Ramen Reflections

Ramen noodles soak
Mushrooms and veggies draw in
more than flavored broth:
they draw in hope for today
and give strength for tomorrow.

This morning started off well: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a tall glass of water before biking down to the church. The wonderful thing about biking to work is that you get to save gas money and help to care for the planet. Hours later, the crew leaves the church from the spring cleanup day. I head into my office and begin to work on cards thanking people for their service to the church today and for their service in helping to cleanup at Casowasco last Saturday.

After everyone has come and gone, the time for lunch draws near. I put a package of ramen, four dehydrated mushrooms, and a quarter cup of dehydrated veggies underneath the coffee maker’s spout. Twenty minutes later, I have Keurig Ramen, a common meal these days.

It isn’t the church’s fault that I’m not eating steak today. While I’d love to blame my former partner, it is not completely her fault either. It certainly is not the fault of the three blessings that I love with all of my heart and soul. We live in a broken world and after I am done voluntarily supporting my children who live across the state against my desires, I honestly have less in my bank account than I had when I served a church in seminary. I definitely did not see this place on my journey coming: I would have spent more time learning to cook better foods for fewer people for less.

For lunch today, my ramen looks back at me. I wrote a tanka about the ramen as I contemplated my lunch. I still wonder, what does the ramen see?

I hope it sees someone who is grateful for a good meal. I hope it sees someone who is grateful for what he has been given instead of someone who spends all of his time lamenting what is not right here. Actually, let me reword that: “I hope it sees someone who is working to be more grateful for what he has been given and to be less focused on what is lacking.” The intention is important, for I know I have a role in choosing how I react to these moments.

We don’t always get to choose what comes our way in this life. When we slow down and listen to the Spirit, we can be given a choice about how we react. I choose to react to these moments with hope.

“Here” and Life

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day Prompt for today is “here.”

This has been a really rough week for me. I have had more than one wise individual in my life point out that it was likely always going to end this way. One friend with a long history in the legal profession said “If you were the mother, things would probably be very different. Nobody wants to be the judge who gets a reputation for separating kids from their mothers.”

So, I have fewer rights and will see my kids less. The system is broken and there’s nothing I can do about it but pray. What’s my consolation today?

I weep, Jesus weeps, but we’ll laugh.
I feel impoverished, Jesus is sacrificing, but we’ll be rich.
I am empty, Jesus is emptying himself, and we’ll be full again.
I had to choose my religious profession or more visitation, Jesus faced persecution, but there’ll be blessing.

Also, those who laugh will mourn.
Those who feel rich will be impoverished.
Those who are full will be emptied.
Those who have everyone speak well of them will go the same way as the false prophets.

In the end, it is going to be okay. Justice is in the hands of a just God who sees what has happened. My attorney tried to lighten the mood by asking if lightning bolts or karma would strike first, but that’s far above my paygrade. Another friend later chimed in that karma may make me spend the rest of my days wondering if God answers prayers, but it isn’t really about that kind of thinking for me either.

Maybe they’ll repent someday? Maybe they’ll seek forgiveness and make amends for their sins? I have no idea, but their sins are in the hands of God, not mine. I don’t need to be vengeful as God is still God. I don’t need to threaten anyone with wrath, because the wrath of the New Testament falls on people who choose to bring it into their lives. What comes out of the lips comes from the heart, regardless of whether those are words of blessings or empty accusations. In the meantime, I’ve texted my kids that I love them and now am choosing a picture.

When everything was in the hole Tuesday after a sleepless Monday night, I knew where I could go to find solace, peace, and safety. I went to church. Sometimes I go and meet with my lawyer on Grand Island, and I pull into my home church’s parking lot to just be near the place where so many holy things took place over the years. On Tuesday, I went to the church to work. As I worked, I was drawn into a world bigger than myself. By the time we had Council, we were having discussions about how the church was a blessing to us and how we can share that blessing with others. Being at the church transformed my day, my attitude, and my hope. The church truly is a a place where we can just be “here.”

“With,” tears, and a thirsty dog.

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is the word “with.” As it is Monday, our devotional has us reading the Beatitudes from Luke again. This week we ask what it means to shift our understanding of tears and laughter.

My picture for today is of my dog on a hike last summer. Lily and I were in the middle of the nearby Finger Lakes National Forest when Lily decided to get a drink in the creek we were fording together.

At first, I was aghast. The water was unclean! It had not been boiled, had not been purified, and could make the dog really sick. On the other hand, have you ever tried to stop a dog from drinking? By the time I would have reached the dog, the damage was already done.Also, this is a dog we’re talking about. While she drinks plenty of clean water at home, let’s not pretend she understands the five second rule.

We often look at things in the world with one set of eyes. We see tears and they are rarely tears of joy. Often, the tears we see are tears of sadness, grief, and loss. How can such a thing be a blessing?

Have you ever tried to hold back tears? How well did that work out for you? We assume that all (non-joyous) tears are bad, but Jesus seems to invite us to consider that everything is not as it seems. As is always the case during this season, I invite you to be surprised by the journey this week.

“Living” and Hunger

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Living.” Throughout this week we have been looking at hunger and fullness in our devotional, but I wanted to take a moment to note that there is more than one type of hunger.

Last fall I spent a lot of time walking and praying. One place I went for an extended walk was in Chenango Valley State Park. If you spend enough time in Chenango Valley State Park, you will realize that there are definitely places where a lot of people travel and places where few people travel.

During my first few visits to the park, I spent a lot of time walking around the large loop which surrounds one of the lakes and crosses over what could be called the isthmus between the two lakes. As I continued to visit over the years, I found various walking paths down near the edges of the lakes, but there was one path that always tempted me. It just sort of went off into nowhere from behind a picnic shelter.

I wondered what might be back behind that picnic shelter visit after visit until I was so hungry to know what was back there that my dog and I went out exploring. We hiked, hiked, and hiked some more. Eventually we came out of one section of the path and found ourselves at the top of a hill looking over Chenango Valley. The view was breathtaking and there was this cute bench setup for people to rest and look down upon the valley.

An overlook in Chenango Valley State Park

This photo has little to nothing to do with actual hunger, but it does have a lot to say about how hunger for knowledge, love, or even food can affect the way we think. When we find ourselves hungry, our priorities can change, our limits can be stretched, and occasionally we realize that God is out there beyond the realm of where we are full and “happy” with the things around us.

I invite you to ask yourself if there is a place in your life where you are hungry. Is the hunger meant to teach you something or stretch you beyond the places where you are safe and comfortable?

“Awake” and seeing around us

On a spring day of last year, I was out and about with my camera when I noticed something in the nearby woods. It was May and the weather was beginning to warm up. Life was blossoming everywhere and it seemed like everyone (including the animals) had places to go and things to do.

Cars drove by, birds flew overhead, and this deer ran down the side of the road. As I contemplate the #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt of the word “Awake,” I wonder if this is the only image of this deer in existence. Does anyone think of this particular deer today? If I hadn’t opened my eyes to see the world around me, would there even be a trace of this one deer in the world?

If still wandering the roads, I hope this deer is doing well. If not, then I pray what was good and holy in this deer is kept safe and well in the hands of the One who brought it into being. As I cannot know, I am simply grateful that I was awake enough to see when this momentary blessing came to pass when our two paths through this world crossed.

In our devotional today, while reading Luke 21:1-4, we see that Jesus was also a fan of being awake enough to notice the world around. As Jesus sat in the temple, a widow with two small coins gave all of the coins that she had to live on to the temple treasury. She had only two coins to live upon and she had the audacity to give both of them for God’s work.

Jesus noticed this moment when a woman with very little put everything into the offering plate. When we read this story in church, I often think about those words from the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, for they will have the kingdom of heaven. I pray that those words are true because of faithful people like this widow that offer everything to God out of a place of poverty.

As a clergy person, I have to say that it humbles me to think that some people give their last coins to God and I live off of a salary drawn from those offerings. It is humbling and challenging to think that I have food because of someone’s offering. Such offerings made to God certainly cause me to think twice about how I spend my paycheck. If Christ was awake enough to notice the two coins offered by this widow, I cannot imagine ever being comfortable abusing or misusing my paycheck.

I think clergy, especially clergy with any amount of affluence, should see such stories and understand the phrase “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Protect” and the Withered Hand

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “Protect.” The scripture reading in our devotional today is a story (found in Luke 6:6-11) of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The individual had a hand that is described in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as being “withered.”

While the daily prompts have generally fit nicely with our devotional, today’s prompt is a bit challenging. I do not always do yoga, but I have been known to stretch ideas when necessary. Hopefully I will not stretch the idea of protecting too far.

What an interesting thing it is to see Jesus love someone and have compassion despite the fact that other people did not see his actions as being holy or righteous. The healing Christ performed on the Sabbath may have been fine on another day, but to violate the Sabbath commandments to avoid work seemingly struck them as a violation of the law.

At one level, I have to admit that I find the reaction of the religious leaders to be an understandable reaction. Their reaction might even be seen as admirable if you consider the extent of their commitment to their faith. While their heart was clearly in a different place than Jesus’ heart, it is understandable that there might be a push towards a very strict faith. The people in our story were living in a world that seemingly had turned against the people of God through the powerful forces of foreign empires and armies. They believed fiercely in their faith because they were likely concerned about losing their way if they loosened their grasp.

Still, as admirable as their tenacity was in such circumstances, they still missed the point. Jesus saw an individual who was hurt and who needed compassion. The people were so focused on the rules that they lost their perspective. I wish I could say that this was a problem that has disappeared over the centuries, but the modern church has often struggled with compassion and love when confronted with hurt people who are easily labeled as “sinners.”

Lily the Dog watching over us

In choosing a photo to portray this point, I went through my old photos and found a picture of my dog Lily standing underneath the trees in one of our favorite spots on the Interloken trail in the Finger Lakes National Forest. Lily looked so noble while looking around to make certain that everything was safe and that we were alone in the fields.

I still do not know how to tell a dog that we are sitting in the middle of a pasture that is fenced in on every side. There are no predators in the field. On that particular day, there weren’t even any cattle in sight. We were in an empty field and there was no reason to be anxious.

I have noticed over the years that we often get our hackles up and prepare to defend ourselves and our faith from threats that really aren’t threats. At the best of those times, we look like Lily being overprotective in an empty field. At the worst of times, we end up causing or threatening real harm to people who have done nothing more than have a withered hand on the Sabbath.

Personally, I plan to spend some time today thinking about the fact that there may be places in my life where I am dead set on protecting something and possibly missing the forest for the trees. I know that my dog isn’t the only silly creature in my home.

“Alone” and Compassion

The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt for today is “alone.” What a word for contemplation, especially for a father in the midst of working his way through a separation! “Alone” is a word that I have pondered many times over the past few months.

A phrase stands out in our devotional reading for today: “Even when put in a challenging place, Jesus responds to challenge with compassion.” If we are called to become more like Jesus during this journey towards the cross, then what does it look like when we seek to respond to our challenges with compassion?

When writing this section of the devotional, my life was in a far more different place. As I work through this devotional alongside the members of my church, it is with a sense of wonder. Who was the person who wrote these words? I remember the hours working on this devotional, but now see the passages with different eyes and definitely answer the questions differently than I would have when I wrote this devotional.

In selecting a photo for today, I wanted to think about what it means to truly be alone. At the beginning of this oddly horrifying and challenging set of circumstances, I found myself filled with grief over the quiet house, the silent bedrooms, and the challenges of cooking for fewer people. Now, I find myself often coming across beautiful and wonderful things that are bitterly sweet.

Black Diamond Trail in Trumansburg, NY

I took this photo on a cold winter’s day while walking with my dog down a nearby trail. The path was empty of anyone, although there was clearly evidence that I was not the first person to enter the woods. For the entirety of the journey, I was alone with my dog. The wind blew through the branches, the dog snuffled through snow drifts and marked the snow, but it was otherwise silent.

It was beautifully still and silent. A world of icy stillness and solitude for just my dog and me. The sunlight shone through the branches and the snow sparkled underneath golden beams. It was truly amazing that I was able to see such beauty and it felt like that moment was for me and me alone. In the beauty and quiet, I felt as if God was walking right there with me.

It was sweet to know that I still matter enough that God draws near to me in such still spaces. It was sweet to know that God loves me deeply and truly despite the challenges of the past few months. It was also bitter to realize that I might have shared such a moment with my children a year ago.

How do I respond to these challenging moments with compassion? How do I love the people who have broken my heart through either their choices or simply doing their work? These are thoughts for my journal and not my blog, but I can state that this is where the journey for me begins today.

Fourteen Years of Chinese

After a week of indecision, I have decided to have Chinese today. Fourteen years ago, on Valentine’s Day, I burst into a liquor store with what felt like the stupidest question on my lips. “It is Valentine’s Day, my wife just gave birth two days ago, and we are having Chinese. What wine goes with Chinese food?” The clerk did not know what to do, what to say, and quickly suggested sake before we both remembered that was Japanese.

Fourteen years later and the marriage is over. There is nobody to share Chinese with tonight, but I still remember bringing home Chinese while exhausted. I remember both of us passing out from exhaustion on our couch as our baby slept while swaddled nearby. I don’t even think either of us even bothered drinking a glass of the wine. I remember all of these things and walking exhaustedly to try and help my wife have a nice dinner on Valentine’s Day with food we both loved.

She isn’t here. Those moments are gone, but I still remember pushing my legs to go out to the car and get dinner. I remember the adrenaline crash after getting everyone home safely after the first car ride with a used car seat and then heading out to find my wife the closest thing I could find to a romantic dinner. I do not want to lose the memory, do not want to lose the feeling of “bringing home the bacon” to a family for the first time, and I remember being proud of myself for something that was so simple. I do not want to forget how my child changed my life on that Valentine’s Day or how I found something far more wonderful than diamonds to give to my wife. I’ll have Chinese anyway and I will remember the most beautiful Valentine’s Day I ever experienced, even if I remember through tears.

"What goes with egg rolls?"
The stunned clerk was quite flummoxed
but did a good job
At least, I think that she did
I do not remember now

“More than a Building”

If you stop to look
more than a mere glance
It is more than a building.

It hides itself well
with the bricks so fine
but this is not just a church.

Real lives change here
when people listen
and find a kind place with hope.

We may not fix things
when the world breaks stuff
but we listen with our hearts.

We share words of home
We offer safe space
for people who are adrift

Not just a building
we are a free pier
for all who sail on life's waves.

Building, dock, or church
This sanctuary
is offered freely to all

I am so grateful
and laugh here with joy
for this is not just a church

In this place we feed
those with a hunger
both in body and/or soul

It is a garden
for all of the "bees"
who need some nectar or rest

It is a warm inn
on a wintry road
when people need safe shelter

It is a rare place
where death comes quite near
but nobody runs in fear.

It is where goodbye
is shared with a hope
that goodbye is "just for now."

It is where we wash
the soul with water
and ask the Spirit to come.

Full of miracles
stories with wonder
defy explanation here

It is made of brick
but is more solid
than just a sacred building

It is a place to find grace
It is a place to belong
It is more than a building
Video, photography, accompianment, and poetry all composed/captured/performed/written by me

The Calling and a Personal Journey

There’s a long gap in my blog between the events of the past and the events of the present. A lot happened between those last poems from a while back and the poems of today. I have been on a journey of discovery as my wife separated from me as I came to grips with the fact that my marriage was at an end.

There were a lot of missing poems that were shared between shed tears. Like sand mandalas, those poems were here for a moment and then gone. In many ways those poems blurred the lines between prayer and poetry even more than usual. There were moments of grief, anxiety, and loss.

Over those months of quiet self-reflection and work I came to a point where I finally publicly admitted that I am in recovery from alcoholism which did not begin in the last year or during that silence. I have been open about my family’s history with alcoholism, but had never shared the stories with anyone of how I used alcohol to supplement pain medication during a lengthy period of severe pain and physical therapy where I could barely walk or even sit still from the pain. I didn’t have the life wisdom to realize that I should have gone to a doctor instead of self-medicate on top of prescription medication. That decision was dangerous and doubly-dangerous as my family has a history of addiction. It was foolish.

I have had to come to grips with what part of my life had been shredded by alcoholism, realized that there were problems that had had nothing to do with alcoholism in my relationship, and I have realized that I kept medicating pain of a different kind even after my back healed. I have come to understand that this is a season where I need to be faithful to my identity as a single man who still wants to be a good father, wants a respectful relationship with his former partner, and who wants to find a way forward while choosing both life and the high road through some very dark passes in spite of the choices of others.

One of the most difficult conversations I had during that dark period was a long conversation with my District Superintendent where I shared openly and honestly about the journey I have been on. I shared that I still felt called to the ministry, still felt the Holy Spirit at work, and shared about the journey of recovery which has included working with professionals and a particular anonymous organization to connect all the aspects of my journey into one way forward. I have put in a lot of work medically, psychologically, and spiritually over a period of years to come to this place where I am beginning to see the light of freedom in recovery. I have put in hundreds if not thousands of hours into seeking freedom from the consequences of my biology, choices, and a disease that is not infectious certainly seems communicable.

I share this now as I was just blown away by a passage I read while preparing for my sermon this Sunday. I was working through the commentary of Ronald Clements in the Jeremiah entry to the “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” Series published by John Knox Press. On page 16, Clements writes of Jeremiah:

“The sense of call, with all that this meant by way of reliance upon God and the stripping away of all other social and personal supports, was something that was taking shape over a long and difficult period of time. It had begun for Jeremiah at a specific moment in his personal life and had continued. The experience of inner self-discovery had not ceased since that first day. The sense of call belong too to his private inner world as a part of his personal understanding of God. Yet it had to be a public and openly declared part of his self-understanding, since it alone could explain his declarations and his personal authority to declare them. No one could confirm or deny that he possessed this calling; it was between himself and God.”

Clements, Ronald E. Jeremiah. John Knox Press, 2012.

I was blown away by this passage. While reading this commentary, I connected deeply and intimately with Jeremiah in a way that I have never connected before this moment. Certainly, I am not the first pastor to sigh over the direction of American Christianity. I can connect the dots between the political and social forces of Judah in Jeremiah’s day and the the political and social forces in modern American religion. I am not the first pastor to wonder if the rhetoric and posturing of many modern church leaders on television is not the gasp of a system that is about to go into exile. This is not where I felt a connection.

I felt a connection as I remember my past. I remember being a teenager who felt called away from a suicidal grief into the love of God. I remember talking with a youth leader about how I wanted to go into ministry because it was tugging at a deep part of me. I remember being a youth leader and a church intern who just kept feeling the compulsion to go deeper. I remember studying and taking the first steps into ministry. I remember the interviews, the affirmations, and the ordination. I remember all of those moments.

I also remember praying with trusted friends in Malvern, PA, at the Academy of Spiritual Formation as I admitted that I was occasionally mixing drugs and alcohol to get through the pain. I remember talking with close friends about how it felt less and less like a choice. I remember asking them to pray for me as I started trying to get free of that compulsion to drink. I remember being dry and miserable on my own without a single supportive voice. I remember the first time I said: “Hi, my name is Rob and I’m an alcoholic.” I also remember that it took a few attempts to find the courage to say those words. I remember meeting with a sponsor for the first time and sharing stories. I remember the anxiety and fear. I remember the first time I worked through my fear and clearly stated aloud why I always note that we serve non-alcoholic juice when serving communion: I say it because of people in recovery like me.

I remember talking with Pastor Parish Relations Members at my church about the fact that my wife and I were separating and how it partially related back to my own journey of recovery. I remember sharing that I had a relapse and that I had climbed back on the wagon quickly because I was afraid. I remember crying with fear about being honest. I remember how freeing it was to tell people that I attend meetings daily via Zoom to continue to seek freedom. I also know that I have both amends and living amends to make with people I have harmed along the way. I remember almost every conversation with someone I have known for a long time where I have said something along the lines of: “I’ve had to come to grips with something.”

Through all of these things I have never felt my call to leadership ebb. In fact, I have had many people open up about their own struggles and the struggles of others. I have talked with wandering folks who come to my church each time they are in the area because the pastor not only understands the journey towards sobriety but is walking down that same road. I share a cup of coffee with them after church not out of sympathy but out of true camraderie as a sojourner down a similar road. I have even performed funerals for people who have and have not found a way to freedom on that same road. I feel like I am a better minister since I have found the courage to be honest about my alcoholism. Honestly, I feel more hampered by the pain of marital and parental separation than the daily journey of recovery.

At some point I hope I will get to the point where I share with others in those meetings that I’m not only an alcoholic but a pastor. Honestly, that’s almost more scary than sharing with the church that I have a struggle with addiction. According to one study published last year, the national average of drinks consumed in the United States was 17 per week (Survey: Americans consumed 17 alcoholic drinks per week in 2020). It seems less strange to admit that I am just another person struggling with the disease of alcoholism that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic than to admit to other people that I have a very very close relationship with “the God of my understanding,” especially if that means they might share less freely about their own journey and struggles.

In the meantime, I do feel called to continue in ministry quite strongly. Clements indicates of Jeremiah, the calling that Jeremiah experiences was one that nobody could confirm or deny from the outside. I identify with that description of the calling deeply. The calling is first and foremost internal.

Surely, I could be reappointed or even stripped of a title, but that’s different from having the authority to confirm or deny a calling. As the Bishop said at my ordination, ordination was a recognition of what God has done and what God is doing in my life. Ordination was an affirmation of what God was doing and recognition that God was at work in a special way. That journey has not changed and that calling has never ceased. It still burns deeply within me.

I wish I could put into words how strange it is to be called to leadership and authority while daily admitting that I am powerless to straighten things out on my own. The power was never mine, but it often feels easy to assume I am more powerful than I am, which many of my colleagues likely understand. I personally have come to believe it makes me a better leader as I am quite clear on the fact that the power I hold and wield as a minister does comes from God and not from my own strength.

So that’s the story of the long absence between posts. Yes, I am in recovery. No, I’m not ashamed of admitting my need for God to work in my life every day through the process. Yes, I am allergic to alcohol and I have a disease. No, having a disease is not the end of the world. This disease is a disease and not some moral failing or mark of worthlessness. Good people that I have come to trust tell me that there is a solution and I believe that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Truly, I live each day with hope and courage that comes from being on my knees and asking for help each time I wake up in the morning to the snuffling sounds of a dog and each night that I go to sleep alone. God is with me on this journey and that journey will continue 24 hours at a time for the rest of my life. I am okay with that journey and I will keep walking.

Whoops

Yesterday I knew,
I knew, I was thirty nine.
Body, heart, and soul.
I was sure I had one more.
How could time flow so quickly?

A friendly voice spoke
Had I done the math? Did I?
Of course I was sure
I was so sure that I knew,
I knew, I was thirty nine.

As the shower rained,
curiosity nagging,
I checked on fingers.
The fingers say I'm forty.
I knew I was thirty nine.

It seems so stupid
that I forgot my own age,
but who really cares
If I add a syllable
or see who I am inside?

I am who I am
and I don't dwell on my age.
The tree was happy
as the colorful lights shone
and celebrated with me.

Living up to my blog title

I have to admit that this transition from one church to another has been a bit overwhelming lately! Switching from a primarily written leadership at my previous church, to an in-person leadership in a parking lot at my previous church, to a digital leadership in my current appointment has been quite an existential workout over the past two months.

It is hard to imagine that one month ago today we were frantically putting boxes into our cars as my wife and I officially moved to Trumansburg. We still have boxes to unpack and my church office has never appeared so organized. Just yesterday I finally started sanding down the pieces of furniture my wife wanted painted before we put them into their final resting places. There’s still so much to do before we are fully settled!

Catching up with the running train of a church has been an experience, especially as I keep trying new things. As always, it is the odd stuff that sticks out in memory. In my church life, I found myself prone in a creek bed in a gorge earlier this week capturing a picture for tomorrow’s slideshow background. It was a cool picture and definitely worth the silt and creek dust on my clothes..

In my personal life, I took the scooter that I purchased (in a thus fruitless attempt to help me zoom around Syracuse at Annual Conference) to the local skate park to ride around the ramps and pipes with my kids as they each roller bladed, skateboarded, and toddled with a walking bike. I only tripped over my feet and hit the ground once—I was impressed, but still ultimately lost our game of tag.

In my spiritual life, I have found great comfort in using one of the eLearning resources through the Upper Room. I have been reading through Flora Slosson Wuellner’s “Prayer, Stress and Our Inner Wounds” and doing the corresponding eCourse. It has been uplifting to take the time to slow myself down for personal growth.

Wherever you are, I pray that your summer is going well. Rest assured that blogging will become more regular as routine slowly asserts itself in this new place and new space. Blessings today!

An Essay on My Bread

“To eat bread without hope is still slowly to starve to death.”

Pearl S. Buck

I tore my bread in half this morning before I dipped it into a mug of hot coffee. Although you may not understand it, my bread was the best bread in the world this morning. The bread was a superior loaf of bread for several reasons. Allow me to explain my position instead of rushing over to my office to finish sorting files and packing boxes.

First, the bread was the work of my own hands. There are plenty of loaves down the road at the grocery store. Some of the loaves are quite lovely, but none of them are the work of my hands. The bread I sliced into perfect thick slices was shaped with my fingers. The pan in which it baked rests a few feet away. Even in the middle of packing and chaos, my bread is still a reminder of calmer moments.

Second, the bread comes with a memory of a yeasty aromatherapy. A few days ago, I soaked flour in water with a bit of yeast before letting it spend the night fermenting in a bowl. The house filled with a rich smell the following morning after I combined this fragrant mix with a little more flour, water, and yeast. Between the smell of the rising dough and fragrance of the browning loaves, our house was filled with sensations that were immediately recaptured through the toasting of the bread. Although my office smells like furniture polish and a hot paper shredder, for this moment I can be transported to quiet hours where more than my dough rested.

Third, my bread just tears well. As a minister, I break loaves of bread in half a lot more than most people. I have broken rolls, crackers, wafers, baguettes, french bread, challah, and a host of homemade loaves. My bread tore in half today with a little bit of resiliency, bounced back with a bit of spring, and was ready to suck up hot coffee. My bread tears in a lovely way.

Fourth, my bread tastes heavenly. There’s a tiny bit of salt for the tongue, a depth of earthiness from the wheat, and a yeasty aftertaste. The bread is complex from the darkness of the crust to the tasty depths of the crags. My bread is not from some uniformly mass produced taste factory. My bread is unique.

In conclusion, you may have heard that something or another is the best thing since sliced bread. Sliced bread is great, but my sliced bread is wonderful to me. There are only two types of bread that are better than this loaf of bread: the bread I will bake in the future and the bread that you make for your enjoyment.

Untitled poem from a dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still Morning”

Still morning with blooming lilies outside my window…
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

Reflecting on “This is my song” and John Chrysostom

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.

Poet Lloyd Stone (1912-1993)

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.

Dr. Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a leading Methodist theologian in an age when female theologians were definitely not the standard.

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!”

Grief as an Octopus

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.

“Name” Photo-A-Day Haiga

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.

One day I will sleep
Perhaps under a stone name
While I walk elsewhere

“Her forehead” Poem

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.

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.

“Her Forehead” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

“Perspective” Haibun

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…

Tomorrow will come
And all will be different,
So breathe through the pain.

“Perspective” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

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.

A Canzone for those eyes

My daughter’s eyes. She was too young to understand my words Sunday…
Hopefully a seed will take root!

“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.

Reflections on Sabbath

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.

Apple blossoms only bloom after the rest of winter…

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?

Candles that burn openly in the wind often don’t burn for long.

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!

Room for the Weird

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”
Who wore it better? The cat on the cover of “American Supernatural Tales” or Pepper the cat?

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?