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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
Don’t react with panic–as much as possible respond with love.
Stay the course despite the challenges
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.
The role of a pastor is partially the role of a teacher. Many people think of preaching as a separate activity from other activities like Bible study, but a lot of the role can be combined into the overall category of teaching. I teach on Sunday morning through both preaching and my leadership of worship. Often I believe I teach more on Sunday morning through sharing the words around communion and in prayers than I do in the sermon. Indeed, one of the challenges pastors face is when people believe that the sermon is the focus of worship.
There is absolutely no way that one can effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in just a few minutes a week. We teach beyond our sermons through the rest of worship, through Bible study, but also through things like conversations, social media, and blogging. One of the reasons I believe that the early church had such strident rules about what it took to be a leader in the church was that they understood the church leaders would be teaching and sharing with the community far more than just Sunday morning.
Today, I would like to try and teach a little bit about creation. Creation is where we all are in this moment. The air we breathe, the food we eat, and the land we live upon is all considered theologically to be a part of creation. Some of the earliest scriptures in the Bible (canonically) deal with the care of creation. Genesis 2:15 states that when humanity is placed into the world it is with the charge to care for where they are placed. Gardens are not self-tending and theologically humanity was made to garden. Indeed, in the earliest sections of Genesis humanity depended on plants for sustenance. Foraging is wonderful but civilization was built on gardens.
Let’s look at what it means if we are given the instruction to care for creation. How do we choose to care for the world? Do we do all that we can to damage it? Sometimes it does seem like that is our way of being, but is that destructive way theologically ethical?
What if there were ways to care for the world on a regular basis that did not ruin either your bank account or your way of life? What if the foods you choose could help the world to be a better place for everyone around? What if you invited the world to join you in that adventure?
A few months ago I was listening to a podcast called “The Splendid Table.” The episode I was listening to talked about eating anchovies. To be entirely honest, I was a bit horrified. My father invited us eat to a “blind robin” at midnight for good luck growing up and I wasn’t quite as big a fan of pickled foods at that time. I was very skeptical, but I looked into the idea of eating more seafood as a way to help make the world a better place.
Strangely, I did not begin my research at the library or on the internet. I had a grocery trip to run and looked at the canned fish. Several of the cans said “certified wild caught and sustainable.” Some digging led me to a United States Government Agency called “FishWatch.” There I was able to learn about how the Northern Anchovy is caught, how it has a low bycatch rate, and how it can be healthy (in moderation due to cholesterol levels).
I began to experiment with anchovies and sardines. I learned that sardines can be ground into meatballs to add a flavor that my family loves while replacing some of the meat with a more sustainable protein. As I used the seafood more regularly, it became more and more normal to my palate. Look at the picture of my daughter and you’ll see that it is no burden at all when you get used to eating something new.
What am I suggesting? Well This Lent my family and I are experimenting (on the adult end) with preparing meals with fish and tofu instead of chicken, pork, or beef on Wednesdays and Fridays. If it works well, we’ll likely continue the practice after Lent ends. It might not change the world immediately, but helping to create a world where people eat sustainably might be one of the best things we can do this season.
I invite you to pray about how you and your family might be called to care for our environment this season. If we are to tend this “garden,” it will likely take intentionality. I invite you to consider if this might be something which you might be called to do with your life.
Message: “Into the Wilderness” Date: March 10, 2019 (First Sunday of Lent) Text: Luke 4:1-13 Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Before we begin, there will be two quotes in today’s sermon from the book “Thou Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to say two things.
First, he was an incredible author and I recommend that everyone spend time reading his words. As a European white guy, I found reading “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” to be both moving and poignant.
Second, it is important to me as a minister that I do my best to bring voices into these sermons which do not reflect the way many of us look or act in the pews. I hope that you ask yourself why that is important to me and what I might be trying to teach through that example.
Let us pray: Holy God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today we are entering the season of Lent. Lent is the forty non-Sabbath days we celebrate between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a season of fasting and contrition. It is a season of learning about one’s own heart and soul through experience. It is a season in the heart.
Growing up, reading passages like this morning’s passage always reminded me of Lent. Lent was a season of loss and deprivation. Yes, the celebration of Lent is tied to the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness, but I am not certain I understood wilderness in those days. I imagined endless deserts in the Sahara. I wondered what Jesus could have done for forty days sitting on a sand dune.
As an adult one of the most amazing experiences I had was going on two United Methodist Volunteer in Mission trips to learn with and serve with the Diné who were named the Navajo by the European Spaniards who first had regular contact with them in terms of Europeans coming across the oceans.
The Diné are a proud people, but the places we were serving were in and outside of Sawmill, Arizona. There were beautiful vistas, beautiful people, but I took a while to understand what I saw in that wilderness. Why would a land with so few trees be called Sawmill?
I learned the trees had been clear-cut and sold. I wondered why there were many older women but so few older men around until I learned about the uranium mines. I saw people working hard to make it through.
One of the people I met was a man named Pastor Curly. Pastor Curly was a person who knew everyone in his community but had a task well beyond his means. I mean no disrespect to Pastor Curly. The amount of poverty in the areas where he served where incredible and Pastor Curly was neither rich nor powerful. He still stood up, taught, preached, prayed, and loved richly.
As a young man, I thought wilderness was just dunes of desert. Now I see wilderness differently. Wilderness is where the wilds of the world continue to exist and thrive. Wilderness is not always a place of deprivation.
Jesus spends forty days in his wilderness. At the end of those forty days he is tempted with food to sate his hunger, power to change the world, and even the respect of the people who would one day help crucify him. Each time he is offered one of these things, he is firm that he won’t take them.
At some level, even with all that hunger, what would one loaf of bread do? At some level, even if Jesus impressed all the people in the temple, would that change the way things would go? The question that gets to me though is my own temptation: “What good would having all that power over the world do?”
When I went into the wilderness of Sawmill, Arizona I was full of ideas about how we could help. We could fix windows, replace rotten floors, and do good for folks who could not do it for themselves. That goal was a noble goal.
What I didn’t realize was how I would learn that despite all the power, influence, and strength I have as an educated, influential, European, male who was on his way to being told by a bishop to “Take thou authority,” I was not the richer person when I met some Diné. Pastor Curly was developing a depth working in the wilderness that wasn’t born out of having power or authority, but born out of being present with people who needed a voice and presence of hope. Pastor Curly helped me to understand what it means to learn from the wilderness.
Here’s our first quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Lord help me to accept my tools. However dull they are, help me to accept them. And then Lord, after I have accepted my tools, then help me to set out and do what I can with my tools.”
I learned in the wilderness that my tools were not as sharp as I once thought they were. I was an idealist and wanted to change the world, but when I looked in my toolshed, I found axes which needed sharpening and oiling, screwdrivers with broken edges, and sledgehammers with loose handles.
In the wilderness, I found myself longing and sorrowful. My own people helped cause some problems faced by the Diné and I was powerless to reverse them. I didn’t have the tools I needed, but I had tools. In the wilderness, I found my path further unfold.
Why am I passionate about the church be open to everyone? I am passionate because I have a voice and how that voice is used matters. I can stay silent and let others insist nothing changes or I can take my dull axe, sharpen as best as I can, and swing at the logs of injustice. I can take my busted screwdriver and re-purpose it as an ice-pick and try to break through the ice of loneliness and fear that freezes people’s hearts. I can take these dull tools of mine, accept them, and then set out to do something good with them.
Since I went on those trips to see the Diné, I understand the wilderness differently. The wilderness is not simply a place of deprivation. Yes, much like the season of Lent, being in the wilds can be challenging. It can be very difficult to walk into places that are beyond our comfort-zones, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth in those wilds. Out in the wilderness Jesus found something that enabled him to go forward on this journey.
The second prayer from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will lead us towards our conclusion. He once prayed: “God grant that you will choose your good self thereby mastering your evil self.”
In the wilderness of Arizona, standing outside the window rock, an ancient meeting place of the Diné I was faced with a choice that brought me to tears. I could stay the person I was at home, return to the life I lived, and forget about everything I learned in the wilds. Alternatively, I could choose my “good self.”
I did my best to choose my good self, but like most things worthwhile, it is hard. Nobody looks at what Jesus does in the wilderness and says “That looks easy.” Our own journey through Lent may not be easy. You may find that there are beasts out there in the wilds and there will certainly be temptations.
Friends, this season I invite you to step out into the wilderness. I invite you to do the risky thing and choose your good self. I invite you to leave what is comfortable behind and find what tools may await you in the desert.
May God help us all to choose our good selves and to master our evil selves. May God bless the people gathering at the Sawmill United Methodist Church this morning. May God bless Pastor Curly as he ministers through his life today. Amen.
A few weeks ago I sat with a sick infant in the depths of night. Wet cloth cooling a fever from the now rare chicken pox. I rocked and contemplated what we would do if the fever spiked again. It was dark in that room in more ways that one.
A few weeks ago I sat with a parent in grief over an upcoming surgery. A sweet child in need of care. I contemplated her struggle and prayed for more than just the child. I prayed for my own forgiveness because I was grateful my child was not the one in need of that care.
A few weeks ago I sat and ate elementary school spaghetti. It was exactly how I remembered it. We sat, laughed, talked, and even danced as we tried to support some friends’ family in their hour of need. I could stomach school spaghetti far easier than letting my friends feel they were alone after caring for a baby who spent a lot of time in the NICU.
Yesterday I saw the ash on her forehead and I realized that she was mortal too. Today she is well but one day she will be in God’s hands. My heart broke as I realized a truth that had been walking through the edges of my soul.
On the day of ash We contemplate our own path Down through our life’s end. Easier to see your own Than on your daughter’s sweet face.
One lesson has rung through my mind the last few days. The good professor taught us that the world’s Christians do not have the same privilege that I had in my community as a child. When you’re not the dominant religion in an area, some assumptions of both the world around you and your own traditions can shift. I keep hearing the question “Who is your Jesus?” It has been running through my mind.
I want to be clear. I appreciate the Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi enough to note that his opinions are not my opinion. I also want to be clear that my opinions do not need to be shared by everyone else in the body of Christ and this is alright with me. There’s enough room in the Kin-dom of God for there to be diversity.
So, who is my Jesus? My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.
My Jesus is the Jesus whom Paul comes to know and eventually says “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
My Jesus is the Jesus who throws the door open to a larger kin-dom (kindom) than imagined. My Jesus used the Apostles to share the gospel beyond traditional bounds. In Acts 8:26–40 the family is stretched to include a eunuch, which lest we forget is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Why shouldn’t you be baptized, Eunuch of Ethiopia? Well, because: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I guess that rule did not apply anymore.
My Jesus reached out to Romans and other Gentiles through Peter who is unequivocally told in Acts 10: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” My Jesus was there in the Holy Conferencing that took place in Acts 15:6-29 which opened the doors further. By the way, the Holy Spirit continued to pour itself out on those who engaged in fornication, hence we still have children’s moments where children born of believers come to be blessed. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church has not attempted to remove folks who are married and have children from leadership like several other major Christian denominations.
What’s more and what keeps ringing through my head is the story of the woman accused of adultery. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is accused of an extramarital affair. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
Nobody stones her. Nobody there is apparently without sin. Jesus says “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Now, first of all, yes Jesus says do not sin again. To be entirely fair, she is very fortunate Jesus is there to offer this moment of protective grace. I may prevent a child from being beaten up in a parking lot on an afternoon, but if the child keeps walking through the parking lot when I am not there… There is more than one way of looking at that second sentence.
What is amazing is that in all the readings of this scripture, one thing was never pointed out to me. Jesus says “I do not condemn you.” Who is the one who has the ability to condemn sins? Who has the authority to forgive sins? If it is Christ, Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you” hold divine authority. She is forgiven.
What’s further, in a crowd full of people who have sin (including the woman accused of adultery), it is this woman alone who leaves forgiven of her sins. Hebrews 10:4 says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The folks may leave to go and make an offering for their own sinful behavior, but it is Christ alone who forgives.
Now, I cannot say that God’s love does not extend to these folks. Judgment is God’s alone, but I can say that in this moment there is only one person in the crowd we can claim is absolutely forgiven by Christ’s own words. The woman accused of adultery is the only one explicitly told “I do not condemn you…” We can even go further to point out Jesus did not stop the crowd from leaving by saying “Wait! Hold on! God understands and your sins will be forgiven. Throw those stones!”
My Jesus is the Jesus who forgives. My Jesus is the one through whom I baptize children into the Kindom of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My Jesus is the one who accepts those children even before they grow up into whatever person they may become in their adult days.
My Jesus is the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors. My Jesus hangs out at Alcoholics Anonymous and in rehab centers. My Jesus sits with the homeless in the cold. My Jesus does a ton of caring through the children of the Kindom who bring food for community suppers, supply food pantries, donate towards medical supplies, walk alongside LGBTQIA+ folks as they struggle with depression and expulsion, cry with those imprisoned falsely in jails, mourn with those who are imprisoned fairly, and do every sort of thing they can in order to be with God’s children. Yes, all children are God’s children.
My Jesus is a pretty awesome Jesus. My Jesus is the reason I did not give up my faith after I grew up into adulthood. Some behavior that I have seen recently does not square up with that Jesus, but I need to be clear: My Jesus is worth following down the narrow path of life. I most certainly will follow that Jesus and will not be one of those who trample “under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?… It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:29-31, NASB)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,
“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me; In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) To do Your will, O God.’”
After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,
“And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
I am currently entering into the final steps of preparing my second year project for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am thinking that I will have most of the project revolve around the usage of poetry and prayer. I was recently reading through a book I borrowed from the library called “The Art and Craft of Poetry” by Michael Bugeja. On the seventy third page of that tome, Mr. Bugeja quotes the poet Kevin Bezner as saying “All true poetry is religious poetry–all poems are prayers–but not in the sense of a belief in or worship of a god or a supernatural power.”
Given my particular approach to poetry, I found that statement to be intriguing. Mr. Bugeja paraphrases Mr. Bezner, saying “true or sincere poems, by their very nature, always reflect a poet’s faith, commitment, desire to commune, conscientiousness and devotion…”
If poetry does reflect and express the poet’s faith and commitment, then perhaps there is a sense at which heartfelt poetry is prayer. One of my greatest challenges with liturgy is the struggle to include the word “Amen” after every prayer. For a long time, hymns concluded with an amen. Nowadays, it seems as if almost every prayer needs and “Amen” in order to conclude.
Amen has a rich history and depth of meaning. The usage of the word for the congregation to enter into the depth of the prayer is helpful. When we say amen after someone prays, we become a part of that prayer orally. It is a wonderful act of inclusion in an act of worship, but often folks seem to believe that any prayer must have an amen. This is not true.
I thought I’d share a poem I recently wrote in an attitude of prayer after a saint invited me over to lunch. I wrote it for a thank you note, but I thought it was a perfect way of expressing how a prayer can be found in poetry.
Scents waft up from a warm bowl of chili rich yet faint. As I sit to share a meal with an elder saint. She has made special biscuits for us to share And we break bread together with prayer. With cheese and conversation our meal Is filled with a depth you can feel. I listen with quiet peace As my inner cares cease. I try to be here With one so dear. I’m thankful, Grateful, Full…
“Full” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
The form itself was fairly simple. I started with thirteen syllables a line and decreased a syllable each consecutive line. The rhyming pattern is a set of 5 couplets with a rhyming envoi creating one tercet at the end. It is clearly a poem.
It is also clearly a prayer. I intended to express care, gratitude, and thankfulness for the opportunity. Although God is not addressed by name, there is homage paid to communion in the mentioning of the breaking of the bread. The person I shared a meal with is a saint, there’s a stillness while listening that ties back to the idea of silence in contemplation and prayer. Even the mentioning of saints can draw our thoughts to God.
Psalm 19:14 says “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” It is my belief that poetry that seeks to live into this verse really is prayer.
I write this blog post for posting a few days before the beginning of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I write this blog with a lot of questions in my mind. What will happen over the next few days? What effects will that gathering have on the church as a whole?
My questions about the future have been inspiring questions in my mind. What does it mean that we are a “United” Methodist Church? What does it mean that we have deep divisions in our unity? Have we missed something?
I recently started rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I have been pondering the nature of Christian community, the life of someone who had to make incredibly hard decisions to remain as faithful as he could, and it is nice to read about the life of someone who is not United Methodist during these troubling days. Still, Bonhoeffer has always been troubling. I found the following quote calling out for contemplation:
“Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”
Bonhoeffer writes this quote in the midst of contemplating how rare it is for Christians to live in community. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus himself lived a life that involved isolation during many of the major events of his life. Jesus was alone even in the midst of the crowd for many events of what we call the “passion.” Bonhoeffer points out the lonely lives lived by many of the apostles, missionaries, and even individual Christians throughout the centuries.
Reading Bonhoeffer is always challenging, but these words were particularly biting in light of the upcoming events in the life of my denomination. Have we honestly thanked God that we have each other? Have we thanked God for the privilege of living in community with one another? Have we seen our living together as anything but a gift of unmerited favor?
Honestly, when I see some of the vitriol in the community of faith I share with other Christians I do not always see people thankful for grace. I have seen people stand there and say “You do not belong in the church” when they are only in the church by the grace of God. They have been given the blessing of belonging to a body of faith. They have been given a grace and it seems as if that grace is taken for granted.
How many Christians over the centuries longed for a place to belong with other Christians? How many of our churches exist because people came together to have a place to belong? Are we turning our back on that legacy of grace? Are we so thirsty for law, structure, and power that we would burn our community of grace to the ground if we do not get our own way?
It is far easier to tear down than to build something. It is far easier to destroy than to give life. As we head into General Conference, I am praying we remember that we are only together by the grace of God. I am praying that grace prevails.
Praise God with loud drum. Praise God with low hum. Praise God with rocking guitars. Praise God with your voice. Praise God with your choice. Praise God beneath all the stars.
Breathe deep as you strum. Breathe and let soul thrum. Breathe deep and cry with your heart. Breathe with open mind. Breathe deep and be kind. Breathe, rise, and make a fresh start.
“Alouette Ode to Psalm 150” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Today’s poem was inspired by Psalm 150. We’ll be reading the psalm this Sunday in church. I wrote it in the “Alouette” poetry form. I tied together the two stanzas by rhyming the first two lines in each stanza.
My process was to envision the first stanza as a response to God’s Presence (which echoes powerfully in Psalm 150) and the second stanza as the body breathing in preparation of living with that Presence in the world.
Tomorrow we are looking at Isaiah 45:9-13,15-19 at our church service. We will be focusing on the call of the community to live with a purpose, but as usual, church is only so long and there is more in the passage that is worthy of our time.
In particular, I wanted to take a moment to look at the last two verses. In the NRSV, the Isaiah 45:18-19 calls out for attention given our world’s modern challenges.
For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in chaos.” I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.
Isaiah 45:18-19, NRSV
God does not create the world to be a jumble of chaos in the scriptures. God created a world that was meant and is meant to be inhabited. The world is very carefully crafted. Indeed, we live in a beautiful world filled with majestic creatures.
To be blunt, a lot of those beautiful creatures are going extinct and huge swaths of the earth are struggling to cope with human induced climate change. For the entirety of our existence, humans have had an impact on the world. We systematically hunted certain animals to extinction over the course of our existence. Now our behaviors are bringing extinction to creatures not through the use of a bullet or arrow but by changing the chemicals in streams, filling oceans with plastic, and removing habitats through intentional deforestation.
To me, this is an outrage and an offense to both the gift we have been granted and the world which we received. This world was meant to be inhabited just as the hotel has rooms that are meant to be rented. We are invited to this world like someone invited to stay at a friend’s house for a season. If we were to treat a hotel room like we have treated our world, we would be charged to repair the damage. If we were to destroy our friend’s house, we would likely lose that friendship. Why is the way we treat this world seen differently?
I would invite you to consider whether we are called to treat our world better. More information about climate challenges can be found here.
Have you ever stopped to wonder whether life would be different if we paid closer attention to the world? Would life be different if we focused on other matters than those that preoccupy us?
Recently I was reading a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents in April 1943. Eberhard Bethge translated the version I was reading. The letter I was reading was written on the fourteenth of April. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden; I hope that Renate’s wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain.”
If you are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s story, Bonhoeffer was arrested for taking very public stances against the Nazi regime in Germany and for engaging in espionage. He was executed for his crimes during the last days of hostilities in 1945. Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent Lutheran martyrs of the 20th century.
Bonhoeffer is writing to his father at the beginning of his imprisonment in the letter I was reading. They had separated Bonhoeffer from family, from his fiancee, and from his community of faith within the confessional church. Bonhoeffer was facing charges which could easily lead to his execution.
What catches my eye is that Bonhoeffer notices the thrush in the prison yard. He could have obsessed over his imprisonment and isolation. He could have focused on being confined in his cell for long hours at night or being neglected simple things like shoelaces and shaving cream. In the midst of everything, Bonhoeffer notices the thrush.
I am not imprisoned in my home. I have access to the world around me and my children are a regular part of my life. There are so many things I could focus on in life. I could notice the sound of my daughter singing to herself, the blessing of having a partner who helps me to be a better person, or a million and one other things.
Instead I find myself focusing on matters that are not helpful. Do I have opinions about politics? Yes, I most certainly have opinions. Do I have an obligation to speak out against abuses? Yes, I most certainly have times when I must take a stand. There are many things I could focus on in this moment.
I pray that my calling in the world will come with the awareness that Bonhoeffer seemed to possess. Will I miss the thrush? I pray that I do not miss the thrush in my life today. May I gain blessings through all the little things.
Be as the clay. Mix living water with your dust: Be as the clay. Bend, mold, move, and flex as you must; Be made in furnace fired by trust; In joyful purpose with life thrust: Be as the clay.
“Be as the Clay” Rondelet by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
This week in church we’re looking at Jeremiah 18:1-6 with our children during worship. In the passage, Jeremiah is called to walk down to a potter’s house to observe the potter at work.
With our children we will talk about how God can work in our lives. Clay itself can be nasty stuff when you dig a shovel into a yard and find the dense stuff below a thin layer of topsoil. It can be challenging work to move enough of the stuff to plant even the smallest of tree bulbs. Clay is difficult stuff; however, in the hands of a master potter clay can be wonderful for creating beautiful things. We will tell our kids they are being made into beautiful creations. Call it naive hope or call it prophecy, I believe each of the kids in our church have a bright future ahead of them as awesome people.
The challenge is that there’s a second side to this story. Jeremiah is a prophet called to a place that needs prophetic work done in their lives. The clay needs to be reworked in Israel. As their potter, God claims the right to rework what has been done.
I wrote the rondelet above to look at this reality. I wanted to lean into the concept of being clay. We work hard at building lives in this world and it can be difficult to trust even God to rework the clay of our lives when we become comfortable with the way things are in our lives.
We sometimes need to be reworked. We need to work that living water into our lives, to be flexible, and to even be fired in the oven. We might be tempted to look at this reworking as punishment, especially if we are comfortable. Sometimes, we will put up with a lot of cracks and chips to stay comfortable. Some of us would do anything to just be left alone.
The attitude that says “Just leave me be” does not necessarily help us. If I have a broken arm that has set poorly, it may need to be broken and set again. If I have a heart valve that is leaking, I may need to see my cardiologist if I want to live a longer life. When sick we need a doctor. When cracked, we may need to see our Potter.
This reworking is not necessarily pleasant. If you are struggling through a remaking, I want you to know that you are neither the first nor the last to face a challenge in your life of faith. You are more than likely surrounded by people who have faced their own challenges. You are not alone.
Be still. As scents fill you, As odd sights confound you, And as you want to run away: Be still…
“Be Still” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
I recently spent time with someone who was ill in a care facility. I wrote this post a while back to help preserve the person’s identity, but this post is not about their story. This post is about my story and my experience.
The situation on my end was that I was waiting in a care facility which is filled with people facing challenges. The staff was present and diligent, but it is a facility full of people with differing needs. I found myself waiting impatiently as the sounds, scents, and distractions which come in such a place filled my senses.
I ordinarily do not spend time waiting in such facilities. I enter, I head straight where I need to go, focus on the individual, visit with family, pray, and head out the door. I generally do not have time to sit, to think, or to read in such places. I do not have time for my mind to wander. This day was different, so I opened my Kindle to read as I waited.
The chapter is not a long chapter. Abbess Paintner referred to three quotations in that section. As much as I respect the Abbess’ selection of ancient sources, her wisdom shines forth in her annotations. She writes:
“Sitting in our cell requires patience to not run from ourselves or flee back into the world of distraction and numbness. It means being fully present to our inner life without anxiety. Interior peace comes through sitting in silence, through attentiveness and watchfulness.”
Abbess Paintner in the second footnote for chapter ten
I found myself reflecting on the concepts of patience and stillness as my senses picked up on less than pleasant smells. In that moment, the place I was called to spend my time was that room with everything in the air. My cell was a chair in the midst of this person’s life. I found myself trying to be attentive, watchful, and present even as some part of me tried not to breathe too deeply. The scents, the sights, and the sounds made me more than a little anxious.
I found myself struggling in those moments after reading the Abbess’ thoughts. Was I letting those scents keeping me from being present with the individual sleeping in the bed? Was I letting my dislike of the scents keep me from being present with someone whose every breath contains the aromas that were filling my nostrils? There was some part of me that struggled with shame for focusing on the distractions and another part that wondered if the distractions might not be the blessing in disguise.
I was filled with questions, but the one that stuck with me was the loudest question that filled my mind. Was I open to knowing this was someone’s experience? Was I open to walking with someone as their body struggled? Was I open to being God’s hands and feet in such a place? Was I willing to see God in that place?
It would be easy to numb myself to the situation. I could run to my car and refill my diffuser with peppermint. I could rush home, put on the aromatic earl gray tea to settle my senses, and I could rush home to hug my toddler who seems to always smell of lavender when you smell her hair. It would be easy to flee back to distraction and numbness, but would I find true peace in distraction?
I find myself casting my mind to Matthew 25. In Matthew 25, the Son of Man comes in glory to bring judgment to an imperfect world. The Son of Man separates folks and says to one group that they are blessed because they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcome to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The people did not understand when they had done these things. The Son of Man replies (in the NRSV) “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
We who are engaged in helping care for others often look on this passage and find comfort. We have given a dollar at the Red Kettle at Christmas, have donated a can of food to the food pantry, and gave a little extra when we could. We have helped the least of these. I could rush home and say “I visited one of the least of these! I’m good!”
Would Christ ask “Did you really visit the least of these or did you do the least you could for these?” Are we open to realize we may be called to radical love that sits through the dirt of life? Are we open to realize that loving God’s children may mean sitting in smelly places? Are we open to realize that God may call us to a deeper fellowship with those in need than the bare minimum?
I do not write such challenging words from a place of judgment. If anything, I feel convicted by my own words. What does this look like in our lives? If we are to live into God’s kingdom, do we all need to live radically transformed lives? Perhaps we are not all called to a care facility, but perhaps we are all called somewhere beyond what is comfortable for us. It is worth contemplating.
This past weekend I was challenged with a question. The question revolved around my vision of ministry. What evolved from the question was the realization that I am often not clear about my own particular vision for ministry. What do I seek to embody in my ministry? Could I express my vision for ministry in the time it takes to ride an elevator?
I have been thinking consistently about that question since it came into my mind. I have been asking myself how to express my view of ministry. Side questions arose from this contemplation. Could others remember it? Could they see it in my actions? Do I have a phrase that helps me stay focused on my purposes?
What’s the phrase? “I believe that the church should seek to be ONE.” I want my vision to be Open, Nurturing, and Empowering.
Let me break those buzzwords down into something more succinct. Buzzwords are nice but they do not always serve the purposes which they need to serve for others. These lists are meant to be examples and not a complete or restrictive compilation of ideas.
I believe the church should be Open to new people, Open to new expressions, Open to people who are differently abled, Open to hear/converse with our neighbors, Open to taking God’s love out of the church building, and Open to hear God’s voice.
I believe the church should be Nurturing to people who want to know God more, Nurturing to those who have had few advantages and many obstacles, Nurturing to those who are wounded or in need, and Nurturing with/towards other communities and people in our neighborhood.
I believe the church should be Empowering to people who need God’s freedom in their daily life, Empowering to those who have been oppressed, Empowering to folks who believe their voice does not matter, Empowering to those who need to borrow our strength to break free from their shackles, and Empowering to people who want to seek to enter into life changing discipleship.
What do those things look like? I believe that is the subject of a lot of posts to come, but here’s a few snippets of what I’m proposing to lead about more openly:
You cannot be truly Open to the community if your building or community has significant barriers for differently abled folks.
You cannot be truly Open to the community if you don’t welcome folks who are different than you in culture, race, ethnicity, or viewpoint.
You cannot be fully Nurturing to the community if you immediately dismiss people when they find the courage to talk about real life problems that make you feel uncomfortable.
You cannot be fully Nurturing to new leadership if you respond to every request to try something new with an immediate “No way. We’ve never done that before.”
You cannot be wholly Empowering if you look down your nose at folks who haven’t had the same advantages as you.
You cannot be wholly Empowering of other people’s ministries within the church if you rely on authority for leadership in the church instead of relationship, vision, and calling.
What are the words of the communion liturgy? Because there is ONE loaf, we who are many are ONE body. May we all be ONE in the love and care of Jesus.
Yesterday was a stressful day. I am in Syracuse attending Launchpad, which trains folks in strategies to help start new ministries. The day was very full and my brain was fried by the time we broke for dinner. My wife, our friend, and I tried to talk about what we thought over Indian, but it quickly devolved into story time.
“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”
Last night I was filled with ideas. To be honest, they were burgeoning on burning out my brain. I slowed down, took a moment to breathe, and realized there was wisdom in these words. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I had been breathing in new thoughts, new ideas, and new “creations” in my brain all day. It was only in slowing down to exhale, to rest, and find peace that I found balance.
Sabbath in the Christian tradition has generally been relegated to one day of the week. In modern culture, even the Sabbath is a day when we fill time with stuff and things.
Sometimes it is important to remember that God created something beautiful in Sabbath. We all need moments of rest, repose, and restoration. To believe such things can only be needed on a single day of the week is to miss something true.
It is not an accident what follows when Paul writes to the church and encourages it to not be anxious about anything, but to present their concerns to God with praise and thanksgiving. The people are told that the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Something like that blessed creation of Sabbath that finishes the seven days of creation fills and guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Are you stressed out today? Have you taken moments to rest? Have you breathed out and given over your worries and requests to God? Sometimes anxiety is a medical condition which requires help, sometimes it takes works to let go of the stressful things in our lives, but is there a chance that taking a moment of Sabbath rest might be what your heart and soul needs?
If you do not know what that might look like, here are a few practical suggestions:
Take time to journal in a quiet place. Ask yourself simple questions. Where have I seen God this week? Where have I found places of peace in the past?
Sit quietly for a while. Do not rush this one by assuming a day is the best place to begin. Five minutes might be all you can handle at first. Work your way into silence regularly and see how it affects you.
"Dad, I am hungry!" "Hi hungry! I am your dad!" I laugh at her sigh. I turn with my warmest smile And look in an empty fridge.
“Hungry Kyoka” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
I wanted to share this kyoka this morning for a simple reason. A kyoka is a form of poetry in which the profane or mundane is placed into a poetic form. For some people “Dad jokes” are profanely terrible. For other folks family conversations in a kitchen are commonplace.
For me, what is profane is neither the bad humor nor the commonality of the situation. What is profane is that there are many families in this world and in our community that have little or nothing in their fridges. Humor is one response to tragedy. The tragedy of families which struggle to feed their families is a profanity in a country where people regularly propose billions of dollars for a wall while families starve.
There are people in our communities who do not have enough to eat without assistance. I have performed funerals for people who have died of complications from malnourishment. Not all of those situations were from a lack of access to food, but I can tell you sometimes having nothing in the fridge leads to mental distress, spiritual crisis, and physical challenges.
I wanted to invite you to become involved in hunger outreach in your local context. If you are one of the people who follow this blog because you love Christian contemplation, consider how many of the saints learned the value of contemplation through action. If you are a poetry person, consider how difficult it can be to create or enjoy beautiful poetry when you are distracted by a growling stomach. Hungry has inspired many wonderful pieces of art, but I am certain it was not enjoyable. Please consider volunteering time or resources to one of these wonderful missions or a similar mission near you.
Allow me a moment to say there are many commonalities among world religions. Almost all of them point to both the value of love and the reciprocal blessing of kindness. Call it karma, the promise of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or by another phrase meaningful to you. It is good to show kindness to people in need.
Here are five ways to get started in helping fight hunger:
Pick a designated non-perishable item of the month that you use a lot of in your life. If you pick peanut butter, purchase an extra jar when it is on your grocery list. Donate it to a local food bank or food pantry.
Do not automatically say “No” if you live in an area where grocery stores might invite you to donate to a pantry. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier occasionally invites people to “Check out Hunger.” A similar program might be available near you.
If you go to church, offer to help make sure there is healthy food for times of fellowship like “Coffee Hour.” If you see a friend who looks like they might need an extra cookie, offer to get them one while you “Get a cup of coffee.” If your church is willing, find a family who might need a blessing and offer them the leftover goodies (with grace and an understanding if they say no).
Pay attention to your neighbors. If you know a family is going hungry, “Secret Santa” them by paying for a pizza or other food to be delivered from a local restaurant anonymously. Make sure you cover the driver’s tip so that the person is not embarrassed.
Call a Food Pantry, Food Bank, or Soup Kitchen. Ask what they need and volunteer what you can in time or in goods.
Today’s post is out of sync for most folks. I serve as a minister and thus operate on a different schedule than most of my community. My community consists of a majority of people (but not all) who either work weekdays or live in a cycle where weekends are normal. We have a few individuals who work shifts on weekends, but most either work those weekday jobs or have other purposes in their life (e.g. stay at home parents, retirees, etc.)
As a minister, Monday morning is a time when I prepare for the week ahead. Often that means taking time for reflection. My “Spiritual Renewal Day” is Friday, which is unfortunate as it means my only regular companions for my Sabbath are pets and my toddler. Saturday is a day fraught with community events, denominational events, children’s events, and complications with worship preparations. This past Saturday I had to choose between a historical society coffeehouse, a district training day in the United Methodist Church, the upcoming week’s grocery shopping, worship prep, and my daughter’s birthday party. I chose my daughter’s birthday party, worship prep, and grocery shopping.
Monday is not my spiritual renewal day, but Monday morning is a time my spirit requires me to slow down. Part of that slowing down is reading for personal growth, for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, for an upcoming book or Bible studies, or for upcoming sermons (although on principle, I rarely read anything on the subject I am preaching on the upcoming Sunday).
Today I began by reading further into Rev. Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” I find Mr. Muller’s writings to be interesting. From my reading, I have the feeling that we share a common attribute in introversion. I may be wrong, but I found his love of rest to speak to my introverted soul.
There are days when it seems as if Mr. Muller knows my heart. It feels like continual overcommitment leads to a violence against my soul (pg. 3). As a minister, I am often asked to be a voice or presence on nearly every committee, am expected (on my Methodist side) to hold each committee accountable to our common identity and purpose, to be present in the lives of the homebound and sick, to be available 24/7 for hospital calls, and am expected to lead in most forms of outreach.
The sense of needing to be everywhere for everyone is a common struggle among clergy. Many clergy struggle from burnout and many are accused of not being present enough when their families are falling apart, their relationships are crumbling, and facing loneliness. I have struggled with the constant pull of ministry on my life for years. I believe this common struggle is one reason Mr. Muller’s words struck so deeply with me today. In his chapter on “The Joy of Rest” Mr. Muller writes:
“The practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath, is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work. Ancient texts suggest we light candles, sing songs, pray, tell stories, worship, eat, nap, and make love. It is a day of delight, a sanctuary in time. Within this sanctuary, we make ourselves available to the insights and blessings that arise only in the stillness of time.”
“Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller (pg. 26)
When was the last time you woke up with the goal of delighting in being alive? I have had days where I have woken up with the goal of worshipping, the plan to sing songs or tell stories, but it is rare that I have woken up with the goal of delight. As someone who has publicly faced the challenges of mental health over the years, waking up with the goal of delighting in my life seems particularly foreign to my mindset.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to set aside time to delight in being alive? Many Christians struggle to fight for conceptual ideas like sexual propriety, the lives of unborn children, and other idealistic strivings. Laying aside those questions, what would life be like if we were to put a tenth of the energy we see poured into those causes poured into delighting in life? What would life be like if we gathered for worship Sunday mornings and said we are here to delight in each other’s company? What if we delighted in each other’s company?
In my mind, I see a church filled with people going past “Hey. Good to see you!” or “Hi. How are you?… I’m good.” What would it look like if we delighted in each other? How would that change the way we see church? How would that change the way we see our mission?
A church that focused on treating the Sabbath how Mr. Muller describes Sabbath is the kind of church I would love to be a part of as an individual. A community focused on songs, worship, delight, prayer, stories, and even in bringing love into our homes… there is a wonderful vision!
“Hold the course both straight and true!” Winds buffet. We pitch and roll. “Everything will be fine!” The tiller snaps off…
“A Seaborne Dodoitsu” The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Paperwork for our Annual Meeting is completed. It is now time to focus on the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which takes place towards the middle of next month. One of the greatest challenges I have found in the Academy is taking a lot of superb material and authentically engaging. I have read too many books and have great things go in my eyes, bounce in my brain, and eject themselves at the first distraction. Long time readers of the blog have noticed that this blog is one place I try to engage the material.
In Fleming’s work, the section is entitled “Rules for perceiving and knowing in some manner the different movements which are caused in the soul” in the literal translation and “Guidelines for Discerning Different Movements, Suitable Especially for the First Week” in the contemporary translation. In all three translations, the conversation revolves around consolation and desolation.
Consolation, in my words, is when one’s spirit is aflame with the love of God in joy, drawn to the love of God is sorrow, or in any way grown in the faith, hope, and love that comes from God (and referenced in 1 Corinthians 13). Desolation is the opposite of consolation. Hence, it is when the soul’s love of God is smothered, the soul feels stripped away from the presence of God in sorrow, or circumstances arise in which faith, hope, and love are diminished in experience or (hopefully not) reality.
What drew my eye was the section referred to as Rule 5 and Rule 6, which can be found in sections 318 and 319 respectively. I think when we look at these rules, we find something that is a bit challenging. I will draw on Fleming’s contemporary translation for our discussion.
“5. When we find ourselves weighed down by a certain desolation, we should not try to change a previous decision or to come to a new decision. The reason is that in desolation the evil spirit is making an attempt to obstruct the good direction of our life or to change it, and so we would be thwarted from the gentle lead of God and what is more conducive to our own salvation. As a result, at a time of desolation, we hold fast to the decision which guided us during the time before the desolation came on us.
6. Although we should not try to make new decisions at a time of desolation, we should not just sit back and do nothing. We are meant to fight off whatever is making us less than we should be. And so we might try to intensify our prayer, we might take on some penance, or we might make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith.”
In many ways, I understand what Loyola is driving at in these rules. I also acknowledge that these rules have done a great deal for the church over the centuries. I also believe they have value going into the future. In many ways, I am an outsider commenting on something which does not come from my own denominational tradition and mean no offense to those who hold these rules and experiences dear.
I also see a challenge in these rules for the modern church. For many churches, the American attendance pattern of worship has led people to enter deep periods of doubt and desolation. We are faithful to what we once found fruitful. Certain hymns, certain ways of acting, and certain patterns of life consoled and blessed us.
Life has changed. We who are still in the pews can end up facing the desolation of the spirit that comes with lower attendance numbers, people skipping once integral Bible study, or even quitting the church altogether. It can be a heavy blanket on the soul to find empty seats that were once brimming. We can find these words in our desolation to be wise words of advice. We choose to keep at the decisions made during seasons of consolation! What is more, we double down on commitment! We may not have formal penance in the Protestant church, but we could order twice as many tracts, invite that neighbor twice as often, and intensify our prayer.
The dodoitsu I put at the beginning of this blog summarizes the situation quite nicely. The waves are crashing, the wind is howling, the tiller is snapping, and the response can be to stand there saying “Everything will be fine!” In moments of doubt, we might call out to Jesus like the disciples! “We will drown! Don’t you care?”
I raise these concerns because I believe one concept of the sixth rule is integral. Sometimes we need to make a closer examination of ourselves and our faith. We may need to ask questions like:
Was my faith grown by the hymns or the fact I was singing about my faith with others?
Did that memorial item in the sanctuary grow my faith or was it the person who inspired it? What would the original person have wanted? Would that line up with our purpose?
If relationships helped grow my faith, are there places I can help others grow in their relationships? What if those places look different today than five years ago?
Would changing something small make a big difference? Would that small change affect everything or just cause discomfort for a while?
Occasionally, when we take time to examine ourselves and faith, we find that the things that consoled us were something different than we remember. It can be helpful to remember that things are not always how they once seemed.
There are times when the call is to stick to what you planned in a time of consolation. If you struggle with alcohol, a bad day is not the time for the drink you swore off in better days. If you struggle with anger, perhaps this is the moment when you should go walk off your frustration instead of face the person who is aggravating you. Struggles do not mean you should change your plan.
Still Loyola pointed out that some difficulties exist not as desolations but as consolations. When things go wrong it can be a reminder of how blessed we are to have God in our corner despite our struggles. When the boat is pitching back and forth, it can be a good reminder of how grateful we are for flotation devices.
In my 22 years as a committed Christian after my “heart-warming” experience, I have learned that few experiences are black and white. Some situations seem dire but end up being blessings. Some blessings seem wonderful but lead to challenging situations. Discernment is never easy, but there is wisdom in these words from Loyola. I have learned the value of holding the tiller with a loose hand. I have also learned the value of steering through the storm.
I have been thinking about the nature of the church. I hold to the belief that the church is not only the house of God, but a place for the wounded to find healing. For me, it is natural to find strange folks in a church.
If I had a broken arm, I would go see a doctor.
If I had a shoe with the sole falling off, I would go see a cobbler.
If I had a broken laundry machine, I would call a technician to come fix it.
If the power line running into my house were to collapse and spark in my yard, I would call the electric company.
Why are people surprised the church has injured people in her midst? Would you be shocked if you found hurting people in a hospital? Would you be thrown if you went to look at cars at a mechanic’s shop and every car there was broken?
Thankfully, Abba Elias has a good word here. “What can sin do when there’s penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?” There’s wisdom on how we can see the life of the church.
What damage can sin do in the life of the faithful if they are penitent? There could still be damage done. Still, consider the following idea: A person might struggle with anger. If they are filled with that anger, what happens if they turn to God for help, and seek a way forward in a church community? Things might go wrong, but they’re also in a place where the community can support and help them. If they are truly penitent, what better place to be than in a community that understands sin and seeks to be free together? If they are not penitent, that’s another matter, but if they are truly trying to find a way forward, what better place to be?
On the other hand, what happens when we look at others who struggle, see imperfection, and then cut them off? What happens when we slam the door in their face? What happens if we see that person, decide they’re a hypocrite, and walk away? To put it another way, what happens when our pride blinds us to the reality that we all need healing? The church can pour out love all day long, but if you see love as a nasty dredged up swill, will you ever stop to drink that living water?
Luke 18:9-14 shares a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In that parable, two men were praying in the temple. One was a despised tax collector who approached God with humility. He beat his breast with sorrow and asked God for mercy.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, NRSV
The Pharisee was someone who considered himself superior to everyone around him, especially the tax collector. Jesus stood with the tax collector—humility was far more important than the self-decreed righteousness of the Pharisee.
Would it have helped the Pharisee to tell him he was loved? Of course he felt loved—he was the apple of God’s eye. Would it have helped to offer him a place of healing? He is no lowly tax collector! I think Abba Elias hit the nail on the head when he stated that sin can be overcome with penitence, but that pride can at least seem insurmountable by love.
Of course, Jesus did state that the Pharisee would one day be humbled. Was that humbling meant to bring the Pharisee to a place where he could find a place where penitence and love could find their way into the Pharisee’s life? I would imagine that Saul might tell us that there was indeed a way forward for the Pharisee. As Luke and Acts are two books connected by common authorship, one could see this parable as almost foreshadowing Saul’s experience. Of course, as my wise wife points out, that assumes the two books were meant to be read together instead of being meant as separate works. A later authorship of Acts might make this a happy coincidence instead of an intentional reference.
One of the first monastics of the desert, Anthony, is recorded as seeing the world through distraught eyes. To the left and right of the faithful there were traps and snares to ensnare. Behind and in front of the struggling there were further ways to entangle. Anthony cried out. What could possibly make a way through the challenges of life? Anthony believed humility alone could find a way.
“Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.” ‘ “
I know as a person that I am not perfect. Truthfully, I am grateful that I have enough wisdom to understand that my imperfection does not separate me from the love of God. I believe that love reaches out to everyone who walks through the doors of the church without exception. I pray we all find healing together.
Today I spent my time in prayer focusing on Psalm 39. In my personal journey, today is not only the day of my birth, it is also the day when I gave my heart to God at fifteen years old. As such, spending my prayer time focusing on Psalm 39 might seem odd to many people.
I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.” I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:
“Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool. I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
“You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears. Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.”
Consider the words of the Psalm and there are passages which you will probably not find within a card on a rack in your local store. Well, some of them might end up in a “dark humor” section:
“Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.” (vs. 6)
“You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.” (vs. 5)
“You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.” (vs.11)
“Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vs. 13)
“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am a passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” (vs. 12)
“Lord, let my know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” (vs. 4)
So, why would I spend my time contemplating this passage of all passages on my birthday? Why would I make the choice to pray about these words on the day I felt my heart strangely warmed and felt an assurance of my place in God’s love?
My heart was captured by the fourth verse of the Psalm. “Let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” As I spent time with these words, I thought about the tea in the wooden bin on my counter. I switched back to primarily being a tea drinker as part of my plan for 2019, and I checked our stash of tea to find it empty. A new bag of fair trade tea will arrive in a few weeks, so I am left with what is in the bin.
When the bin is full, there are many pots of tea ready to be made. A cup of tea is just a cup of tea. The tea may be enjoyable, warming, wonderful, and flavorful; however, it is still just one cup of much once brewed. When the bin is nearing emptiness, each cup is to be savored. When the bin is almost an empty box, every sip is a gift. There is something wonderfully deep about the paradox that scarcity makes something all the more precious.
Yes, my life is fleeting. Yes, even though today is a day of celebration in my house, it is healthy to remember that there will be only so many of these celebrations before I celebrate on another shore. Yes, these days are like a shadow, but the shadow shows me that there is life. Yes, what is dear to me on earth will eventually break down, rust, be eaten by dogs, fall prey to overactive kids, or just wear out; however, those things are just stuff.
I may not agree with the expressed sentiment that “God is punishing you by taking away everything you love.” I believe the 11th and 13th verses were likely born out of a dark place although there are moments when chastisement may be the only way forward. Many folks recovering from addiction have pointed to low points in life as moments when they were given a chance to recover and rise from “rock bottom.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some assistance is occasionally required to find that place of possibility. I would say sometimes things break and that may not be God punishing. Sometimes we have a bad day and it is not always the case that our days is terrible because God is glaring at us—I often find the opposite is usually true.
Despite my grief for the struggles endured by the Psalmist when composing Psalm 39, I am grateful for the reminder that this day is precious despite being one of many days. I am grateful for this life as fleeting as it may pass. One day, my time will come, and I hope people will realize I was grateful for what I had even as I sometimes struggled with the challenges. Today, I choose to read Psalm 39 with gratitude. I pray you find reasons to enjoy the precious nature of life.
Tomorrow morning we are celebrating Epiphany at the Maine Federated Church. Our liturgy and message partially rely on the later part of the first chapter of Second Peter. I have not preached much from Second Peter over the years, which is really a shame. In my opinion, Second Peter is an interesting book with wisdom that is clearly stated and applicable to life.
As an example, take a portion of the same chapter we are using tomorrow. Second Peter, chapter one, verses three through nine. There is solid advice in these words. There’s assertion about the world, a recommendation for response, and a rationale about why we would act in certain ways. The passage is succinct, clear, and helpful.
“[Jesus’] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”
2 Peter 1:3-9, NRSV
The world is ascertained to be a world that has been blessed by the presence of Jesus. Think about the words of this letter. We live in a world where Jesus’ divine power has already made available everything needed for a life lived with godliness. By Jesus’ goodness and God’s glory, we who have been called have what we need to escape a world of corruption and lust.
Now, I think it is still close enough to the New Year to state that in this new year, there may be things we want. The things we want often differ from what we need. I might want a Ferrari in my driveway, but I do not need a Ferrari. In fact, no offense to the people who would make that imaginary Ferrari, if I had one, I would likely be selling it as soon as possible as it is unnecessary for the life I seek.
There are many things we may want, but that does not mean those things are needed for a life in a world that is often driven by desires for power, wealth, stuff, and desires for people which often treat those people as things rather than individuals. Second Peter says that we have what we need to escape from the snares of that world. Jesus has already made available what we need. We may live in a sickened world, but the medicine is right there with us!
What does Second Peter recommend? Rather than passivity, the letter calls for action. Rather than being forced into submission, the letter calls for active rebellion from a darkened world. What does that look like?
Faith supported with goodness.
Goodness supported with knowledge.
Knowledge supported with self-control.
Self-control supported with endurance.
Endurance supported with godliness.
Godliness supported with mutual-affection.
Mutual affection with love
What happens when these things enter into the life of a person? Life becomes better. What happens when they keep on increasing? They keep a person from being ineffective and unfruitful. Second Peter calls the people to make every effort to engage on this journey founded in God’s grace.
Second Peter goes further to state that anyone who lacks these things is “short-sighted and blind.” They have forgotten the grace received from God. At first, that seemed a bit harsh to me, but thinking back through my own experience, I think there’s truth in these words.
I am a United Methodist minister and I am very United Methodist in my theology. I appreciate and draw a lot out of other Christian traditions, but in my heart, I am thoroughly United Methodist. Of course, I see United Methodism as one stream in the branching delta known as Christianity that follows God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the sea of God’s love, but I still love swimming in my waters with my beloved family in Christ.
Despite that love, there have been moments when I have come across United Methodist family who do not insist on these things. The church has had friends within her walls who have been quite cruel and forgotten their way. As an Elder I have studied our history and found examples of the church abusing folks when the way was lost. As a person I have experienced folks filled with anger rather than the love and mutual affection described in this letter. I have seen hatred, anger, and even lust for power blind people to what they are doing to others.
I have also met people from those other streams that I absolutely adore even though we are theologically very different. We would probably argue and have argued at times for hours about theological points, but we hold in common these desires. Their faith is connected with goodness, their goodness with knowledge… As such, we can completely disagree while still remaining in relationship with each other. In fact, I often find some of my strongest friendships have come about from such weird relationships with those who share in that common love that comes from Jesus.
I do not know about you, but I want to remain fruitful. The banner that sits at the top of my blog is a banner I often do not point out in blogs, but it is a picture I took on a mission trip. The flowers are growing on the barbed wire between two yards on the interface between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. If flowers can grow on barbed wire, then we can live lives which bear fruit. We already have all we need even if we sometimes want more. Let us live in that knowledge and keep seeking after goodness and hir friends.
Today was my wife’s grandmother’s memorial service in Olean. She’s being interred out west, so this was my family’s chance to formally pay our respects. The affair was meaningful, deep, and faithful. Grandma Betty was a really wonderful woman and I learned a lot about the woman whom I sat next to for many a holiday meal. Apparently her stories were not done catching me off guard even after she crossed to that other shore.
This evening I sat at our kitchen table and contemplated Ephesians 3:1-4. In particular, I was drawn to the concepts of mystery and grace. The contemplation was deep as I spent my time with these words. As I contemplated the growth of this one moment in time, I found myself caught in a million questions as I lifted questions to God in my heart.
“…for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…”
Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV
Contemplation roamed for quite a while on questions of whether this commission of God’s grace would be received well in today’s church. Would we welcome one of the villains of our stories into the doors of our church if he were to come in repentance? Would we welcome a former persecutor into our midst? Would we welcome someone who was passionately into another culture that many would consider counter-Christian into our midst? Would we have the grace to walk with them through transitions which are usually less dramatic than that of Paul?
I contemplated these questions for a while, but I kept being drawn back to the concept of mysterious grace. The early church was blessed by the unexpected life story of Saul of Tarsus. I have been blessed by unexpected stories too. I learned of a new unexpected story today at the memorial service in Olean.
I heard the story of a hitchhiker in the west who went to play at a tent revival with some friends. A local girl found God at that tent revival and hitchhiked to the Bible College where that hitchhiker attended. This young lady was a graduate of a class of 12. This girl from a very small area was married and had kids. Those hitchhikers were my wife’s grandparents.
Hope was not falling asleep easily tonight, so I was holding her as she settled while I prayed and contemplated. I realized in the middle of my contemplation that if it were not for some random person picking up a hitchhiker on the other side of the country nearly 80 years ago, my daughter would not have been in my arms. It was a powerful moment of realization. My blessings in this world would be very different if it weren’t for a hitchhiking evangelist getting a ride to a small town with a graduating class of twelve to lead a tent revival. My blessings would be different if those evangelists decided the small town was not worth their time.
Earlier today on the ride back from Olean, my daughter and I were listening to the audio book for “The Good Doctor” by Juno Dawson. In that audio book, the eponymous Doctor of Doctor Who made the statement: “There’s only two things I don’t believe in, and one’s coincidence…” Apparently, being a time-traveler makes you skeptical of randomness.
Now, I am definitely not a predestination proponent, but there’s something powerfully moving when you realize that your daughter possibly wouldn’t be in your arms if someone had not decided to give one of her great-grandparents a lift, but I would rather contemplate something besides an argument that has raged for centuries like predestination versus free will.
What I contemplated was the fact that there a lot of people out there who often look in the mirror and do not know where their life is headed. They see coincidence and fear stepping out of even partial safety to see what might lay outside their door. There are scary things out there in the world which are far more frightening than hitch hiking. People can become paralyzed by fears both of what might happen and what is happening. Here a few off the top of my head:
A person lives with someone who is physically abusive. Zie wishes to walk away, but what if zie loses his chance to see hir kids?
An alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but all of hir friends drink every weekend. What if zie ends up all alone?
A person wants to stop working at a job that is literally physically, mentally, or spiritually killing them. What if zie quits and ends up losing everything?
A person has a loved one (friend/child) who is doing something awful that might end up disastrously bad. Maybe it already has gone bad. Zie wants to say something or do something, but what happens if hir loved one walks away from zie forever?
These examples are but a few examples of how life can throw challenges that cause us to stop dead in our tracks in fear. What if our inability to move causes things to go awry? What if someone we do not know in 80 years will be a completely different person if we do nothing?
I don’t know who the person was who gave my wife’s grandparents rides across what sounded like a good portion of the western half of this country, but I am so grateful that they did. If you’re living in fear of doing something that might seem just as crazy, I invite you to have a conversation with a local religious leader, a counselor, or even a good friend. If necessary, speak to the police for an intervention or go to a support group to find help. Your bravery just might change the future.
Last night I posted a poem called “Pastoral Ghazal.” The poem was inspired both by events in my pastoral ministry and in my reading for yesterday in the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and specifically in the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. In the reflection for January 2nd, Dr. Jenkins contrasts the common imagery of justice being blindfolded with the conception of God reaching with both open eyes and mercy. The contrast was a powerful contrast. In my copy of this year’s Disciplines I highlighted the phrase “God, who wears no blindfold, insists on mercy in justice.”
Dr. Jenkins focuses greatly on how this conception of a God with open eyes affects our view of the social and moral order of our world. I appreciated his focus, but I was drawn into a different realm of contemplation by the reality of my daily ministry. While Dr. Jenkins view was broad, my focus was tightened by a number of things:
Administration: Our church’s Annual Meeting is fast approaching and there is paperwork that needs to be prepared.
Building and Grounds: The church is continuing to aim towards having greater accessibility while maintaining safety. One office day into 2019 and both of these areas came up in conversation.
Community: Situations arose where both relationships blessed my ministry and caused me to want to hide in a desert. Occasionally, those conversations were simultaneous.
Dreaming: Situations arose where I took the opportunity to “vision cast” different futures and alternative perspectives to people in my circle of influence.
End of Life Conversations: Self-explanatory
Fatherhood: My one year old kept me up until five in the morning when my alarm was set for two hours later…
To be honest, I could probably continue with this acrostic list, but I faced no alien xenomorphs and had no reason to visit the zoo. Ministry is a varied and challenging calling which often leads you up and down an acrostic list of challenges on a regular basis. This grounding in the daily activities of ministry drew me into a different sphere of contemplation. My contemplation led me to ask a very simple question: Does God see?
Theologically, let’s be clear: I do believe that God sees. The challenge is that the knowledge that God sees is a form of head knowledge. Life requires heart knowledge. There is often a great difference between seeing with the head and knowing with the heart. Some of the things I experienced reinforced both my head knowledge and my heart wisdom. Other experiences were unsettling.
I was reminded of the ancient philosopher Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the allegory, there were a bunch of people who spent their lives sitting in chairs unable to turn around. Behind them was a fire and all they ever saw was the shadows cast on the wall. Those shadows became all of reality to the folks in the chairs. Plato’s allegory delved into what would happen if those people ever were released from those bindings or came across someone who knew that there was more than shadow, but for my purposes, the image of folks strapped into chairs facing shadows is enough for my purposes. Honestly, the image of firelight and shadow is what stuck in my mind.
The challenge I recognized yesterday during my devotion is that any life has places where the reality of life impedes that journey from head knowledge to heart wisdom. I believe that God’s light fills the universe and will shine in the midst of the darkness; however, there are places where challenges create shadows. I cannot always see that light shining, sometimes only find the shadows, and occasionally cannot even see the shadows.
This reality of life is where my poem found life yesterday. Dr. Jenkins was focused on the vast, but I kept seeing places where I saw others struggling to see beyond the shadows. In that beautiful picture above, it would be as if I were sitting in the light with those who sat in shadow. Inches might separate us, but one place was a place of brightness while another was a place of darkness. Wisdom told me there are likely places where I sit in darkness surrounded by others who see beyond what my eyes perceive.
All of this is to say that I think we all have places where we sit in the shadows just as we all have places where we see the light. How do we compensate for this challenge? I believe the answer can only lie in community. Whether that community comes through family, neighborhood, or church, we all are made better by our relationships with others.
Are all relationships healthy? No, but I truly believe that there is a wisdom to living in community with those who will lovingly walk with you in your shadows while holding out their hands when they need help with their own dark places. Where do we see this in scripture? Here are a handful of examples…
Proverbs 27:17 tells us that one person can bless another just as iron sharpens iron.
Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of our calling to remain in community in a spirit that encourages our faith community. When we consider the challenges faced by the early church, this encouragement likely held some of the early churches together through persecution and troubles.
John 21 shares the story of how the community stood with Peter as he faced the challenge of his own past and the events of Good Friday.
I share these things to encourage you to remember the value of community today. There are days when it seems as if the universe is a cruel and awful place. Those days are exactly the days when it is helpful to remain with those who can walk with you through your shadows into the light.