Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling”

Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling
Date: July 28, 2019
Scriptures: Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

“We know through painful experience that
freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Let us pray:

God, give us the strength to approach You. Help us to be bold and to choose to listen to what you say to us. Bless us and keep us both now and forever. Amen.

I have spent the last week seeking wisdom. A few weeks ago an idea started spinning up in multiple people’s minds and spirits. I have been praying through not whether I should listen to God’s calling but how it will look in my life.

I read through a book by a church leader named Paul Nixon that was called “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” I heard bold words about leadership, following God’s calling, and changing church culture. I dreamed through what it meant that my heart was warmed by Paul Nixon’s set of choices on how a person approaches leadership. Could I choose to be bold over being mild? Could I choose to ac kkt now instead of later? Could I choose life over death? As a leader, I have always had a calling, but this felt deeper.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the words in your bulletin that we read. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He wrote it to a group of white clergymen who insisted that Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham were unwise. Dr. King insisted that the oppressed must demand to call for their own freedom. He insisted that the people rise to claim their freedom.

I pondered these words as I thought about our world. Dr. King was talking about a far more insidious and evil problem, but the words still kept filling my head with thoughts and dreams.

I identify as a millennial and my generation is very spiritual but divided from traditional organized religion. I have had many conversations with people my age who have said “Church is boring,” “Church is hypocritical,” and worst of all “Church doesn’t bless me–all it does is hurt me and people I love.” I have also had these same conversations with disaffected people both younger and older than my generation.

The thing is that I know these things may be true for some people, but only because the church has often forgotten the mission or left it behind to be more comfortable. This reality is tragic.

Look at what the Colossians are told: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

When I think about what I was taught about Jesus Christ as a child, I remember being taught that Jesus loved me, that Jesus cared about what was going on in my life, and that I always had a place in God’s house. When I was a teenager, I gave my life to Christ because the Church had taught me that when everything went wrong, I had a Friend and Protector in Christ Jesus.

When I accepted that love, when I placed my identity in that strength, and when I learned more about Christ, I was thankful. I abounded in thanksgiving. Why? I abounded in gratitude because Jesus Christ’s love was closer than my right hand. When Paul says continue in the love the church taught me as a child, I see a love that means the world to me. There have been times in my life when I would rather have been separated from my arm than separated from that love.

People in my generation and people in general are oppressed by misinformation–the misinformation they have about God does harm. They do not understand how powerful God’s love can be for their lives. It hurts my soul to think people do not learn of this love because they think church is boring or irrelevant. This kind of good news brings joy and meaning to life! It breaks my heart to think people would come to church and see the church as some place harmful rather than some place beautiful. Such things are holding people in my generation down. Such things are breaking hearts and causing pain. Such things should not be.

I thought about the quote from Dr. King, I thought about what I was reading, and I wondered. What would it look like if we took the parable Jesus tells as a story with a message for us? If we were to believe that Jesus cares for our neighbors and if we were to ask God to lead us through breaking through those barriers, do we believe God would not answer? Would a parent give a child a scorpion instead of an egg for breakfast? Would a parent leave the door unanswered if their small child knocked on the door asking to come in? Of course not. I love my kids, I may love sleep, but if they came asking for something they needed in the middle of the night, I would get it for them. The same holds true for my friends–I may wish to stay in bed, but if they needed help, I would get up and help.

It is my belief that God wants to help too. As I have listened to God, respected friends in the church, and my own soul, I believe that God is preparing us for something new and exciting. I think we are facing multiple challenges and that obstacles are being thrown in our way, but I believe these are attempts to put something in the way of those who call out from the edges. I hear their cries: “Love me!” “Welcome me!” “Welcome my kids!” “Welcome my parents!” “Welcome my brokenness!” “Welcome my weirdness!” “Welcome me!”

It has become such a call in my thoughts that I am asking a question of myself: Who is knocking? Am I knocking on the door asking for help of God? Is God knocking on my door to ask me to pay attention to the least? Are the people knocking because they need something better?

The thing is that the things we believe divide people from the Jesus’ love aren’t there. Are they too loud or too lax compared to what they should be? Well if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they drinking too much at the bar or spending too much on clothes? Well, if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they unlike the people we knew growing up in church? Well, if that’s a sin, that has been nailed to the cross.

One of the amazing things about Paul’s words is that the act of forgiveness described is always listed in the past tense. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well you were forgiven at the same time that people 200 years ago were forgiven. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well, the people down the street were forgiven at the same time. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well the people who haven’t been born yet, haven’t done terrible things yet, and haven’t asked for forgiveness were forgiven at the same time as us. We have all been buried with Christ and resurrected with Christ.

When Paul speaks of not being taken captive by false ideas and puffed up ways of thinking, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to think of what Christ has done. People were telling them that eating non-Kosher foods would damn them, but Paul tells them to stop believing the lies. People were telling them that there were Sabbath rules that had to be followed, but Paul told them to stop believing the lies. Their salvation did not rest in the rules but in Jesus Christ.

I went to church as a young man at my father’s church on Grand Island. I grew up believing that I had to wear the nicest clothes, sit quietly, and always behave perfectly. When our church launched a contemporary worship service, we started to attend worship with a bass guitar, clapping during worship, and with people who led worship in jeans. It was weird and I kind of rebelled against it for a long time as I tried to come to grips with the differences. I had come to my own faith in Christ, but could worship take place in church with guitars and clapping? Wasn’t that a youth group thing for when the adults were all off having coffee somewhere and couldn’t stop us?

I came to realize that worship wasn’t about sitting perfectly still or being perfectly dressed. Worship was about God. I knew God loved me as who I was, but it took me a while to realize that the Sabbath laws of Sunday morning church did not make me a good Christian. Only God’s love made me a Christian in a first place. All of my salvation came down to the actions of Jesus Christ, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the love my Creator. When Paul tells me to continue my life as I was rooted and built up in Christ, I find my own roots have strength not in tradition or historical accuracy. I find my roots only have life where they are connected to the love of God.

What is God calling me and others to do? Honestly, we’re still discerning what that looks like, but one thing is clear: If it will succeed, it will only be because it is founded on God’s love. How does that old hymn go?

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Let us pray…

Reflecting on “This is my song” and John Chrysostom

This morning we sang a hymn in place of the offertory. The hymn is a well-meaning hymn known as “This is my song” by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. The hymn has an interesting history: first as a poem and then as a hymn. The song is a stirring song set to the tune Finlandia.

Poet Lloyd Stone (1912-1993)

I also struggle with that particular song. I struggle for two reasons. First, I struggle with the song because I love the song. I think it is beautifully written, wonderfully lyricised, and matched perfectly with the stirring tune of Finlandia. If I were to choose a patriotic song as one I could adopt as my own, this would be the song I would choose first. I appreciate the balance between pride in one’s land and an appreciation for the viewpoint of others. I also appreciate that Dr. Harkness was a pioneering theologian whose work I love to support.

Dr. Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a leading Methodist theologian in an age when female theologians were definitely not the standard.

The second reason I struggle is that I am increasingly immersed in the early church. I enjoy reading through ancient sermons, ancient theologies, and reading about the lives of the leaders of the early church. Recently I was reading an excerpt from John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407 CE) in Amy Oden’s “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in the Early Church.” The excerpt was from Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12, which was published in 1889, and the version I share below is sourced from the public domain. I will say Dr. Oden’s version reads far easier. Chrysostom wrote:

“Knowest thou not that we live in a foreign land, as though strangers and sojourners? Knowest thou not that it is the lot of sojourners to be ejected when they think not, expect not? which is also our lot. For this reason then, whatsoever things we have prepared, we leave here. For the Lord does not allow us to receive them and depart, if we have built houses, if we have bought fields, if slaves, if gear, if any other such thing. But not only does He not allow us to take them and depart hence, but doth not even account to thee the price of them. For He forewarned thee that thou shouldest not build, nor spend what is other men’s but thine own. Why therefore, leaving what is thine own, dost thou work and be at cost in what is another’s, so as to lose both thy toil and thy wages and to suffer the extremest punishment? Do not so, I beseech thee; but seeing we are by nature sojourners, let us also be so by choice; that we be not there sojourners and dishonored and cast out. For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there. For the just, although having nothing, will both dwell here amidst all men’s possessions as though they were his own; and also, when he hath departed to heaven, shall see those his eternal habitations. And he shall both here suffer no discomfort, (for none will ever be able to make him a stranger that hath every land for his city;) and when he hath been restored to his own country, shall receive the true riches. In order that we may gain both the things of this life and of that, let us use aright the things we have.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12

Effectively, Chrysostom is referencing the teachings of Jesus about treasurers on earth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21 to avoid storing up treasures on earth. Chrysostom points out that one cannot take houses, fields, slaves (different time in history: not justifying the unjustifiable, but pointing out Chrysostom’s context), gear, or anything else out of this world. Chrysostom points out that we have been forewarned against building up our riches on earth or claiming the things of this world as treasure. We cannot take the things of this world with us. Indeed, it is only in the next life that we find ourselves growing into our true inheritance and riches.

What catches my eye in regards to the hymn and what causes me to ask deep questions is the line “For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there.” Chrysostom sees Christians as people on a journey through this life with a goal of reaching the next. If one stops to claim this place as one’s land, one will only have it for a moment. If one claims one citizenship to be in Heaven, then one has the freedom to both enjoy this world and move into the next without great loss. Indeed, a strict reading would say that one cannot move into the kin-dom of God by grasping tightly to a land, a nation, or one’s own goods.

Strictly speaking, the hymn we sang stands in opposition to one of the earliest Christian leaders because it claims that this is our land, our nation, and our space while Christian tradition teaches that we belong elsewhere. This world is a world in which we live in a fog. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to a community in conflict about the things of this world: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them to stop acting childishly and to quit dividing themselves over earthly matters. This is a place where we see the world, each other, and God dimly (like in a mirror from an age when a modern mirror would be a miracle). The world to which we belong and where we are headed is where we will see clearly and be seen clearly. The world to which we belong is one in which we shall come into our full being.

Thus, I am torn by the hymn. I love the hymn, the words of peace, and the seeking of understanding of other people. I also realize that Chrysostom might look at the differences between nations and see people whose eyes might rest better on the world to come than the goods and lands of this world. Neither we in this land nor those folks in other lands can carry the goods of this world to the next life.

This hymn may be one of those places where we must live in the tension between ideals. The older I grow, the more I come to see that life requires a bit more flexibility than I once carried in my idealistic youth. As a friend likes to say at church: “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”

Grief as an Octopus

This Saturday morning I am thinking about grief. My wife has started a wonderful new professional position, but we live in an imperfect world. I fell asleep in bed with my head next to hers as she talked about her professional challenges last night. I listened for a good long time before my exhaustion took me away. Thankfully, she does not read my blog regularly: my “secret” is safe for now. Let’s be honest: she may already know.

Professionally, in my own ministry I often face grief in homes, at funerals, on Sunday mornings, in hospital rooms, in meetings, in conferences, in the checkout line at the grocery store, and many other places. Personally, I have been grieving the act of registering for Annual Meetings this year because of the grief incurred globally. Now that the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council ruling has effectively guaranteed a divisive United Methodist Annual Conference and a United Church of Christ Annual Meeting filled with well-meant sympathy and questions, I suppose my grief needs to be accepted.

Grief is in my thoughts this morning. I spent my quiet time this morning praying while doing the less than pleasant task of doing dishes. I might not have raisins to sort, but I try to learn from folks like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence. Grief was in my thoughts as I scrubbed oily residue and emptied the sink trap.

My conclusion at the end of my time of contemplation is that grief reminds me of an octopus. Grief can be Krakenesque or found 20,000 leagues below the surface. Grief can be in the shallows of a reef teeming with life or plucking what little it can from the open currents.

Grief is a master of camouflage. The beast hides in plain sight until it reaches out. Grief grabs you only once before you see it in every eddy of sand. Grief can make you paranoid to swim out into the seas of life.

Grief also does not hide behind every rock in the sea of life. If we spend our whole lives afraid to swim, we may eventually regret our choices. As strange as it sounds, fish that do not move water through their gills will drown. Most fish can only hold still for a certain amount of time before they get air from the surface or the sea.

Tomorrow in church at Maine Federated, we will sing songs and read the story of Easter again. We will proclaim resurrection in a world of grief. We will swim, we will breathe, and face whatever octopi wait in the depths.

“Foraging Hope” Sermon

Sermon: “Foraging Hope”
Date: March 31, 2019
Scriptures: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (lectionary)
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them…”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, NRSV

We’re in the midst of the season of Lent. This is a season of contrition, soul searching, and personal discipleship. As we have gathered in church during this season we have focused on looking at our approach to this season as being like a journey into the wilderness. Today we come across one of the more famous parables in Jesus’ teachings. What could this story have to do with a journey into the wilderness? How can it inform our journey? Well, let us look at these words to find a way into both the text and the season. Before we begin, let us pray:

Life-giving God, You are Parent to all of us. We come to today’s scriptures and find Jesus telling a story about a father. As our Parent, these words can teach us about You. Open our eyes and our hearts to Your wise Spirit as we approach these texts. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friends, this is a season of contrition and redemption. We come across a story today of Jesus spending time with the least of the least. Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, is spending his time with tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors worked for the oppressors of the Jewish people. The sinners were the people who did not obey the laws and teachings of the religious leaders.

We find Jesus being grumbled about by the Pharisees and the scribes–the people who taught the religious laws and the people who copied the texts. The people grumbling were the people who should have known God as well as anyone could know God. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, this is the group of folks who will spearhead the events of Good Friday.

Here in the season of Lent we find ourselves facing Jesus’ worst critics. We found ourselves in a strange place because Jesus responds to their criticism with a parable containing three perspectives. There is a selfish son who finds redemption, a loving father who is forgiving, and an elder brother who seemingly will not forgive and accept his brother home.

It begs a question: Who are we supposed to be paying attention to in the story? This parable, known as the parable of the prodigal son is further complicated by the evolution of the word prodigal over time. Prodigal once meant abundantly generous but has shifted since the phrase “prodigal son” was written into the title of the parable to mean either wasteful or errantly wandering.

The Prodigal Son, ca. 1496
Albrecht Dürer
Public Domain courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We could focus our attention on the younger son. His story is a story of redemption which fits well into the Lenten narrative. He has gone off into the world, made mistakes, and comes home with contrition and humility. This message is a good message for those of us who have been wandering the wilds of our lives in need of redemption.

We could focus our attention on the father. He waits at the road, sees his son coming from far off, and runs to meet him. He is a loving and forgiving father. He celebrates the return of his son. Surely, as Christians we should see this as teaching about the way God meets us on the road. Perhaps we even see the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday in grief, only to be met by the resurrected Christ who breaks bread with them. Surely, this would be a great message.

Either of those would be wonderful messages. I would ask a question with you: should we not stop to ask why this passage points out those grumbling religious leaders? Why are they here if the parable has such an obvious application?

Did you ever stop to wonder why the elder son was upset? The text stops to mention he has never even been given a goat to celebrate with his friends, but have you ever stopped to think about his frustration? The father has given his brother his share of the inheritance and it has been squandered. The father has reason to be mad. The brother has wound up in one of the lowest of the low places for a good Jewish boy–longing to eat the food of something shunned by his people. His brother has lost everything including his self-respect. What is making this elder brother upset?

We could say something to the effect of “being welcomed home means he will now receive another portion of the inheritance.” That might be true. We could also say the elder son is offended on behalf of his father. That also might be true. Both are reasonable responses and if that is what you wish to take away, please do so with my blessing.

I wonder if the issue is one of a scarcity mindset. If we are on a journey through life, I think we can all say we have had days when it feels as if we have barely made it through. I have had difficult days when it felt like I only made it to bed crawling on my knees. In fact, there have been days when I have only made it to bed that way when my back went out or was sick.

There are days when we go through the wilderness of life and finding it a bleak place. We look for figs on fig trees like the gardener in last week’s sermon but there is no fruit. We look for fish in the streams and we find nothing. We look for sustenance and it feels like we barely make it through.

Then we see them in the distance. The other people. We have scraped and saved while they have spent money, more money, and more money. We have fought to keep our family together and they party it up. We have tried to raise our children, have a few close friends, and maybe have enough to go get goat curry with our spouse every now and again when they come waltzing through the wilderness.

We see them in the distance and there may be part of us that jumps to judgment. We see them in the distance and we may wish to lash out. What are they doing here? Who do they think they are coming here? This is my house, this is my community, this is my church… We see them in the distance and it may tempt us to rush to grumble.

The Pharisees and scribes are often set up in Christian stories as terrible people, but let me ask you: should we always identify with the prodigal son? Yes, we may sit here as a forgiven people, but should we always connect with that part of the story? Should we identify with the forgiving father who forgives? Perhaps, sometimes we should. Is it possible we are being asked to connect with the elder son?

A little authorship note for those of you who may find meaning in this fact. Luke and Acts are often considered to have been written by the same author. If they were written about the same time, we have learned something important. The scribes and Pharisees are a part of a Jewish people. The Jewish people who came to faith in Christ became one part of a multicultural faith that had begun to spread over the world. Acts records the apostles heading out into the world and they do that quickly. Some people note that apostles reach out to the ends of Asia, throughout Africa, and out into Europe. The entire eastern hemisphere is beginning to hear about Jesus.

We look at the scribes and Pharisees and we see bullies, but by the time this book is written… Scholarship tells us Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees and scribes are effectively homeless, and the Jewish faith is going through a massive re-envisioning. What if they are not the bullies? What if they are not the only ones who do not understand?

The thing about the elder brother we rarely notice is that he has his own story. He sees his brother go, he sees his brother come, and he is upset. Has he ever known deprivation? Chances are he has never had to suffer intensely. You only have a fatted calf if you can afford to have a fatted calf. He and his father are not living in a place of famine like the land where his younger brother travels. The younger son has been humiliated but when he shows up, there are extra robes and rings just waiting for him. If you can afford to have such luxuries lying around in an agrarian or farming culture, you are not in want.

The older brother is furious, is standing outside the circle of blessing, and is grumbling in the fields. All that the father has is his elder son’s, but the story ends with the father pleading for his son to come home to celebrate. The scribes and Pharisees may grumble in this moment, may celebrate as Jesus suffers, but by the time this book is written… They must find their own way.

A few years ago a movie came out called “The Passion of the Christ” and one of the great fears is that it would stoke anti-Semitism. It was a powerful portrayal of the crucifixion story which took liberties, but one reality is that texts like the statements before this parable have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. People see it and say “Look! They’re grumbling! They must hate Jesus.”

I think we miss something here. The elder son has his own story to live out. By the time this book is written, there are likely sections of the church who look at the Jewish people with all the scorn they see in the actions of the scribes and Pharisees: “They had a chance! They could have done better! What a bunch of fools! First, they kicked us out of synagogues, sent out people to arrest us, and now their temple is gone and now they’re the ones who have no place to go.”

The thing is that throughout Christian history, we have often forgotten that the gospels were recorded not just as histories and not just as teachings, but as living stories. We miss warnings in plain sight. Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

By the time these stories were collected, the Christian people are the ones who have begun to have their own communities and belief. By the time the church gathered to formalize some of their theology in 325 at Nicea, the Jewish people have been without their temple for nearly 180 years. By today, it has been almost 1,950 years since the temple fell. If we look at this text and we find a reason to justify anti-Semitism, we have failed to learn the same lesson offered to the elder son. We have failed to understand love, compassion, and grace.

The challenging thing is that the faith is still growing. United Methodists, some of our struggles come out of the fact that our faith is growing in places with different cultures with different values. Do we stand there grumbling in the fields? I know it is more complicated than that generalization, but we still should ask ourselves if we are standing in the fields.

Friends in the UCC, your denomination has been battling for inclusion and openly aiming to welcome LGBTQIA+ folks to the table. You are battling racism and seeking equality and justice. What of the conservative voices and people who do not understand what you are talking about? Do we stand in the field when they come home to God both dazed and confused? As the culture shifts around, are there times when you realize the doors have not been as open as they should be or the welcome not as exuberant?

Progressive Methodists, we should ask the questions I pose to the UCC folks. Conservative UCC friends, we should ask how we stay in ministry with those of a radically different culture or mindset from your own. Not a single one of these questions is not a question I do not ask myself.

It has been nearly 2,000 years of life for the Christian Church. We have had rough moments but there has always been food out there in the wilderness. We may not have always received the goat to celebrate with our friends, but our faith, our community, and our kin-dom has survived through thick and thin. We are a people who have been blessed for generation upon generation. Can we throw open the doors to the next generation? Can we be so bold as to see each other in the wilderness and have faith that there is enough hope out here for us all? Let us pray…

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

Recently I was reading an article in the April 2019 edition of Sojourners magazine called “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by theologian and anthropologist Michel Chambon. I found the article fascinating as it reflected on the ongoing relationship between Chinese Protestant Christianity and the government under which they live. I found it fascinating because it had a greater level of reflection on the relationship between the church and state in a land I know little about in general.

I read various things about Christian practice I did not even realize where are part of the practice of my beloved family in another nation. Did you know that Christians lead large calisthenic groups in places like Nanping? Did you know that the Chinese are also facing the crisis of an aging population? I did not know that was happening. Most of the news I have seen over the years has focused on trade issues, pollution issues, or religious-freedom issues. In particular, they taught me growing up that the Chinese church was consistently and constantly under pressure. In fact, the church that the sources I read taught me about growing up could never exist openly–a public gathering of Christians to exercise was beyond my comprehension.

What makes this interesting is how Mr. Chambon presents the information. Mr. Chambon states:

“The Chinese state–like every other state–operates under its own political tradition and in relation to its own national culture. Chinese religious police is not only defined by a supposedly coherent national law but also through the agency of local officials who play a key role in its implementation. In practice, state control is heterogenous and varies from district to district. It relies on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.

In some places, local officials have imposed stricter regulation and monitoring on Christians and other social actors. In other places, they have destroyed Christian churches and jailed a few leaders. But in my view, this does not represent a general crackdown on Christianity. It reflects instead the Chinese policy of ‘killing a chicken to scare the monkeys’–applying a heavy hand on one group is publicized to push others toward self-limitation and censorship.”

Michel Chambon in “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” (Sojourners, April 2019, pg. 8)

At some level, this should have not needed to be spelled out to make sense. Part of the struggle of the United Methodist Church is the belief we can set an international policy on human-sexuality without understanding that there needs to be a reliance “on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.”

At some level, the attempt to apply one set of laws across the board internationally is to engage in the same idealistic hubris which I felt must apply to Chinese culture of my imagination for decades of my life. The attempt to enforce such legislation without balancing the needs of the local area is at least naïve. I am certain there are folks who believe the “coherency” of church law requires uniformity, but that may be misguided. Yes, there are those moments of persecution which are regrettable and terrible, but what if that is a part of the policy of applying a heavy hand to push others towards “self-limitation and censorship?”

What really struck me and threw me for a loop was that I recognized this policy of “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys” in my culture. I have seen this policy my entire life. In my context as an European American Protestant Christian, I have not seen this policy enacted from the top down. Our government says there is freedom in this land. I have seen this policy enacted at the grassroots and in the middle of society. I have seen it applied in the way we treat indigenous tribes, immigrants, and the descendants of our own hunger for slavery.

In June 2015 when Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was it to put an end to every group of African American Christians? Clearly, Dylann Roof did not end the African American church when he murdered nine of the Christian family. In my experience, the church surrounded the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church regardless of denomination or race. That is my perception. Did Dylann Roof’s violence lead folks to self-limitation and censorship?

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

Here’s the thing: as a part of the dominating culture of American Imperialism, I am uncertain I can say that Dylann Roof accomplished the same goal as the Chinese policy. I can say I refuse to use an honorific to refer to him, but how did his actions affect those in churches like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Did the people like those gathered in other communities similar to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church walk away with a message? Did people who worshipped in synagogues or mosques hear the shots of a member of the dominant culture towards a group of African American Christians and hear a message? Did they see violence against a subset of the dominant religion (Christianity) and fear for their own future when they do not share the same experience of God?

Thinking back to those moments, I realize that I took part in an ecumenical memorial for those family members in faith down south, but I did not reach out to people who might have received just as violent a message. I did not stand alongside those who might also have been intimidated. The African American Christians were the chickens who were slaughtered, I rushed to the hen house to soothe the flock, but ignored the rest of the surrounding people.

When I reflect on Mr. Chambon’s article, what really strikes me is that I have been blind. I was not only blind in my understanding of Chinese culture. I have been blind in the way I have treated my own neighbors. I was blind as a teenager every time I was silent when a friend would drive to the nearby Native American reservation to act like hooligans. I was blind as a college student when I stood by ignoring the Muslim community after September 11, 2001. I was blind to injustice when people grabbed anyone who was not pale (like me) out of the line in airport security lines.

The challenge Mr. Chambon’s article leads me towards is a difficult challenge. When I know that African American males are disproportionately jailed, who else is hearing that message? How do be in ministry with those folks who are disproportionately jailed and those who are also given those messages? When I hear that folks are labeled as coming from s%#thole countries, how do I not only build up the people I meet from those places but also the others who hear words of disparagement? How do I open my eyes further? How do I honor my own principles and ethics? How do I stop letting blinders fetter my sight?

Sermon: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”

Message: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”
Date: March 24, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9, NRSV

Friends, we are in the midst of the season of Lent. This entire season we have been comparing our own spiritual journey to a journey into the wild. In this Lenten season we have faced some difficult passages and today’s scripture is no exception. Difficult passages can lead to messages that difficult to both preach and hear. Let’s enter these moments prayerfully.

Holy God, one of the early Desert Monastics named Abba Pambo said “If you have a heart you can be saved.” Give to us your saving grace this morning. As we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, give us the wisdom to hear what you are saying to the saints. We ask this blessing in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

What have you found during this Lenten journey? Have you found wild things in your hearts? Did those things frighten or exhilarate you? This morning we continue looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. There’s tough words here and some difficult theology.

Jesus challenges the people to think about the world and their own lives. In our text Jesus hears words of great tragedy. The ruler Pilate has executed some of Jesus’ people and then treats them barbarically. The story has a sense of being older than time as a hated public figure has done something terrible and it upsets the people. I am certain we can all think of figures who have done awful things in our day and age.

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” by James Tissot

Jesus questions one of the oldest theological misconceptions. Jesus attacks a theology which says that bad things happen to bad people, so if something bad happened to these Galileans it is because they are bad people. Just like the people who died when a tower collapsed in Siloam, the people are looking at these Galileans and asking why God let this happen. If they are good, wouldn’t God have spared them?

Jesus starts off essentially teaches the same lesson as the Book of Job. Bad things can happen to good people. Jesus takes it a step further and points out that all of the people have sin in their lives. WHen Jesus says “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” we find ourselves reading uncomfortable words. The words are very uncomfortable.

Jesus is teaching a truth though. Any journey into the heart like Lent will reveal a lot about our hearts and souls. There are wild parts of us we may encounter, there are dangerous things within us, and there’s also something else in there. Like every wooden wilderness, there are places where the trees are dead, the branches are broken, and the ground is covered with brambles. It is uncomfortable to say it, but there are places in all of our lives where we need to repent.

Thornbush by Les Hatfield, used under Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

For me, there are places in my heart where there are broken bits. I grew up in a house where I experienced physical abuse as a child. When I wander through my woods, I occasionally come across parts of my heart that are deeply troubled and angry. There are parts of my soul where I need to repent because I can grow furious when those parts are touched, poked, and prodded. There are places in my life where these words are true. I need to clear out those brambles, get rid of the deadwood, and tear through the thorns.

Do you understand what I am saying? When I hear these words I don’t hear words of condemnation. I hear Jesus saying that all have brokenness. I hear Jesus seeing a group of people trying to say these Galileans must have been sinners while turning a blind eye to their own problems. To use another part of Jesus’ teachings, I see Jesus looking at a people with logs in their own eyes judging other people for having what may have been splinters.

I am glad the parable follows this passage because I think it elucidates what Jesus is trying to say. The people are like a fig tree without fruit. The owner of the garden keeps coming to get figs and finds nothing. The owner wants to tear the tree down, but the gardener asks for more time. The gardener will fertilize it with manure, break up the ground so the roots can spread, and watch over the tree for another year. The gardener is doing everything possible to save the tree.

It bears saying that we are reading this in Lent and the Lenten journey ends at the cross every year. The people are broken in deep ways and on Good Friday Jesus will do everything possible to bring life to the very people who will stand around jeering and taunting him. It is important to remember that Jesus is acting like this gardener and will do everything for these people.

When Jesus says unless we repent, we will perish the words are very hard to hear. In honesty though, there are parts in all of us we know should not be there. There are broken places in our lives and they need to go. Our hope is in the fact that Jesus tends the garden in our hearts, and with Jesus’ help we can tend to our broken places. When we pull down the thorn bushes, it is with Christ’s hands and our hands. When we chop down the broken branches, we do not swing an axe alone.

The Good Shepherd statue at the Malvern Retreat Center in Malvern, OA

Also, sometimes there are places in us which we cannot deal with ourselves. In those moments, we have one we can turn to hoping God will bless us with all we need. Yes, we have to repent, but if we turn to God with honesty, we can find our way through even the most challenging of circumstances.

Will you have the courage to repent this Lent? Will you find your broken places and turn them over to the gardener? Will you let God break the soil of your heart, fertilize what is good, tend to what is hurting, and remove what needs to be taken away?

Sermon: “Wildness”

Message: Wildness
Date: March 17th, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:31-35
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Today we’re headed further into Lent. This season we’re looking at the season like a trip into the wilderness. We established last week that the wilderness is not always a place of deprivation. There is wisdom to be learned out there in the wilds.

Today we are looking at one of the harder realities of wandering into the wild. In the real world, the wild can be a dangerous place. In our own hearts we can come across some frightening things sometimes. What does Jesus’ journey teach us about those moments? Hopefully, we will glean some wisdom this morning, but first let us pray a prayer that is most appropriate for today. This particular version is from a book called “Irish Blessings” which I purchased in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is one of the many versions of St. Patrick’s Breast Plate. I invite you to pray it with me:

Christ be with me,
Christ be within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

St. Patrick’s Breast Plate from “Irish Blessings

We are looking today at the concept of wildness. I live here in the town of Maine and I have been walking around a lot praying recently. I am not walking as a part of my Lenten devotions. I have simply had a lot to pray over with the events of the world and in my denomination.

At least several times a week, I don my trusty hat, head lamp, grab a couple of plastic bags to attend to my dogs’ needs, and head out around the block. Normally we go around three times: once for each dog and once by myself.

I sometimes wonder if the dogs get bored with smelling the same places, marking the exact same spots, and being forced to sit on the cold ground each time a car comes by in the dark. I wonder if they tire of the same dogs barking desperately from the same yards, but we keep on walking the same path.

Why? I would love to head up into the hills, but I have been warned. When I first got here, there were stories of wild cats up in the woods above town. I do not know about that, but there are hungry creatures out in those woods, and my sheltie would be an easy snack for most of them. He isn’t the most vicious of creatures. Let’s be frank: the dog is a pushover.

Not exactly the toughest dog…

We stay in the valley because it is fairly safe. Besides the occasional loose dog, car driving a bit fast, and that one rabbit that keeps driving my dogs crazy, the valley is a fairly tame place. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were to go off into those hills.

I pondered this as I read this week’s text. We’re looking at the season of Lent as a journey into the wilderness. We are not talking about the wilderness outside ourselves. Lent is a journey into the wilderness of the soul. Just as Jesus wandered into the wilderness for forty days, we set aside these forty days to wander into our wilderness.

Here’s a simple truth: a journey into the wilderness will lead to personal challenge and difficult things. There are places in our souls that are often well worn, safe, and generally familiar if not routine paths. When we intentionally step out of our comfort zone, there are wild parts in all of us.

Let me give an easy example from my own story. Friday night I lay awake in bed. I am following John Wesley’s example and fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays this Lent, although I am doing a partial fast. I do not eat chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, or pork on those days. I also try to eat a little less than usual on those days.

Friday was a long day, and I found myself laying in bed dreaming of hamburgers. I lay in my bed with my phone and found myself googling recipes for potted anchovies to put on crackers. I was that hungry! I had eaten a few slices of cucumber as a snack only a few hours before bedtime. Surely that should have been enough, but my stomach growled. I wanted meat, and I wanted it right then. Enough of fasting, I wanted protein and I wanted it now. I was ravenous. I was hungry.

When we wander off of our normal paths by doing simple things even as small as cutting back, we find ourselves to be far wilder than we expected. If that’s what cutting back on a little extra food does to me, can you imagine how hard it can be when we come across the parts of ourselves that growl in our wilderness.

What happens when we come across a place in ourselves that needs to forgive? If a little of hunger can come across as an angry little sheltie barking at me for sacrificing something so small for Christ, what do you think the wolf of anger looks like as it slobbers in our wilderness? It takes a little more than saying “I need you to let it go” when those sharp teeth start slobbering.

The journey into ourselves will bring us across parts of ourselves that are not easy to deal with on our own. I am reminded of the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. Carl Sandburg wrote the following poem called “Wilderness:”

“There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.”

Wilderness” by Carl Sandburg

There is a wilderness inside all of us and the Lenten journey can bring it out. In the terms of Carl Sandburg, we run the zoo inside ourselves. To be honest, one of the reasons I believe that Lent is an important season is that it brings us into contact with that wildness inside us all. Lent teaches us about ourselves which is important because of a simple truth.

Everyone in the scriptures from Eve and Adam, to Sarah and Abraham, to Job, to Ezra, to Nehemiah, to King David, to Elijah, to Deborah, to Esther, to Paul of Tarsus, to Simon Peter, to Timothy, and even Jesus all faced moments where they had things go terribly wrong. We do not have records of all of those moments, but they all faced their challenges.

Deborah the Judge had to lead a nation unaccustomed to women in leadership. Esther was faced with decisions that could cost her life in order to save her people. Peter had to deal with shame after running after the cock crowed. Paul had to deal with the fact that he came to faith in Christ and was nearly shunned by his newly beloved family which he had harmed deeply. Each had moments where everything went wrong and it was by faith that each found their way through. Let’s be clear, sometimes they did not make it through without failure. King David clearly didn’t do well with women or the husband of one whom he sent to his death.

If the people of the Bible struggled with their own wolves, bears, and tigers, shouldn’t we expect the same? Lent is a season when we begin to explore the wilderness of our souls because sooner or later we will come across events that will shove us out of our valleys. When we come across the hungry wolves in our hearts, it can literally be life saving to have taken time to practice and learn our own strengths and weaknesses.

Spiritual formation may be over there… In the snowy woods…

So, how do we go about facing those challenges? I believe the first thing we must do is to stick to the course. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) that: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Our challenges, whether they be yappy shelties that want something to eat or wolves of anger–there is nothing so wild that it is unique to our lives. Some of the things we face may seem beyond our capability, but ask yourself this: What if Paul is right? What if you can overcome? What if we all could overcome?

Look at what Jesus is facing in today’s scripture reading. The Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him that Herod, the local king, wants him dead. They tell him to flee. First off, let’s be clear. This is coming from the Gospel of Luke and in Luke 23:8 we are told that Herod had long wanted to see Jesus so he could perform a sign. He and his soldiers mock Jesus along with the scribes and Pharisees, but Herod does not seem to want to kill Jesus at all. The Pharisees are lying to Jesus.

Jesus says he cannot die outside Jerusalem, mourns for Jerusalem, but still continues on his way. In the gospel of Luke it will be a long time until he reaches Jerusalem. He has a journey ahead of him, is already facing opposition, and will need to walk right into it.

One of the key truths passed down by the church is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. What that means in this case is that Christ is experiencing a human life. Do you believe that Jesus would not have faced his own worries in these moments? Do you wonder if he wouldn’t like all that power offered as a temptation in the wilderness when the very people he loves are trying to deceive and threaten him? As a human, I know I’d want that power in that moment. The wilderness temptation would ring in my ears like a gong.

So, here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t give in to desire or fear. He continues on his way. If Lent is the season of following the footsteps of Jesus, then we should note a few things about where Jesus’ journey goes from here:

First, Jesus remains committed to love. Even as he knows Jerusalem will be his end, Jesus is depicted as loving that city. She will be his end and yet Jesus longs to cradle her like a mothering hen cradles her chicks. Jesus does not react to those who will harm him with anger. Jesus responds with love.

Responding with love to a broken world is hard. When we go on our Lenten journey there are places where we will come across parts of the world, our neighbors, and even ourselves which seem dead set to foil us. Jesus responds with love. Should we seek to do anything less?

Second, Jesus goes forward despite the challenge: he doesn’t give up. There is a good deal of his journey ahead of him. He will face more trials and more tribulations. Despite the fact the pharisees threaten him, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. In chapter fourteen, the very next chapter, we find Jesus going to share a Sabbath meal with one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Jesus does not surrender to his fear but stays the course.

Third, Jesus remembers his journey isn’t a journey that he takes alone. Jesus walks the path with his disciples, who are not a perfect bunch of people. Jesus makes the journey with a community of faith and that is important for us to remember. The journey of Lent can often seem a lonely journey, but that is a misconception. It is easy to give in to the temptation to feel alone, but we are called to remember that we were called into community.

It seems strange to say, but one of the most important things we can do as a community during the season of Lent is to be together as a church. I am not simply talking about being together Sunday morning. Sharing a cup of tea with the person from another pew, praying for that neighbor who is struggling with cancer, or even stopping by the church office for a cup of tea with your pastor. All of these things can be important things we experience on this journey of faith through Lent.

I advise us all to remember that one of the worst things we can do on this journey is to cut ourselves off from others. I have seen many beloved family members in Christ either disconnect from community, become apathetic about remaining with their spiritual family, or “pick up their toys and go home” when life or community becomes difficult. Those approaches have almost never led to anything good for either the community or the individuals. The spiritual life is far better in community. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV) reminds us:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NRSV

Now let’s be clear, this is a season where we find the wild parts of ourselves, but the wild will come into our lives even outside of this season. These simple ways of following Christ’s example can be lifesaving ways of being even outside of these moments. So, even after this season, when the challenges of life snarl in your direction:

  1. Don’t react with panic–as much as possible respond with love.
  2. Stay the course despite the challenges
  3. Don’t isolate yourself: remain connected to God and church.

We all must face our own challenges. To go back to the source of our opening prayer and reference a likely apocryphal story, we may find ourselves in a land full of snakes. Like St. Patrick we are sometimes asked a question: Will the snakes drive you out of your island or will you drive the snakes out? As beloved children of our Creator, as followers of Christ’s example, and with the good counsel of our Advocate, the choice is before us.

Let us pray…

The Small Sacrifices

Sacrifice daily.
Ask where today’s food comes from
Once or twice a week.

The role of a pastor is partially the role of a teacher. Many people think of preaching as a separate activity from other activities like Bible study, but a lot of the role can be combined into the overall category of teaching. I teach on Sunday morning through both preaching and my leadership of worship. Often I believe I teach more on Sunday morning through sharing the words around communion and in prayers than I do in the sermon. Indeed, one of the challenges pastors face is when people believe that the sermon is the focus of worship.

There is absolutely no way that one can effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in just a few minutes a week. We teach beyond our sermons through the rest of worship, through Bible study, but also through things like conversations, social media, and blogging. One of the reasons I believe that the early church had such strident rules about what it took to be a leader in the church was that they understood the church leaders would be teaching and sharing with the community far more than just Sunday morning.

Today, I would like to try and teach a little bit about creation. Creation is where we all are in this moment. The air we breathe, the food we eat, and the land we live upon is all considered theologically to be a part of creation. Some of the earliest scriptures in the Bible (canonically) deal with the care of creation. Genesis 2:15 states that when humanity is placed into the world it is with the charge to care for where they are placed. Gardens are not self-tending and theologically humanity was made to garden. Indeed, in the earliest sections of Genesis humanity depended on plants for sustenance. Foraging is wonderful but civilization was built on gardens.

Let’s look at what it means if we are given the instruction to care for creation. How do we choose to care for the world? Do we do all that we can to damage it? Sometimes it does seem like that is our way of being, but is that destructive way theologically ethical?

What if there were ways to care for the world on a regular basis that did not ruin either your bank account or your way of life? What if the foods you choose could help the world to be a better place for everyone around? What if you invited the world to join you in that adventure?

A few months ago I was listening to a podcast called “The Splendid Table.” The episode I was listening to talked about eating anchovies. To be entirely honest, I was a bit horrified. My father invited us eat to a “blind robin” at midnight for good luck growing up and I wasn’t quite as big a fan of pickled foods at that time. I was very skeptical, but I looked into the idea of eating more seafood as a way to help make the world a better place.

Strangely, I did not begin my research at the library or on the internet. I had a grocery trip to run and looked at the canned fish. Several of the cans said “certified wild caught and sustainable.” Some digging led me to a United States Government Agency called “FishWatch.” There I was able to learn about how the Northern Anchovy is caught, how it has a low bycatch rate, and how it can be healthy (in moderation due to cholesterol levels).

I began to experiment with anchovies and sardines. I learned that sardines can be ground into meatballs to add a flavor that my family loves while replacing some of the meat with a more sustainable protein. As I used the seafood more regularly, it became more and more normal to my palate. Look at the picture of my daughter and you’ll see that it is no burden at all when you get used to eating something new.

What am I suggesting? Well This Lent my family and I are experimenting (on the adult end) with preparing meals with fish and tofu instead of chicken, pork, or beef on Wednesdays and Fridays. If it works well, we’ll likely continue the practice after Lent ends. It might not change the world immediately, but helping to create a world where people eat sustainably might be one of the best things we can do this season.

I invite you to pray about how you and your family might be called to care for our environment this season. If we are to tend this “garden,” it will likely take intentionality. I invite you to consider if this might be something which you might be called to do with your life.

“Into the Wilderness”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Jesus…

Two weeks ago I had the privilege to learn from Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi from Baylor University at the recent session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Learning from Professor Cardoza-Orlandi was a challenging experience. We were challenged on multiple levels about our understanding of Christianity in the global south. The lesson was very timely the week before General Conference.

One lesson has rung through my mind the last few days. The good professor taught us that the world’s Christians do not have the same privilege that I had in my community as a child. When you’re not the dominant religion in an area, some assumptions of both the world around you and your own traditions can shift. I keep hearing the question “Who is your Jesus?” It has been running through my mind.

I want to be clear. I appreciate the Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi enough to note that his opinions are not my opinion. I also want to be clear that my opinions do not need to be shared by everyone else in the body of Christ and this is alright with me. There’s enough room in the Kin-dom of God for there to be diversity.

So, who is my Jesus? My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.

My grammar checker had an issue with the phrase: “My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.” I find this to be semi-hilarious.

My Jesus is the Jesus whom Paul comes to know and eventually says “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

My Jesus is the Jesus who throws the door open to a larger kin-dom (kindom) than imagined. My Jesus used the Apostles to share the gospel beyond traditional bounds. In Acts 8:26–40 the family is stretched to include a eunuch, which lest we forget is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Why shouldn’t you be baptized, Eunuch of Ethiopia? Well, because: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I guess that rule did not apply anymore.

My Jesus reached out to Romans and other Gentiles through Peter who is unequivocally told in Acts 10: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” My Jesus was there in the Holy Conferencing that took place in Acts 15:6-29 which opened the doors further. By the way, the Holy Spirit continued to pour itself out on those who engaged in fornication, hence we still have children’s moments where children born of believers come to be blessed. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church has not attempted to remove folks who are married and have children from leadership like several other major Christian denominations.

What’s more and what keeps ringing through my head is the story of the woman accused of adultery. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is accused of an extramarital affair. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.

Nobody stones her. Nobody there is apparently without sin. Jesus says “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Now, first of all, yes Jesus says do not sin again. To be entirely fair, she is very fortunate Jesus is there to offer this moment of protective grace. I may prevent a child from being beaten up in a parking lot on an afternoon, but if the child keeps walking through the parking lot when I am not there… There is more than one way of looking at that second sentence.

What is amazing is that in all the readings of this scripture, one thing was never pointed out to me. Jesus says “I do not condemn you.” Who is the one who has the ability to condemn sins? Who has the authority to forgive sins? If it is Christ, Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you” hold divine authority. She is forgiven.

What’s further, in a crowd full of people who have sin (including the woman accused of adultery), it is this woman alone who leaves forgiven of her sins. Hebrews 10:4 says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The folks may leave to go and make an offering for their own sinful behavior, but it is Christ alone who forgives.

Now, I cannot say that God’s love does not extend to these folks. Judgment is God’s alone, but I can say that in this moment there is only one person in the crowd we can claim is absolutely forgiven by Christ’s own words. The woman accused of adultery is the only one explicitly told “I do not condemn you…” We can even go further to point out Jesus did not stop the crowd from leaving by saying “Wait! Hold on! God understands and your sins will be forgiven. Throw those stones!”

My Jesus is the Jesus who forgives. My Jesus is the one through whom I baptize children into the Kindom of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My Jesus is the one who accepts those children even before they grow up into whatever person they may become in their adult days.

My Jesus is the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors. My Jesus hangs out at Alcoholics Anonymous and in rehab centers. My Jesus sits with the homeless in the cold. My Jesus does a ton of caring through the children of the Kindom who bring food for community suppers, supply food pantries, donate towards medical supplies, walk alongside LGBTQIA+ folks as they struggle with depression and expulsion, cry with those imprisoned falsely in jails, mourn with those who are imprisoned fairly, and do every sort of thing they can in order to be with God’s children. Yes, all children are God’s children.

My Jesus is a pretty awesome Jesus. My Jesus is the reason I did not give up my faith after I grew up into adulthood. Some behavior that I have seen recently does not square up with that Jesus, but I need to be clear: My Jesus is worth following down the narrow path of life. I most certainly will follow that Jesus and will not be one of those who trample “under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?… It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:29-31, NASB)

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,

“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired,
But a body You have prepared for Me;
In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure.
“Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come
(In the scroll of the book it is written of Me)
To do Your will, O God.’”

After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will write them,”

He then says,

“And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more.”

Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:4-31, NASB

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.

Poetry and Prayer

Poems
Contemplation
Seeing with open eyes
Expressing reasons for wonder
Poems

“Poems” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the Vale” by Robert Frost, 1915

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

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

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

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

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

Open, 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.

Room for the Weird

The other night something caught my eye when I was reading the introduction written by S. T. Joshi in “American Supernatural Tales.” Mr. Joshi was discussing a statement made by William Hazlitt in 1829 in the Edinburgh Review. Mr. Hazlitt believed the ages of ghosts had passed (along with ignorance and superstition) before the United states came into existence.

Mr. Hazlitt’s assertion itself did not catch my eye. What caught my eye was the way Mr. Joshi reframed the issue. Mr. Hazlitt asked:

“Since so much of supernatural fiction appears to find the source of its terrors in the depths of the remote past, how can a nation that does not have much of a past express the supernatural in literature?”

J. T. Hazlitt in the Introduction to “American Supernatural Tales”
Who wore it better? The cat on the cover of “American Supernatural Tales” or Pepper the cat?

How can a nation without a past express itself in supernatural literature? Does this question only apply itself to the original context? Can a nation with such a short memory for history express itself in these arenas?

This approach to the question intrigued me. How can one write good fiction that defies reality if one lives in an age where reality is black and white? Werewolves and Dr. Frankenstein’s monsters are entities of a time when such things were plausibly close to real, but just beyond reality. Our age is an age of scientific marvels, which is perhaps why our science fiction is extensive and excellent, but much of horror is jump scares and the monstrosity of humanity. Are there truly unique monsters in our age?

Mr. Hazlitt points out that H. P. Lovecraft wrote of William Faulkner’s tale “A Rose for Emily,” that: “… this is a dark and horrible thing which could happen, whereas the crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen.” For something to be truly weird, it could not possibly happen…

All of these things raise a question in me: Can the weird still happen? Can things exist that could not possibly happen? In an age when the internet, technology, animation, and raw processing power make almost anything imaginable come to the screen, does the weird still exist? Can the weird still draw us into a special place where the natural laws and rules of things no longer apply?

I ask this in all sincerity because I believe that Mr. Lovecraft was correct. A weird tale requires something that could not possibly happen. Also, God is weird.

We live in an age bombarded with information and with possibility. We are living in the middle of the longest government shutdown in American history, which would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. Some of the most unfathomably large comic book stories of a medium that is blessed to present stories from one frame at a time have been brought off of the paper onto the screen. The modern equivalent of gods and goddesses walk on the silver screen when stories of far-off worlds are not being portrayed. We live in a world of possibility.

Is there still room in the midst of all of that information for the world to find the weirdness of God? Can God be weird if we keep swallowing all of that stuff without pausing to chew? What’s more, does all of this make life better?

I love superhero movies and science fiction, but they are like everything else: they are good in moderation. I enjoy watching humorous videos and listening to Weird Al, but they are like everything else: they are good in moderation. When the mind is filled with too much stuff, there is less room for imagination, creativity, and weirdness.

I like the universe to be a little weird. I like there to be a space where the weird God can be set apart from reality. We used to call that set apart weirdness holiness. As much as I love science fiction and superheroes, can a nation with neither an attention span for the past nor space for palpable weirdness really engage with the weird? Can we engage with God? If the space is too crowded, is there room in ourselves to step back and take space?

“Full Pews” – Snowy Day Reflection

The snow falls on a church holding one soul. Drifting snow causes roads to be treacherous or closed, but the space is full. The baptismal font is empty; yet echoes memories of families blessed. The carpet where chancel meets nave shows evidence of drips of communion juice. Tears shed by coffins never seem to stain. The stilled piano rings with neither spirituals nor hymns. The organ holds its breath. This place is quiet; yet it is not empty. Memories fill this place from altar to narthex.

The pews are all full.
Deep snow is no barrier
where memories dwell...
The sanctuary on Sunday during worship time during a “No Unnecessary Travel” Advisory

Thank you to some generous drivers approximately 80 years ago

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

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

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

Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness and Light

Breakfast scent reaches far—
Wafting through all warm safe homes…
A shared moonstruck myth.

Rev. Robert Dean

Today marks the beginning of a new year. 2019 is here. I have many hopes for this new year, but I found myself unwilling to answer a question my wife asked our family at breakfast this morning. My wife asked “What are your hopes for 2019?”

My problem with her question was not that I had no answer. I have many answers for her question. I would love a great many things to happen over the next year. I would enjoy a happy year for my children and for the healing of some wounds that came to the surface in 2018. I would feel blessed if my ministry thrived and if I could see tangible results of God’s work in my life. I would enjoy many of these things a great deal.

My challenge with her question comes from the fact that 2018 helped to inject my theology and my thoughts with the wisdom of different centuries of Christianity. Would I be happy if my ministry thrived at the expense of another group of sisters and brothers in the faith? Would I find meaning in my children being blessed while other children nearby continue to suffer through the belief that nobody cares for them?

It clarified my thoughts on these matters as I entered my devotion this morning. I am working through Upper Room’s resource “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and found myself working through the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. The book describes Dr. Jenkins as an “author, spiritual director, and licensed psychologist.”

Today’s reflections were on finding the light in the darkness’s midst and revolved around Matthew 25:31-46, which is the story of the division of the sheep and goats at the end of things. While reflecting on this passage, Dr. Jenkins wrote intriguingly about the light and the darkness.

The first thing that caught my eye was that we must find light by first finding darkness. This idea caught my eye as someone who has struggled in the past and is continuing to struggle with eye issues. In particular, it reminded me of the time they removed my eye patch after my corneal transplant.

When the eye patch was removed, everything was bright. I had spent days with my eye covered and everything was bright. My eye had become so accustomed to the darkness that everything I saw, from the smallest led light to the intensely bright light shining through the clouds sent pain through my head. I do not believe I realized how bright headlights truly were until we went for a ride that evening.

I did not understand how powerful light was until that period of darkness. In the same way, it can be very difficult to find light in this world if we do not first see the darkness. Dr. Jenkins points out in the passage in the Disciplines that we instinctively avert our eyes from the darkness.

In my experience as a minister, that reality is true. When I was minister of a church that hosted an Alcoholics Anonymous group, I often heard more in conversation around the state of the fellowship hall after meetings than I did about how brave the women and men were facing their struggles. Ironically, I think the AA group left the hall cleaner than we did on Sunday mornings!

To be clear, at the church I once served, the complaints were few and far between, the church never talked about removing their access to the space, and they did their best to make sure AA could continue meeting in the church’s space. The point I am attempting to make is that it was far easier to discuss a trashcan accidentally left full than it was to talk about how amazingly brave the folks were who came to face their struggles. Like Dr. Jenkins said, it is human nature to avert our eyes from the darkness and churches are filled with humans.

Dr. Jenkins also does a wonderful job at pointing out that the places of darkness are where this passage states we will find Jesus. He states:

“Jesus himself told us where to look: among the hungry, thirsty, alien, vulnerable, sick, and imprisoned. From their dark predicament, their faces will reveal the light… the light of Christ appears to those who step into the night with the lowly.”

Dr. Jenkins in “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

What Dr. Jenkins states tracks with the passage. Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

All of it begs a question for me. If you’re wondering where Jesus is in this topsy turvy world, have you looked among the least? If you’re wondering how you can make the world a brighter place amid a world filled with darkness, have you brought your light into the life of people like those listed in Matthew 25?

Let’s be clear, I’m not recommending giving money for others to do the work, although I am certain that is a blessing. I am not even recommending that you send money to the church to support our ministries because that is not my goal. I am asking if you personally have walked alongside the kind of folks where you might find the light of Jesus? Have you faced the darkness enough to recognize the light?

All of this calls to mind the words of Dr. Amy Oden that I was reading the other day in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity.” She writes:

“Christians of the first three centuries certainly understood themselves to be aliens, pilgrims in this world with citizenship in another. Given their political location in the Roman Empire, it is not surprising that stranger status would be a primary way Christians understood themselves and their place in the world. These Christians frequently remind one another that their true allegiance is not with the powers of this world and they must hold a sort of double consciousness, seeking to be good citizens in their communities yet never fully at home in the world.”

Dr. Amen Oden in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity”

Perhaps it would be easier to see the darkness if we were to more fully grasp this understanding of our reality. In my experience, church folks tend to look at those who struggle in darkness and say “How can I help them out of their struggle?” We might do well to ask how their journey is similar to our journey. We may be blessed to ask how our journey might intertwine with their journey. Perhaps we should see ourselves less as those who have everything together and instead as people who are on our own journey as pilgrims and aliens through this world.

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!

“Supper Table” Questions

Today I began reading a new book I have been anticipating. I picked up a kindle version of “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne” by Dr. Wilda Gafney. I have to admit that I am excited by the voice Dr. Gafney uses in her writing. It will be no surprise to most that I immediately caught on to her conversation around the kitchen table in her home. I love this quote: (Gafney, p. 2)

“All are welcome at this table, and as a sign of that welcome I offer not only dishes I like; I try to meet the dietary needs of my guests—which is not the same as cooking exactly what they want exactly the way they want. I am no short-order cook…”

Dr. Gafney proposes to use the narrative of the supper table as a structure for her book. Even reading through the introduction, it makes sense. Her conversation intends to: (Gafney, p. 7)

“[affirm] the interpretive practices of black women as normative and as holding didactic value for other readers, womanist interpretation makes room at the table of discourse for the perspectives of the least privileged among the community and the honored guest of any background: the child who is invited into ‘adult’ conversation around the table with ‘Baby, what do you think?’ and the extra place at the table for whoever may come by.”

The concept of the extra place at the table excites me. As an introverted person, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with people I respect and listen to their conversations. I probably spoke too much in seminary. A few years out with a few years of pastoral experience, I wish I had spent more time listening, especially to the strange voices I did not understand.

I am enjoying this book. I feel as if there is plenty at the table. Let me give an example of how Dr. Gafney asks some amazing questions. I plan to chew the ideas over for a while and will hopefully encourage you to pull up a chair at the table.

Here‘s my personal example of how this book inspires questions. It is a few weeks before Advent. We are facing the same story that is retold time and time again. I could easily polish an old sermon, but who likes reheated leftovers in a season of feasting.

Instead, what if I were to look at some principles Dr. Gafney presents (p. 8) and ask myself hard questions? Have I given voice to Elizabeth in the past? Have I ever deeply pondered her place in the story? Is there room for a woman’s story in this season focused around the coming of Christ? Have I made room for that story? Have I checked to see if that story honors the African roots of the text?

These questions are powerful. I admit these questions are convicting. If I look at Dr. Gafney’s four womanist principles, the well draws deeper (p. 8). Do my words as a European male legitimize other voices including the biblical interpretation of black women? Does my ministry allow for the inherent value of each person in the text and in the community interpreting the text? Do I allow conversation with the text so that there is room for conversation outside of my personal cultural sphere? If we don’t make that room, can we rightfully expect diversity in our churches? Dr. Gafney does not ask this outright, but If we do not make that healthy room, should we hold ourselves accountable for that failure?

I believe these questions are especially important for me as a European male minister in a very homogeneous ministry setting. I am appointed to serve in a town surrounded with roads where someone from outside the hamlet will likely pass Confederate flags or road signs tagged with swastikas to reach the church. I serve in a town where you must travel by car to find any significant diversity in population. Who will ask these questions if I abstain?

Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by Dr. Gafney’s book. I do not want to engage in cultural misappropriation. I respect her research and words. I want to honor her work and enjoy her scholarship as someone who at least tries to share the table. To paraphrase Dr. Gafney, I could go back and keep doing things the way I always have. I do not want to keep doing the same thing! I want to learn and experience new things!

There are moments already in my reading where I feel like I might belong at the kids’ table. Although, I will honestly say I do not sense there is a kids’ table in Dr. Gafney’s home. Maybe that is an American custom of European descendants? I do not know. I know I am looking forward to spending time with this book and recommend it to other folks who are interested in broadening their horizons.

Side note: Dr. Gafney (noted in the acknowledgment which doesn’t have a page number on my kindle edition) notes that Dr. Mark Brummitt helped to coin the phrase “womanist midrash.” If it is the same Dr. Brummitt, he was one of my favorite seminary professors and at one point offered to be an emergency midwife if my wife went into labor the semester she was in his course while pregnant. If it is the same Mark Brummitt then it is a small world.

Today’s “Snowy Day” blogging vista! Those neon tetras really like the cover of Dr. Gafney’s book! If they keep this up, they’ll take my job…

Space for the joy of “gōd-spellen”

“God of peace,
you strive to set within us
a Gospel joy.
It is there, very nearby,
ever renewed by the trusting way
you behold our lives.”

–Brother Roger of Taizé

For today’s blog I wanted to contemplate this prayer by Brother Roger. Brother Roger’s book of prayers entitled “Praying in Silence of Heart: One Hundred Prayers.” This small paperback collection sits on my office desk for when I cannot find inspiration. As a result, Brother Roger occasionally appears in my sermons, blogs, and contemplations.

My copy of Brother Roger’s book of prayers.

This prayer catches me off guard. What catches my attention is how Brother Roger describes God as active. God strives, places, renews, and beholds. We may find joy within us, but it is a gifted joy. We are recipients of a gift. The joy we receive finds renewal in God’s action. We are passive in this transaction. We receive the gospel joy as God makes space in our souls.

I find this description both theologically sound and realistically upsetting. Theologically, God is a giver of grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The Holy Spirit is described in Galatians 5 as bringing about fruit in the lives of the believers including joy. In that passage joy is counted as a powerful fruit of the Spirit. Joy exists alongside the heavyweights love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Joy is not something that just comes about in life. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and the Spirit is a gift of grace and love.

Joy is often confused and seen as a synonym of happiness. Traditionally, joy was once something deeper than happiness. Joy was a feast compared to the fast food of happiness. One could be happy for a day, but joy was something with depth and breadth beyond a moment. One of the most irritating memories I have of the holiday season was seeing a poster in a fast-food restaurant asking proclaiming “Joy to the [mass produced and frankly questionable sandwich].” Nearly a decade later, I am still mad at that restaurant for insulting joy. I believe joy should never be used to designate something coming with a side of fries.

Still, I find this realistically upsetting. Why? If this is theologically sound, why be upset? I am upset because I want to force joy into parts of my life. If my wife and I are arguing, I want to force joy into that place of conflict. If my kid is screeching in time with the beating of my pulse through my headache, I want to force joy into my skull alongside peace. If there is a meeting where anger abounds, I want to force joy into that place.

Instead, I must let God renew my joy. I must open my heart and be patient. I must allow the gospel joy to come into my life through God’s work. If I spoke Middle English before around 950 CE, perhaps it would be more clear. When gospel was tied to the phrase go[d]spell (gōd-spellen), it might have been more obvious. Sometimes we must let there be time for the words of the God spell to be spoken into our lives.

So, there’s a prescription offered by Brother Roger. We must let God work in us to find our joy renewed. May we all have the patience to let God renew the joy within us.

Let Us Ramble: On Baptismal Hope

Blessings friends. Sunday was an exciting Sunday at our church and in my own house. We celebrated worship with Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams, Associate Conference Minister of the New Conference of the United Church of Christ. We heard a powerfully thoughtful sermon on Christ’s love, shared communion, and eventually shared in a moment of sacramental beauty as my daughter was baptized. It was a holy and powerful moment as she was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday ended with memories of friends gathered, love shared, and God’s baptismal grace entering into the life of a child of God. As a parent, it was one of those moments where everything happens seemingly in a blur. Our church family has a new baptized member! What a joyful day!

Who knows where this newly baptized child of God will go? Reflecting back, I find myself drawn to reflect on “Our Time for Younger Disciples.” I shared with the children a reality. On Friday night I had sat with my friend and colleague Emily. Emily is preparing to welcome her third child into the world. She’s a woman of God who is called into ministry while living life as a mother similar to the way I am a man of God called into ministry while living life as a father. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

Rev. Dr. Marsha has a really cool title. She’s an Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ and she has earned her doctorate. On an aside, while I do not aspire to Conference leadership in any denomination, I will admit that I want a doctorate someday. Anyway, Marsha is descended from a different part of the human family than my European roots and claims her African heritage with justifiable pride. We look very different. We’re married to two very different (but amazing) women, work out our call in different contexts, and each have our own traditions. We both look my ministers and pull portions of the same yoke for Jesus. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I also shared with our younger friends that I have a friend at the Academy for Spiritual Formation named Hyunho. He’s a child of God from another completely different part of the human family who happily lives into his identity as a child with roots from South Korea. Hyunho is an Elder in the United Methodist Church like me! He is thoughtful, kind, intellectual, gracious, and kind. Hyunho has a humble and loving spirit that I long to have in my own life. His community’s practices and beliefs have inspired his approach to ministry within a cross-cultural appointment. In the midst of all of our differences, we are both called. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I think back on these differences and similarities because God calls us all. The child we baptized Sunday may be called by God to be a scientist, a minister, a teacher, a nurse, or anything else. Each of the children who came forward for the children’s moment Sunday might be called to something different and strange—they will be called to believe in themselves and who they are called to be in this life! I hope our kids in church remember that God calls each of us. We are all called to be children of God—each and every one of us. I hope they live into the love of God that draws them near.

Let us Ramble: Approaching Ten Years

Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.

Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.

Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.

taize-silence

I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:

“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”

I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.

Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.

I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.

If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.

That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)

“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.

The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.

“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”

We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.

The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.

To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.

Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:

“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”

Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.

In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:

“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”

Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?

There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.

Let us Ramble: Prayer and Worship

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of sitting in worship. My wife has been spending a lot of time with the good folks of the Newark Valley United Church of Christ. Once a month they have been having an evening worship service with communion. My family and I attend this service for two reasons. One, it is wonderful to support my wife by going to a church of her choice, which is a rarity as most Sunday mornings I am where I am appointed. Two, it is an opportunity to sit in worship as a person and not as the leader. Sunday morning is a time of worship for me, but I rarely get the privilege of listening to another preacher work through the word of God with the people of God.

So, Sunday night, Pastor Chris Xenakis, a colleague and the pastor of the Groton Community Church, was visiting to preach, serve communion, and lead worship. After his sermon, Chris said something to the effect of “Prayer is the most important part of worship. In many ways, all of worship is a prayer.” Pastor Xenakis is a wise man.

Chris’ words kept ringing through my ears after I returned home. After I realized that it was not going to go away until I figured out why it was bugging me, I went hunting through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I found the source of my distraction in “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology.” In that anthology, Bishop Theophan (1815-1894) of the Orthodox persuasion, is quoted as saying the following in the second chapter under the subheading “The test of everything”:

“Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”

The affirmation of prayer by Bishop Theophan is deep, thought-provoking, and reminiscent of what Pastor Xenakis said during the service. Prayer is seen in this concept as that which exists at the heart of everything. Prayer provides everything, drives everything, and directs everything. The bold statement is made that everything is right when prayer is right.

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My thought-provoking copy of “The Art of Prayer”

These concepts tug at my thoughts in deep ways. What is life but an act of worship? We worship when we use our resources to God’s glory. We worship when we choose to use our time wisely. We worship when we treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves with love. We worship when we tend to the world in which we have been placed. All of life can be seen as an invitation to worship. If all worship is a prayer, then truly prayer is at the very heart of our existence.

So, the question then becomes obvious. How do we know if our prayer is right? What litmus test can we apply to our actions, our stewardship, and our relationships that can show whether we are on the right track?

I believe the answer is love. Do our actions exhibit love? Do our prayers lead to more love? If God is love, then we should strive to be more loving. If God is love, then our actions should point towards the Source of love. If God is love, then we are invited to join in the great dance of love through Christ. I believe the true litmus test of our lives is whether or not we are sources of love like the one we worship and claim as our savior.

Inevitably, someone will question whether or not Jesus’ suffering was in line with the idea of prayer not allowing anything to go wrong. In the end, Jesus conquered his suffering and death. As a resurrection people, we are a people who understand that sometimes all is made well on the other side of suffering, struggle, and occasionally death. Can we be patient enough to allow all to be made well? Can we be patient enough to allow things to be made right even when it seems they all have gone wrong?

In the meantime, I am grateful that I went to the evening service on Sunday. It is nice to be in worship and to have the opportunity to both sing from the pews and to hear a good sermon. I will probably keep thinking about Chris’ words on worship and how Bishop Theophan invites us from across the centuries to ponder whether those prayers are the test of everything.

Let us Ramble: On Gluten-Free Communion

Today I intend to ruffle some feathers. I do not often choose to intentionally poke my head into controversial affairs, but I was recently the subject of several heated arguments around a practice our church has adopted for 2018. In 2018 our church is serving gluten-free communion bread to all people who come to the communion table.

I would love to say the most heated debates were in the church, but honestly, the church was not at the heart of the biggest debates. The biggest debates have taken place in my family’s kitchen. The phrase “Never discuss politics or religion” does not hold much water in a minister’s house. Discussions with family members often stray into religious matters and there are few things as capable of bringing consternation into a family meal than conversations around things held as holy as the sacraments. I am blessed to have an extended family who can live with differences of opinion as long as they say their piece. Regardless, I have learned to never bring this subject again during Easter dinner. I’m guessing it would not go over well at Christmas or Thanksgiving either.

Still, I am passionate about this subject, even as I understand the reticence of folks to having anything change. If a church has had the same type of bread for the past 50 years, it can be hard to understand why they need to change because of others. Would it not be enough if we were to put a couple of gluten free wafers on a plate? Why should we all have to “suffer” from having bad bread in order to allow one or two people an easier time coming to communion?

Well, I have theories and responses to those questions. First, let’s deal with the idea of having two loaves of bread. Consider the words from the “Service of Word and Table I” in the United Methodist Hymnal: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” While the body may be shared in other churches with different loaves, there is something powerful about witnessing that in the local church we are all sharing in one loaf as one body. There is no division when we share one loaf.

The other questions about suffering bad bread and about changing our own behavior will take a bit more nuance. I will say there is a thing called bad bread. Bad bread comes from people who have not taken the time to learn how to make bread. As we currently have a study based on the spirituality that can be drawn from bread baking, we are currently creating a crop of good bakers who may be able to rise (pun intended) to that particular challenge.

So, let’s go deep. In 2004 the church adopted the document “This Holy Mystery.” The document laid out the groundwork for the United Methodist Church’s understanding of the sacrament of communion. The document is a deep document, which has been reprinted in subsequent Books of Resolution, including the 2016 Book of Resolutions.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from “This Holy Mystery” found in the subsection labeled “Communion Elements.” The excerpt speaks on the use of alcohol at the communion table:

“Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations
have always used wine in the Eucharist. During the movement against beverage
alcohol in the late nineteenth century, the predecessor bodies of The United
Methodist Church turned to the use of unfermented grape juice. This continues to be the position of the denomination.”

There is a tradition of using alcoholic wine at the communion table. Despite that tradition, the United Methodist Church does not use alcohol at the communion table. We share in the unfermented fruit of the vine. Why buck tradition to engage in a practice that differs from so many other denominations? Our church felt a call to battle the spirits of spirits and we continue to stand against the abuses of alcohol. Consider what it says in ¶3042 of the 2016 Book of Resolutions:

“As God’s children and participants in the gift of abundant life, we recognize the need to respond to those who know brokenness from the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs in our world. The experience of God’s saving grace offers wholeness to each individual. In light of the reality of alcohol and other drug abuse, the church has a responsibility to recognize brokenness and to be an instrument of education, healing, and restoration.”

Consider the words and the implications of this responsibility to recognize, educate, heal, and restore those struggling with alcoholism. Our love of these individuals has moved us as a denomination to do something strange. We recognized the problem and as a church we chose to change instead of continuing to follow tradition. Compassion and wisdom moved the church to consider the challenge faced by individuals. The church was convicted.

If you are not familiar with life in most churches, change is a difficult idea. For some people, change is a four letter word. Despite the power of tradition, inertia, and complacency, an entire denomination decided to do something different for the sake of people who had a need. The church felt a responsibility upon recognizing the brokenness of individuals. This motivated them to do things differently.

I can personally attest that there are folks who do not come forward at communion because of a number of factors. Some people think those wafers are nasty and they usually are pretty bad. I have to agree and sometimes admit that the gluten-variety are no picnic either. That being said, if we’re serving wafers, which occasionally happens when plans go askew, we can all suffer together.

Some people do not come forward because of embarrassment. Why are they embarrassed? Sadly, snide comments about having gluten-free communion is one reason. Some people believe they are drawing attention away from communion if they confuse things by asking for something different. Some people believe others will judge them for “wanting to be different” even if they have an actual concern like celiac’s disease.

For these folks, I will name the brokenness. The Lord’s table is a place of welcome and grace. If embarrassment keeps people from participating in this means of grace, the situation needs to be addressed. To avoid the difficulty being faced by individuals for the sake of our own comfort is selfish. In United Methodist tradition, the sacrament is a form of blessing from God. Our lives are literally made better by participating in the sacrament. How could we look at the table, see there are people who feel excluded, and not work to address the situation?

In other words, if we have to choose between our gluten-filled tradition and the possibility (in our church the certainty) that a gluten-free change will help to bless more people, are we not obligated to consider a change? If the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, are we not obligated to make certain that they are welcome at the communion table? In this odd, strange, topsy-turvy world, doesn’t our own integrity demand action?

The bread to be and several tools. Bob’s Red Mill does not sponsor me, although we would be happy to pray for them if they mailed us a couple of coupons. Gluten-free flour isn’t cheap!

Now, I want to be clear. I do not believe in judging other churches or other ministers. Each church has to make their own decisions. As far as my ministry is concerned, I am always seeking to draw the circle of inclusion wider. I will keep trying to serve gluten-free communion as often as possible to make certain people are not left out. So, wish me luck as I seek to perfect gluten-free bread making despite the fact that I personally add extra gluten to the bread I make for my family. Pray for me as well, because it is difficult to educate when you only have a few minutes on any given communion Sunday.