The Thrush and Bonhoeffer

Have you ever stopped to wonder whether life would be different if we paid closer attention to the world? Would life be different if we focused on other matters than those that preoccupy us?

Recently I was reading a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents in April 1943. Eberhard Bethge translated the version I was reading. The letter I was reading was written on the fourteenth of April. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Spring is really coming now. You will have plenty to do in the garden; I hope that Renate’s wedding preparations are going well. Here in the prison yard there is a thrush which sings beautifully in the morning, and now in the evening too. One is grateful for little things, and that is surely a gain.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer as translated Eberhard Bethge in “Letters Papers from Prison”

If you are unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer’s story, Bonhoeffer was arrested for taking very public stances against the Nazi regime in Germany and for engaging in espionage. He was executed for his crimes during the last days of hostilities in 1945. Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent Lutheran martyrs of the 20th century.

Bonhoeffer is writing to his father at the beginning of his imprisonment in the letter I was reading. They had separated Bonhoeffer from family, from his fiancee, and from his community of faith within the confessional church. Bonhoeffer was facing charges which could easily lead to his execution.

What catches my eye is that Bonhoeffer notices the thrush in the prison yard. He could have obsessed over his imprisonment and isolation. He could have focused on being confined in his cell for long hours at night or being neglected simple things like shoelaces and shaving cream. In the midst of everything, Bonhoeffer notices the thrush.

I am not imprisoned in my home. I have access to the world around me and my children are a regular part of my life. There are so many things I could focus on in life. I could notice the sound of my daughter singing to herself, the blessing of having a partner who helps me to be a better person, or a million and one other things.

Instead I find myself focusing on matters that are not helpful. Do I have opinions about politics? Yes, I most certainly have opinions. Do I have an obligation to speak out against abuses? Yes, I most certainly have times when I must take a stand. There are many things I could focus on in this moment.

We all have only so many days in this world. What do we notice as we spend our time under the sun?

I pray that my calling in the world will come with the awareness that Bonhoeffer seemed to possess. Will I miss the thrush? I pray that I do not miss the thrush in my life today. May I gain blessings through all the little things.

Poetry and Prayer

Poems
Contemplation
Seeing with open eyes
Expressing reasons for wonder
Poems

“Poems” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

I have recently been contemplating the idea of teaching. I am three quarters through the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I have been asking an interesting question. How do I share what I have been learning with others?

The very first session of the Academy we were invited to consider how God was being revealed around us by Wilkie Au. Since that lesson I have spent a lot of time walking through the various outdoor “Stations of the Cross” walking paths at the Malvern Retreat House.

It has been incredible noticing how I saw different things in different seasons. In the midst of winter, I took a picture of Christ crushed under the weight of the cross under a layer of newly fallen snow. I contemplated how cold the world must have been for Jesus in those moments. Blood loss was likely only one source of his suffering.

In the height of autumn, I saw Pilate standing in judgment as leaves fell from the sky. I contemplated how the world itself was growing colder and the days shorter as Pilate held his perpetual place of judgment over the solitary Christ. Leaves fell as judgment waited further down the path.

I have found those moments of contemplation to be life giving to my prayers. The very nature of the surrounding changed my contemplation, my prayer, and my focus in holy moments.

Walking through a path in the woods while praying is a valuable and wonderful experience. In this cold season, walking outside can be treacherous on frozen, freezing, and dangerously windy days. How can we enrich our prayers in a season which is dismally gray without continually focusing on the bleak, the dark, and the promise of spring that seems so very distant?

What if poetry is a window we can use for contemplation? Consider the poem “In a Vale.” The poem was written and published by Robert Frost in 1915. Let’s take a look as the poem is now in public domain.

When I was young, we dwelt in a vale
By a misty fen that rang all night,
And thus it was the maidens pale
I knew so well, whose garments trail
Across the reeds to a window light.

The fen had every kind of bloom,
And for every kind there was face,
And a voice that has sounded in my room
Across the sill from the outer gloom.
Each came singly unto her place,

But all came every night with the mist,
And often they brought so much to say
Of things of moment to which, they wist,
One so lonely was fain to list,
That the stars were almost faded away

Before the last went, heavy with dew,
Back to the place from which she came –
Where the bird was before it flew,
Where the flower was before it grew,
Where bird and flower were one and the same.

And thus it is I know so well
Why the flower has odor, the bird has song.
You have only to ask me, and I can tell.
No, not vainly there did I dwell,
Nor vainly listen all night long.

“In the Vale” by Robert Frost, 1915

First, Robert Frost was an incredible poet. When I was younger, I would have said that “He’s the kind of poet I want to be if I grow up.” Now it would be more accurate to say that he’s the kind of poet I would like to be if I ever grow up.

Second, consider the words Frost uses in his poem. If you have an overactive imagination like me, you might be blessed to leave the poem with the smell of earth in your nostrils, or the feeling of dew soaking into your sneakers as you see yourself walking out to greet the day.

Consider that a poem can be a window into a new place. What a gift this is to those who live underneath gloomy and gray skies! A poem can do more than inspire thoughts. Literature and stories were the original way people communicated visions of worlds beyond sight. Prose and poetry inspired religious belief, transported people to places of romance and ecstasy (e.g., consider the Song of Solomon in Judaism or the poems of Rumi in Sufi tradition), and opened the scope of people’s understanding of the world (e.g., Plato in Greece, Prince Shōtoku in Japan).

Like stories, poems can transport us to new places. What use is poetry? Poetry can be a way to see a world that can affect your prayer, change your viewpoint, and allow you to see a different existence than you might otherwise imagine. Poetry can be a way into memories from your own past, even when you did not write the poem. Poetry can be a blessing beyond belief.

I would like to encourage you to look into some poetry today. Consider that our world is an amazing place with amazing people. Explore their view through the power of their poems and see if you do not see the world a little differently. Perhaps the experience will change the way you pray today.

“February Sweater”

On the cold days when all warmth seems to fall asunder
I seek out the deep depths of my wardrobe to plunder
One of the best blessings from Christmas past: warm sweater
To keep the frost from my bones during winter’s wonder.

For some a warm blanket might seem a choice far better
Or a towel from the dryer when things are wetter;
still, I do feel there is nothing else that I could know
To be as warm and cozy as once gift wrapped sweater.

So on a frosty morn with coffee in hand I show
This ugly sweater that they once gave me years ago.
Yes, I will join them under a blanket warmed with love
But that warmth fills my heart. I can take both kinds to go.

If you see me with February reindeer don’t shove
Me out of your mind with coarse fashionista’s glove.
I do not wear this as a fashion faux-pas blunder.
I wear it because it warms me with both wool and love.

“February Sweater” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Don’t go judging me! For the record, this picture was taken in December. I don’t wear the reindeer clergy shirt in February. I do wear the hat though. It was made by a local knitter, was a gift from my wife, and it keeps my shaved head warm…

I wrote this poem for the dVerse poetry form rubaiyat challenge. We were invited to reflect on our writing process. I was thinking about the prompt offered by Frank Hubeny in the comment of “vortex.” I did not want to go straight into the vortex as I somewhat covered my feelings on the polar vortex with my blogs on “Ice” and the angry poem about that groundhog.

I started to think about the polar vortex and the cold that filled our home despite our best efforts last week. I thought about how nice it was to be warm, but that most forms of being warm were transient. Despite the subzero temperatures, the sweaters I wore did keep me warm wherever I went. I didn’t look very fashionable, but I was warm.

So, in many ways this was an ode to both those awful Christmas sweaters and to the kids who made sure I had warm clothes to wear. I enjoyed writing it even as it wandered around from one quatrain to the next. I guess, in a sense I am grateful for the kids, the sweaters, and for the prompt for happy contemplation.

If you were wondering, I do own an actual wardrobe. No, I haven’t found Narnia… yet…

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.

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.

“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…

Let us Ramble: “Keep watch, dear Lord…”

A peculiar thing happened to me last night. We had company in town to spend the evening, had celebrated with a meal out at a restaurant, and came home to a house full of laughter, happy dogs and a playful cat. I had spent a good half hour rocking my daughter to sleep, had found a cup of coffee, and was sitting down to read at my desk when I made a mistake. I reached down to get my headphones from next to my desk without checking the aquarium that sits directly next to my desk. I glanced up to find Seymour, my albino plecostomus doing his very best b-movie monster impression a couple of inches from my face.

He’s a freaky fish when you’re not prepared.

Yes, I was startled by a fish. In my defense, he’s a freaky looking fish when the light is low, the sun has set, and he is backlit by the blue aquarium light. He’s a scary little monster fish.

I laughed it off, took a picture, shared it on Facebook, and let it go for a while. Later that night, while contemplating life, I came across a prayer found within the compline prayer in Phyllis TIckle’s “The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime.” The prayer is originally from the compline service within “The Book of Common Prayer.” The prayer reads as follows:

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or week this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

A part of me recalled the work of Seymour within the fish tank. Seymour scared the daylights out of me last night, but he also was going about his work. Yes, he has work.

Let me be clear on the nature of my pet ownership. I have dogs because I love dogs and they keep me company when my family is away. I have and care for a cat, despite my allergies, because the cat keeps mice out of my house. I have a fish-tank because I find it calming. I have two catfish because they keep the bottom of the tank clean between water-changes. I have and care for Seymour, because Seymour cleans the glass. Seymour is a working fish—he earns that algae wafer when the walls of the aquarium are clean.

Is it wrong of me to think of Seymour falling under the blessing of this prayer? Well, I am betting the Book of Common Prayer was not composed with fish in mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if dogs weren’t looked upon as worthy of blessing over the centuries as they kept cattle and families safe from predators. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s blessing weren’t prayed often over livestock and other means of survival. Knowing at least my portion of humanity pretty well, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if remembering this tiny part of God’s creation were not a part of a long tradition of prayer.

Yes, a part of me recalled Seymour’s endless work on the glass of the fish tank, but then wandered towards other parts and places. I remembered the staff at a Nursing Home that had been caring for a church member who passed recently. I thought of the folks who were working the night shift near that bed which used to hold someone dear to the hearts of our congregation. I stopped to pray for those nurses, those aides, and the staff in that facility.

I remembered the staff at nearby Wilson and Lourdes hospitals. I remembered how often I had walked through those parking lots, those parking garages, and those corridors over the past few years. I thought of the doctors, the nurses, and the staff that had blessed so many different families through their ministries over the years. I remembered and prayed.

From there, I thought of the Maine Ambulance workers, the local fire department, the officers that keep the streets safe, and all of the folks resting before tomorrow. I thought of teachers dreaming of lesson plans and children, children resting before going to school to learn and possibly dash the hopes of following a lesson plan for their teachers, and for cafeteria workers who would get up really early to prepare food for hungry children who do not have breakfast at home.

All of this and more came about after reflecting on the work of silly startling Seymour. You can say what you want about the strangeness of praying for a fish who will live his life in a handful of fish tanks, but Seymour blessed me by bringing my thoughts into focus. Seymour led me to pray for others. Thanks Seymour—you have been a blessing to me.

Let us Look: Jesus falls for the first time

One of the blessings of the Academy for Spiritual Formation is that the session I am attending is located at the Malvern Retreat House. The Academy is located in some fairly beautiful scenery. For the past few weeks I have been journeying into the concept of contemplation by spending time with the Stations of the Cross located near the Retreat House. In particular, I have been trying to explore how the statues in that particular set of stations lead me to go deeper into the scriptural narratives of the passion narratives of the four gospels.

This week I am spending time with the third station on the journey. I have previously blogged about the first station which depicts the condemnation of Jesus. I have also blogged about Jesus taking up his cross for the first time. This third station on the journey was also created by the artist Timothy Schmaltz. I will admit that I think this particular statue is a bit…cartoony in the depiction of Jesus’ fall. I continue to be unable to see how it would be possible to fall in the particular method depicted. This week there are two angles we can use to ponder the image.

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

Statue by Timothy Schmaltz outside of Malvern Retreat House

As previously stated, the four stages of contemplation that I am using for this particular exercise are as follows:

  1. Show up
  2. Slow down
  3. Stay still
  4. Stay with

As I show up with this meditation, I find myself drawn in memory to a conversation with a friend I made at the last session of the Academy. We had conversed about how the statue did seem a bit humorous. Jesus is flying through the air in this statue. The cross has struck him right in the gut.

I am struck by the power and influence of memory upon contemplation. There is absolutely no way that I could contemplate this image without acknowledging the laughter and joy that came out of the conversations revolving around this statue. There certainly is a point where laughing at a depiction of aa serious event like this seems sacriligeous, but the laughter comes from a place of joy and connection. Acknowledging the distraction is part of showing up in this moment. It is also important to realize that when you try to avoid thinking about something, it invariably is the only thing you can think of in the moment.

Distractions are a regular part of my devotional life in general. In my devotions I copy out the scripture of the day by hand into a journal to make sure I am being mindful of all of the words before returning to read the passage aloud. In copying scripture I often find myself thinking about other things, much like I am thinking about how it is possible to fall in the way Jesus is portrayed in this statue. I learned to acknowledge my distraction, make a note if needed, and then set it aside. Distractions come in a life of faith. What is important is how we deal with them when they arrive.

I am still drawn to the humor as I slow down into contemplation, but my focus changes. How could such a thin cross cause such an effect? How could it throw Jesus in such a manner? Perhaps Jesus is thrown so violently as this is the moment when the weight of what is coming to pass finally falls. There will be no avoiding the effect of this journey—Jesus’ strength will fail and Jesus will die at the end of this journey.

Perhaps the person who should be struck in the gut hardest by this moment is the person who views this statue. As light as the cross appears, to fly through the air and land on one’s back is a pain most of us have experienced. Most of us know how it feels to be absolutely out of control, flying through the air with no idea how we will land. These are the things that Jesus went through in those hours. Jesus had events go out of his control. The cross would force him to the earth three times.

I stay still with this idea of helplessness. As spectators, we can no more control what Christ went through than the Jesus who is flying through the air. The God of the Universe comes down to earth, enters into creation, lives into adulthood, and ultimately is brought to a place where the creation God loves looks on while loading Jesus with uncontrollable and ultimately uncarryable burdens.

This helplessness comes about at God’s own choice. God’s love for creation and for me was so great that Jesus underwent this helplessness to fulfill all righteousness. The great high priest of Hebrews brings the sacrifice and the sacrifice is personal, costly, and painful. Although Jesus will come to sit down with the job completed at the end of this journey, at this moment Jesus, who prayed for this cup to pass, is helpless as much before God’s love as the weight of this cross.

Perhaps the cross is so thin because it is not really the cross that is the heavy burden Jesus must carry. God’s love demands that Jesus give all in this moment. What heavier burden is there in this life than to lay down one’s life for the very people looking on with anger because you love them?

As I consider what will stay with me this day, I think the thing that will stay deeply and closely with me will be the very idea that God’s love is what bore Jesus to the ground. As much as I sometimes get caught up in the world around me, I find myself hoping that I am not the one who sits on the edges of the crowd. Are my frailities and faults part of what bear Jesus to the ground? What greater love is there than the fact that God loves me enough to not only forgive my weakness but to welcome me home?

Let us Ramble: Contemplating Charcoal

Unsurprisingly, my family and I have spent a lot of time outside this week. In the rural areas around Binghamton this week has been one of the first truly nice weeks of the year. We’ve spent time grilling dinner out on the porch almost every night this week.

A few years ago I was converted to charcoal grilling after a few years flirting with propane grills. Are charcoal grills somewhat inconvenient? They require a little bit of extra work but I adore the smokey taste they impart to the food I grill.

A few weeks ago (in this particular blogpost) I noted that a particular passage stuck out to me from a book I was reading for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. The excerpt was from the book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun. In particular, this was the passage that attracted my attention from the section entitled “Practicing the Presence” (pg. 72):

“Practicing the presence is a way of living into a deeper awareness of God’s activity in our lives. Through many small pauses we begin a habit of turning our heart toward God.”

I was sitting on my porch while waiting for the charcoal to warm up when I was drawn into a spirit of contemplation. I use a chimney charcoal starter to ignite my charcoal before grilling. I was drawn into a spirit of contemplation as I watched the charcoal begin to burn (with the help of a little lighter fluid–I was cheating when I took this picture).

My rusty but trusty chimney charcoal starter!

The idea of the charcoal chimney is a simple concept. You light paper underneath the charcoal and that begins to heat up the bottom layer of charcoal. As that layer begins to burn, it sets the charcoal above on fire. In time, the whole of the charcoal catches on fire and it is time to spread the coals and grill.

As I watched the excessive and unnecessary flames pour out the top, I stopped to think about how the charcoal chimney is supposed to work. All it takes to function properly is patience, a little bit of newspaper, and a match. The chimney starter is simple and effective when the charcoal is in good condition, the breeze is low, and the match actually lights the paper on fire.

I have spent a lot of time working with churches that desire to grow. Some churches are always looking for a great new idea which will bring young families into the church. Some churches are seeking to figure out why certain families or individuals have stopped attending church regularly. A lot of churches are always trying to find that silver bullet which will get them where they want to go as a church.

I have also spent a lot of time working with individuals who are facing struggles in their lives. Families have struggles, coworkers are aggressive, and sometimes the neighbor just will not act neighborly. People seek help and look for a silver bullet to fix their problems. I know this is true because I have been also guilty of seeking silver bullets for my own problems.

As I stared at the excessive and unnecessary flames pour out of the charcoal starter I came to a realization. Just like the flames were unnecessary on the charcoal starter, we often unnecessarily look for big solutions to problems. One of my favorite passages is Micah 6:8. In that passage the Lord tells Micah what is required of people like you and me. People need to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

How many times would a culture of kindness defuse the huge problems which seem to require silver bullets in the church? My experience tells me that kindness can often defuse situations very quickly.

How many times would a little humility fix problems in the lives of individuals? Well, I can tell you that my life would have fewer problems if I decided to have a bit more humility and followed through with that decision.

How much better would our charcoal start if we were to stop pouring excessive amounts of solution into challenges that just require patient faithfulness? When we set ourselves about the tasks of life, would things taste more like the grill and less like lighter fluid if we were to focus on real solutions instead of quick solutions?

I really have to hand it to this idea of intentionally focusing on God in quiet moments. I am grateful that I have begun to find more quiet moments to turn towards God. I also need to get more newspaper. There is going to be a lot more grilling to do this summer and I am going to try to cut down on the lighter fluid.