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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Blessed are You who creates, destroys, and forgives. Maker of bread and wine, girls and boys, sons and daughters, young and old. The day and night obey You, and nothing destroys You. Hallelujah! Amen!
I recently was certified as a graduate of the Academy for Spiritual Formation #39. As a result, I can now read whatever books I would like to read! So, I went back to a book that one presenter Dr. Amy Oden wrote and found a book in her footnotes. As a result, the first fun book I am reading is “Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. What is fun about studying church theology? I can spend two years in this book without being rushed… What a luxury!
Today, I started reading a book I chose to read! In the preface to Caferro’s book, I found the following statement: (preface, paragraph 3)
Of course, the different avenues that lead to early Christianity give us differing visions of what it was like. But they supply different views of the same thing. We cannot oppose, say, popular to official Christianity; instead, we must seek to use the two angles stereoptically to gain a deeper imagination of the early Church.
Ordinarily, I skim through the preface of a book; however, this statement caught my attention. Caferro is discussing a comment in Cult of the Saints by Peter Brown. According to Caferro, Brown suggests in his book that “more can be done by attempting to understand the cult of the saints from other points of view.” Caferro points out an inference that “no one approach is correct, but that there are many valid ways of gaining an understanding of the early church.” (ibid)
This quotation caught my attention because it holds a truth that seems worth noting in our day and age. The other day I was discussing the tension between dueling viewpoints in a post called “‘This is my song’ and John Chrysostom.” I noted that there was a tension between my love of the song and the lessons I am learning through studying early Church historical figures.
Caferro’s quotation is interesting because it provides room for thought. What if the tension reveals a deep truth? What if there is something to be learned about looking at the tension from different angles? What if we can lessen the tension through intentionally looking at the challenge stereoptically?
For many years I had a far more dominant eye because of a condition called keratoconus. One eye could see clearly so I learned to drive and function with what was effectively monocular sight. I had no depth perception because of effectively having one functional point of view.
When I received a corneal transplant, I was almost immediately thrown for a loop. After several years with one point of view I could suddenly see with both eyes. I had depth perception for the first time in years. The result was amazing. I had to take the time to learn to see with both eyes again. When I moved past that tendency to have monocular vision to having true binocular vision I could suddenly see the world in a deeper way.
What if we were to consider that many of the challenges we may face in church culture are fewer issues of diametrically opposed ideas and instead people viewing the same situation from different angles? What if instead of trying to conquer the opinions of others, we accept that they may see something differently? What if seeing together might give each person a new perspective with more depth and clarity?
None of these ideas are new ideas. These ideas are as old as time, but it is still good to remember good life lessons when we have the opportunity.
I also struggle with that particular song. I struggle for two reasons. First, I struggle with the song because I love the song. I think it is beautifully written, wonderfully lyricised, and matched perfectly with the stirring tune of Finlandia. If I were to choose a patriotic song as one I could adopt as my own, this would be the song I would choose first. I appreciate the balance between pride in one’s land and an appreciation for the viewpoint of others. I also appreciate that Dr. Harkness was a pioneering theologian whose work I love to support.
“Knowest thou not that we live in a foreign land, as though strangers and sojourners? Knowest thou not that it is the lot of sojourners to be ejected when they think not, expect not? which is also our lot. For this reason then, whatsoever things we have prepared, we leave here. For the Lord does not allow us to receive them and depart, if we have built houses, if we have bought fields, if slaves, if gear, if any other such thing. But not only does He not allow us to take them and depart hence, but doth not even account to thee the price of them. For He forewarned thee that thou shouldest not build, nor spend what is other men’s but thine own. Why therefore, leaving what is thine own, dost thou work and be at cost in what is another’s, so as to lose both thy toil and thy wages and to suffer the extremest punishment? Do not so, I beseech thee; but seeing we are by nature sojourners, let us also be so by choice; that we be not there sojourners and dishonored and cast out. For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there. For the just, although having nothing, will both dwell here amidst all men’s possessions as though they were his own; and also, when he hath departed to heaven, shall see those his eternal habitations. And he shall both here suffer no discomfort, (for none will ever be able to make him a stranger that hath every land for his city;) and when he hath been restored to his own country, shall receive the true riches. In order that we may gain both the things of this life and of that, let us use aright the things we have.”
Effectively, Chrysostom is referencing the teachings of Jesus about treasurers on earth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21 to avoid storing up treasures on earth. Chrysostom points out that one cannot take houses, fields, slaves (different time in history: not justifying the unjustifiable, but pointing out Chrysostom’s context), gear, or anything else out of this world. Chrysostom points out that we have been forewarned against building up our riches on earth or claiming the things of this world as treasure. We cannot take the things of this world with us. Indeed, it is only in the next life that we find ourselves growing into our true inheritance and riches.
What catches my eye in regards to the hymn and what causes me to ask deep questions is the line “For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there.” Chrysostom sees Christians as people on a journey through this life with a goal of reaching the next. If one stops to claim this place as one’s land, one will only have it for a moment. If one claims one citizenship to be in Heaven, then one has the freedom to both enjoy this world and move into the next without great loss. Indeed, a strict reading would say that one cannot move into the kin-dom of God by grasping tightly to a land, a nation, or one’s own goods.
Strictly speaking, the hymn we sang stands in opposition to one of the earliest Christian leaders because it claims that this is our land, our nation, and our space while Christian tradition teaches that we belong elsewhere. This world is a world in which we live in a fog. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to a community in conflict about the things of this world: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them to stop acting childishly and to quit dividing themselves over earthly matters. This is a place where we see the world, each other, and God dimly (like in a mirror from an age when a modern mirror would be a miracle). The world to which we belong and where we are headed is where we will see clearly and be seen clearly. The world to which we belong is one in which we shall come into our full being.
Thus, I am torn by the hymn. I love the hymn, the words of peace, and the seeking of understanding of other people. I also realize that Chrysostom might look at the differences between nations and see people whose eyes might rest better on the world to come than the goods and lands of this world. Neither we in this land nor those folks in other lands can carry the goods of this world to the next life.
This hymn may be one of those places where we must live in the tension between ideals. The older I grow, the more I come to see that life requires a bit more flexibility than I once carried in my idealistic youth. As a friend likes to say at church: “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”
In the Carmina Gadelica, the process of smooring is described. Smooring was the process by which fire was kept during the night in the Highlands. Since wood was not readily obtainable, the Carmina Gadelica describes how fire would be kept so that the locally obtainable peat might burn more readily the next day. The act became very ritualistic and infused with prayer over centuries.
In my own spiritual practice, I have been considering how I can bring regular spirituality into my daily life. I have been pondering how my own daily life translates into a modern smooring. Looking at the Carmina Gadelica, which is in the public domain, we see the following prayer:
The sacred Three, To save, To shield, To surround. The hearth, The house, The household, This eve, This night, Oh! This eve, This night, And every night, Each single night. Amen.
Untitled Smooring Blessing in Alexander Carmichael’s “Carmina Gadelica, v. 1”
The prayer was very Trinitarian, very grounded, and very conscious of the importance of this moment in time. Pondering how my spirituality of smooring fits into modern day, I am drawn to the simple answer that I might simply change the word hearth to bring the prayer into this day; however, what word would you choose? The hearth was a source of heat, food, and family life. Would the word be kitchen? Stove? Furnace? Looking through other prayers, one has trouble imagining Jesus’ mother Mary smooring the fire in the same way today as when Alexander Carmichael first published his work in 1900.
Most of the Smooring Blessings revolve around the mother of the house engaging in the act of smothering the embers at the end of the evening as she remembers the legacy of the saints all around her. Some blessings see saints out on the lawn and angels watching the hearth. Others see the Apostles standing there on the floor with an angel guarding the door of the house.
I think an honest approach to this type of prayer might be to ponder the saints who have walked these paths in years past. Here is one of my attempts:
We “smoor the fire” on this night. We tend house and all within. Each dog, cat, fish, child, and spouse Be blessed as we greet the dark.
May the Spirit watch our sleep And bring wisdom to our dreams. May peace fill every corner from roof to the earth below.
May Christ’s kind hands be our hands As we settle all in beds. May warmth surround family And keep the night’s chill outside.
May we awake to create Good things out of daily life. May our Maker smile on us: We imagine a new day.
We walk on floors tread before. May our night be blessed tonight. Thank you for caring for those Who have rested here before.
May those who follow be blessed And give thanks for our blessing As we give thanks now for theirs. May thanks arise forever. Amen.
“A Modern Smooring Blessing” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
This Saturday morning I am thinking about grief. My wife has started a wonderful new professional position, but we live in an imperfect world. I fell asleep in bed with my head next to hers as she talked about her professional challenges last night. I listened for a good long time before my exhaustion took me away. Thankfully, she does not read my blog regularly: my “secret” is safe for now. Let’s be honest: she may already know.
Professionally, in my own ministry I often face grief in homes, at funerals, on Sunday mornings, in hospital rooms, in meetings, in conferences, in the checkout line at the grocery store, and many other places. Personally, I have been grieving the act of registering for Annual Meetings this year because of the grief incurred globally. Now that the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council ruling has effectively guaranteed a divisive United Methodist Annual Conference and a United Church of Christ Annual Meeting filled with well-meant sympathy and questions, I suppose my grief needs to be accepted.
Grief is in my thoughts this morning. I spent my quiet time this morning praying while doing the less than pleasant task of doing dishes. I might not have raisins to sort, but I try to learn from folks like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence. Grief was in my thoughts as I scrubbed oily residue and emptied the sink trap.
My conclusion at the end of my time of contemplation is that grief reminds me of an octopus. Grief can be Krakenesque or found 20,000 leagues below the surface. Grief can be in the shallows of a reef teeming with life or plucking what little it can from the open currents.
Grief is a master of camouflage. The beast hides in plain sight until it reaches out. Grief grabs you only once before you see it in every eddy of sand. Grief can make you paranoid to swim out into the seas of life.
Grief also does not hide behind every rock in the sea of life. If we spend our whole lives afraid to swim, we may eventually regret our choices. As strange as it sounds, fish that do not move water through their gills will drown. Most fish can only hold still for a certain amount of time before they get air from the surface or the sea.
Tomorrow in church at Maine Federated, we will sing songs and read the story of Easter again. We will proclaim resurrection in a world of grief. We will swim, we will breathe, and face whatever octopi wait in the depths.
Recently I was reading an article in the April 2019 edition of Sojourners magazine called “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by theologian and anthropologist Michel Chambon. I found the article fascinating as it reflected on the ongoing relationship between Chinese Protestant Christianity and the government under which they live. I found it fascinating because it had a greater level of reflection on the relationship between the church and state in a land I know little about in general.
I read various things about Christian practice I did not even realize where are part of the practice of my beloved family in another nation. Did you know that Christians lead large calisthenic groups in places like Nanping? Did you know that the Chinese are also facing the crisis of an aging population? I did not know that was happening. Most of the news I have seen over the years has focused on trade issues, pollution issues, or religious-freedom issues. In particular, they taught me growing up that the Chinese church was consistently and constantly under pressure. In fact, the church that the sources I read taught me about growing up could never exist openly–a public gathering of Christians to exercise was beyond my comprehension.
What makes this interesting is how Mr. Chambon presents the information. Mr. Chambon states:
“The Chinese state–like every other state–operates under its own political tradition and in relation to its own national culture. Chinese religious police is not only defined by a supposedly coherent national law but also through the agency of local officials who play a key role in its implementation. In practice, state control is heterogenous and varies from district to district. It relies on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.
In some places, local officials have imposed stricter regulation and monitoring on Christians and other social actors. In other places, they have destroyed Christian churches and jailed a few leaders. But in my view, this does not represent a general crackdown on Christianity. It reflects instead the Chinese policy of ‘killing a chicken to scare the monkeys’–applying a heavy hand on one group is publicized to push others toward self-limitation and censorship.”
Michel Chambon in “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” (Sojourners, April 2019, pg. 8)
At some level, this should have not needed to be spelled out to make sense. Part of the struggle of the United Methodist Church is the belief we can set an international policy on human-sexuality without understanding that there needs to be a reliance “on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.”
At some level, the attempt to apply one set of laws across the board internationally is to engage in the same idealistic hubris which I felt must apply to Chinese culture of my imagination for decades of my life. The attempt to enforce such legislation without balancing the needs of the local area is at least naïve. I am certain there are folks who believe the “coherency” of church law requires uniformity, but that may be misguided. Yes, there are those moments of persecution which are regrettable and terrible, but what if that is a part of the policy of applying a heavy hand to push others towards “self-limitation and censorship?”
What really struck me and threw me for a loop was that I recognized this policy of “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys” in my culture. I have seen this policy my entire life. In my context as an European American Protestant Christian, I have not seen this policy enacted from the top down. Our government says there is freedom in this land. I have seen this policy enacted at the grassroots and in the middle of society. I have seen it applied in the way we treat indigenous tribes, immigrants, and the descendants of our own hunger for slavery.
In June 2015 when Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was it to put an end to every group of African American Christians? Clearly, Dylann Roof did not end the African American church when he murdered nine of the Christian family. In my experience, the church surrounded the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church regardless of denomination or race. That is my perception. Did Dylann Roof’s violence lead folks to self-limitation and censorship?
Here’s the thing: as a part of the dominating culture of American Imperialism, I am uncertain I can say that Dylann Roof accomplished the same goal as the Chinese policy. I can say I refuse to use an honorific to refer to him, but how did his actions affect those in churches like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Did the people like those gathered in other communities similar to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church walk away with a message? Did people who worshipped in synagogues or mosques hear the shots of a member of the dominant culture towards a group of African American Christians and hear a message? Did they see violence against a subset of the dominant religion (Christianity) and fear for their own future when they do not share the same experience of God?
Thinking back to those moments, I realize that I took part in an ecumenical memorial for those family members in faith down south, but I did not reach out to people who might have received just as violent a message. I did not stand alongside those who might also have been intimidated. The African American Christians were the chickens who were slaughtered, I rushed to the hen house to soothe the flock, but ignored the rest of the surrounding people.
When I reflect on Mr. Chambon’s article, what really strikes me is that I have been blind. I was not only blind in my understanding of Chinese culture. I have been blind in the way I have treated my own neighbors. I was blind as a teenager every time I was silent when a friend would drive to the nearby Native American reservation to act like hooligans. I was blind as a college student when I stood by ignoring the Muslim community after September 11, 2001. I was blind to injustice when people grabbed anyone who was not pale (like me) out of the line in airport security lines.
The challenge Mr. Chambon’s article leads me towards is a difficult challenge. When I know that African American males are disproportionately jailed, who else is hearing that message? How do be in ministry with those folks who are disproportionately jailed and those who are also given those messages? When I hear that folks are labeled as coming from s%#thole countries, how do I not only build up the people I meet from those places but also the others who hear words of disparagement? How do I open my eyes further? How do I honor my own principles and ethics? How do I stop letting blinders fetter my sight?
For the season of Lent we have been focusing on two scriptures each Sunday at the Maine Federated Church. The second scripture is the scripture that primarily informs our message and liturgy. The first scripture we read is read after our prayer of confession. For the last two Sundays we have focused on passages out of Epistles.
This Sunday we are drawing on Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:11-17. In the New Revised Standard Version that teaching is described as a parable by the text. I honestly see it more in the realm of practical teaching.
When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 14:11-17, NRSV
The basics of this passage are pretty apparent. Do not fight over places of honor, but instead sit in places marked by humility. For some reason, this passage always reminds of Thanksgiving as a young man at my aunt and uncle’s house. If you’re invited to a meal, offer to sit at the kids’ table if there are not enough seats at the “adult” table. As an adult I have come to realize that sometimes there is more fun at the kids’ table anyway.
If this is practical advice why connect it with the prayer of confession? Here’s my rationale. Jesus is trying to teach the guests at this meal a lesson about humility, but the issue is not actually where they are sitting. They are jockeying for positions because they believe they are more important than other people at the table.
When we come for forgiveness to God, we are invited to come with hope, confidence, and faith; however, we do not come with the assumption that we deserve forgiveness more than our neighbor. We are called to a place of honest humility. If we come with repentant hearts, the response is always “Friend, move up higher.” If we come with a sense of arrogance or superiority, then we have perhaps missed the point of this teaching.
Another piece of early Christian writing called “The Didache” says this in part 1.3: “Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.” If we are indeed called like the early church to cultivate the companionship of the honest and humble, then it would seem that humility and honesty are traits we should seek to emulate with our lives. Perhaps there is no better time to practice these traits than when we come before God seeking forgiveness.
The role of a pastor is partially the role of a teacher. Many people think of preaching as a separate activity from other activities like Bible study, but a lot of the role can be combined into the overall category of teaching. I teach on Sunday morning through both preaching and my leadership of worship. Often I believe I teach more on Sunday morning through sharing the words around communion and in prayers than I do in the sermon. Indeed, one of the challenges pastors face is when people believe that the sermon is the focus of worship.
There is absolutely no way that one can effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in just a few minutes a week. We teach beyond our sermons through the rest of worship, through Bible study, but also through things like conversations, social media, and blogging. One of the reasons I believe that the early church had such strident rules about what it took to be a leader in the church was that they understood the church leaders would be teaching and sharing with the community far more than just Sunday morning.
Today, I would like to try and teach a little bit about creation. Creation is where we all are in this moment. The air we breathe, the food we eat, and the land we live upon is all considered theologically to be a part of creation. Some of the earliest scriptures in the Bible (canonically) deal with the care of creation. Genesis 2:15 states that when humanity is placed into the world it is with the charge to care for where they are placed. Gardens are not self-tending and theologically humanity was made to garden. Indeed, in the earliest sections of Genesis humanity depended on plants for sustenance. Foraging is wonderful but civilization was built on gardens.
Let’s look at what it means if we are given the instruction to care for creation. How do we choose to care for the world? Do we do all that we can to damage it? Sometimes it does seem like that is our way of being, but is that destructive way theologically ethical?
What if there were ways to care for the world on a regular basis that did not ruin either your bank account or your way of life? What if the foods you choose could help the world to be a better place for everyone around? What if you invited the world to join you in that adventure?
A few months ago I was listening to a podcast called “The Splendid Table.” The episode I was listening to talked about eating anchovies. To be entirely honest, I was a bit horrified. My father invited us eat to a “blind robin” at midnight for good luck growing up and I wasn’t quite as big a fan of pickled foods at that time. I was very skeptical, but I looked into the idea of eating more seafood as a way to help make the world a better place.
Strangely, I did not begin my research at the library or on the internet. I had a grocery trip to run and looked at the canned fish. Several of the cans said “certified wild caught and sustainable.” Some digging led me to a United States Government Agency called “FishWatch.” There I was able to learn about how the Northern Anchovy is caught, how it has a low bycatch rate, and how it can be healthy (in moderation due to cholesterol levels).
I began to experiment with anchovies and sardines. I learned that sardines can be ground into meatballs to add a flavor that my family loves while replacing some of the meat with a more sustainable protein. As I used the seafood more regularly, it became more and more normal to my palate. Look at the picture of my daughter and you’ll see that it is no burden at all when you get used to eating something new.
What am I suggesting? Well This Lent my family and I are experimenting (on the adult end) with preparing meals with fish and tofu instead of chicken, pork, or beef on Wednesdays and Fridays. If it works well, we’ll likely continue the practice after Lent ends. It might not change the world immediately, but helping to create a world where people eat sustainably might be one of the best things we can do this season.
I invite you to pray about how you and your family might be called to care for our environment this season. If we are to tend this “garden,” it will likely take intentionality. I invite you to consider if this might be something which you might be called to do with your life.
One lesson has rung through my mind the last few days. The good professor taught us that the world’s Christians do not have the same privilege that I had in my community as a child. When you’re not the dominant religion in an area, some assumptions of both the world around you and your own traditions can shift. I keep hearing the question “Who is your Jesus?” It has been running through my mind.
I want to be clear. I appreciate the Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi enough to note that his opinions are not my opinion. I also want to be clear that my opinions do not need to be shared by everyone else in the body of Christ and this is alright with me. There’s enough room in the Kin-dom of God for there to be diversity.
So, who is my Jesus? My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.
My Jesus is the Jesus whom Paul comes to know and eventually says “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
My Jesus is the Jesus who throws the door open to a larger kin-dom (kindom) than imagined. My Jesus used the Apostles to share the gospel beyond traditional bounds. In Acts 8:26–40 the family is stretched to include a eunuch, which lest we forget is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Why shouldn’t you be baptized, Eunuch of Ethiopia? Well, because: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I guess that rule did not apply anymore.
My Jesus reached out to Romans and other Gentiles through Peter who is unequivocally told in Acts 10: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” My Jesus was there in the Holy Conferencing that took place in Acts 15:6-29 which opened the doors further. By the way, the Holy Spirit continued to pour itself out on those who engaged in fornication, hence we still have children’s moments where children born of believers come to be blessed. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church has not attempted to remove folks who are married and have children from leadership like several other major Christian denominations.
What’s more and what keeps ringing through my head is the story of the woman accused of adultery. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is accused of an extramarital affair. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
Nobody stones her. Nobody there is apparently without sin. Jesus says “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Now, first of all, yes Jesus says do not sin again. To be entirely fair, she is very fortunate Jesus is there to offer this moment of protective grace. I may prevent a child from being beaten up in a parking lot on an afternoon, but if the child keeps walking through the parking lot when I am not there… There is more than one way of looking at that second sentence.
What is amazing is that in all the readings of this scripture, one thing was never pointed out to me. Jesus says “I do not condemn you.” Who is the one who has the ability to condemn sins? Who has the authority to forgive sins? If it is Christ, Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you” hold divine authority. She is forgiven.
What’s further, in a crowd full of people who have sin (including the woman accused of adultery), it is this woman alone who leaves forgiven of her sins. Hebrews 10:4 says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The folks may leave to go and make an offering for their own sinful behavior, but it is Christ alone who forgives.
Now, I cannot say that God’s love does not extend to these folks. Judgment is God’s alone, but I can say that in this moment there is only one person in the crowd we can claim is absolutely forgiven by Christ’s own words. The woman accused of adultery is the only one explicitly told “I do not condemn you…” We can even go further to point out Jesus did not stop the crowd from leaving by saying “Wait! Hold on! God understands and your sins will be forgiven. Throw those stones!”
My Jesus is the Jesus who forgives. My Jesus is the one through whom I baptize children into the Kindom of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My Jesus is the one who accepts those children even before they grow up into whatever person they may become in their adult days.
My Jesus is the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors. My Jesus hangs out at Alcoholics Anonymous and in rehab centers. My Jesus sits with the homeless in the cold. My Jesus does a ton of caring through the children of the Kindom who bring food for community suppers, supply food pantries, donate towards medical supplies, walk alongside LGBTQIA+ folks as they struggle with depression and expulsion, cry with those imprisoned falsely in jails, mourn with those who are imprisoned fairly, and do every sort of thing they can in order to be with God’s children. Yes, all children are God’s children.
My Jesus is a pretty awesome Jesus. My Jesus is the reason I did not give up my faith after I grew up into adulthood. Some behavior that I have seen recently does not square up with that Jesus, but I need to be clear: My Jesus is worth following down the narrow path of life. I most certainly will follow that Jesus and will not be one of those who trample “under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?… It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:29-31, NASB)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,
“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me; In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) To do Your will, O God.’”
After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,
“And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
I am currently entering into the final steps of preparing my second year project for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am thinking that I will have most of the project revolve around the usage of poetry and prayer. I was recently reading through a book I borrowed from the library called “The Art and Craft of Poetry” by Michael Bugeja. On the seventy third page of that tome, Mr. Bugeja quotes the poet Kevin Bezner as saying “All true poetry is religious poetry–all poems are prayers–but not in the sense of a belief in or worship of a god or a supernatural power.”
Given my particular approach to poetry, I found that statement to be intriguing. Mr. Bugeja paraphrases Mr. Bezner, saying “true or sincere poems, by their very nature, always reflect a poet’s faith, commitment, desire to commune, conscientiousness and devotion…”
If poetry does reflect and express the poet’s faith and commitment, then perhaps there is a sense at which heartfelt poetry is prayer. One of my greatest challenges with liturgy is the struggle to include the word “Amen” after every prayer. For a long time, hymns concluded with an amen. Nowadays, it seems as if almost every prayer needs and “Amen” in order to conclude.
Amen has a rich history and depth of meaning. The usage of the word for the congregation to enter into the depth of the prayer is helpful. When we say amen after someone prays, we become a part of that prayer orally. It is a wonderful act of inclusion in an act of worship, but often folks seem to believe that any prayer must have an amen. This is not true.
I thought I’d share a poem I recently wrote in an attitude of prayer after a saint invited me over to lunch. I wrote it for a thank you note, but I thought it was a perfect way of expressing how a prayer can be found in poetry.
Scents waft up from a warm bowl of chili rich yet faint. As I sit to share a meal with an elder saint. She has made special biscuits for us to share And we break bread together with prayer. With cheese and conversation our meal Is filled with a depth you can feel. I listen with quiet peace As my inner cares cease. I try to be here With one so dear. I’m thankful, Grateful, Full…
“Full” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
The form itself was fairly simple. I started with thirteen syllables a line and decreased a syllable each consecutive line. The rhyming pattern is a set of 5 couplets with a rhyming envoi creating one tercet at the end. It is clearly a poem.
It is also clearly a prayer. I intended to express care, gratitude, and thankfulness for the opportunity. Although God is not addressed by name, there is homage paid to communion in the mentioning of the breaking of the bread. The person I shared a meal with is a saint, there’s a stillness while listening that ties back to the idea of silence in contemplation and prayer. Even the mentioning of saints can draw our thoughts to God.
Psalm 19:14 says “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” It is my belief that poetry that seeks to live into this verse really is prayer.
Praise God with loud drum. Praise God with low hum. Praise God with rocking guitars. Praise God with your voice. Praise God with your choice. Praise God beneath all the stars.
Breathe deep as you strum. Breathe and let soul thrum. Breathe deep and cry with your heart. Breathe with open mind. Breathe deep and be kind. Breathe, rise, and make a fresh start.
“Alouette Ode to Psalm 150” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Today’s poem was inspired by Psalm 150. We’ll be reading the psalm this Sunday in church. I wrote it in the “Alouette” poetry form. I tied together the two stanzas by rhyming the first two lines in each stanza.
My process was to envision the first stanza as a response to God’s Presence (which echoes powerfully in Psalm 150) and the second stanza as the body breathing in preparation of living with that Presence in the world.
Tomorrow we are looking at Isaiah 45:9-13,15-19 at our church service. We will be focusing on the call of the community to live with a purpose, but as usual, church is only so long and there is more in the passage that is worthy of our time.
In particular, I wanted to take a moment to look at the last two verses. In the NRSV, the Isaiah 45:18-19 calls out for attention given our world’s modern challenges.
For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in chaos.” I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.
Isaiah 45:18-19, NRSV
God does not create the world to be a jumble of chaos in the scriptures. God created a world that was meant and is meant to be inhabited. The world is very carefully crafted. Indeed, we live in a beautiful world filled with majestic creatures.
To be blunt, a lot of those beautiful creatures are going extinct and huge swaths of the earth are struggling to cope with human induced climate change. For the entirety of our existence, humans have had an impact on the world. We systematically hunted certain animals to extinction over the course of our existence. Now our behaviors are bringing extinction to creatures not through the use of a bullet or arrow but by changing the chemicals in streams, filling oceans with plastic, and removing habitats through intentional deforestation.
To me, this is an outrage and an offense to both the gift we have been granted and the world which we received. This world was meant to be inhabited just as the hotel has rooms that are meant to be rented. We are invited to this world like someone invited to stay at a friend’s house for a season. If we were to treat a hotel room like we have treated our world, we would be charged to repair the damage. If we were to destroy our friend’s house, we would likely lose that friendship. Why is the way we treat this world seen differently?
I would invite you to consider whether we are called to treat our world better. More information about climate challenges can be found here.
Have you ever stopped to wonder whether life would be different if we paid closer attention to the world? Would life be different if we focused on other matters than those that preoccupy us?
Recently I was reading a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents in April 1943. Eberhard Bethge translated the version I was reading. The letter I was reading was written on the fourteenth of April. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden; I hope that Renate’s wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain.”
If you are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s story, Bonhoeffer was arrested for taking very public stances against the Nazi regime in Germany and for engaging in espionage. He was executed for his crimes during the last days of hostilities in 1945. Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent Lutheran martyrs of the 20th century.
Bonhoeffer is writing to his father at the beginning of his imprisonment in the letter I was reading. They had separated Bonhoeffer from family, from his fiancee, and from his community of faith within the confessional church. Bonhoeffer was facing charges which could easily lead to his execution.
What catches my eye is that Bonhoeffer notices the thrush in the prison yard. He could have obsessed over his imprisonment and isolation. He could have focused on being confined in his cell for long hours at night or being neglected simple things like shoelaces and shaving cream. In the midst of everything, Bonhoeffer notices the thrush.
I am not imprisoned in my home. I have access to the world around me and my children are a regular part of my life. There are so many things I could focus on in life. I could notice the sound of my daughter singing to herself, the blessing of having a partner who helps me to be a better person, or a million and one other things.
Instead I find myself focusing on matters that are not helpful. Do I have opinions about politics? Yes, I most certainly have opinions. Do I have an obligation to speak out against abuses? Yes, I most certainly have times when I must take a stand. There are many things I could focus on in this moment.
I pray that my calling in the world will come with the awareness that Bonhoeffer seemed to possess. Will I miss the thrush? I pray that I do not miss the thrush in my life today. May I gain blessings through all the little things.
I wanted to post a post for Valentine’s Day that is a reminder that love has never been an easy thing to handle. Stalwart figures from church history faced challenges when it came to issues of love.
We don’t know the story behind this aspect of his life, but St. Paul clearly had opinions of marriage and love which may or may not have been the result of personal troubles. He believed the time in this life was short and wrote the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28 (NRSV): “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.”
The Desert Abbas and Ammas genuinely discouraged romantic entanglements. Some of them even refused to talk with folks that might lead to even the risk of their being attracted romantically.
The monastic movement generally promoted and engaged in celibacy. There were exceptions and times when individual monks went astray from their vows, but most monastics certainly faced a challenging life.
Martin Luther started a whole reformation movement without the support of a life partner until he married an escaped nun named Katherine von Bora. He literally snuck her out of a convent in a fish barrel.
Generally every relationship with a woman in John Wesley’s life ended poorly.
Lots of people struggled with romance and romantic desires through the history of the church. If you are alone today, it is good to know that you are in good company. I would invite you to know that you have worth outside of a romantic relationship, that you are a beloved child of God, and that the fourteenth of February really is just another day.
On a less romantic note, I recently found this excellent recollection of the situation that arose between John Wesley and Mrs. Beta Hawkins. While they were certainly not in a romantic relationship, here’s a few of my favorite highlights of that interaction:
“Sir, you have abused me! You have insulted me! And I am going to put this pistol ball through your brain!” Then she pulled out a pair of scissors and said, “And I’m going to cut that long hair!”
Wesley grabbed both her hands and she fell on top of him on the bed. He called out to the maid, “Get her off! Get her off!” Beta called out to the maid, “You hold him still or I’ll shoot you, too!”
Dr. Hawkins came in. “What is that scoundrel doing in my house?” he exclaimed. “Sir, what are you doing on top of my wife?” Wesley replied, “Sir, I am not. She is on top of me! Get her off!”
I pray that your day goes a lot more smoothly than John Wesley’s day once did. Also, if people really don’t like you and may shoot you, don’t go alone to their house. That’s always a bad choice.
Frost covers a world In need of kind and warm grace. Are you called to act? Ice over living water Is often broken by love.
“Ice and Love” by The Distracted Pastor. 2019
Today we awoke to a house surrounded by ice. Ice is a wonderful gift in the middle of a hot summer day in a cold drink. In the middle of winter, ice can often be a challenge more than a slight inconvenience.
For the past few hours I have been working at deicing the church parking lot in anticipation of upcoming events at the church. I have made little headway and our local radio station is predicting further ice tonight.
While broadcasting salt across the ice this morning I thought back to the times in my life when I worked with the homeless, especially during my college years. I thought about the challenges faced by folks who want to the right thing to help someone, but do not know what to do. If you give someone money, will it be used wisely? If you give them a flashlight, will they trade it for something else?
One of the first lessons I learned is that you cannot control what others do. If you bless someone with a flashlight, they might trade it for something else. If you offer them a blanket, they might exchange it for a drink of something untoward. You cannot control what other people do, but that does not mean that there are not concrete things you can do to help others.
Here are a few of things I would suggest:
Keep a blanket blessing in your trunk. I suggest a warm blanket that is not large or bulky. Roll that blanket up with two pairs of new thick, warm socks, a knit cap, and a pair of gloves. The time to make these blessing blankets is not now. If you wait until end of season sales, stock up on the gloves, hats, and winter socks when they’re on clearance. Set a limit to what you want to do next winter (e.g., one set, five sets, ten sets) and store them with your winter snow brush. Put them in your trunk when you put your snow brush back in your car next fall.
Offer to buy someone a meal instead of giving them money. If they are hungry, ask them if you can buy them something to eat and then follow through. If you do not have time to sit with them, offer to bring them drive-thru or takeout. Offer to get them a hot drink with the food. The heat goes a long way. Note: Some people will say no to your offer or try and convince you to just give them the money. Use your best judgment, but I would suggest you offer the food and hot drink.
Instead of offering people money, buy a box of those chemical hand warmers at the end of the season. Offer them to people who are out in the cold. It is a simple gift. As a caution, check the expiration date if you’re buying for the next season. Unlike the blanket blessing, they expire.
If you live in a semi-rural location or in a location with more local businesses than chain restaurants, talk with a local restauranteur. Ask if you can buy a certificate for a “meal” complete with warm drink, food, and the tip included. If you talk with a small business owner and explain what you are doing, they may help you out. This may be something that ends up being traded, but if you are concerned it is still better than giving money.