“Tumbling Rocks”

Some friends recently blessed me with a rock tumbler. Although it seems strange, it was quite thoughtful. I wander around in the wilderness often these days. You do not need a full wallet to enjoy the forest. You do not need a credit card to walk on stone covered beaches. Living in a space with gorges and wilderness means there are plenty of places to search for rocks.

Today the first stage of tumbling came to an end: rocks gathered on New Year’s have spent a week tumbling together through the new possibilities. I have checked on them as they tumbled through the days: rotating over and over, first visible but then swallowed in the slurry of grit and water. In time, even bits of themselves joined in the chaotic tumbling. Washed, dried, and looked over, each rock is the same yet different. With reluctance, they are tumbling again with finer grit. There is a lot of tumbling in their future.

I sympathize with a rock for the first time in my life. I journey in shoes that have walked down long roads. My feet have grown calloused only through painful blisters and my legs have known spasming muscles waking me from the deepest slumber. My heart and soul have wounds to match as the days have not been nearly as beautiful as I once imagined. There are pieces of me that I will never have back and there are edges rounded off of my heart through night after night of tumbling through life’s grit-filled wasteland. Aye, there is beauty, but that beauty has come at a great cost.

Tumbled and jostled
through the dark days and cold nights
as life grinds it all

Meeting Poetry

These haiku/tanka-formatted poems have come out of long meetings with difficult conversations around the church community. I write poetry to express feelings and thoughts that might disrupt or aggravate during meetings. I share them later, without context, for they continue to inspire me to consider what words I use, what notions I carry, and that I, too, might have blind spots.

Problematic words:
dividing with our notions
and cutting our ties
"We" "Ours" "I" "My" "Mine"
There is a space between us
that is shown in words
The apple and tree:
growing in their own spaces
but sharing some roots.
Hubris, pride, self-righteousness:
can't you see the path ahead?

Longest Night Service: Prayer Poem

Innkeeper, street vendor, wool weaver: all sleeping.
Traveler, road watcher, bread baker: all dreaming.
Carpenter, brick layer, clay potter: all dozing.
Cold shepherd, star gazer, wise midwife: wide awake.

Young soldier, wise rabbi, landowner: all abed.
Census staff, messengers, young children: all snoring.
Important, powerful, the “normal”: they miss it.
The outcast, the restless, the strange ones: they hear first.

Heartbroken, discarded, pushed away: still awake.
Broken souls, groaning ones, frightened folk: open eyes.
Mourning lives, empty chairs, lonely ones: let them see
Christmas comes first for those who need the hope’s light most.

No tinsel, no label, no price tag: love comes down.
For the lost, for the sad, for the hurt: love comes down.
Through the tears, through the dark, through the grief: love comes down.
Emmanuel, Prince of peace, Savior: Love and Light,
Meet us here where we wait, wide awake and in need.

Rev. Robert Dean, Composed December 15, 2022; First Shared at Trumansburg UMC’s Blue Christmas Service December 21, 2022;
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Different Holidays

One of the strangest things about the holidays is dealing with the expectations of other people. I say that it is a strange thing, because it can be quite surreal and odd at times. People have expectations about what it means to celebrate holidays that are often reinforced by the culture at large. Holidays are meant to be “happy.” There are expectations that people will be spending time with loved ones and friends.

Everyone has an image of what the holidays are meant to be, but on occasion they come across someone like me: a person-shaped stumbling block between them and their ideal vision of the world. People are meant to be with people they love at the holidays, but that person over there has no great plans. People are supposed to see their loved ones and families, but my only close family in state is traveling to see the rest of my family while I remain behind to work. People are going out of the way to see kids and grandkids while I am waiting for a court order to take effect that hasn’t even been filed at this point. If everything works out, I just may see some of my kids for the New Year weekend, but I’m not even bothering to assume that will happen at this point.

Some people try to fix the problem by inviting me to come and join their holidays, which is lovely, but I want to see my family for the holidays. Some people try to fix the problem by suggesting a new legal strategy or by urging me to somehow force other people to do things they are not willing to do. Some people get quite frenetic about fixing things.

They can’t fix things though. To use recovery language, there are things I can change and things I cannot change. For the people trying to help, there are things they can change and things they cannot change. I would love it if they had a solution based on the things that they can do, but the reality is that there is no solution that falls under the category of “feasible.”

As my attorney put it, there is a system of order in our country, not a system of justice. The system is biased and unfortunately it would take a truly criminal act on behalf of my former partner for me to even be heard. It doesn’t matter if my former partner is, in the words of my attorney, the least cooperative and least Christian person he has seen while working in the family court system. The system does not care and that’s not going to change today. As one person put it quite clearly: “Family courts don’t separate children from their mothers. Period. Hard stop.”

In truth, without going into the religious aspects of things, there’s only one person who could truly change any of this: my former partner. If she had some kind of Christmas Carol experience things might change, but dreams of vengeance seem to be the only dreams she has carried for most of a decade. I’m no stumbling block on the path to her happy holiday, for I am the refuse tossed by the side of the road to be discarded and forgotten by her, her children, and everyone she knows.

So, yeah, there’s no amount of turkey and stuffing that will make this a happy holiday. There’s no party or gift that will suddenly make things better. There isn’t even the possibility of cupid coming on the scene with hope for the future, for even the idea of trusting someone in those ways is beyond my grasp. Every time that idea even comes to the surface it is shot down with extreme prejudice. I simply am a stumbling block between others and their ideal vision of the world.

My holidays are different and they’re not suddenly going to get better regardless of what you do. In a few weeks I’ll get another year older, another year wiser, and thanks to circumstances, I will probably be a little more of a miser who needs to pinch every penny so he can pay for his kids to have another happy year without him as he remains out of sight and out of mind. These holidays are going to be hard and there’s no getting around that reality.

I wish you could fix my holiday too, friend. Unfortunately, the only thing I want for Christmas is something nobody can provide.

A Strange Advent Feeling

I don’t really have a Christmas tree desire this year. I love a good Christmas tree and have a lot of fond memories over the years, but this year I am probably not going to put up a tree. There’s a wreath by my garage door and I’ve got my ugly Christmas sweater game on point. No tree though.

Trees are for presents. Trees are for gifts. Trees are for family and I’m not the kind of pet owner who will put presents under the tree for my dog or the fish. I’m getting presents for others, but there’s really no need for a tree.

Instead, this is the year of the Advent Wreath. I’ve put together a really cheesy electric wreath from an inexpensive five candle window candelabra. Three dollars of cheap paint and putting the “wreath” on a smart switch: we’re good to go!

As you can see, cheap is the name of the game, but the other side of things is that it is meaningful to me. Each time I have seen the wreath since I have put it up, I have begun singing the Advent Song from The Faith We Sing: “Candle, candle, burning bright: shining in the cold winter’s night. Candle, candle, burning bright: fill our hearts with Christmas light.”

I don’t need presents. but I do need light. I don’t need wrapping paper, but I do need to be wrapped in hope. I don’t need a continual reminder that there’s nobody here, but I do need to see the light growing week after week.

What do I want for Christmas? Hope, love, joy, and peace. Burn candles, burn.

A Poem born from Lamentations

The other day I shared a blessing from the United Methodist Book of Worship “For a Victim or Survivor of Crime or Oppression.” Since that day I have been working toward raising awareness by writing poetry based on the suggested poetry found in that blessing.

Today I wrote a poem based on Lamentations 3:1-24, which can be found in the Common English Bible through this hyperlink. As I pondered the reading, it seemed pretty dark at first. I was wondering what the compilers of the Book of Worship were thinking until I came across the shift from verses 19-24, which I found startling and incredibly powerful.

Verse 19 compares the feelings of homelessness and affliction to being poisoned to the brim with bitterness. I understood those feelings as I consider my past. I remember more than the feelings that came about in the first days after I filed for divorce. I remembered tears from a broken heart behind closed doors, sodden pillowcases, and the bitter feeling of knowing that promises made at the altar meant nothing. The shame, the guilt, the uselessness, and futility still come to mind easily even after time has begun to heal my wounds.

After all of this comes to mind, does Jeremiah give up hope? No, instead the very pain in Jeremiah’s soul transforms from a place of broken doubt to a place of stubborn waiting. The grief and loss do not translate into a faithless existence but into a spirit that will steadfastly wait for God to act. This! This is a feeling I know! “Waking” after sleepless nights, pulling on my boots, and stepping into my role as a minister with all of the confidence I could despite my own sorrow. This I know!

Helping church members say goodbye to loved ones with the compassion that comes from knowing what it is like to come home to an empty home! That was an act of faithful waiting! Sharing communion with people with the understanding that comes from knowing what it means to share a “meal” with others when you eat alone the rest of the week. That was an act of faithful waiting! Listening to the troubles of others knowing what it is like to have nobody at home to listen to my struggles. That was an act of faithful waiting!

Even now, I wait. The poem I wrote is as much a prayer for God to act as it is a piece of poetry inspired by this passage. I hope it is helpful and brings to mind the reality that brokenness does not mean that healing is beyond you.

"Homeless and poisoned in my inmost soul"
I ponder the broken and sleepless nights.
Endless tears fell into fathomless hole
as I thought of all of my stolen rights.

Future empty and present in shambles,
hopeful words called out from the ancient past
before wounds left me with frothing rambles:
that place where only ashes seem to last.

I remember the hope flickering faint.
I beheld the light that would not go out.
Even shattered, the call to be a saint,
not of perfect life, but one lived through doubt.

I remember and still I sit and wait
for the Just One to come bearing our fate.

October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

Creation Narratives and Domestic Violence

Okay, so this one is going to require a stretch of one’s imagination. This morning I was working through Genesis 1:1-2:3 out of the Common English Bible as a part of today’s reading with our church’s DISCIPLE Bible Study group. In my reading of this passage from the Common English Bible today I found the text to be replete with words of plenty. We noted in our study this week that the mindset of the reader, the context where the text is read, and other variables affect the way we approach scripture. Today I must be feeling very open hearted and expansive as the words that I read were filled with expansive imagery.

As an example I would point out how in Genesis 1:14-15 God speaks expansively of the lights in the dome of the sky. These lights are signals and signposts of the passage of time, the coming of seasons, and invite creation into sacred times. Keeping in mind that I take these portions of the scriptures as sharing truth born of wisdom rather than concrete facts born of the scientific method, I was the heavens brimming with lights pouring forth after the divine word. Letters from divine words arcing out from the divine mouth before shifting into stars, moons, and the special star known as our sun. In such ways, God speaks and the world and universe are transformed from chaos into creation.

When God speaks of humanity, even the Common English Bible uses words of mastery, but I did not read words of domination into the creation account today. Humanity masters the world not for domineering or destructive purposes but for the cause of caretaking. Humanity takes charge of the fish, the birds, the animals, the plants, and all of the wandering and stationary lifeforms that cover the globe for the purpose of creative caretaking. God spoke into the world words of life and humanity is invested with the divine image in order to continue to work in the divine image as caretakers and agents of blessing to help keep the world from slipping back into chaos.

The story is quite beautiful when read with an expansive and generous mindset. What does any of this have to do with Domestic Violence or Domestic Violence Awareness? In the end, the connection I made in my mind is a very delicate one.

If we are called to treat creation with such care and respect, how can we live lives where we exert our will violently on each other? If we are called to be caretakers and agents of blessing, how can we decide to turn our backs on this divine call to love in order to strike out at the people in our homes? If the very core of our creation narrative revolves around humanity existing for the purpose of blessing, how can we curse the people we live with day by day in such abominable ways?

To be certain, if I were to read this text as a text inviting domination, a case could be made, but the whole of scripture is wildly biased against such views. While there are certainly stories of domination in our scripture, the whole of the Bible is thrown from such ways of thought by the person of Jesus.

In John 8, Jesus was offered an opportunity to dominate another person and to stone to death a woman who committed adultery (in the context of a society where that was legal, which was a different context than our society where such punitive behavior is illegal, immoral, and labeled as absolutely wrong by both church and state). Even though it was permissible, legal, and in accordance with the religious rules of Jesus’ day, Jesus refused to engage in such brutal acts. This is just one example of many where Christ taught love in situations that invited brutality.

I cannot see Jesus approving of domestic violence taking place in our homes. Even if we could read words of domination into scriptures  like those found in Genesis 1:28, I cannot see Jesus approving of such behavior. Passages like those in Genesis can be read with different eyes than those of a person seeking to dominate or subjugate others. If we can read such words with grace and plenty in our minds, then we can consider the idea that we were never meant to dominate, demean, or subjugate the people who share our slice of the garden in this life.

October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

Sermon: “A Letter to God”

Sermon: “A Letter to God”
Preached; October 10, 2022
Scriptures: Luke 17:11-19; Psalm 111
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Holy Christ, I wanted to write you an open letter this morning for a few reasons, all of which you already know. The fact that you know the contents of this letter is one of the fun parts about writing a letter to you, but I am fairly certain you do not mind my sharing this letter with your congregation.

One reason I chose to write you a letter this morning is the very real tiredness which comes from attending Annual Conference for several days in a row. Preaching a sermon while looking people in the eye and focusing on body language is a bit much after several days of long meetings. Such a presentation might be beyond me this morning, but presenting a letter is within my capacity. 

Another reason is the very real challenge that comes with the subject matter. You know the subject we are speaking around is very near and dear to my heart as a person. I wanted to choose my words carefully around this touchy subject, so I chose each word in advance this week. 

So, dear Lord, let me get to the heart of why I wanted to write to you today. The scripture reading that we just read included a psalm from the Hebrew Scriptures around the work of God and a story from Christ’s life. The psalm shared how your goodness and majesty are embodied within the earth. You are described in words with words like majestic, glorious, righteous, and honest. In covenant, you are revealed as faithful, trustworthy, merciful, and compassionate.

Now, you know what I do for a living. As an Elder in the United Methodist Church I am called to a ministry where I share the Word, offer the Sacraments, invite others alongside the community into a life of Christian Service, and Order the church life through acts of administration with ordained authority. While I live out my ordained role within the community I perform wedding rites, counsel and encourage individuals and couples in relationships, and help to advocate and work towards ensuring that the churches I serve are safe places for children and vulnerable adults. I am in ministry with elder saints, married adults, single adults, adults in relationships, with teenagers, and with children. To put it in Methodist terms, since “the world is my parish,” I am called to minister to all parts of the community and not simply the people who walk through the doors of my church or who officially enter church membership..

I enjoy what I do for a living. I derive comfort from helping others. I enjoy sharing in deep conversations about you (God) and about what life can be like while living with you. If it were not for paperwork, there are very few days where going to work feels like drudgery, but that does not mean that it is always easy or painless.

In those moments of both joy and pain, I rely on you both as the One who walks with us and sets an example for us. You, Lord, are all the things described in our psalm. When I marry people, I share with them about the way that Christ models a healthy way to live in love with a spouse. When I confirm students into church membership, I ask those students point blank about their relationship with you, their divine parent and Savior. All of these conversations use relationships as a simile for our relationship with you. God, you are like our Parent. God, you are like our spouse.

So, what am I supposed to do when I come across places where spouses hit spouses? Didn’t I just say that a loving relationship with a partner is like a loving relationship with you? Do such analogies work after a spouse bruises a spouse? Do they do more harm than good after such moments? In a similar vein, what do I say when a teenager tells me that their parent or parents tear them down? What do I say when a child tells me that their parent does not love them? What do I say when a child mentions one parent hitting another?

The other day you know that I had Chinese for lunch on the first day of the Annual Conference. You know what that fortune cookie told me. The cookie stated in bold fashion that “Fate loves the fearless.” You know that I read that fortune and thought of this moment in this letter to you. You know the questions I wanted to ask after reading that short little proverb. 

It is nice to think that people who are unafraid have a place to live in this world. What of the others? Who favors the fearful? Who favors the frightened? Who favors those who have felt pigeonholed into places of darkness and doom? 

We know as a people that domestic violence is not okay. The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church affirms that belief when it shares on behalf of the church the words: “We recognize that family violence and abuse in all its forms—verbal, psychological, physical, sexual—is detrimental to the covenant of the human community.” 

We understand that domestic violence is not acceptable and harms the covenants within our community. We understand that God cares for us deeply and does not want us to suffer in such ways, but these actions happen in spite of our best intentions and desires.

So what do we do, Lord? Where do I point as a proclaimer of the Word? If people see you as their divine parent and their example of a parent is violent, then how do I share that there’s a difference between what the worst of humanity shows us and the way you want to care for us? Where can I point? Where can I tell a hurt person to look?

Of course, you know the answer to that question. I already know the answer to that question. A lot of people who have spent time in church know where I should invite people to look. Where do I point people who have such questions, concerns, and fears? 

I point them to Jesus. When they need to see a person whose life is marked by compassionate love rather than impassioned hatred, I point them to Jesus. When they need to see a person who does more than say pretty words, I point them to Jesus. Jesus not only spoke about love and nonviolence, but went so far as to heal the ear of a soldier who was hurt by Jesus’ disciple when that soldier came to arrest Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. 

Look at our story! Jesus is confronted on the road by ten people with skin diseases which were identified by translators for many years as leprosy. There are ten lepers on the road who need help. They are unclean and by both religious law and cultural tradition they had to keep their distance from Jesus and his disciples. From a distance they cry out for help. 

Does Jesus berate them? Does Jesus throw things at them? Does Jesus mock them? Does Jesus ignore them? Does Jesus tell them to go somewhere else? Jesus does none of these things.Jesus heals them. All ten of them. Nine of them are healed, but apparently have their own plans about what to do next. The nine walk away, but one returns.

Was this person a rich person? We don’t see that in the text. Was this cleansed person a person of importance? We don’t see that in the text. What we do see is that this person was that there was more going on with this person than just a skin disease. This person was a foreigner from outside the Jewish people. Beyond unclean, this person’s entire being was outside of the people God called and sanctified in the desert. 

So, Jesus was nice to this leper when there was just a disease and the leper was one of many. Perhaps now Jesus will reject this person as a distraction, a nuisance, or an outsider? Perhaps now Jesus will strike the foreigner, mock the foreigner, or just ignore the fact that they have returned. 

Jesus doesn’t do any of those terrible things. Jesus does not strike out at this person physically, verbally, or even culturally. Jesus invites this person to go forth as a person who has been healed. Even though the praise of God comes from someone other than a child of Abraham, Jesus welcomes the praise, accepts the thanks, and sends this person out with a blessing. There isn’t even a touch of cruelty shown to this person. All that remains is love and kindness for a person who needed help.

This is the kind of example that I point to when I tell people to love their partner like Jesus. This is the kind of behavior a loving parent should show their child, should model in their home, and should ideally invite their child to share with someone else one day. Do I expect that anyone can live this kind of a loving life 24/7 without divine help? No, but this is the ideal. 

The love shown by Christ when shared between two people is holy and good. It does not harm or hate. It does not mock or denigrate. It does not tear down or destroy. It is good, holy, and kind. This is the love I want people to share with God. This is the kind of love that I pray will fill the lives of the people who stand before me when I perform a marriage. This is the kind of love I pray will anoint every child and every adult that I baptize. This is love incarnate.

Of course, I know that trust is hard, especially after the wounding that can take place when people face domestic violence. Here’s what I propose. God, if we do our best to trust that you are kind, loving, and graceful, will you help us to believe? Will you meet us in the moment we are tempted to see you in the same light as the broken parts of humanity we may have seen? Will you help us to believe in you when the worst criticisms of all come from within?

Truthfully, although this letter addresses domestic violence as a major issue, I hope that you will meet people who struggle to believe in a loving God in other situations. Some people live life with happy parents, loving children, and without a cloud in the sky of their home life while still struggling to believe. Will you meet them too? Right here and right now, will you meet them if you ask for help? 

I trust you will meet everyone who turns to you in these moments. I trust you will help people to come to know love deeply, to understand hope intimately, and to cultivate faith in the internal garden they share with you. 

Likewise, I trust that the people who hear me read this letter to you or who read it later on their own will understand the message that should not need to be said. The Book of Resolutions teaches after the passage we read before that: 

“We encourage the Church to provide a safe environment, counsel, and support for the victim and to work with the abuser to understand the root causes and forms of abuse and to overcome such behaviors. Regardless of the cause or the abuse, both the victim and the abuser need the love of the Church. While we deplore the actions of the abuser, we affirm that person to be in need of God’s redeeming love.”

 ¶161.ii.h. “The Nurturing Community, Family violence and abuse” in the Book Of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2016

If someone who reads these words needs help, we are called to be a place where help can be found, whether they are the victims or perpetrators of domestic violence. All people are called to the redeeming and redemptive God of love and we will do our best to walk with each person who comes in need of help. Taking it a step further theologically and philosophically, as a church we will work with you through the Spirit so that we can do better than our best in such moments.

In the end God, for me the journey towards healing begins in trusting in You. Whether we are recovering from abuse, facing abuse, living out destructive patterns of abuse, or walking with others who face such terrors, we are called to trust in Christ. Like the foreigner long ago, we can choose to walk away even after Christ works in our lives. We can also choose to come back in faith.

It is only in returning to Christ that the cleansed person found welcome. It is only by stepping towards God in faith that the foreigner was sent forth with a blessing. In stepping towards Christ an example was set where blessing came from drawing near even after all was made right in that person’s life. 

I would end this letter with a straightforward prayer: Holy God, help us to draw near to you. As someone who has faced such circumstances, help me to offer words of hope to others as a minister, an advocate, and as a Christian. Help each Christian to stand for a world where abuse fades in the light of love. Teach us to advocate for redemption in the lives of the least of these as well as healing in the lives of those they have abused. Help us to treat them like we would treat Jesus. Let that light of love shine in dark corners and help to bring hope into the darkest of places. We ask for your help in Jesus’ name. Amen.

October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

A Prayer for the Brokenhearted and Upset

Written after a vote for the disaffiliation of several churches from the Upper New York Annual Conference. Several people, including me, are upset and hurting. People are having sleepless nights over the question of whether or not our liabilities will outweigh our assets after paying settlements under the Child Victim Act out of our reserves while these churches walk away from the settlement we made together as a community. Will we have enough to pay for pensions both for those who remain and for those who serve the new denomination in retirement? Individuals feel harmed, wounded, and are in pain.

What do we do in these moments? What do we do when we are upset or angry? What do we do when we raise our voice and still end up watching as others walk away despite our concerns? On my end, I acknowledge my pain, acknowledge where it hurts, acknowledge what I desire, and ask God to help. This descending syllabic poem (a nonet) comes from that place:

Broken hearted people ache within
as our life together shatters.
We once lived in communion.
For those who are angry
and those who are hurt;
mercy hungry,
seeking hope,
pour forth

Log Filled Eyes and Surviving

“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. Don’t give holy things to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs. They will stomp on the pearls, then turn around and attack you.

Matthew 7:1-6, CEB

One of the hardest things for me to accept along the path I have walked was my own need to have perspective. Along life’s journey I had come to believe that it was judgmental to look critically at someone else’s actions, especially if I knew that I was imperfect. I have had to learn to have perspective.

I am a trained Biblical scholar who has spent over a decade teaching other people to take the scriptures seriously. One of the largest tools in my toolbox is to model a response to scripture by considering deeply how the scriptures affect my every day life and living in light of those considerations. In particular, I have felt compelled by both belief and position to move past being judgmental to a place of loving acceptance of other people.

As a result when things happened that were unacceptable, I did my best to look for the log in my own eye. When I was yelled at for fulfilling a basic need, the assumption I immediately made was that the thing I thought I needed was the issue. Many times over the years I had wanted things that were less than necessary, so I thought that the needs I had in the those moments must now must also be unnecessary.

Over the years I spent a lot of time looking for the log in my own eye. I thought that all of the problems my family faced were my fault. I listened to the words over and over until I agreed with my partner when she stated that everything wrong in our life together was my fault. If I wasn’t so broken, things would be great. If I wasn’t so needy, she wouldn’t yell. If I could do a little better, she wouldn’t need to laugh at me.

In hindsight, the relationship was toxic to the point that I really did start having a problem that needed fixing. The primary problem was not that I fell short in many ways, although I still had shortcomings and still have shortcomings. The problem was that I took the good life that God had given to me and kept handing it over to someone who would stomp on what was good in me, turn, and attack me.

To be absolutely clear, the problem was not that I was too judgmental and should immediately stop to find out what was wrong with me. The problem was that I valued myself so little that I forgot one of the most holy tenets of my faith: that God loved me and cared about me deeply. While this was happening, I taught others that God was not okay with such behavior out in the world. The things I taught did not line up with the life I lived.

In practice, I forgot that God was not okay with the mocking laughter or the verbal abuse inside my marriage. Even as I taught that others should never hit their spouses or partners, I continued to forgive the pain of what I considered brief but forgivable moments throughout the years. I had all the grace I could muster for others but accepted no part of that grace in my own life.

I didn’t deserve such behavior and I should have asked for help. If you are going through something similar, you don’t deserve such treatment either. Years later, I am working hard to get to a point where I can look in a mirror without hearing the words that I should never have accepted in the first place. It hurts to admit it, but I can’t look at the good person in the mirror without hearing how I’m “pathetic.”

Being forgiving is a wonderful and noble thing. Humility is an important and powerful gift of the Spirit. Neither forgiveness nor humility make Domestic Violence acceptable. From my perspective as a Christian, I believe that each one of us have been given gifts that are holy and good. We should never throw them before the swine of the world that will trample them and attack us for sharing our lives.

October has been Domestic Violence Awareness month since it was first introduced by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 1981. Regardless of the month, domestic violence is never okay, no matter the circumstances. If you or someone you know is in desperate need of help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

Ramen Reflections

Ramen noodles soak
Mushrooms and veggies draw in
more than flavored broth:
they draw in hope for today
and give strength for tomorrow.

This morning started off well: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a tall glass of water before biking down to the church. The wonderful thing about biking to work is that you get to save gas money and help to care for the planet. Hours later, the crew leaves the church from the spring cleanup day. I head into my office and begin to work on cards thanking people for their service to the church today and for their service in helping to cleanup at Casowasco last Saturday.

After everyone has come and gone, the time for lunch draws near. I put a package of ramen, four dehydrated mushrooms, and a quarter cup of dehydrated veggies underneath the coffee maker’s spout. Twenty minutes later, I have Keurig Ramen, a common meal these days.

It isn’t the church’s fault that I’m not eating steak today. While I’d love to blame my former partner, it is not completely her fault either. It certainly is not the fault of the three blessings that I love with all of my heart and soul. We live in a broken world and after I am done voluntarily supporting my children who live across the state against my desires, I honestly have less in my bank account than I had when I served a church in seminary. I definitely did not see this place on my journey coming: I would have spent more time learning to cook better foods for fewer people for less.

For lunch today, my ramen looks back at me. I wrote a tanka about the ramen as I contemplated my lunch. I still wonder, what does the ramen see?

I hope it sees someone who is grateful for a good meal. I hope it sees someone who is grateful for what he has been given instead of someone who spends all of his time lamenting what is not right here. Actually, let me reword that: “I hope it sees someone who is working to be more grateful for what he has been given and to be less focused on what is lacking.” The intention is important, for I know I have a role in choosing how I react to these moments.

We don’t always get to choose what comes our way in this life. When we slow down and listen to the Spirit, we can be given a choice about how we react. I choose to react to these moments with hope.

“Here” and Life

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day Prompt for today is “here.”

This has been a really rough week for me. I have had more than one wise individual in my life point out that it was likely always going to end this way. One friend with a long history in the legal profession said “If you were the mother, things would probably be very different. Nobody wants to be the judge who gets a reputation for separating kids from their mothers.”

So, I have fewer rights and will see my kids less. The system is broken and there’s nothing I can do about it but pray. What’s my consolation today?

I weep, Jesus weeps, but we’ll laugh.
I feel impoverished, Jesus is sacrificing, but we’ll be rich.
I am empty, Jesus is emptying himself, and we’ll be full again.
I had to choose my religious profession or more visitation, Jesus faced persecution, but there’ll be blessing.

Also, those who laugh will mourn.
Those who feel rich will be impoverished.
Those who are full will be emptied.
Those who have everyone speak well of them will go the same way as the false prophets.

In the end, it is going to be okay. Justice is in the hands of a just God who sees what has happened. My attorney tried to lighten the mood by asking if lightning bolts or karma would strike first, but that’s far above my paygrade. Another friend later chimed in that karma may make me spend the rest of my days wondering if God answers prayers, but it isn’t really about that kind of thinking for me either.

Maybe they’ll repent someday? Maybe they’ll seek forgiveness and make amends for their sins? I have no idea, but their sins are in the hands of God, not mine. I don’t need to be vengeful as God is still God. I don’t need to threaten anyone with wrath, because the wrath of the New Testament falls on people who choose to bring it into their lives. What comes out of the lips comes from the heart, regardless of whether those are words of blessings or empty accusations. In the meantime, I’ve texted my kids that I love them and now am choosing a picture.

When everything was in the hole Tuesday after a sleepless Monday night, I knew where I could go to find solace, peace, and safety. I went to church. Sometimes I go and meet with my lawyer on Grand Island, and I pull into my home church’s parking lot to just be near the place where so many holy things took place over the years. On Tuesday, I went to the church to work. As I worked, I was drawn into a world bigger than myself. By the time we had Council, we were having discussions about how the church was a blessing to us and how we can share that blessing with others. Being at the church transformed my day, my attitude, and my hope. The church truly is a a place where we can just be “here.”

“Found” and being loved

There’s a line that stuck out in our devotional reading today. The line says, “When we look in the mirror this week, we can say ‘Jesus loved me enough to set me free.’ “

Those words are powerful words to share in the life of anyone going through a difficult time. When I wrote those words over two years ago, I do not think I could have ever imagined how heavily they would land this week. I really needed to hear the simple truth that I am more than simply loved. I am loved so much that Jesus sets me free.

What a powerful proclamation to hear as people who can sometimes feel empty, hungry, impoverished, or reviled! What a powerful word of great love and joy.

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day word for today is “found.” What picture fits with this concept today? This beloved person needs to be “found” today. Come, Holy Spirit! Refresh and renew this person who needs to know they are more than simply loved. He was worth God’s saving work.

“Celebrate” and a Flower for Palm Sunday

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Celebrate.” Today is Palm Sunday and there is celebration all around. Churches will sing the word “Hosanna!” Choirs will harmonize, bells will ring, and children will wave palm branches with the elder saints of the church.

To connect celebration with the events of today, I went through some of my favorite flower pictures to find a flower that was lovely enough for the Savior who enters Jerusalem. I came across this beautiful day lily in my favorite color.

I don’t own a cloak and I am not particularly fond of palm branches. I must confess that I cannot fold one of those crosses to save my life. I am grateful for palm branches as a symbol and would toss my cloak before Jesus if I had one. Instead, I present this picture of a flower.

Come, Lord Jesus. Save your people.

“Silent,”Peace, and Holy Week

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “silent.”

In our devotional today we are reading through a section of Matthew 10. Matthew 10:24-25 says:in the NRSV “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master

Throughout the gospels, the story of Christ is one where Jesus seeks out time alone with God. Jesus spends time with God in prayer. In my own experience, I have always equated those times to moments of silence. Although it does not say so, I cannot imagine the disciples falling asleep if their prayer was some form of prayer in motion.

There are times when we are called to intensive prayer. For me, that often means being in a place where I can still my mind and my thoughts. To be clearly honest, there are times that my mind has been absolutely still and clear in the midst of a tumultuous location like in a crowd. There have also been times when I have been in peaceful spaces without an ounce of peace in my soul. Silence and stillness are not always the same as being in a place of peace and stillness.

What is important to me as we approach Holy Week is finding a place where I can find peace and stillness. Forget what the world says stillness and peace should look like as we approach holy week and the cross; we need the peace that enables us to follow. Whether that peace is found in a loud crowd or a silent setting, the peace we need is far more important than the appearance of peace. The silence inside is far more important than the sound levels outside..

“Peace” and the Lake

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Peace.” In our devotional we encounter the moment where Jesus comes across a man who has been inundated with a swarm of demons that self-identifies as “Legion.” What a contrast we have with the idea of peace on one side and the idea of a forceful and tumultuous bunch on the other side.

I connect these two ideas in my mind with this picture of one of my favorite places on the nearby Interloken trail. Last fall, as sunset approached, I found myself walking home past this lake just as the sun began to go down over the lake. The view of the trees was absolutely gorgeous.

There were no hills filled with swine, but there was cattle mooing in the distance. There were neither graves nor frustrated demoniacs to break the silence. It was peaceful beyond belief.

One reason the man purportedly possessed by Legion was found in a cemetery was the belief that the devil and demons tended to frequent such places. The edge of settled lands, graveyards, and other places were considered havens for the demonic and the disgruntled. A lonely lake, miles from the nearest city and in a place that would be frankly far less accessible without modern roads and even manicured trails would be the exact kind of wilderness space where something as questionable might have been found in Jesus’ day. The wooded wilderness is where the wild things were thought to live.

Thankfully, I do not live back in Jesus’ day. I do not need to live in fear of what lives in the wilderness near that lake. I normally have a walking stick and a dog which likely scares away anything that is in the slightest bit frightening, mostly because they see a relative of a wolf and not the relative of a couch potato that I sometimes see.

I also know that the scarier things that once would fall squarely under the realm of demonic forces have begun to be understood and blessed through the God given giftedness of biologists, physicians, and doctors across the years from Jesus’ day through today. There can be hope in the wild spaces within because of both God’s blessing and the rigorous efforts of scholars over the years with wisdom, intelligence, and insight.

I look forward to getting to my favorite place again soon. It is not as wild as it once was, but still has a peace that echoes within my soul. May God bless us all with such places.

“Blessed” and Spending Time

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Blessed.” We read about the story of Mary and Martha’s confrontation during a visit with Jesus during our devotional reading for today. In reading John 12:1-8, we read the story of a pair of sisters. One of the sisters is busy caring for the needs of the visitors in a culturally appropriate way. The other sister is learning from Jesus instead of helping, which might not have fit many of that culture’s norms.

Today I picked a photo taken at a nearby restaurant during a recent visit with my kids. They were eating tortilla chips, playing, and having a great time together. Even my eldest seems pretty happy behind that hidden smirk.

I really cannot afford to eat out much with my kids when they visit. Eating out is expensive, especially when you can cook better food for less at home. Often, I find myself thinking a few days in advance of their visits about what we are going to eat, what I will prepare, and what snacks we can take on the road so that we won’t stop somewhere that will cost me an arm and a leg.

It may seem like eating out that day was an extravagance I cannot afford. My wallet agrees with that opinion, but for one afternoon a few visits back, there was time for laughter, joking around, and sitting with my kids instead of cooking a meal, serving a meal, and cleaning up the meal. It was such a blessing to just be with them and to be in their company.

I don’t know if the joy of being in someone’s company is why Mary stepped outside of cultural norms, but if it was, I completely understand. It is sometimes good to just be with someone as they go about life. Could Mary have listened while helping Martha? Maybe she could have done both, but I completely agree with Jesus. Mary was doing a pretty great thing by choosing to spend those moments the way that she did.

“Needs” and a Happy Sight

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Needs.” To be honest, there is absolutely no appropriate way that I can find to connect the word needs with both any photo in my collection and the theme of the devotional today.

In the devotional, the story we read today about Jesus’ life comes from John 9:1-40. In that story, Jesus brings sight into the life of a man who was born blind. To be entirely honest with you, I’ve never taken a photo of a blind person. The closest thing I have come to taking a photo of a blind person are the self-portraits I took when I had a corneal transplant a few years ago. My sight had grown so poor due to keratoconus that I was seeing quadruple at times in m one eye.

Nobody asked me the insanely pointed questions which were raised about the blind man in John 9. Nobody asked if I had keratoconus because my father or mother sinned. Nobody asked if my vision was hurt because of some great transgression. We don’t know everything about keratoconus, but it is likely that the latest medical journals do not point to divine punishment as a reason for a wacky cornea.

Instead, I chose a different picture for today. I chose a picture of a coffee pot brewing coffee on a camping trip two years ago. Why? Is it because I need coffee? Actually no, I was drinking tea at the time. Yes, there have been points in my life when I had foregone coffee for tea. Was it because everyone sometimes feels like they “need” a cup of something hot to start the day?

No, I shared this picture because it beautifully caught the flames, showed a moment of joy, and reminded me of a really happy sight in my past. Why was it a happy sight? It was a happy sight because someone donated a cornea and I can now see far better than seeing four images in one eye, and one image in the other.

Perhaps that’s the closest I will get to connecting this photo with the story of a blind person in need of compassion. While my story is not nearly as beautiful as the one in John 9, I have been in a place where I have been truly grateful to see. Sometimes the coffee pot is the most beautiful thing in front of us for a reason besides what it promises us. Sometimes it is just beautiful to see and have gratitude for sight.

“Bring” and Blessing Bags

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “bring.” As someone who spends a lot of time taking pictures in nature or pictures of family, the idea of connecting one of my photos to the word “bring” was a bit of a challenge. Eventually, after a great search a long way into my photos, I found a picture of the blessing bags we have been handing out as a congregation to people in need. Each blessing bag has a small amount of food, water, and often simple necessaries like a comb, hand sanitizer, or a new toothbrush.

The idea of the blessing bag is simple. We may not hand out money to people on a street corner, but we will do our best to give them something concrete. How do we have these on hand when we come across someone in need? The answer is that we bring them in our cars, carry them in a backpack, or have them on hand when we are somewhere that they may bless someone in need.

In our devotional today, we read the story of Jesus’ interactions with a Canaanite woman who came to him in need. The story is in Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus’ dealt with the Canaanite woman with compassion.

At the end of the day, the purpose of the blessing bags is to be able to share compassion with others in a concrete way. Does everyone take them? No. Do some people really get frustrated that we are not handing them money? Yes. Why do we do it anyway?

We do it because we want to share with compassion. I know that when I hand out blessing bags it is often for the simple reason that I want to be compassionate but I don’t carry money with me. The closest branch of the bank where I have my account is in Corning, so I tend to do most of my transactions digitally. I cannot give people cash because I don’t have any cash on me, which is good because cash tends to burn a hole in my pocket.

I know that others hand them out for a very different reason. They hand out the bags because they want to do something more than hand someone money. Clean socks may not mean much to me, but to someone who never gets clean socks, they are a gift. Socks, water, and even hand sanitizer offered during a pandemic: each of these are kindnesses offered by one human being who sees the humanity in someone else. I see compassion in that loving act.

So, what do I connect with compassion and “bring?” Blessing bags! May God bless them, the hands that share them, and the hands that receive them.

“Sent” and Barbed Wire

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “sent.” As we go through the week during the last week before Holy Week, our theme is to go Christ’s way instead of our ways. Jesus taught many things during his life and during Holy Week we will see how far Christ’s way is from our way.

On May 7th, 2014 I was standing in Northern Ireland and looking at a barbed wire fence. If you have never looked at a barbed wire fence up close, it is truly horrifying. I have spent a lot of time in my adult life trying to “kid proof” houses, churches, and even cars. I have gone out of my way to make certain that my child or another person’s child is not hurt when in a place where I have had a chance to make the space safer.

A barbed wire fence is designed with the opposite sentiment in mind. I don’t like walking through brambles because thorns hurt. The razor wire on these fences could easily hurt anyone who is reckless enough to get close. They look deadly, are deadly, and are not something you put up lightly. Seeing barbed wire on a church fence is seemingly antithetical to the gospel, but by local law the Methodist church I stood outside of in 2014 had a barbed wire fence cutting itself off from the community. What’s almost worse is that we were there on a trip to help repair the church that had been damaged by hurt people living in a hurt world where the barbed wire constantly reminded them of how they were the “enemy” of their neighbors.

I wanted to share the image of the murals below the barbed wire at the church. Why? Well, the people of that community had been sent by God to build a church in that space. The barbed wire came and it cut off the Methodist church from the protestant community and the parsonage which were on the other side of the barbed wire. Why? The church refused to have barbed wire between them and their catholic neighbors. What’s more, after the church was closed, the church building became a community center with the goal of building peace and the church rented the parsonage on the protestant side of the wall to Catholic nuns. They couldn’t help where they were sent, but they weren’t going to let it get in the way of following where Christ led them. That Methodist Church on the Springfield Road chose Christ’s way. I salute them for their bravery and hope to be half as faithful in my life.

“Celebrate” and Sandwiches

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “celebrate!” If you have been paying attention throughout the season, then you remember that Sunday is a day for celebration. In theological terms, we celebrate what Christ has done on Easter every Sunday throughout the year, including during Lent. Sundays are a day of celebration, which is why many Christian churches set aside Sunday as a day of worship.

It is sometimes strange to think that for most of the history of the Abrahamic religions, Saturday was the day when the Sabbath was celebrated. Blue laws, community events, and even a five day work week have collaborated to create the cultural phenomenon where the affluent take off both Saturday and Sunday for the weekend, but for much of history, it was a good life if you had the time and wealth to set aside for one day of rest a week.

One of the very few silver linings to going through separation from my spouse has been a new understanding of the importance of Sabbath. When my kids are in town, I do my very best to handle every obstacle and requirement on my time in the days leading up to my time with them so that I can truly spend time with them. As they always visit on a workday, it is not easy, but I often work through one of my days of rest in order to have the spare time to spend with my kids. I am fortunate enough to have enough flexibility to generally be able to reschedule things.

So, what do I do when they are here? What am I saving up my time to do? During the last visit, we had an amazing lunch with hand breaded and made airfryer crispy chicken sandwiches with homemade fries, carrot slaw, and apples. For the first time in months I took a picture of my kids where I caught them chewing? Why? So I could remember how much they enjoyed the food I spent days planning out while making phone calls, refining sermons early, and getting ready for the invasion.

What would it look like if we approached worship with such enthusiasm? I’m not a “church hat” person and I am likely downplaying the social aspect and competitiveness of it, but there’s something we may have lost over the years. Can you imagine taking the time to get your hat right for worship? Can you imagine taking the time to get ready to see friends and family in church again?

There’s only one thing worse than all the hubbub that goes with cleaning dishes, sweeping floors, and putting away the stuff after a celebration. What? Not having anyone to celebrate with in the first place.

“Always” and the Sunshine

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “always.” Today’s scripture reference in our devotional contains one of the typos I missed in the proofreading process. The chapter is Luke 6, not Luke 7.That reading in our devotional includes some painful words from Luke 6:27-28 “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Always? Really? When someone cuts me off in traffic I can bless them once I cool off, but do I have to bless the people who are continually cursing me? I can let go of someone being abusive once, but do I really have to pray for someone who was systematically abusive?

If you read these words straightforwardly, the answer is “yes.” If you squint at them and look at them carefully, you could probably find a loophole, but I have to be honest: I don’t want to be a part of that kind of Biblical scholarship. These words are straightforward and meaningful as written. Yes, I do believe we are called to prayer even when the person in front of us is truly wicked and cruel.

For an image today, I decided to share a picture of the sun through the clouds. In the depths of winter, it was freezing cold and cloudy. The sun still shined through the clouds. The wind was bitter and the temperatures were low, but the sun still shined. The sun is always rising, whether it is an easy day or a hard day.

It is not easy to pray for people that are mean, cruel, or abusive. It is still possible. I will note that Jesus says that we should pray for these people, do good to them, and bless them. Jesus does not invite us to subjugate ourselves to the will of the cruel. I believe that you cannot truly do good to someone if you always have your neck on the floor. You cannot pray for people if your voice is always silenced. It isn’t in the text here, but I truly believe that there’s a difference between turning the other cheek and consistently walking into a slap.

“Keep” and the Toy Blocks

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “gullible.” Actually, on the first of April the word for today is “keep.”

In my house there is a set of wooden blocks that all of my children have played with over the years. During a recent visit, the blocks were pulled out and I had a chance to play with my youngest. At one point she asked if her castle was beautiful. I told her that it was an amazing castle.

The bricks are not fancy bricks. As you can see, they’ve been written on, worn down, and in some places have started to chip and splinter away. While we have always made sure they are safe, they’re simple blocks. They don’t make sounds, they don’t scream out in bright colors, and they are extremely simple. They also have been the favorite toys of all of my children at one point or another, probably because I can’t help but play alongside them.

In the devotional today, we read the story of a man with a withered hand being healed by Jesus in Luke 6:6-11. Here was a man whose hand was wounded, whose wellbeing was considered less important than the Sabbath rules, and who was used as bait to trap Jesus. In other words, he was only useful in this moment as a tool rather than as a person.

Jesus loved the man and brought healing into his life. Where other people might see woundedness and assume it was a punishment from God, Jesus saw a person in pain. Where others were happily using the opportunity to find dirt on Jesus, Jesus saw a chance to do something wonderful for a man in pain. If this man was a toy, it would have been a pretty sad toy. Jesus restored rather than rejected. Jesus loved the man despite the consequences.

Jesus loved this man and healed him. In my life, I sometimes feel like the old bricks that might be ready for retirement. It is easy to dismiss your needs and value as unimportant or insignificant. We really should think twice before we try to throw our own self-worth out with the bath water. Jesus loves us even if we only see the worn edges or the lack of bells and whistles. Jesus loves us dearly as the people we are right now.