Living up to my blog title

I have to admit that this transition from one church to another has been a bit overwhelming lately! Switching from a primarily written leadership at my previous church, to an in-person leadership in a parking lot at my previous church, to a digital leadership in my current appointment has been quite an existential workout over the past two months.

It is hard to imagine that one month ago today we were frantically putting boxes into our cars as my wife and I officially moved to Trumansburg. We still have boxes to unpack and my church office has never appeared so organized. Just yesterday I finally started sanding down the pieces of furniture my wife wanted painted before we put them into their final resting places. There’s still so much to do before we are fully settled!

Catching up with the running train of a church has been an experience, especially as I keep trying new things. As always, it is the odd stuff that sticks out in memory. In my church life, I found myself prone in a creek bed in a gorge earlier this week capturing a picture for tomorrow’s slideshow background. It was a cool picture and definitely worth the silt and creek dust on my clothes..

In my personal life, I took the scooter that I purchased (in a thus fruitless attempt to help me zoom around Syracuse at Annual Conference) to the local skate park to ride around the ramps and pipes with my kids as they each roller bladed, skateboarded, and toddled with a walking bike. I only tripped over my feet and hit the ground once—I was impressed, but still ultimately lost our game of tag.

In my spiritual life, I have found great comfort in using one of the eLearning resources through the Upper Room. I have been reading through Flora Slosson Wuellner’s “Prayer, Stress and Our Inner Wounds” and doing the corresponding eCourse. It has been uplifting to take the time to slow myself down for personal growth.

Wherever you are, I pray that your summer is going well. Rest assured that blogging will become more regular as routine slowly asserts itself in this new place and new space. Blessings today!

First Sunday Haibun

I sit in the quiet of sacred space before worship. Nobody will walk in to disturb the stillness—a webcam will connect me with others. I am a latecomer to worship online in the age of COVID-19. A green light will shine and I will look into the two lights of the camera: LED lights look like eyes around a lens-shaped nose.

Decaffeinated French Roast coffee sits with a piece of homemade whole-wheat sourdough for my portion of the love feast. The only copy of the bulletin printed on the church copier sits next to offering plates that will not be passed for some time to come. My drum rests with anticipation for the moment it will ring out while I sing quietly into the only microphone.

There will be no packed house for my first SUnday. The building and I will spend time together as we enter into a new space with me as pastor. Interestingly, I do not feel alone. I prepare to meet today like many ministers have over generations—as best as I can in the place I stand.

I am not alone.
Sitting in the pastor’s chair
the saints surround me.

An Essay on My Bread

“To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”

Pearl S. Buck

I tore my bread in half this morning before I dipped it into a mug of hot coffee. Although you may not understand it, my bread was the best bread in the world this morning. The bread was a superior loaf of bread for several reasons. Allow me to explain my position instead of rushing over to my office to finish sorting files and packing boxes.

First, the bread was the work of my own hands. There are plenty of loaves down the road at the grocery store. Some of the loaves are quite lovely, but none of them are the work of my hands. The bread I sliced into perfect thick slices was shaped with my fingers. The pan in which it baked rests a few feet away. Even in the middle of packing and chaos, my bread is still a reminder of calmer moments.

Second, the bread comes with a memory of a yeasty aromatherapy. A few days ago, I soaked flour in water with a bit of yeast before letting it spend the night fermenting in a bowl. The house filled with a rich smell the following morning after I combined this fragrant mix with a little more flour, water, and yeast. Between the smell of the rising dough and fragrance of the browning loaves, our house was filled with sensations that were immediately recaptured through the toasting of the bread. Although my office smells like furniture polish and a hot paper shredder, for this moment I can be transported to quiet hours where more than my dough rested.

Third, my bread just tears well. As a minister, I break loaves of bread in half a lot more than most people. I have broken rolls, crackers, wafers, baguettes, french bread, challah, and a host of homemade loaves. My bread tore in half today with a little bit of resiliency, bounced back with a bit of spring, and was ready to suck up hot coffee. My bread tears in a lovely way.

Fourth, my bread tastes heavenly. There’s a tiny bit of salt for the tongue, a depth of earthiness from the wheat, and a yeasty aftertaste. The bread is complex from the darkness of the crust to the tasty depths of the crags. My bread is not from some uniformly mass produced taste factory. My bread is unique.

In conclusion, you may have heard that something or another is the best thing since sliced bread. Sliced bread is great, but my sliced bread is wonderful to me. There are only two types of bread that are better than this loaf of bread: the bread I will bake in the future and the bread that you make for your enjoyment.

“Asphalt Space”

Less than two weeks waking in this old town: a parking lot altar stands for an hour. Old wedding superstitions are mirrored: Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue picked by coincidence. A space for lawn chairs marks a short moment where oily asphalt holds holy thin space.

Psalm instead of song, mask instead of mic: Word and prayer still anchor our shared time. Only one more Sunday moment is left. Sorrow asks for blessings on the marriage of heaven and earth to continue on when my service is but a memory.

In this space renews
a sacred vow held quite dear
for two centuries

“Asphalt Space” by the Distracted Pastor, 2020

In the Woods…

We are getting ready to move soon. There’s a lot of stuff in boxes in my life. Everything seems to have a place and most of those places are currently found inside boxes. Living with most of your daily stuff in boxes can be extremely frustrating.

This morning I went into the woods on a nearby trail with one of my daughters and my wife’s “lapdog” Lily. Lily is a boxer labrador mix that we adopted after our friends’ dog became overly friendly with a neighborhood dog. She’s a kind hearted dog but hates being cooped up.

The woods are a magical place. The woods are one of the few places where my middle child is occasionally struck speechless. The majesty of wilderness tends to calm her restless mind as there is plenty to look at, plenty of things to notice, and the ongoing task of watching where you are stepping.

This morning the ground was a bit moist from recent rain and Lily ended up dragging me along some pretty slippery surfaces. Her paws and nails clearly had better traction than my sneakers. We enjoyed the walk tremendously despite being startled by a jogger’s German Shepherd visiting without a leash and without warning. Thankfully Lily is a very easygoing dog. I think that I jumped more at the sudden appearance than Lily.

I stopped to take this picture of Lily because the woods were breathtaking between the light of the sun pouring through the branches and the greens and browns everywhere. Despite being on a strong leash due to her tendency to run after wildlife, she seemed more at home in the woods than she normally seems in our home. I could almost feel Lily sigh with contentment a few times on the hike.

Psalm 55 is an interesting psalm. In that particular psalm, the psalmist is struggling with the grief and sorrow that comes from a friend’s betrayal. The psalmist is clearly having a difficult time with a painful situation, but what’s interesting is the response to the situation.

The psalmist wants to flee to the wilderness. In the wilderness there seems to be a kind of peace that the psalmist desperately desires. In the daily moments of the situation the psalmist finds storms and wind, but in the wilderness shelter can be found.

I can understand the psalmist’s desire for the shelter of the woods. Like my dog, I too enjoy moments where we are not surrounded by boxes. There is something glorious about being in the woods even when German Shepherds occasionally appear out of the nothingness.

“Big Heart” Poem

Take the fragrant dough.
Fold it: let it grow.
Treat it gently: Just like so…
Heat oven below.
Place with care—don’t throw.

Listen to the news…
Injustice… anger…
In-law wearing riot gear…
Burning effigies…
And hurting people…

Slice the bread to toast,
Brew a dark decaf French roast:
Seek the Holy Ghost…

“Big Heart” by The Distracted Pastor, 2020

I wrote this poem to express the challenge of the morning. I sat to write a poem to go with the toast made from an experimental loaf I made yesterday, The loaf was made with a lot of care.

While thinking about what words to use, I listened to news about tensions over police brutality. I heard a lot of frustration with a broken system. I thought of the gasping words coming from a man who could not breathe. I thought of burning buildings representing inadequately an unjust system that seems fire-proof. I was already grieving when my wife came down to tell me my brother-in-law went to work in riot-gear today.

The poem starts very clean and measured with a rhyming pattern, devolves as the world intrudes, and ends right where I am as a person: sitting quietly and listening for comfort and wisdom. The title comes from the thought I had and the original first lines: “It takes a big heart; to hold joy and grief.”

Beanbag Haibun

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

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

“Beanbag Haibun,” Distracted Pastor, 2020

Enthusiasm for today…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Rohr, page 96 of “Everything Belongs”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled poem from a dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whole Life Challenge: Day Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whole Life Challenge: Day Six

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

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

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

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

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

“Still Morning”

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

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

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

“Still Morning” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Whole Life Challenge: Day Five

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

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

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

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

Whole Life Challenge: Day Four

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

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

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

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

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

Whole Life Challenge: Day Three

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

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

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

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

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

“The Stretching Poem”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Stretching Poem” from the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Whole Life Challenge: Day Two

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

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

Cucumber slices are my favorite snack when doing the WLC…

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

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

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

Whole Life Challenge: Day One

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

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

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

One of my biggest foes…

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

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

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

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

A Smooring Blessing

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.

I really didn’t need much of an excuse to share this photo… Still, that candle is sacred to me as it is the candle we burned during our Covenant Group during the last session of the Two-Year Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation (39).

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.

Another prayer candle in our home. Not quite a hearth…

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

Grief as an Octopus

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.

“Three Bowls” Cinquain

Holy Week is really intense for me. I have been working to have a sense of peace, but things are often a bit chaotic with last minute preparations.

Today I woke up early and decided to make some oatmeal. I texted upstairs to my wife who was waking up for the day and she said she’d like some oatmeal. Despite texting her on silent in order to keep our communication silent, our toddler heard the buzz. We broke the first rule: We woke the kid.

Empty bowls by steaming oatmeal.

I began to prepare oatmeal for my family. I split the oatmeal into our three bowls. We each had our own type. The toddler had dried fruit in hers, my wife’s was plain and ready to be doctored, and my oatmeal was mixed with some eggs and spices. As the bowls sat there, I thought about two things. I thought about Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

I also thought about where my wife and I received our bowls, which was at a local charity event called “Empty Bowls.” The event is connected with both Roberson Clayworks and United Health Services. The funds raised go to benefit the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. Every time I eat out of my bowl, I remember that there are folks in our community who don’t have food to eat.

I am fortunate to have food for my hungry belly. Others are not blessed in the same way today. I thought about these things and wrote this poem based on the three bears and hungry bellies.

Three bowls
Steam rises up
While empty belly growls.
Bear-like hunger to empty bowls
With thanks…

“Three Bowls” Cinquain by the Distracted Pastor on April 16, 2019

Reflection on “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by Michel Chambon

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?

Photo of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2008. Photo by “Cal Sr” and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

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?

“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.