saying.

The implication of that old saying is that keeping busy keeps a person out of trouble. I can understand that logic. In my case, it is hard to be stressed about life in the future when you are worried about getting off the ground without muscle cramps. If I had to tie this into a gospel scripture, I would say that Matthew 6:34 in the NRSV covers it: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

The weights are enough trouble for today. Tomorrow will have to take care of itself.

“The Stretching Poem”

The other night I was stretching after a long day. We had spent the day with my wife running a garage sale while I helped to clean up the garage. My feet ached, my shoulder hurt, and I needed a good stretch for the Whole Life Challenge. I wrote this poem while reflecting on the events which took place while I stretched out tight joints while my wife washed up behind a closed bathroom door after a hot day in the sun.

Stretch your arms to toes
While your crying toddler wails
As her mom showers.

Stretch your sore shoulder.
Call to your lonely toddler
Who wants her mother.

Stretch your angry calf
As you pray she'll let mom be
After a hot day.

Rise to reach for her
As the door opens for her
Then closes on you.

Drink some cool water
As toddler storms the shower
With love and gusto.

“The Stretching Poem” from the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Whole Life Challenge: Day Two

On the second day of the Whole Life Challenge (WLC), I was sneaky. I am on my last day of vacation and did not have to lead worship. I wanted to visit a colleague’s church down the road. Our church has coffee hour after worship. My colleague’s church has a meal before worship. We arrived exactly on time and missed the meal. My kids were disappointed, but I didn’t have to walk past the donuts.

I am wondering about next Sunday when I return to church. Most food that is served in churches fits the mold of casseroles, jello, cookies, cakes, and other goodies. We rarely have fresh vegetables or fruit in any significant quantity. As the pastor, I am generally the last person through the line after greeting everyone and answering questions.

Cucumber slices are my favorite snack when doing the WLC…

If I want some fresh vegetables, hummus, cucumber slices, or other goodies, I may need to bring enough to share. It may seem silly to be concerned about such matters, but what will that look like if I provide that food every Sunday? What if this is a “lifestyle” change? How do we change a church culture that loves cookies and other sweets?

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says: “…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

How do we change how we eat in church? Perhaps it begins by realizing our bodies are temples. I have much to ponder as I chomp on these cucumbers.

Whole Life Challenge: Day One

Today I began a forty-two-day journey. I am taking part in the summer session of the Whole Life Challenge. The Whole Life Challenge (WLC) is a game-like experience where you seek to live up to certain ideals for forty-two days. Each day you earn a certain number of points. Playing with people you know means you are both held accountable for your practices and have healthy competition.

The WLC is an arduous journey. Last time I played I felt exhausted by the end of the process. I never wanted to play again. I also felt a lot healthier and happier. My goal during the last time I played was to lose weight. This time around I am aiming to reduce stress.

I wondered about that idea today. This morning I had flashbacks to the last time I played as I looked in the cupboards for something compliant with the “lifestyle” challenge. This afternoon I was “hangry.” At dinner we played a game called “stir-fry the random vegetables while trying not to look directly at the rice in the cupboard.” How is this supposed to lower stress?

One of my biggest foes…

I feel as if my wellness challenge for the week addresses this concern. My challenge is to turn off social media notifications on my phone, move any social media apps off of my home screen, and to spend more time being “present.” How can we be ourselves if other people are always barging into our lives? How can we be ourselves if our phone is always trying to sell us on things like “discounted burritos on Monday!”

I spend too much time looking at the world around me and saying “I should be more like this person.” I spend too much time comparing myself to others, wondering if that burrito would make me happier, or trying not to be right where I am in life.

I keep paying attention to my internal notifications about social status, professional achievements, and sometimes how much good I have done in a week. Life is not meant to be lived that way. Looking at the opening two verses of Isaiah 55, we see a vision of a world where people are offered what they need without price. Perhaps this is a passage which upends our national economic system, but someone could also argue this is a passage which asks people to consider their priorities.

I am engaging in the Whole Life Challenge because I need time to reconsider my priorities in life. I am avoiding wheat, stir-frying without sugar, stretching, and working out every day for the next forty-two days because I need time to refocus my self (body, heart, and soul) back onto God. I am doing this to become more like the person I was always meant to be.