“Worthy” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “worthy.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga!

For the last few months my family has been slowly stockpiling broth for our church‘s upcoming dinner on Holy Thursday. We have smelled the scent of leeks, chicken, carrots, onions, celery, vegetables, and (family secret (inspired but not limited by “Mastering Stocks and Broths” (Your work is pretty awesome Rachael Mamane and people should support your work))) and spices wafting through our house most weeks of the past few months. Between J.B. (not the music celebrity) and myself, we provide the broth for the matzoh ball soup for dozens of folks since our good friend Alice Hopkins passed onto the other shore.

Store bought broth is fine for most nights, but we love spending time learning about the intersections of faiths on Holy Thursday. Store bought is good, but not great! We work hard, but the end result is definitely enough. We love our church.

Chicken broth wafts up;
Our home is filled with the smells
Of community…

Upcoming Days: “Visio Divina”

Friends, I am preparing for the fourteen days before Good Friday. Starting Friday, April 5th, at noon, a post will automatically come up every day until Good Friday.

The pictures were taken on the walking stations of the cross outside the Family Life Center at the Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania. The artist was Timothy Schmaltz, although my understanding is that Mr. Schmaltz did not have his name listed on the monuments. His work was to honor God and not his own talents (which are considerable).

The pictures were taken throughout a year in all four seasons. I find that contemplating the images throughout the year led me to different places in different seasons. The cold of snow in winter affected the way I saw the scenes as much as the heat (and vibrant) greens of summer.

I’m posting the pictures for those of us who find depth in contemplation. I appreciate that all of the statuary was done in black metal, which allows people of all sorts to contemplate the imagery. I do not believe it is cast-iron, but there is something relatable about seeing an image cast in something you can find in my kitchen (like a dutch oven) instead of something I only see in places of power and influence like marble.

I hope the posting of these images help lead you to a place of contemplation as we approach the cross. Blessings to you.

“Enough” Photo-A-Day

Today’s #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day prompt is enough. I couldn’t write a haiku to match a haiga that wasn’t too personal. I will say after years of dealing with depression, doubts, and everything else, it is great to just say that I am enough. Thank you to everyone who has stood with me through all of the ups and downs, especially my spouse and my best friend who has lived with me through all of the challenges. I am very thankful for you.

This picture was taken when I was near my heaviest. I was still #enough…

“Welcomes” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “welcomes.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga!

My middle child is super energetic and has ADHD. Maine Federated Church has been an awesome appointment as they have never said a mean word about her energetic nature. They are super supportive of our family. I love serving here if only because my whole family is welcome. I hope they understand how much I love them for loving her (and us) despite the interruptions.

I picked this photo because it shows the love of my youngest for my middle child. Our toddler doesn’t see a problem–she sees a sister who is always ready to play!

ADHD kid:
Welcome all my family.
You welcome us all.

“Near” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “near.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! I keep thinking about how Easter is drawing nearer. Even as the darkness of Holy Week approaches, life already begins to spring forward in new ways!

Also, I wrote this post before it started to snow. Really funny April.

Ground breaks forth with growth.
Winter’s deadly cold gives way
As the spring draws near.

“Foraging Hope” Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rest” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “rest.” Yes, it is Sunday again! Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! Everything you know about life should include things that you learn before kindergarten!

Some things you should learn
Before Kindergarten class
Tells you how to rest.

“Power” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “power.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! Here’s a picture of my eldest conquering her fear and flying down a hill on her rollerblades. She’s pretty powerful already!

“I feel like a bird!”
Grow strong, my eldest daughter:
Soar on through this life.

“Name” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “name.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! Today’s haiga is inspired partially by Ash Wednesday and the reality of mortality exposed by Lent.

One day I will sleep
Perhaps under a stone name
While I walk elsewhere

My daughter’s poem

My daughter wanted something to do tonight. Someone shared a challenge to use the word “fragrant” and an antonym in a challenge. I offered this challenge as an opportunity to my nine year old to share her talents. If you’re out there friend, please let me know where I should share her entry. Here is her poem:

The flower is fragrant.
A bell rings out very well.
A skunk is quite smelly.
At the beach I found this shell.

An Awesome Daughter’s Poem, 2019

By the way, as a father I need to ask: What shell? We live literally miles upon miles from the ocean…

Poem for a rough day

All people have rough days. Ministers are no exception. Today has been a difficult morning for me. I have wept, I have prayed, and I have reached out to friends. One friend recommended I read two psalms, so I did the natural thing: I turned to a completely different psalm. I am, if nothing else, predictable.

I spent time in Psalm 127 trying to get my head back on straight. The following poem is inspired by the first two verses. It is a rondelet, which is my favorite syllabic poetry form outside of the various forms of Japanese Haikai.

Find rest with God.
Anxious thoughts do not give life birth.
Find rest with God.
There will come no bread from poor sod:
Unless the Creator brings forth
There will come nothing of true worth.
Find rest with God.

“Find rest with God” Rondelet (inspired by Psalm 127:1-2) by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

“Hallow’s Eve”

Today the d’Verse Poetics challenge for today is hosted by anmol(alias HA) and is centered on the subject of geography. I wanted another try at the prompt as I found it quite intriguing.

People who know me know that I am a Whovian who adores Doctor Who. After Steven Moffat’s story entitled “Blink” was released I had a real problem. I am a minister and suddenly I was afraid of living statues. Actually, a nearby town had a statue with the weeping angel shape in their yard and I literally rushed past it in my car for months.

This past Halloween Night, I was on a retreat at the Malvern Retreat Center when a friend of mine from the past two years pointed out that there were lots of statues around. I had never taken a walk in the woods on Halloween. What better time than after the evening service when we were all required to remain silent until morning? In other words, no nervous humming, no music, and nothing but the sounds of the forest on Halloween.

I walked down into the grotto to the largest collection of statues. I would say that my heart was beating out of my chest, but I learned anxiety breathing techniques that kept me from having a conniption. I made it down all the way and refused to run back up the hill.

There was something terrifying about being surrounded by hills and darkness on every side. It was as if I was descending to my doom like some Greek hero descending into the underworld. I wrote this poem to explore the feeling of descending into the darkness down into the depths of a valley with the earth rising up around me on one of the scariest nights of the year.

By the way, the friend almost hid in the woods to scare me, but realized that I would probably have instinctively hit him hard enough that he would have woken up in the hospital. He was probably right.

Down dark paths I tread on Hallow’s Eve
After the silence has fallen on dark paths.
Statuary reminds me of teary-eyed angels
Creeping out through the nightmares of my own imagination.

My heart beats as I descend the path
Into the depths of darkened statued hollow.
Every footfall echoes off of the trees stripped barren
As lights spread themselves too far and too thin for my racing heart.

Leaves whirl across path and confuse sounds
As darkness fills imagination with fear.
I ponder dark cliffs and the path before and behind
I blink one eye at a time as I seek shapes hiding ahead.

In the deep hollow all ways lead up
Darkness falls around in every direction
The statues and I all stand breathless in the darkness.
Primal fear wars with grown mind as I turn, look up, and close eyes:
Curse Steven Moffat’s monsters.

“Wheels go around” Rondelet

Today the d’Verse Poetics challenge for today is hosted by anmol(alias HA) and is centered on the subject of geography. I pondered what to write about today and decided the best thing to do was to think about a bit of local geography that has been bugging my family for the last few days as we have sought to be outside walking, biking, and having a good time.

We live on a rectangular block. The one side of the block is up a hill and the other side of the hill goes downhill. Somewhere between the two roads there is a cresting place which always brings relief, especially on a bicycle. As the challenge was based on geography, I thought I would reflect on the weird geography around our block. My rondelet is called “Wheels go around.” Sometimes they go fast and sometimes they go slow, but they always go around when we are circling the block.

Wheels go around.
Quickly we roll down the far street.
Wheels go around.
We grunt: we climb up hilly ground.
As pedals almost stop and still.
We creep up towards downward thrill. 
Wheels go around.

“Wheels go around” Rondelet by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

“Pondered” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “pondered.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! I found this chalk drawing on the Greenway trail in Vestal! Random person, I like the way you pondered spring while the ground was still frozen!

Flowers will grow soon.
Still, some souls know chalk’s power:
Spring is in the heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rest” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “rest.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! “Rest” is a weekly thing. I found this on the Vestal Greenway. Yes, I saw your message. Thank you!

Random walk signer:
I see chalk that you left here
And I celebrate!

Sermon: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”

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

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

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

Luke 13:1-9, NRSV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fruit” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “fruit.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! Why the head shaving reference? I once thought my value lay in how I look. I am not bald. I shave every single morning to remind myself that life isn’t about a full head of hair or how I look in general. May I suggest the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as a wonderful partner for your ministry in this life?

I shave my head now.
I once thought myself worthless.
Now I see the fruit.

A Haibun for the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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