“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.

“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.

“Chosen” and generosity with wealth

The devotional asks us a question today without using a question mark. Our devotional says: “One deep question this raises is what we consider to be our wealth and what we consider to be God’s wealth.” What is our wealth? What is God’s wealth?

This past Monday morning, I had to drive down to Vestal in order to get my tooth fixed. Back in 2016 I had a golden crown put on a tooth which I have since privately called my “piratical tooth.” If my floss breaks while flossing, my tooth is likely being piratical. If a piece of food needs a good crunching, I often smile as I bare my teeth and chomp down with my golden tooth. I love my golden tooth and on Sunday night it tried to pull a runner.

I was nervous about the price of gas on the ride down to Vestal, which lasted until I was told that my dentist no longer accepts my insurance plan. I was then anxious about the cost of the tooth, but told the dental hygienist that I would have to have the work done without insurance. It hurt to breathe too hard over the tooth, I had accidentally had one splash of coffee on it which caused me to howl, and I frankly needed to eat at some point and would need my teeth.

I was worried about the cost, especially knowing that my wife would be expecting a check to help support the kids even if I had to pay for my tooth to be repaired. I was very anxious, but I decided to pray through the fear and have the work done. After a delightful hour chatting with the hygenist about everything from x-ray procedures, to being okay with new medication as we age (as long as we held out longer than our parents had before need it), to the fact that nobody likes the dentist but they aren’t nearly as scary as physical therapists, we came to the crux of the matter. I never once mentioned my fear about paying, but had decided to have a good conversation and a good attitude even though I was quaking in my boots.

The dentist didn’t charge me. They decided that this was just life with a crown, noted that I had the crown put in place nearly a decade ago, and decided that it must have been a fault in the cement. They knew I had a piece of candy and it pulled out the crown, but they decided to waive the fees for everything including the x-rays. I was so incredibly grateful.

What does it mean to be wealthy? For me, on Monday being wealthy was being in the hands of someone who could afford to be generous and guarantee their work long after I had gotten my original money’s worth. I have kids younger than that tooth but they decided that generosity was more important than profit today and I am grateful. Tonight I am wealthy, for I have a piratical tooth in working order again! I can chew without pain and that’s a gift of wealth that many people in history have not known.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “Chosen.” In thinking of what it means to be chosen, I wanted to find a photo that fit both the prompt and the idea of extravagant wealth on God’s end. Enter the seagull…

I caught this seagull flying over the beach at Taughannock State Park last year. It was up in the wind, gliding around and looking for food. Well, I say that it was looking for food, but it honestly just seemed like it was having an awesome time surfing in the wind currents.

I have used this image to talk about the Holy Spirit before and probably will again, but let me reiterate what I have said in church. I grew up thinking that seagulls were flying rats. They would attack you with their enthusiasm if you dared to feed them, acted like vultures in the parking lot of fast food places, and there was no punishment for someone you didn’t like worse than dumping a bunch of fries on their car.

This flying rat, despicable creature, loathsome creation… My dear God in Heaven, it is absolutely stunning when the sun shines through those wings. The delicate wings, the beautiful feathers, the artistry involved in giving such beauty to something as common as a seagull. If that’s not true wealth being flaunted by the Creator, then I would be hard pressed to find another example (unless Ratatouille is based on a real story, which it better not be).

“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.

“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.

Fourteen Years of Chinese

After a week of indecision, I have decided to have Chinese today. Fourteen years ago, on Valentine’s Day, I burst into a liquor store with what felt like the stupidest question on my lips. “It is Valentine’s Day, my wife just gave birth two days ago, and we are having Chinese. What wine goes with Chinese food?” The clerk did not know what to do, what to say, and quickly suggested sake before we both remembered that was Japanese.

Fourteen years later and the marriage is over. There is nobody to share Chinese with tonight, but I still remember bringing home Chinese while exhausted. I remember both of us passing out from exhaustion on our couch as our baby slept while swaddled nearby. I don’t even think either of us even bothered drinking a glass of the wine. I remember all of these things and walking exhaustedly to try and help my wife have a nice dinner on Valentine’s Day with food we both loved.

She isn’t here. Those moments are gone, but I still remember pushing my legs to go out to the car and get dinner. I remember the adrenaline crash after getting everyone home safely after the first car ride with a used car seat and then heading out to find my wife the closest thing I could find to a romantic dinner. I do not want to lose the memory, do not want to lose the feeling of “bringing home the bacon” to a family for the first time, and I remember being proud of myself for something that was so simple. I do not want to forget how my child changed my life on that Valentine’s Day or how I found something far more wonderful than diamonds to give to my wife. I’ll have Chinese anyway and I will remember the most beautiful Valentine’s Day I ever experienced, even if I remember through tears.

"What goes with egg rolls?"
The stunned clerk was quite flummoxed
but did a good job
At least, I think that she did
I do not remember now

Aquarium Herbs

My birthday present

As the years continue to tick beyond control, two things have become abundantly clear to me. Tou cannot take things with you from this life to the next. No matter how fancy the ring or how great the object, time strips away most things. For this reason, this is the moment when we should enjoy the blessings of this life. It is far better to enjoy the moment in which we live than to mourn years past or to long for a future that is beyond today’s reach. I believe Qoholeth smiles across time as the choice is made to enjoy the moment.

Truth embodied in a piece of plexiglass. Spaces for herbs and plants to grow above fish that will dance and nibble among the roots. Basil globes, flowers, and spider plants now dip their roots among the waters as curious fish nip and taste the roots that hang down through the clear lid. Above, an energy efficient bulb shares light and warm with fish and plant alike. Even in the coldest winter, a new symbiotic relationship dawns between the herbs and their hungry neighbors.

Basil roots stretch down
as their bright leaves reach up high:
Fish nibble away
That fish is totally looking at you.

Butterfly Garden

“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

    let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

    let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy”

Psalm 96:11-12

I was in a grumpy mood this morning and decided to slow down to see the beauty of God’s creation. Sometimes the best way to combat frustration and anger is to intentionally focus on God’s blessings…

All of these pictures were taken by me and are published through Wikimedia Commons under my username “CreakyHouseMan” [CC BY-SA 4.0]. All photos were taken in the Parsonage Butterfly Garden at the Maine Federated Church in Maine, NY.

“Still Morning”

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

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

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

“Still Morning” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

“Three Bowls” Cinquain

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

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

Empty bowls by steaming oatmeal.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sent” Photo-A-Day Haiga

Today’s Rethink Church prompt for the Lenten journey is “Sent.” I wrote this haiga with the simple understanding that we try to share in church enough on a regular basis: that it is a blessing to have enough and enough to share. Maine Federated Church is collecting Easter baskets for our Chow Pantry, because most of our church members have enough to cover their basic needs and enough to put together an Easter basket for a family that may be struggling to cover medical bills, utilities, or rent. Similar to our participation in CHOW, we believe by taking care of simple things like food or Easter Baskets, we help community members free up resources for other bills. The picture is of the stack of buckets that is mightily diminished since they were first put out. I will try and take a picture of the completed baskets for next week.

God sends out neighbors
To share love with good people
Who need to pay bills.

A Haibun for the Sun

Today, March 21, 2019, is World Poetry Day! Here’s a haibun with a picture of our good friend! Sorry beloved folks in the southern hemisphere! We’re really excited the sun is coming closer!

I was frightened you would come halfway around the world, see the state of things, and turn around. Snow and ice have covered lawns torn apart by plows and ground saturated with salt. The grass seems brown and dead.

Here we are on the day after the choice has been made. Here we are and you draw even closer. Here we are and your light shines on cold ground that I feared would be frozen forever. Birds have begun to sing, clouds have given way to deepest blues, and warmth fills our land little by little.

Soon the bees will bumble, the worms will wriggle, and the flies will buzz. Soon the mosquitos will awaken as bloodthirsty as ever. Soon summer storms will wash away the salt and grime of winter. Thank you for everything–even the mosquitos.

Welcome back old friend.
Heat the soil of this good earth:
Bring growth from cold land.

“Haibun for the Sun” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Reflective Poetry and Prayer

I am currently entering into the final steps of preparing my second year project for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am thinking that I will have most of the project revolve around the usage of poetry and prayer. I was recently reading through a book I borrowed from the library called “The Art and Craft of Poetry” by Michael Bugeja. On the seventy third page of that tome, Mr. Bugeja quotes the poet Kevin Bezner as saying “All true poetry is religious poetry–all poems are prayers–but not in the sense of a belief in or worship of a god or a supernatural power.”

Given my particular approach to poetry, I found that statement to be intriguing. Mr. Bugeja paraphrases Mr. Bezner, saying “true or sincere poems, by their very nature, always reflect a poet’s faith, commitment, desire to commune, conscientiousness and devotion…”

If poetry does reflect and express the poet’s faith and commitment, then perhaps there is a sense at which heartfelt poetry is prayer. One of my greatest challenges with liturgy is the struggle to include the word “Amen” after every prayer. For a long time, hymns concluded with an amen. Nowadays, it seems as if almost every prayer needs and “Amen” in order to conclude.

Amen has a rich history and depth of meaning. The usage of the word for the congregation to enter into the depth of the prayer is helpful. When we say amen after someone prays, we become a part of that prayer orally. It is a wonderful act of inclusion in an act of worship, but often folks seem to believe that any prayer must have an amen. This is not true.

I thought I’d share a poem I recently wrote in an attitude of prayer after a saint invited me over to lunch. I wrote it for a thank you note, but I thought it was a perfect way of expressing how a prayer can be found in poetry.

Scents waft up from a warm bowl of chili rich yet faint.
As I sit to share a meal with an elder saint.
She has made special biscuits for us to share
And we break bread together with prayer.
With cheese and conversation our meal
Is filled with a depth you can feel.
I listen with quiet peace
As my inner cares cease.
I try to be here
With one so dear.
I’m thankful,
Grateful,
Full…

“Full” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

The form itself was fairly simple. I started with thirteen syllables a line and decreased a syllable each consecutive line. The rhyming pattern is a set of 5 couplets with a rhyming envoi creating one tercet at the end. It is clearly a poem.

It is also clearly a prayer. I intended to express care, gratitude, and thankfulness for the opportunity. Although God is not addressed by name, there is homage paid to communion in the mentioning of the breaking of the bread. The person I shared a meal with is a saint, there’s a stillness while listening that ties back to the idea of silence in contemplation and prayer. Even the mentioning of saints can draw our thoughts to God.

Psalm 19:14 says “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” It is my belief that poetry that seeks to live into this verse really is prayer.

Isaiah and Climate Change

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

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

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

Isaiah 45:18-19, NRSV

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

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

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

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

Preparing to Help

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

“Ice and Love” by The Distracted Pastor. 2019

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

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

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

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

Here are a few of things I would suggest:

  • Blanket Blessing
  • Hot meal
  • Handwarmers
  • Gift Certificate

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

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

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

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

“February Sweater”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open, Nurturing, Empowering…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hungry Kyoka

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

“Hungry Kyoka” The Distracted Pastor, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quadrille of Conjoined Tankas

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

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

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

Ancient Advice for Thanksgiving

So, it is almost Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America. Many forks are preparing to gather with loved ones for a day of feasting, conversation, and merriment. Thanksgiving is a blessed day for many people.

Not everyone likes Thanksgiving. Some people are dreading Thanksgiving this year. There are challenging conversations which may take place over pie. United Methodists risk conversations about the Special Session of General Conference and other church dramatics. Citizens risk discussions of politics, voting choices, and future outlooks. Many folks know there are traditional arguments over family matters, cooking styles, or other matters. Conversations can be difficult on Thanksgiving.

On a personal level, some folks dread Thanksgiving because of what it will tempt them to eat. Will power is a necessity for many on Thanksgiving. Exercised muscles and hard earned toning will face the hordes. They cry out things like “It is a holiday!” Invitations to live a little often correspond with an expectation to consume a lot.

I wanted to bring ancient wisdom into this conversation. I have been enjoying the Desert Abbas and Ammas a great deal over the past year, but do not limit my reading to these ancient words. For your edification, I bring to you a quote from Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” I also bring a quote to you from “The Epistle of Barnabas” in “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” as translated by Andrew Louth.

Let us begin with the Desert Abba, although it is likely that the epistle predates the sayings of the Abbas and Ammas. Here’s the quote for you today: (pg. 104)

“A brother questioned Abba Hierax saying,’Give me a word. How can I be saved? The old man said to him, ‘Sit in your cell, if you are hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.’ “

I want to stretch our understanding of what Abba Hierax says by breaking the passage down into three concepts. The brother sought a word about salvation. We are not seeking salvation in the eternal sense this Thanksgiving. Still, there is wisdom in seeking God’s salvific power to fill every day of our lives.

So, the first idea! Beloved, stay in your cell! For the Abbas and Ammas, the cell was the place they rested and prayed. The cell was a challenge to some and a a blessing for others. One could find out a lot about their being by remaining in their place. The cells had space for introspection. These places had space for rest. These rooms space for blessing.

Beloved, stay in your cell! When invited to a seat, enjoy that seat! You may not enjoy everyone around you in that place, but there may be room for blessing in your seat. Is your neighbor getting your goat? How is that neighbor getting your goat? What does that tell you about yourself? Why does that neighbor get your goat? What does that relationship tell you? Is your neighbor a challenge or a mirror for reflection? Is your neighbor an irritation or someone trying to connect? What if they only have certain tools and just need encouragement? Maybe something like sarcasm is almost their native language? Is this trouble is an opportunity to show love, to show grace, and to open a doorway to a better relationship?

Now, I strongly recommend that you do not stay if you are being abused. Be aware there may be possibility for personal growth growth if you figure out how it simply irritates you, annoys you, or frustrates you. You may leave your seat blessed beyond your imagination. Thank you Abba Hierax!

So, the second idea. Beloved, if you are hungry, eat. Beloved, if you are thirsty, drink. Sitting at the table is an opportunity to find sustenance for your body and soul. You may not like everything, but that is okay. There may be something at the table that will do more than sustain you. You may leave the table inspired to eat more of something strange. What if you do like that weird looking Brussel sprout dish? What if that one taste opens a door to a lifetime of new experiences? If you are hungry, eat.

Now, let’s be clear. Few of the Abbas would say to eat or drink to excess. Many of the Abbas and Ammas were clear that a person should engage in intentional moderation. So, if you are hungry, eat. When you have had enough, you may no longer be hungry. When thirsty, a glass of water may quench that thirst. If you eat when you are hungry and drink when you are thirst, you may leave your seat blessed beyond your imagination. Thank you Abba Hierax!

Finally, beloved, let us take this final word from Abba Hierax seriously. Beloved, do not speak evil of anyone. I saved the quote from the Epistle of Barnabas for this point in the post. The epistle says: (pg. 159)

“The principles of the Lord are three in number. Faith begins and ends with Hope, hope of life; judgement begins and ends with Holiness; and the works of holiness are evidenced by Love, and the joy and gladness it brings.”

If we are a people of faith, this epistle would recommend that our faith requires us to be a people of hope. We hope for life. When we speak evil of others, that never brings life into the equation.

If we must speak out of a place of judgment, the epistle would also ask questions of us. Do our actions begin in a place of holiness? Do our actions lead to a place of holiness? Remember, in this model holiness are evidenced by love, joy, and gladness. If love, joy, and gladness are not present when there is a temptation to be judgmental, then we should stop ourselves. If love, joy, and gladness are not the ultimate result of our actions, then we should stop ourselves.

Speaking out of a place of evil never does us well. Matthew 12 records an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where he was accused of acting out of an evil place. Jesus was charged with casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul. Jesus pointed out that this is madness. Jesus could not have acted out of an evil place to conquer evil—such actions would not stand the test of time.

If we are to be like Jesus, we should never meet evil with evil. We should never speak evil of anyone. As it says in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” If speaking an evil word about another person is something you think would be unimaginable for Jesus, then you should seek to never speak such words. Thank you for the reminder and invitation back into truth and faithfulness to both Abba Hierax and to the author(s) of the Epistle to Barnabas.

In conclusion, I hope this little journey into obscurity encourages you this Thanksgiving. It is doubtful any of these authors would have understood at first glance our celebration of Thanksgiving. Still, one last aside. Abba Anthony once entered conversation with a hunter where the hunter became afraid that drawing his bow too many times would damage it. I’m sure the same thing is true of basting your turkey. Keep that oven door closed!

 

I made a diagram! Little victories are still victories!

Let us Ramble: An Arresting Quote on Charity

Recently, a college classmate of mine from years ago asked a question on Facebook. If I could write a paper on any female spiritual figure in history, which person would I choose? I love open-ended questions and spent a couple of days perusing the answers until late Thursday morning. I had been working on collecting reports for our Annual Meeting and had just completed a report for a member who is in need of a bit of a hiatus. In other words, I was out of coffee, had been up worrying about my infant with a fever most of the night, and was a bit bleary eyed. I took a few moments to look at my bookshelf for something that I could peruse for a few minutes while my wits came back around to meet me and the next item on my agenda.

My eyes fell on one of my favorite books from a few years back. I came across “The Mirror of Simple Souls” by Marguerite Porete. My edition is from “The Classics of Western Spirituality” of Paulist Press in 1993 and was translated by Ellen L. Babinsky with a preface by Robert E. Lerner. I immediately thought of the post, remembered that nobody seemed to have mentioned this wonderful author, and jumped to share with my old college friend.

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My copy of Marguerite Porete’s “The Mirror of Simple Souls.” I recommend it highly!

I picked up my copy, began to peruse, and then began to laugh. Did you ever wonder what would get a woman killed by the inquisition in France in 1310? Well, writing in vernacular French didn’t help. What made me laugh was the translation of a part of the trial where the inquisitor is shocked that not only did Marguerite not burn her copy of her book after a former bishop ruled it heretical, she kept thinking it was a good book, and dared to send it to another bishop as well as other simple folks “as if it were good!”

I do love a woman who believes in herself and her God! She spoke the language of the people, cared about the people, and kept on believing in God’s call on her life despite the challenges! Authority should be respected, but let’s be clear—Marguerite Porete saw authority abused and relied on her faith in the highest authority of all! Here was a woman who makes me smile!

I began to spend a few minutes browsing over the pages while working up the courage to go across the way to heat up a cup of coffee. I was reading along when something caught my eye worthy of a blog post and inspirational enough to get me to hold off on grabbing that cup of joe. Here’s what is translated from the fourth chapter of Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls:

“Charity is such a wise merchant that she earns profits everywhere where others lose, and she escapes the bonds that bind others and thus has great multiplicity of what pleases Love.”

I love this concept. As I pen this blog post for Monday morning, I am drawn to think about charity. Charity has many roots and I do not pretend to be an etymologist, but I noted with enthusiasm that the Online Etymology Dictionary stated that around the time of Marguerite Porete’s life, charity became connected with the concept of the affections we ought to feel for other people. In my own imaginary world, there is a distinct correlation between these facts!

I think about the ways we ought to feel for other people and how that inspires us a lot on Mondays. Recently, my primary visitation day for going to visit people in their homes or in care-facilities is on Mondays. As this is posted online (unless something goes askew) I am likely riding in my car down to visit one of our saints in the Triple Cities. Some of these visits are easy to accomplish as the saints in question are lively, ask deep questions, and appreciate a good visit. Some of these visits are heartbreaking at times when the saints are struggling.

When we consider how we ought to feel for others and then when we let those feelings affect who we are as people, we are entering into the purest form of charity. Charity is not meant as something begrudgingly given, something scowlingly given, or something unfortunate that has to happen in order for the charitable person to to be one of the good people. Charity is our opportunity to live into the same gracious love as our Lord and Savior first showed us. Charity is our opportunity to become the hands and feet of God and to enter into the dance of God’s love. Charity is an amazing thing!

Marguerite’s concept arrested my eyes because of the simple beauty of the idea. Charity finds profits where others lose. Charity finds freedom where others find fettering chains. Charity abounds in what pleases Love. These ideas are so simple and beautiful.

How can charity find profit where others lose? Perhaps it is because charity, when birthed by love, sees things through different eyes. The world says that you will never get rich by taking weekends off from work and volunteering to play basketball at the YMCA with kids. You will never get rich volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club or with your church. You also cannot buy the love those kids may come to have for you as a person. You cannot buy their affection, their love, their admiration, their imitation, or any of the other blessings that come being involved in a ministry of charity. You will never get rich with money—you may become rich with love.

How can charity find profit where others lose? Sometimes it is because love follows love. In the spring of 2013 I witnessed the worst community fire of my career in Boonville, NY. The church I was serving became a hub to help provide food, shelter, space for the American Red Cross, and information for the people who were displaced. Do you know what happened when we tried to buy lunch for the people who were displaced? We were matched by others and nobody went hungry. Do you know what happened when we started to collect clothes? The fellowship hall was filled with blessings. Every time we tried to give what we could, others joined in with us in charity. Perhaps you may find no personal profit in engaging in charity, but sometimes the love of God seen in you inspires others to bless those around us.

How does any of this promote freedom? I believe charity breaks the bonds that hold us in place. Often we get trapped within our own prisons by tradition, by circumstances, by our own limitations, and by our own imagination. There can be freedom when charity invites us to feel for others like we ought to feel, when charity motivates us to move past feeling to action, and when charity finally overwhelms our prisons.

The week of the fire in Boonville wasn’t just a holy week. The fire took place during THE Holy Week. We had to cancel our extra services on Thursday and Friday to care for people in need. We worshipped across church lines with Presbyterians and Baptists that week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively.

They welcomed us as guests and opened their hearts and church homes to us. What kept us from worshipping together before? Pride? Maybe. Tradition? Probably. Silliness? Definitely. I never enjoyed worship services so much as when we came into those churches, sat exhaustedly down, and we were welcomed and loved despite our tiredness and our Methodist personhoods. We United Methodists made space for others and through charity we found the freedom to look beyond our doors. We had the freedom to find our family and spend time with them. The family of Christ worshipped in a holy way that week.

When we engage in charity, we find ourselves in places where we can build up an abundance of love. I will likely be thinking of Marguerite’s call to charity was I walk through the doors of Bridgewater Rehabilitation or one of the United Methodist Homes this morning. I pray that you would find places to fall in love with God, to love your neighbor, and to connect with who you ought to be—someone filled with holy charity, freed by grace, and abounding in love.

Let us Ramble: Waiting for S’mores

It had been a very busy Wednesday. The day had been long. I slumped into my camping chair and watched as a fire began to spread in my family’s fire ring.

I was tired. The children have been in the office with me this week and had joined me for Senior Lunch. My youngest daughter had an audience for her antics. The senior citizens were amused. I was very tired.

I was tired. The children had been very well behaved on Tuesday morning in the church office. By Tuesday night they were beginning to snipe at each other. On Wednesday morning the bickering began shortly after we arrived. By Wednesday afternoon… I was very tired.

I was tired. A storm knocked down a tree in the field last week. I had been dragging the logs out of the field with an old “Radio Flyer” style wagon without a comfortable pull-handle nor any form of shock-absorbers. One of our Buildings and Grounds folks was able to set the church tractor up with a trailer to help me do the job without walking a thousand miles with the wagon. Even with the tractor’s help there was still a lot of wood and a lot of work. The last big and irregularly shaped piece that I grabbed to load into the trailer slipped through my fingers and tore a gash in my wrist as I scrambled to catch it before it could strike my foot. That ornery and unwieldy piece of wood was the first piece in the fire ring. I was very tired.

I was tired. It would be at least half an hour until my kids returned home from their swim lessons at the YMCA. I was very tired, but the lemon-flavored seltzer water was pretty refreshing. The smoke rose and the very human and fairly spiteful bit of myself smiled as the wood which hurt my wrist began to burn away into nothingness.

The ornery piece of firewood burning…

I was tired, but thought back to the fact that my kids’ biggest problem that morning had been who would have the first turn being the teacher as the played school. I was tired, but thought back to the fact that the senior citizens who we sat with at lunch seemed to reconnect to a bit of their past and smile as they saw me tormented by my child. I was tired, but thought back to the fact that Paul had helped me to use the trailer so that I wouldn’t collapse of exhaustion. I was tired, but that bedraggled piece of wood was getting what it deserved and would provide enough heat to make my kids s’mores after they returned from swim lessons.

I was tired, but I decided to be grateful as I stared into the flames. I knew that tomorrow would have enough problems, but for that one moment I could decide to be content with the blessings of a cool glass of seltzer water, a warm fire, and the promise of time together alone with my wife sitting by the fire after the kids went to bed.

Let us be Grateful: On Ridiculous Things

Last Sunday was Father’s Day and my family celebrated with me after church. The weather was hot, so they took me down the street to Kelli’s Deli, which is air conditioned. They ordered me a ridiculous pizza for lunch which I normally would not order. My younger child is a picky eater, so I do not generally order strange things. My wife knew that I had wanted to try the pizza for at least a year. On Sunday they bought the pizza for lunch. Yes, they ordered a cheeseburger pizza for lunch.

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Cheeseburger Pizza! Delicious!

The strange pizza was an utterly ridiculous gift to a person who appreciates simple gestures of affection. I spend a lot of time cooking for my family. I love saucy and spiced foods but we rarely eat them in our home because of our children’s tastes. I love pickles but we rarely have them as a part of our meals because of our children’s tastes. I love a lot of food that I never cook because my children have turned their noses up at foods that were too strange or too different.

My kids sitting with me and eating a weird pizza with me was a great Father’s Day gift. My youngest might have struggled to eat anything but the crust, but she still tried to make an attempt to eat a single bite with only minimal complaining. She only tried to change our order twice to something she would rather eat and that’s an improvement over most meals lately. Don’t feel too bad for her—she ate at least three pieces of our church’s Fathers’ Day cake at Fellowship Hour.

It seems strange, but it really is the little things that help a person feel appreciated. I invite you to remember that sometimes a kind word or a bit of love can turn a person’s day around. Today you may have the opportunity to make the world a better place for someone you come across in your life. I invite you to share love—be ridiculous if necessary. Sometimes it means more than you know.

Let us be Grateful: “God’s Unconditional Love”

Today I finished the first book of four that I need to read before the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am grateful that I have finished reading the book as it was a very deep book. At times it felt as if the book was so densely packed that I would collapse under the weight of the ideas.

I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au presented a book which looked at shame from a lot of different directions. They wrote at length about the internal and external sources of shame. They provided exercises to enter deeply the ideas they were sharing and provided examples of what some of those exercises might look like when put into practices.

This book was a great book. I am grateful that I had a chance to read through the book and am equally pleased that one of the author’s will be one of my instructors at the upcoming session of the Academy. I look forward to going into the concepts explored in the book with the author.

I would invite you to pick up a good book if you have not taken the time to read something that challenged you to go deeper into your passion in a while. A lot of people I know find a million and one excuses to not read including the bane of free time known as the internet. I invite you to slow down and find a good book. I invite you to try this book out for size. If you aren’t into that subject, I will tell you the next book on my hitlist is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr.