Sunday, August 31, 2014

How to Know If You’re a Southerner – Or Not

You’ve all read the lists – the references to sweet tea, and ending all your words with a vowel, and whether you ask for soda, pop, or Coke when ordering Sprite.  Those are all telling, but, I suggest, the real test is far more subtle.

My own homage to Dixie – how to know if your’re a southerner; or more importantly (from a southerner’s point of view), how to tell if you’re not.  You know you’re a southerner if

1. You’re related to somebody famous.  To be southern, you absolutely must have someone – preferably someone from the Civil War or before, but really, anyone will do in a pinch – who is famous in your family tree.  Because, of course, if you’re southern (at least if you’re white and southern)

2. You will have and know your family tree by heart because

3. It is all, always and only, about the past.

4. You will know how to insult someone in a way that they won’t realize they’ve been insulted until they’ve gotten home (if they ever figure it out) at least ten different ways.

5. You are really angry, but just too damned well-bred to ever show it, so that

6. The only way to really know when you’re angry is by virtue of the fact that the angrier you are, the less intelligible you become, as in your accent just gets thicker and thicker, as if your words were being choked out of you, which then means

7. A quiet person can be from anywhere, but a silent person is always a southerner, a very angry, very scary, southerner, but a southerner nonetheless.

8. Because remembering is so important in the south, you have an encyclopedic memory of everything and everyone and you always, if you went to college, majored or minored (whether declared or not) in history, which means

9. If you were smart, you married a northerner so you could win every argument, a fact your parents warned the unsuspecting northerner of in advance, because, after all,

10. Fair is fair.  And southerners are nothing if not fair.

The end

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dear Mr. Putin: Some Thoughts on Russia and Ukraine

I had an experience some years ago that might be instructive for you.

As a lawyer, I represented some folks in a property dispute, along with another lawyer.  It was a family thing, which, as I am sure you know, can be some of the worst fights.

Our clients lived at the top of the hill, surrounded by the large farm of their cousin, whose father had long ago granted them a legal right-of-way over the farm for their driveway.

When the father died, his son, by then quite old himself, got it in his head that either (a) there was no right-of-way or (b) his cousins had somehow cheated his father out of the right-of-way, so there should be no right-of-way.  And he acted accordingly.

In his case, ‘accordingly’ meant that he took all kinds of increasingly hostile actions to prevent these folk, or anyone else for that matter, from going up and down the driveway.

He put jackrocks in the driveway to flatten their tires when they drove upon it.  He knocked their mail boxes over with a sledgehammer.  He graded the drive with his tractor so that an ordinary car could not traverse it.  He threatened meter readers and pizza delivery men.  He blocked the drive, which also provided access to the family cemetery on the day of the funeral for his cousins’ mother.  He dug up gas lines, leaving them with no heat in the dead of winter.  And then he started shooting at them.

That was their last straw, when they sought out the help of lawyers.  We got a court order.  He ignored it.  We got a trial date.  He laughed at it.  When the other lawyer went to survey the latest damage, he took his tractor and pushed the car over the side of the hill.

We went to trial.  He mocked it all while pretending to be law abiding.  And we took every cent he had, simply because he continued to show himself to be uninterested in anything except his own narrow view that he was right and the rest of the world was wrong.

He died some years later angry and bitter and still, I am confident, sure that he had been grievously wronged.

Interestingly, the cousins, our clients, during all of this gentleman’s shenanigans, never retaliated in kind.

What do you in your current situation have in common with these folks?

1. They were all related.

2. He insisted on rewriting history to suit his view of things because he found the present to be unacceptable.

3. He used force to try to get the outcome he wanted.

4. He felt betrayed by everyone around him.

5. He acted badly in order to try to get his way.

6. The court of public opinion rejected him.

Sound familiar?

So what?  And so what’s instructive in this small dispute between some country cousins in a far away land?

A few things, I might suggest:

1. Winning the battle is never the same as winning the war.  If more folks understood this simple fact, there might actually be fewer wars.  Something to think about.

2. Strong men can often build themselves a box from which they find it impossible to escape.  This man certainly did – he was so committed to his ‘cause’, that he left himself no way out save to go down fighting.  It is a foolish mistake.

3. A few inches or even many acres or hectares of ground, most of the time, just aren’t worth the fight.  Lines on maps will be drawn and redrawn into the swirls of time.  In the long haul, no one will even remember where the lines were.  They will remember the harm done to the people.  And that isn’t much of a legacy.

4. Because the rest of the world is so unstable now, you might calculate that the rest of the world will bemoan your actions but ultimately do nothing, as the man with the farm calculated (wrongly about his cousins).  This is a grave miscalculation on your part, for it never works that way and the truth is, you know that.  You’d actually have better luck if the rest of the world was stable, for in stable times, no one is much interested in someone else’s fight.  In unstable times, however, everyone’s battles take on larger and more epic proportions, becomimg more rather than less threatening, inciting more rather than less response.  I don’t know about you, but ‘Starter of World War III’ is not what I would want for my epitaph.

5. Nobody took anything from you in the first place.  The Soviet Union existed and now it does not.  Its satellite states were just that.  We had our civil war; you have had your own versions of that.  If the eastern Ukraine is truly Russian rather than Ukranian, in time it would simply come back.  It happens all over the world.

6. Patience is not merely a virtue; when it comes to the scales of history, it is actually something that is rewarded.  If you take eastern Ukraine by force, it will never truly be yours.  Unrest, subversion, sabotage, armed resistance, will all continue.  Who needs the headache?

7. Paranoia often arises out of the (usually mistaken) belief that everyone else thinks as you do.  The cousins had no interest in taking over the old man’s farm.  But he could never allow himself to believe that; consequently, a driveway became a threat to his entire existence – but only in his own mind.  Just so, from this distance, it seems highly unlikely that Europe, with all its own problems, has any interest in invading, taking over, annexing, or in any other way encroaching on Russia.  Annoying your neighbor is not the same thing as being a threat to your neighbor.  Just a thought.

I am no expert on the affairs of Russia or the former Soviet Union.  I do not know the intricacies of Ukraine’s relationship to your country.  I am given the luxury by birth of remaining far too ignorant of the complexities of your part of the world.

But I can tell you that from this distance, you are looking like a thug and a bully and a very scared little boy.  I can tell you that you are picking a fight with the world at a very bad time.  I can tell you that instability is contagious.  So keep encroaching, invading, destablilizing Ukraine at your own peril.  And I can tell you that adventuring seldom goes well either for the victor or the defeated.  The law of unintended consequences is alive and well and if you haven’t been paying attention to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, Syria, and all the other places of civil war and wars of encroachment around the world, you are more a fool than you have any right to be.

And whatever we in the West may think of you, until now, we have never thought you a fool.

20 Cool Things Famous People Get to Do That I Want a Shot At

It's utterly silly, frivolous even, I know.  But the other night watching a bit of television, I got to wondering what it must be like to be famous  -- not in any deep or reflective way -- just about, well, the cool stuff you get to do just cos you’re famous or cool, that the rest of us should have a chance – just a chance – at

1. Participate on television in an Alan Rickman-Off.  Jimmy Fallon and Benedict Cumberbatch – they get to do stuff like that and have the rest of us watch.  Wouldn’t you, just once, love to be that guy?  I know I would, and I’m not even a guy.

2. Have someone actually ask me for a copy of a sermon or better yet, ask me to preach  because of my book they just read/got/heard about.  Yeah, I want to be that gal – just once.  Please, Lord?

3. Be allowed to use the word ‘oligarch’ in a sentence and not be slammed as getting above my raising.  It was Cumberbatch and he is English, so that probably explains it.

4. Having strangers to cry because you die.  Now we ordinary folk can get that weird privilege – all we have to do is die in a very moving, extraordinary or gruesome way.  Of course, now that I think about it, that's the way it pretty much is for the famous as well.  Never mind.

5. To be interviewed on television for something interesting that you’ve thought or written or done and not for some horror happening in your neighborhood.  Yeah, that would be nice.

6. Have photographers take pictures of you and your friends coming out of your house after dinner, asking ‘who are you wearing’ and wanting to know about the menu and the table conversation.

7. Have your plan for world peace be taken seriously.

8. Get invited to an event with interesting people because you’re interesting.

9. Get to be the spokesperson for an important charity you passionately believe in.

10. Get a million sympathy cards and 10 million FB likes for your most recent sorrow.

11. Have a million people follow your tweets and share them with their friends.

12. Get to see the special private collections at museums.

13. Go through airport security in the fast lane, hassle free.

14. Be asked to introduce the President at a function.

15. Have everyone in the room give you a standing O when you walk in.

16. Be invited to make your signature dish on Ellen.

17. Have Jon Stewart laugh at your jokes not because you’re funny, but because he’s a nice guy and appreciates the effort.

18. Be the first in your neighborhood to get new techno products.

19. Never, ever, ever, have to stand in a line again.

20. Be given clothes to wear just because you’re you.

Ah, jealousy, such an ugly thing.  But sometimes, it would be nice to be treated as if I were of the rich and famous.  Most days it doesn’t matter.  But I really would like a shot at the Alan Rickmanoff.  I think I can do it.  Really.  Call me.  Anybody?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

7 Bits of Good News

I don't know about you, but every now and then I have to pull back from the unrelenting bad news of the world and just take a break -- stare out my window, listen to the birds and watch the sunlight filter through the full-on green of the forsythia bushes that run along two sides of the house, even taking in the sounds of intermittent truck traffic as somehow reassuring.

Then I go trolling like a junkie in search of some good news.  It's always there.  I simply forget it sometimes as the noise of the catastrophes (and they are real) drowns out what I know is also there -- small and large glimmers of the glorious.

Here are 7 I found today:

1.  Acts of kindness in Ferguson, as neighbors help each other and good deeds all but escape unnoticed by the larger world.  Huffington Post

2.  Sir Nicholas Winton turned 105 today.  He helped smuggle over 600 children destined for the camps out of Nazi strongholds to Great Britain.  And Great Britain took them in.  Something to remember, I think.

3.  An Imam in Calgary speaks out against ISIS.  And so does Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti (top religious leader in the country), who calls ISIS and Al-Qaeda ‘enemy number one of Islam’.   Huffington Post  Yes, ‘they’ do speak out – they, Muslims, they, religious leaders, they, not of ‘us’, they.  ‘We’ just don’t always know it.  The Daily Beast

4.  People of faith, like people of no faith, struggle with things like illness and dying every day.  For people of faith, contrary to all objective reason, often their faith is deepened rather than not by the challenges they face.  And people of faith experience that as a good thing.  It's happening again today.

5.  Nuns are still getting on the bus.

6.  Governmental minds can be and are changed.

7.  Enemies became friends today.  I’m not sure where exactly, but it happens every day, so I’m pretty sure it happened today.

That's my list of good news for today.  I wonder what's on your list?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Racism, Ferguson and a Widening National Divide

I'm a white gal and I am now speaking to the other white folk , who post comments around the web such as "it's not a race problem, it's a sin problem".

Isn't racism a 'sin'?  And do we not have a duty to address our collective sins as much as our individual ones?  And does not changing the language from 'racism' to 'sin' make it really be about nothing - as in, if it's about nothing, it requires nothing to change?

My point is this - when it's about my sin (and racism is about my collective sin) it's my job to stop it, change it, confess it, rather than to rename it, jump into the 'we're all sinners pool' and grab my automatic forgiveness token.  That is what Bonhoeffer (rightly, I think) would call cheap grace.

And when we white folk speak about due process, about 'getting all the facts', about looting and rioting, I want to gently suggest that perhaps we are trying to change the subject, for it is indeed a painful one.  Might we white folk not better spend our time in what others have challenged us to do -- to listen and to learn?

I cannot speak to the experience of someone in whose shoes I have not walked if I do not take the time to listen.

There's a video going round (sorry, don't have the link) of a young black teenager in Ferguson - he's writing protest in chalk on a gas station's pump when a young adult black man speaks to him, challenging him to not do it with chalk (it disappears) and not do it there (defacing the property of another).

The young man makes a sign, joins the protest and the question he's written on his sign haunts me, as it should, "Am I next?"

If a police officer kills a young white man, the fact is that justified or unjustified, necessary or excessive, the question will rise and fall on its own merits, BECAUSE our society can and does take it as a given that he was NOT killed because he is white.

The facts of this case will develop over time in the ways of due process.  BUT we are not allowed, I would posit, as white folk, to dismiss our history as if it has no bearing.  It does.  And that history continues today.

The privilege that I enjoy as a white woman is that I don’t have to think about giving my son THE TALK.  But I should have -- my son is of mixed race and he paid a dear price for my own ignorant assumptions.

And regardless of the facts as they continue to develop, based on what we do know -- a young unarmed black man was shot and shot at repeatedly (as in shoot to kill) – should we not as a society be pondering why we have allowed a situation where our keepers of the peace (now more popularly referred to as law enforcement officers) are moving away from policing and towards soldiering?

That our laws allow and condone and thus encourage deadly force against a person who is not a deadly threat simply because one is a law enforcement officer?  How we don't account for adrenaline pumping bad judgment when we put one officer alone on patrol with no one not only to back him up, but also to check him and his judgment?

How we white folk by and large aren't even willing to consider, let alone talk about, the factor of race in the snap decisions police officers are required to make and how we can counter that?  (read Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Blink' and one of its later chapters on the police killing of an unarmed man in New York and how their fears and prejudices could make them mistake his body motions as indicative of having a gun where a different context - ie, a different neighborhood, a man of different color - would have led to a different and less deadly, result).

How we presume that it is necessary for our populace and our police to be armed?  How things are handled differently when guns aren't in the mix?  (as in, why wouldn't one grown man in a conflict with another, even if the accounts which favor the officer are true, simply wait in his car and call for assistance in order to avoid the conflict turning deadly?)  As in, why wouldn't the one with the gun back down if his only other option were to kill another human being?

A justified shoot is one thing.  The cost to everyone of the loss of this human being is quite another.

I still have lots of listening and learning to do.  What strikes me now that we white folk seem to be missing entirely is that this isn't about (or not primarily about) whether the technical legal requirements were present or not for a so-called justified shoot.  It's about the violent loss of yet another young person of color who happened to be male when it didn't have to be that way.  It's about mourning.  It's about the anger that for someone like me, that day was just another day on planet earth, while for my friends of color, it was and is the same -- just another day -- but our days are so very different that it hardly bears the comparison.

That is not as it should be.  And I dare not pretend otherwise.

Time will perhaps reveal whether a police officer’s actions on a day in August in Ferguson, Missouri were legally justified or not.  But a young man is dead and that fact will cost the officer as well as the young man’s family, friends, neighborhood and society and it didn’t have to be that way.

When mistakes of judgment borne out of fear resulting in death occur, perhaps we would do well not to rush to make heroic that which is merely tragic.  And we might all listen a little more.  Including me.

NOTE 1   I am, as I said at the outset, white.  I have many police officer friends.  It is a job I do not envy and would not have.  My own father, a long-time investigator in our local Prosecuting Attorney’s office, considered himself a policeman, a law enforcement officer, if you will.  In my lawyer days, I prosecuted and defended against claims of police brutality.  I hope I have made clear here that I do not intend to comment on the legal proceedings involving the killing of Michael Brown.  I presume these facts to be common, public knowledge: (1) Michael Brown was young, he was black, he was physically large and he was unarmed.  (2) Darren Wilson, who is white, was acting as a police officer at the time he shot Michael Brown.  (3) Darren Wilson was armed with a gun in his capacity as a police officer.  (3) the killing happened in daylight hours on a city street.  (4) there was a conflict between the two while Officer Wilson was inside his police cruiser which may have been instigated by Officer Wilson or by Michael Brown.  And (5) Michael Brown was shot multiple times.  And I presume that Officer Wilson was no more right than he was wrong in his actions merely because he is a police officer.

NOTE 2   See this link to a BBC interview of an African American police woman from the St. Louis area.  Read her comments about fear-based responses and how we’re failing to talk about that.  And note the photograph of police officers dressed in the camouflage fatigues of soldiers, wearing gas masks and kitted out in full military combat dress as they confront a civilian on the streets of Ferguson.  Then ask yourself how Wall Street (who has way more looters than any street in Ferguson) would react to the appearance of tanks and soldiers in front of their offices requiring them to fall to their knees and prove their good intentions on command.  The militarization of police nation-wide is something that has happened without national discussion or decision and now seems to be taken as a given.  And understand that police philosophy is that if, as an officer, you are going to unholster your gun, it is because you are prepared to shoot to kill and it is supposed to be your last option.  Then consider that when adrenaline is pumping, when you’re angry and most likely scared, just how able you are to make the best decision in the situation.  And then consider the question of race.  Because the question, perhaps, is not whether the officer was fearful.  The question is whether he would have been as fearful, as adrenaline-pumped, as angry, had the young man he confronted been white or simply not black.  And then, if you are white, ask yourself if you might answer those questions differently if you were a black person raised in these United States?  Maybe that will help us listen a little better from the other side of the racial divide.

NOTE 3   Today on FaceBook, there was a picture of some KKK members coming to Ferguson to protest on behalf of the officer.  The tag for the picture went something like, “now do you understand it’s about race?”  It caught my eye particularly because of recent experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which I am a member, in its stance relative to divesting from certain companies doing business in Israel-Palestine in ways that advance Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.  As one might imagine, the church’s decision has been a controversial one.  But when David Duke, a former high-up in the KKK, came out in support of the decision, those on the other side of the question cited Mr. Duke’s support as evidence of the church’s anti-Semitism (as in we are known by the company we keep).  I reject that principle when it comes to my church and I reject it here: the police of Ferguson, MO, did not invite or encourage the presence of the KKK and their presence no more indicates that these police officers are racists than David Duke’s statements indicate that the PC(USA) is anti-Semitic.  But maybe I’m missing something.

NOTE 4   Thousands peacefully protest and the news reports virtually nothing of it.  A few loot and it is the headline of the day.  If you are white, ponder that reality as you grapple with police interactions with people of color.  I like to think that the cops I know are reflective of most police officers -- people simply doing their jobs the best they're able, equally respectful of those they encounter regardless of race.  But one bad cop, like one looter, gets a disproportionate amount of attention and poisons the well of perception for many.  If your store was looted, chances are all you would think about would be the looters.  If your son or daughter were wrongfully stopped or harassed, chances are that would paint the picture for you of all police.  Do you see how it works?  If all you're seeing as a white person is looting, you're closer in experience to the black people of Ferguson than you might like to think and maybe you can understand their feelings a bit better.  The big difference is that looters get taken away.  Police officers who based their behavior on race generally don't.

Monday, August 25, 2014


My epiphany moment came as I lay in the dark struggling with imaginary dialogues – debates, really, what they would say, how I would respond, ad infinitum.

The epiphany is more about our posture in coming to the conversation than it is about any particular solution.

We – I – need to come confessionally –

about my own role

about my own biases

about my own blind spots

From such a space, might doors be opened, if only a crack, for others to do likewise?

And even if not, is it not nevertheless where God calls me?

Where God is?

Standing in all our crack doors seeking entrance if we would but allow it?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Forgiving Others

Colossians 3.13 (NRSV)  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 

When it comes to forgiveness, the questions for us in the doing are many.  Here, then, are but a few:

1. Is it necessary that they ask for our forgiveness?  No.  In Luke 23.34, Jesus’ first words from the cross were, Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they’re doing.  Full reconciliation or restoration may require some acknowledgment on the part of the other person.  Or it may not.  But in order to forgive someone the harm they have done me, it is just not necessary, biblically speaking, to wait for them to say sorry.

2. May we withhold our forgiveness for any reason?  No.  In Matthew 18, Peter famously asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone – the proverbial problem of the repeat offender.  Jesus’ answer is clear – if you expect forgiveness from God, you’d do well to be prepared to forgive others as often as forgiveness is required.  Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a decision.  We may have to make the decision over and over again, but make it we must.

3. For whom do we make the decision?  For ourselves first.  And for the other.  It has been said that refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison ourselves and expecting the other guy to die.  We forgive because bitterness, anger, resentments, grudges, eat us alive from the inside out.  But forgiveness also benefits the other person, whether they seek it or not, recognize it in that instant or not.  It is a gift we give – the same gift that was given to us – by God’s own self.

4. How do we do it?  There is lots of good advice in the Bible and elsewhere about how to forgive.  There is no one blueprint, but there are some common features:

a. first, we decide – as an exercise of our will rather than an experience of our emotions, we forgive.  It is both a choice and a commitment, for the act of forgiving does not end with our decision.

b. sometimes we have to pray to even be willing to be willing to forgive.  When we’re stuck in not being able to exercise our will to forgive but know that we should, simply ask God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Pray for a heart, a mind, a spirit, made willing to forgive.

c. we don’t minimize the hurt, the harm, the need for forgiveness.  Accept the reality of your past is how Rabbi Falcon puts it.  This thing happened.  It shouldn’t have.  But it did.  We need to admit to ourselves that this unforgiven thing done to us matters and it matters a lot.

d. we include the living and the dead – we may be holding grudges and hurts against people who are long dead and well beyond the need for our forgiveness for what they did, but we may still need to do the work of forgiving them.

e. we do the work, whatever it takes.  No one else can do this work for us.  We have to do it ourselves.

f. don’t judge ourselves harshly if it comes up again We may think we’ve done the work, that we’ve actually forgiven.  And then something happens and it all comes back up again.  That’s okay.  Forgiving is not forgetting in the sense of not remembering.  Forgiving is forgetting in the sense of not holding it against someone into the indefinite future.  So when we find the old resentments, have come back, we simply need to do a refresher.  When Jesus told Peter that seven times of forgiveness wasn’t enough and that it might be as much as 70 x 7, he might have meant to keep forgiving repeat offenses.  And he might have meant that it’ll take us a long time to complete our own forgiving work.  Both are true.  And both require leaning on God’s grace a great deal.

g. we must finally understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.  God desires that we be reconciled to each other.  But this side of heaven, that is not always possible or even desirable, principally because it depends on both parties being equally willing, equally healthy, equally able.  And that isn’t always true.  Consider repeat patterns of behavior, like domestic violence or child sexual abuse.  The work of both forgiveness and reconciliation is as practical as it is spiritual.  It requires addressing what is the best for all concerned.  And God always desires the best for each and all of us.  It is not best to place someone sexually attracted to children in the company of children.  It is not best to place one’s self in the physical sphere of someone who represents present physical or psychological danger.  It is not best to enable someone to continue their own self-destructive patterns.

Forgiveness is an act of strength, not weakness. Forgiveness is ours to give, not the other’s to demand.  One may ask for forgiveness, but one may not demand it.

It is our job to forgive.  It isn’t easy.  But it is necessary.

To forgive is to first understand that what happened is not okay.  Never was.  Never will be.  To forgive is to first understand that what happened is not okay and then to say, I will love you anyway.  Just like God loves me.

Perhaps the best prayer I’ve ever read/seen/heard about the important work of forgiveness, from Rabbi Falcon, May no one be punished on my account.  Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Forgiving Cake

Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.  – Ephesians 4.31-32 (The Message)

A forgiving recipe, it seems, is one which does not require exact measurements, where some ingredients can be substituted without the result being affected, or where a cook can get it wrong and it still turns out okay.

Nigella's forgiving banana cake recipe calls for sugar . . . rum . . . overripe bananas, a stove . . . folks wrote in about substituting golden syrup for rum . . . brown sugar for white sugar . . . not-so-ripe bananas, and my fav – a camp stove and some foil instead of an oven and a cake pan . . . and they all got the same thing . . . banana cake!  

That’s forgiveness:  starting out with the correct recipe (knowing what you should do) then changing something (doing something else – other than what you should have done) and still getting cake in the end.

You shouldn’t – get cake, that is.  What you should get is an ooey-gooey mess of something that was supposed to have been a cake.  But with a forgiving cake, you get cake every time.

That’s something.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Taking Stock

Fifteen does and a young buck
A hummingbird or two
The usual suspects of cows
A whisper of a whistle pig
A passle of sunflowers
And one very faint rainbow

One evening drive, two miles or so, I take stock, so to speak and wonder how it was for God, out for an evening stroll in the garden.

I derive some sort of satisfaction in this counting I do on an evening drive in the country.

Does God have that same sense, made even more full for the pride of having made it all happen?

I, mere bystander, am filled to overflowing with such things.

And so I stay in my state of wonder and consider what it must be like for God to take stock.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Bomb, Bomb, Bomb . . . Iraq?

What’s the problem?

One of the problems with our current course in Iraq is that it is a continued circumvention of our own rules of governance in the United States and it’s gone on so long, we – all of us – including Congress itself – seem to have forgotten that we actually have rules for this sort of thing.

a. it’s called a declaration of war.  That function belongs solely and only to Congress and not the president.

b. whether we’re ‘invited’ by the Kurds or not is beside the point.  If ISIS is no nation state, neither are the Kurds of northern Iraq.

c. whether we’re ‘invited’ even by the Prime Minister (is there one?) of Iraq or not is also beside the point as we have no treaty with Iraq for the provision of such military assistance (think NATO).  In fact, efforts to negotiate such an agreement failed.

d. President Obama described ISIS as ‘our enemy’.  Exactly when did they go from being the enemy of Syria and Iraq to being an enemy of the United States?

The problem is that we have had no national debate, discussion or reflection on this.  It further underlines how far we have drifted in our national consciousness from using the machinery of war only when the representatives of the people (Congress) say we should for our national defense to using our guns and bigger guns pretty much whenever the President (whoever that person may be) decides that we should.

Given that ISIS’ incursions in Syria and Iraq have been going on for months, if not years, it’s not as if there hasn’t been time to have that discussion.  And it is not okay that we haven’t.

We the people have abdicated our responsibilities to one person.  Is there a word for tyranny by default?

Why does this matter in this particular instance?  Aren’t ISIS bad guys?  Really bad guys?  Don’t they need killing?

The truth is that we don’t know.  We know what’s been told that they’ve done.  But we don’t have any idea about context.  And we don’t know, even if they’re bad guys, whether they’re our bad guys or not.

Maybe they are.  But the machinery of government already gives the executive branch great latitude in conducting our foreign affairs.  The line was drawn at the waging of war.  When did we allow ourselves to forget that?  To forget that the waging of war in this country is a collective decision because it is our collective responsibility?  That our system demands much from us as citizens, including our input on the big decisions.

Going to war, formally declared or not, is always a big decision.

I decry the death of James Foley.  But make no mistake – if we go to war (and it seems we already have) against ISIS, it will not be because of James Foley.  He will be the rallying focal point.  But he won’t be the reason.

And much as I love my Kurdish friends, I don’t know that going to war in order to promote Kurdish independence is a reason either.  Maybe we as a nation think otherwise.  But the fact is that we as a nation haven’t really thought about it at all.

Instead, as a nation, we are drifting into yet another war without much, if any, reflection, thought, direction, or purpose, save killing those declared unfit to live.

I don't pretend to have answers.  But I still have lots of questions, including this, which will not leave me:  are the people of ISIS (and they are people too) really beyond any hope or possibility of reconciliation?  Did we not believe that of the Japanese and the Germans at one time?  And yes, there was military victory first and perhaps that's what needs to happen here as well.  But do we in these United State not now in fact consider the Japanese and the Germans to be some of our strongest allies and friends among the nations of the world?  And that in a generations' time?  The people who fought those wars most likely thought such a turn of events to be impossible.  And what of South Africa?  Did the indigenous peoples as well as their European imports not have cause to believe reconciliation would be impossible?  Did not one side have cause to cry out at the cruel injustices visited upon them and do likewise?  And yet they refrained.  Still a work in progress, and yet, by and large, they refrained in order to try and write a better narrative, live a better life together.

Wasn't that, too, a pipe dream at one time?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Second First Day

The first day of second grade, the second (or third, if one counts kindergarten, and why not?) first day, must carry with it the assurance of the pro – the I’ve been there, done that, swagger of the confident – those who have trod these paths before.

Thus do I imagine my grandson’s second first day, so different than his first first day.

There are still the rituals – the nice outfit, the pictures, the reminder that it’s a first day, the happy send off.  But now they’re just that – rituals, so that what last year was a seismic shift in reality signified by the big send-off is now the ritual observation of the repeated pattern of life.

Both are wonderful and something is gained in both.  But I remember years ago in seminary, when a friend learned I was reading Henri Nouwen for the first time.  

“How I envy you,” Erin said and there really was envy in her voice.  

“What do you mean?”

“You’re reading him for the first time.  You’re just beginning, with all those wonderful books still before you.  How I wish I could go back and be there again.”

It was an extraordinary compliment to Nouwen, but also simply to the gift of learning.  

So as off he went on yesterday, I wonder whether my wee boy of a grandson walked with confidence.  I wonder whether he’s glad to know his way around.  And I wonder whether, somewhere in his soul, there is a tiny wistfulness for 1st grade – for all the times of meeting ideas and ways of doing things for the first time.

He’s an old hand now, our 2nd grader and I wonder if he envies the 1st graders that it’s their first time.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bumper Stickers Make for Bad Ideology

It’s catchy.  It’s easy to remember.  It makes sense.  Sort of.  And it doesn’t make you think.

The quick litmus test for an ideology, one might suggest, is to test its universality – that is, does it apply universally?  

Substitute the word ‘cars’ for guns and let’s see: Cars don’t kill people.  People kill people.  Chances are if you come up on that bumper sticker, you’ll be (a) confused (as in, ‘what are they talking about?’) or (b) terrified as you discover the intention behind the statement – to justify whatever behavior the driver has in mind without any societal checks on the driver, so long as they are using a car to do it (as opposed to, oh, say a squirrel).  

Silly?  It seems so.  That’s not to say there might not be arguments on both sides of the gun control debate (that discussion is for another day).  But to argue against the regulation of the use of the thing (by people) because people (rather than the thing) are the intention agent is nonsensical.  Whenever we regulate action or behavior, we are regulating the actions or behaviors of the people engaged in those actions or behaviors.  Thus when cars are required to be inspected (for safe operation), it’s not really the car, but the car owner, who is on the hook for maintaining the car in proper working order.

To take the next step and reduce the discussion to a bumper sticker invites us to our dumber selves, to stop thinking and simply rely on catch phrases.  The advertising industry (when a government does it, we call it propaganda) has long known that over-simplification creates over-identification – hey, that’s me – or it could be – cool.  

And a quick review of bumper stickers in the United States, at least, shows an enormous and surprising level of hostility.  It’s almost as if there’s a dare to race to the death out there on the highways and byways of our land.  

As with so many things, I continue to wonder why we are so angry with each other?  So perhaps when we meet up with someone on the road whose car verbiage proclaims how very much we disagree on just about everything, rather than getting our own bumper stickers in their proverbial face, we might just pray blessings upon them.  I wonder what would happen if we did.  Don’t you?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Seeking Forgiveness

God forgives us.  We forgive ourselves.  We allow ourselves to be forgiven by others.

Matthew 5 (The Message): This is how I want you to conduct yourself . . . If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.  

What The Message calls ‘making things right’ is usually translated as “be reconciled”.  Seeking and receiving forgiveness are biblically understood as reconciliation, a restoration of something that was lost.

Hence the practice of the passing of the peace taking place before coming to the communion table arose in the very early church – passing the peace is not merely a handshake or greeting among friends – it is the opportunity to restore one’s self to fellowship with someone wronged.

As noted in the Pulpit Commentary: “Our Lord is insisting that it is so important to lose no time in seeking reconciliation with a person whom one has injured, that even the very holiest action must be put off for it.”

There is a sense of urgency about the importance of seeking out forgiveness from someone we have wronged.  It requires Honesty, Haste and Humility.

Our job is to do the work of seeking out that forgiveness. But how?  Today’s passage suggests some obvious, clear, simple – not easy, but simple – steps:

(1) acknowledging/admitting that we have done something that needs forgiving

(2) asking the person or persons wronged to forgive us

(3) doing what we can to make amends

(4) leaving the decision to forgive to the person from whom we seek forgiveness

(5) making this a priority in our lives

1. Acknowledging that we have done something that needs forgiving.  It’s about getting honest – with God, with ourselves and with the other person.  It means saying it out loud.  It is an act of humility to admit we’ve done wrong by someone, leaving out all the self-justifications, reasons, and resentments. It’s no accident that Jesus speaks of ‘remembering’ what we’ve done wrong while we’re at the altar.  Where better to be reminded of our wrongs than standing before God? Thus, when we are reminded of something we’ve done that hasn’t been addressed, we might do well to also remember who reminded us.  If God’s Holy Spirit is bringing something to our attention, chances are it’s because the matter needs our attention.  Whether the other person has a part or not is irrelevant to your apology, your admission, your acknowledgment.  Their part is just that – theirs.  When seeking forgiveness, seek it.  Don’t shift the blame.  Don’t rehearse all your justifications.  You’re caught.  Live with it.  Admit it.  Seek to redress it.  Period.  Anything else takes you away from the land of honesty as well as humility.

2. Asking the person or persons wronged to forgive us Here’s the really humbling part: ask to be forgiven and walk away.  Don’t demand it.  Don’t beg for it.  Don’t wheedle, whine, carp or nag for it.  Simply ask and leave it at that.  Maybe they’ll need to think about it.  Maybe they’ll forgive you right away.  Maybe they’ll even have forgotten what you’re talking about.  In seeking another’s forgiveness, grace would suggest that we give them the space to do their work.  After all, we’ve been thinking about this for some time.  Shouldn’t we give them the same opportunity?

3. Doing what we can to make amends Reconciling, making things right between us really means making things right between us.  If I have wronged someone, it’s not their job to erase the debt – it’s mine.  And that may well include some form of recompense.  I may not be able to do it all at once, in which case I outline what I am going to do – and then, and this is most important, do it.  There is no credit here for my good intentions if they remain nothing but intentions.  Sometimes there really is nothing we can do to make up for what was done.  But we can refrain from repeating the same mistake.  We can change.

4. Leaving the decision to forgive to the person from whom we seek forgiveness The person we’ve harmed has the choice to make once we have sought their forgiveness whether to forgive or not.  What they should do is not up to us to decide.  We have to be willing to risk being told no, as in ‘no, I cannot or I will not forgive you.”  Once we honestly know we have done our part, we simply have to leave it at that and trust God’s Holy Spirit to begin a work within the their hearts just as was done in ours.  We must accord the one harmed the same freedom given to us – the freedom to say no.  That, too, is grace.

5. Making this a priority in our lives  What the Holy Spirit brings to your heart requires your response – now.  It is so urgent that Jesus speaks of literally walking out of church in order to go and seek the person out.  “Lose no time.”  The act of reconciliation is more important to God than what we might think of as the most holy act of worship.  How we are with each other, then, we might understand as a form of worship itself.  How do we worship God?  By seeking the forgiveness of those we have harmed.

We do this work in the constant companionship of God’s own self, God’s Holy Spirit, who begs us to remember and act, that nothing, not even ourselves, might separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's Easy, If You Try

“I’m not called.”

“I can’t go.”

“I’m no hero.”

“Who, me?”

The excuses we give to The One, the one we claim to follow, our Risen Lord, must, in turn, amuse and frustrate The Divine beyond all reckoning, if amusement and frustration are part of The Divine’s landscape.  Not to anthropomorphize, but I suspect they are.

Does God sometimes ponder the wisdom of creating beings with the gift of vast imaginations who so limit themselves to only that which they themselves can see?

I suspect the main difference between those among us we think of as heroic and the rest of us is the ability, or better, the willingness, to trust that gift of imagination.  

The rest of us, it seems, either cannot or will not (I suspect the latter) imagine what is possible, or in imagining, will not or dare not trust our imaginings for the divine gifts they are.

John Lennon, with a very different message in mind, perhaps captured it best when he wrote, Imagine . . . it’s easy, if you try.  

For in all the imagining in the world, there is much wonder and the chance of endless possibility.

“Who me?”  

“Who else,” answers the God of superlative imagining.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What Does Peace Look Like?

Like two enemies or ones who should be
sitting on the porch and talking about
things ordinary and extraordinary
finding understanding and even camaraderie

Like misunderstandings, ship-in-the-night
mishaps being worked out among friends
or those who might become friends simply
because they both decide trust is possible

Like hands held across the generations
as each looks at the other with fondness
and desire – desire to know and see and
learn just what makes this mysterious
other tick and tock its way through life

Like joy in the success of the other
with no thought or idea that what
is theirs should be mine or mine
theirs and happiness at the just
because of it all bursts forth

Like streets quiet not because of
guns and tear gas and batons and
threats or even exhaustion but
because one man dared to cross
the imaginary line and walk alongside

Like a family rent with grief made
public given the space and time to
merely grieve without incessant
chatter from those not in the know
about what should have or could
have or must have been

Like people on a mountaintop
starved and fear-ridden looking
skyward to find even the possibility
of rescue and believing once
again in hope, hoping once again
in normalcy and possibilities and life

Like big people with big guns
coming to their proverbial senses
and pulling back from the madness
we too small to resist would follow
them into not knowing what else
to do

Like ancient squabblers stopping
the incessant chant mine, mine, mine
and seeing in the other that there
is room even in a small land for
all and more when ‘mine’ and
‘not yours’ are left behind for
the dream that peace is possible

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why Does It Hurt So Much That Robin Williams Died?

Robin Williams is a stranger to most of us.  So was Philip Seymour Hoffman.  And Heath Ledger.  And sadly, so many other people of fame who have died in some way associated with alcoholism or addiction.

Why does it matter so much to us when they die?  Strangers die unremarked in all kinds of ways every day.

Maybe (speaking only for myself) it matters so much because if they can’t do it – if ‘they’, who have so very much by way of resources and access to resources, can’t do ‘it’, who can?  What hope does the little guy, the average joe, the ordinary person, who may not have that kind of access in these United States, at least, have?

Of course, success may actually be part of the problem for the rich and famous – that same success that gives them ease of access to treatment and care gives them access to the thing that will kill them.

Obviously, the cost of addiction is not (or not only) an issue of class or economics.  

But when Robin Williams dies, I am not just mourning for him.  I am mourning for everyone else who struggles his struggle and wondering what chance they have if he couldn’t do it.

Of course, I know better.  Of course I know that all those who struggle have a chance.  And that so much depends on so many variables.  And that help is really only a phone call away.  But I also know that for some, it is sometimes just too much and Superman won’t arrive in the nick of time.  

And knowing all this, I mourn.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Just Because I Can’t See You Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t There

The Perseid Meteor Shower will most likely have come and gone this year without the benefit of my eyes having seen it.  

The good news is that it’s raining.

And we are a dry and thirsty land in great need of the rains.

The other news (it’s not bad news, really) is that the cloud cover means I cannot go lay on the warm August sidewalk in front of my house in the wee hours wrapped in my sleeping bag and watch the night sky yield forth its fruit.

But that’s okay – it’s happening whether I see it or not.

And other folk are getting to see it, and maybe they’re laying on their sidewalks wrapped in sleeping bags too.  I hope so.

It’s a great way to watch the night pass by.

Just because I cannot see you doesn’t mean you aren’t there.

That’s a good thing to remember about a whole host of things, I think.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tatties and Scotland and Breakfast, Oh My

I am getting my Scotland on – or at least I’m thinking about it.  Maybe it’s the rain – rain always makes me a little homesick for Scotland (can you be homesick for a place you weren’t born to?  I think so).

It’s a Monday and was to be a laundry day (another Scotland reminder when I hang the clothes up to dry in the wind), but the rain has nixed that plan.  So what’s a gal to do?

Well, this gal is proposing to make some potato scones.  I’ll never have any this side of the pond otherwise, so why not?  Turns out they shouldn’t be that hard to make.  But I’ve heard that said about other things (my failed taco attempts being but one example).

I foresee some problems:

1. Just what, exactly, is a ‘mealy’ potato?  And do I have any?  I’m not sure.  The best I’ve been able to figure is that (a) new potatoes probably won’t do, as they need to be shed of their skin; and (b) Martha Stewart (that world-renowned expert on all things Scottish – not) says to use russets, so russet it is.

2. Why, oh why did I not bother to learn the metric system?  Why did we all fight Jimmy Carter so hard on that one?  Then I could just get to it without having to either (a) convert grams and centimeters and such to something approximating what I can understand measurement-wise; or (b) search for a U.S. version of the real thing – I may not know metric, but Martha’s proportions are way off for all the Scots recipes I’ve checked out.  Now what?  How am I to choose?

3. To baking powder or not to baking powder?  I am no Jamie Oliver, hence I have no confidence in my choosing.  I’m going with no baking powder simply because the ones I’ve had where they really do know what they’re doing (in Scotland, of course) don’t (at least I don’t think they do – but can I really be sure?).

But how hard can it be, really?  It’s some potatoes, butter and flour.  Surely I can manage this.  I am a fairly competent cook, so again, I ask (knowing full well the answer before I begin), how hard can it be?  The answer?  Damn hard.  But it’ll be fun trying.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

I’ve decided to go with Martha’s version, skipping her recommendation to baking powder the things and foregoing the cheese – cheese?  Really?  These are potato scones, not pizza.  Cheez.

Where is Tesco’s when you really need them?

Wish me luck.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On Being Forgiven

To forgive ourselves is to step in to God’s reality . . . to relax in to God’s grace . . . to know ourselves to be forgiven by God Almighty and to accept that truth in every aspect of our lives.

That said, how do we forgive ourselves?  Or allow ourselves to be forgiven?

1. Take a good hard look at ourselves.  1 John 3.19-21 (The Message):  My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.  And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God!  If we’re carrying guilt, we need to take the time to face head on where the guilt is coming from – is it because we haven’t taken care of something we need to take care of?

2. Acknowledge that we are in need of forgiveness – this is confession – the admission that we have fallen short.  Leviticus 5.5 (NRSV)  When you realize your guilt, you shall confess the sin that you have committed.  To whom?  12-step programs recommend that we admit our specific failings to (a) God; (b) ourselves; and ( c ) another human being.  The point is to get honest – honest with God, honest with ourselves and lest we hold back with God or ourselves, that we lay it all before another trusted human being – someone who will hold us accountable in love

3. Open ourselves to receive God’s forgiveness.  2 Corinthians 5.17 (ESV)  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Our job is to open ourselves to receive this truth and having received it, to live it, by not holding ourselves captive to the things we have done and by opening ourselves to a new way of living.

4. Expiation – the act of making amends for the wrongs we have done.  Numbers 5.6 (NRSV)  Speak to the Israelites: When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt . . .  Biblically understood, guilt is that which requires payment to satisfy the wrong.  What does expiation or an amend look like?  It depends.  Sometimes it’s repayment.  This is the eye-for-eye mode of justice.  In day-to-day life, however, we are not often in the land of offering up our eyes.  But neither are we in the land of pretending nothing ever happened.  Our wrongs require our effort to restore to the other what was lost. The most genuine amend is the evidence of change – of not doing the thing again. Thus restorative justice has two parts:  (1)  as to the past, we restore to the other person what was lost, by apology, by returning to the extent we can what was taken, and so on; and (2) as to the future, we commit to a new way of being so the thing is not done again. [A side note: making amends always requires that we do no more harm than we already have.]

Expiation is the means by which we enter in to God’s redeeming grace in the day-to-day – not to earn our way into God’s good graces – we’re already there.  We really are already forgiven.  No – we expiate our sins, that is, we make amends for them, in order that we may become that new thing God created us to be.  Expiation is our co-work with Christ – Christ made us new from the cross; by daily making amends when we fall short, we live out the reality of our new-ness.

Guilt is a healthy thing – it is the immediate price we pay for having wronged others.  But it is not a penalty.  Rather, our feelings of guilt exist in order to prompt us to change – to redress the wrongs we have done and to foreswear doing them again. Guilt has a purpose.  Once the purpose has been met, the guilt goes away – when we are healthy.  When we cling to unhealth, we hold on to guilt long past the time when it serves its purpose.

To forgive ourselves or to fully embrace our God-given forgivenness, we have work to do – not to earn the forgiveness.  Rather, we atone, we make amends, precisely because we already were forgiven.  It is an act of ultimate gratitude, of thankfulness to God, that we can enter in to God’s grace that we would seek to make right that which we have done wrong.

How do we forgive ourselves?  How do we enter fully in to God’s forgiveness?  We do the work – we take a good, long, hard look at ourselves . . . we admit where we’ve fallen short – we admit it to God, we admit it to ourselves and to keep us honest and accountable, we admit it to another human being.  Then we make amends as and where we can, doing no harm to anyone else in the process.  And we surrender our guilt to God having done the very best we could, in thankfulness for Jesus’ own sacrifice that makes it possible for us to be forgiven in the first place.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

It Makes a Difference

Answering the phone when it rings and taking the time to listen and quietly talk with a friend feeling blue . . .

Talking with friends and strangers about things that matter – life, love, mistakes, possibilities, second chances . . .

Sitting on the front porch and by your presence, making it welcome to folks in need of a bit of welcome . . .

Letting somebody else be the hero, knowing you could do it but they will do it better . . .

As the Holy Spirit of God walks the earth with a light touch here, a whisper there, lives are woven into tapestries and it all makes a difference.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Perfection of Moments

A man – young and old at once
walks side by side with his wee girl
she coming barely to his knees
raindrops on the grass sparkling their walk
she stops to park herself along the low rail
of the fence and the companionableness
of them is something you want to reach
out and touch with your hand, holding back
lest you burst the bubble of a moment of a memory

father and child lie side by side on the couch
she with that sprawl of innocence the young
carry with them in to their sleep making our
hearts break with the sheer goodness of them
the smell and the shape and the touch and the
breath of them taking our breath, our shape,
our touch in their wake and making us and
our problems petty and small in the presence
of such a big thing in such a small package –

and he, well he just lays there still in his love
present in the moment of the grace of her
and I know it will not last but in this moment
she . . . he . . . they . . . are perfect and to behold
this . . . this beauty . . . this perfect moment
is to be blessed beyond measure and maybe it’s
okay that it will not last and yet tears crowd
my eyes for I know that it is not okay 
may yet still be but it is not and why is this
perfect perfection not hers forever?  I so
want to know

and I in inner dialogue chastize self for its
insistence on seeing the perfection, the beauty,
knowing and well knowing all the else that 
lies around it like the detritus of what could have been

but why should I not see thus?  for is this not how 
God sees?  is this not how God knows?  
what is can be – we know this and yet fail
fail to cling 
fail to believe
and in our failing
the possibilities that perfect moment presents
fail to imagine what it – life – this – could be
so easily forgetting how it is
in the moments
the perfect moments

and there live my tears
in our forgetting
of what God sees
and sees through

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Hands of Kindness

A woman takes 
another woman 
by the hand
gently leading her 
to the bathroom 
to wash 
the tear tracks away  

They walk slowly, 
one matching her pace 
to the other.  

The bond of love 
amidst the chaos 
of broken things 
around and in them 
is strong.  

And in the tender space 
between two clasped hands
broken things do not seem 
quite so broken 
any more

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Small Enough for You

Churches that struggle do so because they lack, identity, mission, vision, community, and more. – Rob Rynders

It is the day of my ordination.  I have preached my sermonette, been questioned on the floor of Presbytery, and now stand with a group of other folk being ordained.  There are about 12 of us – all headed to serve in small, largely rural, churches.

The gentleman welcoming us, means, I am sure, well, when he says, “When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  I said no one of any quality would want to serve in a small church.  But look at all these quality folk.”  Or something like that.

I remember being appalled as I searched out the faces of the folks from my own small rural church who had come to support me and witness this important milestone in my life and saw the woundedness in their expressions.

In seeking to compliment us, the class of new pastors, the congregations we serve were gravely insulted, told in front of God and everybody that they lacked any qualities that would appeal to any pastor worth their proverbial salt.

Nothing has changed much in the intervening eight years and I am left to wonder whether this is a phenomena of the United States or if it’s a world-wide thing – this eschewing of ‘small’ as ‘bad’ or ‘unworthy’ or ‘broken’ or anything except what it actually is: small?  What is this obsessive need to supersize everything in our lives?

Thus do I read yet another blog post on how we’re doing it wrong, as evidenced by our smallness: lacking in identity, mission, vision, community and more.  And more?  Really?  Small is per se evidence of lack, is it?  Hmmm.

Well, of course, small must be bad.  After all, everyone* says so.  Google “the problem with small churches” and you get 355 million hits in less than 6 seconds.  And we all know that if Google says it, it must be true, eh?

Or do we?

Rob Rynders may be right – at least partially.  I’m sure there are churches who struggle because of confusion or lack of clarity as to who they are or what they are about.

But does it occur, ever, to the many hypothesizers out there that struggle is actually a part of all life?  Including church life?  That struggle + difficulty + challenge is simply the landscape we inhabit both as humans and as children of God (if there is any distinction to be made there, which I doubt)?

The principal struggle I experience in serving a small church is actually financial, which I am told over and over again biblically is the least of my worries.

Most Christians I know actually have a pretty clear sense of their identity – individually and as members of a faith community (yeah, that’s church).  And they understand their and our mission here on this earth – love and serve.  Most days, they do it pretty well, if quietly.  And strangers don’t remain strangers for long in a small church – there’s just nowhere to hide.

When I get discouraged, thinking we should somehow be ‘bigger’ (whatever that may mean) than we are, I remember that small is actually a part of our identity, of who we are.  We live in a place where big in terms of numbers of people is simply not part of the landscape.  The people who live here actually prefer to avoid crowds.  In fact, one gentleman told me that he did not attend church because there were just too many people there.  He was delighted when I told him that I had the perfect worshiping community for him and he’s been faithfully attending ever since.

It’s easy to tell folks how they’re getting it wrong.  I wonder why that is?  And I am left wondering whether the diagnosticians among and within us ever find a patient who’s doing just fine?  Or one who could use a little help who actually gets the help rather than a reminder of just how very sick she is?

Small churches can mostly see just fine.  And they too are about their Father’s business.  It would be nice if money worries weren’t part of the equation, but that’s okay – that just puts us closer to our neighbors who are going through the exact same struggle.

There are folk – maybe even most folk –  who need to be drug or enticed to church.  There are churches for them.  And then there are those who need to find their own way here.  We’re the church for those folk.

Most days, I’m Presbyterian enough to believe that when folk need to be here, they’ll find their way.  And we’ll be here waiting to welcome them – the same neighbors and friends they and we have known all along, small enough you won’t get lost in the crowd.

*Well, everyone except the Bible and Jesus – yeah – that guy:   “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  (Matthew 18.20).  And just how many original disciples cum apostles were there?  Oh, that’s right – 12.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


The trembling hands . . . 
his trembling hands
exist somehow separate
from him
yet give him away

this man of kind eyes
calm voice
competent presentation

a man composed –
so composed he could be
speaking of the weather

he could be – but he isn’t

But those hands –
their quaking never stops
They give him away

O Lord, where to look?
Everywhere my eyes are drawn
to his trembling hands

like Jesus’ marks
his trembling hands
are the evidence
they give him away
they give us away

Written in 2005 in Colombia, SA, while on a delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).  Listening to a man named Hector describe the impact of his country's violence on his life and the life of his family, I am struck by his hands, which continuously shake, betraying the seeming calm of his voice, mirroring the violence of his words.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Rock Outcroppings and Such

Outcropping –                                                          
Coopers Rock, West Virginia
isn’t that a great word?
The very idea that
tons of rock can jut out
on the pinion
of the good intentions
of other rocks,
seeming to defy gravity
but actually fulfilling
its dictates,
I find splendid.

To stand over,
or under
(especially under)
a great outcropping
of rock
is to stand on
some pretty confident,
if not holy,