In the Woods…

We are getting ready to move soon. There’s a lot of stuff in boxes in my life. Everything seems to have a place and most of those places are currently found inside boxes. Living with most of your daily stuff in boxes can be extremely frustrating.

This morning I went into the woods on a nearby trail with one of my daughters and my wife’s “lapdog” Lily. Lily is a boxer labrador mix that we adopted after our friends’ dog became overly friendly with a neighborhood dog. She’s a kind hearted dog but hates being cooped up.

The woods are a magical place. The woods are one of the few places where my middle child is occasionally struck speechless. The majesty of wilderness tends to calm her restless mind as there is plenty to look at, plenty of things to notice, and the ongoing task of watching where you are stepping.

This morning the ground was a bit moist from recent rain and Lily ended up dragging me along some pretty slippery surfaces. Her paws and nails clearly had better traction than my sneakers. We enjoyed the walk tremendously despite being startled by a jogger’s German Shepherd visiting without a leash and without warning. Thankfully Lily is a very easygoing dog. I think that I jumped more at the sudden appearance than Lily.

I stopped to take this picture of Lily because the woods were breathtaking between the light of the sun pouring through the branches and the greens and browns everywhere. Despite being on a strong leash due to her tendency to run after wildlife, she seemed more at home in the woods than she normally seems in our home. I could almost feel Lily sigh with contentment a few times on the hike.

Psalm 55 is an interesting psalm. In that particular psalm, the psalmist is struggling with the grief and sorrow that comes from a friend’s betrayal. The psalmist is clearly having a difficult time with a painful situation, but what’s interesting is the response to the situation.

The psalmist wants to flee to the wilderness. In the wilderness there seems to be a kind of peace that the psalmist desperately desires. In the daily moments of the situation the psalmist finds storms and wind, but in the wilderness shelter can be found.

I can understand the psalmist’s desire for the shelter of the woods. Like my dog, I too enjoy moments where we are not surrounded by boxes. There is something glorious about being in the woods even when German Shepherds occasionally appear out of the nothingness.

Stay Awake! Snow is Coming!

Today I woke up to a white lawn. The sidewalks were slushy, the streets were salted, and my older kids wanted to build a snow fort. The residual heat of the world would reveal the lawn in a few hours. The sidewalks barely needed salting. It was beautiful this morning.

Snow comes suddenly!

I pondered the snow as I prayed my morning prayers. The gospel passage this morning included Matthew 24:36-42. Matthew 24 is a section of that gospel which is very eschatological. In simpler terms, Matthew 24 speaks of the events many Christians believe will come at the end of this age. Matthew 24:36-42 stuck in my mind and I contemplated it throughout my day. In the New Revised Standard version, Matthew 24:36-42 reads:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

As I contemplated the passage, I found reasons why this passage might have stuck in my mind. I am preparing for Advent, the beginning of the Christian year which follows the end of the Christian year in the cycle of the Christian calendar. As a result, every time I have approached questions of the end of days as part of the Christian year the weather has been cool. I have repeatedly read these passages while watching snow fall. The falling of snow marks the return to the theme of Christ’s return.

I also believe my mind stuck on this passage because of my anticipation of the first snowfall. Winter will become miserably cold and mucky. The first snowfall is still beautiful and wondrous. You never know when it will come until it is practically upon you. Sure, you can check the meteorologist’s predictions, but those predictions are not always reliable.

Regardless, my thoughts remained with this passage. I pondered how people continue to live their lives in an often misguided world. People still get married, still feast over normal things, and still live ordinary lives. Let me be forthright. I still enjoy a good meal, still live life as a married man, and continue to work through ordinary things. Life has continued on from one day to the next every day of my life.

Still, Christ’s words ring out. Stay awake! Stay alert! Shortly after this passage there are several more eschatological parables. There is a story of bridesmaids waiting for a groom with lamps. There is a tale of two servants entrusted with the running of a household. There is a parable of three servants entrusted with three different sets of funds. These parables ring out! Stay awake! Stay alert!

It can be incredibly easy to slip from the narrow path. It can be as easy as drifting out of a lane when driving while tired. We are called to stay awake. The lines on the road of life keep passing us by, the steering wheel sits easily in our hands, and the seat can be comfortable. Still, we must stay awake! No matter how many miles, no matter how many days, no matter how long the journey, we are called to stay awake!

A passage earlier in Matthew 25 marks this lesson’s importance. Jesus says in Matthew 25:6-8:

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various place: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

I see these foretold rumors and wars as a part of everyday life. I hear of potential schisms in my church, confrontations within my country’s government, and conspiracy theories regularly. In stressful times it is easy to forget our principles. We must stay awake and live in faith. We must stay alert and live in hope. We must stay alert and live in love. We must stay awake.

The snow of our lives may fall at any moment, so stay awake! Nobody knows the number of their days. Nobody knows the number of our days. Stay alert! Stay awake!

Let us Ramble: Tradition, Worldview, and Action

Today I wanted to continue the discussion around the three worlds involved in any reading of scripture. The world inspiring the text, the world we live in, and the world within the text work together to birth something within us. Our everyday life is inherited from the world which inspired the creation of our scriptures and eventually delivered to us our scriptures through faithful transmission from generation to generation. As we open our scriptures, we find ourselves engaging in a conversation between author and reader which has happened before and will happen again.

So, what do we do with that conversation? Do we allow the Jesus of the scriptures to speak with us? Do we allow that Jesus to inform our actions and challenge our own world?

Another layer to this conversation comes into play when we consider the fact that each of us either consciously or subconsciously allow our tradition to enter into conversation. Perhaps we focus on a particular passage like Micah 6:8 or read our scripture through the lens of our culture. All of us come to scripture with some tradition, even if that tradition is so ingrained that it never reaches our consciousness.

I think that the theologian and Biblical scholar George Pixley puts it well in the opening chapter of “Resistance: The New Role of Progressive Christians. Pixley wrote: (5)

“Tradition is present everywhere, and apart from it there could be no shared life. Everyone comes into a community that has beliefs and practices shaped by its history; and all assimilate many of them before being in a position to evaluate them. Everyone engages in some process of selection from other traditions. This process is shaped by what makes sense and by personal and collective experience.”

Regardless of any opinions about Rev. Pixley’s theology, it is hard to argue that he puts the matter quite succinctly. Our engagement with scripture is affected by our relationship with the world around us. A simple conversation with a variety of people including survivors of abuse at the hands of an angry father will reveal that the very conception of God as a male parent can be wildly reassuring in the context of one person and incredibly disconcerting in the experience of another person.

So, to summarize: The scriptures we read come to us from a history we can never visit nor completely verify, are read through the lens of a tradition that can affect the way we read them without our knowledge, and ultimately we are the ones who decide what course we will chart in our journey of faith. Will there be prevailing wind and waves? Of course, but ultimately we are each handed the tiller on the boat of life.

For me, this reality begs a question. What we do with all of this? How do we plot a course through the maelstrom of life? I truly believe that each person must make their own choice, but my own journey has put a priority on observing, emulating, and engaging in a dialogue (through my actions) with the faithful of the past. By living into a course of faithfulness as taught to me through both living saints and the records of those from the past, I find a course that I can plot through all of the winds, waves, and eddies of life.

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We all need guidance now and again!

A great example of what I mean can be found in the scriptures. Consider the viewpoint expressed by the Apostle Paul in the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul lived in an age when the church was not fully established, had many places where it needed to grow, and was struggling with conflicts and questions. In other words, the church had a lot in common with modern ministry. Whether we are reforming a challenged faith in the 21st century or establishing a minority religion in the 1st century, I see a lot of similarities in the challenges faced both then and now, although there clearly are differences.

Paul, a leader in those chaotic times, set an example on how to live into ministry. I find Paul’s ministry to be particularly fitting as I am continually coming to understand that ministry is quickly changing from the context of those who brought me into the ministry to a ministry that is unlike any that has come before in the history of the church. Looking at the example of Paul helps me to find a path, because life is clearly difficult at times. We need to find a new way, a new path, and remain faithful to those who have come before us. Paul wrote the following in 1 Corinthians 4:12-13: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”

These words help me to find compass points for my own journey. These words (which tie into my understanding of passages like the beatitudes) help me to go on a journey from where I am to where I need to be as a person of faith in a leadership position. Paul did not see to domineer in his ministry, so I follow Paul’s example in not seeking domination within the church. If Paul could envision a world where the minister was not a dictator, then I can seek to live into a ministry focused on similar principles.

What are your touchstones for life? Do you find foci within the scriptures or do you set your course by other sources?

Let us Seek: “Confidence and Pride” or “On Lectionary Usage”

“Why do we use a lectionary?” “What use does a lectionary have for a minister in the church or for the community at large?” “Wouldn’t life be easier if you just picked out all of the scriptures?” One reason we use lectionaries as communities and as pastors is because they force us out of our own comfort-zones into scriptures we would ordinarily glaze over. I have been preaching out of the Narrative Lectionary which comes out of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I post blog entries based off the Revised Common Lectionary as provided through the library of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. I use both resources to help round out my teaching as a preacher and teacher of the Good News. I also occasionally wander off and do a series based on a particular book or concept, because even a crazy United Methodist minister like me has freedom of the pulpit and it can be cathartic to exercise that freedom.

For today’s reading I decided to use the complimentary daily readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. In those readings I was struck by the reading from Hebrews. Hebrews 3:1-6 says: (NRSV)

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also ‘was faithful in all God’s house.’ Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.”

The first question this passage raised was the obvious question for anyone who studies some selections of scripture. What is the “therefore” referring to in the previous section? The second chapter of Hebrews refers to: (Hebrew 2:17-18 NRSV)

“Therefore [Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(Sidenote: Hebrews is a logically organized book with a lot of “therefore” statements, so I will allow you to dig into the “therefore” of the previous chapter if you are inclined. Be forewarned that there are two more therefore statements with a significant amount of explanation in the second chapter before this particular “therefore.”)

In my opinion, the content of the “therefore” of the first verse of chapter three brings light into the reading, especially the sixth verse. Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. We are a part of that house if we hold firm to the pride and confidence that come with hope.

Why would we have pride? We are part of a people for whom Jesus intentionally entered creation. We have a merciful and faithful high priest in Jesus. Jesus came in service, sacrificed to bring atonement, and was like us in every respect. We are a people who have lived in futility but Christ has come into the world. We are part of the people which were blessed by Jesus’ presence. We are a part of the household of God due to the faithfulness of our brother and high priest Jesus. While pride is often a word used with negativity in church circles, there is surely some blessing and joy to be found in the reality that Jesus chose to become a part of our human family. There is a pride that does not come with smugness, but with peace. This is the pride that comes with the fulfillment of hope and faith.

The fulfillment of hope and faith are also behind our confidence. The legacy of the Christian worldview is a legacy marked with perfection in creation shaded by sinfulness, tranquility in a garden overshadowed by ejection from utopia, calling into community tainted by broken sovereignty and nationhood, and voices crying out from the wilderness drown out by earthly concerns. Throughout the history of the Christian and Hebrew journeys towards God there has been continual frustration marked by the stubborn refusal of God to give up on the people. We have confidence because Jesus has come to be our high priest.

Ancient promises, hopes, and dreams are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ as our high priest. Furthermore, we are brought into the family of God through the incarnation of Jesus Christ into humanity as our brother. We have pride and confidence because Jesus has willingly done these things with us and for us as a people.

Why do we use lectionaries? I had no intention of writing a blog post on a high priest or on the legacy of hope this morning. We use lectionaries because they lead us out of ourselves into God’s realm where the unexpected can happen. Making a choice to step beyond our comfort zone can be a blessing, but let’s not pretend that taking a risk is always easy. It takes confidence to believe God can meet us out in the wilderness where we relinquish control and it takes humility to listen for a word that we do not expect.

I hope this explains in part why your minister may or may not use a lectionary. There are many other reasons to use a lectionary, but I personally believe that this logic holds well. When I bake bread, I proof the yeast to make certain the yeast is alive and will help the bread rise. The lectionary tends to be full of life in my experience and sometimes the bread we need is not the bread we have in the pantry.

Let us Seek: Blessed Relationships

For me, today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary are falling on blessed ears. In particular, I feel very blessed by one verse in the selections. 1 Peter 3:8 immediately drew my attention when I read through the readings this morning. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the verse says “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” The New International Version translates this passage “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” The old school King James Version translates this passage “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:”

While I don’t often read The Message, 1 Peter 3:8-12 is a good read as well:

Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.

Whoever wants to embrace life
and see the day fill up with good,
Here’s what you do:
Say nothing evil or hurtful;
Snub evil and cultivate good;
run after peace for all you’re worth.
God looks on all this with approval,
listening and responding well to what he’s asked;
But he turns his back
on those who do evil things.

I was drawn to this passage today because I was reminded of the value of loving others yesterday. I had a good long conversation with a colleague who has been slowly becoming a friend since the creation of the Upper New York Annual Conference. We talked about the future of the church over a delicious Persian lunch and talked about our own journeys in her church after the meal had ended. Our time was a blessing.

It reminded me of many conversations that I have had with other colleagues and friends over the years. The time together reminded me of late night debates and conversation in the dorms, dining halls, and at BT’s with my friends from Roberts Wesleyan College. The time together reminded me of sitting at study groups at a diner on Route 104 and over the bookstore counter in seminary at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The conversation reminded me of the relationships I have built at Annual Conferences with my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church first in Buffalo as a part of Western New York Annual Conference and then at the OnCenter in Syracuse with the Upper New YOrk Annual Conference. The time in fellowship reminded me of the deep conversations that took place and the relationships we have built at Silver Bay and in Rochester through the Annual Meeting of the UCC which I shared with newfound sisters and brothers over the past few years. I was reminded of all of these blessed ministries through time with a colleague who is becoming a friend.

The next two weeks are going to be very busy for me as a pastor. There are a lot of meetings to attend for both of the denominations that I serve. There are a lot of things that I will need to get done in order to do the very best I can in those situations. While I imagine that the UCC Annual Meeting will not likely be very stressful for me (due to the very congenial and loving nature of the folks that I generally have experienced during those meetings), I know that the UMC Annual Conference will definitely have moments of tension and stress. I am entering a very busy time in my year, but occasions like the one I engaged in yesterday remind me that there are blessings ahead.

The Message tells us to snub evil and cultivate good. How does one cultivate good? You cultivate good in the garden world by taking good care of your soil, maintaining healthy plants, and keeping pests (and pets) away from your plants. In time, plants grow because you care for them. I imagine that the next few weeks will have many opportunities to cultivate relationships. I pray that I take the time to cultivate good in the midst of all of the challenges.

One of our zucchini plants in hand-tilled earth!

The King James Version reminds us to have compassion for one another. In situations of stress and challenge, can be easy to desire victory at any cost. The act of having compassion is an act which can be a blessing in situations that naturally lead to division. The act of receiving compassion is an act which can be a blessing in situations that naturally lead to withdrawal from relationship. King James Version of this verse reminds us to enter into a reciprocal sharing of compassion. Compassion passed around a circle of folks just like we pass around the cup during communion. The body and blood of Christ for everyone around the table–the compassion of sisters and brothers for all in the family.

The New International Version binds together compassion with humility. In this translation we are reminded to go beyond compassion for others. We are invited to enter into humility. We are invited to humility when we live in a world where there are groups calling for win/lose scenarios. Humility in victory might mean not letting it go to your head. Compassion and humility in victory might mean sitting in grief with those who believe different than you. Humility in loss might mean taking the long view of matters instead of taking it as a critique of your position, your belief, or your character. Humility and compassion in loss might remind you to look beyond yourself even as your grieve. Hopefully, humility and compassion might lead us to seek situations where there are no winners or losers. We might be led to places where we are family instead of combatants.

The New Revised Standard Version reminds us to have tender hearts. This challenge might be greater than any other challenge for those of us who have been in the trenches of denominational squabbles for years. I am reminded by my friend and colleague that there is room for tenderness and growth in relationship even when everyone at the table has had challenges in their past. There is still room for love and growth in hearts that often wear suits of armor into challenging meetings. If we can risk being vulnerable, there may be places where even hearts broken with grief and loss can find new life.

I am thankful for this verse today and for all the colleagues and friends who have shared love with me over the years. I am grateful that love still rests at the heart of what it means to be Christian.

Let us Seek: Diving into the pool

Yesterday was a terrifying day for me. I went swimming and I was scared.

Allow me to give all of you some context to my terror. At the end of March I underwent a cornea transplant in my left eye. When my patch was removed I was told several things that I should immediately cease doing in my day-to-day life. First, no lifting of heavy objects. Second, nothing that would raise my pulse too much. Third, absolutely no swimming or getting chemicals in my eye.

Over the past few months I have done my best to avoid lifting heavy objects. A few weeks ago I was told that I could exercise again. Last week I was told that I could go swimming again.

Now, I love to swim. Swimming is one of my favorite things to do in the world. I love being in water and swimming long distances. I may not be able to run due to my back and my ankle, but I can consistently swim farther than most people can run. I’m not kidding or bragging when I say that I like to swim long distances. I often swim at the YMCA until my skin begins to react to the chemicals, which happens to me after about 2 hours. I really do love to swim…

My love of swimming is great, but it took me a week to build up the courage to go to the YMCA after receiving permission. I was certain that my eye would immediately have problems the moment that a single drop of chlorinated water made it into my goggles. I was also convinced that tightening them to the point where water would not be able to get into the goggles would lead to a tight seal that would create a pressure that would cause damage to my cornea. I was terrified that something would go wrong for the entirety of the last week.

I was scared. I did what I try to do whenever I get scared about something irrational. I faced my fear and I went swimming. My eye didn’t pop out from over exertion. My cornea did not dissolve when some water made it into my goggles. Nothing went wrong in the slightest… Well, technically I did chicken out in the name of being reasonable and only swam for 45 minutes. I am told that there is nothing wrong with a sensible amount of caution.

I am reminded of a story from the Bible as I think back to the moment that I entered the pool. The whole of nation of Israel was standing next to the Jordan in the third chapter of Joshua. The people of God were finally ready to enter the promised land, but one last thing needed to take place. The people needed to cross the Jordan. Here’s what it says in Joshua 3:14-16: (NRSV)

“When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off…”

I love that the people of God are waiting to cross the river, but first twelve priests have to carry the ark into the midst of the river. They are told that the river will stand still, but the water only stands still after the twelve enter into the water. Can you imagine being the person who steps in first? Can you imagine the movement of the ark continuing forward and moving you closer and closer to the swollen river? Can you imagine the feeling of the current tugging at your toes while you carry the ark of God into the water?

It had to be a tense moment when the priests first stepped into the water. The priests still stepped forward into the river. They had to have had courage to take those first few steps in faith.

We all sometimes need to be reminded that courage is often a necessity in life. We all have moments where we wonder if the river will stop, if an eye will survive a dip in the pool, or if everything will be okay. Sometimes we all need to step into the river with courage.