“Bring” and Blessing Bags

The #rethinkchurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “bring.” As someone who spends a lot of time taking pictures in nature or pictures of family, the idea of connecting one of my photos to the word “bring” was a bit of a challenge. Eventually, after a great search a long way into my photos, I found a picture of the blessing bags we have been handing out as a congregation to people in need. Each blessing bag has a small amount of food, water, and often simple necessaries like a comb, hand sanitizer, or a new toothbrush.

The idea of the blessing bag is simple. We may not hand out money to people on a street corner, but we will do our best to give them something concrete. How do we have these on hand when we come across someone in need? The answer is that we bring them in our cars, carry them in a backpack, or have them on hand when we are somewhere that they may bless someone in need.

In our devotional today, we read the story of Jesus’ interactions with a Canaanite woman who came to him in need. The story is in Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus’ dealt with the Canaanite woman with compassion.

At the end of the day, the purpose of the blessing bags is to be able to share compassion with others in a concrete way. Does everyone take them? No. Do some people really get frustrated that we are not handing them money? Yes. Why do we do it anyway?

We do it because we want to share with compassion. I know that when I hand out blessing bags it is often for the simple reason that I want to be compassionate but I don’t carry money with me. The closest branch of the bank where I have my account is in Corning, so I tend to do most of my transactions digitally. I cannot give people cash because I don’t have any cash on me, which is good because cash tends to burn a hole in my pocket.

I know that others hand them out for a very different reason. They hand out the bags because they want to do something more than hand someone money. Clean socks may not mean much to me, but to someone who never gets clean socks, they are a gift. Socks, water, and even hand sanitizer offered during a pandemic: each of these are kindnesses offered by one human being who sees the humanity in someone else. I see compassion in that loving act.

So, what do I connect with compassion and “bring?” Blessing bags! May God bless them, the hands that share them, and the hands that receive them.

“Compassion” and the Eagle

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “compassion.” We are reading the scripture that is at the heart of tomorrow’s sermon, so I will avoid diving into the devotional today.

What does it mean to be compassionate, especially in light of Jesus’ teachings on weeping? Blessed are those who weep, for they will laugh! Laughter? I rarely think of laughter and compassion in the same sentence. As we have touched on a few times this week, laughter can often be at someone rather than with some. Such laughter is not very compassionate.

Compassion may have a lot to do with the comfort found in Matthew’s presentation of the beatitudes. It can be compassionate to show loving comfort to someone who you might consider your enemy if it were not for the fact that they are down on their luck. I think it is fair to say that it is compassionate to comfort people who are simply down on their luck or in a place of tears rather than living in a place of laughter.

I chose a picture of an eagle that I took at the Buffalo zoo last year. The eagle really does have a beautiful visage, but this eagle will likely never fly free. The eagle lives behind a fence where it can see tasty morsels flit by on smaller wings. Given the eyesight of the eagle, it probably sees the squirrels in the nearby park or the mice that might feast near the trash cans despite the best efforts of the staff.

Many people might think I am trying to make a point about zoos here. I’m actually not, although you can draw your own conclusions. Most of us have someplace in our lives where we feel trapped by life circumstances or life challenges. The fence is right there and it is okay to wish for something more. I know that I wish for something more on a regular basis.

I believe that God sees our sorrow and that’s one reason why Jesus went beyond offering comfort in Luke’s version of the beatitudes. Jesus makes a promise that laughter is on the way, because God sees our tears, knows our fears, and God is on the way.

“Alone” and Compassion

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “alone.” What a word for contemplation, especially for a father in the midst of working his way through a separation! “Alone” is a word that I have pondered many times over the past few months.

A phrase stands out in our devotional reading for today: “Even when put in a challenging place, Jesus responds to challenge with compassion.” If we are called to become more like Jesus during this journey towards the cross, then what does it look like when we seek to respond to our challenges with compassion?

When writing this section of the devotional, my life was in a far more different place. As I work through this devotional alongside the members of my church, it is with a sense of wonder. Who was the person who wrote these words? I remember the hours working on this devotional, but now see the passages with different eyes and definitely answer the questions differently than I would have when I wrote this devotional.

In selecting a photo for today, I wanted to think about what it means to truly be alone. At the beginning of this oddly horrifying and challenging set of circumstances, I found myself filled with grief over the quiet house, the silent bedrooms, and the challenges of cooking for fewer people. Now, I find myself often coming across beautiful and wonderful things that are bitterly sweet.

Black Diamond Trail in Trumansburg, NY

I took this photo on a cold winter’s day while walking with my dog down a nearby trail. The path was empty of anyone, although there was clearly evidence that I was not the first person to enter the woods. For the entirety of the journey, I was alone with my dog. The wind blew through the branches, the dog snuffled through snow drifts and marked the snow, but it was otherwise silent.

It was beautifully still and silent. A world of icy stillness and solitude for just my dog and me. The sunlight shone through the branches and the snow sparkled underneath golden beams. It was truly amazing that I was able to see such beauty and it felt like that moment was for me and me alone. In the beauty and quiet, I felt as if God was walking right there with me.

It was sweet to know that I still matter enough that God draws near to me in such still spaces. It was sweet to know that God loves me deeply and truly despite the challenges of the past few months. It was also bitter to realize that I might have shared such a moment with my children a year ago.

How do I respond to these challenging moments with compassion? How do I love the people who have broken my heart through either their choices or simply doing their work? These are thoughts for my journal and not my blog, but I can state that this is where the journey for me begins today.

Let us Ramble: Gelatin and Chopsticks

Last Thursday I took my children to lunch. The two minions had spent three days sitting fairly quietly in the church’s board room and were understandably at the end of their patience. I know this because they came into my office and began to repeatedly chant “Dad, feed us. Om-nom-nom.”

We went out for lunch at a nearby buffet. I proceeded to watch what might have been the most agonizing thing that I saw all week. I watched my daughter try to eat a gelatin cube with chopsticks.

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At first, she would seem to be making progress. She’d place the chopsticks exactly where they should go for a nice grasp on any other type of food.

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After she began to apply pressure things began to go sideways. The chopsticks would slip into the sides of the gelatin and the edges would begin to give way to the pressure applied by my daughter.

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At one point she managed to pick up the gelatin. Her grip did not last for long and soon the gelatin plummeted to the plate again. She was determined to eat her lunch without using her fork, but this gelatin was trying her patience. I was lucky enough to convince her to let me grab a picture or three despite her frustration.

I share this story to express a reality of life. Many people often come across situations in life where they believe that they have everything needed to face life’s challenges. They reach out to grasp life by the horns and suddenly realize that they are grabbing the horns of an ornery bull without a backup plan.

Sometimes in life the challenge is as simple as stripping that one screw necessary to complete putting together a piece of furniture. The situation is frustrating but not a matter of life or death. At other times, the challenges we unexpectedly face can be far more serious. Sometimes the situations we are face are both serious and severe.

Watching my daughter attempt to pick up gelatin with chopsticks was agonizing to me in part because I have tried to eat slippery foods with chopsticks in the past. My daughter was frustrated, but she certainly wasn’t alone in her frustration. I sympathized with her, told her that eating slippery foods with chopsticks can be hard, and let her know that it was okay to use her fork. I gave her a form of permission to let go of her frustration and to just get on with her life.

In my opinion, the value of community shows itself in moments like those spent on Thursday with my daughters. We all face difficult situations and sometimes the thing we need most is someone to stand with us in the frustration. Community does not always provide answers, but the best communities often provide the context and compassion necessary to make it through dark times.

My hope is that the churches which I serve in my ministry will help to provide community in places where compassion and context are necessary in the lives of our community members and our neighbors. The church does not often provide the silver-bullets necessary to slay the werewolves of life, but we do point in the direction of the God who provides comfort, grace, and life. The church does not always share grace as perfectly as we should, but we do hopefully surround folks with the gentleness and kindness that comes through the Holy Spirit.

Let us be Grateful: The Epiphany at Denny’s

Two words are circling through my mind this morning. I am thinking about connectedness and gratitude. I was (and still am) sitting in a Denny’s with a hot cup of coffee thinking about Annual Conference when my server came up to my table. She’s been the ideal server. She substituted a cup of yogurt for my fruit because I am allergic to melon, has made certain that my cup of coffee is full, and has not called me “Hon” once (pet-peeve of mine—I am my wife’s hon and her’s alone).

I was thinking about the people I saw yesterday and smiled at this nice server. She walked away but stopped. I looked up and I saw her rubbing the back of her neck with the look of someone who has worked too many hours in a row. I wondered how long she’d been standing in those black shoes and hoped they were comfortable. She was standing with that slight tilt related to back pain that my physical therapist has scolded me about in the past. I was moved to pray for this nice person.

She reminded me about the reading I was doing for the Academy for Spiritual Formation yesterday. I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” It is a good book by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I was telling Polly at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School table that the spiritual density of this book caused me twice as many headaches as the books her faculty had assigned me to read in seminary. The density that led to distraction yesterday was the following quote about the story of the Bent-Over Woman in Luke 13:10-13: (pg. 103)

“This woman symbolizes all of us, both men and women, when we feel unable to stand tall and face life head-on. Some of us are crippled by shame, the dreadful feeling that we are defective and unworthy of love. Some are handicapped by emotional wounds from childhood. And some are diminished by the oppression of prejudice and discrimination, and unjustly denied equal access to educational and work opportunities. The burdens of life can at time be so heavy that it is not difficult to identify with this bent-over woman.

Jesus’ awareness of this crippled woman’s hardship and his care for her is a story of consolation. Made whole by Jesus, she becomes a symbol of hope, reminding us that the risen Jesus responds to our suffering in the same compassionate way.”

I can see where the authors are coming from when they think about this story. If you don’t remember the original story, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a woman who had been struggling with what the scriptures called a “crippling spirit” for 18 years came into view. He was busy teaching in that synagogue but compassion overrode his busyness. Jesus was pulled by his compassion into action. He spoke, he healed, and she was finally free.

I am reminded of the fact that not everyone is bent over, but we’re all in the same boat when it comes to needing to know a compassionate and loving Jesus. The authors state this clearly when they say that we are all in need of a consoling and compassionate Christ.

I was reminded of this strongly by yesterday’s Annual Conference session. I was reminded of this in my life while sitting alone at lunch missing my own family who stayed home to be in school this year and the best friend who never let me sit alone in all of our years together at Annual Conference. I was reminded of this as I sat with my friend’s widow and our mutual friend Harold at the Memorial Dinner. I was reminded of this when the Bishop unexpectedly sat down at our table for dinner but was so busy running in and out with Conference business that I asked a District Superintendent if he knew any way that we could guilt him into sitting still and eating dinner as an act of self-care. I was reminded of this when I saw old friends from across the connection who were excited to reconnect with me as a part of their past and as a part of their future. I was reminded of this when I talked with someone who was a new minister last year and was wondering about the challenges of the ordination process ahead of him. There are so many places where I saw people in need of this compassionate love of Jesus. I see the reasons that this story of a consoling Jesus gives hope because we are a people continually in need of hope.

I am reminded of this compassion as Annual Conference begins today. I am reminded how everyone we stand across from on any issue or debate is still a sister or brother in God. I am reminded of the connectedness that we all share in our need to know a compassionate God and to share that compassion with both each other and with all of our neighbors. We are all interconnected in our love and in our need to be a people following the compassionate Christ. This is good news and I am grateful to be connected with my sisters and brothers as we begin another day together.

Worship begins in an hour, my coffee cup is empty, and I have a good tip to leave for my server. See you all in session!

Today’s post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers at Annual Conference and to one awesome server who is currently waiting on 60 Amish folks from a tour bus. God bless her…

Let us be Grateful: The Compassionate Christ

Today I spent some time reading at a coffee shop before Annual Conference began. I knew that it was going to be a long day, but I am less than 2 months from the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I want to make some progress even on days like today.

I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au wrote that caught my attention today. This passage speaks of the work of Ignatius of Loyola: (pg. 91)

“Ignatius invites us to imagine the three persons of the Trinity hovering over the earth, witnessing the sufferings of humanity—people of diverse races and cultures, of various sizes and life situations, all struggling and seemingly lost. The sight of human suffering moves the three persons of the Trinity with compassion, and they decide that one of them should become human so that this divine compassion could be perceived and felt by humans. So they decide the second person, the eternal Word, should become human; thus ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14)—or, in the poetic language of the Prologue of John’s Gospel, the Word ‘Pitched his tent among us’ (eskenosen)”

I agree with the authors that this approach to the incarnation story is powerfully conceived. I also believe that this passage does an excellent job at pointing towards one of the most powerful truths about the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus is the incarnation of compassion in a way that is both thoroughly and deeply powerful.

I am grateful for the idea that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was an act of compassion. Here are three places that I saw the incarnational Jesus share compassion through the hands and feet of God’s people:

  1. I saw a colleague and friend bravely call on the Bishop to use more inclusive language when he asked the people to stand for a vote. There were people who could not stand and her compassion and courage in the situation raised the issue which culminated in change.
  2. I saw my wife drive up with the girls all the way from Binghamton for the express purpose of supporting our friend Kristin and honoring her husband Michael during the Memorial Service. She connected her feet with her compassion. It was beautiful.
  3. A colleague and friend saw me deep in grief as I sat down in opening worship with neither my best friend nor my family and came over to give me a hug when I really needed it. Compassion incarnate.

Let us Seek: Blessed Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of our zucchini plants in hand-tilled earth!

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

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

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

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