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.

Let Us Ramble: On Split Animals

So, after the busyness of the Lenten season and a week taken away to provide childcare for my three children during their spring break, I am back in the saddle again. In the next few weeks I will be preparing for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and then it is time to prepare for Annual Meetings, so you can guess the direction of posts as those events draw closer.

In the meantime, in between changing diapers for my smiler and breaking up youthful hijinks between the two elder gooseballs, I have been pondering a passage from the Book of Genesis. In particular, I have been thinking about the nature of covenant.

As a pastor, I am surrounded by covenantal relationships. I have a covenant with God in my own personal spiritual life, a covenant with my wife to remain faithful until death parts us, a covenant with God to care for the children I have been entrusted with as a parent, a covenant with God to care for the people I minister with in my appointment as a minister, a covenant with the Maine Federated Church to support this local church, a covenant exists between the United Methodist Church and the Maine Federated Church that sets the guidelines for how the church cares for me and the parsonage in which I live, a covenant with the United Church of Christ to minister on their behalf in this community, a covenant between myself and other United Methodist Elders in my Conference’s Order of Elders, a covenant between myself and all pastors and deacons that serve within our common denomination, and finally a covenant with myself. Like I said, there’s a lot of covenant relationships in my life.

If that run-on sentence above doesn’t prove the point that it makes sense that I think about covenant a lot, then let me just assure you that I do think seriously about covenant and covenantal requirements often. Covenants are often conflicting and challenging. Which covenant takes priority on a daily basis? Do I spend another night away this month at another meeting or do I spend time with my children who sometimes don’t really see me except an hour a day some weeks? Do I sit in the office and wait for someone to come by the church or go visit people who cannot leave their homes? Do I blog about the nature of covenant or do I spend another few hours writing letters to church members? Covenants are complicated.

Genesis 15 lays out a sign of the covenant that is quite gruesome. Animals are split into two pieces and in the midst of the night a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot pass between the two lines of animal parts. It seems a bit gross, but the reality behind the imagery is even more frightening. In covenantal language, the promise is made. May I become like these animals (split in two) if I break this covenant. The severity of the response to a break in covenant is intentionally graphic, intentionally troubling, and intentionally recorded for the people so that they understand the importance of their covenant with God.

So, being surrounded by covenants, what do we do? Do we look at our relationship with God as being so important that we might be divided in two if we were to break it? Do we look at our relationship in the marriage covenant as being so powerfully binding? I have never been divorced, but many of the people I know who have been through the process refer to it as being a traumatic and spiritually violent process—almost as if they were torn in two. Do we look at our relationships we share with our beloved family in the church the same way? I know few places where a falling out can be as traumatic as in a church. Hearts break in those circumstances.

In honesty, where I found myself pondering covenant a lot this week was while thinking about the United Methodist Church. Are we facing a breaking in covenant as a whole? Have we been so brutally biased in our approaches to each other, to the looming conversations, and in our application of church politics that we have missed basic concepts such as loving each other? Has a lack of love led to a breaking of covenant? Are we tearing ourselves apart in some literally testimony to the concept that broken covenant leads to torn relationship and a torn body split in two?

As we go through this season of resurrection, what does it mean to go forward in covenant with a God who moves past death into life? There is much to ponder this Eastertide. I pray that we all go forward with love and peace.

Let us Ramble: Diving Inside

It has been no secret that I have been attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation through Upper Room Ministries over the past 9 months. Once a season, I have travelled to Malvern, Pennsylvania to meet with holy conversation partners and teachers about a variety of spiritual traditions and how they can affect the way we approach spirituality. As much as there is an academic side to the studies, I have found the program to be highly practical and personal.

For our upcoming session, we are looking at both the (w)holiness of the relationship between our physical bodies and our spiritual selves as well as Orthodox spirituality. By Orthodox I mean literally Orthodox Church spirituality—there has not been a ton of lectures teaching heretical matters or anything of that nature.

On a side note, the Academy has actually been a great place to have open discussions on spirituality from a great range of Christian (and Jewish!) traditions without a need for those kinds of arguments, which has been really refreshing after a long traditional education where argument and counter-argument sometimes seemed to be at the heart of the formative process. To put it simply, the Academy is more about discipleship than conversion, which is why I adore my time at the Academy and recommend it highly for people who are tired of argument and long for personal formation. Yes, by the way, it is open to clergy and laity—both are welcome and appreciated in my experience.

While I will admit that a lot of the Academy preparation for the next session makes me nervous as my back has been acting up and I understand that things like yoga might challenge it during the next session, I find myself coming back again and again to the readings for the Orthodox spirituality section of the Academy. In particular, I am working my way through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, edited by Timothy Ware, and translated by E. Kadloubovsky and F. M. Palmer.

My copy of “The Art of Prayer” along with a subtle suggestion of another cool book filled with very cool resources for next month for all of my Irish loving friends.

A quote has stuck out to me in the introduction by Timothy Ware. Ware quotes Theophan the Recluse as saying “The principal things is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before [God] unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” Related to the depth of this idea, on the sixty third page of the anthology (which is where the quote Ware was citing in the introduction resides in the anthology) Theophan writes: “Every prayer must come from the heart, and any other prayer is no prayer at all. Prayer-book prayers, your own prayers, and very short prayers, all must issue forth from the heart to God, seen before you.”

In our church we have been in a lot of deep conversations lately. I personally have been in several conversations where we have had deep debate over leadership from the heart and leadership from the head. Does compassion rule the day when making decisions? Does regulation designed to protect us have the final word in conversation? Does the advice of wise denominational officials have weight equal to the advice of our hearts?

The conversations have been deep, thoughtful, and often stressful in nature. To some extent, some of these conversations have had a depth and thoughtfulness I have not seen since some of those deep lunch table debates in seminary which took place between impassioned people with differing knowledge, tradition, and convictions.

I continue to find myself drawn back to these Orthodox Spirituality concepts in these conversations. Ware connects all parts of the self (identified in his worldview as body, soul, and spirit) through the combining connector known as the heart. The heart is intertwined with the body, the soul, and the spirit in a way that is uniting. On the eighteenth page, Ware says:

“The term ‘heart’ is of particular significance in the Orthodox doctrine of man. When people in the west today speak of the heart, they usually mean the emotions and affections. But in the Bible, as in most ascetic texts of the Orthodox Church, the heart has a far wider connotation. It is the primary organ of [a human’s] being, whether physical or spiritual; it is the centre of life, the determining principle of all of our activities and aspirations…it embraces in effect everything that goes to comprise what we call a ‘person.’”

Today’s post is called “diving inside.” I titled the post this way due to the fact that I have been spending much of the past week diving inside of myself in the midst of these deep conversations and asking questions of myself. If I led (or lived) only from the head, could I stand before God with a soul and spirit that has gone ignored? If I led (or lived) only from the heart, could I stand before God with soul and a body that had been ignored? How could a soul even survive before God without that spirit of courage tended by Jesus or that head full of knowledge that has formed me into who I am today? In short, diving into my life’s conversations lately, I wondered if in any circumstance or path I chose, could I possibly stand before God in my heart without my conviction shattering me into a thousand little pieces?

I do not find it coincidental that the Jesus prayer rests deeply within Orthodox spirituality. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Pondering these matters, I have regularly found myself praying this prayer over the past few weeks, but not solely this prayer.

For me, this prayer is held in contrast with the Lord’s prayer. I am making an audacious or possibly even a (forgive me, but this is literally the right word for the situation) bodacious request when I ask God to lead me besides still waters (Psalm 23 runs through my mind when I see God’s reign and God’s will being done in heaven—I am aware it is technically not in the prayer), when I ask God’s will to be done on earth despite the fact that I need forgiveness for my trespasses, or even when I ask God for daily bread. There’s a sense of an almost arrogant familiarity and assurance in the Lord’s prayer that stands at odds with the pure humility found in the Jesus prayer. The two prayers speak from two very different places.

As I have been diving into these deep conversations and into my own spirit, soul, mind, and especially my heart, I found myself grateful for both prayers. There have been times during these conversations when I have felt the only thing I could reasonably ask of God for myself was the mercy that comes from a place of pure and utter prostration before God’s throne. There have also been times when I have had the assurance to know that the daily bread I needed was the ability to extend compassion from a place of confidence, eyes wise enough to look past fear towards the brightest possible outcome while others struggled with fear and anxiety, and even at time to find hope in Christ’s provision even as the conversation needed insight far beyond the wisdom held by mere mortals like me.

I am reminded of the words our ordination class responded with at Annual Conference when asked “Wesley’s Historic Questions” (which are asked of every United Methodist minister). Every time we were asked a “Will you…” question, we responded “With God’s help, I will.”

In many cases, daily life is like answering those questions. Do I know the answer to every difficult question I face in ministry? Heavens, no. Do I make mistakes? Most assuredly I have made mistakes and will likely continue to make mistakes in the future. Do I have faith in Jesus Christ? Yes. Will I continue to seek after Christ? With God’s help, I will. Will I do my best to live my life from a place of peace where all parts of me can coexist? With God’s help, I will. With all this in mind, will I live my life in such a way that I can stand before God in my heart in prayer? With God’s help, I will.

In the end, I believe that Theophan the Recluse was correct. Every prayer must come from the heart. Since that is true, I must not only guard my heart. I must tend my heart like a garden, After all, in Matthew 15:10-20, the gospels record that Jesus taught that it is not what we eat that defiles us, but what comes comes out of the heart. If I am to stand before God, I must tend my heart zealously. To quote the New International Version of Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If the Orthodox spirituality of Ware is correct, that guarding and tending of my heart means caring for what exists within me, in my body, in my spirit, and in my soul. With God’s help, I will.

Let us Ramble: An Arresting Quote on Charity

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

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

IMG_1344.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us Ramble: On Unity

Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.

As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)

“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”

In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:

“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”

The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.

Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.

Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.

Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.

Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.

So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?

In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.

I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.

Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.

Let us Seek: Do not be alarmed!

I was out in the world this morning. Cold or no cold, there are some appointments that cannot be put off. I had an appointment with a specialist that I had scheduled weeks in advance. I went to my appointment on cold medicine, advised everyone I was in contact with to wash their hands, and we made the best of things.

My appointment today was for a simple non-invasive type of treatment which took a few minutes. The doctor and I sat alone talking while she was going about her work. We began to talk and things went to deep matters in a few moments. I was not surprised. People often open up to me–I do not advertise that I am a minister, but I always seek to be polite and courteous. It can be amazing how quickly people come to trust you when you always say “please,” “thank you,” and tell them that you are grateful for what they are doing for you. I also believe that most people just want someone to listen.

She started talking about what she had heard in the news. She was afraid of what was happening in the world. She talked about intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and the idea that someplace as nearby as Washington could be struck, although she did not rule out New York City. As medicated as I was at the time, I wondered aloud about the fact that people feared nuclear attacks on the Hoover Dam and the dam at Niagara Falls during the Cold War. We talked about how frightening things are, how strange everything seemed, and she wondered what she would do if a war broke out. She was frightened. I commiserated, listened, spoke very little, and prayed for her fears in my heart.

The conversation reminded me of a passage in Matthew about the end times. Discussions of nuclear winter, nuclear fallout, and global conflict often remind me of the passage found in the twenty fourth chapter. Matthew’s gospel reads in verses three through fourteen: (Common English Bible)

“Now while Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.’

 

Jesus replied, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the Christ.’ They will deceive many people. You will hear about wars and reports of wars. Don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be famines and earthquakes in all sorts of places. But all these things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end. They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name. At that time many will fall away. They will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because disobedience will expand, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations. Then the end will come.’”

I first came to know this passage well through the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. In that translation verse six says “…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed…” These verses have all taken a vital place in my lived theology within this world of global information and easily spread global panic, but verse six has always rung out the loudest in my mind. As I lay on the table, I could almost hear a palpable voice repeating in my heart “you will hear wars and rumors of wars…” alternating with “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” 

My doctor was afraid this morning. I chose not to be fearful, but to be compassionate. What is the good news? In this context, I believe it can be best expressed earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. In verses twelve through fourteen in chapter eighteen, Jesus tells a parable: (CEB)

“What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one who wandered off? If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.”

I invite you to think about the promise which inherently sits within this parable. My doctor, like many individuals, has an uncertainty about the future. The world seems to be less than the ideal many of us were taught as children. Most of us lose a sense of the innocence of childhood as we grow into the world, and I personally believe that there’s a correlation between this loss of innocence and the traditional drop in church attendance that tends to happen at around the same time. Losing our innocence hurts.and events like those depicted in the news can send us back into our grief over our loss even if it has been decades since we first realized the world is broken. The world can seem to be a confusing place and our fear can isolate us.

Into those moments of fear, there is an ancient promise embodied in the person of Jesus. God does not want to lose one of those little ones. God cares about the lost sheep of the world. Even when it seems that the world does not care one bit for our fears, God does care and will walk through the valley of darkness to lead us all home. There is space for us at the table, there is space in the flock, and there is deep grace despite our fears for all people. God has come near, God has shown compassion, and eternal life will come to those who follow the Shepherd. As Matthew records in the twenty ninth verse of chapter nineteen, “…all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.

Friends, be at peace. God does not give as the world gives. Know that the path of a Christian is not an easy path, but there is a place of peace that awaits the end of our journey. Go! Be a blessing in a world of fear! Fight for justice and grace! Share the Good News! Walk with the lost sheep! Please, be compassionate

Let us Look: Jesus is Condemned

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that it is located at the Malvern Retreat House. Our stay while at the Retreat House is at the Family Life Center. There are wonderful walking paths near the Retreat House for contemplative walks. One of the paths includes a set of fifteen Stations of the Cross. Yes, I said fifteen. It is a very unique set of Stations.

While we were at the Academy this past July, we were invited to consider the possibility of looking at beautiful works of art as invitations to contemplation. Kataphatic (sometimes spelled cataphatic despite the fact that the Greek root word began with a “kappa”) contemplation and prayer is not very common in most Protestant circles, but even the most pragmatic of Christians has probably felt an invitation to consider what Christ had done when they considered the image of Christ on the cross.

I am seeking to practice a bit more of what Spiritual Director and former Jesuit Wilkie Au called “crabgrass contemplation,” which is a term he admittedly borrowed from the book “Noisy Contemplation” by William Callahan. The four steps of this contemplation are as follows;

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

Showing up is the first step which is recommended in this contemplation. Wilkie shared a joke with us while we were on retreat that illustrated this point beautifully. A person was praying to God and asking why God never answered their prayer. God decided that it was time to address the matter. A big booming voice from Heaven rang out over the person in prayer saying “Aren’t you the one who keeps asking me to help them win the lottery?” The praying person nods their head mutely in astonishment. The voice rang out again saying “Look. I can see you are scared, so I will meet you halfway on this one. Have you considered buying a lottery ticket?”

It is a mildly humorous joke, but it is an even better invitation. If you want to find God in contemplation, you must first show up. Nobody wakes up surprised that they have not learned to speak Spanish if they never study! The invitation is made clearly and it invites us to show up.

Slowing down is the second step to this form of contemplation. I have had struggles with eyesight over the past few years, especially as I have recovered from my corneal transplant since this past March. It can take me a moment or two to focus my eyesight and really see something well. I need to slow down and take the effort to focus if I want to see something. On occasion, I have even found that I need to get out a specialized instrument to help me see which I could never use on the run. You might be amazed at how much more beautiful that robin in the yard looks when I slow down, take out my spyglass (I had one functional eye for a while–binoculars were overkill), and look with purpose instead of rushing through the yard. Slowing down in our faith is one way to focus our minds for contemplation.

Staying still is the third step and one of my least favorite steps in this method of contemplation. I have a very precocious seven year old daughter who likes to run, jump, sing, talk, and make noise. My wife blames me for this part of her daughter’s personality because I used to be that child. My mass is what now uses all of that excess energy, but it can be very difficult for me to slow down in my mind. I want to sing, I want to hum, I want to monologue, and I want to be active. Staying still is the invitation which comes next in this process and it can be challenging, but useful.

Finally, the last step is staying with the thing that we are contemplating. For me this is a different than staying still. I often will find myself in contemplation having the same eureka moment time and time again. One reason this might be a part of my pattern of being is that I often take the first morsel and run off in joy. I never notice what I am missing. This pattern could be likened to being invited to a five-course meal and running off after the salad. We are invited to stay with the item we contemplate.

I wanted to publically practice this form of contemplation with the Stations of the Cross for several reasons. First, I want to model the idea of contemplation within a Protestant context. We tend to be afraid of what John Wesley would have called Romish things, but there is a beauty to considering what Christ has done for us and is doing within us. If a Station brings us to consider the actions of Jesus within the Passion narrative, then should we not consider that a blessing?

Second, I want to spend some time connecting these Stations within the Biblical narrative. Not every station is as firmly planted within the scriptures, but each station expresses a truth which I believe should be deeply embedded within our group consciousness as Christians.

So, without further ado, I invite you to consider the first Station of the Cross located outside of the Malvern Retreat House. The station is entitled “Jesus is Condemned to Death” and it was dedicated to the friends and relatives of the Santoleri family. The artist who created the sculptures was Timothy Schmaltz.

“Jesus is Condemned to Death” by Timothy Schmaltz

As I arrive at this place of contemplation, I consider the truth of contemplation which sits directly in front of me. As Herod sits in a contemplative posture in front of Jesus with crossed hands, so I sit considering the scene in front of me. Jesus stands upright at the base of the stairs upon which the judge sits in contemplation. Jesus waits, looking, and watching.

Biblically, I must admit that I think there’s a dissonance in the story. John 19 states that Jesus would have been flogged, beaten, and crowned with a crown of thorns by the point of his condemnation. Mark’s Gospel in chapter 15 does not have an explicit flogging before judgment is passed, but Jesus would have been bound. Also, where is the crowd? Likewise, Matthew 26 records the scribes and leaders beat Jesus, but there is no mention of a flogging; however, there is a place where Herod sitting on a seat is mentioned. Luke 22 and 23 have mockery, beating, and a fancy robe placed on Jesus, but this scene does not appear so readily. Indeed, Matthew has Jesus washing his hands while sitting on the judgment seat, which is probably as close as we can get to this particular image.

As I slow down and contemplate this scent of Jesus’ life, I am drawn to the inconsistencies with the story. Where is the crowd yelling for condemnation? Where is Barabbas? Why does Jesus appear so very calm? Who should I identify with in this image?

As I stay with the image, the question I ask myself is whether I am in image by intention. Consider for a moment that there is a crowd in this moment. The crowd is you and me. The crowd is everyone who walked this path and slowed down to look. The crowd stares at Jesus from thousands of Stations of the Cross around the world and throughout history. We are the crowd who sees Jesus standing in judgment. We are asked the question: “What would you have been yelling?” Would we be joining in the condemnation or would we have fled as the cock crowed that morning like Peter? Would we have had the courage of the women who would walk the road with Jesus, eventually even being with Jesus as he hung on the cross?

Herod’s hands are grasped together in a form that suggest to me a feeling of angst. I too feel the angst of Herod on considering what is ahead on the path towards Golgotha. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel angst in this interpretation is Jesus. Jesus has prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup would pass, but this is the moment when the prayer is ultimately answered. Jesus will begin his journey towards the cross.

How does this idea stay with me today? I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to wrestle with questions of what I would have done as I watched this scene unfold in front of me. I think there’s a piece of my heart that needs to comprehend that Jesus would not have run away like I would have liked to run away. Ultimately, there needs to be a place of love in my heart for the willingness of Jesus alongside the pain of watching Christ suffer.

If we are called to be remade in the image of Jesus, then perhaps a good thing to contemplate is what it means to be willing to enter into love despite the pain it might cause for us. If such a contemplation brings me closer to the heart of Jesus, then such a contemplation is a blessing regardless of what name you claim as a Christian.

Let us Seek: Sovereign God, part deux

Sometimes, I argue with myself. My habit to write the next day’s blog post and schedule it for 9:00 AM the following morning. On occasion, I find inspiration to continue with a previous line of thought. Occasionally, I find myself arguing with both myself and my blog entry for the day.

This morning I posted about a reflection on the sovereignty of God. My post came about after reflection on scripture as seen through the light of a book I am reading for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. That book is “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer. In the book, the argument is made that the sovereignty of God is a sacrosanct concept. Adonai reigns so our world is seen in a different light.

I made the “mistake” of spending time in my devotions this morning, which is always a risky affair. I was working through one of my favorite resources, which is Upper Room’s “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants” (henceforth, “Guide”) This resource is the very resource which led me to consider applying for the Academy in the first place. Before finding the Guide I had always seen Upper Room as that tiny little book which I took to individuals when I visited or handed out to folks when they wanted something to read to go deeper. The Guide was deep, methodical, and practical for me as someone who likes structure in their prayer life to balance out my lack of attention span–there is a reason my blog uses the phrase “Distracted Pastor.”

Quick aside, one of my colleagues at the Academy recommended that I take my new Worship Book to the artist formerly known as Kinkos to get it bound with a spiraling ring to make it easier to use. I took my Guide there and for less than nine dollars it is now far easier to use and has nice protective covers to keep it safe. Getting my devotional book bound with a ring was a great idea as I now don’t have to weigh the pages down while taking notes in my journal.

Look how easily it sits flat!

The plastic cover is a nice protective touch…

Anyway, back on subject, I made the mistake of working through the Guide and found myself reflecting on a passage that was the exact opposite of what our good Rabbi Miriyam Glazer stated. Mind you, the author whom the guide quoted is a Christian, so that is somewhat to be expected. Still, the cognitive dissonance has been bothering me as I attempt to stay with both readings.

The following excerpt is stated to be from “Prayer” by Simon Tugwell, a Dominican historian and author. The excerpt is found in the readings for reflection for this week.

“[God in Jesus] does not come in strength but in weakness, and he chooses the foolish and weak and unimportant things of the world, things that are nothing at all, to overthrow the strength and impressiveness of the world. As we saw earlier, he is like the judo expert who uses the strength of his opponent to bring him to the ground; it is the art of self-defense proper to the weak.

This is why, if we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispense or all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.”

I imagine most people can see the dissonance between these two sets of conceptions. On the Rabbi’s side we have a God who reigns. Adonai reigns; therefore, we have hope that the future can be a place of blessing. On the Dominican’s side we have a God who has entered the form of Jesus. There is a sense of a self-imposed weakness. God has nothing to give except himself in the form of Jesus. God has nothing to give except himself; therefore, we should not see God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire.

I have to say that my knee-jerk reaction is to immediately side with Rabbi Glazer. My fear is that my reaction is very human. How could God do something so very foolish? Well, God does what God does. In the most ancient of addresses, God claims the name “I am who I am.”

The challenging part in the midst of all of this chaos is the reality that the Reading for Reflection in the Guide does not stand alone. The psalm of the week is Psalm 105. Psalm 105 is not a psalm of passivity. God acts deeply, thoroughly, and completely in the psalm to assert the placement of the people of God. A few examples:

  • The psalm invokes the actions of God in a time of famine through the servant Joseph. (Ps 105:16-23)
  • The psalm invokes the action of God in establishing a covenant with the immigrants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which will never be forgotten. God protects those immigrants with might (Ps 105:7-14, 42-45)
  • The Psalm invokes the powerful and sometimes brutal story of the Exodus (Ps 105:24-45)

The actions claimed in the Psalm are not the actions of a passive God of weakness. The Psalm claims the power of Adonai. Adonai reigns! All of this begs a simple question. Why did Bishop Job and Pastor Shawchuck, the compilers of the Guide, choose to include this passage for reflection? Was it merely to inspire there to be interesting thoughts in the minds of those who sought God this week? Even without Rabbi Glazer’s contribution to this conversation, Psalm 105 and this reflection seem at odds with each other.

I have been pondering these differences for several hours and I am brought to a place where I once again go back to things I learned way back in my philosophy classes at Roberts Wesleyan College. Yes, I was indeed the student who insisted with all of the depths of my heart that I believed that God could do the incredible. I believed that God could make a square circle.

The concepts was simple. Could God do something that was logically impossible? Could God create a rock so heavy that God could not lift it? That concept never stuck within me. I was obsessed with the square circle. Could God make an object that was fully a circle and fully a square? Such a logical fallacy seems impossible.

To say that I received a bit of mockery, ribbing, and even disdain at the time for the strength and consistency of my view is to put it mildly. I have since learned to live into that tension, especially as I lived into theology. Can God truly be fully human and fully divine? Can God really be the One God as expressed in trinitarian theology? Can God really care for humanity to the extent that God would come into the world in the form of weakness to engage in an act of strength that would help Jesus emerge as the victor who would break down the division of sin that had lasted for ages past? There are all sorts of paradoxes in Christianity. There are many koans to be considered.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? I have no idea. How can Jesus be fully human and fully divine? I have no idea. How can God create a square circle? I have no idea. How can God move in weakness and foolishness to save the world? I have no idea, but I believe that Jesus has done this thing quite beautifully.

What are your thoughts in regards to this contradiction? Do you have any ideas or reflections?

Let us Ramble: Ministry within a Culture

I was reading through my coursework for the Academy for Spiritual Formation this morning when a quote from another book caught my eye. I was reading through “Thirsty for God” by Bradley Holt when he quoted Eugene Peterson. I have never really read a lot of Eugene Peterson’s work, especially as my first reaction was a knee-jerk reaction to “The Message.” I happen to like the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and my first impression of Peterson’s translation was a bit biassed. Nonetheless, I was caught by the quotation from “Take and Read: Spiritual Reading” by Peterson. The excerpt went as follows: (Holt, 143)

“My conviction is that the pastor must refuse to be shaped by the culture, whether secular or ecclesiastical, and insist on becoming a person of prayer in the community of worship. This is our assigned task; anything less or other is malpractice.”

Now, as someone who spent a few years working through academic settings in college and seminary, I must first admit that I do not like having the context of Peterson’s quote. I am working on remedying that situation through a copy of Peterson’s work. Regardless, the quote is striking.

What does it mean that a pastor should not be shaped by either secular or ecclesiastical culture? I can understand the request that a pastor set a special concern in their ministry for prayer, but does that call fundamentally change our approach to ministry? Should it reshape our approach to culture?

For context, consider the earlier histories which Professor Holt shared about the early church. Two groups of monastics entered into their approaches to the monastic life in roughly the same age. The Coptic Antony entered into ministry in the desert as an offensive against the devil in the devil’s own territory much like his master Jesus Christ entered into the devil’s territory during his temptation (Holt, 52). His ministry was (by nature) isolated from both ecclesiastical and secular culture. Amma Theodora, Blessed Syncletica, Athanasius, Pachomius, and other Desert Mothers and Fathers entered into ministry in a similar fashion (Holt, 52-53).

In contrast, Columba established a ministry in Iona after being influenced by his own actions in 632 CE (Holt, 68). Brigid of Kildare lived among the people of Ireland until 523 and Patrick in the early to mid 400s CE (Holt, 67). These individuals knew the work of the earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers but continued to engage their ministries in locations where they could interact with the world around them on a regular basis. Their influence on modern Celtic art is one example of a place where they certainly had interaction with the culture around them. A person could argue that they influenced the culture, but time spent reading through the Carmina Gadelica seems to imply a lot more of the interactions were mutual in nature.

The earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers withdrew in an attempt to be faithful from both culture and their former lives. The Irish monastics seemed to attempt to be faithful while withdrawing from their former lives but not necessarily from the culture where they lived and ministered. They exist down two different paths from a fork on the road of their journeys.

The current life of the church seems to be a similar crossroads. Some churches believe that the church should withdraw from the world around us into fidelity without using cultural tools of current times. I serve a church which worships to an organ with hymnals in a building without air conditioning. They seem comfortable worshiping in this way. Other churches withdraw from the world into a place of fidelity while using modern tools such as guitars, projectors, movie clips, and a host of other tools from the world. Worship in both places is affected and shaped by culture. The former churches are usually shaped by the culture of the past century and the latter churches are shaped by the tools of this age.

Worship has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. Church structure has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. What does it mean that Eugene Peterson believes that the pastor must remain in a place where the cultures of the world and the church are refused on principle? Can one become a person of prayer while allowing the world to alter one’s identity as a pastor?

Was it not righteous and just for the pastors of ages past to allow their lives to be shaped by the communities where they served? Does anyone believe that the pastors who were beaten and arrested while seeking justice during the struggle for civil rights were less faithful for allowing the culture of the world to change them and their practices? Does anyone believe that the pastors who have allowed their prayers and thoughts to be bent to the suffering of indigenous peoples are somehow being less than faithful?

More importantly, what is the context of that quote! I guess that I will have to wait until the book arrives, I find time to digest it, and can follow up upon this post. In the meantime, I hope that this post has inspired some thoughts and conversations. Blessings today.

Let us Ramble: Free Will

What choices are you making today?

I grew up into my own faith during an age of culture wars within the church. Some churches were beginning to adopt more charismatic contemporary worship and other churches were holding to the music of ages past. Some churches fought over drumsets and other churches restored magnificent pipe organs.

I have survived those culture wars. I now live with the view that Psalm 100:1 is ultimately what matters. Is it a joyful noise to the Lord? Well, good enough! Do I prefer certain music? Of course, but I am not the only person in worship on any given Sunday.

I am living in the midst of an ongoing cultural clash between different schools of Biblical interpretation. This is exemplified by the current struggles over LGBTQIA theology, but also rises up to the challenge on discussions of spiritual gifts, spiritual practices, and even the limits of God’s grace. I am surviving this clash by keeping my eye on my ultimate goal. I run this race with Jesus.

Interestingly, the culture clash that I believe is most important to our current situation became “yesterday’s news” before I even truly entered ministry. I believe this reality is a great tragedy because one part of the challenge we face as a culture requires the presence of a vital piece of theology.

I believe that we absolutely need an orthodoxy and orthopraxy that supports the concept of free will. We have become a culture that is complacent when we face situations that seem beyond our control. We have become a people that allows fate to decide some of the most difficult choices in our lives. To riff on the excellent work of Dylan Thomas, we go gentle into our own goodnights. There is no rage against the dying of our light, our neighbor’s light, or any light. We passively accept fate like people in Thomas’ poem accepted the end of life.

Let me explain what I mean through examples. These examples apply to many people, but certainly not everyone. In many cases they refer to very few people.

People are living within marriages where things are going to shambles. A lot of people live in marriages where things are going awry. I talk with people about marriage more than almost any other subject. People often accept that there is nothing they can do because their partner won’t change. Free will means that we can change their own behavior, but we almost always focus on the behavior of another person as the root of our problems. People give up their ability to change their circumstances and often do not realize what they are doing when they surrender their own choices.

People live life with children that have challenges. They accept they can do nothing about the situation because their children do not do exactly what they want them to do in life. People can be happy to give their children choices but are unwilling to accept that their choices have consequences. By letting go of their own free will they have set themselves up for further aggravation and hopelessness.

People are living in communities that are filled with anger and hatred. Facebook is filled with posts from angry individuals who rage at each other. People assume that nothing can be done, but we each can choose to set an example by our own behavior. We can affect our community through living out lives of grace and compassion, but we allow ourselves to be fated to frustration.

People can be frustrated by the lives we live in the United States. Politicians represent the people and ultimately power rests with the people. King George learned this lesson the hard way. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, ultimately the weight of corruption falls on the people who grant power in the first place. We tend to not accept our responsibility as citizens. One of the highlights of being a part of the Kingdom of Heaven is that we do not have to be in charge. In our secular lives in the United States, the buck ultimately stops with the American people.

We can choose to select our own identity in this world. We can choose how our behavior will affect our future. We can choose who we will become in the future by our actions today. We can make the world great tomorrow through our use of love and grace today. We must only choose to grab the helm of life and turn the ship around.

There are no shoals that we must strike. There are no hurricanes that must lie in our path. There is an ocean of possibility if we but believe that we can trim our own sails, lift our own anchors, and shift our own rudder. We can make the world a better place if we trust in God, accept God’s power to transform our lives, and live into the image of Jesus.

Let us Ramble: The Narrow Path to Mars

Today has been a wonderful day. Saturday is one of my easier days in ministry. While I do not truly take the two days off a week that is expected of me by my Annual Conference, Saturday is an easier day for me as it almost always begins with family time. Today we went out to lunch and then went to the planetarium at Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton.

At the planetarium we watched a video on the history of humanity’s relationship with Mars, especially in terms of how it fits into the efforts of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the European Space Agency. I was struck by all of the attempts to reach Mars that utterly and completely failed over the years. There were a lot of probes, rovers, and other missions which failed spectacularly. Indeed, modern missions are informed powerfully by a history of failures. In a perfect world, these failures and challenges help to inform modern attempts to reach Mars.

The concept of necessity behind learning from the past came to mind as I was reading through my book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when I was reminded thoroughly of the efforts of the people exploring Mars. Professor Holt says: (12)

“The first reason to study the tradition and present day Christian family is to make us aware of our own narrowness, our own parochialism. Knowing a larger part of the whole tradition gives us better questions to ask of the fads of the present. We are endangered not only with ethnocentrism, judging all things by the customs of our own ethnic group, but also with ‘presentism,’ judging all previous ages as inferior to our own.”

Can you imagine what would happen if an engineer at NASA said “The United States has best space program! Why would we study what happened with the Beagle 2’s solar panels?” Well, if that person sent a rover or a manned mission to Mars and that mission failed in the same way, you could imagine how foolish that engineer would seem. If only that engineer had learned from the mistakes of others then NASA could have avoided the same mistakes.

I will admit, I do not believe that a NASA engineer would turn down hard data that could help to create a better plan for a space mission. Engineers are trained to consider as many facets of a problem as possible. I do know that Christianity has had a long history of folks engaging in this kind of behavior. We tend to avoid learning from other communities, whether they are Baptists down the street or Orthodox folks from centuries past. We have made a lifestyle out of believing we are the latest and greatest believers that have ever followed Jesus. This seems especially true of the Eurocentric church in the United States.

It is true—Wesleyans and Methodists have traditionally held John Wesley on a pedestal and he was not an American or even a fan of the American Revolution. It is true—Lutherans love Martin Luther even though he was a German monk turned reformer. Roman Catholics may identify strongly with Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, or Pope John Paul II—each of which came from a homeland outside the United States. Many Christians have their exemplars from other cultures, but it seems to me as if most of them are exceptions to the general rule.

I do not base this on a random assertion. I have had many conversations with individuals that state clearly and unabashedly that American Christianity holds two things above any other: love of God and love of country. There is a strong ethnocentrism in American Christianity that would be unacceptable in other realms of study or belief. There is a strong presentism in American Christianity that ignores the lessons of the faithful who walked in ages past and studied things that are now considered superseded by modern scholarship. My experience of American Christianity supports Professor Holt’s assumptions.

My own experience and own history of scholarship support Professor Holt’s assumptions, which is one reason I am undertaking the Academy experience in the first place. I will admit that I know the story of John Wesley in many ways that I do not know scholars, theologians, and mystics from other cultures. I will admit my scholarship and study focused around individuals connected with the institutions where I studied theology and Christianity either directly or through the recommendation of faculty.

There is a value to learning from a wide variety of sources which cannot be overstated. Christians are part of a rich tradition that has had adherents, leaders, scholars, and theologians from across the world. We have had many people who have had many different opinions. To be clear, I agree with Professor Holt that another reason to study the history and practices of spirituality is to learn the boundaries of our tradition (13), but it needs to be said that the boundaries are often further than any of us normally experience in the practice of our Christianities.

I am thankful today for inspiration through scientific study applied to the history of space exploration around Mars. The study has inspired me to look deeply at my own faith journey and the ways in which I approach realms outside of my narrowness. I hope that we all find ways to interact with and become a blessing with traditions outside of our own tradition.

Let us Ramble: Tall Curbs and God

The other day I sat in a Dunkin Donuts outside Syracuse looking out the window. I was in the city for Annual Conference and was beginning the day with a cup of coffee before heading to the OnCenter for the day’s events. I noticed a table outside the window. It was a beautiful table in a very pragmatic sense. It had three benches and a fourth side open for a wheelchair for folks with accessibility needs. I was really excited to see the table!

accessible-table.jpg

The table in question…

Unfortunately, the table was in the middle of a grassy section surrounded by a mulched landscaping filled with shrubs and over an 8” curb. The only section without mulch was in the middle of a very busy driveway with very fast traffic, For anyone with a wheelchair to get to the table it would require either a very capable individual or a significant amount of help. It made me shake my head. I am assuming that the person who purchased this table had wonderful intentions, but that those intentions were blocked by poor planning. I imagined it would drive me nuts if I wanted to sit there on a nice and sunny day but could not make my way to the table.

I was reminded of this moment in the past two weeks while reading through a book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr when the following quote came to my attention: (pg. 12)

“On some days we struggle to feel anything—certainly not some magnetic mystery tugging us toward intimacy. The most important question is, are we accessible? Can God get in? Or, is our need for certainty so overpowering that it become a prison walling out even the divine? Whatever our inclination, God is always calling us beyond what we can see with the naked eye.”

Reading these words on the nature of approaching the scriptures reminded me of that table outside Dunkin Donuts. I want God to be active in my life. I want to hear the Word ringing throughout my heart and my soul, but let’s be honest. The Word of God is not always a safe word. As Hebrews 4:12 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.” Sister Wiederkehr even points out: (11)

“The Hebrew people believed that one could not see the face of God and live…When I am confronted by God’s Word, I am sometimes able to recognize that some change is needed in my life. Ordinarily I name this piece of growth, transformation. Of Course, the other side of transformation is that until I am able to integrate the change into my life, with a certain acceptance it feels more like death.”

I want God to be in my life but the Word of God is a dangerous word that can transform my life in ways that I cannot always anticipate. As much as I love Micah 6:8, sometimes it softens the reality of the spiritual life. I can often convince myself that I can enact justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God in ways that are comfortable for my soul. The Word of God sometimes calls me to a humility that can be difficult to bear. Enacting justice sometimes means letting go of my own privilege and that is neither easy nor comfortable.

So, am I accessible to God’s movement in my life? Have I grown beautiful shrubs that are less ornamental hedgerows around my heart and effectively more like a maze or labyrinth? Have I created places where God’s word can easily reach my core or do I have the tallest of curbs creating a subtle barrier? Am I willing to allow God into my heart and soul if God might bring discomfort, challenge, or even death to some bogarted piece of my soul or being that I would keep from God?

These are difficult questions for me to answer, but I believe that they are questions all Christians must be willing to consider. Do we love God enough to ask these kinds of tough questions? Here are a few questions I could have asked myself in years past (which I personally struggled with for many years and still have my moments of struggle—I imagine you have your own difficult questions):

  • God created both my wife and me. We were blessed into a partnership in this life together. We are compatriots and companions on this journey through life. Culturally, the world does not always agree with that viewpoint. Does my place in the family as the father mean that I have some kind of special privilege when it comes to who changes the baby when the diaper is dirty in a restaurant? Am I willing to support restaurants with changing tables in one bathroom and not another?
  • Does my view of human sexuality keep me from sharing God’s love with someone because they disagree with me? Does my comfortable place of inclusion within my culture keep me from asking tough questions about how my view affects others?
  • I tend to see God’s love in my life as a source of blessing which sometimes spills into the physical world. Is it right to get angry at a member of the Seneca Nation because they would like restitution for events of the past? Is it right to get upset because my father [owned] a piece of property within disputed territory? As a person who is a member of the most affluent ethnicity within one of the most affluent nations in the world, can I ethically believe that I know what a member of the Seneca nation believes or feels?
  • God created the earth in wonderful ways! It is full of good creatures and good people. So, where’d that meat come from in that cheeseburger I just ate? Did the hen who laid the eggs I ate for breakfast ever experience an open field? Who grew and picked the coffee beans that I used to brew my coffee? Did they have the capacity to eat as well as I did this morning?
  • God created the world and the people who live upon it. God has created and blessed the people who comprise many nations. Can I truly believe an America first view of the world when we’re just living here? If we’re theologically tenants and temporally just passing through, is that kind of viewpoint just, fair, or righteous?

The Word of God is sharp! It can lead to very difficult places when we allow it into our hearts. So, is my heart accessible or not? Do I want that kind of accessibility when it could change who I am in a heartbeat? If I say that i do, what am I willing to put before God to make that a reality? Will I look on God if it might mean personal sacrifice?

Let us be Ramble: Poetry in a Jumble

Hello from the land between one space and another. Last week I finished up the last of the Annual Meetings for the two halves of my church charge. Next week we are welcoming a new Administrative Assistant into our church office. I have been without an assistant (during the day) for four months and things have been a little chaotic around the office.

This is the land between one moment and another. Exacerbating this time between moments is the fact that our preschool program is off on a field trip this morning. This church is a very quiet place today. I am taking advantage of the quiet to sit in our future assistant’s office to work and pray today. I am trying to imbue the room with prayer in an attempt to be a blessing to our new assistant.

A few minutes ago I was sitting in the quiet and reading through my next book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I began to enter into the next book on my list which is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. In many ways, this book is very different than the last book that I read for the academy. This book is focused on entering into the text and helping readers to grow deeper in their own time in scripture. There is less exposition and more reflection. Regardless, here is what Sister Wiederkehr writes on the very nature of entering into a quest for the word of God: (pg. 8)

“It is not easy to find the Word of God in the midst of a jumble of words. The secret is connection. A community of words connects with each other and somehow in that connection we discern God’s Word for us. Praying with the white space between the words, sentences, and paragraphs is also important. The artist in us needs white space—our place of waiting, listening, and being. White space is the womb and the tomb in which we abide. We will experience birth, life, and death there, as we keep vigil with the Word of God”

As I reflected on these words in this empty space a few things stuck out to me revolving around the white space and the connections between words through spaces. This paragraph was incredibly effective at drawing things out of my depths.

The first place this paragraph took me was into the present. I am sitting in a church office which is unoccupied by an assistant at the moment. My wife has been assisting before and after her work, but in general, this office has been empty. It is a white space. Melissa sat in this place and blessed this community. Bonnie sat in this place and blessed this community. My wife has sat in this place in a different way in an attempt to make space for the person who would follow her.

Soon our new assistant will begin her own ministry of blessing from this place. She will do things differently. She’ll connect to some traditions out of Bonnie’s methods and some tradition’s out of Melissa’s methods. She’ll create her own traditions and methods. Soon this place will begin to be reshaped by her presence in our midst. In the meantime, this sacred space is empty, quiet, and waiting in stillness. This is a holy moment—this is “the womb and the tomb” where a new ministry will be born, live, and someday conclude. Hopefully that conclusion will be many years and many blessings from now. This is a sacred white space.

The second place this paragraph took me to in my reflection was to Annual Conference. The entire idea behind Annual Conference is supposed to be “holy conferencing.” Somewhere in the midst of all of the debate, motions, and rules of order there is supposed to be a place where the Holy Spirit works, moves, and expresses itself through the people gathered together in prayer and discernment.

This paragraph reminded me of Annual Conference because of the sacred white spaces. I recall Cathy Hall Stengel standing up in conference this year asking the bishop where there was space for people not on two sides of a particular issue to express their voices. She called for white space. I recall JJ Warren standing up and expressing his call to ordained ministry when the doors had been closed on him due to his sexuality and requesting room to respond to God’s inevitable and unavoidable call on his soul. He was requesting that creative white space be made for the Holy Spirit to call the people God was calling into ministry.

I recall many moments where there was a need for creativity, grace, and kindness. Places were required for life to be born, live, and conclude through the power of the Holy Spirit. There needed to be white spaces before all became an unending cacophony of noise without rest, meter, or even tonal structure.

These thoughts came out as I pondered this selection, but I also found myself drawn to the concept of the connection of words. If everyone carries a bit of God’s image within them, then there is a bit of God’s creative word in all of the people we see. Sister Wiederkehr wrote (pg. 9) that “Every person you encounter during the hours of your day is a word that God has spoken into the world. You too are one of God’s spoken words. And now God speaks through you.” We are connected to each other through the very fact that we are part of the poetry God is writing in this moment.

My brother in Christ Kevin Nelson from Schenectady First United Methodist Church shared the African concept of “ubuntu” on the floor of Conference last week. He translated it roughly as “I am who I am because of who we are.” In my mind, his view of connectedness draws from this idea from Sister Wiederkehr nicely. We are who we are because of the voice of God spoken into each person at the table.

Why do we seek justice? The people we seek to help each carry a bit of God’s poetic word in our midst. Why do we seek love, mercy, and grace? The people who need these things (including ourselves) are all bearers of God’s creative word. Why do we comb through the scriptures listening, abiding, and trusting in God’s encompassing love? We do these things because who we are as a people has called us into a poetic dialogue with scripture. The words on the page, the words in our lives, and the white spaces between connect to create something beautiful.

Is this easy? No! In retrospect, the very first sentence of the quote I referenced above has proven foundational in all of the places where Sister Wiederkehr’s words led me to reflect today. It is definitely not easy to find the word of God in the midst of the jumble of words we come across in life. Even discounting the carriers of God’s words who like to honk car horns, cut people off, and act less than kindly, the words in the Bible itself can be jumbled, confused, and distracting.

As I do enter into the word myself this day, I will do so realizing the challenge within me. Following Sister Wiederkehr’s advice, I will wait for God, read God’s word, spend time listening to what was written with an obedient heart, pray through where God is leading me, and finally abide in the midst of the jumble. With God’s blessing the word of God expressed in my life will join in the dance of poetry found within the scriptures. Together it is my prayer that I will join in the great proclamation of God’s love and compassion.

Let us Ramble: Brief Reflections on Opening Sermon

Brief reflections on the Bishop’s opening sermon…

First, I agree that the why of ministry should not change often. What we do in the church must always be in flux. How we do ministry must always be in flux. The why should be stable, but I sincerly doubt it will never change. The first century Christians altered the world because a prophet came claiming to be Son of God. The why of ministry changed in that time. The words of the Great Mystery tells us that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” The why is guaranteed to change and if we say this is the only why God will ever supply then we may miss out on the truth and movement of the Spirit. If Jesus’ mission was the end of the story, the Gentiles would still be on the outside. The Spirit may still move!

Second, James would probably have issues with focusing only on prayer. What good is it to say “Go, be warm, and eat!” when that person laxks a place to go, no warm coat, and no food? James invited the early church to always hold prayer and blessing in a partnership with action.

Let us be Honest: This is long enough to be a treatise

Welcome to the longest blogpost that I have ever written… Also, I am going to go ahead and state that I’m writing this as a well-educated, white, Protestant male who has a lot of privilege. I use a lot of “we language” to talk about the overwhelmingly white church. I own it and am trying to learn new ways of being.

Yesterday I share a quote from Walter Brueggemann on Facebook. I adore Walter Brueggemann and I really loved the quote. Here’s what it said: (original quote is from Walter Brueggemann’s Lenten devotional “A Way Other than Our Own”, pgs. 2-3)

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”

I received a bit of pushback for sharing this concept by a few people that come from a different place in life than I am. In particular, a colleague and friend of mine said that there was no context for the quote. I normally wouldn’t mind letting Walter Brueggemann stand up for himself as he’s a world famous theologian who has more street credit with people in almost every corner of the church. I normally would leave it alone, but my colleague was just the most openly vocal person. I respect him for his openness and boldness. Such boldness is a gift in this profession.

I have private messages questioning my patriotism, my theology, and in one case my integrity for daring to share such divisive words. I decided to respond on my blog so that I could create lots of links to sources.

I do not mind people questioning my patriotism. I stood in the rain for over an hour waiting to pray for God to bring comfort into the lives of people mourning soldiers who passed in the service of this nation. I stood glumly and thought of my friends in the armed forces who have lost friends. I listened to people complain about the rain. To be fair, it was really cold and wet. I have learned to have thick skin due to the circumstances of my ministry.

I do not mind people questioning my theology. Theology is necessarily limited by the person who is approaching the divine. I stood in the rain and prayed at the beginning of the service. The Baptist minister who believes different things than me about God prayed at the end of the service. We don’t need to agree to show love and respect to each other. Theology is always a matter of perspective unless you know all things, in which case you’re navel gazing because only God knows everything.

I do get a little irked when people question my integrity. I stood in the rain to pray for others so that they might have comfort today. While standing there I realized that I have no place to rest my bones. Following Jesus has meant that I no longer have a home like many of the people that I serve. I find home in my loved ones, my community, and even in my relationship with God, but there is no grave for me to rest within at the end of my days. My responding to God has led me to forego that blessing. That takes commitment and is more than a little disconcerting.

I am a servant of the Most High and I do my best to live out my service well. My quest is to live out that service with integrity. I have decided that I am going to respond to these criticisms in the best way that I can. I am going to respond with a defense of this statement and encourage others to engage in the conversation. I mean no disrespect to those who disagree with me, but there comes a point where one must be clear, concise, and accurate when talking about challenging issues. I might not be concise, but I pray this is both clear and accurate.

So, what does Brueggemann say:

  1. There’s a crisis in the US church that has nothing to do with the theology wars that people love to engage in between liberal and conservative camps.
  2. The crisis has to do with an abandonment of the identity found in our Christian identity which is best expressed in the faith and discipline connected with our baptism into Christ.
  3. We settle for an identity that is partially patriotic, consumeristic, violent, and affluent. I think it is safe to say that Brueggemann has a negative view of this approach.

So, let’s get into this. Is there a crisis in the US church? Well, the Pew Research Center might be indicating that there is a problem. Attendance is dropping and the mission of the church according to Matthew 28:18-20 the purpose of the church is to: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

There’s a numerical issue that might show a problem, but why is that issue taking place? Is this the problem or a symptom? Are we the victims of a cultural shift or is it more insidious? Matthew 28:20 says that Jesus will be with us when we do what we’re supposed to be doing. So, what is going on?

Do you remember that point where Walter Brueggemann talks about violence? We were called to make disciples of all nations. We were called to teach them, love them like Jesus loved them, and to embody what Jesus commanded. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. Jesus taught that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to Jesus.

When I was a teenager I read Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” We were called to embody and teach love. We broke promises. We killed women and children. We believed in a manifest destiny that destroyed cultures, families, and bordered at times on cultural and physical genocide. If it makes you feel sick to your stomach you aren’t alone. The General Conference of the UMC engaged in a sincere attempt to draw the church into repentance in 2012 and voices in our church have been asking us to continue that work ever since, but we continue to bring violence to our sisters, brothers, and neighbors over subjects like pipelines and corporate rights. We should be sick to our stomachs. This isn’t the way that Jesus taught us to live. We were called to teach people to live as Jesus’ commanded us. If we have trouble seeing where Jesus is at work it may be our own fault.

In seminary trusted friends invited me to consider reading further. I was invited to read books like “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I was invited go on trips to places like Window Rock, Arizona where I stood by the graves of soldiers who died for our nation. I talked with widows whose loved ones made it home safely and could only find work in uranium mines. I stood in the middle of a tribe of proud people and saw how the culture that I had been taught to love and honored had crippled a noble community, tribe, and nation. I shook my head when I realized there were no trees in the town of Sawmill because they’d been shipped away to build the impressive towns populated by people who looked like me. I wept openly by the statue erected in honor of the Windtalkers who served so proudly. My heart broke in pieces because the Jesus I know would not have done these things.

It goes further. I’ve married a woman who has stood in the towns where my nation dropped nuclear weapons on women and children. I’ve read about the 200,000 people who died in the name of expediency. Most of them died from burns, but some of them died when the pieces of the place they called home flew through the air and killed them. I have stood by sights where Confederate soldiers stood up for their rights to own other people and thought about how their blood was shed into the very water which once carried people as property from one nation to another.

As a lay person I have served food to hungry people on the streets of Rochester and done my best to give dignity to folks who are in need of food in the communities I have served as a pastor. I have seen people die when basic needs like health-care have not been met. For the want of an antibiotic I have seen people sicken and rest on their deathbeds. I have seen that our nation is not perfect. I have seen it with my own eyes and my eyes have wept with pain for what they have seen.

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. It was a challenging time and the beginnings of division were starting to tear apart the connections of the young nation. Lincoln said the following:

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

I truly believe Lincoln’s fear is our reality. We have become a people who believes that we have a manifest destiny which can and should control the lives of people around us. Some people feared the other. Mob violence was tearing apart our nation as people oppressed and fought against people that they saw as property. Their fear was that the other would ruin the future, much like we are afraid of the terror that others can bring into our lives. Lincoln pointed out to the people that the true danger was coming from within. His fears would prove true. The way of being the early American nation was headed was leading to soldiers, neighbors, and families slaughtering each other all across this nation.

We are a people who it seems honestly believes that we have a right to control the lives of people around us. Jesus taught that we should treat others like we would like to be treated. We preach our doctrines on television and demand that we bring prayer back into schools because we honestly believe that the people praying in the school will pray in ways that will agree with our beliefs! We would cry bloody murder if someone called for Islamic prayer every morning before school, but we are okay with it if we are the ones leading the prayers. We do the very things that Jesus told us not to do and it is killing us. This idolatry is killing us very quickly. We need to repent.

Brueggemann questions the connections between patriotism and our baptismal identity, but he isn’t the first. Consider the works of the prophets who came to the people of God cajoling, pleading, begging, and trying to convince them to remember whose they were. Consider the judges who asked the people not to seek an earthly king and how their decision caused grief, destruction, death, and exile. Consider Jesus who refused to be an earthly ruler and was crucified for His trouble.

How many books of the Bible are filled with these stories? How many times does God call on the people to repent of their earthly addictions to power and greed? How many times does God call on people to live lives marked my love, kindness, and humility? How often can we read these words and not understand the most basic of messages? Do we need to live out Lamentations in addition to Jeremiah?

I am a child of this nation. I have to live a life which honestly reflects on who we have become as a people. We were a nation of immigrants and we murdered the people who lived here before us. We were a nation of refugees from the struggles of an old world and we imported people as slaves from another part of the world. We were a nation that stood up to Hitler’s terrible acts. I do not doubt the importance of those actions and honor those who died to put an end to the Holocaust. That bravery does not change the fact that we are also the nation who nuked civilians (including women and children). Knowledge, history, and experience have taught me that my identity cannot rest in my place in this nation. If my identity as an American is all that defines me, then history teaches me that a prophet is needed, because this is not good.

Violence like the violence that we have brought into the world is like the violence that is described before the flood in Genesis. Arrogance like the arrogance we have shown through depopulating a nation, enslaving others, and mistreating our own neighbors is absolutely horrendous. This arrogance is like the arrogance that led to the Tower of Babel. This is not good.

I truly believe that Walter Brueggemann is right. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the red letter words of the New Testament brought through Jesus. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to remember the call of the prophets. If there is any hope for the church in the United States then we need to define ourselves less by where we happened to be born and more by who we have chosen to become in the life.

I am a Christian who happens to be a United Methodist. When I share in the body and blood of Christ at the Lord’s table it is with the understanding that you cannot share in the body and blood of Christ if you’re not ready to partner with Christ in the ministry of undergoing suffering. I am a minister in the United Methodist church. When I baptize a child it is with the honest expectation that the child must come to a place where they believe in their own faith and identify with their own baptism into the life and death of a man who suffered.

In my own personal theology these beliefs are not optional. I have already said that I do not need people to agree with me, but on my end they are a part of our identity as Christians. If we cannot find our identity in Christ then we have lost our way and need to pray for forgiveness. As the foundational documents of the Methodist movement say all that is truly required to enter into the society of believers is ““a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.”

If it makes people feel better, the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ just affirmed their belief that God’s vision for the church is to be “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” They connect this to their mission which is to be “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we move forward boldly to welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” Seeking justice requires repenting of the things we do that cause pain.

For that matter, during the benediction at the American Legion’s service in the rain this morning, the Baptist minister around the corner lifted up Jesus Christ as the soldier who laid down his life so that people of every nation would enter the Kingdom of God and find salvation. By the way, Pastor Jim prayed a really powerful prayer. I’m looking forward to hearing more as time goes on.

For that matter, here’s a pretty good work of theology by a Roman Catholic scholar written on the subject of patriotism and our Christian duty is a pretty good bit of research too. By the way, it was written only a few months after 9/11. I still find it to be very relevant 15 years later. Too old for you? Here’s Pope Francis calling people to move towards justice and mercy earlier this year.

Baptists, Roman Catholics, members of the United Church of Christ, and even United Methodists like me. If you’re keeping track, that’s every denomination that has a congregation in the hamlet of Maine. We may worship different, but we all seem to be united in understanding that salvation rests in Jesus and that Jesus calls us to repent of our sins. We might not agree with what that looks like, but we all seem united in understanding that God is calling us.

As for Brueggemann’s words on affluence and consumerism, I realize that I have probably annoyed enough people already. I can go into that another day if people desire. The long and short of it is that I personally believe that John Wesley got it right. He did earn all he could and save all he could. He also gave all he could and died with less than 30 pounds to give away despite having an annual income of 1,400 pounds. It is said that he never had more than 100 pounds on him, which is pretty impressive given how easy it must have been to hoard his wealth instead of using it to bless others.

Let us Seek: Broken Images

Yesterday afternoon at the Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ we had a break between our afternoon session and our evening meal. I spent the time preparing for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was distracted from my inevitable comparisons between the Annual Meetings of the two denominations I serve. I was distracted by reading through my favorite (and technically only) book on shame, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy called “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write on internalized images of God and perfectionism: (pg. 85)

“As in Jesus’ time, much of the inner suffering that people struggle with today is abetted by an impoverished religious imagination that is unable to envision a God of unfailing love-a love that embraces all of us unconditionally just as we are. Instead, our projections of a harsh and demanding God leave us with feelings of shame and a sense that we have disappointed God. Many of us are burdened by a strict conscience that demands perfection, thinking this what God wants. We have an image of holiness that is out of reach for the simple reason that perfection is beyond our grasp. When we inevitably fail, we feel guilty and ashamed and are confirmed in our belief that we are unworthy of God’s love.”

The honest truth is that I could spend this blogpost talking about the idea of a frustrating and badly-considered image of God from a personal perspective, but I believe this may be a case where personal ministry experience might be helpful. I have walked with many folks who have struggled with understanding a God that accepts them unconditionally with their “warts and all.” A lot of people have difficulty seeing God lovingly walking with them during challenging moments of life. The situation is like trying to see clearly through a broken window.

"Abandoned Church - view through broken window" by Nicholas Mutton

“Abandoned Church – view through broken window” by Nicholas Mutton

I remember walking with a brother in Christ who did not understand how God could love him. The man was lonely, sad, and isolated. He wanted to be in a relationship badly, but every relationship ended up in disaster. While he would love to believe God loved him unconditionally, it was hard to believe. God loved him and understood that he was lonely. God loved him even as he felt lonely. I believe God was compassionately and completely in love with this man. That man could neither see nor believe in that love easily.

I remember walking with many people over the years that were absolutely furious over the death of a loved one. Some people were angry with God because their loved one had passed away. Other people were resolutely angry that their loved one had done the things that led to their death. How could God love them when they still feel anger towards someone that they love? How could God love them when they are angry with God? Faith in God’s unconditional love can be difficult to obtain when anger is involved. It can become very difficult to understand that God loves a person despite the anger that they harbor in their souls.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking situations are those that involve abuse. While God is neither male nor female, it can be difficult to trust in the love of God when someone is abused by another person. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and caring mother hen when a woman in your life has engaged in abuse. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and protective father when a man in your life has engaged in abuse. Moving beyond parental images, trust can be difficult to carry into new life with Christ as your brother when a brother has been abusive.

Walking through the challenges of life can make it very difficult to trust in God’s love and grace. The images of God that a lot of people carry around in their lives are often powerful and unjustly harsh. These images do reinforce a lot of challenges that people normally face in their lives. Praying with sincerity after a heartbreaking crisis can be almost impossible if God seems to be stern and foreboding. Seeking forgiveness for situations where everything has gone downhill can become impossible when God seems hard, cruel, and unrelenting. The weight of shame can be overwhelming when you believe that God could never forgive you for what you have done in your life.

So, what do we do with this? Well, I do not want to hamstring a future blogpost, but I will say that my family and I listened to the new NPR podcast “Wow in the World” this afternoon. The very first episode spoke about an article that was recently published by researchers from the University of Montana on the benefits of gratitude. A quick synopsis of the research is that there is a strong correlation between expressing gratitude and a person’s well being.

If a person can make their life better through regular expressions of gratitude then I believe a similar theory can be proposed. I would suggest that there may be a correlation between the health of a person’s image of God and what opportunities that person engages in to experience a loving God. Regular spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship might help to reinforce a loving experience of God. The authors of the “God’s Unconditional Love” argue persuasively about the use of imagination to go deeper into the scripture and consequently into God’s love.

I would also suggest that engaging in compassionate acts alongside God might assist in retraining one’s heart to see a loving God more clearly. Volunteering with the hungry, assisting with rehabilitation programs, working to build and repair homes after disasters, and thousands of other opportunities exist to engage in ministry alongside a God who is neither hard nor callous to people’s pain. Partnering in ministry with others to seek God through compassionate acts might allow someone to understand God’s compassion for their own lives and souls more clearly.

In the meantime, my hope and prayer is that God might be gracious to you. May you see the love of God in your life.

Let us Ramble: Contemplating Charcoal

Unsurprisingly, my family and I have spent a lot of time outside this week. In the rural areas around Binghamton this week has been one of the first truly nice weeks of the year. We’ve spent time grilling dinner out on the porch almost every night this week.

A few years ago I was converted to charcoal grilling after a few years flirting with propane grills. Are charcoal grills somewhat inconvenient? They require a little bit of extra work but I adore the smokey taste they impart to the food I grill.

A few weeks ago (in this particular blogpost) I noted that a particular passage stuck out to me from a book I was reading for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The excerpt was from the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun. In particular, this was the passage that attracted my attention from the section entitled “Practicing the Presence” (pg. 72):

“Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives. Through many small pauses we begin a habit of turning our heart toward God.”

I was sitting on my porch while waiting for the charcoal to warm up when I was drawn into a spirit of contemplation. I use a chimney charcoal starter to ignite my charcoal before grilling. I was drawn into a spirit of contemplation as I watched the charcoal begin to burn (with the help of a little lighter fluid–I was cheating when I took this picture).

My rusty but trusty chimney charcoal starter!

The idea of the charcoal chimney is a simple concept. You light paper underneath the charcoal and that begins to heat up the bottom layer of charcoal. As that layer begins to burn, it sets the charcoal above on fire. In time, the whole of the charcoal catches on fire and it is time to spread the coals and grill.

As I watched the excessive and unnecessary flames pour out the top, I stopped to think about how the charcoal chimney is supposed to work. All it takes to function properly is patience, a little bit of newspaper, and a match. The chimney starter is simple and effective when the charcoal is in good condition, the breeze is low, and the match actually lights the paper on fire.

I have spent a lot of time working with churches that desire to grow. Some churches are always looking for a great new idea which will bring young families into the church. Some churches are seeking to figure out why certain families or individuals have stopped attending church regularly. A lot of churches are always trying to find that silver bullet which will get them where they want to go as a church.

I have also spent a lot of time working with individuals who are facing struggles in their lives. Families have struggles, coworkers are aggressive, and sometimes the neighbor just will not act neighborly. People seek help and look for a silver bullet to fix their problems. I know this is true because I have been also guilty of seeking silver bullets for my own problems.

As I stared at the excessive and unnecessary flames pour out of the charcoal starter I came to a realization. Just like the flames were unnecessary on the charcoal starter, we often unnecessarily look for big solutions to problems. One of my favorite passages is Micah 6:8. In that passage the Lord tells Micah what is required of people like you and me. People need to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

How many times would a culture of kindness defuse the huge problems which seem to require silver bullets in the church? My experience tells me that kindness can often defuse situations very quickly.

How many times would a little humility fix problems in the lives of individuals? Well, I can tell you that my life would have fewer problems if I decided to have a bit more humility and followed through with that decision.

How much better would our charcoal start if we were to stop pouring excessive amounts of solution into challenges that just require patient faithfulness? When we set ourselves about the tasks of life, would things taste more like the grill and less like lighter fluid if we were to focus on real solutions instead of quick solutions?

I really have to hand it to this idea of intentionally focusing on God in quiet moments. I am grateful that I have begun to find more quiet moments to turn towards God. I also need to get more newspaper. There is going to be a lot more grilling to do this summer and I am going to try to cut down on the lighter fluid.

Let us Ramble: Christian koan?

Yesterday I was working through the same book that I have been reading through for The Academy for Spiritual Formation over the past few weeks. It seems like every Monday begins with a cup of coffee and the same book. Inevitably, my brain melts before the coffee cools. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. This is a dense book with a lot of good concepts and ideas.

One of the brain-melting ideas that took a hold of me this week revolved around the idea of a Christian “koan.”The authors say this on page 63:

“Many years ago, when Wilkie was in Kyoto studying Zen meditation, this practice of gazing on the crucifix was endorsed by an unlikely source, a Japanese Zen master. Yamada Roshi told him and his fellow Jesuits that the cross is the Christian koan and that contemplating it was a path to enlightenment. A Zen koan is a riddle or surd (e.g. ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’) that baffles and stills the busy mind, so that an intuitive flash of truth can seize one’s awareness.”

This idea struck me as being very interesting given my background as a United Methodist. In his sermon “Spiritual Idolatry” John Wesley (one of the founders of the Methodist movement) clearly stated that he believed the Roman Catholic practice of using icons was a form of idolatry. John Wesley was not a fan of this “Romish” practice.

Now, let’s be clear. I do not believe that John Wesley only spoke and preached words that were beyond reproof. In some cases (like in “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”) I believe John Wesley was dead wrong, Despite all of my troubles with his works, I do believe that John Wesley wrote and spoke with all of the integrity he could muster. In short, I tend to give John Wesley the benefit of the doubt.

I do not believe that John Wesley would approve of the idea of a Christian koan, which I honestly believe is sad. I believe that there is some validity to what Yamada Roshi taught Wilkie Au. The authors go on to state that Yamada Roshi taught the Jesuits studying in Japan that excessive rationality often stood between people and God. The crucifix as a koan does an excellent job of being simple enough to help a Christian go beyond rationality into a place of contemplation where inspiration can take root.

After my brain stopped sparking I contemplated the idea on and off again. It kept setting small fires in my mind, but I had a few thoughts that I believe were helpful.

First, if the Jesuits focused on the crucifix, does it change the nature of the inspiration to contemplate the empty cross favored by Protestants? How would a focus on resurrection alter how one comes closer to God? What does it mean to us in our contemplation that the means of death inflicted by the world stands empty and defeated? Does pondering the very differences lead to the excessive rationalism Yamada Roshi was warning about? Would it be helpful to break through a barrier for a Protestant to contemplate a crucifix or for a Roman Catholic to ponder the empty cross?

Second, what koans have I experienced in my life? When I regularly went to the same Young Life camp first as a student and then as a leader I remember watching the same tree growing out on an island in the lake. Contemplating the tree led me to places where I found inspiration to get through some of the most difficult spiritual struggles that I faced as a college student. I know that I have stared at a campfire many times while praying through challenges as an adult. Were these koans or just convenient places where my focus rested until I saw Christ?

Finally, what’s wrong with an icon? John Wesley’s idiosyncrasies aside, is there anything wrong with using an icon? As a young Christian I enjoyed reading both John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. In reading stories filled with allegorical characters I found a way of contemplating deep things about my own spiritual life. Is using an icon to go deeper in one’s faith different than using a work of fiction? Is using an icon to focus in and grow deeper in the faith different than using a sermon like a lens to focus on a truth in the scriptures?

As I said earlier, this book causes my brain to smoke. On the positive side, if my brain is overheating then I have an excuse to always be letting hot air out of my mouth.

Let us Seek: Flowers in the cold

The last few nights have been very cold in the town of Maine, NY. I have gone to sleep with a prayer on my lips as I curled up into my bed. Each morning I have gone outside to check on the tomato plants and marigolds that have been hiding under burlap covers. I have pulled aside the cover and I have expected the worst case scenario to have taken place. This is what I saw as I pulled aside the burlap this morning…

Oh! The horror of it! A bright orange flower greeted me in the midst of happy tomato and carrot plants…

This beauty of a red and orange blossom also had been clearly struggling with the weather.

I had assumed that the very worst case scenario had occurred. Nothing had gone wrong with the plants. I had the same fear the night before, but nothing had gone wrong with the plants. I have assumed that something terrible would happen every night of this weekend. Nothing went wrong with the plants. They are all perfectly fine.

I occasionally have to remind myself of something very basic. I don’t need to go looking for trouble. Theodore Roosevelt was once quoted as saying “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” George Washington is quoted as saying “Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” Jesus clearly taught that we should not worry about tomorrow. Consider this passage from Matthew 6:28b-33: (NRSV)

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I know these statements hold a lot of wisdom. I still catch myself being needlessly worried. Am I really so worried about tomato plants? Why do I choose to live in fear of a summer without tomato sandwiches? Why am I concerned that there won’t be enough tomatoes to sauce and preserve for quick meals when we’re all tired after the baby is born? Why do I choose to live this way? What does that say about my own relationship with God?

I’m clearly not in the same league as those flower blossoms. May God bless me with wisdom as I slow down to enjoy them before their season in the sunshine comes and goes.

Let Us Ramble: Differing Loyalties

Today I am working through a book I am reading for The Academy for Spiritual Formation. The book’s title is “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and was written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I reached the end of a chapter and a difficult question is raised in the “Spiritual Exercises and Reflection” section. The statement which is tripping me up this morning reads: (pg. 32)

“God asked Adam and Eve, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’ In a similar way, imagine God asking you, ‘And who told you that who you are is not enough?’ What comes to mind as possible sources of shame in your life?”

This blog is not where I openly reflect on the personal aspects of my journey. My personal thoughts on shame belong in my prayers and in my journal, but there is also a professional side to this question which is echoing through my mind.

I was approached yesterday and asked indirectly if I’d be preaching on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. I tend to go on vacation on those weekends for several reasons. First, they are low attendance weekends and I like to celebrate with my extended family. For the last few years I’ve been invited to go on trips with my father and his wife during the Fourth of July weekend in particular. As a consequence of the 24/7 nature of my position and the busyness of my father those weekends were the only weekends I saw my father over the past few years, so I definitely took advantage of a chance to spend time with my father while he is still around and we’re both in good health. I believe that it is better to spend time now than to regret spending too little time later in life.

Second I struggle with the very nature of balancing my dual-citizenship. On earth, I am a resident of the United States who enjoys citizenship. In heaven, I am a citizen of God’s kingdom through the love of Jesus. The one citizenship is temporal and fleeting and the other is permanent and eternal. Meaning no disrespect to the country of my birth, I have made vows to serve my permanent nation and thus sometimes find the disconnection between the two disconcerting.

A great example of what I mean falls today. Today has been proclaimed Loyalty Day by the President of the United States. One sentence of the proclamation reads “The loyalty of our citizenry sends a clear signal to our allies and enemies that the United States will never yield from our way of life.” Why does this bother me? Jesus taught that we should live with a humility that requires an ability to be able to follow the Spirit even when it leads to strange places.

What would the church be like if Peter had said “I understand you want me to eat these things you have called unclean, but I am loyal to my Jewish heritage. I will never yield from my way of life.” What would the church be like if the lack of yielding led to the exclusion of the Gentiles? Even laying that aside, what would our nation look like if our loyalty led to an inability to look squarely at issues like slavery or Women’s Suffrage? The church sometimes helped, sometimes hindered, but was definitely involved in those conversations. Loyalty is admirable, but where do our loyalties truly rest as Christians? Do we never change our way of life even as that way of life hurts our neighbors and destroys the land our neighbors called home before my ancestors even left Europe? Where does my loyalty lie?

Consider for a moment that this is also International Workers’ Day. This celebration was placed on this date to honor both the old tradition of May Day and due to the proximity to a bombing which took place in Chicago called the Haymarket Massacre in 1886. The workers had been striking for an 8 hour work day so that they would have time to do simple things like care for families, participate in society, and not simply exist as a work force. Today this day is generally downplayed in the United States, but as a minister of the Gospel I am aware of how much blood, sweat, and tears were shed by my sisters and brothers over the centuries to help care for folks who were orphaned, widowed, or disabled by poor work conditions. Clergy have advocated, provided care, and reached out to people in need on this day.

So, which do I celebrate today? Do I celebrate how I should be loyal to a temporal nation or focus on a movement my sisters and brothers fought to bring into the light? Would you want that choice?

I’ll always celebrate Memorial Day as I recognize that many sisters and brothers paid the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to live out their faith. I understand they weren’t perfect, but I can happily celebrate Memorial Day. I simply wish people would understand why ministers struggle with their dual-citizenship. Most of us in denominational settings have vows to keep and we must always tread gently.

Let us Ramble: The Cannon

I was gardening a few minutes before it happened. I spent the majority of the day getting the tomato patch ready for a good season. I pulled weeds, I measured space, I marked holes, I prepped the area, and finally planted the tomatoes. We planted 3 cherry tomato plants, 2 slicing tomato plants, and 3 paste tomato varieties for sauces. It had been a really productive day. I even planted flowers. I came inside and this is who I was…

File_000

I was this guy from the circus. I was climbing on life’s cannon. I avoided the news all day, avoided Facebook most of the day, and was ready to climb into the cannon of life. I was totally ready for what life had for me, because if life gave me lemons, I could use them to add a certain amount of acidity to my tomato sauces.

Then I read the Judicial Council’s decision on the election of Bishop Oliveto. I immediately felt like the man from the circus in the following picture…

File_001

Do you see that blur? That’s a person being fired out of a cannon. I know this because my phone took a continuous stream of photos and that’s the guy! You’d better hope that pad is in place when this happens, because that is really fast.

I felt like this man being shot across an arena when I read that article not because I am a member of the LGBTQI community–I am pretty much as heterosexual as people come. I did not feel like a man being shot across an arena because I have any relatives that are out of the closet–they’re all heterosexual as far as I can tell. I have no familial investment in the LGBTQI community as far as I know.

I felt like a person being shot out of a cannon because these actions come across to me as neither right nor righteous. We live in a world where there are children being driven from homes by war, greed, and hatred. We live in a world where children are forced into exploitive circumstances where they are taken advantage of in the most criminal of fashions. We live in a world where we are regularly discussing the possibility of nuclear war between North Korea and the United States on a nearly daily basis. We live in a messed up world and THIS is where we are spending our time and energy. If you’re reading frustration into my words, congratulations. You are correct. I am totally and completely frustrated by what has happened.

We act as if God is losing sleep over what two consenting adults do in a loving relationship but is okay with the effects that our personal investments and privileges have on people around the globe. Continuing to waste time and resources on the oppression of a community that has individuals who exemplify and exhibit the gifts of the Holy Spirit is simply and completely confounding to me.

Let me put this another way. If I call the pizzeria down the street and ask for them to send me the best pizza they have, the pizzeria might make any of a number of pizzas. They might send a black olive pizza, a cheeseburger pizza, a pepperoni pizza… The possibilities are endless, but I know this: if I ask them to make me a great pizza I’ll probably get a great pizza.

We ask God to send us leaders and then we get upset when God sends us leaders who don’t fit our conceptions of what is acceptable. We ask for God to help lead us forward into this new millennia and new century and then we get frustrated that God continually asks us to accept who we are sent instead of who we would prefer. We’re given talented leaders like Bishop Oliveto and we respond by threatening any group of clergy with punishment that would even consider electing another person like her.

Is it any wonder that someone who was ordained to help care for the body of Christ feels like he has been shot out of a cannon? I just wanted to worry about my tomatoes and now I’m worried about my church bleeding out over the massive wounding we just gave ourselves. I think we’ve all just been launched into the sky. I pray we have a soft landing.

Let us Ramble: Images of the Police and God

The other day I read a sourceless (but probably not apocryphal) story about a police officer sitting at lunch with her partner when a conversation between a mother and her son was overheard. The child had been acting up and the mother was losing her patience. The mother pointed at the two police officers and said “You see those police officers over there? They take bad kids like you to jail if they misbehave.” The officer stood up, walked over, and said to the child “Don’t worry. We don’t take children to jail. We take bad parents there instead.”

The story was meant to inspire people to not tell their children that the police are the bad guys. If a child gets in trouble it becomes harder to help them if they truly believe that the police are going to hurt them. The fear children learn about police officers from others causes the children to be less safe in the long run.

The story re-entered my brain as I was reading through the first few chapters of “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In the introduction to the book the authors note that a lot of people carry two images of God with them. They carry the image that they are taught and verbally profess, but they also carry the image that is formed by their interactions with others, especially caretakers and parents. The authors call these images of God the professed image and the operative image (pg.2-3).

Looking at the story of the police officer’s interaction we see a great example of this kind of learned behavior. The child is likely taught through school programs, teachers, and neighbors that the police are there to be helpful. This image is reinforced every time they see an officer in a car with the words “To serve and protect” written on the bumper. If pressed the child might say that the police exist to help. This would be the professed image of the police.

At the same time, the child is being taught by his mother that bad boys are taken away by the police. The child is being taught that the police effectively exist to lock him up when he misbehaves. The child is being taught that they should avoid the police and this image may last for years in such a deep place that the child may not even remember. The child is going forward with two ideas in his head. He says the police are there for his benefit and yet believes (at some level) that the police exist to hurt him when he misbehaves.

I wonder how much this duality truly exists when it comes to divine education. I serve in a role as a pastor. I teach people about God on a regular basis. I tell people about the love of Jesus, the kindness of Jesus, the graciousness of Jesus, and that God deeply and truly cares for them. I try to teach this idea at a deep level.

At the same time, there are people who constantly and consistently undermine this idea. Yes, sometimes it is a parent saying that God will take them as a bad kid and throw them into a fire where they will spend all of eternity, but I honestly don’t believe many of the parents that I meet work out of that theological place. This idea is reinforced while flipping through television stations past an angry televangelist, while walking past the angry man with a sign screaming through a bullhorn, while talking with friends and relatives who have had bad experiences with hellfire/damnation preachers. All of these influences add up and in a world where there are a million and one places to get information it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that God sometimes ends up with a reputation as being someone who cannot and must not be trusted.

This whole concept begs a question or two for me. How does the church survive when there are so many people teaching the exact opposite viewpoint that we share of a loving and caring God? How do we help people connect the image of God they profess to the image of God that is acting on a level that might even exist below their conscious thought? How do we help people peel back the layers and find the God of love and grace below their misconceptions?

I know I have done my best to help my kids understand that police officers are good people by making sure they know how much we respect their Uncle Stefano (who is a police officer). We treat officers with respect and do our best not to speak poorly of the police (even when we don’t agree with everything that has ever been done by police officers). We do our best to connect our children with a positive image of the police.

I wonder if we might do the same thing by connecting our children to people who carry the love of God around with them in their everyday lives. I think that means making certain our children are involved in a Christian community and supporting that community as best we are able. I also believe that means doing our best to embody the faith we profess as opposed to the poor parts of the faith we may have inherited from others. I think it’ll take a lot of work.

Here are three things I think need to become a reality for this work to succeed:

  1. Caregivers and parents need to be aware that their viewpoints often help to educate a child about the role and nature of God. A lesson is taught when a child is dropped off for Sunday school by a parent who leaves to have “me time.” Awareness is necessary.
  2. Pastors, Sunday School teachers, and even parishioners need to be aware that their vocal-voice is not the only voice children hear. Our voices need to be compelling and backed up by our actions. We cannot sing “Jesus’ hands were kind hands” before saying terrible things around the table over a cup of coffee while expecting kids to remember only the first message. Our kids will hear both messages.
  3. Sometimes we need to state the obvious in worship so that the obvious is heard more than once or twice. Why do some churches have constant communion? Yes, there’s a theology of grace, but there’s also a richness to hearing words of grace and forgiveness regularly. Why do some churches repeat a creed or affirmation of faith every week? Perhaps a child needs the consistency of hearing the same message in order to combat the messages they see every day in the world.

What other things do you think the church can do to connect the professed beliefs of the church about God with their operative images of God? What have you seen work in your lives?

Let us Pray: United Methodists and Magic Fish

Today I am in prayer for the United Methodist Church and I am reminded of a story referenced in last weekend’s Doctor Who episode. In that episode, the Doctor speaks with his companion Bill about a cautionary tale called “The Magic Haddock.”

In the story of the Magic Haddock, a fisherman catches a fish which offers the fisherman three wishes in exchange for freedom. The fisherman wishes for his son to be home from war and for 100 pieces of gold. The Magic Haddock grants his wishes, but not as expected. The man’s son is slain in battle and returns home in a coffin. The man is offered 100 pieces of gold in gratitude for his son’s service. Heartbroken, the third wish the man makes is that his first two wishes would be undone.

It is a story that reminds me of the Tale of the Monkey’s Paw that was a part of one of the Simpsons Treehouses of Horror when I was a child. The moral of the two stories is the same: You never know what you will get when you make a wish, so you’d better be careful of what wishes you make in your life. It is a common tale that relates back to many tales of genies, d’jinn, devils, and other mythical figures.

A lot of people are making “wishes” about what will come out of this Judicial Council meeting or out of the special meeting of General Conference in 2019. I am someone who is sitting on the sidelines and wondering if the wishes we are making might have disastrous consequences, especially as we have folks praying in extreme opposite directions. We need the Holy Spirit to be at work in these events for the future to have hope. We need the Holy Spirit to be at work in us for the future to have hope. We need the Holy Spirit for our wishes are often to our own detriment.

May God bless us and give us wisdom. May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. May God help us to be the church.

Let Us Ramble: Fishing and Shame

This morning I made a terrible mistake. This morning I picked up the first book of many that I will be reading as a result of my time engaging in the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The book is entitled “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” and is written by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au out of Loyola Marymount University and the CH Jung Institute of Los Angeles respectively.

I say it was a mistake to dive into this book because I was unprepared for the depths to which this book would delve so quickly. I started keeping a list of potential blog-entries and had to stop after a few pages. This is a book that will require chewing, digesting, and redigesting later. I wish I had a brain as effective at digging through ideas as a cow’s stomach can be at munching through grass. I need a good four brains right about now.

Let me explain what I mean through an example. A question was raised in the book on the effect of shame in our spiritual lives. Shame can affect the way we relate to other people in our lives, but do we stop to think about how shame can affect the way that we see God? My first reaction is that shame definitely affects the way that we see God. The authors are right when they say that shame affects all of our relationships.

Let me give an example. When I was first married I decided that I wanted to be a fly-fisherman. I may or may not have watched “A River Runs Through It” a few too many times. I bought a pole, broke a pole, bought another pole, built a pole traveling case to protect the pole, learned to cast, and I spent hours sending a piece of yarn back and forth over the yard. I cast, cast, and cast again. I was pretty happy with my casting.

Unfortunately, I had two problems. First, my vision was beginning to deteriorate due to keratoconus and I couldn’t see very well into the water to find fish. I needed help learning where to cast as I couldn’t see what I needed to see below the surface. I had to learn to read the surface. Second, I didn’t know all that much about how to reel in a fish once I caught it. I knew I needed to strip the line, but I wasn’t quite sure how that worked. I kept casting and casting.

On our anniversary my wife and I went camping. I went fishing at the lake shore by the campsite. I caught a little fish and it went flying behind me. I didn’t even realize I caught it. My wife found it hilarious. She mounted a little plastic fish as a playful reminder of my encounter with a wild fish. It was funny, but I stopped fly fishing. I was so embarrassed by my fishing that I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone for advice. I was ashamed of my ability. I stopped because it was easier than admitting my failure to any one of a number of friends who would have gladly helped me.

Shame stopped me in my tracks. The question becomes whether or not there are things in my life that stop me spiritually just as hard as my fear of being “found out” as a bad fly-fisherman. Yes, there certainly are things that weigh me down through spiritual shame.

When I was a kid I had a nightmare at a summer camp that the devil was going to steal my soul after a particularly rough Bible study told us about sin. The camp counselor was loving, kind, and helpful, but let’s be honest, I still carried around the image of a God who would abandon me to such a fate if I didn’t do things just right. I still carry that idea around. When people talk in church about shortcomings of an institution that is far larger than me, I sometimes see that divine head shaking at me. When people talk about younger folks who don’t come to church, I sometimes see that divine head looking at me and challenging me to do something worthwhile and amazing. I live with a lot of shame that more than likely doesn’t belong on my shoulders alone. I do live in a community, so why does everything that happens feel like it is my fault alone?

Jesus said that His yoke was easy. Why does my shame add such weight to the things I carry through my life? Why does the church (or at least church folk) sometimes seem to have an addiction to that sense of shame? Why does shame put a weight on all of us? Is shame what is killing the church rather than people who sometimes act cruelly and (ironically) shamelessly? Interesting questions to ponder…

Meanwhile, I both recommend this book and invite you to be careful. There’s a lot to chew on in these pages.

Let us Ramble: Dryness

Lately I have been thinking about dry bones. I have been feeling a bit dry myself. Perhaps it is the number of things that have been rapidly changing in my life, the busyness of the Lenten season, the stresses of being a pastor of a smaller church in a small town, or simply the constant headache from not wearing my glasses while my new cornea heals… Regardless I have been feeling like a bunch of dried out bones.

One of the books I have been reading lately has been “A Guide to Retreat for All God’s Shepherds” by Reuben P. Job. In that book, a poem by Joyce Rupp is quoted named “Dry Bones.” In that poem, the following stanzas are recorded:

tiredness grounds me

into a quiet stupor

of the spirit.

I yearn to be inspired,

to be lifted up, set free

beyond the place of deadness.

the struggle goes on,

however,

and you and I, God,

we exist together

with seemingly

little communion

Joyce Rupp goes on to state her belief in God feels stronger than ever despite the challenges she is facing. It is quite beautiful. I recommend both Joyce Rupp’s works and Reuben Job’s book because they each have their own beauty. I think that beauty is quite apparent in the words above…

I share these words because I know what it feels like to have tiredness wear me into a quiet stupor of the soul. I feel the dryness of my bones in a place of deadness. I yearn, I call, I seek, and yet here God and I exist together. The dryness is overwhelming sometimes.

Surely, the biblical quote you might lift up to me is the offer to the woman at the well. Doesn’t Jesus offer a living water that quenches this thirst? As a pastor, shouldn’t you (of all people!) know that these dry patches aren’t necessary when the living water dwells with us? Shouldn’t I know why these patches take place and be able to just walk through them into a bright future without a bit of dryness?

No. I do not know why there are dry places in life. Paul (in Romans 5:3-5) might tell us that suffering leads to endurance, character, and ultimately a hope that does not disappoint, but even with those words strike me as not explaining why there are dry places. The dry places may lead to this blessing, but I cannot tell you perfectly why any of us face dryness. Couldn’t there be an easier way?

Ultimately, all I can tell you is that almost everyone faces dry places in life. Almost every person sooner or later finds themselves in a place where they have moved away from the mountain top experiences, entered the valleys, and started wondering what happened and why. It is something that has happened to everyone from Mother Theresa to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, how do we live through these moments? I think Joyce Rupp hits it right on the head. We exist together with God in the dryness. We call out in prayer, we yearn, and when words fail us, we exist together with God.

One story I did not personally touch on during Holy Week was that one moment where Jesus says some simple words. Jesus says “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). John says that it is to fulfill the scriptures, but even so, it is a simple statement. Jesus is thirsty. The source of the living water feels thirst.

I can co-exist with Jesus in my dryness because I believe Jesus has been dried out too. Jesus knew thirst. Am I being too literal? Possibly, but I imagine the prayer in Gethsemane was a moment of dry thirst. Jesus prayed “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Go further back to the story of the temptation. If Jesus wasn’t actually hungry and thirsty when the devil offered rocks like loaves of bread, then was he truly tempted? In my dryness, I see the image of the invisible God. The image of God shown in Jesus is an image that knows difficulty.

I am pretty dry these days. I’ll still stay here with Jesus. I invite all of you who struggle with dryness to spend time with the One who knows dryness. Christ came, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. Even if we have to wait in the desert, Christ will come again.