“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

“Here You Remain” Rondeau

Today, March 21, 2019, is World Poetry Day! Here’s a rondeau I wrote which grew out of a rondelet I wrote back in February called “You have a voice.”

We each have to make our own choice
About how we will use our voice.
All choose to either make a stand
Or bury their head in the sand,
But each person has made a choice.

To speak out with your loudest voice
or to whisper if that’s your choice.
Each word is a line in the sand:
Here you remain.

To do nothing may be your choice
As you sit silent with still voice.
Remain still and hold your own hand
As others watch the flames you’ve fanned.
Silence is a deafening voice:
Here you remain.

“Here You Remain” Rondeau by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

“Living” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “living.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! These love locks can be found (for now) on the Greenway trail in Vestal. I know they’ll likely be cut off following Paris’ lead, but I give credit to those who spit into the wind. Wasteful? Yeah. Still, they are a romantic gesture.

Living sometimes means
Leaving one little gesture 
Despite bolt cutters

Humility and Forgiveness

For the season of Lent we have been focusing on two scriptures each Sunday at the Maine Federated Church. The second scripture is the scripture that primarily informs our message and liturgy. The first scripture we read is read after our prayer of confession. For the last two Sundays we have focused on passages out of Epistles.

This Sunday we are drawing on Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:11-17. In the New Revised Standard Version that teaching is described as a parable by the text. I honestly see it more in the realm of practical teaching.

When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11-17, NRSV

The basics of this passage are pretty apparent. Do not fight over places of honor, but instead sit in places marked by humility. For some reason, this passage always reminds of Thanksgiving as a young man at my aunt and uncle’s house. If you’re invited to a meal, offer to sit at the kids’ table if there are not enough seats at the “adult” table. As an adult I have come to realize that sometimes there is more fun at the kids’ table anyway.

If this is practical advice why connect it with the prayer of confession? Here’s my rationale. Jesus is trying to teach the guests at this meal a lesson about humility, but the issue is not actually where they are sitting. They are jockeying for positions because they believe they are more important than other people at the table.

When we come for forgiveness to God, we are invited to come with hope, confidence, and faith; however, we do not come with the assumption that we deserve forgiveness more than our neighbor. We are called to a place of honest humility. If we come with repentant hearts, the response is always “Friend, move up higher.” If we come with a sense of arrogance or superiority, then we have perhaps missed the point of this teaching.

Another piece of early Christian writing called “The Didache” says this in part 1.3: “Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.” If we are indeed called like the early church to cultivate the companionship of the honest and humble, then it would seem that humility and honesty are traits we should seek to emulate with our lives. Perhaps there is no better time to practice these traits than when we come before God seeking forgiveness.

“Repentance” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “repentance.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! The photo was taken off of the trails in Vestal. In particular, it is in the section labeled the “Greenway.” I will include an extra picture with the nearby placard if you wish a little context.

This pipeline runs through Vestal and travels through rivers where local folks catch fish. Probably not surprisingly, the number of people who catch fish where these pipes risk contaminating the waterways are often economically lower on the scale than the folks who get their fish imported from the local Wegmans.

Forest torn down bare.
The Chugnut homeland long gone.
No repentance here.

“Sacrifice” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “Sacrifice.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! You may not understand why this is the picture, but I am reusing today’s haibun from an earlier post.

The sardines my daughter is eating are sustainably harvested. Fish like sardines and anchovies can be a good source of protein but are often overlooked for more expensive (less sustainable) proteins like beef, chicken, lamb, and often less sustainable fish. Why do we look past them? Perhaps it is because we do not realize what a whole world spending a day or two a week sustainably eating might do for everyone.

Also, if you cook them well, it is not much of a sacrifice. They really do taste very good when cooked well! Just look at the photo!

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

“Offer them peace” Rondelet

Last night there was a meeting in the Upper New York Annual Conference. The bishop spoke, hearts broke, and certain people started talking about others. Opinions like mine were thrown to the side as people began speaking about how inevitable it was that the church would split. I was offering people my peace to people who stayed after to pray when I came across someone mocking people who believed the things I believed. I offered them peace.

I would love to say my poem isn’t inspired by Proverbs 25:21-22, but the reality is that we all have to choose how we live out our lives of faith. I try to be a person of integrity who prays with people, but sometimes you need to choose how to respond to people. I would rather respond with grace than with anger.

Offer them peace.
When they do not know what they do
Offer them peace.
When all they offer is a kris
Which they offer to put in you
For trying to keep your heart true:
Offer them peace.

“Offer them peace” Rondelet by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Sermon: “Wildness”

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

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

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

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

St. Patrick’s Breast Plate from “Irish Blessings

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

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

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

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

Not exactly the toughest dog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderness” by Carl Sandburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NRSV

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

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

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

Let us pray…

“Chosen” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “chosen.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! When I was a child my dad asked what I wanted to play in the band. I said drums. I was told to choose again. I said trumpet or bugle. I joined the choir. When my eldest asked if she could do percussion, my heart smiled. She has chosen well and I am blessed to be chosen by God to be her dad.

The instrument choice:
Neither quiet nor subtle.
She loves it. I’m glad.

“Good” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “good.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! I caught this huge flock of geese flying north! Spring is coming and that’s a really good thing!

A voice calls my name.
My neighbor points to the sky.
We watch spring’s heralds.

“Weighed” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “weighed.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! I saw this beautiful bald eagle on a walk the other day. The question I’m pondering is whether the weight of the bird is greater on the tree than the need for food is on the bird. This must not be an easy season for this noble bird.

High above the marsh
Branches creak under the strain
As eyes search for life.

Kitchen Experiment: Tofu Sandwich

One of the classical challenges of Lent is the idea of going without meat and chicken on Fridays. Traditionally, this meant eating fish, but with the advent of more readily available alternatives, tofu is an interesting option.

Today I needed to feed my daughter and I lunch as she was home from the sitter’s house throughout the workday. She hung out on my back during office hours as I worked at my walking desk, but still needed to eat. I decided today would be as good a day as any to experiment with a tofu sandwich. I thought about my favorite flavors, looked through our appliances, and tried out a maple and cheese tofu panini!

The first thing I did was to slice the tofu in half lengthwise after pressing the excess water out of the tofu. I spread some maple syrup, smoked black pepper, and salt into a glass container. I then placed the tofu into the container and repeated the process overtop the tofu. Spoiler alert: I should have cut the tofu in fourths as the sandwich ended up being very squishy.

After the tofu marinated for about half an hour, I preheated my panini grill until it was ready to cook a sandwich. I placed the tofu into the press and left it in the press for about six minutes. I like the edges a bit crispy, so I stopped the press here. As my panini maker tends to be warmer on the top, I should have left the bottom to cook a bit longer.

After the tofu was prepared, I placed some multigrain bread with cheese onto the grill, placed the tofu onto the bread, and topped the tofu with bread before cooking it around three minutes. As you can see, the tofu should have been quartered instead of halved.

Verdict? The kiddo gobbled down all of her lunch quickly. I enjoyed mine, but struggled with the thickness of the tofu. Next time I will likely quarter the tofu and add a few drops of tabasco to the marinade to make the taste a bit more complex. I also think cheddar may have been the wrong flavor cheese. Something a bit more neutral or even in the opposite directions with herbs would have been interesting.

How are all of you fasting folks doing this Lent? Any good recipes you want to share? Any constructive or positive comments on my methodology?

“Accomplish” Photo-A-Day Haiga

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

A word of explanation: I have spent nearly five years living in the Binghamton area and I have driven down 26 to Vestal Parkway probably hundreds of times over the years. Almost every time I either drive over this bridge and exit to drive underneath it or take a back road which leads me to drive down the parkway under this bridge. In nearly five years, I never knew what was over the dirt embankment. It turns out it is the Vestal Rail Trail which I walked and prayed over on Sunday. This is several kilometers from where I started to walk. I saw something new while doing something healthy with my stress. That’s a great accomplishment for a pastor who usually spends Sunday afternoon napping!

Sunday afternoon
I walk, pray, and search for peace.
I find a new sight.

“Dazzling” Photo-A-Day Haiga

The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “dazzling.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! I was walking with my toddler while praying through life yesterday when suddenly the sun burst out of the clouds. It has felt like forever since the sun struck my skin. It was glorious and reminded me of those first few verses of Genesis…

Bursting through the clouds.
Bring color to gray chaos:
Dazzle and create!

Taking a break with quadrilles

Tonight I had the first night of three evenings in a row with committee meetings. I found myself coming home and needing to let off some steam by thinking about something besides the church. I noticed that dVerse~Poets Pub was having another poetry challenge. Today’s is the quadrille or a 44 word poem with the word “Spike” involved in some way, shape, or form in the poem. I tried a pair of different poems for fun.

The first poem is inspired by my marvelous wife who sometimes forgets just how talented she happens to be. At the Father-Daughter dance at the school the other day, a friend remarked how the look my daughter gave her sister came straight from her mother. My wife is fierce, strong, and intelligent–Athena personified in my life. So, this first quadrille poem is for her. Also, it is a rondelet because apparently I’m a glutton for punishment.

My favorite warrior princess… The kid is pretty great too.

You pierce my heart dear.
My heart rate spikes as I stop to wonder.
You pierce my heart dear.
Athena questions her footing in fear
While I listen and hear ringing thunder
As heaven’s mold she does break asunder.
You pierce my heart dear.

“Athena’s Rondelet,” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019. Written in honor of my wife.

My second poem is far less serious. It is entirely about a fictional video game character that I have been hanging out with off and on since July 13, 2016. We’ve been spending more time than usual lately as it turns out walking is the one exercise I can do well without throwing out my back. That comment is not an invitation for advice… The character is my Snorlax from Pokémon Go, which is totally not my intellectual property. Hey, free publicity though… I like your game. It is mindless and good motivation to keep on walking. The number of kilometers I have walked with this goon kinda shocks me. The poem’s form is ABABCC

My Snorlax is the best Snorlax… Well, he will be if he wakes up.

Five kilometers for just one candy.
My heart rate spikes as black ice makes me slip.
My Pokémon Snorlax will be handy
If I could only earn more on this trip.
I straighten up and continue walking.
No one loses weight sitting and talking.

“Pokémon Quadrille” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019. Feel free to use this Niantic!