Untitled poem from a dream

Dreams like fog drift out from the depths of night.
Troubled thoughts steal all the warmth from our bed.
Hazy glimpses of events filled with fright:
I dream of habits I would bury dead.

Cold winds blow down the dreamy lane
Where dreaming guilt weighs down my soul.
Eyes open to a world more sane
As thoughts bend to the night's dark hole.

A staccato heartbeat
Slowly calms itself down.
I live where fingers meet
As soul seeks Heaven's Crown.

I would forget
Dark dreams untrue:
Part ways and yet,
Guilt clings like dew.

O God...
Bless me...
Break rod...
Free me...

Below the sun
I kneel and pray.
I seek the Son
By light of day.

Sunlight burns away fog
Revealing ways to see
Not all is miring bog.
There is much good in me.

Drifts lift to reveal a good heart
That seeks to be a good parent.
Terror unveiled to have a start
In desire to straighten parts bent.

I cannot change past nor keep dreams away
But sunlight reveals that the day has come.
Fog burns away over a cold clear way
Where any future has yet to become.

Whole Life Challenge: Day Six

I have been struggling for the past few days. My chest has been sore and healing from the muscles I worked out earlier this week. Today I was scheduled to work out my upper body. I had a great deal of apprehension about working out.

Psalm 27 speaks about fear and trust. The third verse says: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” (NRSV)

I did not wake up very confident about my chances against the army of weights. I still worked out despite my concerns. I not only worked out, but I completed every set I began. It was close, but I succeeded.

People are often afraid of things they really need not fear. There are good reasons for concern, but fear as an abstract emotion is something that usually can and should be conquered.

If God does truly love us, then God’s love can help cast out our fear. This is my hope as I go to lie down for the evening: that I would face the night without fear of cramps and with confidence that I will rise to meet the challenge of “leg day” tomorrow.

Responding to a Weird World

Friends, Tuesday was an odd day for me as a minister. Two things happened which led me to go for a long walk around the block. The first is probably obvious to anyone who knows I am United Methodist or even goes back a few blog posts.

General Conference was taking place and the institutional global church further pressed back against people pushing for inclusion. I did not see the legislation pass in person because I felt the need to go and pray for the church.

The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with a colleague from a nearby church who came to discuss recent events during worship at our church. His church now has locked doors during worship. They were concerned. I was asked about what happened, was I afraid, and we discussed churches that have panic buttons and armed security. My colleague and I discussed that he doesn’t carry the panic button because he is aware as one of the people up front he might be the first one targeted by a shooter.

I went to take a long walk because it is weird to feel both slammed with pressure from above when there are people and colleagues in my neighborhood in the middle of nowhere that are now worried that church is literally a physically unsafe place without locked doors.

I have received threatening notes in the past regarding my own safety for taking stands on including folks from the margins, although honestly more about racial inclusion and less about LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I have upcoming meetings scheduled for dates before the Judicial Council will meet to determine whether what was just passed is enforceable under our constitution. I am concerned about what will happen between now and when the Judicial Council will (in my opinion) likely strike down portions of what passed.

I’m just concerned because my honest response to both issues is the same. If someone came into my church with a theological or physical gun, my place is between the church and that person. I have children and a family to provide for in this life, but that place of risk is my place as a minister.

I have taken a number of long walks between Tuesday and today. I will likely continue to keep walking, praying, and honestly playing a few video games on my phone to help keep my anxiety down.

I will find that ditto… I need the Pokémon who is all things to all people.

Courage and Voting

Today’s blog post is two days in the making. I have been pondering what it means to be a Christian in an age where political differences in the United States are resulting in violence. Bombs are being mailed to opponents of the president and Republicans have been threatened at one particular early voting site in North Carolina. The world seems to be more and more violent the closer we get to November’s election.

I am wondering how we should reply to these situations. Scripture tells us to pray for the lands where we find ourselves. Even if some Christians do not appreciate the idea of Christians being a people living in exile, the thrust of Jeremiah 29 still points us to ponder how we relate to the “city where we are sent.”

Of course, none of this is easy. To be honest, in some circles, asking people to take Romans 13 seriously is a dangerous proposition. Calls by Paul to the Romans to be subject to governmental authorities are seen as less than applicable in some contexts, especially when we disagree with those authorities. A person who might quote Paul as sharing the gospel truth in one letter might chafe at considering his words in another. It is natural that we rejoice when governmental powers agree with us. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly common to call for their damnation when they disagree. Calls to respect people of different opinions in Romans 14 and 15 are seen as equally ludicrous at times.

It is difficult to live in such times. Whether you are a democrat, republican, or neither, these days are difficult days. As election day draws closer, there is a real sense of dread building in some circles. Will there be violence if one party loses favor or if another gains favor? Will there be violence if something changes or will there be violence if nothing changes? Heaven knows how many families are dreading Thanksgiving and those often turbulent conversations around the dinner table.

To be honest, I half expect to hear more stories about threats and potential bombings to increase as election day draws nearer. I am not seeking to be a pessimist. I find myself watching a pattern and pondering the outcome. In truth, my own days of believing in the myth of American exceptionalism in terms of believing in a political process that might be free of intimidation and gerrymandering are pretty much at an end. Perhaps I am simply choosing to save my idealism for my life of faith or perhaps I am simply worn thin by the matters of this world.

You may be asking what any of this has to do with being a pastor or spirituality. My simple answer is to say that it relates because these are the days where we need to have courage. Yes, the news is full of stories of challenges and those stories will increase. Yes, the President has warned there will be violence if his party loses the election next month, although it is strange he warns that the violence he seems to fear would be from the party that might gain political power. An honest appraisal might say that violence might occur regardless of who wins. Yes, the world might become a dark place after this election. Yes, these are days that require courage regardless of political party.

Then again, maybe these days are not as dire as it seems. Things might go poorly, but they also might go well. In a sense, these days are like every single day of our lives. Even in the best of times, all of us live with only one day. We all live in today. Yesterday has gone by. Tomorrow is a dream. Today is the only day that any of us has to live within. Since you cannot control the future and cannot change the past, today is like every day of your life. To borrow from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, you can only step in the same river once.

The world is always changing and the natural uncertainty requires courage. It takes courage to live in a world which might change in a moment due to a blood clot, a missed stop sign, or an unexpected illness. It takes courage to live in a world where someone might leave tomorrow, where you might lose your job at the end of your shift, and where a loose dog might catch you while you wait for the school bus. It takes courage to live in this life and while the future might seem stressful, today is really the only day that any of us have ever had to live within.

I hate to bring in ancient monastics again, but I do enjoy them. There is an applicable gem in my often quoted copy of Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” That gem is a quote from Abba Serinus. The quote goes: “Abba Serinus said, ‘I have spent my time in harvesting, sewing, and weaving, and in all these employments if the hand of God has not sustained me, I should not have been fed.’”

If you would prefer a biblical approach to the concept that life is a bit more transitory than some of us expect, Luke 12:13-21 contains a parable where Jesus warns people about the folly of building up riches on earth. A rich man has a bumper crop, plans to tear down his barns, and intends to build bigger barns to hold his massive crop. He plans to live out his days with wealth! Jesus shares that his folly is to plan to live out long days with his massive wealth. The rich man will die that very night. All of the crops from his wonderful harvest will not keep him from his own mortality.

Whether you approach the subject from the Abba’s viewpoint that all of life has led to this moment because God has provided or whether you hear Jesus’ warning about the uncertainty of tomorrow, in my opinion one thing is clear. We all have this one moment. We can respond with gratitude, make assumptions about the future, or even follow the advice of Ecclesiastes 5:18 (“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”). Regardless of how we spend our days, these days are the days we have.

So, how will we spend them? If today is the day you have to live, what will you do? Will you live in fear? Will you decide to ponder what comes in every package, worry about every group of people near every polling place, or will you step forward to take your place in history? If God has brought you to this time and place, is it not your responsibility to live in this moment?

 

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I invite you to participate…

Let us Seek: Do not be alarmed!

I was out in the world this morning. Cold or no cold, there are some appointments that cannot be put off. I had an appointment with a specialist that I had scheduled weeks in advance. I went to my appointment on cold medicine, advised everyone I was in contact with to wash their hands, and we made the best of things.

My appointment today was for a simple non-invasive type of treatment which took a few minutes. The doctor and I sat alone talking while she was going about her work. We began to talk and things went to deep matters in a few moments. I was not surprised. People often open up to me–I do not advertise that I am a minister, but I always seek to be polite and courteous. It can be amazing how quickly people come to trust you when you always say “please,” “thank you,” and tell them that you are grateful for what they are doing for you. I also believe that most people just want someone to listen.

She started talking about what she had heard in the news. She was afraid of what was happening in the world. She talked about intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and the idea that someplace as nearby as Washington could be struck, although she did not rule out New York City. As medicated as I was at the time, I wondered aloud about the fact that people feared nuclear attacks on the Hoover Dam and the dam at Niagara Falls during the Cold War. We talked about how frightening things are, how strange everything seemed, and she wondered what she would do if a war broke out. She was frightened. I commiserated, listened, spoke very little, and prayed for her fears in my heart.

The conversation reminded me of a passage in Matthew about the end times. Discussions of nuclear winter, nuclear fallout, and global conflict often remind me of the passage found in the twenty fourth chapter. Matthew’s gospel reads in verses three through fourteen: (Common English Bible)

“Now while Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.’

 

Jesus replied, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the Christ.’ They will deceive many people. You will hear about wars and reports of wars. Don’t be alarmed. These things must happen, but this isn’t the end yet. Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other, and there will be famines and earthquakes in all sorts of places. But all these things are just the beginning of the sufferings associated with the end. They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name. At that time many will fall away. They will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because disobedience will expand, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations. Then the end will come.’”

I first came to know this passage well through the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. In that translation verse six says “…you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed…” These verses have all taken a vital place in my lived theology within this world of global information and easily spread global panic, but verse six has always rung out the loudest in my mind. As I lay on the table, I could almost hear a palpable voice repeating in my heart “you will hear wars and rumors of wars…” alternating with “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” 

My doctor was afraid this morning. I chose not to be fearful, but to be compassionate. What is the good news? In this context, I believe it can be best expressed earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. In verses twelve through fourteen in chapter eighteen, Jesus tells a parable: (CEB)

“What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one who wandered off? If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.”

I invite you to think about the promise which inherently sits within this parable. My doctor, like many individuals, has an uncertainty about the future. The world seems to be less than the ideal many of us were taught as children. Most of us lose a sense of the innocence of childhood as we grow into the world, and I personally believe that there’s a correlation between this loss of innocence and the traditional drop in church attendance that tends to happen at around the same time. Losing our innocence hurts.and events like those depicted in the news can send us back into our grief over our loss even if it has been decades since we first realized the world is broken. The world can seem to be a confusing place and our fear can isolate us.

Into those moments of fear, there is an ancient promise embodied in the person of Jesus. God does not want to lose one of those little ones. God cares about the lost sheep of the world. Even when it seems that the world does not care one bit for our fears, God does care and will walk through the valley of darkness to lead us all home. There is space for us at the table, there is space in the flock, and there is deep grace despite our fears for all people. God has come near, God has shown compassion, and eternal life will come to those who follow the Shepherd. As Matthew records in the twenty ninth verse of chapter nineteen, “…all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life.

Friends, be at peace. God does not give as the world gives. Know that the path of a Christian is not an easy path, but there is a place of peace that awaits the end of our journey. Go! Be a blessing in a world of fear! Fight for justice and grace! Share the Good News! Walk with the lost sheep! Please, be compassionate

Let us Ramble: Pursuit of Smokiness

Yesterday was Independence Day in the United States. For most folks Independence Day is marked by celebration with a barbecue of chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, or any other number of delicious foods. Tradition usually lends itself towards children staying up late to see fireworks and to listen to patriotic music.

The day celebrates the Declaration of Independence being ratified by Congress in 1776. The day celebrates a far different time in our nation. A lot of the celebration would probably be considered obtuse, strange, and irreverent to most of the folks who lived through the events of 1776. I must admit that I am less concerned with the historical tension in this holiday than with many of the religious holidays which normally pique my interest. I happen to like Independence Day.

One of the reasons I like Independence Day is that I like to grill. I enjoy using our grill. This year I did a bit of minor surgery on my charcoal grill/smoker with a dremel to add a rotisserie component. I woke up very early, set the fire smoking, and watched a turkey spin around and around on the spit. We were invited to a wedding renewal ceremony and picnic about noon. The turkey hit the perfect temperature right on time to head out to the party with a smoked bird. Here’s the bird about an hour before she was finished. The tiny yellow bits were part of an olive oil baste with thyme, marjoram, and garlic. When finished the turkey was deeply colored and extremely fragrant.

My smoked turkey about an hour before completion

I was really proud of the turkey, but I refused to put pictures online. My wife knows that I love to share bits of my cooking adventures, so she took a picture to post on my behalf. I almost stopped her from posting the picture. What was my reasoning? What if I had made a huge mistake and the turkey was awful? What if people saw the turkey and told me I had messed it up?

The turkey was decimated at the party. The turkey was just torn to shreds by people who had spent a good half hour smelling the fragrant meat while waiting for the guests of honor to arrive. I’m glad my wife saved me a piece when carving because the turkey was just destroyed. I understood why immediately upon tasting the meat. The meat was deeply flavored, deeply delicious, and tasty in a way that only smoked meat can taste. This turkey wasn’t just store-bought turkey. The bird had been prepared carefully, slowly, and it was absolutely delicious.

It raised a question in my mind. Why am I so afraid of failure? I have good gifts, I have talent, and I practice my craft. I cook dinner regularly in my house and I have never been afraid to attempt new things. I should believe in myself, but I regularly look in the mirror and assume the worst about myself. What if my fear really is just fear that should be put aside?

The situation reminds me of FDR’s first inaugural address in 1933. President Roosevelt stated “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Facing a nation in a fiscal crisis with a vast imbalance of population and resources, FDR approached a dangerous situation with the belief that the nation must advance or perish. While my concerns are not nearly so dire, I will say that my own fears in life are often unreasonable and unjustified. President Roosevelt said later in that address:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

If true happiness lies in the joy of achieving things, then why am I so terrified of failure? Why do I fret about money, resources, and future criticism when happiness will not lie down those paths? Why do any of us live in such fear? I smoked a turkey that I filled with herbs from my own garden, basted in an oil I infused with my own instincts, and then slow roasted in a smoker that I altered with my own hands, My wife was right to be proud of me. Smoking a turkey is not rocket science, but the turkey was something that I enjoyed creating which I brought together through my own efforts in cooking, gardening, crafting, and patience. What’s more, I took that gift and shared it in a place where people could enjoy it without price or cost. I used my talents to bless others.

What would the church look like if we were to live out this love together? What if we were more concerned with our ministry to ourselves and to others than with looking at what we can take from the world around us? What if we found joy in our work as a community instead of chasing our own profits to our own doom?

Let us Seek: Flowers in the cold

The last few nights have been very cold in the town of Maine, NY. I have gone to sleep with a prayer on my lips as I curled up into my bed. Each morning I have gone outside to check on the tomato plants and marigolds that have been hiding under burlap covers. I have pulled aside the cover and I have expected the worst case scenario to have taken place. This is what I saw as I pulled aside the burlap this morning…

Oh! The horror of it! A bright orange flower greeted me in the midst of happy tomato and carrot plants…

This beauty of a red and orange blossom also had been clearly struggling with the weather.

I had assumed that the very worst case scenario had occurred. Nothing had gone wrong with the plants. I had the same fear the night before, but nothing had gone wrong with the plants. I have assumed that something terrible would happen every night of this weekend. Nothing went wrong with the plants. They are all perfectly fine.

I occasionally have to remind myself of something very basic. I don’t need to go looking for trouble. Theodore Roosevelt was once quoted as saying “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” George Washington is quoted as saying “Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” Jesus clearly taught that we should not worry about tomorrow. Consider this passage from Matthew 6:28b-33: (NRSV)

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

I know these statements hold a lot of wisdom. I still catch myself being needlessly worried. Am I really so worried about tomato plants? Why do I choose to live in fear of a summer without tomato sandwiches? Why am I concerned that there won’t be enough tomatoes to sauce and preserve for quick meals when we’re all tired after the baby is born? Why do I choose to live this way? What does that say about my own relationship with God?

I’m clearly not in the same league as those flower blossoms. May God bless me with wisdom as I slow down to enjoy them before their season in the sunshine comes and goes.