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.”

“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..

“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.

“Compassion” and the Eagle

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “compassion.” We are reading the scripture that is at the heart of tomorrow’s sermon, so I will avoid diving into the devotional today.

What does it mean to be compassionate, especially in light of Jesus’ teachings on weeping? Blessed are those who weep, for they will laugh! Laughter? I rarely think of laughter and compassion in the same sentence. As we have touched on a few times this week, laughter can often be at someone rather than with some. Such laughter is not very compassionate.

Compassion may have a lot to do with the comfort found in Matthew’s presentation of the beatitudes. It can be compassionate to show loving comfort to someone who you might consider your enemy if it were not for the fact that they are down on their luck. I think it is fair to say that it is compassionate to comfort people who are simply down on their luck or in a place of tears rather than living in a place of laughter.

I chose a picture of an eagle that I took at the Buffalo zoo last year. The eagle really does have a beautiful visage, but this eagle will likely never fly free. The eagle lives behind a fence where it can see tasty morsels flit by on smaller wings. Given the eyesight of the eagle, it probably sees the squirrels in the nearby park or the mice that might feast near the trash cans despite the best efforts of the staff.

Many people might think I am trying to make a point about zoos here. I’m actually not, although you can draw your own conclusions. Most of us have someplace in our lives where we feel trapped by life circumstances or life challenges. The fence is right there and it is okay to wish for something more. I know that I wish for something more on a regular basis.

I believe that God sees our sorrow and that’s one reason why Jesus went beyond offering comfort in Luke’s version of the beatitudes. Jesus makes a promise that laughter is on the way, because God sees our tears, knows our fears, and God is on the way.

“Enough” and the Lonely Leaf

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “enough.” In our devotional, I once wrote the words “Perhaps one might think of the cliche that it is better to laugh than cry.” In the story we read, grieving parents laugh as Jesus tells them that their dead child is merely sleeping. To be very clear, they laugh at Jesus instead of with Jesus.

My photo for today is a picture of a single leaf that I found fluttering besides a walkway in the Sapsucker Woods north of Ithaca. I walked through the woods last fall and saw this life. As I contemplated how the leaf sat on the end of the branch alone, I found a kinship with the leaf as it fluttered alone.

Is it better to laugh than to cry? Not always. It is certainly better to come to a place where you can laugh with Jesus rather than laugh at Jesus. Grief is a powerful thing and can cause a great amount of pain and disorientation. Would the parents laugh in the same way if Jesus had arrived before their child passed away? Often grief blinds us to the possibilities in front of us. The parents in the story with Christ were clearly in a place where they could not see beyond their grief.

I chose the picture of the leaf for “enough” for several reasons. First, the leaf was a beautiful leaf. As lonely as it seemed, it was still lovely. I am also enough even when I am alone. You are enough even when you feel lost or alone.

Second, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fact that last fall while I was on an afternoon walk there was enough goodness in the world that I was shaken out of my thoughts. I lay on the ground to get this photo from this angle. Would I rather have been somewhere else? Yes, but even when I was disoriented and somewhere I did not want to be, there was enough beauty in the world that goodness shone through my own sorrow.

Third, I chose the leaf as an affirmation of the fall. What I think is permanent today will one day fade away. My life is that of a leaf. One day it will be done. God willing, one day another leaf will fill my place in the world. I hope you have such a hope as well.

“Planted” and Aquaponic Fish

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “planted.” Of course, I couldn’t just be normal, so I decided to use one of my favorite pictures from my “aquaponic” fish tank. Who wouldn’t want to be planted in water?

Nibbling fish

To be entirely honest, the picture is quite fitting for the theme of the week. We have been pondering “hunger” and “fullness” and these fish are almost the living embodiment of the idea taught by Jesus.

When I bought these fish, I bought them with a pair of clown loaches in order to help take care of some very expansive plant growth in the tank. I had bought some plants from my favorite fish place and had been warned that they tended to grow quickly. Between the plants and the snails that came with them, it was not long before the aquarium was very green and very infested by snails.

Woe to you fish who are full, for you shall be empty. They devastated every single plant in the aquarium in a matter of weeks. When they arrived I couldn’t see the back of the tank. After they were happily established, every single plant in the aquarium was doomed. The snails had just as rough a time. Indeed, the fish made short work of the basil roots shown in this picture. They were so full for a while, but then they were more than empty.

The plants actually have grown to the point that their roots are managing to reach into the tank now. Their roots grow quickly and there’s enough space within the plastic enclosure, planting medium, and clay pellets that their roots are thriving despite the nibbling. I am almost certain that all of the plants would be rootless if I had let the fish “be full” of plants, but blessed are these fish for their “emptiness” means that there will be enough for tomorrow’s nibbling.

“Sacrifice” and the Bridge

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day word of the day is “sacrifice.” It is a somewhat difficult thing to balance the idea of sacrifice with this week’s theme of hunger and fullness. The challenge does not rest in making a connection between these two ideas, but in making a connection that is not overly personal.

In the fairly Christian culture of my teenage years, there was a common description of what Christ does through the events of holy week. Christ makes a bridge between our lives and eternity. The idea behind the analogy is that there is a massive gap between our lives in this world and the life we were created to live. We can jump as far as we want, be as righteous as possible, and we still won’t be able to leap the distance.

What happens without Christ? We fall into the gap which can be described as torment, hell, or death. Instead of leaving us in this position, Jesus came for us, died for us, and created a way for us to reach the other side. Christ is our bridge.

The photo I selected for today is of a rickety bridge over a tributary to the Cayuta Creek. I found the bridge on a walk last fall while trying to think through some personal struggles. I found the bridge and to be honest, I really wanted to see what was on the other side of the bridge; however, at least in my head, there was not even the slightest possibility that the bridge would have supported my weight. The bridge appeared rickety, broken, and frightening.

One of the things I have come to understand in my own walk with Christ is the fact that my relationship with Jesus is a relationship that is founded on love and respect. God doesn’t force me to walk over the bridge to life. There are places in my relationship with Christ where I am offered life, but even as Jesus builds a bridge to life, I must choose to step out in faith.

Jesus’ sacrifice brings life and light into my darkness, but I must choose to step out in faith. It can be really frightening to trust Christ. Occasionally the bridge looks really frightening. Sometimes, we need to face our fears and step out onto the bridge even when it is scary. Christ sacrifices for us and sometimes we must choose to sacrifice our fears in order to choose life.

“Present” and hunger

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Present.” As it is a Monday, our devotional points us again into Luke 6:-17-26. This week we are focusing on the contrasting concepts of hunger and fullness.

While it can be difficult to come up with a connection between the Lenten Photo-A-Day and the theme of the day, today was an easy selection for me. I know of the perfect present that has taught me about a hunger that goes deeper than just a craving for food.

I spent last Thanksgiving with my brother and his wife. For the first time in years, I did not spend Thanksgiving with my wife and it was the first time in 13 years that my eldest was not around complicating things. It was a heartbreaking experience that I know many others have experienced over the years.

After Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to visit with my kids. In a red folder, I received a picture from my youngest. She had colored a picture of a turkey and wanted me to have it.

I practically ran to hang it up in my bathroom. When my kids are around, they see the turkey hanging there and I remind my youngest that I love it. I truthfully tell her that I say a prayer for her each time I notice it, whether it is the middle of the night or first thing in the morning.

Once upon a time, we had so many pictures come home from school that it was hard to choose. When my eldest was in second grade and my middle child was in kindergarten, our refrigerator was practically a battlefield when we had to decide what picture would go where. My refrigerator was “full” of pictures.

Now, the pictures are few and far between. I am hungry for pictures from my kids. I never realized how lucky I was to have all of those pictures filling my fridge. Like almost all parents, but not in the same way as most, I went from a full nest to an empty nest overnight. I long for the days when the kids are here in our house. I long for those moments when I could hug my kids after school and celebrate their pictures.

In the devotional, the very heart of what I am trying to get across is found at the beginning of today’s reading: “One of the greatest challenges of using the beatitudes found in the Gospel of Luke is that they use slightly different language than those found within the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel.” The hunger listed here is not qualified by a connection to righteousness like in the gospel of Matthew. As it says later today: “As we look at hunger throughout this week in Jesus’ teachings, we will notice that it relates to questions around wealth from the previous beatitude and to questions around sorrow and laughter in next week’s beatitude.”

I know that I hunger for something that is connected with both sorrow and an impoverished heart. As we go through the devotions this week, I hope everyone finds a place of connection. I also hope that they find safe spaces to express any sorrow that they feel while on this journey.

“Good” and the mystical faith

Our devotional reading for today begins with the line “Christianity is a mystical faith, but not a magical faith.” Depending on the version you are reading, there is unfortunately a typo in that line which makes it read “Christianity is mystical faith…” .Even now, my editing program is having a conniption over that phrasing and it makes me wonder how I missed it when reading the devotional through multiple times while searching for errors and typos.

Christianity is a mystical faith that connects the practical physical reality with something beyond normal understanding. In the scripture reading we read of thousands of people eating a shared meal after one child came forward with five loaves of bread and two fish. The story is amazing, but it is not the only story of how people have seen the wondrous happen without the blessing of incredible wealth.

Soldiers from two different nations stopped during the first World War for a day of shared peace on Christmas. The peace could not have been bought or sold, but it was shared freely with people who shared the same faith on different sides of a war as they remembered the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all.” Victims have forgiven people who have committed atrocities against them simply because God asked them to forgive others. A sailor engaged in human trafficking came to a point of conversion and decided to stand against the very practices he once engaged in for a living. As an abolitionist, he both advocated for the dignity of the people he once harmed and sang about the amazing grace that changed his life.

Often without a world of riches at their command and often against the expectations and desires of the wealthy and powerful, people have dug into empty pockets and found that they were far richer than it looked on the outside. God has a way of showing up in a miraculous way to provide for those in need, whether it be through a changed heart, a call to forgiveness, the same hymns sung in different languages, or even the willingness to share found in a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “good.” I am blessed in many ways, but being a parent has often stretched me beyond the ends of what I thought were my limits. I have cried for my children, held them while they are sick, prayed over them at a distance, and now regularly wake up in the middle of the night to wonder where they are and how they are doing at that moment.

I have not always been the perfect parent, but that is not the fault of my children. I often feel like a poor father and I cannot give them everything they want in this world. Somehow, I have still been considered worthy enough by God to be their dad. I love them deeply. They are good, even when I pray for a way to be a better father. On some days, I even allow myself to believe that I must be good if I have been entrusted with such amazing kids.

My eldest during a time when life was challenging. I have always believed with all of my life that my eldest is good and I am so grateful to be his father.

“Awake” and seeing around us

On a spring day of last year, I was out and about with my camera when I noticed something in the nearby woods. It was May and the weather was beginning to warm up. Life was blossoming everywhere and it seemed like everyone (including the animals) had places to go and things to do.

Cars drove by, birds flew overhead, and this deer ran down the side of the road. As I contemplate the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt of the word “Awake,” I wonder if this is the only image of this deer in existence. Does anyone think of this particular deer today? If I hadn’t opened my eyes to see the world around me, would there even be a trace of this one deer in the world?

If still wandering the roads, I hope this deer is doing well. If not, then I pray what was good and holy in this deer is kept safe and well in the hands of the One who brought it into being. As I cannot know, I am simply grateful that I was awake enough to see when this momentary blessing came to pass when our two paths through this world crossed.

In our devotional today, while reading Luke 21:1-4, we see that Jesus was also a fan of being awake enough to notice the world around. As Jesus sat in the temple, a widow with two small coins gave all of the coins that she had to live on to the temple treasury. She had only two coins to live upon and she had the audacity to give both of them for God’s work.

Jesus noticed this moment when a woman with very little put everything into the offering plate. When we read this story in church, I often think about those words from the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, for they will have the kingdom of heaven. I pray that those words are true because of faithful people like this widow that offer everything to God out of a place of poverty.

As a clergy person, I have to say that it humbles me to think that some people give their last coins to God and I live off of a salary drawn from those offerings. It is humbling and challenging to think that I have food because of someone’s offering. Such offerings made to God certainly cause me to think twice about how I spend my paycheck. If Christ was awake enough to notice the two coins offered by this widow, I cannot imagine ever being comfortable abusing or misusing my paycheck.

I think clergy, especially clergy with any amount of affluence, should see such stories and understand the phrase “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Pray” and True Wealth

Throughout the readings from our devotional for this week there is an exploration of wealth. What does it mean to be truly wealthy? For Jesus there was a difference between having things and being truly wealthy. One could reasonably argue that a woman who has two coins that she can afford to give to God should be seen as being richer than a person with a wallet bursting at the seams while struggling to let go of the tiniest sliver of their fortune.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt is the word “Pray.” In selecting a photo for today, I pondered through a great number of photos. In the end, I selected a beautiful flower standing out from the green leaves.

The flower blossom is quite beautiful. The stamen of the flower are outstanding in beauty and quite literally standing out like yellow hands that are waiting to shake an insect’s hand. The purple petals are an inviting shade that contrasts nicely with the green leaves and stems that surround them. If I had to choose what part of this plant to be, it seems like it would be lovely to be this blossom. You could say it seems like it would be a rich experience to be so bold, beautiful, and vibrant.

At the same time, true wealth might rest in being grateful to be whatever part of the flower you might be in this life. You might not wish to be a green leaf or a tough stem, but what an amazing gift it might be to experience the joy of being green or woody.

Many people spend their lives wishing that they were someone else, own something else, or have more of what they already have in this life. People scrabble, hoard, and envy the people around them in lives marked with competition, jealousy, and striving.

What would it look like if we prayed less about having more and prayed more about being grateful? What would it look like if we prayed to have what we need and were grateful for those blessings? What would it look like if we prayed less about having riches and prayed more from a place of gratitude for what we have in this life?

I may never be a vibrant purple flower, but I might be an amazing woody stem. If I can find the richness of having a gruff exterior with a tough hide, then I will be truly wealthy even without the yellow highlights.

“Alone” and Compassion

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “alone.” What a word for contemplation, especially for a father in the midst of working his way through a separation! “Alone” is a word that I have pondered many times over the past few months.

A phrase stands out in our devotional reading for today: “Even when put in a challenging place, Jesus responds to challenge with compassion.” If we are called to become more like Jesus during this journey towards the cross, then what does it look like when we seek to respond to our challenges with compassion?

When writing this section of the devotional, my life was in a far more different place. As I work through this devotional alongside the members of my church, it is with a sense of wonder. Who was the person who wrote these words? I remember the hours working on this devotional, but now see the passages with different eyes and definitely answer the questions differently than I would have when I wrote this devotional.

In selecting a photo for today, I wanted to think about what it means to truly be alone. At the beginning of this oddly horrifying and challenging set of circumstances, I found myself filled with grief over the quiet house, the silent bedrooms, and the challenges of cooking for fewer people. Now, I find myself often coming across beautiful and wonderful things that are bitterly sweet.

Black Diamond Trail in Trumansburg, NY

I took this photo on a cold winter’s day while walking with my dog down a nearby trail. The path was empty of anyone, although there was clearly evidence that I was not the first person to enter the woods. For the entirety of the journey, I was alone with my dog. The wind blew through the branches, the dog snuffled through snow drifts and marked the snow, but it was otherwise silent.

It was beautifully still and silent. A world of icy stillness and solitude for just my dog and me. The sunlight shone through the branches and the snow sparkled underneath golden beams. It was truly amazing that I was able to see such beauty and it felt like that moment was for me and me alone. In the beauty and quiet, I felt as if God was walking right there with me.

It was sweet to know that I still matter enough that God draws near to me in such still spaces. It was sweet to know that God loves me deeply and truly despite the challenges of the past few months. It was also bitter to realize that I might have shared such a moment with my children a year ago.

How do I respond to these challenging moments with compassion? How do I love the people who have broken my heart through either their choices or simply doing their work? These are thoughts for my journal and not my blog, but I can state that this is where the journey for me begins today.

“Tempted” and the People of Nazareth

The #RethinkChurch word of the day for the Lenten Photo-A-Day challenge is “Tempted.” Oh, what a prompt for the contemplative practice of Visio Divina. Oh, what wonderful things I look forward to seeing as I wake for the day, post my photo on my Instagram, and then pick a photo to contemplate before waking up to face my day today.

I wonder what I will see today. Will I see muffins or cookies? Are people already regretting following the tradition of giving up meat on Fridays when a steak would be delicious? What is tempting? Will there be acknowledgment of love and temptation despite the nature of the season?

As I read through the devotional today, I find myself contemplating the nature of Jesus standing in his hometown of Nazareth. Everyone has their own expectations of Jesus, but my ongoing understanding is that Jesus was not, is not, and never shall be a person who simply does what everyone around him wanted, wants, or will want. Jesus was an individual who came to do the will of God and not an individual who simply came to do what other people always wanted.

Still, the temptation must have been amazing for people. Here is the carpenter’s son who has been doing all of these amazing things. What will he do for us? How quickly the temptation must have been to switch to “What should he be doing for us?” or “What do we deserve from him?”

I have no idea if the paintbrush of the Biblical narrative is fair to the people of Nazareth, but I can say that I often feel tempted to think less about others and more about myself. I am often tempted to grab onto life and to take a hold of what I want and what I think I deserve. I have moments where I want to take, take, and take some more.

“Russula Emetica” a.k.a. “The Sickener”

So, what photo ties these ideas together for me today? This photo of a mushroom was taken last year in the Finger Lakes National Forest. It looks lovely, doesn’t it? It is also highly poisonous. If you see it, I would imagine that you also might think that it looks like a candy mushroom or something Alice would eat to gain some marvelous transformation. Do not eat it: this mushroom is extremely poisonous. It is a temptation, but not every temptation falls under the scope of the adage “You should try anything once.” or “How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it?” This temptation might kill you and will definitely make you ill, so don’t give in!

There are lots of temptations that come through life. Not all of them are healthy, even if you can justify the temptation in your head. Some of the temptations might kill you if you give in. Feeling like you deserve something does not mean you should have it. Thinking that something would be incredible and great does not always mean that you should have it, do it, or take it.

I am grateful that Jesus was generally a man of peace. I am grateful he did not respond to the frustrations of the people of Nazareth with some of the responses other people might be inclined to enact on people being unreasonable and aggressive. I hope that I can have such self-control when I face temptation.

“Full” and Ash Wednesday

The word of the day for the #ReThinkChurch Photo A Day campaign is “Full.” In our devotional, Ash Wednesday revolves around the depth of old words. Our devotional journey begins with the reminder that: “Old words whisper out over many pews today.” The old words do resonate throughout this day and throughout the season ahead of us.

The traditional words that might ring through your memories may be “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Perhaps you remember hearing “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Perhaps the words that ring through your memories are not rooted in old and meaningful liturgies. Perhaps you hear are “The journey has begun. Let us journey together with Christ.”

In contemplating the words that ring out through my memory thanks the Photo-A-Day, I remember the words that have historically have little to do with Ash Wednesday, even if they are fitting. I remember two lines from the Wesley Covenant Prayer, which is often shared each January by Methodist congregations. The lines are “Let me be full. Let me be empty.”

“Wheat Sanctuary Window” in Trumansburg UMC

What does it mean to be full? One photo I considered using is the photo I edited of the window with sheaves of wheat from our sanctuary. The reason I would share such a photo is that I want to be filled with God’s love and light to the point where I am gathered in with the harvest. I do not desire to be set aside or blown away by the wind. I want to be gathered in as a treasure. I want my life to be so full of goodness that I would be gathered in with the wheat.

At the same time: “Let me be full. Let me be empty.” I want to be the person that God want me to be. If my life is filled with glorious goodness and obvious giftedness, so be it. If I am easily seen as a person whose life should be gathered in, so be it. Also, if I seek to be faithful but stumble throughout my days, so be it. If I seek to be easily gathered in but end up rubbing all of the other stalks of wheat the wrong way or end up being a cornstalk in the middle of the wheat, so be it.

Ultimately, the old words whisper out. This season is about the fact that God’s grace was necessary. Jesus walked down the road on a journey of redemption and we all need the love that Jesus shared long ago. I would be full, but even if I am empty, God’s grace is truly what I need on this journey.

I think this is the photo that I will end up using today: a tomato growing on a vine in the middle of winter. By all rights, the photo makes no sense. Who grows tomatoes in the middle of winter? Will it even taste the same after spending the winter under a grow lamp? Will it be delicious or weird? Will it become a vibrant healthy tomato or simply fall off the vine one day? Will the flowers nearby ever grow their own blessings or will they fall to the counter in exhausted emptiness? I don’t know. Let it be full. Let it be empty. An excellent analogy and start to a season of both wonder and solemnity.

Hydroponic tomatoes from my home

A Lunch Reflection

“Self-made people, and all heroic spiritualities, will try to manufacture an even stronger self by willpower and determination–to put them back in charge and seeming control. Usually, most people admire this, not realizing the unbending, sometimes proud, and eventually rigid personality that will be the long term result. They will then need to continue in this pattern of self-created successes and defenses. This pushy response does not normally create loving people, just people in control and in ever-deeper need for control. Eventually, the game is unsustainable, unless they make others, even their whole family, pay the price for their own aggression and self-assertion-which is the common pattern.”

BREATHING UNDER WATER: SPIRITUALITY AND THE TWELVE STEPS, RICHARD ROHR

I’m reading through Richard Rohr’s “Breathing Under Water.” I was just sitting down to a grain bowl for lunch after church and read this passage.

I would love to point out where I’ve seen this be true, but I’m not trying to be the kind of person who enjoys such efforts. Instead, I was more struck by the fact that the heroic spirituality pointed to in this paragraph is the very personality the church has tried to groom in me as a minister for years.

Be beyond reproach, be an attractive leader, dress handsomely, lose weight to attract more people, bring your kids to church, start a youth group, have lunch with the other ministers, do this, do that, and above all do everything while being humble yet confident.

I’ve bent over backwards thinking that I should be one way so many times. Maybe my back hurts from all of the spiritual contortions that I have put myself through time and time again.

Poem from the last “Writing Day”

I struggled to get up today.
Life is really hard some times.
When you wake up on cartoon day
And the speakers sit silently.

I had a rough time with coffee.
My dishes were waiting alone.
There was nobody here but me.
Nobody near to share a meal.

I washed dishes one or two times.
I straightened the countertop stuff.
I prepped broth as I do sometimes
Then I finally sat to write.

The words flow like holy water
and I see the Spirit at work.
Tears stop about my dear daughter
and I see God at work through me.

I do not understand how it works

I wrote this poem last week on a day set aside to write my sermon. I really had a very difficult time sitting down to draft my sermon. It was incredibly hard, but when I finally focused, things went really well. The last line is one of the greatest understatements I have ever written.

I really don’t understand how God works through and in me some days. I wake up feeling miserable and worthless. I sit to write with the simple goal of doing my best: I want to use the talents I have to help make the world a better place despite my own feelings. Somehow it works. It flabbergasts me.

The Calling and a Personal Journey

There’s a long gap in my blog between the events of the past and the events of the present. A lot happened between those last poems from a while back and the poems of today. I have been on a journey of discovery as my wife separated from me as I came to grips with the fact that my marriage was at an end.

There were a lot of missing poems that were shared between shed tears. Like sand mandalas, those poems were here for a moment and then gone. In many ways those poems blurred the lines between prayer and poetry even more than usual. There were moments of grief, anxiety, and loss.

Over those months of quiet self-reflection and work I came to a point where I finally publicly admitted that I am in recovery from alcoholism which did not begin in the last year or during that silence. I have been open about my family’s history with alcoholism, but had never shared the stories with anyone of how I used alcohol to supplement pain medication during a lengthy period of severe pain and physical therapy where I could barely walk or even sit still from the pain. I didn’t have the life wisdom to realize that I should have gone to a doctor instead of self-medicate on top of prescription medication. That decision was dangerous and doubly-dangerous as my family has a history of addiction. It was foolish.

I have had to come to grips with what part of my life had been shredded by alcoholism, realized that there were problems that had had nothing to do with alcoholism in my relationship, and I have realized that I kept medicating pain of a different kind even after my back healed. I have come to understand that this is a season where I need to be faithful to my identity as a single man who still wants to be a good father, wants a respectful relationship with his former partner, and who wants to find a way forward while choosing both life and the high road through some very dark passes in spite of the choices of others.

One of the most difficult conversations I had during that dark period was a long conversation with my District Superintendent where I shared openly and honestly about the journey I have been on. I shared that I still felt called to the ministry, still felt the Holy Spirit at work, and shared about the journey of recovery which has included working with professionals and a particular anonymous organization to connect all the aspects of my journey into one way forward. I have put in a lot of work medically, psychologically, and spiritually over a period of years to come to this place where I am beginning to see the light of freedom in recovery. I have put in hundreds if not thousands of hours into seeking freedom from the consequences of my biology, choices, and a disease that is not infectious certainly seems communicable.

I share this now as I was just blown away by a passage I read while preparing for my sermon this Sunday. I was working through the commentary of Ronald Clements in the Jeremiah entry to the “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” Series published by John Knox Press. On page 16, Clements writes of Jeremiah:

“The sense of call, with all that this meant by way of reliance upon God and the stripping away of all other social and personal supports, was something that was taking shape over a long and difficult period of time. It had begun for Jeremiah at a specific moment in his personal life and had continued. The experience of inner self-discovery had not ceased since that first day. The sense of call belong too to his private inner world as a part of his personal understanding of God. Yet it had to be a public and openly declared part of his self-understanding, since it alone could explain his declarations and his personal authority to declare them. No one could confirm or deny that he possessed this calling; it was between himself and God.”

Clements, Ronald E. Jeremiah. John Knox Press, 2012.

I was blown away by this passage. While reading this commentary, I connected deeply and intimately with Jeremiah in a way that I have never connected before this moment. Certainly, I am not the first pastor to sigh over the direction of American Christianity. I can connect the dots between the political and social forces of Judah in Jeremiah’s day and the the political and social forces in modern American religion. I am not the first pastor to wonder if the rhetoric and posturing of many modern church leaders on television is not the gasp of a system that is about to go into exile. This is not where I felt a connection.

I felt a connection as I remember my past. I remember being a teenager who felt called away from a suicidal grief into the love of God. I remember talking with a youth leader about how I wanted to go into ministry because it was tugging at a deep part of me. I remember being a youth leader and a church intern who just kept feeling the compulsion to go deeper. I remember studying and taking the first steps into ministry. I remember the interviews, the affirmations, and the ordination. I remember all of those moments.

I also remember praying with trusted friends in Malvern, PA, at the Academy of Spiritual Formation as I admitted that I was occasionally mixing drugs and alcohol to get through the pain. I remember talking with close friends about how it felt less and less like a choice. I remember asking them to pray for me as I started trying to get free of that compulsion to drink. I remember being dry and miserable on my own without a single supportive voice. I remember the first time I said: “Hi, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic.” I also remember that it took a few attempts to find the courage to say those words. I remember meeting with a sponsor for the first time and sharing stories. I remember the anxiety and fear. I remember the first time I worked through my fear and clearly stated aloud why I always note that we serve non-alcoholic juice when serving communion: I say it because of people in recovery like me.

I remember talking with Pastor Parish Relations Members at my church about the fact that my wife and I were separating and how it partially related back to my own journey of recovery. I remember sharing that I had a relapse and that I had climbed back on the wagon quickly because I was afraid. I remember crying with fear about being honest. I remember how freeing it was to tell people that I attend meetings daily via Zoom to continue to seek freedom. I also know that I have both amends and living amends to make with people I have harmed along the way. I remember almost every conversation with someone I have known for a long time where I have said something along the lines of: “I’ve had to come to grips with something.”

Through all of these things I have never felt my call to leadership ebb. In fact, I have had many people open up about their own struggles and the struggles of others. I have talked with wandering folks who come to my church each time they are in the area because the pastor not only understands the journey towards sobriety but is walking down that same road. I share a cup of coffee with them after church not out of sympathy but out of true camraderie as a sojourner down a similar road. I have even performed funerals for people who have and have not found a way to freedom on that same road. I feel like I am a better minister since I have found the courage to be honest about my alcoholism. Honestly, I feel more hampered by the pain of marital and parental separation than the daily journey of recovery.

At some point I hope I will get to the point where I share with others in those meetings that I’m not only an alcoholic but a pastor. Honestly, that’s almost more scary than sharing with the church that I have a struggle with addiction. According to one study published last year, the national average of drinks consumed in the United States was 17 per week (Survey: Americans consumed 17 alcoholic drinks per week in 2020). It seems less strange to admit that I am just another person struggling with the disease of alcoholism that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic than to admit to other people that I have a very very close relationship with “the God of my understanding,” especially if that means they might share less freely about their own journey and struggles.

In the meantime, I do feel called to continue in ministry quite strongly. Clements indicates of Jeremiah, the calling that Jeremiah experiences was one that nobody could confirm or deny from the outside. I identify with that description of the calling deeply. The calling is first and foremost internal.

Surely, I could be reappointed or even stripped of a title, but that’s different from having the authority to confirm or deny a calling. As the Bishop said at my ordination, ordination was a recognition of what God has done and what God is doing in my life. Ordination was an affirmation of what God was doing and recognition that God was at work in a special way. That journey has not changed and that calling has never ceased. It still burns deeply within me.

I wish I could put into words how strange it is to be called to leadership and authority while daily admitting that I am powerless to straighten things out on my own. The power was never mine, but it often feels easy to assume I am more powerful than I am, which many of my colleagues likely understand. I personally have come to believe it makes me a better leader as I am quite clear on the fact that the power I hold and wield as a minister does comes from God and not from my own strength.

So that’s the story of the long absence between posts. Yes, I am in recovery. No, I’m not ashamed of admitting my need for God to work in my life every day through the process. Yes, I am allergic to alcohol and I have a disease. No, having a disease is not the end of the world. This disease is a disease and not some moral failing or mark of worthlessness. Good people that I have come to trust tell me that there is a solution and I believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Truly, I live each day with hope and courage that comes from being on my knees and asking for help each time I wake up in the morning to the snuffling sounds of a dog and each night that I go to sleep alone. God is with me on this journey and that journey will continue 24 hours at a time for the rest of my life. I am okay with that journey and I will keep walking.

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.

“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.”

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)

Cinquain: Light Falls

CreakyHouseMan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D.
For the record, I’m the CreakyHouseMan
Light falls
On empty path
Through woods by still waters:
A shrouded path for another.
Light falls
...

This poem is dedicated to a church member who passed away this last weekend. I’ve visited him for over five years in various facilities as he’s fought through various struggles. His journey is now beyond my sight and in God’s hands…