“Be as the Clay”

Be as the clay.
Mix living water with your dust:
Be as the clay.
Bend, mold, move, and flex as you must;
Be made in furnace fired by trust;
In joyful purpose with life thrust:
Be as the clay.

“Be as the Clay” Rondelet by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

This week in church we’re looking at Jeremiah 18:1-6 with our children during worship. In the passage, Jeremiah is called to walk down to a potter’s house to observe the potter at work.

With our children we will talk about how God can work in our lives. Clay itself can be nasty stuff when you dig a shovel into a yard and find the dense stuff below a thin layer of topsoil. It can be challenging work to move enough of the stuff to plant even the smallest of tree bulbs. Clay is difficult stuff; however, in the hands of a master potter clay can be wonderful for creating beautiful things. We will tell our kids they are being made into beautiful creations. Call it naive hope or call it prophecy, I believe each of the kids in our church have a bright future ahead of them as awesome people.

The clay cross I painted and fired years ago…

The challenge is that there’s a second side to this story. Jeremiah is a prophet called to a place that needs prophetic work done in their lives. The clay needs to be reworked in Israel. As their potter, God claims the right to rework what has been done.

I wrote the rondelet above to look at this reality. I wanted to lean into the concept of being clay. We work hard at building lives in this world and it can be difficult to trust even God to rework the clay of our lives when we become comfortable with the way things are in our lives.

We sometimes need to be reworked. We need to work that living water into our lives, to be flexible, and to even be fired in the oven. We might be tempted to look at this reworking as punishment, especially if we are comfortable. Sometimes, we will put up with a lot of cracks and chips to stay comfortable. Some of us would do anything to just be left alone.

The attitude that says “Just leave me be” does not necessarily help us. If I have a broken arm that has set poorly, it may need to be broken and set again. If I have a heart valve that is leaking, I may need to see my cardiologist if I want to live a longer life. When sick we need a doctor. When cracked, we may need to see our Potter.

This reworking is not necessarily pleasant. If you are struggling through a remaking, I want you to know that you are neither the first nor the last to face a challenge in your life of faith. You are more than likely surrounded by people who have faced their own challenges. You are not alone.

“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.

Remembering Rest

Yesterday was a stressful day. I am in Syracuse attending Launchpad, which trains folks in strategies to help start new ministries. The day was very full and my brain was fried by the time we broke for dinner. My wife, our friend, and I tried to talk about what we thought over Indian, but it quickly devolved into story time.

As I rested for the evening in the room my wife and I were sharing, I took time to unwind with a few books I am reading. I was reading through a few books including the book I have been reading on the sabbath by Rev. Wayne Muller called “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives.” A quote stuck out to me from page 37.

“The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha—tranquility, peace, and repose—rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”

Rev. Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives,” pg. 37.

Last night I was filled with ideas. To be honest, they were burgeoning on burning out my brain. I slowed down, took a moment to breathe, and realized there was wisdom in these words. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I had been breathing in new thoughts, new ideas, and new “creations” in my brain all day. It was only in slowing down to exhale, to rest, and find peace that I found balance.

Sabbath in the Christian tradition has generally been relegated to one day of the week. In modern culture, even the Sabbath is a day when we fill time with stuff and things.

Sometimes it is important to remember that God created something beautiful in Sabbath. We all need moments of rest, repose, and restoration. To believe such things can only be needed on a single day of the week is to miss something true.

It is not an accident what follows when Paul writes to the church and encourages it to not be anxious about anything, but to present their concerns to God with praise and thanksgiving. The people are told that the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Something like that blessed creation of Sabbath that finishes the seven days of creation fills and guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Are you stressed out today? Have you taken moments to rest? Have you breathed out and given over your worries and requests to God? Sometimes anxiety is a medical condition which requires help, sometimes it takes works to let go of the stressful things in our lives, but is there a chance that taking a moment of Sabbath rest might be what your heart and soul needs?

If you do not know what that might look like, here are a few practical suggestions:

  • Stop to breathe. Mr. Muller suggests this practice in his book. The people we met through the Academy for Spiritual Formation from the Minnesota Institute for Contemplation and Healing also suggested the value of breathing for entering a more peaceful state.
  • Take time to journal in a quiet place. Ask yourself simple questions. Where have I seen God this week? Where have I found places of peace in the past?
  • Sit quietly for a while. Do not rush this one by assuming a day is the best place to begin. Five minutes might be all you can handle at first. Work your way into silence regularly and see how it affects you.

“Full Pews” – Snowy Day Reflection

The snow falls on a church holding one soul. Drifting snow causes roads to be treacherous or closed, but the space is full. The baptismal font is empty; yet echoes memories of families blessed. The carpet where chancel meets nave shows evidence of drips of communion juice. Tears shed by coffins never seem to stain. The stilled piano rings with neither spirituals nor hymns. The organ holds its breath. This place is quiet; yet it is not empty. Memories fill this place from altar to narthex.

The pews are all full.
Deep snow is no barrier
where memories dwell...
The sanctuary on Sunday during worship time during a “No Unnecessary Travel” Advisory

The Parable of the Baker

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1756

Let us Ramble: Lessons from Yogurt

I recently returned home from the Academy for Spiritual Formation. This last session we discussed the effects of things like stress and anxiety on the body. We practiced breathing techniques, experienced some meditative practices, and looked at various ways that we live our lives.

At one point during the week, I found myself pondering the concept of challenge and the spiritual life. I have always believed that a healthy spiritual life is one that does not shirk from challenge or adversity. There are lessons in the struggles.

The scripture teaches of this reality in Hebrews 12. Comparing our relationship with God to our parents on earth, the writer of Hebrews invites us to consider difficulties in light of the fruit it produces. The author of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:7-11, NRSV)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

I will admit that it can be hard to face the challenges of life. Sometimes the disciplining of God can be painful, even if it does correct broken or misaligned parts of us. Occasionally, challenges are legitimately less about correction and more about building up strength, but in general, I think the same response is necessary. If God is working for good in us, then we are called to either work alongside God or to willingly let God work in us.

Now, of all places the where I could find inspiration to understand this relationship with God, I found myself inspired in my reflection by a book that I am reading in my spare time. Unsurprisingly, it is a book about cooking. The book is “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. I was reading through the section on dairy that morning and working through the science of yogurt making, which my wife and I have done off and on over the years.

Effectively there are two parts to the making of yogurt. First, the milk being used is heated to a certain level for a certain period of time. McGee describes this process on page 48 of “On Food and Cooking.” Traditionally, this heating process helped to concentrate the number of proteins and to remove some of the liquid, which created.a firmer texture. This process also has the effect of pasteurizing the milk which become yogurt as milk is pasteurized when it crosses 145℉ for 30 minutes during the heating process. (On Food and Cooking, 22)

Even with the advent of the modern technique of adding dried milk powder to increase protein content, yogurt makers still raise the temperature of milk to 185℉ in order to denature the “whey protein lactoglobulin” in order to help the milk keep from coagulating. How? Well, “In boiling milk, unfolded lactoglobulin binds not to itself but to the capping-casein on the casein micelles, which remain separate; so denatured lactoglobulin doesn’t coagulate.” (On Food and Cooking, 20) Caseins, by the way, are the protein molecules that coagulate together to make cheese curd. (Under the right conditions, cheese can still be made from denatured milk. Indeed, almost all cheese is made from pasteurized milk)

Almost there…

What’s needed to move the milk from a pasteurized milk with denatured lactoglobulin is time and fermentation. Bacteria increases the acid content of the yogurt, which allows the casein to coagulate in particular patterns (as the lactoglobulin is blocking some of the connection points). Over time, the yogurt forms together, setting into a gelled mass with pockets for the moisture of the milk.

There’s a challenge in the process here. You may have noticed the milk’s lactoglobulin is denatured nearly 40℉ above the temperature required to kill off bacteria. In fact, yogurt bacteria can only survive temperatures up to between 104-113℉. There needs to be a cooling of the milk before yogurt can begin to be created.

So, here’s where I came to a realization the other day. I am often a lot like the milk I work to turn into yogurt. There are parts in my life that are filled with all kinds of nasty things. Sometimes the only way God can help me to break free of my own stubbornness is to turn up the heat. God knows what I can handle and like a careful cook, I believe there are times when my life is intentionally and carefully brought to a place where I can both begin to be free of the nasty stuff and begin to be prepared for new good things. In challenge I am both freed and given a chance for transformation.

When I am ready, the heat turns down, I am brought into a place where God’s goodness can begin to transform the parts of me that have been prepared. In those moments, there are a couple of things I can do to help the process.

First, I can be careful about my surroundings. Just as a dirty spoon could spoil the pasteurized and prepared milk, I can cause a world of trouble by diving back into the places where I no longer belong. There are behaviors in this life which are not helpful. It is good to move away from them and to stay away from them.

Second, I can practice humility. A lot of things in life can go in ways I do not prefer. Does that mean all of those challenging situations are bad for me? Sometimes humility requires me to be willing to accept circumstances I would not prefer or choose on my own. It can be very difficult to admit that I do not always know what is best for me, but in reality, most of us have blind spots and areas where we do not see things clearly. If I practice humility, there is a stronger chance I can work my way through situations that normally would be inescapable.

None of this means that I would necessarily prefer to face such challenges, but there is something to be said for realizing that there are moments when challenge becomes both inevitable and beneficial. May we all have the wisdom to know when such situations are before us.

Poem: Cracked Cisterns

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.

Cracked Cisterns
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.

Let us Ramble: Bookmarks

I love to read and yesterday I had a few fleeting moments of free time in the middle of my day. A few weeks back my children helped me glue together fancy pieces of paper with old fashioned glue sticks so that I could cut them up and laminate bookmarks for the plethora of books I am currently juggling. I go through a lot of bookmarks between Academy books, science fiction anthologies, short stories, and the occasional need for several bookmarks in a given Bible during a given service. I prepared to make a lot of bookmarks.

The goal was that the glue would hold the paper together so I would not get any annoying slivers of the back of one piece of paper on another. I had nice pumpkins on the side of one of the bookmarks and a nice brick wall motif on the other side. It looked kind of nice as the earthtones of the bricks went nicely with the orange of the pumpkins. I was looking forward to lots and lots of earth tones.

I sliced, I diced, I julienned… Okay, I am kidding. I just used the paper cutter. I cut them all into perfect shapes so that I could put together the perfect set of bookmarks for the fall. I have a new kid on the way, so I know I will need a lot of bookmarks as I dive into the collection of books while rocking. I laminated with exactly a quarter inch of laminate around each bookmark. They were going to be perfect.

I looked down and saw a bunch of bricks peeking out from under the desk. I thought I might have an extra bookmark, but… no pumpkins on the other side. I whipped through the bookmarks. There was a pumpkin bookmark with a glaring-white back in the midst of my perfect bookmarks. Ugh… I was so close to getting everything right! Perfectionism demanded I throw it away!

So close to perfection…

So, realizing my heart was telling me something important, I stopped. Why did it need to be a perfect bookmark? Wasn’t it a laminated bookmark? Wouldn’t it hold the page just fine? Didn’t I love pumpkins? What is wrong with a white back anyway? Why was I so upset about a bookmark not matching the rest?

I slowed down and realized that I was getting carried away. Nothing in life is perfect. Nothing is absolutely, completely, 100% according to plan… What seems to truly matter is what we do with our imperfections. If God can work in my life and I am not perfect, couldn’t I give this poor bookmark a chance?

I still have the bookmark. It won’t be the first one I choose, but I still have it. The bookmark will be a reminder to me that I need to work with the imperfections even as I ask God to work with my imperfections. To put it another way, I can ask God to forgive me my trespasses, even as I forgive the trespass of this poor bookmark.

May you find room to live into the imperfections today. May that space bless you.