“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…

A Quadrille of Conjoined Tankas

Gusts pierce old windows
As I enter cold kitchen.
The new year still creaks. 
Calendars change as snow falls.
Aromatic tea wakes bones.

Silent draft reminds:
You are blessed to be so warm!
Howling wind reminds:
Halloween is not scary
Compared to homeless winter!

Poem crafted in response to Quadrille Challenge #71 by dVerse. I am currently decompressing from preparing for Sunday’s Annual Meeting at the church I serve by using the creative side of my brain. Too much analysis and planning leaves my creative side in need of expression. There are worse things to do at your desk while enjoying a sandwich and cup of tea!

Dystopian Inspiration

Joyfully, I have recovered my writing laptop from the place where it was charging. Who would have guessed it was plugged in on my desk? The next thing you know, I’ll find my keys hanging on the key-holder by the door.

For today’s blog, I wanted to bring in an outside source from the kind of stuff I usually quote. I am a sincere believer that everyone needs to put their hair down occasionally. In fact, even the Desert Abbas and Ammas occasionally understood this idea. I adore the story of the hunter who comes across Abba Anthony and questions the good Abba about what he sees. The Abba and several other monks were enjoying themselves in the desert. The Abba challenges the hunters perception by asking him to repeatedly draw his bow and fire an arrow. In time the hunter protests. Overusing the bow will break it. Abba Anthony replies that the same is true of people. If you stretch them too much, they will break.

“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” translated by Benedicta Ward on pages 3-4.

I put down my hair by reading science fiction. I enjoy space operas, dystopian tales, and short stories. I was recently reading through “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois. In particular, I was reading “The Hunger After You’re Fed” written by the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franch operating together under the pseudonym of James S. A. Corey.

In the story, there’s a society where everyone can have what they need. People are offered an allotment and should have enough to live off if they are careful with how they spend their resources. Unfortunately, even in science fiction people are often people. A few particular lines of the story stuck out:

“Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on. Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or to me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food, but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the moments of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.”

James S A Corey, “The Hunger After You’re Fed” in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois.

Now, I underline my religious books on my Kindle regularly. I am 30% through this collection of short stories and this is the first highlight in the book. Let’s be clear that I enjoyed many of the stories. This quote from James Corey just leapt off the page at me in a special way.

I believe one reason it connected with me is my hobby of cooking. At this moment, I have am working on making a compound beef stock to enjoy throughout the cold months of winter. It has taken a lot of effort to make the beef stock. It would be far easier to just purchase a container of beef boullion from the grocery store, but there’s something deeper at stake for me.

I want my kids to have something true, something real, and something they can identify. I want my kids to recognize the taste of leeks and carrots in a stock. I want my kids to see how long it takes to cool and remove the fat from the top of the stock. I want them to understand why the food they eat at home tastes different from the stuff out of a can in the school cafeteria.

Truthfully, there are no bones left behind for the kids to see at the school. My kids see the bones the broth comes from in our house. When making chicken stock, they see the chicken paws come out from the freezer and into the pot. There was once something living and breathing that went into that soup. The vegetables they see cooked to oblivion to get nutrients and flavors into the stock? Those vegetables came from farms where farmers worked hard. In the summer, the kids often meet those farmers at the farmer’s market or at the coop where my kids see the chickens that produce their eggs.

I have a colleague named Grace Hackney who is big into the ministry of food through the ministry “Life Around the Table.” At the Academy for Spiritual Formation we have had several deep conversations on food and spirituality. We have various differences of opinions on small matters, but I agree with her assertion that the ways we feed our bodies affect how we feed our soul. Living out of a place of gratitude means not only giving thanks for what we have on the table but also being aware of how it came to the table. Proverbs 13:25-14:1 states:

“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty. The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”

Proverbs 13:25-14:1, NRSV

Proverbs is a book which is very black and white. There are righteous people who suffer want and there are wicked folks who have never gone hungry. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:45, the sun rises and the rain falls on people of all varieties. Still, there is wisdom to the saying “Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”

For me, stewardship means being able to trace back the foods I eat to the earth. If you hand me a chicken and vegetables, I can make broth. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but when pressed I can clean and cook a chicken. Grocery store vegetables are pretty, but if you hand me a bunch of malformed carrots, I can use them fine.

I am capable of these tasks, understand the effort they take, and thus do not throw useful things away without reason. In fact, I’m sure I drive my wife crazy with my obsession over leftover bones. I’m also certain she appreciates I can bring good food to the table for two or three days after roasting a chicken without driving up the grocery bill through the roof. I do so in part because there’s nothing more damaging to our budget than a grocery budget blown out of proportion or a trip out to dinner every night of the week. We have enough and some to spare in part because we do not let the foods we eat tear down the house in which we live.

We are trying to live out the wisdom of Proverbs 13:11 as a family: “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little with increase it.” There are days when the food on the table does not taste as good as the food at the restaurant, but there are moments when practice results in success. There are days when it is easier to just buy a kit from the store, but there are also moments when we turn the tide against the world insistent on telling our kids that any taste can come from a vending machine. Little by little we resist the drive to buy every shiny thing at the store. Bit by bit we regain what was once lost to us.

Let us Seek: “If it had not been…”

One set of today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary includes Psalm 124. Psalm 124 is one of my favorite psalms from a rhetorical perspective. I adore the repetition of the phrase “If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side.” The phrase is used twice in the first two verses of the psalm. They are only separated by the phrase “Let Israel now say” in an attempt to compel the people of God to join in the chorus.

The psalm reminds me of countless worship services, concerts, and festivals where I have heard a singer invite the audience or congregation to join in the music. While this is not a call and response situation, the power of the phrasing brings to mind the same compulsion to join in the song of the faithful. Robert Altar notes that he shares this impression in his translation and commentary “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Altar writes: (443)

“The second of these two versets is a formal exhortation, probably on the part of a choral leader, to the community of worshippers to chant the words of the liturgical text that begins in the first verset and continues in verse 2 through to the end of the psalm… The Hebrew, with its abundant use of incremental repetition, has a strong rhythmic character that would have lent itself to singing or chanting”

I am glad Altar agrees with my reflections and my tendencies with this psalm. One reason that I am glad is that I always appreciate being verified in my assumptions by a respected scholar like Robert Altar. The second reason that I am glad is that psalms like this psalm always strike me as invitations.

What if this psalm is an invitation to look at our own perspectives and experiences with a similar lens? The Psalmist claims the help of the Lord in the midst of challenges within this psalm. The Psalmist looks at the circumstances of challenge in life and notes God’s presence has made a difference in the life circumstances of the congregation. This invitation is especially powerful when we consider that the community as a whole is invited to join in the proclamation.

If I were a Hebrew man who was joining in this psalm, what might I think about as I talk about the powerful and salvific presence of God? Surely, I would consider the events of the Pentateuch and the salvation of the Jewish people, but I might also consider the times when I was sick and I felt God draw me out of the darkness. Surely, I would consider the events in the lives of the prophets, but I might also remember the times I stood by listening to my wife screaming as a child was brought safely into the world. There might be many thoughts on my mind as I joined in the psalm if I were a Hebrew man in the great congregation of the faithful.

So, what do I think of when I consider this psalm today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be healthy and safe? Surely, I am blessed by the world where my children live, but let us be clear. My children bear my genes and often my idiosyncrasies. I am surprised enough to have survived my own silliness and to have lived into the life I now lead. I am even more surprised it appears to be happening again! If it were not for the Lord, would I be here today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be safe and happy? I believe God has had a role in the lives of my family. If it were not for the Lord, my own silliness might swallow us up. Thanks be to God!

Where do you feel blessed by the Lord? What places in your life might have turned out differently if it were not for the Lord?

Let us Ramble: Waiting for S’mores

It had been a very busy Wednesday. The day had been long. I slumped into my camping chair and watched as a fire began to spread in my family’s fire ring.

I was tired. The children have been in the office with me this week and had joined me for Senior Lunch. My youngest daughter had an audience for her antics. The senior citizens were amused. I was very tired.

I was tired. The children had been very well behaved on Tuesday morning in the church office. By Tuesday night they were beginning to snipe at each other. On Wednesday morning the bickering began shortly after we arrived. By Wednesday afternoon… I was very tired.

I was tired. A storm knocked down a tree in the field last week. I had been dragging the logs out of the field with an old “Radio Flyer” style wagon without a comfortable pull-handle nor any form of shock-absorbers. One of our Buildings and Grounds folks was able to set the church tractor up with a trailer to help me do the job without walking a thousand miles with the wagon. Even with the tractor’s help there was still a lot of wood and a lot of work. The last big and irregularly shaped piece that I grabbed to load into the trailer slipped through my fingers and tore a gash in my wrist as I scrambled to catch it before it could strike my foot. That ornery and unwieldy piece of wood was the first piece in the fire ring. I was very tired.

I was tired. It would be at least half an hour until my kids returned home from their swim lessons at the YMCA. I was very tired, but the lemon-flavored seltzer water was pretty refreshing. The smoke rose and the very human and fairly spiteful bit of myself smiled as the wood which hurt my wrist began to burn away into nothingness.

The ornery piece of firewood burning…

I was tired, but thought back to the fact that my kids’ biggest problem that morning had been who would have the first turn being the teacher as the played school. I was tired, but thought back to the fact that the senior citizens who we sat with at lunch seemed to reconnect to a bit of their past and smile as they saw me tormented by my child. I was tired, but thought back to the fact that Paul had helped me to use the trailer so that I wouldn’t collapse of exhaustion. I was tired, but that bedraggled piece of wood was getting what it deserved and would provide enough heat to make my kids s’mores after they returned from swim lessons.

I was tired, but I decided to be grateful as I stared into the flames. I knew that tomorrow would have enough problems, but for that one moment I could decide to be content with the blessings of a cool glass of seltzer water, a warm fire, and the promise of time together alone with my wife sitting by the fire after the kids went to bed.

Let us be Grateful: “God’s Unconditional Love”

Today I finished the first book of four that I need to read before the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I am grateful that I have finished reading the book as it was a very deep book. At times it felt as if the book was so densely packed that I would collapse under the weight of the ideas.

I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au presented a book which looked at shame from a lot of different directions. They wrote at length about the internal and external sources of shame. They provided exercises to enter deeply the ideas they were sharing and provided examples of what some of those exercises might look like when put into practices.

This book was a great book. I am grateful that I had a chance to read through the book and am equally pleased that one of the author’s will be one of my instructors at the upcoming session of the Academy. I look forward to going into the concepts explored in the book with the author.

I would invite you to pick up a good book if you have not taken the time to read something that challenged you to go deeper into your passion in a while. A lot of people I know find a million and one excuses to not read including the bane of free time known as the internet. I invite you to slow down and find a good book. I invite you to try this book out for size. If you aren’t into that subject, I will tell you the next book on my hitlist is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr.

Let us be Grateful: Annual Conference Gratitude

So, if it isn’t clear, yet I am posting about something I am grateful on a regular basis through the month of June. I ordinarily don’t post on Saturdays, but as I am already at Annual Conference. I might as well take the time to try and be a blessing by pointing out where I have seen God over the past few days.

  • A bold speech by a young man named JJ Warren about his struggles with the church. He was bold and powerful in his words. He spoke from the heart and I was glad he was my brother in Christ. I look forward to the day when his cry for justice comes to fruition.
  • A bold correction from a seminarian who would not allow one viewpoint to stand as the only view which could be considered the “traditional” interpretation. She took her tuition money and put it into good use!
  • A powerful moment where I talked with someone on the other side of an issue. We refused to allow our differences to make us anything less than brothers in Christ.
  • Watching a young man named Ian use his voice with power and skill.
  • Connecting with a very intelligent man named Kevin. Sara is a blessed woman.
  • Watching people receive permission to make speeches that were neither for nor against on the floor of conference in a challenging moment. It was good to see people have a place to speak where there is often only stifling opposition.
  • Celebrating the life of my best friend in ministry on Thursday night. Celebrating the continuation of life with 9 other folks over Indian on Friday night.
  • I had someone who I used to pastor and now work with as a colleague ask if I’d be their spiritual director.
  • Celebrating the commissioning of a good friend this afternoon. I know it hasn’t happened yet, but I am still incredibly excited already.
  • Going to the Cokesbury table and walking away without buying anything. To be fair, there wasn’t a ton available on spiritual practices and that’s what I am really interested in at the moment. Mostly just curriculum, Bibles, and kitsch.
  • Realizing that I’ll have a new child in my arms at the next Annual Conference. That is pretty awesome.
  • The moment I realized that the best response to someone scowling at me for wearing the rainbow stole I bought for my wife was to smile with my warmest smile. I gave them the one I reserve for my kids, my wife, puppies, and babies.
  • The stories at the worship service led by Young People. “Jesus doesn’t call us to be comfortable!” “I feel valuable:..” “We can set the example for the rest of the church.”
  • The mom of a kid who is crawling around near me. I told her that we were expecting a kid after such a long time as just parents of kids who talk, walk, read, and so forth. She told me she had kids the same age as mine and that life will be fun and that it will be okay.

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…