Under God’s Wings

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.”

—Psalm 57:1 (NRSV)

Tomorrow is election day in the United States. In our town of Maine, there are many choices to make between incumbents and challengers. With the political climate being as it has been lately, there is a lot of tension in many hearts and minds. What will happen if one candidate wins an election? What will happen if another candidate wins? Tension and anxiety are high.

I was pondering the reality of this election before entering morning prayer. The Psalm of the day in my prayers was Psalm 57. The first verse of the Psalm stuck with me. The imagery of the Psalm begins with the image of a petitioner asking God to be merciful as their soul takes refuge. This soul turns to God and seeks safety underneath the wings of God.

The imagery that stuck in my mind was one of a Parent providing safety for a child during a chaotic storm. Images floated through my brain of a robin spreading wings over nestlings during a rainstorm, a father penguin standing over his chick throughout a winter storm while his partner walks to the sea, or a mother goose protecting her goslings.

This imagery stuck in my mind when I finally reached my computer. I felt the urge to click on Facebook, to read the news, and do many of the things I told myself I would not do before Tuesday evening. I thought about what I might absorb from such an anxious world, thought of the imagery of the Psalm, and went about my day.

Tomorrow will be what tomorrow will be regardless of my anxiety. I will vote, I will pray, but I will not be afraid. God is greater than any storm and nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Tomorrow will come, tomorrow may end with me calling out, but tonight I shall trust that God’s wings are enough to shelter me.

IMG_3222

 

 

 

Courage and Voting

Today’s blog post is two days in the making. I have been pondering what it means to be a Christian in an age where political differences in the United States are resulting in violence. Bombs are being mailed to opponents of the president and Republicans have been threatened at one particular early voting site in North Carolina. The world seems to be more and more violent the closer we get to November’s election.

I am wondering how we should reply to these situations. Scripture tells us to pray for the lands where we find ourselves. Even if some Christians do not appreciate the idea of Christians being a people living in exile, the thrust of Jeremiah 29 still points us to ponder how we relate to the “city where we are sent.”

Of course, none of this is easy. To be honest, in some circles, asking people to take Romans 13 seriously is a dangerous proposition. Calls by Paul to the Romans to be subject to governmental authorities are seen as less than applicable in some contexts, especially when we disagree with those authorities. A person who might quote Paul as sharing the gospel truth in one letter might chafe at considering his words in another. It is natural that we rejoice when governmental powers agree with us. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly common to call for their damnation when they disagree. Calls to respect people of different opinions in Romans 14 and 15 are seen as equally ludicrous at times.

It is difficult to live in such times. Whether you are a democrat, republican, or neither, these days are difficult days. As election day draws closer, there is a real sense of dread building in some circles. Will there be violence if one party loses favor or if another gains favor? Will there be violence if something changes or will there be violence if nothing changes? Heaven knows how many families are dreading Thanksgiving and those often turbulent conversations around the dinner table.

To be honest, I half expect to hear more stories about threats and potential bombings to increase as election day draws nearer. I am not seeking to be a pessimist. I find myself watching a pattern and pondering the outcome. In truth, my own days of believing in the myth of American exceptionalism in terms of believing in a political process that might be free of intimidation and gerrymandering are pretty much at an end. Perhaps I am simply choosing to save my idealism for my life of faith or perhaps I am simply worn thin by the matters of this world.

You may be asking what any of this has to do with being a pastor or spirituality. My simple answer is to say that it relates because these are the days where we need to have courage. Yes, the news is full of stories of challenges and those stories will increase. Yes, the President has warned there will be violence if his party loses the election next month, although it is strange he warns that the violence he seems to fear would be from the party that might gain political power. An honest appraisal might say that violence might occur regardless of who wins. Yes, the world might become a dark place after this election. Yes, these are days that require courage regardless of political party.

Then again, maybe these days are not as dire as it seems. Things might go poorly, but they also might go well. In a sense, these days are like every single day of our lives. Even in the best of times, all of us live with only one day. We all live in today. Yesterday has gone by. Tomorrow is a dream. Today is the only day that any of us has to live within. Since you cannot control the future and cannot change the past, today is like every day of your life. To borrow from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, you can only step in the same river once.

The world is always changing and the natural uncertainty requires courage. It takes courage to live in a world which might change in a moment due to a blood clot, a missed stop sign, or an unexpected illness. It takes courage to live in a world where someone might leave tomorrow, where you might lose your job at the end of your shift, and where a loose dog might catch you while you wait for the school bus. It takes courage to live in this life and while the future might seem stressful, today is really the only day that any of us have ever had to live within.

I hate to bring in ancient monastics again, but I do enjoy them. There is an applicable gem in my often quoted copy of Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” That gem is a quote from Abba Serinus. The quote goes: “Abba Serinus said, ‘I have spent my time in harvesting, sewing, and weaving, and in all these employments if the hand of God has not sustained me, I should not have been fed.’”

If you would prefer a biblical approach to the concept that life is a bit more transitory than some of us expect, Luke 12:13-21 contains a parable where Jesus warns people about the folly of building up riches on earth. A rich man has a bumper crop, plans to tear down his barns, and intends to build bigger barns to hold his massive crop. He plans to live out his days with wealth! Jesus shares that his folly is to plan to live out long days with his massive wealth. The rich man will die that very night. All of the crops from his wonderful harvest will not keep him from his own mortality.

Whether you approach the subject from the Abba’s viewpoint that all of life has led to this moment because God has provided or whether you hear Jesus’ warning about the uncertainty of tomorrow, in my opinion one thing is clear. We all have this one moment. We can respond with gratitude, make assumptions about the future, or even follow the advice of Ecclesiastes 5:18 (“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”). Regardless of how we spend our days, these days are the days we have.

So, how will we spend them? If today is the day you have to live, what will you do? Will you live in fear? Will you decide to ponder what comes in every package, worry about every group of people near every polling place, or will you step forward to take your place in history? If God has brought you to this time and place, is it not your responsibility to live in this moment?

 

IMG_3222

I invite you to participate…

Two people named James on “Thoughts and Prayers”

I’m currently fighting a sore throat. I say this because the only medicine we had in the house was a “night-time” variety and my cough medicine is making things a bit hazy this morning. My office door is closed, I have disinfectant wipes at the ready, and I am here at my desk trying to sort through my thoughts.

The strange companions on my desk today. “Ugh drops” indeed… Clearly, the local store does not sponsor this blog. Actually, I’m the only one who sponsors this blog…

As a people, we live in challenging times. When I was a child, when we needed to learn something we had to talk to a teacher, go the library, or devise a way to find out on our own. My brother ran a dial up BBS (Bulletin Board System) in our home, but to be entirely honest, the BBS was more useful for playing video games than learning massive amounts of information. The internet may not have been in infancy, but it was certainly a toddler.

These days, we are flooded with information. This blog will reach places that my brother’s BBS would never have reached without a great deal of effort. We have more access to information and misinformation than ever. Facebook, my social media of choice, is filled with information which goes from completely factitious to unfortunately real in the space of a few swipes of a finger.

The world of information has expanded exponentially in my lifetime and I am only in my thirties. There is so much to see, so much to grasp, and only so much emotional energy with which to process it all. My brain may still be the most powerful computer I own, but it runs off of a reserve of energy that is tied to things like my mood, my mental health, my stomach, my body, and all other parts of me. A sore throat might not lessen the amazing processing power of my mind, but my focus is certainly not on the mysteries of the universe when it hurts when I swallow.

In a world that is overwhelming and complicated, it makes sense that sometimes it feels as if all we can do is offer “thoughts and prayers” when things are going awry in the world. What can I do about a bigoted law named HB 1369 stripping the right to vote from Native Americans half a country away in North Dakota when I cannot even talk on the phone without being in pain?

It makes sense, but there’s some part of me that feels a need to push back, even as my throat burns. Ironically, in Benedicta Ward’s compilation and translation “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” which is attributed to Abba James, who shares a name with a letter which also says something on the subject. In her translation, Benedicta Ward points out:

“[Abba James] also said, ‘We do not need words only, for at the present time, there are many words among men, but we need works for this is what is required, not words which do not bear fruit.”

These words are reminiscent of the words from the Letter of James. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), James 1:22-24 says:

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

For me, these words from the Letter of James relate directly to the words from Abba James which were shared centuries later. The letter calls out at people to become doers of the words. Hearing is wonderful, but there is something powerful about moving beyond hearing to acting. As Abba James points out, there are many who hear, many who speak, but not enough who act. This sentiment is forcefully and famously restated in James 2, where its says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We must connect our words and our deeds. How does that look when you are sitting in an office with a sore throat and trying not to give anything to a church full of preschoolers, teachers, and paid/volunteer church staff? Well, that is my question to answer for today. How will you respond to a world which needs you to do more than simply speak?

Moving past the Milk

Today I was pondering the scriptures. One of my regular habits is to spend my Monday afternoon going through various books and passages seeking a word for myself, for a congregation member, or for the community. I was reading through a passage from Hebrews 6 and found myself caught up in verses 1-3. Hebrews 6:1-3 says the following in the New Revised Standard Version:

“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.”

Now, I found this passage was catching my eye, so I stopped to ask why it caught my attention. I slowed down and checked context. Hebrews 6:7-8 states:

“Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.”

Going further on in the chapter, Hebrews 6 states in verses 10-13:

“For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

So, looking forward through the sixth chapter, we see a strong correlation between the warning (do not stay put), with a checking on the results (what is growing in your field), and a reassurance that God will not overlook the work and love of the audience, which is tied to the full assurance of hope.

This ties together with what follows this chapter as a conversation of Melchizedek, the priestly function, and the completeness of the work of our High Priest Jesus Christ. Indeed, the conversation continues until a “therefore” appears in chapter 10. In chapter 10, Hebrews is translated as saying: (10:19-25)

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

So, we have a call to move beyond the basics, a call to good works and love, and ultimately a “therefore” that encourages us to live life assured of faith with clean hearts. We are called not only to have hope, but to hold fast to our hope in the belief that Christ is faithful. From that place of faithfulness and confidence, we are called to ponder how we might provoke each other on toward further good deeds and love. This call to community, good deeds, and love is where we are called to go from the basics listed in Hebrews 6:1-3.

This is challenging, because there are many times in life when it seems easier to focus upon these basic matters. As a United Methodist minister, I am questioned regularly about how many people I get to confess their faith, join my church, and be baptized. There are entire ministries whose only goal seems to be leading others to this place of basic belief (in the eyes of Hebrews), and then to move on to the next person. “Once saved, always saved“ is a motto of some of those who believe this is the only call of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews challenges this belief in my sight. The writer says (immediately preceding the call to move forward in 6:1-3) of those who he is addressing (in chapter 5:11-14):

“About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”

What we need to move beyond… (Image: Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons))

These basic concepts that the authors of Hebrews is addressing (matters which have concerned the church for millennia and have been the cause of war, debate, and suffering) are listed as the simple matters which should be understood by those who have not progressed beyond the basics. The writer of Hebrews even seems to imply that those who do not progress beyond a focus on such things have a bit of “dullness” around them.

All of this begs the question. Where is God calling the church? Certainly we do not abandon the foundation of what we believe, but where is God calling us? Is it to endlessly repeat the basic foundational principles or to move on toward something greater? Where do those building blocks lead us? Do our ministries spur us on toward good works and love? If they spur us on toward hate or self-service, is it time to consider retooling or scraping those ministries altogether?

There are many things to ponder and I do not offer answers, but the question should be asked? Are we moving beyond the milk? If so, where are we headed?

Simple Response

So, I have been quiet on social media and on my blog lately. There are many reasons for that silence, but one of the largest has been a sense of being overwhelmed by the sorrow of living in the world.

I am raising three daughters and I am married to a woman who has not always had the best experience with the decidedly patriarchal society in which we live. It is not my story to tell, but she has received comments about having children which occasionally make them seem like they are burdens instead of blessings. I have received those comments as well. It can be heartbreaking to have someone categorize a child as a burden.

I have often wondered if people would make the same comments to my wife and I if I had three sons instead of three daughters. I love my daughters, even when they are difficult. I do not live in an age when I have to start saving up for a dowry to pay for someone to take them in. I live in an age where they will be a blessing to anyone who is lucky enough to allow them the honor of their partnership.

Still, it is a weary process to be a father in a culture which is so patriarchal. Do I benefit from the patriarchy? Yes, but I want my kids to have a bright future where they are treated with equity and fraternity (Aside: I do not mean fraternity as in “a group of men with a common purpose,” but “the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.” Unfortunately, the original word comes from Latin and Latin has no wonderful gender-neutral possibility and sorority never really gained the same meaning in popular understanding (i.e., French Motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity!”)… Language fails me in this case, as “siblinghood” does not have the same meaning either). I want that world for all of our children.

One quote that has been circling through several parts of my thoughts comes from the 1984 edition of “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” by Benedicta Ward. In particular, I have this saying from the collection surrounding Abba Anthony hanging in my shower. The section goes:

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’

 

The quote sticks out to me on deep levels.

I am not righteous enough to take on this battle through my own goodness. I have made mistakes, I have benefited in ways I have yet to recognize, I will likely struggle to deny those benefits when I see them, and I am frankly not Jesus Christ. The world has a Savior and there is no need to pretend that it needs me to be another. My trust does not belong in my own holiness or in my own strength.

I also live in a place where I cannot constantly dwell on the past. While there is room for reconciliation, for recompense, and for restoration, to live only in the past has the potential to swallow me up in the knowledge of my own weakness, my own frailties, and my own brokenness. There is a difference between being mindful and living in worry.

In addition, living in the past sometimes cripples my ability to be an asset to the present and the future. If one lives in the past, it is difficult to be present in the now. There needs to be a balance between understanding the ramifications of the past on the present, mourning the injustice of the past, accepting our own limitations, and avoiding obsessive worry about the past.

Finally, it is good to control both tongue and stomach. If the tongue is where the words of my soul enter into the world, it is a good analogy for all I do to affect the world. In controlling my lips, I gain the self-control to control my fists, my feet, and even my thoughts.

If the stomach is the place I take things into in order to find life (or death), then the call to control my stomach is the call to mind my appetites in all senses. Guard your teeth, guard your ears, guard your eyes, and guard your soul.

So, how do I react to all of this stuff going on in the world? I remember it is my job to be a part of the long arc of history towards justice. I remember what has gone by, honor it, but do not let it cripple my present advocacy for justice or my efforts to seek a more just future for our world. I control what comes out of me and seek to fill myself with what is good in holy moderation.

In the meantime, keep the faith friends.

IMG_3279

Patriarchy is pleasant for me, but this one, like all awesome children of God, deserves better than to be looked down on her whole life because of her gender.

Sermon: “Dear Sophia”

Dear “Sophia,”

Blessings to you, Wisdom personified in the name of God! For the last few weeks, we have been looking into your book during worship. We have pondered your calling on the streets, considered the powerful reminders you share to seek your face before calamity strikes, and have thought through some bits of your advice.

I wanted to write to you today because we’re dealing with one of the most powerful passages in Proverbs. We’ve been reading through the 31st chapter and this is a strange passage to consider, especially given all of the conversations around sexuality and womanhood in our culture as of late. Between conversations around the #MeToo movement and conversations around current events in the news, this is a weird time for Proverbs 31 to come around in the lectionary. I might not have chosen it on my own.

There is a challenge in approaching almost any scripture passage because the scriptures were written down long ago. We come to ancient passages and need to ponder their meaning both in context of their origins and our present. The challenge we face is that scripture is often interpreted based on our own perspective. On one hand, these words of Proverbs have created a vivid image of strength that has brought comfort to many people over time.

Interestingly, the passage speaks of a woman who does not find her value in ornamentation or in sensuality. The woman described is one who works hard and is appreciated by her husband. She is prudent and wise in many ways. She is charitable with what she has when she sees someone in need. She does not dismiss her handiwork as junk, but finds value in the work of her fingers. She is confident, strong, and dignified. Her family and her children see her worth.

For someone who sees this goal as an achievable one, this is an image of comfort. Some might say “If I am prudent and wise then I can be like that woman in Proverbs.” Some might consider the skill of their hands, the appreciation of their mate, or even their practicality as signposts of their similarity to the image found in scripture. That can be really comforting coming from that perspective, but let’s be clear. There’s almost always more than one perspective even when we read scripture.

Sophia, let’s be real for a moment. This is one image of femininity, but it also isn’t the only image of femininity. As much as I appreciate your wisdom, there are times when I look at what you say and question where you’re coming from in your words.

I understand that even these words in scripture come from a place of a particular context and cultural placement, but some of the advice you share occasionally just seems like bad advice. Just a few verses before this passage you encourage the wisdom one should have to “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.”

Seriously Sophia?

I appreciate a lot of your wisdom, but there’s something dreadfully naive at times in the ways in which people read these passages. They see this image of a talented industrious woman in the scriptures and then look into the mirror. They don’t always like what they see in the mirror and sometimes the very words your scriptures express can cause real harm. Sometimes the words of others from the past or the present can cause similar harm.

Sophia, my job is to share wisdom around these words today. How am I to share these words with someone who has lost control over their fingers? If a person cannot knit, or stitch, or even control shaking due to accident or illness, are they not as capable as this woman? You praise the generosity of this woman, but your own words can cause real harm sometimes. I have seen beloved children of God struggle with Parkinson’s disease and lose control. I have seen beloved children of God with neurological conditions that precluded learning to control their fingers with such dexterity. Sophia, these words can hurt.

What do I say when their fingers are capable, but they have other hurdles to face in their lives? Do I say that mental illness, language barriers, or even just their God-given personality is unfortunately a barrier? Are capable women always this successful or is there room for the refugee and the immigrant to live God-fearing lives? Is a woman less capable because she is born to a people under oppression?

What’s more, what do I say to address the capable woman who can have no children and is left by her partner? What do I say to the women who work long and hard to cultivate this personality only to never find a partner? Are they any less in the eyes of God? Are they any less in your estimation?

Now, I know that your words record the words of another. At the beginning of this chapter, these words are attributed to a king who was trying to teach his son the wisdom his mother once taught him. In many ways, the good king is trying to advise a son on how to choose a good partner. I understand that culturally, the words that are being used would have probably been good advice, but those days are not these days. People take these words to heart and at times it hurts them and drives them to tears.

Sophia, if I might interject on behalf of the women I know who I have seen hurt by these words. What’s more, if I might interject on behalf of all people who struggle with these words.

The woman you describe is someone who has confidence in herself. She sees that the work of her hands have value and does not let the world demean her. She believes in herself. You don’t have to weave garments to find pride in what you do. If God has made you a baker, you bake your heart out! If God has made you a singer, then sing with gusto. If God has made you a great listener, then share your gift with those you love. No matter what gift God has given you, believe in yourself and understand that you have been entrusted with a gifting because you matter.

The woman you describe has a healthy relationship with someone who does not take her for granted. Many people would love to have a healthy relationship like the one described, but sometimes things happen that go beyond our control. We act trustworthy but those we love cannot trust. We act lovingly but the ones we love cannot express love. If the intention here is to express that worthiness comes from the love of a partner, then I have to disagree. Too many people have looked in the mirror and seen bruises. “If I just try harder, then they won’t hurt me.”

Real value does not rest in the appreciation of others. Real value requires a level of respect that we see challenged regularly and rightly by things like the #MeToo movement. It might feel nice to be appreciated, but ultimately our sense of value and worth cannot rest solely on another human being. Occasionally our sense of value requires us to speak out against those who would take advantage of us or keep us silent in the face of past transgressions.

Sophia, the woman you describe is strong both in character and in body. She works hard and is never idle. Some of the strongest women I know have spent years with walkers, wheelchairs, and canes. They are worth no less than someone who can curl a full skein of heavy wool. Value lies in the reality of the person who bears the image of God throughout all of the seasons of their life.

Sophia, I do not wish to dismiss those who find value in your words. I know that there are many folks who do find value and praise God that your words inspire and uplift them. May they remain uplifted! I just wish the people of God to know that their value does not rest on one image of femininity. Folks who bear up life with integrity, respect their own worth, and seek value in right relationship–they all have value in the eyes of the God I know, no matter what gender they claim.

Sophia, as I seek to enter into prayer with the people of God, I hope you hear and understand my respect for you and your words. May your wisdom dwell within us all as we pray, as we go forward, and go out into the world.

Truly,

Rev. R

Let us Ramble: Music, Veggie Pulp, and Rice

It is Monday morning at the Maine Federated Church. My normally quiet office is filled with the distant beeping of an alert as we have a low battery somewhere in the dark halls of the church. Earlier I was listening to classical music from my favorite philharmonic orchestra (London Philharmonic Orchestra). I was hoping it would be just loud enough to drown out the methodical beeping.

In time the note started to bother me despite the music. I found a chromatic tuner, sat patiently, and learned that the alarm was only slightly off from being a B♭, although it was annoyingly a little sharp and thus out of tune with the music scales. I went on a hunt, loaded up Boccherini’s Streichquartett no. 2 in G minor, opus 27 so that the note would be only slightly out of tune instead of wildly discordant.

Such things may seem strange, but they are part of a fairly normal Monday morning when my energy is low and I need simplicity for my soul’s sake. Sunday is exhausting for me as a minister. I pour my heart and soul into preparing for worship. After I spend my time talking with folks who are loved by God. I try to remember all of the names of people who matter to them, all of the history I know of their lives, and do my very best to be a loving and encouraging person. As someone who increasingly enjoys spending time in secluded peaceful spaces, that effort exhausts me in deep ways.

Monday is about sermon and worship prep for me. I read, I study, I pray, and I seek to get a head start on the week ahead, because you never know when something will happen which will require a few days of concentrated effort. Emergency room visits, deaths, and other life concerns cannot be scheduled. Monday is a time to make certain most of my ducks are in a row, even if that row usually requires a few days to straighten out.

In a lot of ways, as a pastor, Monday for me is about resetting the rhythm from one week to the next, which is something close to what other folks hopefully experience on Sunday mornings. I give thanks for what has happened, pray for guidance for the week ahead, and prepare for meetings, sermons, and even for the prayers I will share in the week ahead. For me, these rhythms of gratitude, prayer, and study are acts of worship.

Let me give a concrete simile. Life on Monday for me is like what is currently cooking in my rice cooker. For breakfast this morning I made smoothies for my family. I juiced carrots, a tomato, and a lot of spinach leaves. I took the juice and mixed in some homemade yogurt. We had a cup and a half of goodness each to start our day.

After my wife went to work, I started to clean things up. I grabbed the juicer pulp of carrot, spinach, and tomato. I scraped it into our smart rice cooker. I added some dried peppers, water, and dehydrated beef broth. I left the pulp cooking away for a few hours. When lunchtime approached, I added a bit more water, some homemade curry powder, and some wild rice.

Now, after a morning of working on worship preparation, lunchtime is approaching, and I will set the table with what is effectively vegetable porridge with rice. Nothing special was added to the pot. I worked with some dried spices, dried broth, dried rice, and leftover vegetable pulp. I simply used what was on hand, but in a short while I will enjoy something life-giving which will hopefully allow me to be a blessing to others.

On Mondays, I scrape out the bits of me that are filled with worry and doubt. I remove the parts and pieces which are covered with gunk and I clean them out. I wash away my irritation with playing the wrong notes on guitar, pick out the bits of me that went to bed wondering if I did well, and I prepare my heart and soul for another week of service. This week I may need to be ready to bring life into conversations around death, bring hope into places where people feel hopeless, and proclaim the gospel with and without words. I cannot do that if I am living in doubt or frustration about things that nobody will remember and nobody will care about in a week, a month, or a year.

On Mondays, I start to look around for what will be needed. I have an appointment this week on Tuesday that will require my heart to be open to listen, to advise, and to care. I have to search the cupboards of my being for my compassion and make certain it is ready to be used. I have (another!) sermon coming up this week and it takes more than time with a commentary to really engage the text with God’s beloved. Today is the day when I get my head into the scriptures, into the plans, and see if all will still be well with what I planned weeks ago. This is the day when I pull together what lifegiving bits of my heart and soul are still healthy and begin to simmer them with the spices of the week. In particular, today I am thinking with joy about sending kids to camp yesterday and mixing that in with a hope for people I will be in ministry with this next week. It should be a great week.

In truth, this is the day upon which a lot of my ministry rests. How does one survive in pastoral ministry for more than a decade with ups and downs? Monday morning is part of how I live into the rhythm of pastoral ministry. As the string quartet hums along with the slowly repeating beeping noise, I find space and energy in the silence to prepare for what is coming and where I will need to go. As such, today is not about making appointments. Today my appointment is with my God and my heart so that I can go about living out ministry throughout the rest of week.

I hope that you find a place of peace today as you go about your life. If you cannot find peace today, I invite you to consider that Sabbath is not entirely about one day a week. Sabbath is also about finding moments to focus on what is truly important. May you find life and love in your silences, your companionships, or whatever feeds your soul this day.

Rob’s Veggie Rice Bowl
(makes enough for several lunches for 3-4 hungry folks)

Okay, so it could be more photogenic, but you don’t know what you are missing until you taste the creaminess of the veggie pulp alongside the nuttiness of wild rice. Also, I really do recommend a dollop of butter!

3 cups Veggie Pulp
1 quart & 1 cup water, divided
1.5 TBSP Dehydrated Beef Broth
⅛ cup Dried peppers
1 cup Wild Rice
2 teaspoons curry powder (I smoked mine with a cold smoker to add flavor)

Combine pulp, one quart of water, dehydrated beef broth, and peppers in a slow cooker, fuzzy logic rice cooker, or an oven proof bowl. Cook for three hours on a low setting (or in an oven at 190℉). Place into rice cooker and cook with the brown rice setting along with water and curry powder. Stir and cook on brown rice setting. Serve warm with a dollop of butter!

Let us Ramble: Prejudice and Wisdom

When I was a young boy I visited with my relatives down south in Georgia. My grandfather’s sisters lived in a small town where they spent their days in a house that was quite large and quite ornate. I wondered at the house, the railroad tracks that ran past the front yard, and the massive properties on the side of the tracks on which they lived. As a kid I was more interested and terrified of fire ants than I was of the social situation, but even I noticed that the people who helped my grandfather’s sisters maintain the property came from the smaller homes on the other side of the railroad tracks. As an adult, it took me forever to realize that they looked different too.

I do remember hearing negative things. When things went missing it was never because they were misplaced. The “help” had taken them. Even when those things were found, it was still the fault of the people who came to help the two elderly women in their home. I realize now that there was a world of things going on behind the scenes. There were likely issues of race, prejudice, class, and economics at play. There were also questions of grief as two women lost the ability to control first their bodies and then their minds. I don’t excuse the behavior, but I did have the seeds of my first nightmares about Alzheimer’s disease in those days.

As an adult who is now removed nearly three decades from those events, I do not blame myself for having neither the wisdom nor the education to ask questions. What small child really knows enough to ask those questions? Furthermore, would my proper southern relatives have even taken me seriously? I do my best to act with the wisdom gained in my day to day life now, which is where this post originates.

I identify as a millennial but I am not a young adult. I have three children who I am raising to the best of my ability. I pay my taxes, dutifully pay off massive student loans, and understand that I cannot be bailed out of every challenge by my father. I do my best to be a constructive part of society. I also listen to a lot of complaints about millennials.

Perhaps it is my sensitivity to hearing people complain about my generation that caused me to notice something I found disrespectful the other day. Several folks that I know shared a couple of memes suggesting that eighteen year old students are spoiled. One or two of the folks pointed out that eighteen year old kids used to charge the beaches of Normandy and other folks pointed out that eighteen year olds used to serve in Vietnam. They proceeded to mock eighteen year old kids as being spoiled.

It begged a question in my mind. Who do they think serves in the Armed Forces today? Who do they believe are recovering from wounds from IEDs in hospitals and clinics or leaving children without parents after ambushes? What’s more, when they come to an age where they need care to live out the end of their lives, who do they believe will be the doctors or nurses? Who do they believe will care for the needs of their property? Who will teach their children? Who will serve in the fire departments, police forces, and even on road crews when they are no longer capable?

To me it was mind boggling. I remember my relatives saying that my grandfather’s sisters did not understand what they were saying about other people. I also remember a few choice moments when the generation who raised me made a few choice comments that were not so gracious. For all of the criticism of the people who came before, my own family has struggled to leave behind the bad habit of criticizing others for being different, whether that be in terms of race, age, ability, or education.

The memes gave me pause because it seemed as if another generation had been raised up to sit on their lawn and insult other people for having the audacity to live life differently than they once lived. What’s worse, I am almost certain that somewhere in my life I do the same thing. I might even be doing it now.

So, let me apologize for those moments when I forget the lessons I learned from the mistakes and missteps of my ancestors. Let me apologize for people who do not see what they are doing in their attempt to be funny, opinionated, or simply a part of a disastrous movement who wants to disenfranchise as many people as necessary to maintain the way things have always been. Let me apologize for the things that I will miss in my own heart and my own actions. Please forgive me.

Eighteen year old soldiers, students, and human beings… You have my respect. Please, live a life that is incredible and help me to live a great one as well.

Let us Ramble: Tradition, Worldview, and Action

Today I wanted to continue the discussion around the three worlds involved in any reading of scripture. The world inspiring the text, the world we live in, and the world within the text work together to birth something within us. Our everyday life is inherited from the world which inspired the creation of our scriptures and eventually delivered to us our scriptures through faithful transmission from generation to generation. As we open our scriptures, we find ourselves engaging in a conversation between author and reader which has happened before and will happen again.

So, what do we do with that conversation? Do we allow the Jesus of the scriptures to speak with us? Do we allow that Jesus to inform our actions and challenge our own world?

Another layer to this conversation comes into play when we consider the fact that each of us either consciously or subconsciously allow our tradition to enter into conversation. Perhaps we focus on a particular passage like Micah 6:8 or read our scripture through the lens of our culture. All of us come to scripture with some tradition, even if that tradition is so ingrained that it never reaches our consciousness.

I think that the theologian and Biblical scholar George Pixley puts it well in the opening chapter of “Resistance: The New Role of Progressive Christians. Pixley wrote: (5)

“Tradition is present everywhere, and apart from it there could be no shared life. Everyone comes into a community that has beliefs and practices shaped by its history; and all assimilate many of them before being in a position to evaluate them. Everyone engages in some process of selection from other traditions. This process is shaped by what makes sense and by personal and collective experience.”

Regardless of any opinions about Rev. Pixley’s theology, it is hard to argue that he puts the matter quite succinctly. Our engagement with scripture is affected by our relationship with the world around us. A simple conversation with a variety of people including survivors of abuse at the hands of an angry father will reveal that the very conception of God as a male parent can be wildly reassuring in the context of one person and incredibly disconcerting in the experience of another person.

So, to summarize: The scriptures we read come to us from a history we can never visit nor completely verify, are read through the lens of a tradition that can affect the way we read them without our knowledge, and ultimately we are the ones who decide what course we will chart in our journey of faith. Will there be prevailing wind and waves? Of course, but ultimately we are each handed the tiller on the boat of life.

For me, this reality begs a question. What we do with all of this? How do we plot a course through the maelstrom of life? I truly believe that each person must make their own choice, but my own journey has put a priority on observing, emulating, and engaging in a dialogue (through my actions) with the faithful of the past. By living into a course of faithfulness as taught to me through both living saints and the records of those from the past, I find a course that I can plot through all of the winds, waves, and eddies of life.

null

We all need guidance now and again!

A great example of what I mean can be found in the scriptures. Consider the viewpoint expressed by the Apostle Paul in the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul lived in an age when the church was not fully established, had many places where it needed to grow, and was struggling with conflicts and questions. In other words, the church had a lot in common with modern ministry. Whether we are reforming a challenged faith in the 21st century or establishing a minority religion in the 1st century, I see a lot of similarities in the challenges faced both then and now, although there clearly are differences.

Paul, a leader in those chaotic times, set an example on how to live into ministry. I find Paul’s ministry to be particularly fitting as I am continually coming to understand that ministry is quickly changing from the context of those who brought me into the ministry to a ministry that is unlike any that has come before in the history of the church. Looking at the example of Paul helps me to find a path, because life is clearly difficult at times. We need to find a new way, a new path, and remain faithful to those who have come before us. Paul wrote the following in 1 Corinthians 4:12-13: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”

These words help me to find compass points for my own journey. These words (which tie into my understanding of passages like the beatitudes) help me to go on a journey from where I am to where I need to be as a person of faith in a leadership position. Paul did not see to domineer in his ministry, so I follow Paul’s example in not seeking domination within the church. If Paul could envision a world where the minister was not a dictator, then I can seek to live into a ministry focused on similar principles.

What are your touchstones for life? Do you find foci within the scriptures or do you set your course by other sources?

Let us Ramble: Within the Text

During this past Sunday’s sermon I referenced the book “Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles.” Written by Walter Brueggemann, “Cadences of Home” does an excellent job at delving into the work of the ministry of preaching. In particular, I referenced the chapter “Rhetoric and Community.”

In that chapter, Brueggemann delves into concepts explored by the French Philosopher Paul Ricouer. In particular, Brueggemann explores the application of Ricouer’s conceptions to the scripture. To summarize that work (with a hearty encouragement to read the entire book), Brueggemann argues that any passage might be seen as an interaction between three worlds.

The first world is the world where the events described in the passage took place. This physical world had people walking around and interacting. In considering gospel passages, this is the world in which Jesus walked, talked, and preached.

The second world is the world in which we live. As people, we read books, walk around, have conversations, and live out our lives. This world is the world in which we act, live, and have our being. This world will be the world of the future’s past and is the future of the past. This is the world of the present.

The third world is the world within the passage. The world is one which is described within the stories of scripture. While it is the inspired word of God, it is also the world described by the authors of the texts. The words are often challenging, purposeful, and occasionally reference other texts and stories which we no longer have access to in our own libraries.

Unfortunately, the world described in the text is the only one of the other worlds which can interact with the present. Unless we invent a means of either time travel or the means to travel far faster than the reflected light headed out into space, we will never see the world of the far past. We can observe remnants and artifacts of the past, but not the events. Without divine blessing, technological innovation, or something beyond our current comprehension, we will never experience the days described in scripture.

I rehash this bit of scholarship from Sunday’s sermon for a reason. I reference it because this morning I was reading a different book by a different author which works hand in hand with this passage. I was reading Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” Alter is a large proponent of paying attention to the texts of scripture. Indeed, Alter writes (37) “All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny.” For the record, Alter immediately points out Job is an exception to this rule. It should also be noted that Alter’s work focuses on the Hebrew Bible.

What is interesting about this concept of the Hebrew scriptures being presented as history is that there are a lot of details about the stories of scripture that are presented as history, but which had no witness at the time of the authorship of these stories. Alter points out that there is a “tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events…” (37).

Alter refers to a lot of this presentation not as a form of historiography accounting for the events of the past as a form of intensely accurate chronicle of events. Rather, the scriptures are written in the eyes of Alter with a purpose. Speaking on the author of David’s story: (40)

“…these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.”

Alter goes on to describe how Shakespeare wrote beautifully and powerfully on historical events as a form of dramatic expression. Scripture itself creates a world in which something powerful is expressed. I believe that even if God were to divinely inspire every word and every translation of scripture, we should still pay attention to the world in the text as described by individuals like Brueggemann and Alter.

As readers of scripture, we should spend time within the world created in our texts and in the purposes behind the description of that world because that is the world we can still interact with as a people. We may never see the Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus, but we can still interact with the Sermon as recorded by the gospels. We may never meet Paul before the day of resurrection or our own journey to that other shore, but we may interact with the concepts presented through his letters. We may never interact perfectly with the world that once was the present, but the world described in our holy texts can still be powerfully a part of our lives.

As time permits I hope to delve deeper into how the texts we read call us into a world influenced by this third world explored by this “rhetorical criticism” which is found within the scriptures, but for tonight, I invite you to ask a simple question. How does the world within the scriptures influence your personal life?