“Epiphany Tanka”

Before I even share my poem, a Merry Christmas Eve to all of the Orthodox folks out there who will celebrate Christmas tomorrow. May God bless you and your celebration!

Snow falls through dark sky
Shifting past still planter hooks.
Light will brim at dawn
On lands awaiting the thaw
After Jack Frost settles abed.
My poetry journal. Yes, I did have several composition books bound together…

Let Us Ramble: On Baptismal Hope

Blessings friends. Sunday was an exciting Sunday at our church and in my own house. We celebrated worship with Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams, Associate Conference Minister of the New Conference of the United Church of Christ. We heard a powerfully thoughtful sermon on Christ’s love, shared communion, and eventually shared in a moment of sacramental beauty as my daughter was baptized. It was a holy and powerful moment as she was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday ended with memories of friends gathered, love shared, and God’s baptismal grace entering into the life of a child of God. As a parent, it was one of those moments where everything happens seemingly in a blur. Our church family has a new baptized member! What a joyful day!

Who knows where this newly baptized child of God will go? Reflecting back, I find myself drawn to reflect on “Our Time for Younger Disciples.” I shared with the children a reality. On Friday night I had sat with my friend and colleague Emily. Emily is preparing to welcome her third child into the world. She’s a woman of God who is called into ministry while living life as a mother similar to the way I am a man of God called into ministry while living life as a father. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

Rev. Dr. Marsha has a really cool title. She’s an Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ and she has earned her doctorate. On an aside, while I do not aspire to Conference leadership in any denomination, I will admit that I want a doctorate someday. Anyway, Marsha is descended from a different part of the human family than my European roots and claims her African heritage with justifiable pride. We look very different. We’re married to two very different (but amazing) women, work out our call in different contexts, and each have our own traditions. We both look my ministers and pull portions of the same yoke for Jesus. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I also shared with our younger friends that I have a friend at the Academy for Spiritual Formation named Hyunho. He’s a child of God from another completely different part of the human family who happily lives into his identity as a child with roots from South Korea. Hyunho is an Elder in the United Methodist Church like me! He is thoughtful, kind, intellectual, gracious, and kind. Hyunho has a humble and loving spirit that I long to have in my own life. His community’s practices and beliefs have inspired his approach to ministry within a cross-cultural appointment. In the midst of all of our differences, we are both called. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I think back on these differences and similarities because God calls us all. The child we baptized Sunday may be called by God to be a scientist, a minister, a teacher, a nurse, or anything else. Each of the children who came forward for the children’s moment Sunday might be called to something different and strange—they will be called to believe in themselves and who they are called to be in this life! I hope our kids in church remember that God calls each of us. We are all called to be children of God—each and every one of us. I hope they live into the love of God that draws them near.

The Parable of the Baker

Yesterday, was a rough day for me in terms of ministry. The day began with watching colleagues, laity, and friends within my denomination begin to process through the previous week’s events with wildly different points of view. The sight of people I care about debating each other was not always pleasant. Shortly after responding to the situation and inviting people to breathe, I was made aware of the constitutional amendment results. I was rendered speechless by the result and told my wife “This is a day my denomination deserves to be ashamed of itself.” Yesterday was rough.

I was speaking to someone yesterday afternoon when I was asked what I do when I am faced with things I cannot change. I told a story that I would like to share with you in the format of a parable.

Living in the Kingdom of Heaven is like this: Once there was a baker who was easily distracted. The baker went to make a loaf of bread one day, but became distracted. The yeast was mixed in with the flour, but the baker rushed the process and forgot the salt. The dough was given time to rise, but the baker forgot to put the bread in a warm place. The bread was baked in the oven, but the baker ignored the step where the temperature was lowered. The bread came out of the oven blackened, hard, and inedible. No children could make sandwiches, no butter could be spread on toast for a snack, and there was a lot of disappointment.

The next day, the baker rose again. The baker considered what had happened the day before and set about making bread with a singular focus. The baker mixed yeast with flour and with the previous day’s forgotten salt. The dough was given time to rise in a war,=m environment. The bread was baked at the correct temperatures for the right amount of time. The bread which sat on the cooling rack was golden and delicious. The baker’s family had what it needed.

Friends, we cannot go back to change the past. All we can work with it the dough we have today. May God grant us grace to live into the day that we have today. May God give us the grace to pick up the pieces and try again.

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Let us Ramble: Patience and Wisdom

The other day I woke up early to get a wood chipper to help remove some branches from the church property. Winter was windy, one tree had to be cut down, and we had lots of loose branches to handle. I arose early in the morning and headed out to pick up a rented wood chipper. On the way, I stopped to get a cup of coffee. Yard work is thirsty work, especially early in the morning.

I stopped at a nearby donut shop and noticed a huge line of cars in the drive through. The cars were literally lining up to zipper-merge from both directions in order to get breakfast, coffee, or whatever the people wanted. The number of people idling in line in running cars was staggering.

The view from my car window. License plates blurred because I’m a nice guy.

I thought to myself that I would probably have to wait in line for quite a while inside if the store were that busy. I walked in the door and there were three people sitting at a table while people bustled behind the counter. Otherwise, the donut shop was empty. I walked right up, picked up my order, and was out the door in less time than it took one of those cars to move one position in the line.

As I slipped into my car, I wondered about the situation. Every time I went to that particular location in the morning it seemed that the line outside was always longer than the line inside. I regularly walked in and out while people sat and looked at me through their windows. Nothing staggeringly new was taking place this particular morning. I long ago learned that patience is a virtue, but not the only virtue. Wisdom and experience taught me to plan to walk into the restaurant instead of waiting in line. It is simply faster at that location to walk in the door. It is even faster if you order ahead on their smartphone app.

As I pondered this I thought about all of the other times I have “waited in line.” There are things that I really wanted to have happen in my life, but I would just sit there and watch the world pass by outside the window of my life. I would sit behind a useless steering wheel which could do nothing as I was not moving, twiddle my thumbs, and wait for the world to magically become a better place.

Occasionally, over the years I have had the wisdom to get out of the car a couple of times. I am married and have kids because I decided to step out of the car and enter into a relationship with a wonderful woman. I continue to be married because I do my best to move forward with life despite challenges that I could easily blame on others. I can cook because I decided to stop just longing to be able to create good food and began to ask questions of people who I knew could cook. I entered into the ministry, sought after the best parts of myself, and battled my demons. I didn’t always get out of the car, but I have learned the value of not waiting for everything to be handed over on a silver platter.

Now, let’s be clear. I am all for understanding the value of patience. Still, while patience is a virtue, sometimes in life we need to step out of the car. I regularly hear people speak of the world around them in tones that imply a certain kind of irritated, frustrated patience is all that can exist. People wish the world was kinder, wish their workplace was friendlier, or wonder why their church does not have more visitors. The world is full of lovely wishes that never change a thing because they are not acted upon by anyone.

What if the answer is that we need to get out of our car? Yes, we can wait until someone else invites a stranger to church, but what if we were to extend that invitation? Yes, we can hope that people in the workplace would be nicer to one another, but what if we were to seek out ways to be nice? Yes, we can bemoan the world becoming a crueler place, but we can also seek to bring love back into the dark places of the world.

We don’t need to wait in line for someone to bring what we need to our window. We can go to seek it out. We have the capacity as people for wonderful things. Let’s do some of them!

Let us Seek: The Cabbage Crisis

Our church’s food pantry had a problem last summer. We had a MASSIVE donation of cabbage. We received hundreds of pounds of cabbage. We had lots of cabbage. The cabbage was beyond the capacities of our refrigerators and we literally could not get rid of it fast enough. The overabundance of cabbage was a bigger problem than you might think. We needed space for other donations of things people need regularly. We could not accept donations of milk or eggs because there was too much cabbage. We could not accept donations of deli meat or cheese because there was too much cabbage. We had so much cabbage that the stuff we could not refrigerate was going bad. We donated as much as we could to a church member’s family who raises pigs, but apparently even pigs get tired of cabbage.

We came right up to the point where the volunteers at the food pantry were going to simply toss it away when I decided to do something about the situation. I did my research, I went on a small shopping spree, and I got to work. I made five gallons of sauerkraut.

Pastor Rob with five gallons of cabbage, salt, and water in July of 2016. Yes, it was incredibly hot that day.

Yes, I made gallons and gallons of sauerkraut. Now, New York State law does not allow for processed food to be distributed to folks unless it has been processed by an approved professional company. So, this meant that I had five gallons of sauerkraut on my shelves. Five gallons of sauerkraut meant that we learned a lot of recipes over the past year that use sauerkraut. Sweet and sour meatballs are my personal favorite.

Yesterday was a beautiful day and we needed to decide what to put on our hot dogs. I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes over just having ketchup or relish when I remembered what was in the garage. A few minutes later I was enjoying a hot dog with sauerkraut and ketchup. The hot dog was delicious.

The most delicious hot dog I ate yesterday!

So, why do I share all of this with you on my blog? I share it because there was a moment last year when everything was coming apart at the seams. The cabbage was literally becoming a thorn in my side and in the side of all of our volunteers. Just the smell of cabbage was beginning to get bother people in a real and powerful sense. The situation was becoming a miniature crisis.

All it took to turn the situation around was for someone to do a little research, put in a bunch of hard work, and to transform a negative situation into a positive blessing. My family had healthy meals this past winter because of the cabbage that was driving people nuts. My hot dog went from good to great because of the cabbage that even pigs were getting tired of eating. Opportunity was hiding in plain sight.

I do not know what situations you may be facing in life today. I do know that not every situation has a silver lining. I cannot promise that there is an outcome as positive as the situation with the cabbage, but I can tell you one thing that is absolutely true. If you do not open your eyes and look around then you may never know what possibilities you are missing.

Consider the following words from Jeremiah 29:10-14: (NRSV)

“For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

Jeremiah’s words are set in the scriptures during a challenging moment in history. Trouble is on the horizon and Lamentations will show exactly deep a sorrow will fall on the people of God. Jeremiah’s prophecies are set in a time of doubt about the future. There was likely a real and powerful doubt at play in the hearts of all those people who heard Jeremiah’s prophecies and believed his words.

Despite these doubts and troubles, Jeremiah leaves the people with a word of hope. There was a place for redemption and hope when all of the trouble had come and gone. Will the seventy years ahead be a very difficult time? Of course the situation ahead of the people will be grim. Even Jeremiah will be filled with lament when everything comes to pass, but even that darkness will not last forever. God cares about the welfare of the people. God will make a way and allow the people to find both God and hope. God will hear their prayers again. God will gather the people in with open arms.

I do not want to belittle whatever situations you face today. Everyone has their own challenges and sometimes there are no silver linings. I do want to invite you to open your eyes in the midst of your challenges. Sometimes there are blessings in the stinky cabbages of life. Not always, but sometimes there are possibilities. I invite you to have courage and to have faith.