“Into the Wilderness”

Message: “Into the Wilderness”
Date: March 10, 2019 (First Sunday of Lent)
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Before we begin, there will be two quotes in today’s sermon from the book “Thou Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to say two things.

First, he was an incredible author and I recommend that everyone spend time reading his words. As a European white guy, I found reading “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” to be both moving and poignant.

Second, it is important to me as a minister that I do my best to bring voices into these sermons which do not reflect the way many of us look or act in the pews. I hope that you ask yourself why that is important to me and what I might be trying to teach through that example.

Let us pray: Holy God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today we are entering the season of Lent. Lent is the forty non-Sabbath days we celebrate between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a season of fasting and contrition. It is a season of learning about one’s own heart and soul through experience. It is a season in the heart.

Growing up, reading passages like this morning’s passage always reminded me of Lent. Lent was a season of loss and deprivation. Yes, the celebration of Lent is tied to the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness, but I am not certain I understood wilderness in those days. I imagined endless deserts in the Sahara. I wondered what Jesus could have done for forty days sitting on a sand dune.

As an adult one of the most amazing experiences I had was going on two United Methodist Volunteer in Mission trips to learn with and serve with the Diné who were named the Navajo by the European Spaniards who first had regular contact with them in terms of Europeans coming across the oceans.

The Diné are a proud people, but the places we were serving were in and outside of Sawmill, Arizona. There were beautiful vistas, beautiful people, but I took a while to understand what I saw in that wilderness. Why would a land with so few trees be called Sawmill?

I learned the trees had been clear-cut and sold. I wondered why there were many older women but so few older men around until I learned about the uranium mines. I saw people working hard to make it through.

One of the people I met was a man named Pastor Curly. Pastor Curly was a person who knew everyone in his community but had a task well beyond his means. I mean no disrespect to Pastor Curly. The amount of poverty in the areas where he served where incredible and Pastor Curly was neither rich nor powerful. He still stood up, taught, preached, prayed, and loved richly.

As a young man, I thought wilderness was just dunes of desert. Now I see wilderness differently. Wilderness is where the wilds of the world continue to exist and thrive. Wilderness is not always a place of deprivation.

Jesus spends forty days in his wilderness. At the end of those forty days he is tempted with food to sate his hunger, power to change the world, and even the respect of the people who would one day help crucify him. Each time he is offered one of these things, he is firm that he won’t take them.

At some level, even with all that hunger, what would one loaf of bread do? At some level, even if Jesus impressed all the people in the temple, would that change the way things would go? The question that gets to me though is my own temptation: “What good would having all that power over the world do?”

When I went into the wilderness of Sawmill, Arizona I was full of ideas about how we could help. We could fix windows, replace rotten floors, and do good for folks who could not do it for themselves. That goal was a noble goal.

What I didn’t realize was how I would learn that despite all the power, influence, and strength I have as an educated, influential, European, male who was on his way to being told by a bishop to “Take thou authority,” I was not the richer person when I met some Diné. Pastor Curly was developing a depth working in the wilderness that wasn’t born out of having power or authority, but born out of being present with people who needed a voice and presence of hope. Pastor Curly helped me to understand what it means to learn from the wilderness.

Here’s our first quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Lord help me to accept my tools. However dull they are, help me to accept them. And then Lord, after I have accepted my tools, then help me to set out and do what I can with my tools.”

I learned in the wilderness that my tools were not as sharp as I once thought they were. I was an idealist and wanted to change the world, but when I looked in my toolshed, I found axes which needed sharpening and oiling, screwdrivers with broken edges, and sledgehammers with loose handles.

In the wilderness, I found myself longing and sorrowful. My own people helped cause some problems faced by the Diné and I was powerless to reverse them. I didn’t have the tools I needed, but I had tools. In the wilderness, I found my path further unfold.

Why am I passionate about the church be open to everyone? I am passionate because I have a voice and how that voice is used matters. I can stay silent and let others insist nothing changes or I can take my dull axe, sharpen as best as I can, and swing at the logs of injustice. I can take my busted screwdriver and re-purpose it as an ice-pick and try to break through the ice of loneliness and fear that freezes people’s hearts. I can take these dull tools of mine, accept them, and then set out to do something good with them.

Since I went on those trips to see the Diné, I understand the wilderness differently. The wilderness is not simply a place of deprivation. Yes, much like the season of Lent, being in the wilds can be challenging. It can be very difficult to walk into places that are beyond our comfort-zones, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth in those wilds. Out in the wilderness Jesus found something that enabled him to go forward on this journey.

The second prayer from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will lead us towards our conclusion. He once prayed: “God grant that you will choose your good self thereby mastering your evil self.”

In the wilderness of Arizona, standing outside the window rock, an ancient meeting place of the Diné I was faced with a choice that brought me to tears. I could stay the person I was at home, return to the life I lived, and forget about everything I learned in the wilds. Alternatively, I could choose my “good self.”

I did my best to choose my good self, but like most things worthwhile, it is hard. Nobody looks at what Jesus does in the wilderness and says “That looks easy.” Our own journey through Lent may not be easy. You may find that there are beasts out there in the wilds and there will certainly be temptations.

Friends, this season I invite you to step out into the wilderness. I invite you to do the risky thing and choose your good self. I invite you to leave what is comfortable behind and find what tools may await you in the desert.

May God help us all to choose our good selves and to master our evil selves. May God bless the people gathering at the Sawmill United Methodist Church this morning. May God bless Pastor Curly as he ministers through his life today. Amen.

“Her forehead” Poem

A few weeks ago I sat with a sick infant in the depths of night. Wet cloth cooling a fever from the now rare chicken pox. I rocked and contemplated what we would do if the fever spiked again. It was dark in that room in more ways that one.

A few weeks ago I sat with a parent in grief over an upcoming surgery. A sweet child in need of care. I contemplated her struggle and prayed for more than just the child. I prayed for my own forgiveness because I was grateful my child was not the one in need of that care.

A few weeks ago I sat and ate elementary school spaghetti. It was exactly how I remembered it. We sat, laughed, talked, and even danced as we tried to support some friends’ family in their hour of need. I could stomach school spaghetti far easier than letting my friends feel they were alone after caring for a baby who spent a lot of time in the NICU.

Yesterday I saw the ash on her forehead and I realized that she was mortal too. Today she is well but one day she will be in God’s hands. My heart broke as I realized a truth that had been walking through the edges of my soul.

On the day of ash
We contemplate our own path
Down through our life’s end.
Easier to see your own
Than on your daughter’s sweet face.

“Her Forehead” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Responding to a Weird World

Friends, Tuesday was an odd day for me as a minister. Two things happened which led me to go for a long walk around the block. The first is probably obvious to anyone who knows I am United Methodist or even goes back a few blog posts.

General Conference was taking place and the institutional global church further pressed back against people pushing for inclusion. I did not see the legislation pass in person because I felt the need to go and pray for the church.

The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with a colleague from a nearby church who came to discuss recent events during worship at our church. His church now has locked doors during worship. They were concerned. I was asked about what happened, was I afraid, and we discussed churches that have panic buttons and armed security. My colleague and I discussed that he doesn’t carry the panic button because he is aware as one of the people up front he might be the first one targeted by a shooter.

I went to take a long walk because it is weird to feel both slammed with pressure from above when there are people and colleagues in my neighborhood in the middle of nowhere that are now worried that church is literally a physically unsafe place without locked doors.

I have received threatening notes in the past regarding my own safety for taking stands on including folks from the margins, although honestly more about racial inclusion and less about LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I have upcoming meetings scheduled for dates before the Judicial Council will meet to determine whether what was just passed is enforceable under our constitution. I am concerned about what will happen between now and when the Judicial Council will (in my opinion) likely strike down portions of what passed.

I’m just concerned because my honest response to both issues is the same. If someone came into my church with a theological or physical gun, my place is between the church and that person. I have children and a family to provide for in this life, but that place of risk is my place as a minister.

I have taken a number of long walks between Tuesday and today. I will likely continue to keep walking, praying, and honestly playing a few video games on my phone to help keep my anxiety down.

I will find that ditto… I need the Pokémon who is all things to all people.

Reflective Poetry and Prayer

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.

Isaiah and Climate Change

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

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

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

Isaiah 45:18-19, NRSV

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

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

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

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

Love is not easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing to Help

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

“Ice and Love” by The Distracted Pastor. 2019

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

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

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

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

Here are a few of things I would suggest:

  • Blanket Blessing
  • Hot meal
  • Handwarmers
  • Gift Certificate

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

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

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

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

Poetry and Prayer

Poems
Contemplation
Seeing with open eyes
Expressing reasons for wonder
Poems

“Poems” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

I have recently been contemplating the idea of teaching. I am three quarters through the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I have been asking an interesting question. How do I share what I have been learning with others?

The very first session of the Academy we were invited to consider how God was being revealed around us by Wilkie Au. Since that lesson I have spent a lot of time walking through the various outdoor “Stations of the Cross” walking paths at the Malvern Retreat House.

It has been incredible noticing how I saw different things in different seasons. In the midst of winter, I took a picture of Christ crushed under the weight of the cross under a layer of newly fallen snow. I contemplated how cold the world must have been for Jesus in those moments. Blood loss was likely only one source of his suffering.

In the height of autumn, I saw Pilate standing in judgment as leaves fell from the sky. I contemplated how the world itself was growing colder and the days shorter as Pilate held his perpetual place of judgment over the solitary Christ. Leaves fell as judgment waited further down the path.

I have found those moments of contemplation to be life giving to my prayers. The very nature of the surrounding changed my contemplation, my prayer, and my focus in holy moments.

Walking through a path in the woods while praying is a valuable and wonderful experience. In this cold season, walking outside can be treacherous on frozen, freezing, and dangerously windy days. How can we enrich our prayers in a season which is dismally gray without continually focusing on the bleak, the dark, and the promise of spring that seems so very distant?

What if poetry is a window we can use for contemplation? Consider the poem “In a Vale.” The poem was written and published by Robert Frost in 1915. Let’s take a look as the poem is now in public domain.

When I was young, we dwelt in a vale
By a misty fen that rang all night,
And thus it was the maidens pale
I knew so well, whose garments trail
Across the reeds to a window light.

The fen had every kind of bloom,
And for every kind there was face,
And a voice that has sounded in my room
Across the sill from the outer gloom.
Each came singly unto her place,

But all came every night with the mist,
And often they brought so much to say
Of things of moment to which, they wist,
One so lonely was fain to list,
That the stars were almost faded away

Before the last went, heavy with dew,
Back to the place from which she came –
Where the bird was before it flew,
Where the flower was before it grew,
Where bird and flower were one and the same.

And thus it is I know so well
Why the flower has odor, the bird has song.
You have only to ask me, and I can tell.
No, not vainly there did I dwell,
Nor vainly listen all night long.

“In the Vale” by Robert Frost, 1915

First, Robert Frost was an incredible poet. When I was younger, I would have said that “He’s the kind of poet I want to be if I grow up.” Now it would be more accurate to say that he’s the kind of poet I would like to be if I ever grow up.

Second, consider the words Frost uses in his poem. If you have an overactive imagination like me, you might be blessed to leave the poem with the smell of earth in your nostrils, or the feeling of dew soaking into your sneakers as you see yourself walking out to greet the day.

Consider that a poem can be a window into a new place. What a gift this is to those who live underneath gloomy and gray skies! A poem can do more than inspire thoughts. Literature and stories were the original way people communicated visions of worlds beyond sight. Prose and poetry inspired religious belief, transported people to places of romance and ecstasy (e.g., consider the Song of Solomon in Judaism or the poems of Rumi in Sufi tradition), and opened the scope of people’s understanding of the world (e.g., Plato in Greece, Prince Shōtoku in Japan).

Like stories, poems can transport us to new places. What use is poetry? Poetry can be a way to see a world that can affect your prayer, change your viewpoint, and allow you to see a different existence than you might otherwise imagine. Poetry can be a way into memories from your own past, even when you did not write the poem. Poetry can be a blessing beyond belief.

I would like to encourage you to look into some poetry today. Consider that our world is an amazing place with amazing people. Explore their view through the power of their poems and see if you do not see the world a little differently. Perhaps the experience will change the way you pray today.

Open to Discomfort

Be still.
As scents fill you,
As odd sights confound you,
And as you want to run away:
Be still…

“Be Still” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

I recently spent time with someone who was ill in a care facility. I wrote this post a while back to help preserve the person’s identity, but this post is not about their story. This post is about my story and my experience.

The situation on my end was that I was waiting in a care facility which is filled with people facing challenges. The staff was present and diligent, but it is a facility full of people with differing needs. I found myself waiting impatiently as the sounds, scents, and distractions which come in such a place filled my senses.

I ordinarily do not spend time waiting in such facilities. I enter, I head straight where I need to go, focus on the individual, visit with family, pray, and head out the door. I generally do not have time to sit, to think, or to read in such places. I do not have time for my mind to wander. This day was different, so I opened my Kindle to read as I waited.

I spent some time reading through “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings–Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner. I restlessly flipped through the chapter headings until I found the chapter entitled “Solitude, Silence, and Hesychia.”

This blessed book has the advantage of taking up no extra space in my bag and the capacity to be read in dark rooms!

The chapter is not a long chapter. Abbess Paintner referred to three quotations in that section. As much as I respect the Abbess’ selection of ancient sources, her wisdom shines forth in her annotations. She writes:

“Sitting in our cell requires patience to not run from ourselves or flee back into the world of distraction and numbness. It means being fully present to our inner life without anxiety. Interior peace comes through sitting in silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness.”

Abbess Paintner in the second footnote for chapter ten

I found myself reflecting on the concepts of patience and stillness as my senses picked up on less than pleasant smells. In that moment, the place I was called to spend my time was that room with everything in the air. My cell was a chair in the midst of this person’s life. I found myself trying to be attentive, watchful, and present even as some part of me tried not to breathe too deeply. The scents, the sights, and the sounds made me more than a little anxious.

I found myself struggling in those moments after reading the Abbess’ thoughts. Was I letting those scents keeping me from being present with the individual sleeping in the bed? Was I letting my dislike of the scents keep me from being present with someone whose every breath contains the aromas that were filling my nostrils? There was some part of me that struggled with shame for focusing on the distractions and another part that wondered if the distractions might not be the blessing in disguise.

I was filled with questions, but the one that stuck with me was the loudest question that filled my mind. Was I open to knowing this was someone’s experience? Was I open to walking with someone as their body struggled? Was I open to being God’s hands and feet in such a place? Was I willing to see God in that place?

It would be easy to numb myself to the situation. I could run to my car and refill my diffuser with peppermint. I could rush home, put on the aromatic earl gray tea to settle my senses, and I could rush home to hug my toddler who seems to always smell of lavender when you smell her hair. It would be easy to flee back to distraction and numbness, but would I find true peace in distraction?

I find myself casting my mind to Matthew 25. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man comes in glory to bring judgment to an imperfect world. The Son of Man separates folks and says to one group that they are blessed because they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The people did not understand when they had done these things. The Son of Man replies (in the NRSV) “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We who are engaged in helping care for others often look on this passage and find comfort. We have given a dollar at the Red Kettle at Christmas, have donated a can of food to the food pantry, and gave a little extra when we could. We have helped the least of these. I could rush home and say “I visited one of the least of these! I’m good!”

Would Christ ask “Did you really visit the least of these or did you do the least you could for these?” Are we open to realize we may be called to radical love that sits through the dirt of life? Are we open to realize that loving God’s children may mean sitting in smelly places? Are we open to realize that God may call us to a deeper fellowship with those in need than the bare minimum?

I do not write such challenging words from a place of judgment. If anything, I feel convicted by my own words. What does this look like in our lives? If we are to live into God’s kingdom, do we all need to live radically transformed lives? Perhaps we are not all called to a care facility, but perhaps we are all called somewhere beyond what is comfortable for us. It is worth contemplating.

“February Sweater”

On the cold days when all warmth seems to fall asunder
I seek out the deep depths of my wardrobe to plunder
One of the best blessings from Christmas past: warm sweater
To keep the frost from my bones during winter’s wonder.

For some a warm blanket might seem a choice far better
Or a towel from the dryer when things are wetter;
still, I do feel there is nothing else that I could know
To be as warm and cozy as once gift wrapped sweater.

So on a frosty morn with coffee in hand I show
This ugly sweater that they once gave me years ago.
Yes, I will join them under a blanket warmed with love
But that warmth fills my heart. I can take both kinds to go.

If you see me with February reindeer don’t shove
Me out of your mind with coarse fashionista’s glove.
I do not wear this as a fashion faux-pas blunder.
I wear it because it warms me with both wool and love.

“February Sweater” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Don’t go judging me! For the record, this picture was taken in December. I don’t wear the reindeer clergy shirt in February. I do wear the hat though. It was made by a local knitter, was a gift from my wife, and it keeps my shaved head warm…

I wrote this poem for the dVerse poetry form rubaiyat challenge. We were invited to reflect on our writing process. I was thinking about the prompt offered by Frank Hubeny in the comment of “vortex.” I did not want to go straight into the vortex as I somewhat covered my feelings on the polar vortex with my blogs on “Ice” and the angry poem about that groundhog.

I started to think about the polar vortex and the cold that filled our home despite our best efforts last week. I thought about how nice it was to be warm, but that most forms of being warm were transient. Despite the subzero temperatures, the sweaters I wore did keep me warm wherever I went. I didn’t look very fashionable, but I was warm.

So, in many ways this was an ode to both those awful Christmas sweaters and to the kids who made sure I had warm clothes to wear. I enjoyed writing it even as it wandered around from one quatrain to the next. I guess, in a sense I am grateful for the kids, the sweaters, and for the prompt for happy contemplation.

If you were wondering, I do own an actual wardrobe. No, I haven’t found Narnia… yet…

Open, Nurturing, Empowering…

This past weekend I was challenged with a question. The question revolved around my vision of ministry. What evolved from the question was the realization that I am often not clear about my own particular vision for ministry. What do I seek to embody in my ministry? Could I express my vision for ministry in the time it takes to ride an elevator?

I have been thinking consistently about that question since it came into my mind. I have been asking myself how to express my view of ministry. Side questions arose from this contemplation. Could others remember it? Could they see it in my actions? Do I have a phrase that helps me stay focused on my purposes?

What’s the phrase? “I believe that the church should seek to be ONE.” I want my vision to be Open, Nurturing, and Empowering.

Let me break those buzzwords down into something more succinct. Buzzwords are nice but they do not always serve the purposes which they need to serve for others. These lists are meant to be examples and not a complete or restrictive compilation of ideas.

I believe the church should be Open to new people, Open to new expressions, Open to people who are differently abled, Open to hear/converse with our neighbors, Open to taking God’s love out of the church building, and Open to hear God’s voice.

I believe the church should be Nurturing to people who want to know God more, Nurturing to those who have had few advantages and many obstacles, Nurturing to those who are wounded or in need, and Nurturing with/towards other communities and people in our neighborhood.

I believe the church should be Empowering to people who need God’s freedom in their daily life, Empowering to those who have been oppressed, Empowering to folks who believe their voice does not matter, Empowering to those who need to borrow our strength to break free from their shackles, and Empowering to people who want to seek to enter into life changing discipleship.

Seven years ago, I knelt before my Conference and was ordained into ministry because people were Open to my leadership, Nurtured my potential, and Empowered me to go forth in ministry. What kind of person would I be if I did not seek to do the same for others?

What do those things look like? I believe that is the subject of a lot of posts to come, but here’s a few snippets of what I’m proposing to lead about more openly:

  • You cannot be truly Open to the community if your building or community has significant barriers for differently abled folks.
  • You cannot be truly Open to the community if you don’t welcome folks who are different than you in culture, race, ethnicity, or viewpoint.
  • You cannot be fully Nurturing to the community if you immediately dismiss people when they find the courage to talk about real life problems that make you feel uncomfortable.
  • You cannot be fully Nurturing to new leadership if you respond to every request to try something new with an immediate “No way. We’ve never done that before.”
  • You cannot be wholly Empowering if you look down your nose at folks who haven’t had the same advantages as you.
  • You cannot be wholly Empowering of other people’s ministries within the church if you rely on authority for leadership in the church instead of relationship, vision, and calling.

What are the words of the communion liturgy? Because there is ONE loaf, we who are many are ONE body. May we all be ONE in the love and care of Jesus.

“Perspective” Haibun

There is a time for every matter under heaven. There is a time for challenge and a time for winter. There is a time for difficulty and a time for tears. There is a time for brokenness and a time for loneliness. There is a time for solitude and a time for silence. There is a time for every matter under heaven, so why be jealous of those whose tears are yet to come? Why be envious of those who will know broken days? Why wish to be those who have had perfect days? There is a time for every matter under heaven…

Tomorrow will come
And all will be different,
So breathe through the pain.

“Perspective” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

This poem is written in response to the challenge from the dVerse Poets’ Pub challenge for a Haibun on Solitude. This poem is dedicated to a good friend who knows why I wrote it. Thank you for listening, my friend.

Remembering Rest

Yesterday was a stressful day. I am in Syracuse attending Launchpad, which trains folks in strategies to help start new ministries. The day was very full and my brain was fried by the time we broke for dinner. My wife, our friend, and I tried to talk about what we thought over Indian, but it quickly devolved into story time.

As I rested for the evening in the room my wife and I were sharing, I took time to unwind with a few books I am reading. I was reading through a few books including the book I have been reading on the sabbath by Rev. Wayne Muller called “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” A quote stuck out to me from page 37.

“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”

Rev. Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” pg. 37.

Last night I was filled with ideas. To be honest, they were burgeoning on burning out my brain. I slowed down, took a moment to breathe, and realized there was wisdom in these words. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I had been breathing in new thoughts, new ideas, and new “creations” in my brain all day. It was only in slowing down to exhale, to rest, and find peace that I found balance.

Sabbath in the Christian tradition has generally been relegated to one day of the week. In modern culture, even the Sabbath is a day when we fill time with stuff and things.

Sometimes it is important to remember that God created something beautiful in Sabbath. We all need moments of rest, repose, and restoration. To believe such things can only be needed on a single day of the week is to miss something true.

It is not an accident what follows when Paul writes to the church and encourages it to not be anxious about anything, but to present their concerns to God with praise and thanksgiving. The people are told that the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Something like that blessed creation of Sabbath that finishes the seven days of creation fills and guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Are you stressed out today? Have you taken moments to rest? Have you breathed out and given over your worries and requests to God? Sometimes anxiety is a medical condition which requires help, sometimes it takes works to let go of the stressful things in our lives, but is there a chance that taking a moment of Sabbath rest might be what your heart and soul needs?

If you do not know what that might look like, here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Stop to breathe. Mr. Muller suggests this practice in his book. The people we met through the Academy for Spiritual Formation from the Minnesota Institute for Contemplation and Healing also suggested the value of breathing for entering a more peaceful state.
  • Take time to journal in a quiet place. Ask yourself simple questions. Where have I seen God this week? Where have I found places of peace in the past?
  • Sit quietly for a while. Do not rush this one by assuming a day is the best place to begin. Five minutes might be all you can handle at first. Work your way into silence regularly and see how it affects you.

Hungry Kyoka

"Dad, I am hungry!"
"Hi hungry! I am your dad!"
I laugh at her sigh.
I turn with my warmest smile
And look in an empty fridge.

“Hungry Kyoka” The Distracted Pastor, 2019

I wanted to share this kyoka this morning for a simple reason. A kyoka is a form of poetry in which the profane or mundane is placed into a poetic form. For some people “Dad jokes” are profanely terrible. For other folks family conversations in a kitchen are commonplace.

For me, what is profane is neither the bad humor nor the commonality of the situation. What is profane is that there are many families in this world and in our community that have little or nothing in their fridges. Humor is one response to tragedy. The tragedy of families which struggle to feed their families is a profanity in a country where people regularly propose billions of dollars for a wall while families starve.

There are people in our communities who do not have enough to eat without assistance. I have performed funerals for people who have died of complications from malnourishment. Not all of those situations were from a lack of access to food, but I can tell you sometimes having nothing in the fridge leads to mental distress, spiritual crisis, and physical challenges.

Here where I live in Broome County we are blessed to have access to both the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW) operated by the Broome County Council of Churches and to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier which extends out from Broome County to also cover Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga, and Tompkins counties.

Homemade bread is a blessing which requires ingredients, cooking utensils, and an oven (or campfire if courageous/desperate). Some people do not have those things.

I wanted to invite you to become involved in hunger outreach in your local context. If you are one of the people who follow this blog because you love Christian contemplation, consider how many of the saints learned the value of contemplation through action. If you are a poetry person, consider how difficult it can be to create or enjoy beautiful poetry when you are distracted by a growling stomach. Hungry has inspired many wonderful pieces of art, but I am certain it was not enjoyable. Please consider volunteering time or resources to one of these wonderful missions or a similar mission near you.

Allow me a moment to say there are many commonalities among world religions. Almost all of them point to both the value of love and the reciprocal blessing of kindness. Call it karma, the promise of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or by another phrase meaningful to you. It is good to show kindness to people in need.

Here are five ways to get started in helping fight hunger:

  • Pick a designated non-perishable item of the month that you use a lot of in your life. If you pick peanut butter, purchase an extra jar when it is on your grocery list. Donate it to a local food bank or food pantry.
  • Do not automatically say “No” if you live in an area where grocery stores might invite you to donate to a pantry. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier occasionally invites people to “Check out Hunger.” A similar program might be available near you.
  • If you go to church, offer to help make sure there is healthy food for times of fellowship like “Coffee Hour.” If you see a friend who looks like they might need an extra cookie, offer to get them one while you “Get a cup of coffee.” If your church is willing, find a family who might need a blessing and offer them the leftover goodies (with grace and an understanding if they say no).
  • Pay attention to your neighbors. If you know a family is going hungry, “Secret Santa” them by paying for a pizza or other food to be delivered from a local restaurant anonymously. Make sure you cover the driver’s tip so that the person is not embarrassed.
  • Call a Food Pantry, Food Bank, or Soup Kitchen. Ask what they need and volunteer what you can in time or in goods.

A Canzone for those eyes

My daughter’s eyes. She was too young to understand my words Sunday…
Hopefully a seed will take root!

“Can you see deep down?”
The Distracted Pastor, 2019


Holy One, do You know me?
Deep down can You see?
All of the places in me?
They just look at me
And they simply laugh away.
Sometimes it breaks me
To wake up and see just me.
I walk lonely ways.
There are many simple ways
That You might help me.
My wounded, lonely spirit
Cries sadly, Spirit.

Can you see my heart Spirit?
You knit all of me
knowing my bones and spirit?
My sad cracked spirit?
What could you possibly see
You love me Spirit?
The world needed me Spirit?
Not hiding away?
Not shunned or thrown far away
From this life Spirit?
I am confused by Your ways.
Help me see Your ways.

I can see some of the ways
With happy Spirit.
When I walk down pleasant ways
I trace Your ways–
Fingerprints of You in Me.
Marks of Your deep ways
Show in the subtlest of ways
When I slow to see
The goodness that You must see
In Your ancient ways.
You draw me from far away.
I can't stay away.

Things that I would toss away
You bless through Your ways.
You toss ideal away.
Discard it away
As You stitch up my Spirit.
Weave, subtle Spirit.
Bless my imperfect spirit
As You work in me,
As You work to renew me.
Do not stay away.
Open my eyes–help me see
The perfect You see.

I can't always clearly see
How You work away
To form what You hope to see.
Pain distracts, You see?
Work in me Your calming ways.
Bless my eyes to see
The vision that You did see
When You put spirit
In my flesh by Your Spirit.
Bless my soul to see
The loveliness within me,
the best part of me.

Holy One, you do know me.
Though it's hard to see
You are never far away.
Teach me Your deep ways
Until spirit knows Spirit.

Sunday mornings I lead worship at the Maine Federated Church. This past Sunday I spoke with our younger disciples about Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is a tricky psalm in places, so we focused on the first 18 verses. There are words about God surrounding someone on every side, words about God crafting someone with care, and words about God’s deep love.

As I shared with the kids, I saw reflections in their eyes. My eyesight isn’t the best, but there was hope and pain in those young eyes. Perhaps one or two had already been told they were not the wonderful kids I believe that they happen to be. I wrote this canzone to work into the struggle I have shared with them over the years. Can these words really apply to us? Can we move from doubt to belief?

For the record, this is the first truly complicated form of poetry I have attempted. I am not adept with the canzone or sestina, so I would adore kind feedback or recommendations of other poems in these forms I should check out.

Poetry as a Pastor

The church is founded 
on One who cares deeply
for people outside.

The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Recently, I have been expressing myself a lot more publicly through poetry. Poetry is a hobby of mine. I enjoy writing poetry, was published in an anthology in high school, and wrote a collection of poems for my family the Christmas before last. I do not aspire to being a professional poet, do not claim the title poet, and certainly do not believe that I am creating anything worthy of being etched in stone. I know that poems like my villanelle for my youngest daughter will probably be considered overly sentimental and sappy to most people. It probably won’t make it into an anthology of the best poems of 2019.

Still, I have enjoyed bringing this part of my heart out and into the open. Interestingly, I find that certain people respond to my poetry on my blog from vastly different places in life. There are classically beautiful women writing about life, people who enjoy writing poetry behind profile pictures of cats, people writing poems about living in cities I’ll never see, and a thousand and one different people writing poetry that come out of life experiences far different from mine.

There are moments when I wonder how someone from such a different place in life could like my poems. Often, I look at their poetry and occasionally find myself blown away by beauty, truth, and wisdom that is far outside of my sphere of understanding. My poems often aren’t even a spark compared to their flames. Reading some of these poems are humbling, intriguing, and often shatter preconceptions. I feel drawn into a world different from my own.

Some poetry is shared in low-tech ways too!

Sometimes, I find that drawing out of the “safe bubble” of the church scary. What would the woman down the road think if she finds out her pastor read that poem about longing? What would the Bishop think if he knew I enjoyed and found beauty in that poem about staring over the edge of a bridge in despair?

Sometimes I become anxious about what people in the church would think. I then remember that the God I love is the God I see in Jesus. The Jesus I know was accused often of being a miscreant for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Jesus I know would probably enjoy a night at a poetry bar with people who were honest about their flaws far more than a night debating whether you round up or down when tithing your spices. The Jesus I know invited people to come near even when following him from that place of proximity often meant they had to make sacrifices. The Jesus I know would probably find beauty, sadness, grief, and loveliness in some poems I have enjoyed reading.

I honestly believe the church needs to relax sometimes and remember that God loves all of those people “out there.” One of my favorite churches was the church in the country which had a screen door leading into the sanctuary to let the sound, the smells, and the life of the world around it into worship. What’s even better, it bordered a farm which spread cow manure every spring. Worship with the scent of cow manure. If that’s not a unique incense for worship in the country, then I don’t know what else would qualify.

So, for those of you who read my blog for interesting theological commentary, I invite you to check out one of the people who like the poems I write. Most of them write some interesting stuff. For those of you who write poetry and often encourage mine, thank you for letting me be a part of your community. I love both sides of this blog’s community and thanks for letting me be a part of your online life.

A Villanelle for my Little One

It is dark now, my little one.
We rock beneath a long dark sky.
We should sleep now, for day is done.

You've had milk. You've had your fun.
Still house rings with your piercing cry.
It is dark now, my little one.

Mom would rest like the long set sun.
My voice cracks as my throat grows dry.
We should sleep now, for day is done.

Soft song and pout seek battle won...
I have sung many years gone by.
It is dark now, my little one.

I'll hold you close–blanket-wrapped bun.
My voice so soft–so close your eye.
We should sleep now, for day is done.
It is dark now, my little one.

Today’s post is a poem inspired by the events of last Monday night. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of an exasperated spouse and an inconsolable baby. Our baby was loud and she thanked me for holding her close by screaming right in my ear. Still, we rocked and I sang until peace fell at last on her troubled soul.

Was it the teething medicine? Was it that she was gassy? Was it that she just needed to wear herself out? I do not know, but she is the third child. I have rocked and sung through far worse.

A Quadrille of Conjoined Tankas

Gusts pierce old windows
As I enter cold kitchen.
The new year still creaks. 
Calendars change as snow falls.
Aromatic tea wakes bones.

Silent draft reminds:
You are blessed to be so warm!
Howling wind reminds:
Halloween is not scary
Compared to homeless winter!

Poem crafted in response to Quadrille Challenge #71 by dVerse. I am currently decompressing from preparing for Sunday’s Annual Meeting at the church I serve by using the creative side of my brain. Too much analysis and planning leaves my creative side in need of expression. There are worse things to do at your desk while enjoying a sandwich and cup of tea!

Dystopian Inspiration

Joyfully, I have recovered my writing laptop from the place where it was charging. Who would have guessed it was plugged in on my desk? The next thing you know, I’ll find my keys hanging on the key-holder by the door.

For today’s blog, I wanted to bring in an outside source from the kind of stuff I usually quote. I am a sincere believer that everyone needs to put their hair down occasionally. In fact, even the Desert Abbas and Ammas occasionally understood this idea. I adore the story of the hunter who comes across Abba Anthony and questions the good Abba about what he sees. The Abba and several other monks were enjoying themselves in the desert. The Abba challenges the hunters perception by asking him to repeatedly draw his bow and fire an arrow. In time the hunter protests. Overusing the bow will break it. Abba Anthony replies that the same is true of people. If you stretch them too much, they will break.

“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” translated by Benedicta Ward on pages 3-4.

I put down my hair by reading science fiction. I enjoy space operas, dystopian tales, and short stories. I was recently reading through “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois. In particular, I was reading “The Hunger After You’re Fed” written by the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franch operating together under the pseudonym of James S. A. Corey.

In the story, there’s a society where everyone can have what they need. People are offered an allotment and should have enough to live off if they are careful with how they spend their resources. Unfortunately, even in science fiction people are often people. A few particular lines of the story stuck out:

“Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on. Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or to me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food, but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the moments of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.”

James S A Corey, “The Hunger After You’re Fed” in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois.

Now, I underline my religious books on my Kindle regularly. I am 30% through this collection of short stories and this is the first highlight in the book. Let’s be clear that I enjoyed many of the stories. This quote from James Corey just leapt off the page at me in a special way.

I believe one reason it connected with me is my hobby of cooking. At this moment, I have am working on making a compound beef stock to enjoy throughout the cold months of winter. It has taken a lot of effort to make the beef stock. It would be far easier to just purchase a container of beef boullion from the grocery store, but there’s something deeper at stake for me.

I want my kids to have something true, something real, and something they can identify. I want my kids to recognize the taste of leeks and carrots in a stock. I want my kids to see how long it takes to cool and remove the fat from the top of the stock. I want them to understand why the food they eat at home tastes different from the stuff out of a can in the school cafeteria.

Truthfully, there are no bones left behind for the kids to see at the school. My kids see the bones the broth comes from in our house. When making chicken stock, they see the chicken paws come out from the freezer and into the pot. There was once something living and breathing that went into that soup. The vegetables they see cooked to oblivion to get nutrients and flavors into the stock? Those vegetables came from farms where farmers worked hard. In the summer, the kids often meet those farmers at the farmer’s market or at the coop where my kids see the chickens that produce their eggs.

I have a colleague named Grace Hackney who is big into the ministry of food through the ministry “Life Around the Table.” At the Academy for Spiritual Formation we have had several deep conversations on food and spirituality. We have various differences of opinions on small matters, but I agree with her assertion that the ways we feed our bodies affect how we feed our soul. Living out of a place of gratitude means not only giving thanks for what we have on the table but also being aware of how it came to the table. Proverbs 13:25-14:1 states:

“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty. The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”

Proverbs 13:25-14:1, NRSV

Proverbs is a book which is very black and white. There are righteous people who suffer want and there are wicked folks who have never gone hungry. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:45, the sun rises and the rain falls on people of all varieties. Still, there is wisdom to the saying “Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”

For me, stewardship means being able to trace back the foods I eat to the earth. If you hand me a chicken and vegetables, I can make broth. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but when pressed I can clean and cook a chicken. Grocery store vegetables are pretty, but if you hand me a bunch of malformed carrots, I can use them fine.

I am capable of these tasks, understand the effort they take, and thus do not throw useful things away without reason. In fact, I’m sure I drive my wife crazy with my obsession over leftover bones. I’m also certain she appreciates I can bring good food to the table for two or three days after roasting a chicken without driving up the grocery bill through the roof. I do so in part because there’s nothing more damaging to our budget than a grocery budget blown out of proportion or a trip out to dinner every night of the week. We have enough and some to spare in part because we do not let the foods we eat tear down the house in which we live.

We are trying to live out the wisdom of Proverbs 13:11 as a family: “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little with increase it.” There are days when the food on the table does not taste as good as the food at the restaurant, but there are moments when practice results in success. There are days when it is easier to just buy a kit from the store, but there are also moments when we turn the tide against the world insistent on telling our kids that any taste can come from a vending machine. Little by little we resist the drive to buy every shiny thing at the store. Bit by bit we regain what was once lost to us.

Fleeting but precious

Today I spent my time in prayer focusing on Psalm 39. In my personal journey, today is not only the day of my birth, it is also the day when I gave my heart to God at fifteen years old. As such, spending my prayer time focusing on Psalm 39 might seem odd to many people.

I said, “I will guard my ways
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
I was silent and still;
I held my peace to no avail;
my distress grew worse,
my heart became hot within me.
While I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:


“Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.


“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
I am silent; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.


“You chastise mortals
in punishment for sin,
consuming like a moth what is dear to them;
surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah


“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more.”

Psalm 39, NRSV

Consider the words of the Psalm and there are passages which you will probably not find within a card on a rack in your local store. Well, some of them might end up in a “dark humor” section:

  1. “Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.” (vs. 6)
  2. “You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.” (vs. 5)
  3. “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.” (vs.11)
  4. “Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vs. 13)
  5. “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am a passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” (vs. 12)
  6. “Lord, let my know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” (vs. 4)

So, why would I spend my time contemplating this passage of all passages on my birthday? Why would I make the choice to pray about these words on the day I felt my heart strangely warmed and felt an assurance of my place in God’s love?

My heart was captured by the fourth verse of the Psalm. “Let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” As I spent time with these words, I thought about the tea in the wooden bin on my counter. I switched back to primarily being a tea drinker as part of my plan for 2019, and I checked our stash of tea to find it empty. A new bag of fair trade tea will arrive in a few weeks, so I am left with what is in the bin.

When the bin is full, there are many pots of tea ready to be made. A cup of tea is just a cup of tea. The tea may be enjoyable, warming, wonderful, and flavorful; however, it is still just one cup of much once brewed. When the bin is nearing emptiness, each cup is to be savored. When the bin is almost an empty box, every sip is a gift. There is something wonderfully deep about the paradox that scarcity makes something all the more precious.

The tea runneth low…

Yes, my life is fleeting. Yes, even though today is a day of celebration in my house, it is healthy to remember that there will be only so many of these celebrations before I celebrate on another shore. Yes, these days are like a shadow, but the shadow shows me that there is life. Yes, what is dear to me on earth will eventually break down, rust, be eaten by dogs, fall prey to overactive kids, or just wear out; however, those things are just stuff.

I may not agree with the expressed sentiment that “God is punishing you by taking away everything you love.” I believe the 11th and 13th verses were likely born out of a dark place although there are moments when chastisement may be the only way forward. Many folks recovering from addiction have pointed to low points in life as moments when they were given a chance to recover and rise from “rock bottom.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some assistance is occasionally required to find that place of possibility. I would say sometimes things break and that may not be God punishing. Sometimes we have a bad day and it is not always the case that our days is terrible because God is glaring at us—I often find the opposite is usually true.

Despite my grief for the struggles endured by the Psalmist when composing Psalm 39, I am grateful for the reminder that this day is precious despite being one of many days. I am grateful for this life as fleeting as it may pass. One day, my time will come, and I hope people will realize I was grateful for what I had even as I sometimes struggled with the challenges. Today, I choose to read Psalm 39 with gratitude. I pray you find reasons to enjoy the precious nature of life.

Faith, goodness, knowledge…

“While the daily onslaught of words can numb us, God’s words can warm those who listen.”

Dr. Michael Jenkins in the January 5th entry of the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

Tomorrow morning we are celebrating Epiphany at the Maine Federated Church. Our liturgy and message partially rely on the later part of the first chapter of Second Peter. I have not preached much from Second Peter over the years, which is really a shame. In my opinion, Second Peter is an interesting book with wisdom that is clearly stated and applicable to life.

As an example, take a portion of the same chapter we are using tomorrow. Second Peter, chapter one, verses three through nine. There is solid advice in these words. There’s assertion about the world, a recommendation for response, and a rationale about why we would act in certain ways. The passage is succinct, clear, and helpful.

“[Jesus’] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”

2 Peter 1:3-9, NRSV

The world is ascertained to be a world that has been blessed by the presence of Jesus. Think about the words of this letter. We live in a world where Jesus’ divine power has already made available everything needed for a life lived with godliness. By Jesus’ goodness and God’s glory, we who have been called have what we need to escape a world of corruption and lust.

Now, I think it is still close enough to the New Year to state that in this new year, there may be things we want. The things we want often differ from what we need. I might want a Ferrari in my driveway, but I do not need a Ferrari. In fact, no offense to the people who would make that imaginary Ferrari, if I had one, I would likely be selling it as soon as possible as it is unnecessary for the life I seek.

There are many things we may want, but that does not mean those things are needed for a life in a world that is often driven by desires for power, wealth, stuff, and desires for people which often treat those people as things rather than individuals. Second Peter says that we have what we need to escape from the snares of that world. Jesus has already made available what we need. We may live in a sickened world, but the medicine is right there with us!

What does Second Peter recommend? Rather than passivity, the letter calls for action. Rather than being forced into submission, the letter calls for active rebellion from a darkened world. What does that look like?

  • Faith supported with goodness.
  • Goodness supported with knowledge.
  • Knowledge supported with self-control.
  • Self-control supported with endurance.
  • Endurance supported with godliness.
  • Godliness supported with mutual-affection.
  • Mutual affection with love

What happens when these things enter into the life of a person? Life becomes better. What happens when they keep on increasing? They keep a person from being ineffective and unfruitful. Second Peter calls the people to make every effort to engage on this journey founded in God’s grace.

Second Peter goes further to state that anyone who lacks these things is “short-sighted and blind.” They have forgotten the grace received from God. At first, that seemed a bit harsh to me, but thinking back through my own experience, I think there’s truth in these words.

I am a United Methodist minister and I am very United Methodist in my theology. I appreciate and draw a lot out of other Christian traditions, but in my heart, I am thoroughly United Methodist. Of course, I see United Methodism as one stream in the branching delta known as Christianity that follows God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the sea of God’s love, but I still love swimming in my waters with my beloved family in Christ.

Despite that love, there have been moments when I have come across United Methodist family who do not insist on these things. The church has had friends within her walls who have been quite cruel and forgotten their way. As an Elder I have studied our history and found examples of the church abusing folks when the way was lost. As a person I have experienced folks filled with anger rather than the love and mutual affection described in this letter. I have seen hatred, anger, and even lust for power blind people to what they are doing to others.

I have also met people from those other streams that I absolutely adore even though we are theologically very different. We would probably argue and have argued at times for hours about theological points, but we hold in common these desires. Their faith is connected with goodness, their goodness with knowledge… As such, we can completely disagree while still remaining in relationship with each other. In fact, I often find some of my strongest friendships have come about from such weird relationships with those who share in that common love that comes from Jesus.

I do not know about you, but I want to remain fruitful. The banner that sits at the top of my blog is a banner I often do not point out in blogs, but it is a picture I took on a mission trip. The flowers are growing on the barbed wire between two yards on the interface between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. If flowers can grow on barbed wire, then we can live lives which bear fruit. We already have all we need even if we sometimes want more. Let us live in that knowledge and keep seeking after goodness and hir friends.

Barbed wire with flowers on the Springfield Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Thank you to some generous drivers approximately 80 years ago

Today was my wife’s grandmother’s memorial service in Olean. She’s being interred out west, so this was my family’s chance to formally pay our respects. The affair was meaningful, deep, and faithful. Grandma Betty was a really wonderful woman and I learned a lot about the woman whom I sat next to for many a holiday meal. Apparently her stories were not done catching me off guard even after she crossed to that other shore.

This evening I sat at our kitchen table and contemplated Ephesians 3:1-4. In particular, I was drawn to the concepts of mystery and grace. The contemplation was deep as I spent my time with these words. As I contemplated the growth of this one moment in time, I found myself caught in a million questions as I lifted questions to God in my heart.

“…for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…”

Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV

Contemplation roamed for quite a while on questions of whether this commission of God’s grace would be received well in today’s church. Would we welcome one of the villains of our stories into the doors of our church if he were to come in repentance? Would we welcome a former persecutor into our midst? Would we welcome someone who was passionately into another culture that many would consider counter-Christian into our midst? Would we have the grace to walk with them through transitions which are usually less dramatic than that of Paul?

I contemplated these questions for a while, but I kept being drawn back to the concept of mysterious grace. The early church was blessed by the unexpected life story of Saul of Tarsus. I have been blessed by unexpected stories too. I learned of a new unexpected story today at the memorial service in Olean.

My contemplation candle holder… It burns often on my table.

I heard the story of a hitchhiker in the west who went to play at a tent revival with some friends. A local girl found God at that tent revival and hitchhiked to the Bible College where that hitchhiker attended. This young lady was a graduate of a class of 12. This girl from a very small area was married and had kids. Those hitchhikers were my wife’s grandparents.

Hope was not falling asleep easily tonight, so I was holding her as she settled while I prayed and contemplated. I realized in the middle of my contemplation that if it were not for some random person picking up a hitchhiker on the other side of the country nearly 80 years ago, my daughter would not have been in my arms. It was a powerful moment of realization. My blessings in this world would be very different if it weren’t for a hitchhiking evangelist getting a ride to a small town with a graduating class of twelve to lead a tent revival. My blessings would be different if those evangelists decided the small town was not worth their time.

Earlier today on the ride back from Olean, my daughter and I were listening to the audio book for “The Good Doctor” by Juno Dawson. In that audio book, the eponymous Doctor of Doctor Who made the statement: “There’s only two things I don’t believe in, and one’s coincidence…” Apparently, being a time-traveler makes you skeptical of randomness.

Now, I am definitely not a predestination proponent, but there’s something powerfully moving when you realize that your daughter possibly wouldn’t be in your arms if someone had not decided to give one of her great-grandparents a lift, but I would rather contemplate something besides an argument that has raged for centuries like predestination versus free will.

What I contemplated was the fact that there a lot of people out there who often look in the mirror and do not know where their life is headed. They see coincidence and fear stepping out of even partial safety to see what might lay outside their door. There are scary things out there in the world which are far more frightening than hitch hiking. People can become paralyzed by fears both of what might happen and what is happening. Here a few off the top of my head:

  • A person lives with someone who is physically abusive. Zie wishes to walk away, but what if zie loses his chance to see hir kids?
  • An alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but all of hir friends drink every weekend. What if zie ends up all alone?
  • A person wants to stop working at a job that is literally physically, mentally, or spiritually killing them. What if zie quits and ends up losing everything?
  • A person has a loved one (friend/child) who is doing something awful that might end up disastrously bad. Maybe it already has gone bad. Zie wants to say something or do something, but what happens if hir loved one walks away from zie forever?

These examples are but a few examples of how life can throw challenges that cause us to stop dead in our tracks in fear. What if our inability to move causes things to go awry? What if someone we do not know in 80 years will be a completely different person if we do nothing?

I don’t know who the person was who gave my wife’s grandparents rides across what sounded like a good portion of the western half of this country, but I am so grateful that they did. If you’re living in fear of doing something that might seem just as crazy, I invite you to have a conversation with a local religious leader, a counselor, or even a good friend. If necessary, speak to the police for an intervention or go to a support group to find help. Your bravery just might change the future.

Shadows and Light

Last night I posted a poem called “Pastoral Ghazal.” The poem was inspired both by events in my pastoral ministry and in my reading for yesterday in the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and specifically in the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. In the reflection for January 2nd, Dr. Jenkins contrasts the common imagery of justice being blindfolded with the conception of God reaching with both open eyes and mercy. The contrast was a powerful contrast. In my copy of this year’s Disciplines I highlighted the phrase “God, who wears no blindfold, insists on mercy in justice.”

Dr. Jenkins focuses greatly on how this conception of a God with open eyes affects our view of the social and moral order of our world. I appreciated his focus, but I was drawn into a different realm of contemplation by the reality of my daily ministry. While Dr. Jenkins view was broad, my focus was tightened by a number of things:

  • Administration: Our church’s Annual Meeting is fast approaching and there is paperwork that needs to be prepared.
  • Building and Grounds: The church is continuing to aim towards having greater accessibility while maintaining safety. One office day into 2019 and both of these areas came up in conversation.
  • Community: Situations arose where both relationships blessed my ministry and caused me to want to hide in a desert. Occasionally, those conversations were simultaneous.
  • Dreaming: Situations arose where I took the opportunity to “vision cast” different futures and alternative perspectives to people in my circle of influence.
  • End of Life Conversations: Self-explanatory
  • Fatherhood: My one year old kept me up until five in the morning when my alarm was set for two hours later…

To be honest, I could probably continue with this acrostic list, but I faced no alien xenomorphs and had no reason to visit the zoo. Ministry is a varied and challenging calling which often leads you up and down an acrostic list of challenges on a regular basis. This grounding in the daily activities of ministry drew me into a different sphere of contemplation. My contemplation led me to ask a very simple question: Does God see?

Theologically, let’s be clear: I do believe that God sees. The challenge is that the knowledge that God sees is a form of head knowledge. Life requires heart knowledge. There is often a great difference between seeing with the head and knowing with the heart. Some of the things I experienced reinforced both my head knowledge and my heart wisdom. Other experiences were unsettling.

I was reminded of the ancient philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the allegory, there were a bunch of people who spent their lives sitting in chairs unable to turn around. Behind them was a fire and all they ever saw was the shadows cast on the wall. Those shadows became all of reality to the folks in the chairs. Plato’s allegory delved into what would happen if those people ever were released from those bindings or came across someone who knew that there was more than shadow, but for my purposes, the image of folks strapped into chairs facing shadows is enough for my purposes. Honestly, the image of firelight and shadow is what stuck in my mind.

Light Dark Atmosphere Candle Night Lantern Shadow

The challenge I recognized yesterday during my devotion is that any life has places where the reality of life impedes that journey from head knowledge to heart wisdom. I believe that God’s light fills the universe and will shine in the midst of the darkness; however, there are places where challenges create shadows. I cannot always see that light shining, sometimes only find the shadows, and occasionally cannot even see the shadows.

This reality of life is where my poem found life yesterday. Dr. Jenkins was focused on the vast, but I kept seeing places where I saw others struggling to see beyond the shadows. In that beautiful picture above, it would be as if I were sitting in the light with those who sat in shadow. Inches might separate us, but one place was a place of brightness while another was a place of darkness. Wisdom told me there are likely places where I sit in darkness surrounded by others who see beyond what my eyes perceive.

All of this is to say that I think we all have places where we sit in the shadows just as we all have places where we see the light. How do we compensate for this challenge? I believe the answer can only lie in community. Whether that community comes through family, neighborhood, or church, we all are made better by our relationships with others.

Are all relationships healthy? No, but I truly believe that there is a wisdom to living in community with those who will lovingly walk with you in your shadows while holding out their hands when they need help with their own dark places. Where do we see this in scripture? Here are a handful of examples…

  • Proverbs 27:17 tells us that one person can bless another just as iron sharpens iron.
  • Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of our calling to remain in community in a spirit that encourages our faith community. When we consider the challenges faced by the early church, this encouragement likely held some of the early churches together through persecution and troubles.
  • John 21 shares the story of how the community stood with Peter as he faced the challenge of his own past and the events of Good Friday.

I share these things to encourage you to remember the value of community today. There are days when it seems as if the universe is a cruel and awful place. Those days are exactly the days when it is helpful to remain with those who can walk with you through your shadows into the light.

Pastoral Ghazal

Some believe that Justice must be blind---
Eyes covered from all a glimpse could find.

If true, I'd like to give her a piece of my mind
For every person I have seen tears blind.

I would rather Compassion with a strong arm find
Ready to seek the mourning to hold and bind.

Our own world with Justice I would leave behind—
Strip away tear stained rocks which once shined.

Compassion take their grief to the millstone to grind—
Rob away their sorrows far from heart and mind.

“The Blessing of the New Year” circa 1900

Well back in 1900, Mr. Alexander Carmichael published the Carmina Gadelica. Well into the public domain, I wanted to take some time to look at an old poem this week. The poem appears under the title “The Blessing of the New Year” and according to Mr. Carmichael it was “repeated the first thing on the first day of the year.” Here is how the poem goes:

God, bless to me the new day,
Never vouchsafed to me before;
It is to bless Thine own presence
Thou hast given me this time, O God.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,
May mine eye bless all it sees;
I will bless my neighbour,
May my neighbour bless me.

God, give me a clean heart,
Let me not from sight of Thine eye;
Bless to me my children and my wife,
And bless to me my means and my cattle.

“The Blessing of the New Year” in the Carmina Gadelica, 1900 CE

Looking closely at this poem and prayer, there are several things which show in the form and content of this work. There are directions to this prayer both in scope and focus.

The first thing I see is a shift of focus from the unknowable, to the seen, to the loved. In the first section there is a focus on God’s blessing for the new day, which makes sense as this is a prayer for a new year. Unstated is the reality that the year ahead is a mystery.

The poet marks that the day (or time) ahead has never been vouchsafed. Vouchsafe is a word that can have several connotations. Whether the meaning in this case is that the knowledge of what the day ahead might hold would be gracious, condescending, or a special favor, the poet asks for a blessing even without that knowledge. The poet desires a blessing understanding that their time ahead should bless God.

In truth, this prayer contains a leap of faith. Who knows what the year ahead will hold? The prayer begins with a request that has no real context. A blessing of plenty of drinking water is a different blessing in the midst of a desert than it is on the shores of a clean freshwater lake. The petitioner does not know what is to come but seeks blessing.

The prayer shifts in the second movement of the prayer. The request is made that everything which falls under the gaze of the eye be blessed. Beyond the unknown of where one’s path will lead, for most the world will be somewhat reliable. Neighbors will remain neighbors.

There’s an old phrase that says “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Often, after several years of living in the vicinity of a neighbor, what once was innocent can often become a source of great frustration. Music can be played too loud, barbecue scents fill a house if you are downwind, and occasionally neighbors have children who can cause a ruckus. I imagine this was an even greater challenge when one’s neighbors were more constant in the times leading up to 1900.

The prayer leans into this reality by proposing that the year ahead will include a blessing of one’s neighbor. Even before receiving a blessing, the petitioner sets off to be a blessing. While the petitioner asks that the neighbor bless them as well, there’s a mutuality there. In a time before cars and modern conveniences, the neighbor might be a blessing which could make the difference between life and death.

Finally, the prayer moves into the heart. It lifts family and means of provision up in this last section of prayer. We may find cattle to be odd, but consider that for some a healthy cow might mean the difference between living through a winter and starving through the end of the cold months. Prayers for wife and children are definitely patriarchal in composition, but this is a prayer from 1900. Leading into all of these relationships is a call towards God for a clean heart and to remain in the sight of God who sees all folks.

Consider that bit for a moment. There is no prayer here for God to turn away while there is abuse in the home or a lapse of judgment. There is a call for God to be near and to watch. The heart out of which all things flow is kept in the eye of God. That’s actually a pretty bold request.

So, what can we sum up from this prayer from 1900? Sometimes the best prayer begins with admitting you do not know what will happen, but seek to live with trust first and foremost. Similarly, even when we have had a rough past which included mistakes (which most of us will admit), there’s still a greatness to praying that God would keep an eye on us and grant us a better future. There’s also just something beautiful about a prayer that intentionally does not close one’s eyes to one’s neighbor.

If I were to rewrite this prayer for today, I wouldn’t focus on cattle, but I would remember how God has helped me find ways to bring food to my table. If I were to rewrite this prayer for my circumstances, I might not see my neighbor in exactly the same light as someone from 1900 who might see only this person on days of miserable weather, but I would consider that our neighbors are often the people we look beyond when we consider the problems of the world. If I were to rewrite this prayer, it would be different, but I hope that it would maintain the same movement of trust in God from the unknown future, to the parts of my life I see, and finally to the beloved parts of my life.