A Poem and Reflection on Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises

“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.

Today I was reading several of the “Rules” from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In particular, we were asked to focus on sections 314-336. These rules deal with moments of consolation and desolation. We were assigned to read the version translated by Jules J. Toner, but as I have my own copies of the exercises, I thought I’d interact online with versions and resources I own. I generally interact with “Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” by David Fleming, S.J and “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed: Uncovering Liberating Possibilities for Women” by Katherine Dyckman, et. al. To be honest, “The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed” is better commentary than translation. Translation is primary for this conversation, but you should still check out that very interesting book.

“Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” Ignatius of Loyola as translated by David Fleming, S.J., pgs. 251-252.

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.”

“Draw Me Into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation & A Contemporary Reading” Ignatius of Loyola as translated by David Fleming, S.J., pgs. 251-252.

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.

Hypocrites in Church

“Abba Elias the minister, said ‘What can sin do where there is penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?’ “

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” as translated by Benedicta Ward

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.

The story of Jesus before Herod always makes me wonder who had the right to judge in this situation? Truly the Judged was the One who had the right to cast judgment even while remaining silent…

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.” ‘ “

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” as translated by Benedicta Ward

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.

Fleeting but precious

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.”

Psalm 39, NRSV

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:

  1. “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)
  2. “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)
  3. “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.” (vs.11)
  4. “Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vs. 13)
  5. “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)
  6. “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.

The tea runneth low…

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.

Faith, goodness, knowledge…

“While the daily onslaught of words can numb us, God’s words can warm those who listen.”

Dr. Michael Jenkins in the January 5th entry of the “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

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.

Barbed wire with flowers on the Springfield Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Thank you to some generous drivers approximately 80 years ago

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.

My contemplation candle holder… It burns often on my table.

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.

Shadows and Light

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.

Light Dark Atmosphere Candle Night Lantern Shadow

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.

“The Blessing of the New Year” circa 1900

Well back in 1900, Mr. Alexander Carmichael published the Carmina Gadelica. Well into the public domain, I wanted to take some time to look at an old poem this week. The poem appears under the title “The Blessing of the New Year” and according to Mr. Carmichael it was “repeated the first thing on the first day of the year.” Here is how the poem goes:

God, bless to me the new day,
Never vouchsafed to me before;
It is to bless Thine own presence
Thou hast given me this time, O God.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,
May mine eye bless all it sees;
I will bless my neighbour,
May my neighbour bless me.

God, give me a clean heart,
Let me not from sight of Thine eye;
Bless to me my children and my wife,
And bless to me my means and my cattle.

“The Blessing of the New Year” in the Carmina Gadelica, 1900 CE

Looking closely at this poem and prayer, there are several things which show in the form and content of this work. There are directions to this prayer both in scope and focus.

The first thing I see is a shift of focus from the unknowable, to the seen, to the loved. In the first section there is a focus on God’s blessing for the new day, which makes sense as this is a prayer for a new year. Unstated is the reality that the year ahead is a mystery.

The poet marks that the day (or time) ahead has never been vouchsafed. Vouchsafe is a word that can have several connotations. Whether the meaning in this case is that the knowledge of what the day ahead might hold would be gracious, condescending, or a special favor, the poet asks for a blessing even without that knowledge. The poet desires a blessing understanding that their time ahead should bless God.

In truth, this prayer contains a leap of faith. Who knows what the year ahead will hold? The prayer begins with a request that has no real context. A blessing of plenty of drinking water is a different blessing in the midst of a desert than it is on the shores of a clean freshwater lake. The petitioner does not know what is to come but seeks blessing.

The prayer shifts in the second movement of the prayer. The request is made that everything which falls under the gaze of the eye be blessed. Beyond the unknown of where one’s path will lead, for most the world will be somewhat reliable. Neighbors will remain neighbors.

There’s an old phrase that says “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Often, after several years of living in the vicinity of a neighbor, what once was innocent can often become a source of great frustration. Music can be played too loud, barbecue scents fill a house if you are downwind, and occasionally neighbors have children who can cause a ruckus. I imagine this was an even greater challenge when one’s neighbors were more constant in the times leading up to 1900.

The prayer leans into this reality by proposing that the year ahead will include a blessing of one’s neighbor. Even before receiving a blessing, the petitioner sets off to be a blessing. While the petitioner asks that the neighbor bless them as well, there’s a mutuality there. In a time before cars and modern conveniences, the neighbor might be a blessing which could make the difference between life and death.

Finally, the prayer moves into the heart. It lifts family and means of provision up in this last section of prayer. We may find cattle to be odd, but consider that for some a healthy cow might mean the difference between living through a winter and starving through the end of the cold months. Prayers for wife and children are definitely patriarchal in composition, but this is a prayer from 1900. Leading into all of these relationships is a call towards God for a clean heart and to remain in the sight of God who sees all folks.

Consider that bit for a moment. There is no prayer here for God to turn away while there is abuse in the home or a lapse of judgment. There is a call for God to be near and to watch. The heart out of which all things flow is kept in the eye of God. That’s actually a pretty bold request.

So, what can we sum up from this prayer from 1900? Sometimes the best prayer begins with admitting you do not know what will happen, but seek to live with trust first and foremost. Similarly, even when we have had a rough past which included mistakes (which most of us will admit), there’s still a greatness to praying that God would keep an eye on us and grant us a better future. There’s also just something beautiful about a prayer that intentionally does not close one’s eyes to one’s neighbor.

If I were to rewrite this prayer for today, I wouldn’t focus on cattle, but I would remember how God has helped me find ways to bring food to my table. If I were to rewrite this prayer for my circumstances, I might not see my neighbor in exactly the same light as someone from 1900 who might see only this person on days of miserable weather, but I would consider that our neighbors are often the people we look beyond when we consider the problems of the world. If I were to rewrite this prayer, it would be different, but I hope that it would maintain the same movement of trust in God from the unknown future, to the parts of my life I see, and finally to the beloved parts of my life.

Darkness and Light

Breakfast scent reaches far—
Wafting through all warm safe homes…
A shared moonstruck myth.

Rev. Robert Dean

Today marks the beginning of a new year. 2019 is here. I have many hopes for this new year, but I found myself unwilling to answer a question my wife asked our family at breakfast this morning. My wife asked “What are your hopes for 2019?”

My problem with her question was not that I had no answer. I have many answers for her question. I would love a great many things to happen over the next year. I would enjoy a happy year for my children and for the healing of some wounds that came to the surface in 2018. I would feel blessed if my ministry thrived and if I could see tangible results of God’s work in my life. I would enjoy many of these things a great deal.

My challenge with her question comes from the fact that 2018 helped to inject my theology and my thoughts with the wisdom of different centuries of Christianity. Would I be happy if my ministry thrived at the expense of another group of sisters and brothers in the faith? Would I find meaning in my children being blessed while other children nearby continue to suffer through the belief that nobody cares for them?

It clarified my thoughts on these matters as I entered my devotion this morning. I am working through Upper Room’s resource “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019” and found myself working through the reflections of Dr. Marshall Jenkins. The book describes Dr. Jenkins as an “author, spiritual director, and licensed psychologist.”

Today’s reflections were on finding the light in the darkness’s midst and revolved around Matthew 25:31-46, which is the story of the division of the sheep and goats at the end of things. While reflecting on this passage, Dr. Jenkins wrote intriguingly about the light and the darkness.

The first thing that caught my eye was that we must find light by first finding darkness. This idea caught my eye as someone who has struggled in the past and is continuing to struggle with eye issues. In particular, it reminded me of the time they removed my eye patch after my corneal transplant.

When the eye patch was removed, everything was bright. I had spent days with my eye covered and everything was bright. My eye had become so accustomed to the darkness that everything I saw, from the smallest led light to the intensely bright light shining through the clouds sent pain through my head. I do not believe I realized how bright headlights truly were until we went for a ride that evening.

I did not understand how powerful light was until that period of darkness. In the same way, it can be very difficult to find light in this world if we do not first see the darkness. Dr. Jenkins points out in the passage in the Disciplines that we instinctively avert our eyes from the darkness.

In my experience as a minister, that reality is true. When I was minister of a church that hosted an Alcoholics Anonymous group, I often heard more in conversation around the state of the fellowship hall after meetings than I did about how brave the women and men were facing their struggles. Ironically, I think the AA group left the hall cleaner than we did on Sunday mornings!

To be clear, at the church I once served, the complaints were few and far between, the church never talked about removing their access to the space, and they did their best to make sure AA could continue meeting in the church’s space. The point I am attempting to make is that it was far easier to discuss a trashcan accidentally left full than it was to talk about how amazingly brave the folks were who came to face their struggles. Like Dr. Jenkins said, it is human nature to avert our eyes from the darkness and churches are filled with humans.

Dr. Jenkins also does a wonderful job at pointing out that the places of darkness are where this passage states we will find Jesus. He states:

“Jesus himself told us where to look: among the hungry, thirsty, alien, vulnerable, sick, and imprisoned. From their dark predicament, their faces will reveal the light… the light of Christ appears to those who step into the night with the lowly.”

Dr. Jenkins in “The Upper Room Disciplines 2019”

What Dr. Jenkins states tracks with the passage. Jesus says in Matthew 25:40: “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.”

All of it begs a question for me. If you’re wondering where Jesus is in this topsy turvy world, have you looked among the least? If you’re wondering how you can make the world a brighter place amid a world filled with darkness, have you brought your light into the life of people like those listed in Matthew 25?

Let’s be clear, I’m not recommending giving money for others to do the work, although I am certain that is a blessing. I am not even recommending that you send money to the church to support our ministries because that is not my goal. I am asking if you personally have walked alongside the kind of folks where you might find the light of Jesus? Have you faced the darkness enough to recognize the light?

All of this calls to mind the words of Dr. Amy Oden that I was reading the other day in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity.” She writes:

“Christians of the first three centuries certainly understood themselves to be aliens, pilgrims in this world with citizenship in another. Given their political location in the Roman Empire, it is not surprising that stranger status would be a primary way Christians understood themselves and their place in the world. These Christians frequently remind one another that their true allegiance is not with the powers of this world and they must hold a sort of double consciousness, seeking to be good citizens in their communities yet never fully at home in the world.”

Dr. Amen Oden in “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity”

Perhaps it would be easier to see the darkness if we were to more fully grasp this understanding of our reality. In my experience, church folks tend to look at those who struggle in darkness and say “How can I help them out of their struggle?” We might do well to ask how their journey is similar to our journey. We may be blessed to ask how our journey might intertwine with their journey. Perhaps we should see ourselves less as those who have everything together and instead as people who are on our own journey as pilgrims and aliens through this world.

The first rays of Advent

Today I began one of two Advent devotionals I am undertaking this holy Advent season. I pulled out my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer” by Rev. Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I grabbed my colored pencils, arranged my “wreath,” and tried to enter a place of stillness. There will be more on stillness and having children on another day.

Tonight, as my wife was on a conference call, I sat in front of my Advent wreath and colored a mandala while undergoing the spiritual practice of the examen. Gregorian chants played in the background as I prayed and colored.

This week’s mandala is beautiful in construction. Rev. Garner must be very well connected. As the work is under copyright, I will try to explain the design. There are four steps to the examen proposed in the book by Rev. Garner. We begin with contemplation of Emmanuel, journey into gratitude, explore areas for growth, and conclude with seeking seeds of hope for the next day.

The mandala centers on a star which stretches center to edges. I colored as I prayed about how God is with us in this season. I tried to shade the colors of my imaginary sun. I believe I attempted this because I wanted to look back tomorrow and shake my head at myself. Rev. Garner may believe everyone can color, but there is a part of me that wonders if she knew I was coming.

As I colored and prayed about my day, I examined places where I found gratitude today. I thought of relationships with friends, family members, parishioners, myself, and my calling. I went deep with the prayer. I went deeper than expected.

Take my section in what we’ll pretend was stainless steel gray. As I colored, I thought about the dinner I prepared for my family. What did it mean that Emmanuel was there as I cooked a meal? My mother died in December when I was a child. Sometimes holiday meals were “golden brown!” Was God with us as people came alongside me to show me how to use the pans in my kitchen? What did it mean that on the other side of one ray of Emmanuel there was a section where I prayed for my wife who helped me learn? What did it mean that it bordered the color of my clergy shirt over the other ray of Emmanuel? Prayer for my cooking led into prayer for one of my favorite cooking instructors on one side and for the church where I lead a study on the spirituality of baking bread on the other side. Prayer went deep.

As I prayed through the areas of growth around those blessings, I borrowed colors as areas of blessing sometimes came into conflict with other parts of myself. I prayed about how my desire for personal growth occasionally conflicted with my parenting. I grieved how my calling as a minister occasionally led to pain in my marriage as I prayed about missed dates, anniversaries postponed, and vacations shortened. I grieved how being a loving husband occasionally meant I would try to listen to a parishioner while wrestling down reactions coming from my own relationship. Prayer grew really complicated.

Suddenly, there were other colors. There were colors for places of grief where my anger caused me to make mistakes. There were places where the authority of my ordination aided in some places and damaged others. There were places where colors blended and battled. My prayers became complicated. I did not expect this to be so hard!

Suddenly, the flickers of red appeared. I’d put dots of red amid the places where I was grateful to represent the Holy Spirit. Suddenly there were red the stained glass of connectedness were brought into relationship through the Holy Spirit. Suddenly gold appeared as I noticed places where Christ the King stood in my midst and brought healing.

Suddenly I understood that some of my troubles come from not just letting one bit of me stay where it belongs instead of jamming it into another place. To be clear, I never invited my wife on a date to Church Council, but sometimes my work with church members has swallowed the dinner conversation on a date with my wife. Something healthy in one part of my life needed to stay in that one part.

Strangest of all, there were spaces that were left blank. I prayed about what it meant. Suddenly, I realized there are parts of me that I cannot see without help from others and help from God. My soul really is a kaleidoscope of strangeness and beauty.

In the coloring there was realization, contemplation, and even places of healing as I prayed. In the midst of all of this, the rays of Emmanuel poured out from Christ from the center of the season into the rest of my heart.

Around all of this were seeds of hope for tomorrow. I had expected them to all be red for the Holy Spirit, but there was gold! Christ the King claiming my tomorrow as I prayed. If I had socks on my feet at the table, they might have been blown off.

I recommended this book to church members and bought a few friends copies because it looked like it would be interesting. I may not have expected it to be so deep. It is funny how that sometimes happens. We slow down for one moment and we are suddenly caught off guard by grace. I have no idea what my mandalas will look like for the rest of the week, but I can say that my eyes are opened. This practice might be far more intense than I expected.

Ancient Advice for Thanksgiving

So, it is almost Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America. Many forks are preparing to gather with loved ones for a day of feasting, conversation, and merriment. Thanksgiving is a blessed day for many people.

Not everyone likes Thanksgiving. Some people are dreading Thanksgiving this year. There are challenging conversations which may take place over pie. United Methodists risk conversations about the Special Session of General Conference and other church dramatics. Citizens risk discussions of politics, voting choices, and future outlooks. Many folks know there are traditional arguments over family matters, cooking styles, or other matters. Conversations can be difficult on Thanksgiving.

On a personal level, some folks dread Thanksgiving because of what it will tempt them to eat. Will power is a necessity for many on Thanksgiving. Exercised muscles and hard earned toning will face the hordes. They cry out things like “It is a holiday!” Invitations to live a little often correspond with an expectation to consume a lot.

I wanted to bring ancient wisdom into this conversation. I have been enjoying the Desert Abbas and Ammas a great deal over the past year, but do not limit my reading to these ancient words. For your edification, I bring to you a quote from Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” I also bring a quote to you from “The Epistle of Barnabas” in “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” as translated by Andrew Louth.

Let us begin with the Desert Abba, although it is likely that the epistle predates the sayings of the Abbas and Ammas. Here’s the quote for you today: (pg. 104)

“A brother questioned Abba Hierax saying,’Give me a word. How can I be saved? The old man said to him, ‘Sit in your cell, if you are hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.’ “

I want to stretch our understanding of what Abba Hierax says by breaking the passage down into three concepts. The brother sought a word about salvation. We are not seeking salvation in the eternal sense this Thanksgiving. Still, there is wisdom in seeking God’s salvific power to fill every day of our lives.

So, the first idea! Beloved, stay in your cell! For the Abbas and Ammas, the cell was the place they rested and prayed. The cell was a challenge to some and a a blessing for others. One could find out a lot about their being by remaining in their place. The cells had space for introspection. These places had space for rest. These rooms space for blessing.

Beloved, stay in your cell! When invited to a seat, enjoy that seat! You may not enjoy everyone around you in that place, but there may be room for blessing in your seat. Is your neighbor getting your goat? How is that neighbor getting your goat? What does that tell you about yourself? Why does that neighbor get your goat? What does that relationship tell you? Is your neighbor a challenge or a mirror for reflection? Is your neighbor an irritation or someone trying to connect? What if they only have certain tools and just need encouragement? Maybe something like sarcasm is almost their native language? Is this trouble is an opportunity to show love, to show grace, and to open a doorway to a better relationship?

Now, I strongly recommend that you do not stay if you are being abused. Be aware there may be possibility for personal growth growth if you figure out how it simply irritates you, annoys you, or frustrates you. You may leave your seat blessed beyond your imagination. Thank you Abba Hierax!

So, the second idea. Beloved, if you are hungry, eat. Beloved, if you are thirsty, drink. Sitting at the table is an opportunity to find sustenance for your body and soul. You may not like everything, but that is okay. There may be something at the table that will do more than sustain you. You may leave the table inspired to eat more of something strange. What if you do like that weird looking Brussel sprout dish? What if that one taste opens a door to a lifetime of new experiences? If you are hungry, eat.

Now, let’s be clear. Few of the Abbas would say to eat or drink to excess. Many of the Abbas and Ammas were clear that a person should engage in intentional moderation. So, if you are hungry, eat. When you have had enough, you may no longer be hungry. When thirsty, a glass of water may quench that thirst. If you eat when you are hungry and drink when you are thirst, you may leave your seat blessed beyond your imagination. Thank you Abba Hierax!

Finally, beloved, let us take this final word from Abba Hierax seriously. Beloved, do not speak evil of anyone. I saved the quote from the Epistle of Barnabas for this point in the post. The epistle says: (pg. 159)

“The principles of the Lord are three in number. Faith begins and ends with Hope, hope of life; judgement begins and ends with Holiness; and the works of holiness are evidenced by Love, and the joy and gladness it brings.”

If we are a people of faith, this epistle would recommend that our faith requires us to be a people of hope. We hope for life. When we speak evil of others, that never brings life into the equation.

If we must speak out of a place of judgment, the epistle would also ask questions of us. Do our actions begin in a place of holiness? Do our actions lead to a place of holiness? Remember, in this model holiness are evidenced by love, joy, and gladness. If love, joy, and gladness are not present when there is a temptation to be judgmental, then we should stop ourselves. If love, joy, and gladness are not the ultimate result of our actions, then we should stop ourselves.

Speaking out of a place of evil never does us well. Matthew 12 records an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where he was accused of acting out of an evil place. Jesus was charged with casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul. Jesus pointed out that this is madness. Jesus could not have acted out of an evil place to conquer evil—such actions would not stand the test of time.

If we are to be like Jesus, we should never meet evil with evil. We should never speak evil of anyone. As it says in 1 John 2:6, “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” If speaking an evil word about another person is something you think would be unimaginable for Jesus, then you should seek to never speak such words. Thank you for the reminder and invitation back into truth and faithfulness to both Abba Hierax and to the author(s) of the Epistle to Barnabas.

In conclusion, I hope this little journey into obscurity encourages you this Thanksgiving. It is doubtful any of these authors would have understood at first glance our celebration of Thanksgiving. Still, one last aside. Abba Anthony once entered conversation with a hunter where the hunter became afraid that drawing his bow too many times would damage it. I’m sure the same thing is true of basting your turkey. Keep that oven door closed!

 

I made a diagram! Little victories are still victories!

“Supper Table” Questions

Today I began reading a new book I have been anticipating. I picked up a kindle version of “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne” by Dr. Wilda Gafney. I have to admit that I am excited by the voice Dr. Gafney uses in her writing. It will be no surprise to most that I immediately caught on to her conversation around the kitchen table in her home. I love this quote: (Gafney, p. 2)

“All are welcome at this table, and as a sign of that welcome I offer not only dishes I like; I try to meet the dietary needs of my guests—which is not the same as cooking exactly what they want exactly the way they want. I am no short-order cook…”

Dr. Gafney proposes to use the narrative of the supper table as a structure for her book. Even reading through the introduction, it makes sense. Her conversation intends to: (Gafney, p. 7)

“[affirm] the interpretive practices of black women as normative and as holding didactic value for other readers, womanist interpretation makes room at the table of discourse for the perspectives of the least privileged among the community and the honored guest of any background: the child who is invited into ‘adult’ conversation around the table with ‘Baby, what do you think?’ and the extra place at the table for whoever may come by.”

The concept of the extra place at the table excites me. As an introverted person, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with people I respect and listen to their conversations. I probably spoke too much in seminary. A few years out with a few years of pastoral experience, I wish I had spent more time listening, especially to the strange voices I did not understand.

I am enjoying this book. I feel as if there is plenty at the table. Let me give an example of how Dr. Gafney asks some amazing questions. I plan to chew the ideas over for a while and will hopefully encourage you to pull up a chair at the table.

Here‘s my personal example of how this book inspires questions. It is a few weeks before Advent. We are facing the same story that is retold time and time again. I could easily polish an old sermon, but who likes reheated leftovers in a season of feasting.

Instead, what if I were to look at some principles Dr. Gafney presents (p. 8) and ask myself hard questions? Have I given voice to Elizabeth in the past? Have I ever deeply pondered her place in the story? Is there room for a woman’s story in this season focused around the coming of Christ? Have I made room for that story? Have I checked to see if that story honors the African roots of the text?

These questions are powerful. I admit these questions are convicting. If I look at Dr. Gafney’s four womanist principles, the well draws deeper (p. 8). Do my words as a European male legitimize other voices including the biblical interpretation of black women? Does my ministry allow for the inherent value of each person in the text and in the community interpreting the text? Do I allow conversation with the text so that there is room for conversation outside of my personal cultural sphere? If we don’t make that room, can we rightfully expect diversity in our churches? Dr. Gafney does not ask this outright, but If we do not make that healthy room, should we hold ourselves accountable for that failure?

I believe these questions are especially important for me as a European male minister in a very homogeneous ministry setting. I am appointed to serve in a town surrounded with roads where someone from outside the hamlet will likely pass Confederate flags or road signs tagged with swastikas to reach the church. I serve in a town where you must travel by car to find any significant diversity in population. Who will ask these questions if I abstain?

Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by Dr. Gafney’s book. I do not want to engage in cultural misappropriation. I respect her research and words. I want to honor her work and enjoy her scholarship as someone who at least tries to share the table. To paraphrase Dr. Gafney, I could go back and keep doing things the way I always have. I do not want to keep doing the same thing! I want to learn and experience new things!

There are moments already in my reading where I feel like I might belong at the kids’ table. Although, I will honestly say I do not sense there is a kids’ table in Dr. Gafney’s home. Maybe that is an American custom of European descendants? I do not know. I know I am looking forward to spending time with this book and recommend it to other folks who are interested in broadening their horizons.

Side note: Dr. Gafney (noted in the acknowledgment which doesn’t have a page number on my kindle edition) notes that Dr. Mark Brummitt helped to coin the phrase “womanist midrash.” If it is the same Dr. Brummitt, he was one of my favorite seminary professors and at one point offered to be an emergency midwife if my wife went into labor the semester she was in his course while pregnant. If it is the same Mark Brummitt then it is a small world.

Today’s “Snowy Day” blogging vista! Those neon tetras really like the cover of Dr. Gafney’s book! If they keep this up, they’ll take my job…

Preparing for Advent

I am slowly entering the season of Advent. I know that Thanksgiving is still a week away. I am aware that the first Sunday of Advent is December 2nd this year. I know that today is not even halfway into November. I am still getting ready for the season.

This Advent I am planning on working through two devotionals from Upper Room Books. One devotional I am planning on working through is “Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent” by Pamela Hawkins. I am planning on spending time with Simply Wait in my personal devotions. Thoughts that are borne out of my time with that book will probably find a place on my blog.

Digital and Print Devotionals

I am also planning on working through “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer: A Simply Centered Advent” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner with both my family and the Adult Sunday School class. Effectively, it is a book with a lot of coloring and prayer involved. Most of the time I spend in this book will probably end up staying with me.

I share my plan with the world for a reason. I do not intend to brag. My intention is to prepare myself for the journey ahead. I also share my plan with the world hoping someone might begin to think about how they plan to spend their Advent season. If you’re blessed enough to have the resources to get a book, now may be the time to order a book, find a book, or even find a reading plan for the season.

I grew up hearing about the five P’s of planning: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Occasionally a sixth P would find her way in with the other five P’s if I was in a more informal setting (Boy Scout camping trips in the woods). As much as I do not believe in burying one’s thoughts too deeply into the future, there’s wisdom to the five P’s. If you need time to plan, this is a reminder to get ready!

Stay Awake! Snow is Coming!

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

Snow comes suddenly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space for the joy of “gōd-spellen”

“God of peace,
you strive to set within us
a Gospel joy.
It is there, very nearby,
ever renewed by the trusting way
you behold our lives.”

–Brother Roger of Taizé

For today’s blog I wanted to contemplate this prayer by Brother Roger. Brother Roger’s book of prayers entitled “Praying in Silence of Heart: One Hundred Prayers.” This small paperback collection sits on my office desk for when I cannot find inspiration. As a result, Brother Roger occasionally appears in my sermons, blogs, and contemplations.

My copy of Brother Roger’s book of prayers.

This prayer catches me off guard. What catches my attention is how Brother Roger describes God as active. God strives, places, renews, and beholds. We may find joy within us, but it is a gifted joy. We are recipients of a gift. The joy we receive finds renewal in God’s action. We are passive in this transaction. We receive the gospel joy as God makes space in our souls.

I find this description both theologically sound and realistically upsetting. Theologically, God is a giver of grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The Holy Spirit is described in Galatians 5 as bringing about fruit in the lives of the believers including joy. In that passage joy is counted as a powerful fruit of the Spirit. Joy exists alongside the heavyweights love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Joy is not something that just comes about in life. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and the Spirit is a gift of grace and love.

Joy is often confused and seen as a synonym of happiness. Traditionally, joy was once something deeper than happiness. Joy was a feast compared to the fast food of happiness. One could be happy for a day, but joy was something with depth and breadth beyond a moment. One of the most irritating memories I have of the holiday season was seeing a poster in a fast-food restaurant asking proclaiming “Joy to the [mass produced and frankly questionable sandwich].” Nearly a decade later, I am still mad at that restaurant for insulting joy. I believe joy should never be used to designate something coming with a side of fries.

Still, I find this realistically upsetting. Why? If this is theologically sound, why be upset? I am upset because I want to force joy into parts of my life. If my wife and I are arguing, I want to force joy into that place of conflict. If my kid is screeching in time with the beating of my pulse through my headache, I want to force joy into my skull alongside peace. If there is a meeting where anger abounds, I want to force joy into that place.

Instead, I must let God renew my joy. I must open my heart and be patient. I must allow the gospel joy to come into my life through God’s work. If I spoke Middle English before around 950 CE, perhaps it would be more clear. When gospel was tied to the phrase go[d]spell (gōd-spellen), it might have been more obvious. Sometimes we must let there be time for the words of the God spell to be spoken into our lives.

So, there’s a prescription offered by Brother Roger. We must let God work in us to find our joy renewed. May we all have the patience to let God renew the joy within us.

The Value of Scripture

So, yesterday I posted a reflection on a verse from Psalm 57. I posted the reflection as my day had been improved by the time I spent in that psalm. I had been nervous and found comfort in that verse.

I found that verse within my morning prayers. On most days of the week, I listen to both the Morning and Evening Prayers broadcast through the internet from The Trinity Mission. I pray along with that podcast on a regular basis because it is a way I can enter into my devotions without using a set of eyes that can often become dry, irritated, and frustrating. I enjoy the time I spend listening to the scriptures and often find those prayers to be a wonderful way to start my day and a wonderful source of comfort as I rock my infant daughter to sleep in the midst of a cloud of prayer.

I often wonder if I am not clear enough in my ministry on the incredible value of regular immersion within the scriptures. On Sunday morning we do not have time to dive deeply into the scriptures and I often wonder if people think I believe that spending time in a passage or two each week is enough. Sometimes I wonder if they think those two or three small passages are all I spend my time studying each week. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I spend a lot of time in the scriptures. I do not share every passage I study, every chapter I read, or every thoughtful verse that I ponder. Like an iceberg, only a certain bit of what I spend my time studying, pondering, praying, ruminating, and reading comes to the surface. I often wonder if the analogy of a milk-cow might be fitting. The scriptures inform my ministry like the grass of a field fuels the milk that comes from the udders. Both are chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, and digested before coming to fruition in something to offer others.

Some of you might ask “Why go through all of that effort?” Would it be easier to just read a commentary or quote a blog? It would be easier, but the effort itself blessed others in my ministry and those who come across a person who is made better by his exposure to the wisdom of the scriptures. The scriptures and my time in them are a blessing.

Scripture is one of the primary means of revelation for the Living Word which we worship. The “Word of God” is often interpreted to be the scriptures, but the Bible is a revelation of THE WORD OF GOD revealed in Jesus Christ. It is incredibly important to spend time in the scriptures as they are one way that we have of coming to know the God of love. The more we expose ourselves prayerfully to the scriptures the more we can come to know God is ways that can affect our lives in powerfully wonderful ways. `

To be clear: The scripture is not God, but the scripture reveals God in the same way that the reflection in a mirror is not the thing itself, but a revelation of what it reflects. The scripture is an incredible tool and a wonderful means to know more about God, but the scripture is not the end goal of worship.

I found blessing and solace in Psalm 57 yesterday because I spend time in the scriptures regularly. Just as the power of the community of God grows through regular participation in the worship, service, and the rest of the life of the church, regular exposure to the scripture helps us to grow in faith, to find solace in times of need, and encouragement in times of blessing.

I recommend regularly engaging in Bible study, both together with others in community and in the lives of individuals as a wonderful and powerful means of grace! Times of study can be wonderful means to grow both personally and communally.

Moving past the Milk

Today I was pondering the scriptures. One of my regular habits is to spend my Monday afternoon going through various books and passages seeking a word for myself, for a congregation member, or for the community. I was reading through a passage from Hebrews 6 and found myself caught up in verses 1-3. Hebrews 6:1-3 says the following in the New Revised Standard Version:

“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.”

Now, I found this passage was catching my eye, so I stopped to ask why it caught my attention. I slowed down and checked context. Hebrews 6:7-8 states:

“Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.”

Going further on in the chapter, Hebrews 6 states in verses 10-13:

“For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

So, looking forward through the sixth chapter, we see a strong correlation between the warning (do not stay put), with a checking on the results (what is growing in your field), and a reassurance that God will not overlook the work and love of the audience, which is tied to the full assurance of hope.

This ties together with what follows this chapter as a conversation of Melchizedek, the priestly function, and the completeness of the work of our High Priest Jesus Christ. Indeed, the conversation continues until a “therefore” appears in chapter 10. In chapter 10, Hebrews is translated as saying: (10:19-25)

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

So, we have a call to move beyond the basics, a call to good works and love, and ultimately a “therefore” that encourages us to live life assured of faith with clean hearts. We are called not only to have hope, but to hold fast to our hope in the belief that Christ is faithful. From that place of faithfulness and confidence, we are called to ponder how we might provoke each other on toward further good deeds and love. This call to community, good deeds, and love is where we are called to go from the basics listed in Hebrews 6:1-3.

This is challenging, because there are many times in life when it seems easier to focus upon these basic matters. As a United Methodist minister, I am questioned regularly about how many people I get to confess their faith, join my church, and be baptized. There are entire ministries whose only goal seems to be leading others to this place of basic belief (in the eyes of Hebrews), and then to move on to the next person. “Once saved, always saved“ is a motto of some of those who believe this is the only call of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews challenges this belief in my sight. The writer says (immediately preceding the call to move forward in 6:1-3) of those who he is addressing (in chapter 5:11-14):

“About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”

What we need to move beyond… (Image: Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons))

These basic concepts that the authors of Hebrews is addressing (matters which have concerned the church for millennia and have been the cause of war, debate, and suffering) are listed as the simple matters which should be understood by those who have not progressed beyond the basics. The writer of Hebrews even seems to imply that those who do not progress beyond a focus on such things have a bit of “dullness” around them.

All of this begs the question. Where is God calling the church? Certainly we do not abandon the foundation of what we believe, but where is God calling us? Is it to endlessly repeat the basic foundational principles or to move on toward something greater? Where do those building blocks lead us? Do our ministries spur us on toward good works and love? If they spur us on toward hate or self-service, is it time to consider retooling or scraping those ministries altogether?

There are many things to ponder and I do not offer answers, but the question should be asked? Are we moving beyond the milk? If so, where are we headed?

Simple Response

So, I have been quiet on social media and on my blog lately. There are many reasons for that silence, but one of the largest has been a sense of being overwhelmed by the sorrow of living in the world.

I am raising three daughters and I am married to a woman who has not always had the best experience with the decidedly patriarchal society in which we live. It is not my story to tell, but she has received comments about having children which occasionally make them seem like they are burdens instead of blessings. I have received those comments as well. It can be heartbreaking to have someone categorize a child as a burden.

I have often wondered if people would make the same comments to my wife and I if I had three sons instead of three daughters. I love my daughters, even when they are difficult. I do not live in an age when I have to start saving up for a dowry to pay for someone to take them in. I live in an age where they will be a blessing to anyone who is lucky enough to allow them the honor of their partnership.

Still, it is a weary process to be a father in a culture which is so patriarchal. Do I benefit from the patriarchy? Yes, but I want my kids to have a bright future where they are treated with equity and fraternity (Aside: I do not mean fraternity as in “a group of men with a common purpose,” but “the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.” Unfortunately, the original word comes from Latin and Latin has no wonderful gender-neutral possibility and sorority never really gained the same meaning in popular understanding (i.e., French Motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity!”)… Language fails me in this case, as “siblinghood” does not have the same meaning either). I want that world for all of our children.

One quote that has been circling through several parts of my thoughts comes from the 1984 edition of “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” by Benedicta Ward. In particular, I have this saying from the collection surrounding Abba Anthony hanging in my shower. The section goes:

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’

 

The quote sticks out to me on deep levels.

I am not righteous enough to take on this battle through my own goodness. I have made mistakes, I have benefited in ways I have yet to recognize, I will likely struggle to deny those benefits when I see them, and I am frankly not Jesus Christ. The world has a Savior and there is no need to pretend that it needs me to be another. My trust does not belong in my own holiness or in my own strength.

I also live in a place where I cannot constantly dwell on the past. While there is room for reconciliation, for recompense, and for restoration, to live only in the past has the potential to swallow me up in the knowledge of my own weakness, my own frailties, and my own brokenness. There is a difference between being mindful and living in worry.

In addition, living in the past sometimes cripples my ability to be an asset to the present and the future. If one lives in the past, it is difficult to be present in the now. There needs to be a balance between understanding the ramifications of the past on the present, mourning the injustice of the past, accepting our own limitations, and avoiding obsessive worry about the past.

Finally, it is good to control both tongue and stomach. If the tongue is where the words of my soul enter into the world, it is a good analogy for all I do to affect the world. In controlling my lips, I gain the self-control to control my fists, my feet, and even my thoughts.

If the stomach is the place I take things into in order to find life (or death), then the call to control my stomach is the call to mind my appetites in all senses. Guard your teeth, guard your ears, guard your eyes, and guard your soul.

So, how do I react to all of this stuff going on in the world? I remember it is my job to be a part of the long arc of history towards justice. I remember what has gone by, honor it, but do not let it cripple my present advocacy for justice or my efforts to seek a more just future for our world. I control what comes out of me and seek to fill myself with what is good in holy moderation.

In the meantime, keep the faith friends.

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Patriarchy is pleasant for me, but this one, like all awesome children of God, deserves better than to be looked down on her whole life because of her gender.

Let us Ramble: Tradition, Worldview, and Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We all need guidance now and again!

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”
Date: June 24, 2018
Scripture: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note: This is the manuscript that I am preaching on today. There’s always space for unexpected leadings of the Spirit. In other words, I often wander off script.

Once upon a time, there were three bored kids on summer vacation. They look all around and all they could find to play with was a single quarter. One of the kids started flipping the quarter.

“You know,” she said, “every time I flip this coin it lands on heads.” She flipped the coin three times and it landed on heads all three times. The second kid asked for the quarter, looked at it, and said “I bet every time I flip it, it will land on tails.” The coin was flipped three times and, wouldn’t you know it, it landed on tails all three times.

The third kid asked for the coin. He looked at it long and hard. He weighed it in he hand, flipped it around in his hand a bit, and made up his mind. “You know, “ the third child said, “it might seem funny, but I think I just made twenty-five cents,” put the coin in his pocket and walked off. Somewhere, their parents’ hair grew a little grayer as the arguing began.

Of course, that story is meant as a joke, but I tell it for a very serious reason. Three kids each looked at the same coin. Two of the kids saw that there were only two possibilities. They were bored, and the coin would land on heads or tails every time. The coin was a distraction on a boring day. The third child saw the coin and saw twenty-five cents. The way they viewed the coin changed the way they acted with the coin. Their outlook affected the way they acted.

As funny as our story was meant to be, it gives us a way into a very common fact of life. The way we interact with the world is affected by the way that we see it. One bad experience with a dog can make you less than thrilled with the idea of meeting a new dog. The words your parents used in your youth to describe your neighbors can affect the way you see them and their children today. We are affected by our worldview and our worldview has an effect on how we read scriptures.

Let me ask a simple question every Christian should ask now and again. How does your outlook on life affect the way you read the scriptures? How does the way you read scripture affect the way you look at life? The assumption of church is often that the scriptures affect the way we live, but do we ever stop to look at how our lives affect the way we read those scriptures?

Let’s take today’s reading as example. Most of us who are a certain age or older have an image of this story, the story of David and Goliath. The image was put in place when we were young by stories in Sunday school and church camp. For me, the image I grew up with was a giant man who was just covered in muscles. The Israelites were afraid of Goliath because Goliath was tremendous. In honesty, David did not stand a chance against the Goliath in my mind’s eye. Goliath was big, strong, and powerful. David was just the youngest child of a large family and didn’t stand a chance. David’s place was where he was as the story begins. David was sent to deliver cheese, because how much trouble can a small kid get into with cheese?

The image I took away from the story was one of David overcoming tremendous odds. What’s strange is that the scriptures themselves do not really line up with that image. At least, they don’t line up when you pay close attention to the science behind the story.

The tallest man alive, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is Sultan Kösen (K-ay-sen). He was, when measured in 2011, eight foot, 2.8 inches tall. The man named Goliath described in our scriptures had nearly a foot and a half on Mr. Kösen. He was really, really tall. Now what makes that interesting, is that every inch of Goliath has weight. There are several formulas used to calculate the proper weight of an individual by height, but assuming that Goliath was 25, Goliath should have weighed:

If based on the Robinson formula (1983), the ideal weight is 353.4 lbs
If based on the Miller formula (1983), the ideal weight is 301.1 lbs
If based on the Devine formula (1974), the ideal weight is 399.3 lbs
If based on the Hamwi formula (1964), the ideal weight is 445.1 lbs
All of this means, based on one healthy BMI recommendation, his recommended weight is 360.2 lbs – 486.8 lbs.

Think about that for a moment. Assuming the lowest ideal body weight, the body weight which would have the most muscle with the least fat, Goliath would have weighed more than 300 pounds, been carrying over 150 pounds of armor, had likely more than 20 pounds of weaponry with just his spear, and that isn’t counting other clothes, his leg-guards, his helmet, his javelin, or even his shield, provided his shield-bearer wasn’t carrying it, which seems likely as a shield would have really helped when David started launching stones.

What’s more interesting is when we apply another formula from modern science to the breastplate which Goliath wears. A study by the American Association of Physics Teachers suggested a surprising conclusion when studying backpacking individuals who carry large backpacks over a period of time. Let’s be clear, the weight would be carried on the back instead of the front in a backpacking situation, but the challenge of Goliath did take place over several days.

According to the article in “The Physics Teacher” entitled “Backpack Weight and the Scaling of the Human Frame” by Michael O’Shea, there’s a revelation about a common misconception. The misconception is this: one imagines that a larger person can carry more weight comfortably than a smaller individual. When a person at 220 pounds looks at a healthy individual whose Body Mass Index (their BMI) is not overweight, one would expect that they could carry more than a healthy individual with the same BMI who weighed only 132 pounds.

Unfortunately, the science of our assumptions do not add up. O’Shea studied people on intensive hiking trips for over twenty years and found that the 132 pound students on his trips tended to have an easier time carrying the weight than the healthy larger individuals who went into the woods. When he did the science, which I will not repeat here, he found that the weight of the individuals did not correlate with the amount they could carry. A person with significantly more musculature at 220 pounds than a person who weighed only 132 pounds struggled significantly with the same weight in their backpack.

You might ask how that could be. They have another 88 pounds which is composed primarily of muscle. How could they struggle to carry the same weight backpack as someone nearly two-thirds their size? The study showed that the extra musculature carried by the more heavily muscled individual decreased the amount they could comfortably carry and manage because the weight of their very muscles acted against them.

What does this have to do with Goliath? Goliath has people who can carry his armor for him, right? Consider the musculature weight needed to walk around with all of the equipment we’ve seen described. Think about how tall Goliath is described as being in the story. There are two possibilities here. Either Goliath carries all that weight because Goliath is an incredibly tall and incredibly lanky individual who uses his strength to carry all of that weight or Goliath is standing there taunting David because he likely has so little strength left that all he has left in his arsenal are verbal barbs.

When you look at the science behind Goliath, it is actually a strange story to have in our scripture. If you look at it in the eyes of a literalist, someone who believes the Bible is true word for word, you have a real problem. Goliath had to be not only freakishly tall but also freakishly strong. Goliath was so large, perhaps the word giant is the only way to describe a person who could carry that much weight with that height and still appear to be anything but a mess.

What if we looked at it differently though… What if the Bible is trying to make a point to us? Yes, Goliath is 9 and ¾ feet tall. Yes, he likely is carrying around enough weight that the ground, if not flattened by great use, would have likely sunk into the ground as he walked. Yes, Goliath is described in intimidating terms.

It also should be said that this gigantic man of inhuman proportions is dead at the end of the story. I hate to put it so bluntly, but the small shepherd boy kills Goliath. The scripture reading stops, but David walks up Goliath and cuts his head off with his own sword, presumably with Goliath’s shield-bearer just standing there slack-jawed. Goliath meets a brutal end at the hands of a young shepherd.

File:Guillaime Courtois - David and Goliath - Google Art Project.jpg

“David and Goliath” by Guillaume Courtois

So, what kind of coin is this? Is this a story out of the history of this man named David? Are we supposed to look at this image and say “Wow. I wish God were as present in my life as he was for David.” Are we supposed to look on a story like this with jealousy? Are we possibly willing to see ourselves as one of the Israelites who goes on after David to conquer the Philistines after Goliath falls? Are we seeing this story as an invitation to wait for our opportunity when our David shows up? Do we cry out to God for a hero as the Philistines stand there shouting out?

Such a response might be understandable. Look at the world we live in. There are children separated from parents within the borders of our own nation. Those kids are held by our own government. We sometimes think that it is not our problem, but those pesky scriptures keep popping up. Think of the words of Deuteronomy 10:16-21:

“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall fear the Lord your God; God alone you shall worship; to God you shall hold fast, and by God’s name you shall swear. God is your praise; Jehovah is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.”

We hear words like these and the connections are hard to miss. We might not have been in Egypt, but many of our ancestors only left Europe because life in those places was challenging. Who would have jumped on a boat and risk the ocean except to seek opportunity or freedom in a new land? How many of them kissed the ground when they got off the boat? There are some in this place who have the blood of the original Americans within their veins and their ancestors survived hardship, challenge, and difficulty in the wilds of history even before Europeans came to this land. Europeans did not exactly make it easier upon arrival. Those of us who are in this room have been given opportunity and blessing and it can be easy to want to hold onto those blessings tightly, but the words of scripture… God calls for circumcised hearts, even as our minds scream out that there’s only enough for us. Even if our hearts are not stubborn, our own self-interest is often very stubborn.

Yet, scripture is clear. God is not partial. God takes no bribe. God executes justice for the helpless and for strangers. The Israelites were called to remember that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt and a good memory would remind them of Abram coming with his wife out of Ur to begin the story of the people. They were called to remember God’s blessing because God blessed them in their need. Has God gone deaf? Has God gone blind? God is our God. Doesn’t that mean we should consider what the impartial God would want?

Yet, sometimes we act like those Israelites. We stand there and watch. If we wait long enough, David will come. If we wait long enough, there’ll be another revelation. If we wait long enough, we can distract ourselves. In college I was forced to read a book on the nature of popular culture. It was called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Maybe a fitting sequel could have been “Waiting Around with Ourselves to Death.” Yes, we believe God will bring justice for those strangers in our land. Yes, God will hear the cry of children. Yes, God will act. We just seem to be waiting for David to show up.

What if the whole point of stories like David and Goliath is for us to realize that Goliath isn’t what he seems? Yes, a strong man carrying that big armor at that height would be intimidating. Yet, could he really do anything to the people if they’d just gotten up and worked together? Who cares if he’s over nine feet tall if there are “two or three of you” gathered together? Who cares how much he can carry if he isn’t even wise enough to put the spear down and grab his shield?

What if we’re not supposed to wait for David? What if we’re David? What if you are David? You! Yes, you! Last week in this place, someone prayed for those kids. I won’t mention them by name, but I will say there were a lot of amens in the room. What if everyone who said “Amen” did something beyond just say “Amen?”

What if we insisted that those kids are cared for, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we know of how potentially hazardous it is to annoy a God who hears the stranger and cares about their well-being?

What if we didn’t wait for November, but we started pressing for change in the way our representatives act now. What if we wrote our representatives, shared our concerns, share that we are not interested in their political party, but insist that they work for change now? What if we showed up at the next event they hold in town and ask what they’re doing right now to help? What if we didn’t see such a huge problem and say “Where’s David?” What if we stopped and said “I am a child of God and this changes today!”

Do you know something, that story about the three coins at the beginning was meant to be humorous, but it also had several purposes. Did you laugh at that third child’s actions? Did you think he was being a bit unfair? If I was his parent, he wouldn’t keep that coin.

Someone is taking advantage of these kids. Someone has taken their coins. Whether these children are here seeking asylum, freedom, or are the children of parents who have broken the law, they are suffering. Heaven knows what’s happening to the elderly and the infirm who cross the borders out of fear or perceived necessity. It should cause us to act, for we were once a people who were strangers in Egypt, strangers on wilderness coasts, and faced with strange people from a far off land. We have been in their shoes and we should remember how God was present for us.

 

Let us Ramble: Trees

Today’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary contain a powerful teaching of Jesus. Jesus teaches about the fruit of each tree revealing the nature of the tree. Jesus teaches that a good tree does not produce bad fruit and a bad tree does not produce good fruit. I’m fairly certain Jesus isn’t talking a tree having a bad year due to inclement weather. In general, a person knows the reality of a tree by what it produces. If a tree consistently produces bad things, the chances of it producing something good is pretty poor. If a tree consistently produces good things, the chances are a bad harvest is a fluke rather than the rule.

Our church has a parishioner who owns an apple tree that produces the weirdest apples. The tree predates the parishioner, so when I visited at the home, I found myself confronted by weird apples. Interestingly enough, the parishioner took it to the local Cooperative Extension office and the apples are unidentifiable. They’re apples. They’re tasty. That’s about all we know about those apples besides one basic fact. Those apples are good apples!

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Think about that reality for a moment. There is no known ancestry of these weird apples. There are no known relatives. For all we know, the tree is unique. We do know the tree produces good fruit, so it is a good tree. Jesus’ teaching reveals something about the tree.

What does the fruit you produce say about you as a person? Are there things in your life that might need Jesus’ healing touch? Have you ever stopped to think about where your path is leading?

If you are in need of change, God hears prayer. God is able to work in us even though some of us are really stubborn. To begin that journey of change, pray to God for help. If you’re out of practice, begin by speaking to God as if you were talking on a phone. If you’re not comfortable with that paradigm, write God a private letter or email. When you’re done, sit with God for a while with an open heart.

When you are ready to go, seek a church community that can support you. If you’re in the area of Maine, NY, I would be happy to journey alongside you for a while. If you’re out in the greater world, ask folks you know if there’s a church or pastor that they’d trust. Get several recommendations or go try one out for yourself. If need be, gather with a few friends who are like-minded and see where the journey goes.

Let us Ramble: Keeping Focus

I have not posted much lately on my blog. One of the reasons is that I have been traveling for denominational Conferences over the last few weeks. One of the things that I did not realize when I took this appointment was that these meetings would often fall back to back. Another reason is that I have been focusing on doing some more intensive sermon prep given the things going on in our culture.

Let’s try to explain this in parable form. The work of a minister is like that of a baker. Every week they are expected to bake food that will feed people. Some people need sweets and others need something hearty. Some folks need something to build conversation around (like a dippable biscotti) while others need something that will last them for a journey (like… hardtack?). Each week people will come in need of food. A wise baker pays attention to what people need and desire.

Recently, there’s been so much dissension and frustration filling the world that I have felt a need to focus on bringing forth something that will fuel people for the journey. Mix in a little bit of a call for justice, a bit of history, a touch of feminine spirituality, with a whole lot of the Good News… You can see what I have been trying to bring forth and you can see that it takes some focus, some knowledge, some study, and a whole lot of prayer.

Meanwhile, people are going about life while I prepare these sermons. Some people are burning the candle at both ends with a call for justice that is both timely and righteous. I want to encourage such fervor, but also remind people that the journey will be difficult. People more than likely will oppose them and their efforts, no matter how noble or heartfelt their intentions.

Ultimately, the people in the trenches decide how they will relate to other people and the opposition they might bring into their lives. The God that I serve has always laid on my heart a strong belief in free will, so I wanted to share a couple of words from a wise scholar in our recent church past.

Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a wise professor and leader within the African-American tradition. These days, Rev. Dr. Thurman is considered a respected and wise figure well beyond the bounds of that tradition. His words were often visionary and deep. He wrote the following in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited:” (pg. 28)

“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”

Now, Rev. Dr. Thurman wrote these words in 1976, so they’re not entirely in line with modern sensibilities on gender address, but they are still filled with wisdom. I love the simplicity of these words and I love the fact that I came about these words while looking for something completely different.

If someone knows how to throw off your temper or your equilibrium, then you are in a vulnerable place. I don’t know if I would say that you will always be kept under subjection or subjugation, but I do believe that it is almost impossible to act with freedom when you allow yourself to continually be dominated by the actions of others. If your spirit and soul are able to be pushed into a knee-jerk reaction as a result of a simple provocation, then your ability to exercise decision making is highly curtailed.

We live in days where there are folks who continually push buttons both in the world and in the church. I do not believe it is political in the slightest to point out that the sitting president of the nation in which I live (in June of 2018) makes a habit of making strong statements that provoke other people. If anything, he is a great example of someone who attempts regularly to coerce and cajole people to his point of view through throwing people off of their equilibrium.

Friends, many of us have been engaging in ministries that will require time, patience, and perseverance to bring to fruition. We do not have the time or luxury to become puppets to the attempts at subjection and subjugation by others who do not agree. I invite you to ponder Rev. Dr. Thurman’s words and to move forward with care.

Let us Preach: “Living into the Mystery”

Date: May 27, 2018
Text: Romans 8:12-17
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note for those reading this online: Although I am certain that the quotes this morning can be found in the complete works of John Wesley, I relied heavily on “The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry: A Documentary History” by Paul Chilcote (Cascade Books, 2017). Unlike most of my digital books, my Kindle version did not have easy access to page numbers to reference.

To begin this message, I would like to share a quote from John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and chiefly considered the primary founder of Methodism. He wrote these words on February 25, 1774 in a letter.

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

I would like to teach on our tradition as a people this Sunday morning. We are gathered here on Trinity Sunday. Today is a Sunday where we celebrate that God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We gather to celebrate that God is our divine Parent, our Brother, and our Advocate. We gather in the belief that God is in our midst in a very Trinitarian sense. God exists in a Trinity—three in one. God is the One who brought all things into being. God is incarnated in the person of Christ, our Redeemer. God is also our Advocate and our Counselor. God is present in our lives in the Holy Spirit.

God’s ongoing role in our lives through the Holy Spirit has had a direct impact on the history and nature of Christianity. God’s work in and through the church has taken on surprising and strange forms over the nearly twenty centuries we have been a growing and evolving church. God calls, God invites, and God has prodded us to live in strange ways.

Consider the words of Paul to the Roman church which we have shared this morning. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Again, Paul writes: “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

We are a church who claims to be joint heirs with Christ. We claim that God’s Spirit witnesses to our place in God’s family as heirs. As we gather on this Sunday when we claim the Trinitarian nature of God, we are reasserting a big claim—a monumentally large claim. Some would say that it is insane to claim that the God of the universe would draw us in, bring us into the family, and adopt us into an inheritance far beyond what we deserve.

We need to be clear on what Paul is saying before we understand how it affects our tradition. What Paul describes is not our being adopted into the family of God reluctantly. What Paul is saying is that we are given a place in the family that becomes through God’s own work both imperishable and unbreakable. What Paul is saying is that we have a place in the inheritance that will not be removed. What Paul is saying is that we have become inextricably connected with the divine God who is our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. When we say that we are the children of God, we are not using empty words. We are the children of God for God has made us a part of the family.

In our history, our legacy, and our tradition, this adoption changes the way that we approach the world. Did you ever stop to think about how this belief affects worship? In a few minutes we will have time for prayer and we will come before God. Some of us will ask for healing. Others of us will give thanks for something good. Some of us will ask God to help us be better spouses or parents. We will all come before God and some of us will make big requests. The boldness to come before God ties into this legacy of adoption.

Think about it for a moment. If you were hungry and without food, you might walk into a restaurant and ask for something to eat even though you could not pay. Would you be surprised if you were turned down? No. The restaurant employee or owner is not “running a charity!” They have a business to run! Some of us might ask anyway, but there’s an understanding that we might be lucky to have a cold sandwich that’s going stale.

Think about the reality of what we do in worship. We come before God and we ask the big things. We ask for God to be present in the lives of the suffering with a certain level of expectation. Will God say yes? Maybe. I do not know if this is the moment God says “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet.” What I do know is this: A lot of us will make a big ask. Where do we get off asking God for help with employment, health, relationships, or a thousand and one things a lot bigger than a stale cold sandwich? Where do we get the audacity to make these requests? Where do we get the nerve?

I think we understand at a subconscious level that Paul is right. We have been invited into the family. I might not have enough to feed a thousand strangers if they show up at my house on a Sunday afternoon, but I can tell you that I will feed my children. My children are family and I do my best to always provide for my family. Worship is one of those places where our understanding takes on solidity. We ask because we are a part of the family. We pray because we believe God will listen. We speak to God because we believe that God will listen longer than we do when we hear a robo-caller ring us on the phone. We speak because we believe that God intrinsically hears us.

The belief that God has brought us into the family has a deeper impact than simply the way we go about Sunday worship. When Paul writes about having a spirit that is free of slavery and fear, we are invited to consider life in a different way. We are called to look at ourselves as heirs of God. Sometimes that means taking bold and radical steps including ignoring what the world tells us we should say, do, or be in the life. Sometimes listening to that Spirit means standing against what the church says we should say, do, or be in this life. Sometimes, we are called in our adoption to be bold, brave, and beautiful.

In anticipation of the sermon this morning, I collected a series of quotes from the letters of John Wesley, the chief founder of Methodism. I want to share them with you and then, after you have heard them all, I will tell you who received these words. For reference, these quotes were written in 1773, 1774, and 1788. The most recent of these quotes was written 32 years before either the Methodists or Congregationalists began meeting in the hamlet of Maine. The first two predate the Declaration of Independence.

“I fear you are too idle. This will certainly bring condemnation. Up and be doing! Do not loiter. See that your talent rust not: rather let it gain ten more; and it will, if you use it.” (John Wesley to Eliza Bennis in April 1, 1773)

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

“Whoever praises or dispraises, it is your part to go steadily on, speaking the truth in love.” (John Wesley to Sarah Mallet on August 2, 1788)

Who could the stiff, staid, often remarkably traditional John Wesley have been writing to in such a strange time? Could it be to the preachers in the Americas? John Wesley had been a preacher in Georgia and had opinions on the Americas, but that wasn’t the case. Was it to the preachers in another part of the British Isles? Well, some of the letters Wesley wrote were to preachers in Ireland, but that is not what makes these quotes exceptional.

The first quote, on not being idle but using one’s talents, along with the firm belief that God would grow those talents, was to Mrs. Eliza Bennis, a female preacher in Ireland who was sharing the Good News before the United States had declared independence. The second quote written by Wesley encouraging the listener to ignore anger and to speak boldly was to Mrs. Martha Chapman. The final exhortation to keep preaching steadily the truth in love was written to Sarah Mallet in 1788, which was a good thing, especially as the Manchester Conference of the Methodist Connexion freely stated the following a year before in 1787:

“We give the right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet and have no objection to her being a preacher in our Connexion so long as she preaches the Methodist doctrines and attends to our discipline.”

Let me be entirely clear. the Methodist Episcopal Church in the new world did not ordain women as equals into the ministry until 1956. The Evangelical United Brethren did not give clergy rights until 1889 when it ordained Ella Niswonger. The Methodist Protestant Church ordained Anna Howard Shaw in 1880. Sarah Mallet was welcomed as a preacher in Great Britain over a century before a woman would be welcomed into any of the branches of what would become the United Methodist Church. (source)

All of this took place before Antoinette Brown was ordained in South Butler, NY, as the first female minister in what would become the UCC in 1853. Now, we need to be clear. The Methodists in Great Britain were not ordaining folks as they existed within the Church of England and folks like Antoinette Brown were exceptional in the fact that she was fully ordained and fully educated as a graduate of Oberlin College. To a certain extent, comparing ordained ministry to the ministry of a circuit rider in Great Britain is like comparing apples and oranges, but in both cases it is absolutely clear. The growth of the call of the Spirit resulted in spiritual fruit-growing in the lives of women who were often dismissed and ignored by their society. These women responded to a higher calling that what their society would claim as their place and role.

Ponder what I am saying to you this morning. When God calls us into adoption, it is not a call to simply believe that we are simply okay with the Divine. We are called with boldness into a relationship with God which changes our relationship with the world. The Methodists were calling women preachers into ministry 133 years before the 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote in the United States and 173 years before the Civil Rights movement worked to help all women in this nation have the right to freely vote. This bold, brave, and beautiful move was the direct result of God at work not only in the lives of those women preachers, but in the preachers, crowds, and advocates who supported their ministry.

The bravery which called women of the late 1700s out of the place where their society would have shackled them is a part of our legacy, our tradition, and our character. To look at the world around us and say “They do not want us to be who we are called to be” is not in our nature, our character, or our being. To be blown about by the winds of this world is not who we are meant to be in this life. We are called to adoption, to freedom, and to relationship with God.

When we ponder our own lives, our future, our dreams, and our hopes it is important to remember that we are called to be an adopted people. We are called to look beyond the words of our birth world into the world that is still being created and restored both in and around us. We are called to become the children of God and that calling affects who we are and how we live our lives. Let us pray…

Let Us Ramble: On Hymnody

This past Sunday in church every parishioner was handed two poker chips. Do not fret, my friends—we are not running a gambling ring in the Fellowship Hall. Each parishioner was given a white chip and a red or blue chip for a straw poll. Six jars were set out in the Fellowship Hall and people were invited to place their chips in six jars. The jars were labeled: Tradition, Social Justice, Daily Practices, Historical Context, Personal Practices, and Theology.

The white chips were statements that they were really interested in a subject and would like to hear more about the subject in the months to come. The red and blue chips meant that a person would like to hear more, but not as much as the jar in which they put their white chips.

The poll ended up as follows:

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What was fascinating about the poll was that there were a ton of “white chip” requests for information on tradition. In the case of this poll tradition was described as: “Where do the things we do as a Christian people come from? What stories rest behind things like hymns, traditional prayers, or even what in other traditions we might call the ‘smells and bells’ of worship?”

So, I am starting to look deeper into things like the nature of the music we sing. A few years back I picked up a book by Richard Mouw and Mark Noll entitled “Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History & Theology” (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004). Sadly, I have not taken the time to read it through. I picked up the book, found it fascinating, started to read it, and became distracted by work matters. I lost track of my progress in the book during the reappointment which was the distracting event, but as there is sincere interest in how our hymns came to influence our worship, I have finally begun to take the necessary time required to properly digest the book.

In the first chapter, which is entitled “The Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism,” Mark Noll begins by sharing the contents of a letter from 1731 which was written by Philip Doddridge to Isaac Watts. Writing on the events of a midweek service, Doddridge shared how tears were shed over a hymn written by Watts entitled “Give Me the Wings of Faith to Rise.” According to “Wonderful Words of Life,” Doddridge wrote “I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it.”

According to Noll, the key to the power of hymns was that “Ordinary believers had begun to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song” (p. 4). I find this interesting because of a number of characteristics and generalizations that I have heard and sometimes agreed with about hymns.

First, hymns are theology heavy. Theology, if you go deep enough into the etymology, is “an account or discussion of the divine.” Coming forward through time, theology ties itself into concepts like a philosophical study of the divine or the scientific study of how the divine interacts with humanity, but all ties back to a basic concept. Theology is essentially an account (or a collection of differing accounts) of how the divine relates to humanity.

When I say that hymns are theologically heavy, they speak a lot about concepts of the relationship between humanity and the divine. Let’s look at the hymn by Isaac Watts which we have already mentioned. One verse of “Give me the Wings of Faith to Rise” states: “We ask them whence their victory came: they, with united breath, ascribe their conquest to the Lamb, their triumph to his death.”

In this verse we see references to the conquest of the Lamb of God, imagery used heavily in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 5 reveals the Lamb of God and is filled with praise for God. Revelation 5:9-10 states: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered nad by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Watts’ verse ties heavily into the concepts of Revelation and especially into concepts like those in these verses of scripture.

These concepts are deep concepts tied into a deep reading of scripture. The lamb of God is referenced many times in scripture and by tying in the conception of Jesus as the lamb of God, the hymn ties into that legacy and modality of scripture. The richness of theology in just a few lines shows in many way exactly how deep hymns can be in their expression of conceptions of how God relates to humanity.

Second, hymns move quickly over concepts which are very rich. Let me connect this idea with a concept in enjoying food, which I know will be a huge surprise to people who know me or this blog. I recently had the pleasure of sharing my first piece of Limburger cheese with my wife. Limburger has a bad reputation. I found the cheese to be aromatic, if not outright pungent. The taste was complex and required a slow enjoyment to get all of the flavors and notes out of the cheese. Enjoying the Limburger took time, slowness, and the desire to enjoy something I have heard disparaged most of my life.

In my opinion, it would be nearly criminal to take a big piece of Limburger, shove it in your mouth, and swallow it down with a big gulp of something to mask the flavor. If you were to do that, I would hope that the food police would come and give you a citation for doing something in poor taste… Why, yes, that was a dry and terrible pun.

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I will happily accept free samples of other Limburger brands… I’m shameless when it comes to tasty cheese!

Hymns are full of flavor like a fine cheese. They have richness and depth which cannot be rushed. It is hard to miss the depth of a praise chorus where a single line might be repeated forty times in a single worship service, but if you blink you might miss some of the depth found in one of the hymns.

This depth makes sense when you consider the context of a lot of these hymns. Families might own a Bible if they were fortunate, but the hymns they might sing came out of a hymnal which was often printed and shared with folks on a regular basis. In an age before radio and television, they might sing hymns after dinner, sing hymns at the midweek prayer service, and sing hymns on Sunday. While our hymnals live in the church and are often opened only on Sunday morning, the hymnals of the time which Mark Noll writes about were hymnals that were used often. Even if folks did not own a hymnal or could not read it, through regular repetition the deep theology would be shared and taught in deep rooted ways. Even the least literate church members would learn their faith through slow enjoyment of something which was sung regularly and deeply.

Third, hymns were methods of education. We’ve already touched on the how these hymns taught deep concepts. What I am trying to express here is that these hymns were intentionally designed as tools to educate folks about more than just theological ideas. Hymns were sung and tied into the Christian year in ways that mutually assisted teaching about the Christian year. Every spring the church would sing songs of Lenten concepts and then resurrection. Every winter the church would sing songs of Advent and Christmas. The concepts taught in the church tied into the concepts sung by church members. Together they would educate folks about the Christian year in a mutually beneficial way until it became second nature.

This is still true in a lot of traditional churches. Is it Christmas Eve if we don’t sing Silent Night? What does Silent Night tells us about God? What does “Silent Night” teach us about our relationship with God? Does singing Silent Night change the way we live around family members who may make us want to be less than silent and less than filled with heavenly peace? Is it Easter if we don’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? Can it be Palm Sunday without “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”?

What’s interesting in all of this is Mark Noll’s conception. Hymns took off in popularity because they gave voice to ordinary believers and helped them to express their beliefs through song. Strangely enough, one of the criticisms I hear most about hymns is that they are not accessible to ordinary people. Their language is often filled with strange terms, their pace is too fast, and they are sung to sheet music, which is often something only accessible to people who have had access to an education with music as an emphasis. In many ways, the original strength of hymns is now the challenge.

When the most popular praise songs can be heard on Christian radio twice an hour and we might sing the same hymns two or three times a year, hymns lose their ability to be the songs of the people. So, why do we stick with hymns? Perhaps it is stubbornness, but I tend to believe it is because there are those who still enjoy the depth, the legacy, and the history of hymns. Perhaps, with time, we will find ways to instill hymns back into the regular life of the church. Until then, perhaps they should be appreciated as what they remain—a connection to a vibrant and deep past.

An Honest Opinion

In honesty, I have spent a bit of time looking around the internet this morning. My normally scheduled blog post has been posted and I spent the morning looking at debates on the Facebook feeds of my colleagues. I have read carefully statements from groups like the Confessing Movement. I have prayed through debates around the video clip circulating around social media by Bishop Ough.

Honestly, watching the back and forth about the Council of Bishops recommendation is a bit heartbreaking. I hate watching colleagues, laity, and friends debate, argue, and occasionally attack one another. In some cases (but not all), we stand in direct opposition to the recommendation of Paul in Galatians 5:13-15—less concerned with serving one another in love and more concerned with biting with sharp teeth before we are consumed. My soul is a bit bruised from trying to find a space of peace in the midst of the debates.

My own discernment (for today) revolves around Acts 5:27-39. In Acts 5, we find the Apostles brought before the High Priest and the council in Jerusalem for sharing the Good News. There are folks who want to kill the Apostles, but a wise leader named Gamaliel advises them to be careful. Leaders had come, gathered followers, died, and the followers dispersed. If the Apostles were like those leaders then their movement would fizzle out in time. Human plans lead to failure. If the Apostles were acting with God’s blessing, they might find themselves fighting against God.

The council saw the wisdom of Gamaliel’s words and let the Apostles live. Obviously, their movement lasted beyond the lives of those Apostles. There was wisdom in Gamaliel’s counsel. Nobody wants to stand in the way of God when God is preparing to act. Still, here we are with sharpened arguments and deadly counterpoints while the world watches.

I admit that I have a more progressive outlook than some of my conservative colleagues, but I honestly wonder how long this battle can go on legislatively. More than that, I am wondering what is served by any of this battling? Is this constant argument truly of God?

Some context on why I wonder. We were debating the questions around human sexuality when I was teenager. My first time visiting Annual Conference with a friend and mentor included watching people debate questions relating back to Central Conferences with people stating on the floor of Annual Conference that this was a ploy to push what was then known as the “gay agenda.” We had debates around human sexuality as I went through seminary, became a pastor, went through the ordination process, was ordained, and as I have continued in my service. This debate has been going on longer than I have been alive. This debate has been the context of my entire faith journey.

So, why are we continuing to push a legislative solution? Clearly, saying “You have to believe this to be a part of the church” has been neither effective nor conclusive. Now there are people calling for a schism in the church. What good will that do? We have been down that road before on issues like pew rentals and slavery. Nothing concrete was solved through schism. The same debates came back time and time again until we ceased legislating and let the Holy Spirit work within us as a body.

So, why are we here again? Why are we assuming that this is something new? Why don’t we listen to Gamaliel? Do we really need to make human laws? If you believe scripture says “This is the way,” what good will a church law do? Do you hold the church law above scripture? If you believe that God is leading the church in a way contrary to one reading of scripture, do you believe that a human rule should overcome your obedience to the Spirit of God? In either case, when you look at the motivations on both sides, who truly believes that a church law made by humans would ever trump the conviction of another person?

Beloved friends, this is madness. I do not mean to be so very blunt about this, but go and take a deep breath and relax. If this is of God, then God will prevail. If this is from humans alone, it will not succeed.

I find wisdom in an offhand comment made by Father John Mefrige at the last session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. His church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, believes that the Orthodox Church is the one true church that follows in Christ’s path. How does he understand the rest of us Christians if God has led to one right way while we continue in our own faith? He said he sees a paradox in us! We are not Orthodox, yet there is evidence of the Spirit in us. We are Heterodox, but God lives and breathes in us. We do not make sense, yet here we are giving glory to God as best we can! How very peculiar and marvelous it is that God is praised through people like us!

Maybe we are also called to live in paradox. Apparently, that’s a thing that happens sometimes. If members of the Orthodox clergy can have a sense of humor about the very powerful and deep differences we share with their church, can we have a sense of grace with and for each other?

Go, take a deep breath, and remember that faith, hope, and love are what remain will after all of this has long since passed away. When you have done that, do everyone a favor and remember to continue to breathe!

Let us Ramble: Lessons from Yogurt

I recently returned home from the Academy for Spiritual Formation. This last session we discussed the effects of things like stress and anxiety on the body. We practiced breathing techniques, experienced some meditative practices, and looked at various ways that we live our lives.

At one point during the week, I found myself pondering the concept of challenge and the spiritual life. I have always believed that a healthy spiritual life is one that does not shirk from challenge or adversity. There are lessons in the struggles.

The scripture teaches of this reality in Hebrews 12. Comparing our relationship with God to our parents on earth, the writer of Hebrews invites us to consider difficulties in light of the fruit it produces. The author of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:7-11, NRSV)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

I will admit that it can be hard to face the challenges of life. Sometimes the disciplining of God can be painful, even if it does correct broken or misaligned parts of us. Occasionally, challenges are legitimately less about correction and more about building up strength, but in general, I think the same response is necessary. If God is working for good in us, then we are called to either work alongside God or to willingly let God work in us.

Now, of all places the where I could find inspiration to understand this relationship with God, I found myself inspired in my reflection by a book that I am reading in my spare time. Unsurprisingly, it is a book about cooking. The book is “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. I was reading through the section on dairy that morning and working through the science of yogurt making, which my wife and I have done off and on over the years.

Effectively there are two parts to the making of yogurt. First, the milk being used is heated to a certain level for a certain period of time. McGee describes this process on page 48 of “On Food and Cooking.” Traditionally, this heating process helped to concentrate the number of proteins and to remove some of the liquid, which created.a firmer texture. This process also has the effect of pasteurizing the milk which become yogurt as milk is pasteurized when it crosses 145℉ for 30 minutes during the heating process. (On Food and Cooking, 22)

Even with the advent of the modern technique of adding dried milk powder to increase protein content, yogurt makers still raise the temperature of milk to 185℉ in order to denature the “whey protein lactoglobulin” in order to help the milk keep from coagulating. How? Well, “In boiling milk, unfolded lactoglobulin binds not to itself but to the capping-casein on the casein micelles, which remain separate; so denatured lactoglobulin doesn’t coagulate.” (On Food and Cooking, 20) Caseins, by the way, are the protein molecules that coagulate together to make cheese curd. (Under the right conditions, cheese can still be made from denatured milk. Indeed, almost all cheese is made from pasteurized milk)

Almost there…

What’s needed to move the milk from a pasteurized milk with denatured lactoglobulin is time and fermentation. Bacteria increases the acid content of the yogurt, which allows the casein to coagulate in particular patterns (as the lactoglobulin is blocking some of the connection points). Over time, the yogurt forms together, setting into a gelled mass with pockets for the moisture of the milk.

There’s a challenge in the process here. You may have noticed the milk’s lactoglobulin is denatured nearly 40℉ above the temperature required to kill off bacteria. In fact, yogurt bacteria can only survive temperatures up to between 104-113℉. There needs to be a cooling of the milk before yogurt can begin to be created.

So, here’s where I came to a realization the other day. I am often a lot like the milk I work to turn into yogurt. There are parts in my life that are filled with all kinds of nasty things. Sometimes the only way God can help me to break free of my own stubbornness is to turn up the heat. God knows what I can handle and like a careful cook, I believe there are times when my life is intentionally and carefully brought to a place where I can both begin to be free of the nasty stuff and begin to be prepared for new good things. In challenge I am both freed and given a chance for transformation.

When I am ready, the heat turns down, I am brought into a place where God’s goodness can begin to transform the parts of me that have been prepared. In those moments, there are a couple of things I can do to help the process.

First, I can be careful about my surroundings. Just as a dirty spoon could spoil the pasteurized and prepared milk, I can cause a world of trouble by diving back into the places where I no longer belong. There are behaviors in this life which are not helpful. It is good to move away from them and to stay away from them.

Second, I can practice humility. A lot of things in life can go in ways I do not prefer. Does that mean all of those challenging situations are bad for me? Sometimes humility requires me to be willing to accept circumstances I would not prefer or choose on my own. It can be very difficult to admit that I do not always know what is best for me, but in reality, most of us have blind spots and areas where we do not see things clearly. If I practice humility, there is a stronger chance I can work my way through situations that normally would be inescapable.

None of this means that I would necessarily prefer to face such challenges, but there is something to be said for realizing that there are moments when challenge becomes both inevitable and beneficial. May we all have the wisdom to know when such situations are before us.