Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent1 - What Did You Expect, John?

Ah John, what did you expect?  I came into your lives to change them, yes, but it is still life that I came to . . . .

Life of the hard things . . . the scary go-bump-in-the-night things . . . the this-can’t-be-right things . . . 

I expected no less . . . you, it seems, expected so much more . . . 

Sorry to disappoint, lad, but you see
this, then, is how it had to be . . . 

Had to be . . . not in the sense of script-already-written predestining divine plotting – nay – 

had to be in the sense of how could it be otherwise . . . 
should I join you in the trenches of it all . . . 
in the love and hurt and wonder of it all . . . 
in the thus has it ever been querying questioning asking demanding of it all . . .

This, lad, is what I came for . . . 
You did not know that God is a mud-wrestler by nature?

They will sing of you, boy of mine . . . the one who stood the Jordan’s banks . . . the wilderness walker . . . the whisperer of nothing and shouter of everything . . . the impatient one . . . my beloved herald . . . go tell John, they will sing . . . and to him, the told and telling one, would I say . . . go ask Jacob – about mud and wrestling and things that go bump in the night . . . 

For then, lad, then, shall you know and understand
then shall you cease your shouting and rest into the singing of me
echoing down the halls of time itself
then shall you, dear boy, be comforted . . . 

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Reason for Thanks

It is nighttime and family has settled in.  All that can be seen of the day’s festivities are footprints in the snow – a whole gaggle of them – running parallel to the sidewalk, as I imagine a random stranger trying to cipher exactly why a whole group of people would have walked some distance in the deep snow rather than on the clear sidewalk . . . and I smile.

The snow footprints are the only evidence of a family gathered and gathering, the last official task of the day the obligatory family photo, when we all donned our winter apparel to go outside for this year’s pic so we’d get the adjacent mountain in our background.  Everyone save our grand dame, my mother, walking beside her in the snow to take our respective places for that caught-in-time moment that is the family picture, like so many we have of times and memories and people gone by.

And should our own descendants some day look upon this photo and wonder about us, they won’t know save from handed-down tradition of our repast . . . they won’t see all of us gathered round as each took a turn reading aloud from The Day the Crayons Quit , clapping at the end of each turn, claps turning to cheers as our agreed story-telling master Mary Beth lends her particular blend of interpretive humor to the mix, all of us listening intently and patiently as new reader Rowen takes his turn. . . they won’t remember all the good news shared, the quiet conversations had into the night, the wee boy ‘teaching’ an older cousin how to play his own favorite computer game.

And there, in the middle of our family picture is a small dog being held by a small boy and they’ll wonder, I suppose, about the dog – a visitor grafted into a family moment simply because she was there – and isn’t that grand?

They – those descendants I imagine into being on a cold almost-winter’s night, won’t remember . . . but we will.

And that is good and good enough and reason and reason enough for thanks.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Blessed Are the Gardeners

I am impatient by nature.  

My prayers tend to have at their heart the theme of ‘my time, God, not Yours.’ 

I am impatient.  But I once received some very wise advice from a lovely gentleman in Scotland, where I lived and worked for a year. 

Tending the church’s garden one day, Arthur stopped his work to tell me something important, something I did not fully appreciate at the time: shepherds and their dogs follow the flock rather than lead it.  The shepherd and the dog have to be in the back to watch out for strays, to help keep the flock together, Arthur pointed out.  Their pace is dictated by the slowest sheep.

I tend to want to charge ahead, only seldom checking to see if anyone is following, to hurry, to be impatient with the flock, which by its very nature, slows each other down.  

But maybe slowing each other down is part of what we do for each other rather than to each other when we come together as church.  

Jesus has sent me many gardeners with much wisdom to share.  I can’t wait to see what they have to teach me.

There’s that impatience again!

Blessed are the gardeners, for they shall know God’s time.  Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bad Sheep & Good Goats

Ask yourself in a Mother May I sort of way:

1. Have you ever given money to a homeless person?  If so, take 2 steps forward.

2. Have you ever visited someone in prison?  If so, take 3 steps forward.

3. Have you ever passed by someone begging for money without looking at them in the eye?  Take 2 steps backward.

4. Have you ever bought food for a street person?  Take 3 steps forward.

5. Have you ever thought about buying food for a street person but not done it?  Take 3 steps backward.

6. Have you ever given someone your coat?  Take 2 steps forward.

7. Have you ever thought about giving someone your coat but didn’t do it?  Take 2 steps backward.

8. If you’ve never visited someone in prison, take 3 steps backward.

9. Have you ever forgotten to visit someone in the hospital that you meant to visit?  Take 4 steps backward.

10. Have you ever visited someone in the hospital that you didn’t want to visit?  Take 4 steps forward.

11. Have you ever given something to a stranger just because they asked?  Take 5 steps forward.

12. Has a stranger asked something of you and you ignored them?  Take 5 steps backward.

Chances are you’ll end up pretty much where you started.

In a book called Good Goats, the writer tells about doing this exercise with a group of retired nuns: “One sister raised her hand and asked, ‘What about the story of the sheep and the goats? It says right there that the sheep go to heaven and the goats go to hell.’ 

The presenter responded by asking the whole group, ‘How many of you, even once in your life, have done what Jesus asks at the beginning of that passage and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person or visited a person in prison?’ All the sisters raised their hands. He said, ‘That’s wonderful! You’re all sheep.’ 

Then he asked, ‘How many of you, even once in your life, have walked by a hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or not visited someone in prison?’ Slowly, all the sisters raised their hands. He said, ‘That’s too bad. You’re all goats.’ The sisters looked worried and perplexed. 

Then suddenly one very old sister’s hand shot up. She blurted out, ‘I get it! We’re all good goats!’”  

People of God, your God knows you for the sheep and goats you are . . . and yes . . . you are both . . . as am I . . .  

Listening to our scripture text today, ask yourself what difference it makes to how you hear it to know that we are all both sheep and goats. . . all at once . . . all the time.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Did You Mean?

What did you mean
just then when you
eye rolled

I do not have
the road map
to your inner

and so spend
much time

just what did
you mean?

Is all the world
or just the little
piece of it
that lives inside

I’m no good
at guessing
so if you need
me to know
you have to 
tell me

and for now 
at least
if you don’t
I’ll just assume
it wasn’t about
me at all


Thursday, November 20, 2014


It’s not a popular word in its full panoply of meaning where I live.

Ones doing sacrificial things tend not to speak of them in such ways.

Others, ascribing the impetus, the motive, speak all too freely.

We are hardly edified by either approach.

Here’s the thing we perhaps miss about sacrifice.

To sacrifice, to give up something for someone else, presumably for their benefit, has a cost.  

Sacrifice is the cost.

The learning curve is just that – what is learned in the aftermath probably cannot be known in the doing.

Hence to sacrifice is an on-going thing.

At the time of the sacrificial act, one may know one is making a sacrifice.  What one cannot know is that the thing surrendered, given up, lost, is surrendered, given up, lost, forever.

It does not come back.

It does not replenish.

It does not magically reappear.

It is simply gone.

There is a humbling enormity to it.

When something is lost forever, that loss is carried – always.  

It shapes and redefines.

It changes the person.

There is a lessening.

Maybe it was worth it.

Maybe not.

But there is always a cost.

There, perhaps, should our honor guards, our parades, our memorials and speeches be gathered – there, where people in ways visible and invisible, where acts small as well as large upon the pages of history, where the ways things could have been and the way things are eternally co-exist.  

For whether the cost be counted or not, it is always lived and lived with.

There is sorrow in that.

And whether it should be honored or not, it should be noted.  And noticed. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Leaning into Advent

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
                                                –Isaiah 9.6

I’m big on gift-giving and, truth be told, gift-receiving.

Gifts are interesting things, saying much about how the giver sees the receiver.

When I think on gifts past from folks, especially my closest family, I notice patterns . . .

My son sees my serious side, giving me challenging books to read, new ideas to consider . . . oh, and every now and then, he sees my desperate need of an update.

My step-son and his wife see my cool side.

My step-daughter sees my peacenik social justice side.

And my mother sees always her child, looking out for my needs.

Which all leaves me to ponder what I see in them as I go shopping through their lists and my own ideas of who they are, what they like, what they dream – for I’ve always thought the best gift has a bit of the dream to it.

One of the best gifts ever came via e-mail today – no grand news of any impending birth . . . no extravagant prize . . . just my step-daughter’s wish list with a bunch of links, with one at the last, simply labeled, "oh, and one more. . ."

I clicked the link, which took me to a Google images page for world peace

World peace . . . my beautiful, wonderful, talented, funny, kind, passionate daughter of my heart wants, wishes, hopes, for world peace for Christmas.

I sit down to type my response to her and there’s a rustling sound of something soft falling.  I wonder what it is and go see . . . on the floor are the palm fronds from this past Palm Sunday’s service.  I hang them to dry for next year’s Ash Wednesday service and they had fallen to the floor.

And I hear the words in my memory . . . blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord . . . and I remember The One who came so inauspiciously . . . The One who received gifts from the wise . . . The One who was himself the Greatest Gift of All . . .

and I am minded of the readings through Advent . . . the harsh-sounding promises of wars and rumors of wars . . . cataclysmic shifts when moon and stars can no longer be relied upon to move in their courses . . . the coming of the Servant foretold whose suffering is larger than the world itself . . .

and for the first time, through the news and realities of . . . beheadings . . . families severed . . . promises broken . . . endless wrangling . . . tanks sent to neighboring lands . . . wars and rumors of wars the best recruitment posters as people everywhere weigh in on escalation as our only solution . . .

for the first time . . . I hear the whisper . . . the promise . . . in the most unlikely places . . . in the most unexpected ways . . . ways like the birth of a single child in a remote village in a far corner of things . . . when things are at their darkest – there does peace come . . . like Carl Sanburg’s proverbial fog . . . small and quiet, on little cat feet . . .

The hailers of the day have it right . . . there are signs . . . and they have it wrong . . . the signs are not of our doom . . . the signs are of our salvation. . . it is not destruction which has the final word but redemption.

My girl wants world peace for Christmas and I am moved to ask why not.  Why not world peace for Christmas?

For unto us a child is born . . . unto us, a Son is given . . . and his name shall be called . . . 

The Prince – of Peace

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Homeless Children: Do Something Today

On FB this morning, friend Ada posted C. S. Lewis' beautiful quote about children not being a distraction from our work, but actually being our most important work.

The very next post (who says the Holy Spirit doesn't pay attention to FB?) was a story reporting record numbers of homeless children in the United States, which suggests that we've not done a good job at recalling C. S. Lewis' advice to remember the importance of children.  Common Dreams

The inspiration of a well-timed word is valuable.
But to borrow from the acerbic biblical writer known as James, If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.  James 2.15-18 (NRSV).

It is perhaps no accident that C. S. Lewis’ inspirational quote was followed immediately with a sharp reminder that we seem to have forgotten entirely the importance of children – everybody’s children.

So as we in these United States begin to be inundated with advertisements to buy more and more and more, maybe we might share some of what we were going to spend for the holidays for our own children to help someone else’s children – not out of guilt or shame (although there is that), but out of the realization that real lives will be changed by what we do or fail to do.

And those lives matter.

They matter to God.  They matter to themselves.  They matter (or they should) to us.

Here, then is a link to Charity Navigator, listing the top charities in the United States that deal specifically with homelessness.

They’ve done the homework for you.  All you have to do is pick one and make a donation.

I’m going with Caritas in Texas, simply because it seems the most acute needs are in the south.

How about you?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Passing the Peace of Christ: More than ‘Meet & Greet’

Apparently it’s a hot topic of late on church blogs and elsewhere where churchy things are discussed: whether or not to have a time during worship for what most call ‘meet and greet’, but what in the church I serve we call the exchange of the peace of Christ.

Checking in to one of those blogs, I read this comment:  Once the service of worship of the Triune God has begun, that is my purpose for being there.  Not to fellowship with others. . . Once worship begins, that should stop.

I was, I have to admit, stunned at the idea that fellowship could be seen as something having no place in worship.  After all, I reasoned, what is communion?  Is Jesus our only boyfriend when we come to the communion table?  In my tradition the answer is as simple as it is clear: no.  Thus there is never a time when someone has communion alone – not even just them and the pastor.  An elder is always in attendance, for example when serving to the home-bound, as a representative of the entire body.  In our way of understanding, communion is, by definition, a communal event we participate in with the whole body of Christ across time and space.

Thus the very idea of a collection of islands, each alone and surrounded by their own particular sea, seems odd indeed to me when thinking of worship.

And then I remember how I was when I first started attending church.  I went church shopping.  And just like Goldilocks (without the larcenous intent), I had a difficult time finding a place where they got it ‘just right’ (meaning to suit me).  

One church never greeted me.  Another church-stalked me (with the best of intentions, I know) at work with a plate of cookies.  The church where I finally landed, however, taught me by example and I returned, in substantial part, not because of how they greeted me, but because of how they greeted each other.  

I didn’t think about it that clearly at the time, but the fact is that I was an outsider as someone new to their community.  How could I not be?  And that’s not about cliques.  Or about being welcoming or unwelcoming.  All of those things can matter.  But even when a church gets it ‘just right’, as a newcomer, I am exactly that – new to the experience.  

It’s just not realistic for me as newcomer to expect that I’ll experience worship like I’ve been there all my life, for the simple reason that I haven’t.  

It is realistic to hope and expect that I will be treated like what I am: a visitor, a guest; that I’ll receive hospitality; that ‘they’ will be good hosts.  Of course, it’s also reasonable to expect from myself that I act as a good guest.  And that includes being open to the experience of what they have to offer me, whether it’s what I’m used to or not.

Being a good guest is how I learned that I actually do like asparagus.  I’m a very picky eater.  Always have been.  Probably always will be.  But my mother did teach me that when at another’s home, I eat what’s before me.  So there came the day at a friend’s house when they had asparagus as their vegetable.  And it was a small enough gathering that what I ate (or didn’t) would definitely be noticed, even with all my usual tricks.  So I swallowed my distaste and took a bite.  And turns out it was good.  It was fresh (rather than the canned I had known as a child) garden asparagus and it was delightful to my palate.

Now it could have turned out that I still didn’t like it.  My eating really didn’t have expectations, for I was doing the part of being a good guest and partaking of what was on offer.  The bonus for me was that I actually did like it, which I would have never known had my mother not taught me the good guest rule.

So to the folks visiting a church that meets and greets far outside your comfort zone, you might consider a few possibilities for what’s happening, rather than presuming that it’s done in disregard of your feelings as an introvert, or done thoughtlessly, or as an interruption to worship rather than as a part of worship:

1. Some people – as a pastor, I would say lots of people – in church on Sunday morning (or whenever their usual time is) are lonely.  They live alone.  They may not get out as much as they used to.  Their families may have moved away or died.  And they are lonely.  Fellowship before and after worship matter, but does nothing to alleviate the loneliness of sitting by one’s self alone again during worship.  The passing of the peace of Christ offers a unique point of contact, done in the context of the worship of God, serving as a physical reminder of the real and comforting presence of Christ in our midst.  It is a comfort.  And the Gospel promises us God’s comfort.

2. Some people are carrying burdens of resentment against others, at least some of whom are in the room with them on Sunday during worship.  Jesus’ call to reconciliation was so strong that he enjoined us to actually leave worship to go and work out our differences with others before coming before God’s altar.  Passing the peace can and does operate as a place, a space, within which to mend those relationships with something as simple as a handshake.  I know it works because I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes.  

3. The peace of Christ is that thing which, while true, surpasses human understanding.  The Word is conveyed by preaching, but proclamation comes from our actions as well as our words.  We proclaim Christ’s peace with our greeting of one another in Christ’s name (whether we say it literally or not) whenever we pass the peace.  And in the doing, something holy happens.  It may not always ‘feel’ like it.  But Christ is present in the exchange.  And we could all use a little bit more of the real presence of Christ.  Or so I’m thinking.

4. We worship God in the act of caring for one another.  When it comes to passing the peace of Christ, as in all other human endeavors, we will never, all of us, do it perfectly all the time.  So some may be too enthusiastic in their greeting.  Some may wander off task.  Some may feel their particular cocoon of safety threatened because some of those coming to them have less pastoral awareness than others.  There may be days when we simply cannot find it in our hearts to be at peace with anyone.  I am one who believes that Christ’s peace is big enough for all of our shortcomings and so much more.  

5. As part of a church’s liturgy, passing the peace of Christ is a public work of the people and as with all worship, is an offering to God.  Thus do we offer to God not only our time, our attention and our resources, but also our relationships with other people.

6. In the words of Paul Ryan, passing the peace “trains ours hearts, hands, and tongues in the ways of peace. . . [There is a] cumulative impact of weekly passing of the peace.  By regularly practicing this gesture, our hearts are shaped in the form of the words.  Consider the daily practice of training toddlers to say “please” and “thank you.”  Though at the beginning the toddler mechanically repeats the words, eventually her heart fills the words with grace and gratitude; indeed, her heart is shaped in the form of “please” and “thank you.”  In the same way, passing the peace gives us the vocabulary for expressing peace as we mature in faith and, in fact, shapes our hearts and minds in the form of peace.”  Reformed Worship  In other words, over time, we become what we do.  Becoming Christ’s peace is a call in the life of every believer.

To the gentleman writing that worship does not include what he conceives as fellowship, my own take is that fellowship (as in a body of believers worshiping together) is actually a part – an integral part – of worship.   Worship is not something we do alone, but in community. 

In the order of worship in the congregation I serve, we exchange the peace of Christ immediately following the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon – I understand this in the movement of worship as a way of extending to others that which we have ourselves received - the very peace of Christ himself. 

I have always understood worship to be participatory rather than observatory. The passing of the peace is an obvious aspect of participation in the work of the church that we call worship. 

On a less liturgical note, I often imagine worship as I'm planning it as a conversation around the kitchen table – focused on the topic/purpose at hand, but open enough to allow for the comings and goings we humans do when in our kitchens, with children a part of the family as opposed to strangers to the process, helping and participating as they can. 

When a visitor comes into my kitchen, they're usually given a task to do – it's a form of welcome,  as in 'can I help?'; 'sure, cut this onion for me, would you?'  

The idea of standing and moving around as disruptive of worship, it seems to me, conceives worship as only possible in quietude, in orderliness, in structure. All of those can and often are part of worship.

But for me, envisioning the whole, the ebb and flow from sound to silence and back to sound, from standing to sitting to standing again, from moving to stillness to back again, is integral to worship, which I understand more as a movement (think symphonic here) as opposed to a singular event. 

And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses all human understanding, be with you all, now and evermore.  Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Team Jesus (Part 2)

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the third slave’s remarks like this, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

Contrast his words with the actions of the other two: the third slave ‘knows’ the master to be:

1. Of high standards
2. Hating of careless ways
3. Demanding our best
4. Making no allowances for error

and his response to this way of seeing the master was fear.  And out of his fear, he did nothing.  He risked nothing.  And he reaped nothing.

Knowing of the master’s high standards, two did their best and one did . . . nothing.

Knowing his requirement of excellence in the effort, two worked hard and the third did . . . nothing.

Knowing they were expected to give their best, two did and one did . . . nothing.

Believing they had to be perfect, two strived with all their abilities while the third did . . . nothing.

The well-known promise doctors make:  First do no harm, comes to mind . . . refraining from hurting others is not the fulfillment of our duty to God and to others – it is merely the first step of that journey.

If we go no further than doing no harm, we haven’t even left the house.

It’s as if we drive by a man run over by a car by driving around him.  We can claim no virtue simply because we didn’t run over him again, now can we?

John Wesley suggests that the point is this: not doing bad is not the same at all as doing good.  

The third man was simply not invested in the kingdom of heaven.  He thought to take no risk in order to suffer no loss.  He was hedging his bets.  

But what of the results?  Are the three judged on their willingness to risk it all for their master?  Or on the fact that two of them succeeded in their risk?  After all, not all risks ‘pay off’.  So which is it, do you think?  Are we judged on our efforts?  Or on our results?  

I would suggest it’s both: as it points out many places elsewhere in scripture, we shall be judged by our fruits – the actual results (as opposed to our intentions or efforts).

But – and this is important – it also says time and again that our results, just like our talents, in fact, just like everything that we have and everything that we are, actually aren’t ours – they’re God’s.  

So perhaps we might do well to think about it this way: we are to give our all, whatever our all may be.  And ‘all’ means ‘all’.  When it comes to God and doing God’s work, we are not to hold back.  When we give our all, the fruits will come, because God will see to it.  The results may not be as obvious as doubling our investments.  But results there will be.  

We are co-workers with Christ.  Christ does his part.  We must also do ours.  

The kingdom of heaven is not a thing . . . we can’t just wait for it to show up so we can get on board.  The kingdom is not the present Santa leaves for us to discover under the tree.

The kingdom of heaven is something we have to work for – right here, right now, for the simple reason that we are it.

The kingdom of heaven is God’s investment, God’s risk, in us.  God has invested everything –  in you . . .  it’s time . . . you’ve gotten ready . . . you’re all set . . . now it’s time to go!  

Go into the world with faith . . . 

Go into your own lives with hope . . . 

Go into the hearts of others with love . . . 

Sisters and brothers, just go!

Team Jesus: The Parable of the Talents (Part 1)

God has a commanding word for you . . . a call . . . for you . . . a job . . . for you . . . now you can react to that with fear and hide in the dark.  

Even then, God’s will will be done.  But you’ll be left standing at the gate.

And when you’re in a race, that’s a very silly place to be.

Let us pray the words of Brigid Rees:   O God, you claim me as your partner, respecting me, trusting me, tussling with me.  Support me as I dare to be vulnerable with you, encourage me as I dare to take risks with you, and together we can transform the world.  Amen.

In the parable of the talents that we’re about to read, as you listen, ask yourself what in the story stands for the kingdom of heaven? 

Matthew is writing to a church that has been waiting for Jesus’ return for a long time.  And they’re starting to waver . . . to doubt . . . to forget . . . 

The challenge, then, is to reawaken in them a sense of Jesus’ imminent return, the reality of his claim upon their lives.

So what, then, stands for the kingdom of heaven?

Is it the talents?  The ‘settling of accounts’ – the day of judgment?  The absentee master?  I suggest it is none of the above.

The servants, the men themselves are the kingdom of heaven . . . they are the ‘in the meantime’ kingdom . . . the waiting or preparing, standing pat or investing kingdom of heaven . . .

The kingdom of heaven is not riches, not even well-invested ones . . . it’s not streets of gold and gates filled with pearls . . . and the kingdom of heaven is not an absentee landlord . . . nor is it an event, not even the day of judgment . . . no . . . the kingdom of heaven is what is ‘at hand’ in the words of John the Baptist and Jesus . . . the kingdom of heaven is not far, it is near; it is not abstract, it is concrete; it is not an idea, it is a reality; the kingdom of heaven is not what we do, it is who we are . . . yes, we . . . we are God’s kingdom . . . 

If we are God’s territory, perhaps the question this parable raises is ‘what are we saying about the king’s very self?

A man at a church conference once remarked that our call to ministry is a call to be “Stewards of the Story”, the story of God.

The Stewards of God’s Story . . . 

It seems to me that the problem of the talent-hiding servant was that he mistook himself for the author of God’s story rather than the steward of it.

A steward is someone who takes care of something that belongs to somebody else.

And when it comes to God’s story, we are the stewards of that story; but God is the author of God’s story, not us.

But here’s the twist to the story . . . although the story belongs to God, if you insist on rewriting the story, God will let you. . .  

So frightened by his own imagining, the third man wouldn’t even invest in God what God had already invested in him. . .

How often we are like that servant . . . 

God gave him a chance, but he thought it was a trick.

God gave him wealth, but he saw it as poverty.

God gave him a challenge, but he saw it as a test.

God gave him trust, but he saw it as deceit.

God gave him love, but he saw it as hatred.

God counts on us . . . God . . . invests . . . in . . .  us . . . Isn’t that extraordinary?  The last servant just couldn’t wrap his mind around that one . . . he could not believe it . . . how about you?

The poem Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson perhaps best expresses the downright silliness of the third servant, of us when we freeze in doubt or fear . . . 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. . . Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. . . It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. . . We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?  Actually, who are yo not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.  And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Hermeneutic of Love

What lens we look through determines what we see.

This, perhaps, was one of the most important lessons I learned and learned again and relearned while in seminary.

Where I stand shapes, well, everything.

I cannot understand what I cannot see.

And there is much I cannot see.

It is a conundrum.

Seeking to look through the lens of love helps greatly.

But I must take care to define very clearly what I understand love to be, to include.

Hence my own list:

1. Love is humble enough to know and freely admit to itself that it does not, cannot, know everything.  Thus even in understanding my own hermeneutic, I must always take care to remember this crucial caveat: I might be wrong. . . about you, about me, about ‘it’, whatever it may be, the simple truth is that I might be wrong.

2. Love is caring and caring requires the time and discipline and effort to do the work – the work of seeking understanding from your point of view . . . the work of listening . . . the work of loving, especially in the midst of conflict or disagreement . . . the work of self-evaluation and understanding, especially, perhaps, when I would seek to tell someone else what they ought or ought not do (which, of course, takes me right back to #1, that old friend and enemy, humility).

3. Love actively seeks to try to see from another’s vantage point, for love knows itself for the captive to self that it is.

4. Love always checks its own motives.  Assuring that I am acting from love, and not from bias, prejudice, self-interest, or efforts to control is hard, but important and necessary work.  Think Paul’s admonition about clanging cymbals here – without love as the motive, the impetus, a seemingly loving act is really nothing at all.

5. Love requires encounter.  I cannot love someone theoretically.  Love always has a locus, an object, a direction.  There is no abstraction in love.

6. Love is a freeing thing.  If what I’m doing is entangling, controlling, desirous of reward or recognition, filled with expectation, it’s something, but it isn’t love.  Pretty simple.

7. If it isn’t about ‘I’ or ‘we’, but all about ‘you’, it’s not love, it’s control.

8. If I cannot see myself in you or your situation, I haven’t looked hard enough (which takes us back to doing the hard work of loving, eh?).

9. I cannot say that I am loving when I ‘love’ one person or group at the expense of another.  (Think here of MLK”s reminder that what he did he did for the oppressor, whom he loved, as much as for the oppressed).  Standing up for one does not mean demonizing another – that is not love or loving.

10. And back to the beginning – the humility of love must recognize that God is doing a work in you as much as God is doing a work in me, stand back and allow you and God to sort out your business as we are sorting out mine.  In other words, I am no one’s god and in loving you, it is not my job to change you.

11. The hardest one of all for me – loving someone probably means not making decisions for or about them when they’re not in the room.  It’s that freeing freedom thing – allowing someone the freedom of their own lives, their own choices.  Even the bad ones.  Hmmm.

I am wondering today what you would add to this list – what are the things you have to remember about your own hermeneutic of love?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

To Young Folk Not in Church

Your parents stopped coming largely not because of some grand disagreement with the people or their ideas.  They stopped coming because they could and rebellion and rejection were popular in my youth.  Everyone was required to be an individual.

Church isn’t about being an individual – church is about being part of a group or community.  So for my generation, it was one of the first things to go.  Clubs followed pretty quickly.  Schools – public schools – are following rapidly in their wake as home schooling and enclaves of education of the like-minded becomes the order of the day.

Whether these trends are good or bad remains to be seen.

But to the young folk of today, before you decide church isn’t for you, investigate it more thoroughly than you have.  Base your rejection on more than one sample.

Speaking for your grand- and great-grand-parents, here’s a few things you might want to consider:

1. It’s not about entertainment.  It never was.  We were bored in church when we were kids too.  But in spite of ourselves, we learned something just because we were there:

a. we learned that it isn’t always about us – and it shouldn’t be.  Maybe we were bored.  But someone in that church was hearing what they needed to hear.

b. our being there to witness it made a difference in their lives and in our lives too.

c. the discipline of discipline requires discipline, which we were learning in spite of ourselves.

2. Listening is a learned behavior.  And we learned how to listen in church.

3. We learned things we wouldn’t have learned anywhere else, like

a. the reasons we are moral beings

b. how to get it right and how to get it wrong

4. We learned how to live inter-generationally, as we all mixed together in church like we do nowhere else – these days, not even in our own families so much.

5. We learned how to care for others by how we were and weren’t cared for – mostly by how we were cared for, in spite of what the headlines may tell you.

6. Oh yeah, and then there’s God.  God is everywhere or nowhere.  It’s kind of the deal.  And yes, we all can spend time with God without other people (which, after all, is actually what church is – a gathering of a group of people around the worship and following of God).  What we cannot do is learn much from ourselves by ourselves.  Even internet worship is a community inhabited by other people.

7. And the truth is, some things (actually most things) are done better with other people.  God is one of them.  Even monastics, anchorites and ascetics lived and worshiped in community, community with God as its center.

Finally, consider this: for every headline you read about how church got it wrong, there are literally thousands upon thousands of examples of how small enclaves of people all over the world, calling themselves church, got it right.  It’s not news.  But it is true.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Peanut Butter & Chocolate: The Taste of Love (and yes, there's a recipe)

For the impatient among you, here is the link to my previous post for the recipe for peanut butter balls, a Christmas season staple in my Dad's family.

sometime, somehow,
I know neither
a young woman
who was my grandma
got a recipe – or
maybe her husband
brought it home from
the plant – he did that
sometimes – and with
her strong hands and her
new receipt, she turned
chocolate chips and
peanut butter into

and every year thereafter
come the cool times
when such things could
be stored without refrigeration
and there was enough money
she did it again and again

her oldest daughter at her side
it’s a two-woman operation,
you know, making all those
balls the size of walnuts

and the years passed and the
daughter became a mother
and aunt and grandmother
and down the slide of the years
her daughters and niece and
grand-daughters (do they yet?)
stepped into the fold and flow
of it all, the niece (me) calling

every year around this time
checking and rechecking the
recipe – too important to
family lore to get it wrong,
but mostly just to talk, to hear
the laughter, the warmth, the
love, across so many miles,
so many memories

and last night an e-mail comes
from my own mother – one of
the steps – daughter of
another father, linked across
time, wants the recipe – my uncle
yearns for a little taste of home
and Puerto Rico is far away
from old mountain receipts
that mix chocolate chips
and peanut butter into magic –

her magic in my imagining
having come from more
exotic, interesting, flavorful
places and spaces, and I write
down the recipe and pull out
a sheet of paper to write down
my shopping list – the air is cool
enough now it’s time –

and I and others along this family
trail of lines and dashes and dots
and memories, will travel to the
altar of memory encased in
chocolate and call it good.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I Want a Do-Over

There aren’t that many in my life, but there are certain points, certain moments, when I desperately want a do-over – another chance, a time re-set – to do again, to do better, that which went awry before.

It’s not the moments you might expect – a marriage choice that did not stand the test of time . . . important acts of kindness missed . . . the chance to have harsh words recalled . . . it would be nice if I had done differently, but I didn’t, and consequences are a part of life too.

No – what I want for my do-overs, is the chance to begin certain conversations again, to start afresh without the ringing of (my own) false words in my ears – false not because untrue; false because beside the point.

I want a do-over to recast what becomes an argument into something else, something more important, something more true . . . like a prayer . . . or a gentle question . . . or even a silence.

I want, in my do-overs, the wisdom to remember a few things, things like:

1. What worked for me might not work for you.

2. Logic is not the place from which most of us make up our minds.

3. Discussion about people not in the room is, perhaps, never wise, seldom kind or loving.

4. When encouraging you to look through the lens of love to make a decision, I must make sure that I am looking through that same lens when beholding you.

5. Words have weight as well as meaning and sometimes (most times) less of them is better.

6. My epiphanies are not (necessarily) yours.

So in my most recent do-over desire, the first time around, I am in a room with a handful of other folk and we are convened to discuss what the church, our local incarnation of it, will do; what the bible has to teach us, how we read and understand this thing we call God’s Word.

It quickly becomes not a conversation, but a debate, the thing I had prayed so hard would not happen, happened.  And it is (largely) my fault, my responsibility.

How could I do it differently?

In so many ways.

But I didn’t.  I got sucked in.  I forgot the things I already know – silence is as much a part of a conversation as are words . . . questions matter even more than answers . . . a word from (as opposed to of) God is something that must be waited for . . . breathing room matters . . . my understandings need to be shared (if at all) as just that – mine . . . the Spirit doth move across a group yet requires the space to do so . . . sound, like fury, signifies – well, not much.

It wasn’t horrible.  No one died.  No one stormed out.  And lots will be percolating in the days to come.  But somehow, against all my own plans and desires, I ended up back where I never wanted to be – in a debate rather than a prayer.

For that, O Lord, I would so appreciate a do-over.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

An Allegorical Wedding

From Matthew 25.1-13, Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids:

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 

The kingdom of heaven is likened by Matthew to the most celebratory of events: a wedding banquet.  In this parable, the groom is returning home with his bride, who is not mentioned.

It is the job of the bridesmaids to await and greet them, to be ready whenever the wedding party arrives.  They are an integral part of the festal procession.

The story continues:  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 

The point is perhaps obvious to us, but not so in Matthew’s time: Jesus’ return is taking much longer than expected and no one knows when he will return.  But return he will.

The problem here is not about falling asleep – both the wise and the foolish slept.  Perhaps as a precursor to Jesus’ experience in the garden with his disciples, this makes sense: Jesus was disappointed in his followers for their inability to remain awake with him through the night, but they were still his followers.

Jesus continues,   But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  Then all those bridesmaids  got up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  

Here, then, is a moment of decision for all the bridesmaids: the wise ones must choose whether to share; the foolish ones whether to stay or go in search of more oil.

When asked to share, the wise ones say no.  We can judge their seeming callousness harshly.  Are we not taught to share even to our hurt?  So how is it ‘wise’ to say no?

Perhaps if we focus here on the plight of the fools, we miss the point.  Maybe the point is the return of the groom with his bride.  Maybe the story is not about us, but about God: what we do, we do not for our own sake nor our own glory nor even our own benefit, but rather for the glory, the welcome, of God.

Now the wise ones could have given their lamps to the fools as an act of merciful grace, but that would be a different parable with a different point.

And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

What or who is the door and who does the shutting?  A traditional view is that the door is very gateway to heaven itself.  Perhaps.

But a door has two sides and this door is as present to those on the outside as to those on the inside, as aware of the persistent knocking from outside as of the festivities on the inside.

The door is witness.  And even if it is a portal, it is a portal from life to life.

Those on both sides of the door live, one side bereft, the other fulfilled.

Maybe it wasn’t about the oil choice, but rather about the leaving choice.  Maybe the fault of the foolish bridesmaids was not so much in their lack of preparedness, but about their panicked decision to leave just when the groom came.

Telling this story, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, who had come to him in private to ask him when the day of reckoning would come and what would be the signs of his coming, of the end of the age.

Maybe being ready is about what we do in the meantime, not in terms of ourselves, but in terms of others: if I have no light within me, I cannot light your path.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a reminder that waiting is a drag, but oh my, what a party there will be – so maybe Jesus is reminding us that the drag of waiting has its own glorious end.

And that is something worth waiting for.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Go & Worship

[NOTE:  I wrote this reflection in the fall of 2006.  In the eight years since, so much has changed and so little.]

My thought today is a simple one: go to worship this weekend.  Not out of burden or duty, but out of gratitude that you can.  I spent time with a Christian group in Iraq and was struck by how difficult and sometimes impossible it is there to go to worship.

I was unable to attend church more often than not in Iraq – I missed church because the times of worship change to accommodate the before-dark curfew.  Another week I was on the Syrian border with Palestinian friends running for their lives.  Many times a priest friend would tell us not to come, that it was not safe today.  ‘Maybe next week’, he said week after week.

And then there was the day we actually made it  – the day that churches instead of mosques were bombed.  On our way, we saw the black smoke of car bombs at churches in the area.  Six in all.  But that day, it wasn’t the church we were going to attend.

Never before have I had to risk my life to worship in community, to go to church.  It has given me a profound gratitude for the privilege of gathering with the communion of the saints.

One evening at Mass in a nearby Catholic church, I wept at the courage of the gathered community who risked their lives to gather.  This night the priest said, “You are the result of God’s love, not it’s cause.”  I will never forget his words.  For such love, my Iraqi friends, Christian, Muslim, Yezidi, and others, gather still.

Pray for them, please.  Pray for us.  Go and worship.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bird Shadow Dancing

staring out the car window
spit snow hardly a ripple
in the pond of thoughts
swirling to no particular
rhythm when suddenly
my eyes go all disco and
the focus fights to find
its locus as dancing spots
make their away this and
that around, across, on
the road’s paved face
and after the moment of
panic for a woman no longer
young wondering, worrying,
if this is what blindness
will be like, might be like,
floating, random, dancing
spots – and then she looks
up – briefly laughing at her
own foolishness, so ground-
bound – birds upon birds, 
flying, floating, swirling,
dancing on the wind of
their own imaginings, unmindful,
in the way of birds, of the 
fuss their presence creates for
the earth-bound ones below

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jesus' Mountains

Mountains you walked – 
where I’m from we’d
call hills or bumps
in the road – with a smile – 

but the other mountains –
the ones of the topography
of the heart – those mountains –

how did you do it?
where did you find the courage
to even begin?

did you ever turn back,
racing down the scree
of their cruelties?

what stayed you?
where did the next step
come from?

what was it like
roaming the Himilayas
of our hearts?

these are my today questions,
but I’m supposing if you 
actually got here – to sit a spell –
they’d be quick forgot and we’d
just sit, chatting about nothing
and everything and it would
be a fine thing indeed
sitting as we are 
right in the midst of all those 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Franchise This: On Voting . . . or Not

The founders had an end game in mind when they structured their government the way they did.

No king.  Check.

No tyranny of the one.  Check.

No vote for people of color . . . people without land . . . women . . . check.

Perpetuation of their vision of utopia.  Check.

The only problem with vision is that when it comes to eyes, it can be a correctable thing.  So, too, should it be with governments, but alas, that is easier said than done.

And so it is –

We might be wrong for future times, so allowing for change.  Check.

That provision is that within our constitution which allows for change via amendments to that self-same document.

They did not see perfectly by any measure.

But they did have some wisdom.

And we are foolish to forget that.

So many today feel that the deal has been struck, the wheel fixed before it is spun, to such a great degree that there is literally no point.

I struggle to understand why we are so far apart.

Maybe it is because I’m just more political by nature, but I don’t think so.

I think it’s more likely they’ve just seen too many times when making a difference was nigh on impossible.  Too many times when the fix was in, the game thrown.

But I also suspect that those who do not vote have become victims of the very hyperbole in the public arena they so decry – believing that power is a centralized thing, believing in the claims of absolutes that so many make for themselves or about others.

What do I mean by that?

When an entire electorate votes, things actually do change.  The successful campaign is the one that has convinced those who pose the greatest threat to simply opt out of the game.

Seen thus, it is no accident that the young, that people of color, that the poor, the less educated, are the largest groups absent from the voting booth.

And it is no accident that provision for the elderly is so prevalent in our public systems, while provision for the poor, for young adults, for people of color, for those with less education, is under such attack and/or largely absent.  The reason seems obvious to me: old people vote.  Regularly.  It is practical politics rather than altruism that motivates public officials to be responsive to the constituencies of the elderly.  Because they vote.

Literally, public officials have found that their jobs depend on being responsive to elder voters.  They have often not found such to be the case with other groups.

The other thing to remember about power is that concentrated power does not surrender itself voluntarily or easily.  When resisted, it fights back.  And it doesn’t fight fair.  Resistance is difficult.  And costly.

We should never be surprised (or disheartened) by that.

The fact is, the more that power is exerting itself, the more threatened it is.  My point is this: if you are witnessing more and more efforts to suppress your vote, that actually is telling you that  your vote really does matter – if it didn’t, the powers that be would simply ignore you.

When roadblock upon roadblock is put before you, the only trick to succeeding is perseverance.

Voting is not the only thing a citizen can do to effect change.  But participation in the political process is a key component to lasting change in our public life together.

The efforts giving rise to increased rights for people of color and women used the collective power of their voices, expressed in the ballot box and elsewhere, to make real differences in the lives of real people.

Yes, in many ways, we live through the looking glass in an absurd world where dollar bills and pieces of paper (corporate legal entities) have speech and voting rights.

And yes, economic power is a force to be reckoned with.  And yes, there is much to despair of in our government.

And yes, unconditional surrender is always an option.  Perhaps one with no shame.

But it is always a choice.  You may not pretend that someone took from you that which you so willingly gave away.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Perfecting the Fine Art of Serving

Matthew 23.11-12:  The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. [NRSV]

“Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. [The Message]

In our time, the best example we might have of Jesus’ model of servanthood is a waitress or waiter in a restaurant.  They’re now even commonly called ‘servers’.

The best ones, you never see.

Water appears as if by magic when you need it.  Food appears before you just before you were ready for the bite.  The financial exchange occurs without a word spoken.

An excellent waiter or waitress understands that their purpose is to ensure your dining experience, which includes the recognition that you did not come to meet them, you came to dine.

Our best attempts at serving others do not draw attention to ourselves or our efforts.  The help is either given or it is not.  The importance of the one who provided the help is in the help.

You may never even know the name of your surgical team, but each and every one of them mattered to your survival.  You neither needed nor required a dance troupe shouting out all they would do for you.  All you needed was their skill and care.

Allowing ourselves to disappear into the woodwork in order to be of service is a skill and it takes practice.

It also take humility – the humility to understand that when it comes to helping people, it’s about them, not you – and to be okay with that.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Car Talk Question I Never Got to Ask

Like so many, I have long listened to Car Talk on the radio and like so many, was saddened to learn of the death of brother Tom.

He had a great laugh and played the counter- to his brother with great aplomb and, one guesses, quite a bit of savvy.

They were fun together.  And who doesn’t need car advice?

Here, then, for you, Tom, is the question I carried for years without ever getting around to calling it in:

What car actually has the most of its component parts built in the USA?

My former law partner and I used to lease cars and would jump on the car circuit every two years.  Walt, a died-in-the-wool union man always looked for that built-in-the-USA identity as his first measure of a car’s value.

Even Walt had to admit, however, that with Toyota building cars in the United States and GM and others importing parts built in Mexico and elsewhere, it’s a tricky thing to carry out one’s decision to ‘buy American’.

I wish I had made that call.

Yet, somehow, I suspect it does not matter even one little bit to Tom.  Or Ray.

Thanks, guys, for the memories, for inviting us into a corner of your minds, and for teaching us some things along the way.

A fan.

Jesus Schooling the It Boys

Matthew 23.4-10:  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. [NRSV]

“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’  “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ. [The Message]

Religion cannot be about showing off, or it isnt’ religion at all.

Showing off shifts our faith away from the worship of God (its very purpose) to the worship of ourselves.

The most insidious, the sneakiest way we have of doing this fools (even) ourselves.

The sneaky voice of the pretender is the voice of condemnation: look how bad he is! . . . I cannot believe she goes to church and acts like that! . . . And she calls herself a Christian! 

Here’s the thing: whenever I recognize myself in your sin, I am much quicker to lean toward mercy, forgiveness, compassion, love, understanding, forebearance, grace.

It is only when I do not see myself in you that I feel so free to condemn and judge.

In this way might we understand that our condemnation of others is just a slick way of pointing out how wonderful we are, for surely in our condemnation of others is at least implied a celebration of how very lucky we are not to be (like) them.

Remember how much Jesus liked that?  Not so much.

Why should it matter so to God?  After all, aren’t we better than some folk?  Aren’t there people just begging for a little healthy criticism?

Perhaps.  But by whom?  Is not God the judge?  And if God is THE judge, then who are we pretending to be when we get all judging?


Because once again, we are making ourselves the focus (spiritual narcissism), making of ourselves gods (or at the least, demi-gods), to be admired (which is perilously close to being worshiped) for our wondrous selves, if for no other reason that at least we’re not that guy.

But we are not the judge.

If it’s a legal model we so desire, what we, all of us, are, are co-defendants.  But the metaphor will only take us so far.  Life is not a courtroom.  And we do not get off more lightly for our wrongs by rolling over on the other guy.  It doesn’t work that way.

Condemnation of others is the adult version of tattling – we’re the kid and God’s the Dad.  And he doesn’t want to hear it.  The only person’s inventory we are responsible for is our own.  And God isn’t just Dad.  God is The Dad.  And he already knows.

Ultimately, condemnation of others is evidence of the absence of love in our hearts for another.  And we are commanded to love others, just like we love us.  To condemn another is to find them wanting in the courtroom of our own minds and appoint ourselves the judge.

And there we are, slipping into the judge’s chair again, forgetting that our job, our only job, when it comes to other people, is simply, merely, only, to love.

Anything else just isn’t our business.