Let us Ramble: On Commitment

There is something foul afoot in the Dean household. My family was in the Olean and Buffalo areas this past weekend visiting with relatives. Every single one of them had a cold yesterday. Yesterday was a foul day full of a lot of phlegmy sounds.

When everyone had settled into bed for the night I drove into town to pick up supplies. Liquids, liquids, and more liquids. We also had begun to run low on that most effective of medicines. We were low on chicken broth. With three folks fighting colds and a father who has to keep his body healthy to resist the plague, chicken broth is a powerful thing to have around.

As I drove into town I thought about the evening that had almost taken place. I was supposed to go into town to play a tabletop game with a colleague and his friends. There were invitations for my family to enjoy a nice lasagna with my colleague’s family. As a very isolated introvert, it is the kind of event that is really healthy for me. When my family became ill, those plans had to be put aside. My family needed me. I drove and thought over the night’s events that could have been while remembering what had taken place in our kitchen while a chorus of coughs serenaded me from the next room.

Earlier in the day I set to work to make kluski noodles. When I was young, a hot bowl of wonton soup was my favorite cold remedy. Often, I wouldn’t even eat the wontons. I would just drink down the hot broth with gusto. As I grew older, I went to college where I learned that the Chinese restaurants in the vicinity were not up to par. Their broth was way too watery and the wontons were generally nothing to write home about. I was frustrated, looked for alternatives, and found kluski noodle soup at the store. The soup was really fragrant, the noodles were small enough to enjoy without scratching things up on the way down, and this was a great alternative to the wonton soup of my childhood.

I brought forward my love of this soup into my marriage. It was quite a sight when my wife and I would get sick My wife felt better when wrapped in her grandfather’s old robe. I only felt better when I had plenty of broth to drink. She’d wrap up and watch me sip cup after cup of broth. We both felt better, which was the goal. As the parent of two daughters, my plan has continued to work while the three of them fight over one bathrobe. You can always make more soup for more bowls.

So, I set about the task of making kluski noodles for soup. I asked for recommendations, received a wonderful recipe from my mother-in-law which her mother used to cook, and set to work. I measured, I sifted, I mixed, I realized I made a mistake, I corrected, mixed some more, and rolled them out before attacking with a pizza cutter. Here’s what they looked like when all rolled and cut.

Kluski noodles!

Not exactly uniform, but uniform isn’t the rule of the day when you’re making homemade soup. I set about making the broth. I was out of bone broth, so I used some dried chicken soup base and set out into the garden with a pair or scissors to attack the lemon thyme, sage, and parsley plants. Along with some ground peppercorns, a dash of garlic powder, and a leaf off of my bay tree, the soup base was ready to simmer for a few hours to mix flavors and fill the house with the smell of health.

I did not always know how to cook. While I am almost certain most people who have eaten in my kitchen would find it odd to believe, especially when I am feeling particularly miserable and tell people my fantasy of running away to become a cook in an isolated diner in someplace quiet like Maine or North Dakota. I actually was a horrible cook when my wife married me.

I learned to cook in seminary while my wife was working to make sure we had those niceties which do not come easily when you are getting an education on student loans. Due to my wife’s working with the developmentally disabled we had things like food, soap, and deodorant. I still believe that my classmates adored my wife for that last blessing alone.

I started simple with things like grilled cheese, which I had already learned to cook in home economics in school. I flipped the sandwiches way too often, didn’t use my nose to smell, had little experience, and burned the living daylights out of a lot of them at first. I practiced and I learned. Highlights of my first year of cooking:

  • I learned it is harder to burn things in a crockpot. Harder does not mean impossible.
  • I somehow made split pea and ham soup with neither split peas or ham!
  • I learned that Campbell’s soup is good in a pinch, but not sufficient alone to help a hungry Kayti make it through a shift at work.
  • I learned that I had an affinity for cooking eggs. We understood each other and my wife started calling me her “King of Eggs.” I still find that to be one of the nicest things anyone has ever called me.

I practiced, practiced, and practiced. When my wife became pregnant I began to practice cooking with the things she was craving, usually with mixed results. When my child came along, I began to look into soft foods like porridge. I began to steam things, sauté, and “unfortunately” finally left the seminary and became appointed to a place where cable was a part of our housing package. In other words, I was finally exposed to the Food Network where I became obsessed with people like Alton Brown. We still get the Food Network magazine years after telling our beloved parsonage committees that they do not need to pay for cable as it is neither helpful nor desirable in a house with small kids. I like my advertisements like I like my clickbait–easily ignorable in a sidebar, not blasting in my face decibels louder than a television program every three minutes.

In time I began to see cooking as more than a hobby. Cooking was a way I could bless the people around me, including my family. If you’re looking for me around 3:30 PM on an afternoon, the place to look for me is generally at the parsonage. If you come around 4:00 PM, you may even get an invitation to dinner if it is stretchable. I cook dinner almost every night because it is one way I live out my commitment to my wife “for better or worse.” The same love and commitment fuels me as a parent as I continue to push back against my youngest daughter’s whims against “weird” vegetables like pepper and strange food like “fish.” I have been given a gift, but that gift is not for me alone. In a paraphrase of the words of the Abrahamic blessing, God has said “I will bless you so that you may be a blessing to others.”

In continuing the story of the soup, I added some frozen turkey bits from a previously roasted turkey, some carrots, and yellow pepper to the broth about half an hour before my wife was going to be home. Normally I wouldn’t have added them so early, but let’s be clear here–sick people do not love crunchy vegetables. Softer carrots and softer peppers are good for the throat, especially as the pepper oils spread into the broth and slowly condition my youngest child to like the taste of peppers–I will win the pepper-war eventually. When my wife walked in the door, the slightly dried noodles were tossed in the pot. In a few minutes (far less time required than when cooking dried noodles), the soup was ladled out to salivating kids. A prayer, a blessing, and sore throats began to enjoy.

Yummy soup

My kids claimed it was the most delicious soup they’d ever eaten. My wife said it was really good. To be honest, it was pretty good. I drank a couple extra ladles of broth to make sure my body would stay nice and healthy.

As I collected my groceries and returned home, I thought about all of these things. I thought about the game that I had missed and the fellowship over lasagna that could have been mine that evening. I reflected and gave thanks that a perfect day had not occurred, but that my commitment to learning, practicing, and caring had allowed me to bring blessing into my sick family. Commitment is not always about the large things in life. Commitment is often lived out in the little things, like learning to plant herbs and use them to make a good cup of soup.

Rob’s “Kluski” Noodle Soup (makes… a lot of brothy soup that is easy on bellies and throats)

  • 1 gallon Chicken Soup Base (or skimmed poultry bone broth)
  • 2 cups of previously roasted turkey (small bits–I imagine any poultry would do, but I would recommend something chunky, not sliced. My wife would say to buy a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store and chop it up. I would tell you to reserve the bones and skin to make bone broth later, especially if people might be sick for a couple of days. Yes, I know that’s a beef bone broth recipe, but just substitute chicken. It works, I promise.)
  • 1 cup of sliced carrots
  • 1 yellow pepper, diced
  • 1 dash garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground pepper
  • Noodles!
    • 2 cups flour, sifted
    • ½ teaspoon salt (shh–I used the “No-Salt” my dad left behind to cut down on the sodium)
    • 2 Eggs
    • 2 half-eggshells of water (old recipe indeed)
  • 1 Bouquet Garni (tie together with enough string to tie it to the handle of pot so that you can remove it easily)
    • 5 sprigs (3 inches) of Lemon Thyme
    • 2 sprigs parsley with stems (3 inches)
    • 1 sprig sage (3 inches)
    • 1 bay leaf

First, make the noodles. On a clean surface, like a large rolling board or a silicone rolling mat, sift the flour and salt together. Make a well in the flour. Crack the eggs into the well. Work the eggs through the flour, which is surprisingly easier if you do it before you add the water. When thoroughly mixed, form another well and add the water. At this point, I use a spatula to make sure the water doesn’t escape until the dough is formed. Roll the dough as flat as possible and cut into the desired shape. Kluskis are usually about 2 inches long and maybe a half centimeter wide. I didn’t do a very good job at this part, but they still tasted good.

Bring broth to a boil. Reduce to simmer. Add spices and the bouquet garni after tying it to the handle. Leave it to summer for at least an hour. The soup will smell very lemony, but that’s okay. The thyme will not overpower the soup. With half an hour to go, put in the veggies and turkey. If the turkey is frozen, add the turkey a few minutes earlier and bring the broth up to a boil. I personally remove the bouquet at this point so the tumbling vegetables don’t break too many leaves off. The thyme lost several leaves, but after this long a boil, they’ll just slip down the throat with the broth without causing even a hiccup to the most sensitive of throats.

When you’re almost ready to eat (seriously, only a few minutes), set the table and add the noodles. They will float when nearly done. Taste one noodle (I use chopsticks to pull it out–kluskis are dense but should taste cooked through) and adjust broth if necessary, although I didn’t need to do anything. Serve with lots of broth to make unhealthy throats happy.

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 Ponder: Sovereign God

Yesterday in the blog I was pondering the concept of knowledge. What does it mean for any religious or spiritual knowledge to go beyond being informational in nature to being transformational in nature? What does it mean for us to understand a text, a revelation, or a message from so thoroughly that it changes the ways that we authentically engage with the world and her creator? These were the sort of questions I was considering in my heart and in my soul yesterday.

As I read for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, I found myself entering into a new book from a new perspective. We were invited to read four books for the upcoming Academy and I decided to begin with “Psalms of the Jewish LIturgy: A Guide to Their Beauty, Power & Meaning” by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.

I was considering the introduction to the book and Rabbi Glazer’s discussion of barriers that can interdict themselves between us and these works of an ancient faith when something caught my eye on the sixth page. Rabbi Glazer pointed out that “One barrier may be especially present for us Americans, who are unaccustomed to accepting, or even contemplating, images rooted in monarchy.”

The phrasing and content caught my eye as I had been considering the idea of what it might mean to be transformed by an understanding of the text. I was away last week and was disheartened by the news when I had returned. I was disturbed by the national conversations inspired by events on issues such as “How does someone speak appropriately as a leader to youth and children?” and “What does it mean to treat someone as innocent until they are proven guilty?” I read stories of foul-mouthed politicians and was disheartened. I truly regretted the state of affairs that awaited me in my news feed, but could I really see the power and possibility behind a Sovereign? I am not a fan of some of our elected officials, but surely the heart of democracy and the power of the social contract dwell deeply within my worldview. What could it mean to consider a Sovereign as a welcomed authority figure when I struggle to trust the officials we sometimes elect?

In the midst of these struggles I pondered the very Psalms being considered in the book I was beginning to read. The words that I read truly did come from a very foreign worldview. In truth, the foreign nature of the texts are sometimes what gives those text their strength. Consider the first four verses of the second Psalm: (NRSV, alt.)

“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Sovereign and the anointed, saying ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ The Sovereign who sits in the heavens laughs; the Sovereign has them in derision.”

In a nation where it seems like every political party is conspiring and plotting, it can be invigorating to consider a Sovereign above such matters. In a world where there is earthly power and might in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals, it is comforting to think of a God who considers such earthly might and power as being worthy of laughter. The very foreign nature of the texts presents a Sovereign that can be powerful in ways that are unimaginable in the midst of the plots and conspiracies of modern politics. Consider Psalm 19:7-9: (NRSV, alt.)

“The law of the Sovereign is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of Adonai are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Sovereign are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Sovereign is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Adonai is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Sovereign are true and righteous altogether…”

What if the reason the Sovereignty of God is so foreign is because it has become unimaginable to see a decree or a law that is not immediately shot down as insufficient or askew by another political party? What if the very wisdom of God is what makes God so foreign to us as a people? When was the last time any of us saw a politician and had the first word we would use to describe them be “righteous?”

I found myself moved to think about many Psalms as I thought about Rabbi Glazer’s assertion about the barrier between words of sovereignty and American principles. There are many other good examples of the foreign yet beautiful concept of God as sovereign besides those listed above. I found another passage in Rabbi Glazer’s book to be particularly moving: (pgs. 6-7)

“Despite the reality of terrible evil, despite the chaos and bloodshed that all-too-often beset human life, and despite human suffering; in the view of the psalms, it is because Adonai reigns that we can trust that justice and goodness will triumph in the end. To believe that God is ‘sovereign of the universe’ is to have the faith that, if not in our own lives then in the lives of generations to come, the blessings of peace will indeed someday spread over the face of the earth.”

This is a text written from a truly Jewish perspective, but I find comfort in the words. Evil and chaos are rather prevalent in our world. There are times when the news seems to deliver messages of injustice and resultant shock. This world and this nation are not at peace, but if Adonai reigns then there is room for hope. If Adonai reigns, then there is a possibility for a better world for our children. If Adonai reigns, perhaps we can move forward with the faith that justice will return and peace will overcome.

An understanding of God’s sovereignty that is transformational could really change the way a person reads the news, prays for the world, and seeks justice. It is interesting to ponder, but it is my prayer that such an understanding would first transform my heart and then the world.

Let us Ramble: Questions of Knowledge

When I was in college one of my favorite courses was taught by Professor Andy Koehl and it was on the very nature of knowledge. Epistemology was a wonderful course and it caused me to think deeply about how I knew the things that I thought I knew. Epistemology was a course that lent itself to navel gazing and deep contemplation about the nature of life.

Last Monday morning I sat and listened to a former Jesuit Priest and current spiritual director named Wilkie Au. He spoke to us about the nature of knowledge in a different way than Dr. Koehl had taught in college, which makes sense as philosophy and spiritual formation are two different schools of thought with very different purposes. Wilkie taught us about the nature of knowledge and challenged us to think deeply about the things we know about God.

Wilkie Au laid out the concept of knowledge having layers. Some knowledge is informational. I had a burrito for lunch on Monday and that burrito was filled with tofu. The knowledge of what I had for lunch is simply information which states facts. Information is static knowledge that does not change.

Some knowledge is formational. There are things which we learn that change the way we see the world around us—this knowledge creates a lens on reality which changes our perspective. The week before last my kids and I were listening to a podcast from NPR called Wow in the World which talked about the effects of methane from cow flatulence on climate change. The podcast challenged people to replace some of the protein they eat with insect or plant based protein. The information in that podcast changed my perspective and changed my lunch order from a beef based burrito to a tofu based burrito. It still tasted good smothered in hot sauce.

Wilkie finally challenged us to consider that some knowledge is transformational. The knowledge shapes, forms, and helps a person to live a life marked by authenticity. My listening to the podcast did not transform my life, at least not yet. If I were to live into the knowledge that my lunch choice could help make the world a better place, consistently move towards that truth, and eventually allow that information to change the way that I live my life on a daily basis that information could be said to be transformational.

Now, how does this affect a life of faith? I have lots of information about my God in my brain. I have whole reams of knowledge from my education which tell me about the themes of various books of the Bible, conceptions of the lives of figures from scriptures and history, and a lot of knowledge about the lived life of the church. A lot of that is information which is helpful, practical, and applicable. I also have a lot of knowledge which has helped to form my perspective. I know that God loves people, so I try to choose to consistently love people. I know that God cares for the hungry, so I support the local food bank and our CHOW pantry. This information forms my view of the world and even begins the beginning steps of transformation.

The question I am left with is whether I let the love of God become something that I know which begins to transform my heart and soul. Do I allow God’s love to go that deeply into my soul that it begins to draw out the deep parts of myself? Do I allow that formational knowledge to express itself in my actions so I begin the act of transforming the world around me? While Dr. Koehl might ask how I could know my neighbor is not the effect of the work of some Cartesian demon, Wilkie Au might ask me how my love of God might transform the way I treat that neighbor. How does what I know transform who I am into the image of Christ? For that matter, does what I know transform me into the image of Christ or does it drive me farther from the life of the Spirit?

As I said, we asked tough questions this past week. I continue to recommend you take the opportunity to experience an Academy if you have an opportunity.

Let us Ramble: Upon Reflection

So, this is my first blogpost since I attended the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which is a ministry that operates through Upper Room Ministries. I returned home late on Friday night and spent most of Saturday recovering from the joy that is driving through Pennsylvania and New York during construction season.

Sunday morning we prepared for worship and I was asked repeatedly about my experience. I told the truth. I was tired, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, but thoroughly aware that I had found a place where I could find depth, blessing, and community. I reflected with people about the powerful music and my unexplained need to sing the bass part in the four part harmony that emerged naturally from the voices around the table until I experienced vocal-fry. I reflected with people about the challenges of silence and about how I looked really peaceful as I sat silently up front while waiting for the service. I reflected with folks about walking into a situation with a lot of strangers and finding community.

As I reflected, I pondered what I would say for my first blogpost after the session. What I want to say is that I do not believe the Academy for Spiritual Formation is for everyone, but that I found it to be an incredibly moving and powerful experience. If entering into a community where you will learn new things, experience life together with communal silence and song, and explore the depths of spiritual formation seems exciting for you, then I might recommend you look into the Academy. If you want to spend time praying with other people as you explore your faith, share the Eucharist day after day in a refreshing experience that recalls our call to “constant communion,” and spend more time with the Psalms that most of us do in a year, then I invite you to explore the possibility.

In three months I will experience the joy of returning to Malvern where I will share communion with new friends, go deeper into the history of spirituality and spiritual formation, and probably find new areas of growth which I did not know needed to be explored. I imagine God will show up again in a powerful way. I am looking forward to heading back and invite you all to go along with me on the journey as I study, ponder, and reflect both on what has just happened and what will come in the months ahead. Blessings!

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: Pursuit of Smokiness

Yesterday was Independence Day in the United States. For most folks Independence Day is marked by celebration with a barbecue of chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, or any other number of delicious foods. Tradition usually lends itself towards children staying up late to see fireworks and to listen to patriotic music.

The day celebrates the Declaration of Independence being ratified by Congress in 1776. The day celebrates a far different time in our nation. A lot of the celebration would probably be considered obtuse, strange, and irreverent to most of the folks who lived through the events of 1776. I must admit that I am less concerned with the historical tension in this holiday than with many of the religious holidays which normally pique my interest. I happen to like Independence Day.

One of the reasons I like Independence Day is that I like to grill. I enjoy using our grill. This year I did a bit of minor surgery on my charcoal grill/smoker with a dremel to add a rotisserie component. I woke up very early, set the fire smoking, and watched a turkey spin around and around on the spit. We were invited to a wedding renewal ceremony and picnic about noon. The turkey hit the perfect temperature right on time to head out to the party with a smoked bird. Here’s the bird about an hour before she was finished. The tiny yellow bits were part of an olive oil baste with thyme, marjoram, and garlic. When finished the turkey was deeply colored and extremely fragrant.

My smoked turkey about an hour before completion

I was really proud of the turkey, but I refused to put pictures online. My wife knows that I love to share bits of my cooking adventures, so she took a picture to post on my behalf. I almost stopped her from posting the picture. What was my reasoning? What if I had made a huge mistake and the turkey was awful? What if people saw the turkey and told me I had messed it up?

The turkey was decimated at the party. The turkey was just torn to shreds by people who had spent a good half hour smelling the fragrant meat while waiting for the guests of honor to arrive. I’m glad my wife saved me a piece when carving because the turkey was just destroyed. I understood why immediately upon tasting the meat. The meat was deeply flavored, deeply delicious, and tasty in a way that only smoked meat can taste. This turkey wasn’t just store-bought turkey. The bird had been prepared carefully, slowly, and it was absolutely delicious.

It raised a question in my mind. Why am I so afraid of failure? I have good gifts, I have talent, and I practice my craft. I cook dinner regularly in my house and I have never been afraid to attempt new things. I should believe in myself, but I regularly look in the mirror and assume the worst about myself. What if my fear really is just fear that should be put aside?

The situation reminds me of FDR’s first inaugural address in 1933. President Roosevelt stated “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Facing a nation in a fiscal crisis with a vast imbalance of population and resources, FDR approached a dangerous situation with the belief that the nation must advance or perish. While my concerns are not nearly so dire, I will say that my own fears in life are often unreasonable and unjustified. President Roosevelt said later in that address:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

If true happiness lies in the joy of achieving things, then why am I so terrified of failure? Why do I fret about money, resources, and future criticism when happiness will not lie down those paths? Why do any of us live in such fear? I smoked a turkey that I filled with herbs from my own garden, basted in an oil I infused with my own instincts, and then slow roasted in a smoker that I altered with my own hands, My wife was right to be proud of me. Smoking a turkey is not rocket science, but the turkey was something that I enjoyed creating which I brought together through my own efforts in cooking, gardening, crafting, and patience. What’s more, I took that gift and shared it in a place where people could enjoy it without price or cost. I used my talents to bless others.

What would the church look like if we were to live out this love together? What if we were more concerned with our ministry to ourselves and to others than with looking at what we can take from the world around us? What if we found joy in our work as a community instead of chasing our own profits to our own doom?

Let us Ramble: Gelatin and Chopsticks

Last Thursday I took my children to lunch. The two minions had spent three days sitting fairly quietly in the church’s board room and were understandably at the end of their patience. I know this because they came into my office and began to repeatedly chant “Dad, feed us. Om-nom-nom.”

We went out for lunch at a nearby buffet. I proceeded to watch what might have been the most agonizing thing that I saw all week. I watched my daughter try to eat a gelatin cube with chopsticks.

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At first, she would seem to be making progress. She’d place the chopsticks exactly where they should go for a nice grasp on any other type of food.

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After she began to apply pressure things began to go sideways. The chopsticks would slip into the sides of the gelatin and the edges would begin to give way to the pressure applied by my daughter.

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At one point she managed to pick up the gelatin. Her grip did not last for long and soon the gelatin plummeted to the plate again. She was determined to eat her lunch without using her fork, but this gelatin was trying her patience. I was lucky enough to convince her to let me grab a picture or three despite her frustration.

I share this story to express a reality of life. Many people often come across situations in life where they believe that they have everything needed to face life’s challenges. They reach out to grasp life by the horns and suddenly realize that they are grabbing the horns of an ornery bull without a backup plan.

Sometimes in life the challenge is as simple as stripping that one screw necessary to complete putting together a piece of furniture. The situation is frustrating but not a matter of life or death. At other times, the challenges we unexpectedly face can be far more serious. Sometimes the situations we are face are both serious and severe.

Watching my daughter attempt to pick up gelatin with chopsticks was agonizing to me in part because I have tried to eat slippery foods with chopsticks in the past. My daughter was frustrated, but she certainly wasn’t alone in her frustration. I sympathized with her, told her that eating slippery foods with chopsticks can be hard, and let her know that it was okay to use her fork. I gave her a form of permission to let go of her frustration and to just get on with her life.

In my opinion, the value of community shows itself in moments like those spent on Thursday with my daughters. We all face difficult situations and sometimes the thing we need most is someone to stand with us in the frustration. Community does not always provide answers, but the best communities often provide the context and compassion necessary to make it through dark times.

My hope is that the churches which I serve in my ministry will help to provide community in places where compassion and context are necessary in the lives of our community members and our neighbors. The church does not often provide the silver-bullets necessary to slay the werewolves of life, but we do point in the direction of the God who provides comfort, grace, and life. The church does not always share grace as perfectly as we should, but we do hopefully surround folks with the gentleness and kindness that comes through the Holy Spirit.

Let us Ramble: Waiting for S’mores

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

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

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

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

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

The ornery piece of firewood burning…

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

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

Let us Ramble: Silence isn’t always Silence?

Yesterday I posted on questions of silence. I was still deep in thought on the subject of silence when I began to work through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through a meditation on Psalm 148 in “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. As I read a portion relating to the Psalm stuck out to me: (40)

“If the fruit trees, the cedars, and even the hail are to give praise, then it follows that there is a way of praising God in which the spoken word is unnecessary. There is a Word that differs from the spoken kind. Sometimes it flows forth in the simple silence of being as shown in the mountains and hills. There is a Word that leaps up in the crackling of the fire, it rides in on the moaning of the wind and in the roar of the wild beast. Could this too be praise? Could all of creation be drawn like a magnet to the divine?”

Could there be a deep truth here? When I think of silence I often think about not speaking, not talking, not singing, and simply keeping my mouth shut. What if there’s a voice that speaks louder than my voice? While Sister Wiederkehr is speaking of the praise found in creation, is there a place where we are called to praise God through presence? As we listen to these wise words, is there a call by God to change the subject?

The 68th Psalm establishes that God is known to be a parent to orphans and a protector of widows. God cares deeply for the desolate and the prisoners. God is the one who is present in the lives of those who are often considered voiceless. If we are to love those whom God loves, are we not called to speak with both our voice and our presence?

Consider the words of James 2:15-16: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” What good are our words if they are not backed up by our presence? What good is our voice if we are not speaking through our deeds?

The fire crackles because the fire burns by nature. The wind moans as it blows through the trees because that is what the wind does when it passes through branches. The fruit tree grows fruit by nature. All of these things engage in their behavior by nature. If we are being called to be remade through the power of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t our voice be raised with love for all the people Jesus’ loves? Shouldn’t our voices crackle, moan, and grow like the rest of creation that reaches out in praise?