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.
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.
Steel cut oats linger in salty water
As coffee scents waft in the humid air.
Gray light trickles in through old still windows
As lazy flies begin to greet the day.
All is now quiet as mother and child
Bask in dream filled worlds beyond human reach.
The dogs sleep without a care in their heads.
Only the black cat watches with my soul.
If I could keep this moment in a jar
I would save it for darker days to come;
Yet, each day comes once and fades far away.
So, I sip and enjoy while I still can.
“Still Morning” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019
This morning we sang a hymn in place of the offertory. The hymn is a well-meaning hymn known as “This is my song” by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. The hymn has an interesting history: first as a poem and then as a hymn. The song is a stirring song set to the tune Finlandia.
I also struggle with that particular song. I struggle for two reasons. First, I struggle with the song because I love the song. I think it is beautifully written, wonderfully lyricised, and matched perfectly with the stirring tune of Finlandia. If I were to choose a patriotic song as one I could adopt as my own, this would be the song I would choose first. I appreciate the balance between pride in one’s land and an appreciation for the viewpoint of others. I also appreciate that Dr. Harkness was a pioneering theologian whose work I love to support.
The second reason I struggle is that I am increasingly immersed in the early church. I enjoy reading through ancient sermons, ancient theologies, and reading about the lives of the leaders of the early church. Recently I was reading an excerpt from John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407 CE) in Amy Oden’s “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in the Early Church.” The excerpt was from Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12, which was published in 1889, and the version I share below is sourced from the public domain. I will say Dr. Oden’s version reads far easier. Chrysostom wrote:
“Knowest thou not that we live in a foreign land, as though strangers and sojourners? Knowest thou not that it is the lot of sojourners to be ejected when they think not, expect not? which is also our lot. For this reason then, whatsoever things we have prepared, we leave here. For the Lord does not allow us to receive them and depart, if we have built houses, if we have bought fields, if slaves, if gear, if any other such thing. But not only does He not allow us to take them and depart hence, but doth not even account to thee the price of them. For He forewarned thee that thou shouldest not build, nor spend what is other men’s but thine own. Why therefore, leaving what is thine own, dost thou work and be at cost in what is another’s, so as to lose both thy toil and thy wages and to suffer the extremest punishment? Do not so, I beseech thee; but seeing we are by nature sojourners, let us also be so by choice; that we be not there sojourners and dishonored and cast out. For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there. For the just, although having nothing, will both dwell here amidst all men’s possessions as though they were his own; and also, when he hath departed to heaven, shall see those his eternal habitations. And he shall both here suffer no discomfort, (for none will ever be able to make him a stranger that hath every land for his city;) and when he hath been restored to his own country, shall receive the true riches. In order that we may gain both the things of this life and of that, let us use aright the things we have.”John Chrysostom, Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12
Effectively, Chrysostom is referencing the teachings of Jesus about treasurers on earth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21 to avoid storing up treasures on earth. Chrysostom points out that one cannot take houses, fields, slaves (different time in history: not justifying the unjustifiable, but pointing out Chrysostom’s context), gear, or anything else out of this world. Chrysostom points out that we have been forewarned against building up our riches on earth or claiming the things of this world as treasure. We cannot take the things of this world with us. Indeed, it is only in the next life that we find ourselves growing into our true inheritance and riches.
What catches my eye in regards to the hymn and what causes me to ask deep questions is the line “For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there.” Chrysostom sees Christians as people on a journey through this life with a goal of reaching the next. If one stops to claim this place as one’s land, one will only have it for a moment. If one claims one citizenship to be in Heaven, then one has the freedom to both enjoy this world and move into the next without great loss. Indeed, a strict reading would say that one cannot move into the kin-dom of God by grasping tightly to a land, a nation, or one’s own goods.
Strictly speaking, the hymn we sang stands in opposition to one of the earliest Christian leaders because it claims that this is our land, our nation, and our space while Christian tradition teaches that we belong elsewhere. This world is a world in which we live in a fog. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to a community in conflict about the things of this world: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them to stop acting childishly and to quit dividing themselves over earthly matters. This is a place where we see the world, each other, and God dimly (like in a mirror from an age when a modern mirror would be a miracle). The world to which we belong and where we are headed is where we will see clearly and be seen clearly. The world to which we belong is one in which we shall come into our full being.
Thus, I am torn by the hymn. I love the hymn, the words of peace, and the seeking of understanding of other people. I also realize that Chrysostom might look at the differences between nations and see people whose eyes might rest better on the world to come than the goods and lands of this world. Neither we in this land nor those folks in other lands can carry the goods of this world to the next life.
This hymn may be one of those places where we must live in the tension between ideals. The older I grow, the more I come to see that life requires a bit more flexibility than I once carried in my idealistic youth. As a friend likes to say at church: “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”
This Saturday morning I am thinking about grief. My wife has started a wonderful new professional position, but we live in an imperfect world. I fell asleep in bed with my head next to hers as she talked about her professional challenges last night. I listened for a good long time before my exhaustion took me away. Thankfully, she does not read my blog regularly: my “secret” is safe for now. Let’s be honest: she may already know.
Professionally, in my own ministry I often face grief in homes, at funerals, on Sunday mornings, in hospital rooms, in meetings, in conferences, in the checkout line at the grocery store, and many other places. Personally, I have been grieving the act of registering for Annual Meetings this year because of the grief incurred globally. Now that the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council ruling has effectively guaranteed a divisive United Methodist Annual Conference and a United Church of Christ Annual Meeting filled with well-meant sympathy and questions, I suppose my grief needs to be accepted.
Grief is in my thoughts this morning. I spent my quiet time this morning praying while doing the less than pleasant task of doing dishes. I might not have raisins to sort, but I try to learn from folks like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence. Grief was in my thoughts as I scrubbed oily residue and emptied the sink trap.
My conclusion at the end of my time of contemplation is that grief reminds me of an octopus. Grief can be Krakenesque or found 20,000 leagues below the surface. Grief can be in the shallows of a reef teeming with life or plucking what little it can from the open currents.
Grief is a master of camouflage. The beast hides in plain sight until it reaches out. Grief grabs you only once before you see it in every eddy of sand. Grief can make you paranoid to swim out into the seas of life.
Grief also does not hide behind every rock in the sea of life. If we spend our whole lives afraid to swim, we may eventually regret our choices. As strange as it sounds, fish that do not move water through their gills will drown. Most fish can only hold still for a certain amount of time before they get air from the surface or the sea.
Tomorrow in church at Maine Federated, we will sing songs and read the story of Easter again. We will proclaim resurrection in a world of grief. We will swim, we will breathe, and face whatever octopi wait in the depths.
The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “name.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! Today’s haiga is inspired partially by Ash Wednesday and the reality of mortality exposed by Lent.
A few weeks ago I sat with a sick infant in the depths of night. Wet cloth cooling a fever from the now rare chicken pox. I rocked and contemplated what we would do if the fever spiked again. It was dark in that room in more ways that one.“Her Forehead” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
A few weeks ago I sat with a parent in grief over an upcoming surgery. A sweet child in need of care. I contemplated her struggle and prayed for more than just the child. I prayed for my own forgiveness because I was grateful my child was not the one in need of that care.
A few weeks ago I sat and ate elementary school spaghetti. It was exactly how I remembered it. We sat, laughed, talked, and even danced as we tried to support some friends’ family in their hour of need. I could stomach school spaghetti far easier than letting my friends feel they were alone after caring for a baby who spent a lot of time in the NICU.
Yesterday I saw the ash on her forehead and I realized that she was mortal too. Today she is well but one day she will be in God’s hands. My heart broke as I realized a truth that had been walking through the edges of my soul.
On the day of ash
We contemplate our own path
Down through our life’s end.
Easier to see your own
Than on your daughter’s sweet face.
You are not alone.“Reminder” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019
Trees stand through fierce winter storms
They bud with spring heat.
Trees are amazing creatures.
What if you’re amazing too?
There is a time for every matter under heaven. There is a time for challenge and a time for winter. There is a time for difficulty and a time for tears. There is a time for brokenness and a time for loneliness. There is a time for solitude and a time for silence. There is a time for every matter under heaven, so why be jealous of those whose tears are yet to come? Why be envious of those who will know broken days? Why wish to be those who have had perfect days? There is a time for every matter under heaven…“Perspective” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Tomorrow will come
And all will be different,
So breathe through the pain.
This poem is written in response to the challenge from the dVerse Poets’ Pub challenge for a Haibun on Solitude. This poem is dedicated to a good friend who knows why I wrote it. Thank you for listening, my friend.
“Can you see deep down?”
The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Holy One, do You know me?
Deep down can You see?
All of the places in me?
They just look at me
And they simply laugh away.
Sometimes it breaks me
To wake up and see just me.
I walk lonely ways.
There are many simple ways
That You might help me.
My wounded, lonely spirit
Cries sadly, Spirit.
Can you see my heart Spirit?
You knit all of me
knowing my bones and spirit?
My sad cracked spirit?
What could you possibly see
You love me Spirit?
The world needed me Spirit?
Not hiding away?
Not shunned or thrown far away
From this life Spirit?
I am confused by Your ways.
Help me see Your ways.
I can see some of the ways
With happy Spirit.
When I walk down pleasant ways
I trace Your ways–
Fingerprints of You in Me.
Marks of Your deep ways
Show in the subtlest of ways
When I slow to see
The goodness that You must see
In Your ancient ways.
You draw me from far away.
I can't stay away.
Things that I would toss away
You bless through Your ways.
You toss ideal away.
Discard it away
As You stitch up my Spirit.
Weave, subtle Spirit.
Bless my imperfect spirit
As You work in me,
As You work to renew me.
Do not stay away.
Open my eyes–help me see
The perfect You see.
I can't always clearly see
How You work away
To form what You hope to see.
Pain distracts, You see?
Work in me Your calming ways.
Bless my eyes to see
The vision that You did see
When You put spirit
In my flesh by Your Spirit.
Bless my soul to see
The loveliness within me,
the best part of me.
Holy One, you do know me.
Though it's hard to see
You are never far away.
Teach me Your deep ways
Until spirit knows Spirit.
Sunday mornings I lead worship at the Maine Federated Church. This past Sunday I spoke with our younger disciples about Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is a tricky psalm in places, so we focused on the first 18 verses. There are words about God surrounding someone on every side, words about God crafting someone with care, and words about God’s deep love.
As I shared with the kids, I saw reflections in their eyes. My eyesight isn’t the best, but there was hope and pain in those young eyes. Perhaps one or two had already been told they were not the wonderful kids I believe that they happen to be. I wrote this canzone to work into the struggle I have shared with them over the years. Can these words really apply to us? Can we move from doubt to belief?
For the record, this is the first truly complicated form of poetry I have attempted. I am not adept with the canzone or sestina, so I would adore kind feedback or recommendations of other poems in these forms I should check out.
Today’s post is out of sync for most folks. I serve as a minister and thus operate on a different schedule than most of my community. My community consists of a majority of people (but not all) who either work weekdays or live in a cycle where weekends are normal. We have a few individuals who work shifts on weekends, but most either work those weekday jobs or have other purposes in their life (e.g. stay at home parents, retirees, etc.)
As a minister, Monday morning is a time when I prepare for the week ahead. Often that means taking time for reflection. My “Spiritual Renewal Day” is Friday, which is unfortunate as it means my only regular companions for my Sabbath are pets and my toddler. Saturday is a day fraught with community events, denominational events, children’s events, and complications with worship preparations. This past Saturday I had to choose between a historical society coffeehouse, a district training day in the United Methodist Church, the upcoming week’s grocery shopping, worship prep, and my daughter’s birthday party. I chose my daughter’s birthday party, worship prep, and grocery shopping.
Monday is not my spiritual renewal day, but Monday morning is a time my spirit requires me to slow down. Part of that slowing down is reading for personal growth, for the Academy for Spiritual Formation, for an upcoming book or Bible studies, or for upcoming sermons (although on principle, I rarely read anything on the subject I am preaching on the upcoming Sunday).
Today I began by reading further into Rev. Wayne Muller’s book “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” I find Mr. Muller’s writings to be interesting. From my reading, I have the feeling that we share a common attribute in introversion. I may be wrong, but I found his love of rest to speak to my introverted soul.
There are days when it seems as if Mr. Muller knows my heart. It feels like continual overcommitment leads to a violence against my soul (pg. 3). As a minister, I am often asked to be a voice or presence on nearly every committee, am expected (on my Methodist side) to hold each committee accountable to our common identity and purpose, to be present in the lives of the homebound and sick, to be available 24/7 for hospital calls, and am expected to lead in most forms of outreach.
The sense of needing to be everywhere for everyone is a common struggle among clergy. Many clergy struggle from burnout and many are accused of not being present enough when their families are falling apart, their relationships are crumbling, and facing loneliness. I have struggled with the constant pull of ministry on my life for years. I believe this common struggle is one reason Mr. Muller’s words struck so deeply with me today. In his chapter on “The Joy of Rest” Mr. Muller writes:
“The practice of Shabbat, or Sabbath, is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work. Ancient texts suggest we light candles, sing songs, pray, tell stories, worship, eat, nap, and make love. It is a day of delight, a sanctuary in time. Within this sanctuary, we make ourselves available to the insights and blessings that arise only in the stillness of time.”“Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” by Wayne Muller (pg. 26)
When was the last time you woke up with the goal of delighting in being alive? I have had days where I have woken up with the goal of worshipping, the plan to sing songs or tell stories, but it is rare that I have woken up with the goal of delight. As someone who has publicly faced the challenges of mental health over the years, waking up with the goal of delighting in my life seems particularly foreign to my mindset.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to set aside time to delight in being alive? Many Christians struggle to fight for conceptual ideas like sexual propriety, the lives of unborn children, and other idealistic strivings. Laying aside those questions, what would life be like if we were to put a tenth of the energy we see poured into those causes poured into delighting in life? What would life be like if we gathered for worship Sunday mornings and said we are here to delight in each other’s company? What if we delighted in each other’s company?
In my mind, I see a church filled with people going past “Hey. Good to see you!” or “Hi. How are you?… I’m good.” What would it look like if we delighted in each other? How would that change the way we see church? How would that change the way we see our mission?
A church that focused on treating the Sabbath how Mr. Muller describes Sabbath is the kind of church I would love to be a part of as an individual. A community focused on songs, worship, delight, prayer, stories, and even in bringing love into our homes… there is a wonderful vision!
The other night something caught my eye when I was reading the introduction written by S. T. Joshi in “American Supernatural Tales.” Mr. Joshi was discussing a statement made by William Hazlitt in 1829 in the Edinburgh Review. Mr. Hazlitt believed the ages of ghosts had passed (along with ignorance and superstition) before the United states came into existence.
Mr. Hazlitt’s assertion itself did not catch my eye. What caught my eye was the way Mr. Joshi reframed the issue. Mr. Hazlitt asked:
“Since so much of supernatural fiction appears to find the source of its terrors in the depths of the remote past, how can a nation that does not have much of a past express the supernatural in literature?”J. T. Hazlitt in the Introduction to “American Supernatural Tales”
How can a nation without a past express itself in supernatural literature? Does this question only apply itself to the original context? Can a nation with such a short memory for history express itself in these arenas?
This approach to the question intrigued me. How can one write good fiction that defies reality if one lives in an age where reality is black and white? Werewolves and Dr. Frankenstein’s monsters are entities of a time when such things were plausibly close to real, but just beyond reality. Our age is an age of scientific marvels, which is perhaps why our science fiction is extensive and excellent, but much of horror is jump scares and the monstrosity of humanity. Are there truly unique monsters in our age?
Mr. Hazlitt points out that H. P. Lovecraft wrote of William Faulkner’s tale “A Rose for Emily,” that: “… this is a dark and horrible thing which could happen, whereas the crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen.” For something to be truly weird, it could not possibly happen…
All of these things raise a question in me: Can the weird still happen? Can things exist that could not possibly happen? In an age when the internet, technology, animation, and raw processing power make almost anything imaginable come to the screen, does the weird still exist? Can the weird still draw us into a special place where the natural laws and rules of things no longer apply?
I ask this in all sincerity because I believe that Mr. Lovecraft was correct. A weird tale requires something that could not possibly happen. Also, God is weird.
We live in an age bombarded with information and with possibility. We are living in the middle of the longest government shutdown in American history, which would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. Some of the most unfathomably large comic book stories of a medium that is blessed to present stories from one frame at a time have been brought off of the paper onto the screen. The modern equivalent of gods and goddesses walk on the silver screen when stories of far-off worlds are not being portrayed. We live in a world of possibility.
Is there still room in the midst of all of that information for the world to find the weirdness of God? Can God be weird if we keep swallowing all of that stuff without pausing to chew? What’s more, does all of this make life better?
I love superhero movies and science fiction, but they are like everything else: they are good in moderation. I enjoy watching humorous videos and listening to Weird Al, but they are like everything else: they are good in moderation. When the mind is filled with too much stuff, there is less room for imagination, creativity, and weirdness.
I like the universe to be a little weird. I like there to be a space where the weird God can be set apart from reality. We used to call that set apart weirdness holiness. As much as I love science fiction and superheroes, can a nation with neither an attention span for the past nor space for palpable weirdness really engage with the weird? Can we engage with God? If the space is too crowded, is there room in ourselves to step back and take space?
“What if?”, The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Based on Ecclesiastes 1:2=11, NRSV
Frosted sacred ground;
Plans prepared wait quietly
Like the falling snow...
Saturday Night Snowy Haiga, Distracted Pastor 2019
Today I spent my time in prayer focusing on Psalm 39. In my personal journey, today is not only the day of my birth, it is also the day when I gave my heart to God at fifteen years old. As such, spending my prayer time focusing on Psalm 39 might seem odd to many people.
I said, “I will guard my ways
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence.”
I was silent and still;
I held my peace to no avail;
my distress grew worse,
my heart became hot within me.
While I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
“Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
I am silent; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
I am worn down by the blows of your hand.
“You chastise mortals
in punishment for sin,
consuming like a moth what is dear to them;
surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
Psalm 39, NRSV
“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more.”
Consider the words of the Psalm and there are passages which you will probably not find within a card on a rack in your local store. Well, some of them might end up in a “dark humor” section:
- “Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather.” (vs. 6)
- “You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.” (vs. 5)
- “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.” (vs.11)
- “Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.” (vs. 13)
- “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am a passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” (vs. 12)
- “Lord, let my know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” (vs. 4)
So, why would I spend my time contemplating this passage of all passages on my birthday? Why would I make the choice to pray about these words on the day I felt my heart strangely warmed and felt an assurance of my place in God’s love?
My heart was captured by the fourth verse of the Psalm. “Let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.” As I spent time with these words, I thought about the tea in the wooden bin on my counter. I switched back to primarily being a tea drinker as part of my plan for 2019, and I checked our stash of tea to find it empty. A new bag of fair trade tea will arrive in a few weeks, so I am left with what is in the bin.
When the bin is full, there are many pots of tea ready to be made. A cup of tea is just a cup of tea. The tea may be enjoyable, warming, wonderful, and flavorful; however, it is still just one cup of much once brewed. When the bin is nearing emptiness, each cup is to be savored. When the bin is almost an empty box, every sip is a gift. There is something wonderfully deep about the paradox that scarcity makes something all the more precious.
Yes, my life is fleeting. Yes, even though today is a day of celebration in my house, it is healthy to remember that there will be only so many of these celebrations before I celebrate on another shore. Yes, these days are like a shadow, but the shadow shows me that there is life. Yes, what is dear to me on earth will eventually break down, rust, be eaten by dogs, fall prey to overactive kids, or just wear out; however, those things are just stuff.
I may not agree with the expressed sentiment that “God is punishing you by taking away everything you love.” I believe the 11th and 13th verses were likely born out of a dark place although there are moments when chastisement may be the only way forward. Many folks recovering from addiction have pointed to low points in life as moments when they were given a chance to recover and rise from “rock bottom.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some assistance is occasionally required to find that place of possibility. I would say sometimes things break and that may not be God punishing. Sometimes we have a bad day and it is not always the case that our days is terrible because God is glaring at us—I often find the opposite is usually true.
Despite my grief for the struggles endured by the Psalmist when composing Psalm 39, I am grateful for the reminder that this day is precious despite being one of many days. I am grateful for this life as fleeting as it may pass. One day, my time will come, and I hope people will realize I was grateful for what I had even as I sometimes struggled with the challenges. Today, I choose to read Psalm 39 with gratitude. I pray you find reasons to enjoy the precious nature of life.
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.
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.
“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.”
—Psalm 57:1 (NRSV)
Tomorrow is election day in the United States. In our town of Maine, there are many choices to make between incumbents and challengers. With the political climate being as it has been lately, there is a lot of tension in many hearts and minds. What will happen if one candidate wins an election? What will happen if another candidate wins? Tension and anxiety are high.
I was pondering the reality of this election before entering morning prayer. The Psalm of the day in my prayers was Psalm 57. The first verse of the Psalm stuck with me. The imagery of the Psalm begins with the image of a petitioner asking God to be merciful as their soul takes refuge. This soul turns to God and seeks safety underneath the wings of God.
The imagery that stuck in my mind was one of a Parent providing safety for a child during a chaotic storm. Images floated through my brain of a robin spreading wings over nestlings during a rainstorm, a father penguin standing over his chick throughout a winter storm while his partner walks to the sea, or a mother goose protecting her goslings.
This imagery stuck in my mind when I finally reached my computer. I felt the urge to click on Facebook, to read the news, and do many of the things I told myself I would not do before Tuesday evening. I thought about what I might absorb from such an anxious world, thought of the imagery of the Psalm, and went about my day.
Tomorrow will be what tomorrow will be regardless of my anxiety. I will vote, I will pray, but I will not be afraid. God is greater than any storm and nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Tomorrow will come, tomorrow may end with me calling out, but tonight I shall trust that God’s wings are enough to shelter me.
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?
It is Monday morning at the Maine Federated Church. My normally quiet office is filled with the distant beeping of an alert as we have a low battery somewhere in the dark halls of the church. Earlier I was listening to classical music from my favorite philharmonic orchestra (London Philharmonic Orchestra). I was hoping it would be just loud enough to drown out the methodical beeping.
In time the note started to bother me despite the music. I found a chromatic tuner, sat patiently, and learned that the alarm was only slightly off from being a B♭, although it was annoyingly a little sharp and thus out of tune with the music scales. I went on a hunt, loaded up Boccherini’s Streichquartett no. 2 in G minor, opus 27 so that the note would be only slightly out of tune instead of wildly discordant.
Such things may seem strange, but they are part of a fairly normal Monday morning when my energy is low and I need simplicity for my soul’s sake. Sunday is exhausting for me as a minister. I pour my heart and soul into preparing for worship. After I spend my time talking with folks who are loved by God. I try to remember all of the names of people who matter to them, all of the history I know of their lives, and do my very best to be a loving and encouraging person. As someone who increasingly enjoys spending time in secluded peaceful spaces, that effort exhausts me in deep ways.
Monday is about sermon and worship prep for me. I read, I study, I pray, and I seek to get a head start on the week ahead, because you never know when something will happen which will require a few days of concentrated effort. Emergency room visits, deaths, and other life concerns cannot be scheduled. Monday is a time to make certain most of my ducks are in a row, even if that row usually requires a few days to straighten out.
In a lot of ways, as a pastor, Monday for me is about resetting the rhythm from one week to the next, which is something close to what other folks hopefully experience on Sunday mornings. I give thanks for what has happened, pray for guidance for the week ahead, and prepare for meetings, sermons, and even for the prayers I will share in the week ahead. For me, these rhythms of gratitude, prayer, and study are acts of worship.
Let me give a concrete simile. Life on Monday for me is like what is currently cooking in my rice cooker. For breakfast this morning I made smoothies for my family. I juiced carrots, a tomato, and a lot of spinach leaves. I took the juice and mixed in some homemade yogurt. We had a cup and a half of goodness each to start our day.
After my wife went to work, I started to clean things up. I grabbed the juicer pulp of carrot, spinach, and tomato. I scraped it into our smart rice cooker. I added some dried peppers, water, and dehydrated beef broth. I left the pulp cooking away for a few hours. When lunchtime approached, I added a bit more water, some homemade curry powder, and some wild rice.
Now, after a morning of working on worship preparation, lunchtime is approaching, and I will set the table with what is effectively vegetable porridge with rice. Nothing special was added to the pot. I worked with some dried spices, dried broth, dried rice, and leftover vegetable pulp. I simply used what was on hand, but in a short while I will enjoy something life-giving which will hopefully allow me to be a blessing to others.
On Mondays, I scrape out the bits of me that are filled with worry and doubt. I remove the parts and pieces which are covered with gunk and I clean them out. I wash away my irritation with playing the wrong notes on guitar, pick out the bits of me that went to bed wondering if I did well, and I prepare my heart and soul for another week of service. This week I may need to be ready to bring life into conversations around death, bring hope into places where people feel hopeless, and proclaim the gospel with and without words. I cannot do that if I am living in doubt or frustration about things that nobody will remember and nobody will care about in a week, a month, or a year.
On Mondays, I start to look around for what will be needed. I have an appointment this week on Tuesday that will require my heart to be open to listen, to advise, and to care. I have to search the cupboards of my being for my compassion and make certain it is ready to be used. I have (another!) sermon coming up this week and it takes more than time with a commentary to really engage the text with God’s beloved. Today is the day when I get my head into the scriptures, into the plans, and see if all will still be well with what I planned weeks ago. This is the day when I pull together what lifegiving bits of my heart and soul are still healthy and begin to simmer them with the spices of the week. In particular, today I am thinking with joy about sending kids to camp yesterday and mixing that in with a hope for people I will be in ministry with this next week. It should be a great week.
In truth, this is the day upon which a lot of my ministry rests. How does one survive in pastoral ministry for more than a decade with ups and downs? Monday morning is part of how I live into the rhythm of pastoral ministry. As the string quartet hums along with the slowly repeating beeping noise, I find space and energy in the silence to prepare for what is coming and where I will need to go. As such, today is not about making appointments. Today my appointment is with my God and my heart so that I can go about living out ministry throughout the rest of week.
I hope that you find a place of peace today as you go about your life. If you cannot find peace today, I invite you to consider that Sabbath is not entirely about one day a week. Sabbath is also about finding moments to focus on what is truly important. May you find life and love in your silences, your companionships, or whatever feeds your soul this day.
Rob’s Veggie Rice Bowl
(makes enough for several lunches for 3-4 hungry folks)
3 cups Veggie Pulp
1 quart & 1 cup water, divided
1.5 TBSP Dehydrated Beef Broth
⅛ cup Dried peppers
1 cup Wild Rice
2 teaspoons curry powder (I smoked mine with a cold smoker to add flavor)
Combine pulp, one quart of water, dehydrated beef broth, and peppers in a slow cooker, fuzzy logic rice cooker, or an oven proof bowl. Cook for three hours on a low setting (or in an oven at 190℉). Place into rice cooker and cook with the brown rice setting along with water and curry powder. Stir and cook on brown rice setting. Serve warm with a dollop of butter!
When I was a young boy I visited with my relatives down south in Georgia. My grandfather’s sisters lived in a small town where they spent their days in a house that was quite large and quite ornate. I wondered at the house, the railroad tracks that ran past the front yard, and the massive properties on the side of the tracks on which they lived. As a kid I was more interested and terrified of fire ants than I was of the social situation, but even I noticed that the people who helped my grandfather’s sisters maintain the property came from the smaller homes on the other side of the railroad tracks. As an adult, it took me forever to realize that they looked different too.
I do remember hearing negative things. When things went missing it was never because they were misplaced. The “help” had taken them. Even when those things were found, it was still the fault of the people who came to help the two elderly women in their home. I realize now that there was a world of things going on behind the scenes. There were likely issues of race, prejudice, class, and economics at play. There were also questions of grief as two women lost the ability to control first their bodies and then their minds. I don’t excuse the behavior, but I did have the seeds of my first nightmares about Alzheimer’s disease in those days.
As an adult who is now removed nearly three decades from those events, I do not blame myself for having neither the wisdom nor the education to ask questions. What small child really knows enough to ask those questions? Furthermore, would my proper southern relatives have even taken me seriously? I do my best to act with the wisdom gained in my day to day life now, which is where this post originates.
I identify as a millennial but I am not a young adult. I have three children who I am raising to the best of my ability. I pay my taxes, dutifully pay off massive student loans, and understand that I cannot be bailed out of every challenge by my father. I do my best to be a constructive part of society. I also listen to a lot of complaints about millennials.
Perhaps it is my sensitivity to hearing people complain about my generation that caused me to notice something I found disrespectful the other day. Several folks that I know shared a couple of memes suggesting that eighteen year old students are spoiled. One or two of the folks pointed out that eighteen year old kids used to charge the beaches of Normandy and other folks pointed out that eighteen year olds used to serve in Vietnam. They proceeded to mock eighteen year old kids as being spoiled.
It begged a question in my mind. Who do they think serves in the Armed Forces today? Who do they believe are recovering from wounds from IEDs in hospitals and clinics or leaving children without parents after ambushes? What’s more, when they come to an age where they need care to live out the end of their lives, who do they believe will be the doctors or nurses? Who do they believe will care for the needs of their property? Who will teach their children? Who will serve in the fire departments, police forces, and even on road crews when they are no longer capable?
To me it was mind boggling. I remember my relatives saying that my grandfather’s sisters did not understand what they were saying about other people. I also remember a few choice moments when the generation who raised me made a few choice comments that were not so gracious. For all of the criticism of the people who came before, my own family has struggled to leave behind the bad habit of criticizing others for being different, whether that be in terms of race, age, ability, or education.
The memes gave me pause because it seemed as if another generation had been raised up to sit on their lawn and insult other people for having the audacity to live life differently than they once lived. What’s worse, I am almost certain that somewhere in my life I do the same thing. I might even be doing it now.
So, let me apologize for those moments when I forget the lessons I learned from the mistakes and missteps of my ancestors. Let me apologize for people who do not see what they are doing in their attempt to be funny, opinionated, or simply a part of a disastrous movement who wants to disenfranchise as many people as necessary to maintain the way things have always been. Let me apologize for the things that I will miss in my own heart and my own actions. Please forgive me.
Eighteen year old soldiers, students, and human beings… You have my respect. Please, live a life that is incredible and help me to live a great one as well.
I have not posted much lately on my blog. One of the reasons is that I have been traveling for denominational Conferences over the last few weeks. One of the things that I did not realize when I took this appointment was that these meetings would often fall back to back. Another reason is that I have been focusing on doing some more intensive sermon prep given the things going on in our culture.
Let’s try to explain this in parable form. The work of a minister is like that of a baker. Every week they are expected to bake food that will feed people. Some people need sweets and others need something hearty. Some folks need something to build conversation around (like a dippable biscotti) while others need something that will last them for a journey (like… hardtack?). Each week people will come in need of food. A wise baker pays attention to what people need and desire.
Recently, there’s been so much dissension and frustration filling the world that I have felt a need to focus on bringing forth something that will fuel people for the journey. Mix in a little bit of a call for justice, a bit of history, a touch of feminine spirituality, with a whole lot of the Good News… You can see what I have been trying to bring forth and you can see that it takes some focus, some knowledge, some study, and a whole lot of prayer.
Meanwhile, people are going about life while I prepare these sermons. Some people are burning the candle at both ends with a call for justice that is both timely and righteous. I want to encourage such fervor, but also remind people that the journey will be difficult. People more than likely will oppose them and their efforts, no matter how noble or heartfelt their intentions.
Ultimately, the people in the trenches decide how they will relate to other people and the opposition they might bring into their lives. The God that I serve has always laid on my heart a strong belief in free will, so I wanted to share a couple of words from a wise scholar in our recent church past.
Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a wise professor and leader within the African-American tradition. These days, Rev. Dr. Thurman is considered a respected and wise figure well beyond the bounds of that tradition. His words were often visionary and deep. He wrote the following in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited:” (pg. 28)
“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”
Now, Rev. Dr. Thurman wrote these words in 1976, so they’re not entirely in line with modern sensibilities on gender address, but they are still filled with wisdom. I love the simplicity of these words and I love the fact that I came about these words while looking for something completely different.
If someone knows how to throw off your temper or your equilibrium, then you are in a vulnerable place. I don’t know if I would say that you will always be kept under subjection or subjugation, but I do believe that it is almost impossible to act with freedom when you allow yourself to continually be dominated by the actions of others. If your spirit and soul are able to be pushed into a knee-jerk reaction as a result of a simple provocation, then your ability to exercise decision making is highly curtailed.
We live in days where there are folks who continually push buttons both in the world and in the church. I do not believe it is political in the slightest to point out that the sitting president of the nation in which I live (in June of 2018) makes a habit of making strong statements that provoke other people. If anything, he is a great example of someone who attempts regularly to coerce and cajole people to his point of view through throwing people off of their equilibrium.
Friends, many of us have been engaging in ministries that will require time, patience, and perseverance to bring to fruition. We do not have the time or luxury to become puppets to the attempts at subjection and subjugation by others who do not agree. I invite you to ponder Rev. Dr. Thurman’s words and to move forward with care.
Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.
Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.
Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.
I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:
“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”
I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.
Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.
I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.
If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.
That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)
“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.
The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.
“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”
We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.
The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.
To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.
Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:
“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”
Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.
In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:
“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?
There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.
It has not happened often, but I have been asked a few times over my career as a minister for the best advice I have for people entering the ministry. I credit the scarcity of the question on the fact that I am completing my first decade of pastoral ministry on July 1st of this year. I have been asked a variant of this question a lot more often. How do you keep going in ministry?
I think this second question is prevalent as a result of a number of challenges faced by people entering into the ministry during this time. Our churches are tending to skew towards the higher age brackets, anxiety is rising, and often pastors are held accountable for the overall health of a congregation, even if they’ve been in an appointment for such a short period of time that there has been an inability for trust to be built, for change to occur, or for grief over the loss of a previous pastor to fully develop and be expressed within the hearts of congregants. Pastors are being placed in difficult situations which lead to poor health, poor moods, and unhealthy dynamics in personal and professional lives.
How do you keep going when a new church needs your attention but your daughter is grieving over the loss of her previous community? How do you decide between going to your daughter’s sports practice which you’ve missed two weeks in a row and helping set tables for a church fundraiser, especially when you know church meetings will make you miss her first three games in the upcoming weeks? How do you keep going through the thick and thin of a challenging time in ministry, especially if you don’t have a decade of relationships and trust to work with in your setting?
I give the same answer to both questions. You have to be willing to fail. I often hear the words of advice “Do you really want to die on that hill?” To survive on ministry, you have to be willing to die on some hills. I know that sounds crazy, but to survive over the long haul I believe that you have to be willing to sacrifice the easy path to seek after the life-giving death that comes with seeking after your ideals. I also do not believe this advice is for ministers alone. I think we all need to be willing to live out who we actually are in a very challenging world.
Let me give you a great example. I believe the best food is homemade. I know that there are great restaurants out there with wonderful food that I’ll never be able to make, but in reality, on a regular basis, the most consistent good food you can share with a family can come from your own kitchen.
Why? You know how your ingredients have been treated, you know how they were cooked, and if something goes wrong, you can adjust until you learn how to avoid that problem. You don’t need to rely on a cook that is paid an unfair wage, you don’t need to rely on a server that might be in a bad mood, and you don’t need to worry about the conditions of the kitchen. You can adjust the cooking to allergy needs or personal preferences. You know what is good and what is bad, and frankly, at least in our area, good ingredients like a nice roast and trimmings cost far less than a dinner for four at a restaurant.
How do you get to the point where that can be a reality? To bring the best to the table, you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to set an achievable goal and then seek after it heart and soul. You have to find a purpose that is worth your time and go after it, even if you’ll likely fail, because people cannot live on fast food alone. People need depth. People need macaroni and cheese made with carrots snuck in to get veggies into picky kids. People need a good marinated chicken breast that hasn’t sat in a refrigerator for weeks past when it should have been cooked. People need good food in their bodies.
Let’s take this example as a good start. On Friday, my Sabbath (or as I like to refer to it my ”bread day”) I made my first attempt at making flatbread with gluten-free flour. To be fair, it is actually based on a recipe for Indian flatbread called roti. I substituted some Gluten-Free flour, tried to make the recipe as indicated, realized the dough was wrong, and began to adjust through the addition of things like binding agents and additional moisture.
The first attempt is gone. I rolled it too thin, decided to see how it tasted without eating breakfast, and then had a breakfast of far too thin roti which was both piping hot and delicious. I noted my problems, tried to roll it thicker, realized there was still a problem, added moisture to the edges, and tried again. All it all, I made six “loaves” of gluten-free bread, all of which probably won’t cut the mustard for use in church. It tastes great and a great tasting mistake is okay in my book, but it won’t do what it needs to do for my purposes.
Now, let’s say it will take three more attempts before I get this right. Maybe I’ll need to try something different a time or two. Perhaps chia seeds won’t be gelatinous enough to bind the bread together without eggwhite. Perhaps adding more xantham gum will make it taste awful. Let’s say I get to communion Sunday, bring something that is made to the best of my ability, and receive nothing but criticism. What will I do?
I can tell you what I will do. I will hold my head up high, take the criticism, and go back to the kitchen to keep working. Why? Why not take the easy path? Why not try another loaf of gluten-free bread that has been sitting on the shelf in the store? Why not buy the dough frozen? Why not quit while I am ahead?
The plain and simple reason why is that I do not want to quit. I keep going in ministry because I decide there are times when I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of that person who won’t come to communion because they’re embarrassed. Who am I to walk away when I know there is a concrete need in front of me? I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of making sure the means of grace is available to those person while we are all sharing from one loaf as one body of Christ. I am willing to die on that hill because it is better to die with integrity to my spirit than to live with a broken heart.
If you are going to be in ministry you are going to face difficult times. Ministers are many things. We stand up front talking about God and so people will take out their anger with God on us. We talk about inclusion in the body of Christ, so we will bear the brunt of criticism when a member of our church does something exclusive to hurt others. We are the person up front helping put together worship in a way that honors God and that might mean leaving out a favorite hymn of someone for a period that they feel is too long. We will face criticism for that as well. Doing your job as a shepherd means not everyone will be happy.
Spoiler alert: Those words apply to more than just ministers. Teachers, parents will complain. Nurses, patients will continue to buck the advice of the doctor despite your best efforts. Bus drivers, “the wheels on the bus” sung fifty times in a row might be a far better way to spend a given day than to hear cranky kids, wet from the rain, bicker all the way to school. All of us will be challenged and all of us will face situations that demand we make a choice of how we want to live our lives. Sometimes that will lead to us facing hardship, challenge, and occasionally persecution.
We will all face difficult times. The question as you face your difficult times is whether or not you can find things you are passionate about and be happy to die on the hill for that passion and for the sake of your own soul. To be fair, I have found that most people will understand why you are doing what you are doing if you explain it to them. Is gluten-free communion important to you? Explain it with passion, explain your willingness to keep trying, and express that this is one of those places where you have to maintain integrity with your own spirit and most mature people will try to work with you.
Actually, sometimes following your passion frees others to follow their passions. You might die on that hill, but when that resurrection love of God brings life back into your broken bones, you may just open your eyes to see people living into their own personhood all the more powerfully as a result of your example. People can be inspired by sacrifice as much as by success, and that’s important to remember as well.
In the meantime, if you are going through a hard time, whether in ministry or not, I want to encourage you to find a hill that you’re willing to die upon. Stand up for your heart and soul and sacrifice. Jesus taught us that “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Sometimes we need to stand up against that which we hate and be willing to find ourselves on the other side of our resurrection with life everlasting.
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.
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!
The following poem is based on Jeremiah 2:1-13. I wrote my poem based on the New Revised Standard Version of the texts. I chose to write on Jeremiah 2:1-13 as it is the reading for the Second Tuesday of Lent in Year One of the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer.
Based upon Jeremiah 2:1-13
I recall days of years long since passed:
Singing songs, sharing sodas, and spending time.
Loving life with a pace both furious and fast,
As memories were created beautiful and sublime.
I remember laughter and gladness.
I remember sorrow and sadness.
I can see our steps stretched side by side.
Now we drink from different wells.
Water gushes from a cracked wall.
I watch as dried lives become shells
As the people once so close grow small.
I feel cold rain on far off shoulders.
I feel warm wind on riverside boulders.
I can see where we once were near.
Dry, parched lips seek something new.
In truth, they may need something old.
I stand with an extra cup—no idea what to do,
As hope’s light grows dim—flickering and cold.
Today has been an ordinary day of ministry in New York State. The snow has been falling at a constant rate for a couple of hours, the kids are home from school due to the weather, and the mood around the house has been a bit cranky as both parents have had their plans of getting extraordinary amounts of good things done abandoned and thrown to the wind. Meetings were cancelled, plans postponed, and ideas adjusted. In case you had not realized it yet, life still happens to people who live a life in ministry—there is no magical “Get out of jail free” card handed out to ministers when they agree to serve a church.
Before the snow began to accumulate heavily, I went out to visit a member of my church on comfort care. Their identity is known to God and the most I will say is that the individual has had a long period of being seasoned by life. I spoke with the family, agreed to sit with the individual for a while so they could get some rest, and settled down into a chair with Bible and Kindle.
I read a little scripture, prayed some prayers for the individual, lifted up the family in my prayers, spoke for a few minutes about the memories I shared with the individual, and then sat still. After a few minutes of silence, I found myself drawn to my Kindle and the copy I keep on my Kindle of the Carmina Gadelica.
The Carmina Gadelica is a collection of prayers and poems transcribed by Alexander Carmichael after being collected and recorded in the time that crosses the boundary of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Carmina Gadelica is an intriguing book in the fact that it chronicles a blending of cultures between the Celtic traditions that survived and the Christian traditions that took root in the British isles. I find the Carmina Gadelica to be an interesting collection that is very thought provoking.
I was reading through the second volume when the prayer “The Incense” caught my attention. I have come to believe that context affects the way we see the world around us. Sitting by the bedside of this individual as they breathed beneath closed eyes that saw the world when I had visited the day before and that had been bright before pneumonia came to visit in my absence, I read “The Incense” differently than I had read it before.
The translation of the following poem comes from the “Carmina Gadelica: Volume II” as translated by Alexander Carmichael. The poem is entitled “The Incense”
“In the day of thy health,
thou wilt not give devotion,
thou wilt not give kine,
Nor wilt thou offer incense.
Head of haughtiness,
Heart of greediness,
Nor ashamed art thou.
But thy winter wilt come,
And the hardness of thy distress,
And thy head shall be as
The clod in the earth.
Thy strength having failed,
Thine aspect having gone,
And thou a thrall,
On thy two knees.”
I looked up the word “kine” in the dictionary. “Cattle.” Kine is another word for cattle. What does it mean to give cattle in the context of days of health? What do cows have to do with incense or devotion? As a student of religion, my first thought is sacrifice. Sacrifice was once one of the ways how a person expressed regret, fealty, or even respect to God.
The subject in “The Incense” refuses to give kine. They have no sense of devotion, no desire to sacrifice, and seemingly no reason to burn those herbs and fragrant plans which have been burnt in countless traditions to symbolize a drawing near to the divine. The person is haughty, greedy, unrestrained in their speech, and without shame in their time of strength, health, and well-being.
Yet, the poem goes on. Winter will come. They will come under the power of time, age, and weakness in time. Indeed, the person will one day find their life on earth equivalent to a clod of earth in the ground. The poem is bleak in many ways. The poem paints a picture of a person who does not understand their need in the days of their strength.
Sitting by a bedside, watching someone breathe breaths that might be some of their last in this life, and contemplating this poem was a different contemplation than many contemplations that I have had over the years. Am I wise enough to give kine in the days of my strength? Do I have the wisdom to realize that there will come a day when my choices have been removed from my path? If I do understand, do I let that wisdom affect the way that I live my life?
Can I live with gratitude for the gifts I have been given? Can I let that gratitude guide my choices? Can I choose to deny the parts of myself that want to be haughty, that live in greedy places, or that wish to live unhemmed by matters like compassion, empathy, or grace? Can I live a life marked by devotion and prayer? Can I live a life where kine are not for amassing into a giant herd for my profit, but instead exist in my life as a source of life and blessing for those around me? Can I live out my life in faith in such a way that I will one day find myself on my knees in a place marked by trust in God rather than the frailty that comes from regret?
Sitting with someone who reached an age where they were well seasoned affected the way I read the poem. I am not concerned by the individual I was sitting with while reading. The person I was visiting had a life that seemed marked by faith, hope, and love. The person’s presence was enough to remind me that, unless Jesus comes back in their lifetime, even the most righteous person will age and find themselves at a place on the threshold between one life and the next.
I pray that I have the wisdom in my own journey to find the humility the subject of “The Incense” seemed to miss. I pray that when I reach a place where I find myself on my knees, I will find myself enthralled by faith, hope, and love, but not fear.