Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Says a lot…

I’ve mentioned before my belief that, if anything good comes of tragic events, it’s that people often respond with greater compassion and community awareness. I witnessed this dynamic nearly firsthand during my senior year in high school. On April 20, not far from my house, in the halls of Columbine High School (which I did not attend, by the way), two disturbed young men opened fire on their classmates and teachers. It was the deadliest school shooting in American history. And for months, a dark veil of grief and shock hung over my suburban community.

At the same time, though, people in grocery stores or at the mall didn’t cast distrustful, fearful glances upon strangers and fellow shoppers. Rather, they- we- made a point of helping others out; holding doors longer and more frequently, going out of our way to smile and say thanks. At a couple makeshift memorial sites in a park adjacent to Columbine, people left cards, flowers and posters, expressing their pain, loss and sorrow. And we didn’t judge whether those mourners ‘had a right’ to their emotional turmoil or not. Instead, we nodded in respectful silence, even occasionally joined hands and prayed. I learned those weeks that, while humans may not be totally decent at our core, at the very least there’s good in most of us, that tragedy can somehow bring out.

I also learned, in the months that followed, that this deep down goodness can just as easily recede, be forgotten, get buried in the rush of life. For as that fateful afternoon faded in our collective consciousnesses, the normal indifference that had typified my suburban community reestablished itself as the renewed normal. People didn’t stop to help as much. Smiles gave way to scowls. Again, folk muttered about, “Those darned kids” or “Those clueless geezers,” and ‘community’ evaporated under the heat ‘isolation.’ So I wonder- why do we all feel so busy and self-involved in normal times, when during extraordinary times it’s easy take time out to be kind?

Sorry for sounding dreary just days after Christmas! It’s just that I noticed this year a similar dynamic taking shape. Last Saturday, I stopped by my old house to pick up a package. We’d ordered a gift for friends and meant to give it to them Christmas Day, but alas, accidentally shipped it to house we used to rent. So I rung the old doorbell, and the current renters answered the door. I said, “Hi, I’m Shane. I used to live here. Did you receive our box from Amazon?” They said, “We got it right here.” I answered, “Thanks a lot!” They said, “No problem. And by the way, Happy Holidays!”

This wasn’t the first such interaction I’ve had in the past month. In fact, since basically the week before Thanksgiving, I’ve ended many a conversation with such a sentiment of my own. Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Enjoy the Turkey! Or whatever. And usually, this is in addition to the typical, “Have a nice day.” During the Holidays, it seems, we- many of us, at least- feel impelled to go the extra step, take an additional moment to wish goodwill and peace upon the world and people around us. Thankfully, it’s a wonderful event, not a tragic one, that moves us to such kindness. Nevertheless, when this Sunday has passed, and we’ve no longer an extra reason to be extra kind (Happy New Year!), what does it say about us that, in all likelihood, we’ll revert to the same ole quick and meaning-starved clich├ęs to end our interactions with neighbors and strangers?

I don’t know, in truth. Maybe it doesn’t say much at all. But, it still being the holidays, and since I’m feeling especially optimistic, perhaps this year will be different. Maybe people- I, we- will keep finding excuses to express excessive kindness. A random, “Merry Monday!” Or surprising, “Happy Saturday!” That’d be something, wouldn’t it? Exuberant outbursts of goodness as a normal, not abnormal, event. It’d be like we began believing that all of life is extraordinary, every moment a gift from God. It’d be like we began believing…what God already believes about us.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Knowing God…

Recently, a spiritually curious and thoughtful buddy asked me a good question. “When people say they ‘know God,’ what do they mean? Can anyone know…God?!” We were playing a board game at the time, so I had trouble answering fully. I mean, can you do that question justice while demolishing your opponents? So here’s my more considered response. (Btw, I lost the game…bummer)

Firstly, I said that no serious religious thinker claims to fully ‘know God,’ not without serious qualifications. Even as brilliant a Christian thinker as St. Thomas Aquinas admitted the ultimate limitations of human thought. But he developed a strategy for ‘knowing’ God that I’ve found helpful, which may seem thick at first, but truly, it’s good stuff.

Aquinas said that all knowledge about God is analogical, i.e. we don’t know God as God is, but only through analogy to our experience. Sure, we ‘experience’ God, but way different than we experience eating. So the first thing to remember when saying, “I know God is…” is that we don’t know eternal facts about God. God is much greater than our experience!

Still, God is also not not like some things we’ve experienced. For instance, many call God Father, though God isn’t our biological pops. Still, God’s also not unlike a father, in some respects. We call God caring, loving, wise, kind, and fathers (should) share those characteristics. Thus, God’s is not not my father, even though God’s not John Isaac.

Hence, Aquinas says, God is a father by analogy, or God is like a father in critical respects. Again, that may sound too complicated by half, but consider two reasons this idea’s important. #1, by starting with, “God is not, ultimately, a father,” we recognize that every analogy for God is incomplete. As father-like as God seems, God’s also very mother-like. Plus, many had terrible and abusive fathers. To say, then, God is a father, without leaving wiggle-room, makes God sound unsafe or oppressive to folk those with bad dads. The point is we ought never pretend our analogies about God are facts about God. That equals idolatry, because God is always greater!

#2, by accepting analogy as a way to ‘know God,’ we open ourselves to constantly new ideas about God. When I first accepted that Mother was as valid an analogy for God as Father, I discovered vast troves of powerful divine knowledge. My mother is creative, compassionate, giving, and through that knowledge of her, I’ve learned about God my divine Mother.

Of course, some analogies for God are inappropriate. For instance- God is like a chair. A few years back, as an ironic critique of intelligent design theory, some claimed God was a Flying Spaghetti Monster. I found this satire of bad science funny and compelling. Spiritually speaking, though, God-as-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster falls flat.

So how can we decide between useful divine analogies and foolish or oppressive ones? Well, for Christians, I believe, it begins with Jesus. We confess- by faith- that the baby born in Bethlehem is our starting point when seeking knowledge of the divine. Put differently, for Christians, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God we know. Thus, we know Jesus was born a poor peasant. So we ‘know’- by faith- God is like a poor, vulnerable babe, i.e. God values all people, especially the most vulnerable. We know Jesus taught compassion, justice and forgiveness. So Christians ‘know’- by faith- God’s like a loving, just and merciful leader. God, of course, isn’t just the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Before he was born, God was. After his death, God remained. But God- for Christians- is not not the historical person Jesus. Rather, God is like what we saw in him. In fact, we believe God is more like Jesus than any other person or thing. However, because there’s much we don’t know about Jesus, we must be open to other metaphors, ideas and analogies if we’re to know God better. Nevertheless, if ever we wonder whether an idea’s appropriate, we can ask, “Does this contradict what we know about Jesus?” Then, perhaps, we gain greater knowledge about the God we worship and serve.

Sorry Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Goal achieving…

When I began running regularly, again, sometime mid-July, I didn’t have a specific goal in mind. Yes, I told myself I’d- maybe- train to join my brother-in-law for a triathlon. A small one. June 2012. Perhaps. We’ll see, though, if I’m still running in a month, I said. After all, it wasn’t the first time I’d tried a new exercise routine…

Well, it turns out that this time, it worked. As I write this, I’m preparing to run a half-marathon tomorrow. It’s not an organized event, mind you. Simply me and my headphones, running up and down Theodore Wirth Boulevard on my day off. I’ll run a route I planned that, Google maps assures me, is 13.1 miles. And the rest of the day, I’ll sit on my couch with ice packs nearby!

What’s funny to me, as I (nervously) anticipate tomorrow, is that this goal only came about gradually, after I began running. At first, I said, “I’ll ‘run’ to the end of the block and take a break.” Soon, it became, “Once I’ve gone 5 kilometers without stopping, I’ll buy a legit pair of running shoes.” (The initial pair was a Payless special- right price, poor for the knees). Only gradually did I begin wanting to go farther and dream bigger. My wife once ran a half-marathon, years ago. When I first heard that, I thought, “Sweetheart, you’re wonderful, but that’s crazy!” Until I found myself running too, getting farther and farther each time. The idea somehow emerged, then, “If she did it, maybe I can too!”

How do we go about setting and then achieving goals? And as Christians, do we ever set goals for growth in our own spiritual fitness? I’m sure some who’ve run marathons or half-marathons, or other such events, began with the idea itself: I’m running a marathon. They then tailored all their efforts to the task, beginning to end. But for me, it took baby steps (pun unintended). Indeed, my goal setting increased only as my endurance and confidence increased. And I wonder whether I’d be preparing for tomorrow if, from the get-go, I planned on this day.

Maybe. Certainly, that works for some. But this experience has helped me appreciate the value of incrementalism. That it’s not a failure of imagination, confidence or courage if you begin by setting a small goal, uncertain whether you’ll ever attempt more, simply content with where you’re at now and the slight progress you hope to achieve. In fact, as I reflect on, say, a challenge many small churches face, it feels similar- the pressure they feel, internal and external, to get bigger, to grow. Which isn’t a bad thing; indeed, I pray we too grow as a church! But one way many small churches respond to this pressure is taking on too much too fast. They’ll say, “We need to grow like that church down the street,” when that church down the street is 5, 10, 50 times their size. Thus, when they don’t find some magic bullet that makes worship attendance explode immediately, a tsunami of blaming or guilt can overwhelm the church, drowning their energy, deluging their confidence.

But what if, instead, they said, “We may never look like that church down the street. Nevertheless, what we do is faithful and important, and we want a few others to join the team.” Then, they set a simple goal- each member tell one person (whom they’ve never told!) about why they love their church. After which, maybe, they invite another person to join them on Sunday. And perhaps it continues, with a goal of leading just three new families to join, next year. That’s not a spiritual marathon, certainly, but momentum can build.

I suspect that same incremental goal setting might help more individual pursuits too: increasing your prayer life, Bible reading, charitable giving, your compassion. Even the greatest runners, surely, began slowly, simply, over short distances. And more to the point, even those who run a mile-a-day and will never dream of marathons are still healthier, happier, more energetic, I’d bet, than they’d be otherwise. And that’s a good goal, indeed.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stars of hope…

A couple years back, my good friend Mark became the pastor of First Congregational UCC in Moorhead, MN. And for his installation service, he asked me to preach. The invitation was quite an honor, so I tried to craft a quality sermon. On the drive up, even, I was still working, practicing the message aloud, asking for Tabitha’s feedback. Initially, she said, “Well, Shane, it’s a little…unclear.” So I scribbled and reworked- frantically- and eventually had something preachable. After I finished, Mark even said, “You did alright friend.” Which I took as great, gushing, epoch-defining praise.

I won’t rehash the sermon, but I thought you’d appreciate the main metaphor I used, considering something that’s happening at church this Advent. That metaphor was this: Installing a pastor is like Installation Art. For those unfamiliar with the genre, Installation Art is simple. An artist selects a public space- a lobby, building, park, sanctuary- then ‘installs’ in that space something s/he considers beautiful or profound. It can be a series of clear plastic tubes hanging from a tree, or empty combat boots. My favorite work was created by The Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, when in 1995 they wrapped the massive German Parliament Building- The Reichstag- with 100,000 square meters of polypropylene fabric. These art pieces typically remain in place for but limited time. And for that reason, some folk consider this branch of artistic expression foolhardy or unimportant.

But I think otherwise. To my friend’s congregation that day, I said we can learn something critical from Installation Art. Which is that while something ‘installed’ may abide for only months, even weeks, the goal of the installation is transforming the space forever. For instance, I cannot look at the Reichstag now without imagining the wrapping. So the building, to me, seems more like a gift than an imposing bastion of political power. I thought my friend should know that he had such an opportunity at the church where he was being installed. And, therefore, a responsibility to create something beautiful, profound and lasting with that congregation.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not describing this because I’m contemplating leaving Plymouth Creek! My hope is my installation will remain in place for awhile yet to come. Rather, I want to highlight something beautiful and profound that’s currently ‘installed’ in our sanctuary. You may’ve heard that our intern, Lynda Lee, was organizing a “Worship and Art” project, and after church last Sunday, she and many other Plymouth Creekers put the plan in motion. Together, they created stars and collages, fabric drapings and origami, all of which they then hung/installed in our sanctuary. I walked in there this morning, and let me tell you friends, it’s incredible! A few weeks back I confessed that one way I discern the Spirit moving in my life is when I feel my tear ducts begin to well with emotion. Today, walking around our worship space, seeing the incredible creativity of our members, their profound ideas and spiritual commitment, I had a sudden desire to weep, and thus said, “Thank you, Spirit, for this gift.” Truly, what Lynda and her team of artists have done is a sight to behold. And you can see it for yourself throughout this Advent and Christmas season.

But what to make of this sudden installation? Well, as I recall, the project’s theme was “hope.” After all, this Advent we’ve been talking about the good, good life Jesus led, and has freed us to lead ourselves. In other words, our Christmas vision this year is quite hopeful! Starting with that theme, Lynda’s group then reinterpreted it through modern symbols and stories, expressing artistically the hope they see, or want to see, in the world around us. At least, I think that was the goal. Meaning that we’ll be surrounded by, saturated with hope as we worship together this season. And perhaps- I hope- we’ll be so moved by their creativity, that even when it’s taken down and the new year comes, their hope will remain. As a memory of our sanctuary. As a reality in our hearts. As a motivation for the light we shine together as Christ’s Disciples.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shivering with love…

My dog does something I call the “Shake of Love.” It happens when I (or anyone, really) spend more than four seconds giving her undivided attention. We could be wrestling, or I could be scratching her belly. Whatever initiates it, she deeply enjoys such encounters, her speedily wagging tail being all the proof I need. And if I (or anyone, really) keep it up long enough, she’ll get so overwhelmed with joy that she stops and shakes herself as fast as possible, as if she’d just been doused with water. As I said, the “Shake of Love.” After which, she bounds back to me (or anyone, really), making it abundantly clear she wants the tummy rub, wrestling, personal attention continued. It’s all very cute. Until it’s not, and I have to make her stop wrestling with or licking me. Fawkes the Dog is nothing if not…persistent.

And consistent. Because this pretty much occurs without fail. Again, fulfill every above condition and Fawkes, she’s a-shakin’. Therefore, naturally, I’m jealous. My enjoyment of or ‘love’ for others decidedly does not arise so quickly, so excessively, so exuberantly, so easily. Not usually, at least. Sure, some would say, “Shane, dogs are different, more trusting.” But why should that be? Dogs get scared too. And especially for us Christians, we who follow the leader who once implored, “Love you neighbor as yourself.” Though we can’t wick water off our bodies with wild gesticulations (thus our shakes of love would look a tad different), why aren’t we as generous and enraptured with our love of others as my dog?

I wonder if the key here is memory. Our dog trainer said, “Don’t discipline Fawkes if she chews up the sofa, but you weren’t around when it happened. Her short-term memory is limited. So she won’t associate your discipline with her actions.” Humans, by contrast, remember much, much more. I read recently about the memory-making wonder machine that is the human brain, how we form richly detailed memories, how frequently that occurs, how we translate those memories into general impressions (and biases) about the world, ourselves and others.

And particularly, how amazing we are at… distorting what happens to us. Apparently, studies show that when a person’s wronged, s/he often amplifies how bad what happened actually was. But when the shoe’s on the other foot, we “remember” ourselves being much more conscientious and considerate than the person we wronged says we were. Of course, in some situations it doesn’t matter whether a person amplifies the offense or not. Some wrongs are truly horrific, regardless the excuses an offender gives. But in the everyday rush hours and pushy airport lines of life, it rings true to my experience that people (not me, of course) would remember the actions of others in more negative lights than the actions of self. And therefore- perhaps- be more reserved with offering love, trust, kindness than our short-term limited, lovable pets.

Fortunately for us, though, another human capacity is change, i.e. if we’re open to the possibility that maybe someone ‘remembers’ an issue differently than you, we can adapt our feelings of hurt or frustration by seeking common ground. I wonder, even, if this has something to do with what Jesus meant by, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We’re often quick to see extenuating circumstances in our behavior, accept complex motivations for what we do, or excuse an oversight or thoughtless action. Sometimes we’re even capable of forgiving ourselves. What if we extended the same treatment to others? What if we did so repeatedly enough, even, that our instincts weren’t based on the pained, fearful, unloving or selfish memories we’re so good are creating and storing, but on the loving, joyful, patient and accepting attitudes we allow for our own behavior? That need not be mean indulging another’s mistakes, idiotic actions or downright malicious deeds. Our big brains can tell the difference. But perhaps if we accepted that most others as, basically, the same wonderful, flawed humans we are, we’d find ourselves shaking with love more often. And life would be sweeter for it.

Grace and Peace,
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Hope for the Holidays…

One decent part of how our culture “celebrates” the holidays is the expectation that it be a joyful season. Sure, much of that festivity seems wildly manufactured; loud TV announcers declaring “THE DEAL OF THE CENTURY”, cheesy marketing posters showcasing smiling families in name brand clothing. Some of what counts as ‘holiday cheer’ can mask a kind of greed, or shallowness of spirit, or something. Nevertheless, we could do worse than encouraging joy this time of year. Imagine we gave into the dark days and cold nights, hunkered down, hibernated, awaited Spring. Depressing, amen?!

Fortunately, we don’t. We sing carols, wear bright sweaters, resurrect time-honored traditions and put on a happy face. The desire to feel joy- to bathe in it and share it with others- that lifts many a mood. Even if it feels forced at times.

Because it can, right? Often, it does. After all, coupled with glossy coupons and internet deals are news reports of impeding economic doom across the pond and here at home, continued uncertainty at work, reminders of family turmoil. Minus the holiday sentiment, our communities’ collective mood resides currently near the drain. At least, that’s how it seems to me, though I suspect I’m not alone.

A cynical person, then, might sneer at holiday cheer, deriding an anchorless culture that tries to buy its way into feeling better. I’ve heard that said before, even felt such frustration or protest or despair sneak its way into my soul. Yet I simply can’t find a way to give into the doldrums or awash my worldview in anger. Sorry to say, my friends, but I’m grateful to be alive.

And not just in the, “I’m supposed to say that” sense. I’m truly, blissfully humbled for the gift of life in this world. I type these letters on a wizard machine, or so our ancestors would assess computers. Given prudent saving and a little luck, I might fly somewhere for vacation, eventually. Even if I pay more for bacon and Brussels sprouts that I’d prefer my regular food choices are by all objective measures dazzling. Assuming I don’t mess up the cooking!

Yes, life can be hard. My responsibilities and stress levels this past year have been, at times, overwhelming. But I’m well aware that what I struggle with is nowhere near as tough as many- most?- of the world’s population. So forgive me if I don’t share the culture’s dire assessment of life today. I want things to get better, absolutely; I especially want life to improve for the poor, the lonely, the jobless and abused in our midst. For that reason, I give money, time and more to benefit ‘the least of these.’ But I’m also frustrated with the doomsayers, those who just can’t find anything good to say. Especially when such commentators have a lot to be thankful for.

Thus, I’m hoping that our congregation will buck trends this Advent, and celebrate the joy of Christmas with guileless, uninhibited abandon! Remember, the story of our Savior’s birth isn’t without dark sides or rough edges. There was no room in the inn; a manger crib certainly stank! When it ended, Joseph and Mary returned to fragile peasant living. Nevertheless, the Holy Mother said, “My soul magnifies the Lord!” For she believed, and in time Jesus would prove definitively, that the Author of Creation showers all our days with love, desires abundant life for all life from now until the end of time. Indeed, through the eyes of faith, we see in that Christmas babe a vision of what God’s great heart intended- a good, good life for all God’s children, united through grace.

So I invite you, as we worship together this holiday season, ring bells and give gifts and swap stories old and new, to claim personally the deepest truths of our faith- that joy is our inheritance, that love will always win. And even if it feels forced at times, more a hope or prayer than a heartfelt fact, for now, to declare that the life we lead is a good, good life indeed. For as Jesus’ followers we know, Christ was born for this.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Prince of Peace…

I realized something brilliant last Saturday. The reason the “Holiday Season” begins waaayyy too early isn’t commercialism, greed, or a cultural dearth of meaning. Rather, it’s Christmas Carols.

Yep, the reason for “Christmas Creep” is the songs we sing. My proof? Imagine if we had “Halloween Sing-along’s” or “Thanksgiving Carols.” Stores would have more options to entice shoppers into seasonal moods; music stations would avoid Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving. In other words, if we had more holiday music than Christmas Carols, life as we know it would change. Is this observation earth-shattering? No. But I’m proud I thought of it first.

As it is, year after year, we replay melodies of shepherds watching flocks by a silent, O-Holy night. But objectively speaking, that’s strange right? That we invest so much in repeating the same story, again and again. And again. You’d think we’d have squeezed it dry by now?! What more could we possibly learn that we haven’t already read about, sung about, for ages?!

Well, here’s my theory- The BIG ideas that transform our lives, our world, etc., don’t arise one day, and Poof! everything changes. Instead, they require time to work their magic. And patience. Stops and starts; perhaps centuries of infiltration. Only then- if ever- can these blessed inspirations work out their full, gracious effects.

For example: Christianity’s “The-Christmas-Babe-is-the-Prince-of-Peace” belief. On the surface, the claim appears ludicrous. Thirty(ish) years after birth, Jesus died a violent death. By 400, his followers ruled a war-obsessed empire (Rome). In later centuries, Christians perpetrated Crusades and Wars of Religion, endured invasions by Islam and the Mongolian Hordes, organized the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Prince of Peace, we call Jesus. But since his birth, peace has seemed…elusive. Thus, some wonder, whether it’s sane, even, to celebrate his nativity every year.

But recently I finished a book that meticulously documented something related, and if true, is one of our time’s most inspirational, hopeful stories. Did you know that we live in the safest, least violent and most peaceful era the world’s ever seen? That is, since the evolution of humanity. Really, as best we know, every society prior to modern, economically developed, 21st-century nations has endured higher rates of murder and war- and frankly, it’s not even close. At least that’s what the statistics of this Harvard professor/author claim. Which isn’t saying everything’s glorious. Only that progress has been made. I won’t rehash his data here, but if that surprises you, join the club.

So what happened?! Well, according to the book’s author, religion had nothing to do with it. After all, he points out, religious folk have messed things up plenty. Fair enough, but I wonder if he misunderstands the nature of faith. To him, our major problem is we’ve so often preached peace, but made war. But come now- religious folk aren’t the world’s only hypocrites.

Besides, and here’s my theory, I suspect momentum’s been building ever since God first inspired, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” or Jesus claimed, “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Applying those (groundbreaking, back then) ideas has taken time; our circles of compassion and empathy have expanded in fits and starts. But it began somewhere, and the trend’s been ever-expanding. As MLK Jr. put it, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Thus, I’d guess, our annually honoring the “Prince of Peace” (coupled with similar efforts by other great religions) has assisted, maybe caused, these cumulative effects. The world’s great powers, for the first time ever, haven’t warred for over fifty years; murder rates in industrialized countries are at historical lows; infanticide and slavery are now considered unthinkable. I could continue, but the trend’s clear. Peace is happening. Not everywhere, for everyone, but for more than ever before.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean we should stop praying for peace, stop working for it, stop opposing those who oppose it. Things can always change. But as we begin our annual Advent waiting, we ought recognize life’s good news, and the positive developments occurring. And maybe pray a prayer of gratitude for the Prince of Peace’s guidance.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Goal achieving…

When I began running regularly, again, sometime mid-July, I didn’t have a specific goal in mind. Yes, I told myself I’d- maybe- train to join my brother-in-law for a triathlon. A small one. June 2012. Perhaps. We’ll see, though, if I’m still running in a month, I said. After all, it wasn’t the first time I’d tried a new exercise routine…

Well, it turns out that this time, it worked. As I write this, I’m preparing to run a half-marathon tomorrow. It’s not an organized event, mind you. Simply me and my headphones, running up and down Theodore Wirth Boulevard on my day off. I’ll run a route I planned that, Google maps assures me, is 13.1 miles. And the rest of the day, I’ll sit on my couch with ice packs nearby!

What’s funny to me, as I (nervously) anticipate tomorrow, is that this goal only came about gradually, after I began running. At first, I said, “I’ll ‘run’ to the end of the block and take a break.” Soon, it became, “Once I’ve gone 5 kilometers without stopping, I’ll buy a legit pair of running shoes.” (The initial pair was a Payless special- right price, poor for the knees). Only gradually did I begin wanting to go farther and dream bigger. My wife once ran a half-marathon, years ago. When I first heard that, I thought, “Sweetheart, you’re wonderful, but that’s crazy!” Until I found myself running too, getting farther and farther each time. The idea somehow emerged, then, “If she did it, maybe I can too!”

How do we go about setting and then achieving goals? And as Christians, do we ever set goals for growth in our own spiritual fitness? I’m sure some who’ve run marathons or half-marathons, or other such events, began with the idea itself: I’m running a marathon. They then tailored all their efforts to the task, beginning to end. But for me, it took baby steps (pun unintended). Indeed, my goal setting increased only as my endurance and confidence increased. And I wonder whether I’d be preparing for tomorrow if, from the get-go, I planned on this day.

Maybe. Certainly, that works for some. But this experience has helped me appreciate the value of incrementalism. That it’s not a failure of imagination, confidence or courage if you begin by setting a small goal, uncertain whether you’ll ever attempt more, simply content with where you’re at now and the slight progress you hope to achieve. In fact, as I reflect on, say, a challenge many small churches face, it feels similar- the pressure they feel, internal and external, to get bigger, to grow. Which isn’t a bad thing; indeed, I pray we too grow as a church! But one way many small churches respond to this pressure is taking on too much too fast. They’ll say, “We need to grow like that church down the street,” when that church down the street is 5, 10, 50 times their size. Thus, when they don’t find some magic bullet that makes worship attendance explode immediately, a tsunami of blaming or guilt can overwhelm the church, drowning their energy, deluging their confidence.

But what if, instead, they said, “We may never look like that church down the street. Nevertheless, what we do is faithful and important, and we want a few others to join the team.” Then, they set a simple goal- each member tell one person (whom they’ve never told!) about why they love their church. After which, maybe, they invite another person to join them on Sunday. And perhaps it continues, with a goal of leading just three new families to join, next year. That’s not a spiritual marathon, certainly, but momentum can build.

I suspect that same incremental goal setting might help more individual pursuits too: increasing your prayer life, Bible reading, charitable giving, your compassion. Even the greatest runners, surely, began slowly, simply, over short distances. And more to the point, even those who run a mile-a-day and will never dream of marathons are still healthier, happier, more energetic, I’d bet, than they’d be otherwise. And that’s a good goal, indeed.

Grace and Peace,

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Voices…

Y’all know that my wife is an ordained minister too, and quite capable at that. If I do say so myself… Well, recently, a group called the “Young Clergy Woman’s Project” asked her to contribute a pastoral reflection on the impact of money on faith in modern life, and it was posted to their website last week. Personally, I found it quite interesting, and insightful. So rather than write my own letter this week, I wanted to share her work with you. I hope you enjoy it; I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. - Pay close attention to final sentences. A declaration of Disciple of Christ belief if e’er I read one.

It's Just Math
by Tabitha Isner

“This is not class warfare—it’s math.”

On September 19th, President Obama proposed a deficit reduction plan that would be paid for by tax hikes for families making $250,000 or more annually, a group that makes up just 1.5% of the U.S. population. Conservative pundits expressed concerns that President Obama was either engaging in or encouraging “class warfare.” To this President Obama responded, “This is not class warfare—it’s math.”

At the same time, an “Occupy Wall Street” protest began in NYC, and now similar protests have spread around the world. Protesters at such events have made a habit of chanting “We are the 99 percent” in reference to the fact that 1% of the nation’s population is taking home a quarter of all income in the U.S. each year (a phenomenon eloquently described by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” in Vanity Fair’s May 2011 issue).

It just so happens that I spend my days as a policy research analyst, so I’m used to thinking about the implications of what others see as mere numbers. But this particular debate – class warfare versus math – got me thinking theologically: Where does Jesus stand on class warfare?

That one is easy. Jesus does NOT like warfare. The Prince of Peace wouldn’t stand for it.

But wait…. how does Christ feel about math?

Searching my concordance, looking in the New Interpreter’s, flipping through my mental rolodex of dead theologians…. and …. Zilch. Where other sources failed, Google provided an answer:

Thank you, Google. That is, indeed, some Jesus math.

Despite the absurdity of an equation for salvation, the question is a real one: what does the Christian tradition say about the attitude we should take toward the rich in society?

The Bible has very little good to say about the rich and very little good advice for the rich. The rich are described as not allowing the poor even the scraps from their table. The rich are described as having their reward on earth and therefore not entitled to tenderness in death. It’s easier, we’re told, to get a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven. And the only advice for a rich man: Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor. In other words, stop being rich. Woe, woe, woe… to you who are rich.

So there you have it. The rich are in big trouble.

What a relief for the rest of us! If only those rich folks on Wall Street would do as Jesus says and give their money to the poor folks. The other 99% of us would really appreciate that.

But the disciples weren’t relieved to hear Jesus’ advice to the rich man; they were “greatly astounded.” They reply, “But Jesus! Then who can be saved?” Unlike 21st century USA, the disciples assumed only two categories of people: the rich and the poor. The poor were an easy-to-recognize group: widows, orphans, slaves, beggars, lepers, anyone who was crippled physically or mentally. Everybody else was rich. By degrees, perhaps, and types – farmer, herdsman, tradesman – but rich nonetheless. And that included the disciples, a group of fishermen, religious/political activists and one tax collector – all solidly middle class professions by modern standards. They were wandering homeless with Jesus, but they still did not claim to be poor.

The Bible, I believe, is profoundly concerned about wealth. Deeply suspicious of the rich. Highly preferential to the poor. It boldly demands that the rich give everything they have to the poor. Such a stance really could be interpreted as class warfare. Woe to the 1%! Woe to Wall Street!

But such an interpretation arbitrarily draws a line at 1%, deciding on a whim which of God’s beloved children have too much and allowing those with a penny less than the magic number to join the poor in wagging their collective finger.

Mathematically, we are indeed the 99%. But we’re not just the poorest 99%. We’re also the richest 99%. (I know you’re curious where exactly you rank, so go ahead, check your global wealth rank here and your U.S. wealth rank here.) And chances are, if you start factoring in the many advantages you have had in life, you’ll find that you are scoring awfully high on the “privilege scale.” (For example, if you’re clergy, you probably have a professional degree, in which case you are more educated than 97% of the U.S. population. [1])

Now I acknowledge that if the CEOs and Wall Street bankers of the world sold all their possessions and gave it to the poor, it would be significantly more cash than would come from your or my possessions. While the amount that the top 1% could (and should) give is bigger than what you or I could give, the obligation is shared. All of us – you, me, and Wall Street – we’re on the same side of this terrifying admonition to “give it all to the poor.”

So while income inequality and wealth distribution are serious injustices that our Christian faith calls us to address, we do not need to participate in a blame game that scapegoats the richest 1% for an economic system that they did not create alone. Treating the rich as outcasts or social pariahs is not how Christians are called to respond. Blame and demonization are simply not Christ-like approaches to rectifying injustice.

Now let me be clear. I support an overhaul of the tax system. I would advocate for an even more progressive tax policy than Obama has proposed. But I would like to do so while acknowledging my own participation in the economic system that produces such extreme inequalities. I would like to do so while also suggesting that educational inequalities, health care access, sexism and racism are contributing to the problem. I would like to do so while standing hand in hand with my neighbors who grew up on welfare and never left, my neighbors whose homes were destroyed by a tornado, and my neighbors with stock options and golden parachutes. Because standing together, we are more than 99%. We are whole.

(And that’s some math I think Jesus would appreciate.)


Gospel postscript: Having heard that “it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” the greatly-astounded disciples asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” And then Jesus led his middle (upper) class disciples on to the next adventure in faithfulness. Amen, I say, alleluia and amen.

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lashing out…

I wrote recently about my emerging interest in running, and the exciting day I finally learned “to pace myself.” Well, like most serious new pursuits, my growth as a runner has included negative moments too. And I want to share something today that inspired neither pride nor pleasant feelings!

It’s about my dog, since I bring Fawkes on most runs. Which is good theory: Exercise for me and the puppy, all in one fell swoop. I’m healthier; she’s happier, and so eats fewer sofa cushions. It’s become where now, when I reach for running shoes, her tail begins wagging mightily in anticipation.

But the downside of Fawkes-the-canine-running-partner is her great, big lack of self-control. Especially around squirrels. Like in the movie Up, when a squirrel enters view, my dog stops everything to focus all attention on that little beasty. But rather than simply stare, Fawkes runs after the squirrel, initiating an unsolicited game of chase. In our backyard, that’s cute and funny. Indeed, the one time she actually caught a squirrel, Fawkes was so surprised/confused, it wiggled out and ran away before Fawkes decided what to do. But when I’m running, with Fawkes on her leash, every squirrel she chases means another strong pull against my arm and shoulders. Thus, I must stop my regular stride and breathing, restrain her, tell her no, then tug her along.

Mostly, this behavior’s just a nuisance, one I hope to train away. But I’ve learned that the longer the run goes (i.e. the more tired we both get), the worse her attention span becomes. And…the worse I respond. I recognized this dynamic soon after we began running together. Early in runs, she’ll go for squirrels, and I’m like, “No big deal.” Later on, though, when I’m sweating hard and breathing heavy, I’ve found myself yelling at my dog, aggressively and angrily- No! Stop!- trying to intimidate her into obedience, or whatever. I’ve made scenes in the middle of the street even- awkward dog owner screaming at pet. Not that anyone’s ever watching, but still, we use positive reinforcement with her as much as possible, since dog trainers claim that’s most effective. But apparently, when I’m tired, my patience plummets, and at least in this instance, I act in ways I don’t approve.
As I said, I’m learning about myself though running, even lessons I’d prefer to need! But at least, since I identified the tendency, I’ve become less controlled by it. Now, when I’m tired and Fawkes tugs, I restrain both her and myself! But I haven’t eliminated the instinct entirely. It’s still present, alas, and waiting to lash out.

Have you ever felt something similar? Not to avoid blame, but I suspect this whole “reacting poorly when I’m tired” phenomenon isn’t unique to me. Consider parenting. Since this happened, I’ve thought, “God bless my parents!” For not acting ridiculous when I was bratty and they were super tired. Sure, I remember times when they’d snap or lash out irrationally. But they did so much less frequently than I suspect they felt the urge, given how often I pushed and how tiring life can be! And never in abusive or damaging ways. Or how about schoolteachers? I remember some who seemed arbitrary with their punishments or emotionally fragile, even though they faced similar circumstances as other, more effective teachers. Perhaps they simply hadn’t learned to cope well with fatigue.

Years ago, I heard a Martin Luther quote that basically said, “I pray one hour a day. When I’m busy, though, I can’t survive with less than two.” I always thought that goofy, but this experience has shifted my perspective. I wonder if Martin also became less kind or patient or focused when fatigue, stress and busy-ness threatened to overwhelm. I know prayer, especially when done ahead-of-time(!!), helps me moderate the exhaustion factor and endure difficult times. That’s true for running with my dog, but also work, relationships, paying bills- whatever threatens emotional tranquility. But the key, perhaps, is simply learning what triggers you to lash out, and committing to responding better when they’re set off. That helps me, at least. And Fawkes, I’m sure, is grateful.

Grace and Peace,
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Good Life…

Last month I had a “milestone” birthday: on October 9, I turned thirty. If you weren’t in service that morning, you should know they called a surprise “congregational meeting.” The one item on the agenda was presenting me with gifts- Depends, Geritol, reading glasses and a Gift Card. For the generous gift card, I want to say Thank You! For the other stuff, I’ll get to gratitude in a few decades.

Anyway, the expectation with birthdays that end in -0, so it seems, is that you ‘reflect’ on “what it all means.” Honestly, I think that’s overdramatic. Turning 30, 50, or 90 means whatever you choose to make of it. Nevertheless, in recent weeks it’s sunk in that I’m approaching the day I must officially drop ‘young’ before self-describing as an ‘adult.’ I’ve still got a few years, but it’s coming, I realize now. Thus, some might say, “Panic!” But it’s alright by me.

I mean, I’ve never fully understood why some folk fear aging as much as they claim. Sure, our culture nurtures some deeply hostile attitudes toward old age. Youth is idolized while many older adults are encouraged to live segregated from much society. Perhaps many young folk, then, never spend time with their elders; never learning their wisdom, understanding their struggles, realizing that we’ve all got a lot in common. Who knows?

One distinction worth thinking about, though, between people at different stations in life is the amount of time spent looking forward or looking back. I’ve never seen any studies on this, so I’m just guessing here. But I imagine that the older one gets, the more one’s mix between reminiscing and ‘dreaming about the future’ changes. If for no other reason then you have more memories to ponder the older you get! I know some who’d say all that’s dangerous, that we must always strive to live “in the present”, not muse over days gone by or fantasize about what might come. Which is an alright idea, in some regards, but I’m not convinced it’s always the best goal.

Consider this: We Christians are approaching Advent; it begins November 27, in fact. So from then until Christmas, we’ll spend time remembering the past, one particular set of events even. And we do this annually; talk of angels and shepherds, Magi and the baby Jesus, trusting that somehow we’ll discover something new, enriching and meaningful in the same ole stories. Is that the same as ‘living in the past’? Maybe. I know some churches for whom every Sunday, but especially those around the holidays, are excuses to dwell in days gone by; better times, they tell themselves, simpler and serene.

To those churches and their members I would absolutely say: Stop remembering, and start living- Now, in the present! But I don’t think that describes Plymouth Creek. I hope that whenever we look back- to the birth of Jesus, the founding of our denomination, the good and difficult times this congregation has faced- we do so expecting to rediscover God’s presence, and thus get a better sense of what to look for in days ahead. That’s how faith works, when it’s working well. The people of God remembering what good things God’s done, so we’re better prepared for the exciting mission to come.

It’s with that double sense of time- of what was and what will be- that I hope we enter this Advent/Christmas season together. In fact, taken from the lyrics of a gleefully infectious pop song by the band OneRepublic, I’ve decided to give the 2011 season the following theme: “This Could Really Be a Good Life”. It applies, obviously, to the birth of Jesus, and our remembering what great things that baby would do for the world one day. But I hope that as we celebrate all the wonder and joy of his good, good life, we’ll re-claim those things for ourselves, our families and our church. For truly, in the life of faith, what was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. And as the birth of the baby Jesus reminds us, what that is is good. Very good. For all the world.

Grace and Peace,

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Blurry vision…

I don’t often read poetry. No reason; just don’t. But when I do, some verse may catch my attention, and occupy it for awhile. Like, in the case of the following poem, about ten years:

I- How wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see!
That, having viewed the object vain,
They might be ready to complain.

II- What in the world most fair appears,
Yea, even laughter, turns to tears…
Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the more, and see the less…

III- So Magdalen, in tears more wise
Dissolved those captivating eyes,
Whose liquid chains could flowing meet
To fetter her Redeemers feet.

IV- Ope then mine eyes your double sluice,
And practice so your noblest use.
For others too can see, or sleep;
But only human eyes can weep.

V- Thus let your streams o’erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things:
And each the other’s difference bears;

These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.

It sounds old, right? Because it is; written in 17th Century England. Nevertheless, when I first read it, I was struck by how contemporary the idea felt; specifically that tears could somehow supplement the data eyes pass along.

That’s not how some folk talk, after all. Think of ‘eyes’ in the poem as a metaphor for reason and information, and ‘tears’ another metaphor for feelings and emotion. In which case, what ‘eyes see’ is commonly thought not assisted, but impeded by ‘tears.’ Indeed, the mature adult, some say, ought separate such things. Feel your emotions, but don’t let them infect your thinking.

At least, that used to be the standard. In recent years, however, philosophers and scientists have challenged such notions, suggesting that we’d be better decision-makers, analysts, even spectators if we integrated hearts with minds. Or, in the poem’s language, let ‘eyes and tears be the same things.’ Imagine detachedly assessing your child, listing pros and cons, in order to determine whether to invest in her/his future. Ridiculous, right?! You’d miss a key ingredient- love. In other words, a thoughtful person must also be an emotionally developed person. And vice verse for those who feel deeply, but think little about it.

Why does this matter for Christians? Well, I’ve been wondering recently how y’all understand the Holy Spirit. You know, that part of the Trinity many find uncomfortable, or embarrassing… It comes to mind because, during a recent worship service, I found myself holding back tears. And this wasn’t the first time; in fact, it happens regularly. During sermons, listening to prayer, singing a moving song. All these experiences and more can induce my eyes to well up.

Strange? That’s what I thought at first too! Until I realized (after hearing another Christian I admire admit the same) that this may just be how the Holy Spirit does Her work in me. Maybe that’s over-dramatizing something I should talk about in therapy… But assuming not, I truly believe that when the Spirit moves in my life, S/He often starts at my tear ducts.

Or to put it differently- Perhaps, during those times when all my typical distractions, doubts and frustrations fade away and I’m finally focused first on God, my spirit touches something, connects with someone divine. And the way it informs me is tears. Doesn’t happen always at church or in prayer, or even often, but when it does, it usually feels the same. Not like I’m about to break down; just the beginning of tears. But it’s enough, apparently, to entice me to ‘open my eyes wider’, to ‘look’ more closely at what’s happening.

I admit- I could be weird, but I suspect it’s a bigger phenomenon than me. So I wonder if maybe the Holy Spirit sometimes uses our emotional lives to tell our rational minds when to pay better attention. Which isn’t the same as hearing God speak clearly, like with a British accent! Simply God utilizing our whole selves- spirit, mind, heart- to bring awareness to God’s wondrous presence, and teach God’s Holy ways. “Those seeing tears,” indeed…

Does that make sense? How do you “feel,” “sense,” “hear/see/experience” the Holy Spirit?

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, October 21, 2011

Settling in…

After a long hiatus, I began regularly exercising again mid-July. And as you might expect, it’s been a blessing. The break in my previous workout routine wasn’t planned, or even desired, but then again, they never are, right?! It started around the time we bought a puppy, I’ve noticed, but I’ll try not to blame Fawkes. Anyway, the point is I’ve rejoined the ranks of the regularly exercising. Yeah!

It’s different this time, however. Rather than lift weights, now I’m running. I find this funny, since running has always seemed like torture to me. And thus, for the first few weeks , I ran regularly, but I haaaated it! Part of the issue was that those days were wickedly hot. Plus- of course- was the fact I was wickedly out of shape. But mostly, I’ve learned, was that I’d never accepted something a good runner must: you can’t win the race if you burn yourself out on mile 1.

This lesson hit me one morning early August, when for whatever reason, I decided to go slow. Typically, before then, I wouldn’t allow myself such sluggishness. I’d always “push myself,” go faster, trying to keep up with, well, who knows! But that morning I felt tired or entitled, since I’d run the previous four. Regardless the cause, I started running and settled into what felt like a snail’s pace. And what’s more, I kept at that pace despite frequent feelings of needing to speed up. But what do you know: When I finished that run, I’d gone farther, faster, with fewer stops than ever before!

Which makes sense, theoretically, Slow and Steady wins the race and all that. Still, it’s one thing to know what works, and another to feel it, in your bones. After that run, I felt it, and it was a milestone for me. Suddenly, running was no longer torture, but a legitimate exercise activity. Strange, my friends, but true.

Well- surprise, surprise- I have since spiritualized the experience, figuring that what works for distance running might have other applications too. Like, say, prayer, and especially developing a daily pattern in one’s life. Have you ever tried doing this after a time of not praying much? I have, and like my first experiences of jogging this summer, I began way too fast. I’d expect of myself, say, thrice daily for significant minutes each time. Or I’d get three prayer books and ‘commit’ to reading from them all, every day. Unsurprisingly, that created burnout, and it settled in quick. Thus, the daily prayer experiment ended before it really got going.

Other times, however, I’ve treated prayer (and this applies to most spiritual practices, really, like meditation, scripture reading, fasting, journaling, cooking…) much like my body. I’ve recognized it can be disciplined, trained, built up and strengthened. But it takes time to move from one level to the next, as your spirit get more used to strenuous, lengthy exercise. Like my body while running, my spirit while praying is susceptible to fatigue and burnout. And this comparison works particularly well when you think about God’s reaction.

Do you think God expects us all, already, always, to be marathon-trained prayer athletes? Or is it God’s desire to simply hear from us, be with us in prayer more regularly? Answer: B. Which you know as well
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Then I’m strong…

Last March, I tried making a “poor man’s green bean casserole.” And it was bad. Very bad. Desperately terrible. Multiple things went wrong- substandard ingredients, haphazard planning. But the biggest issue was, I realized latter, my overcompensating for weak sauce.

Here’s what happened. I gathered stirred everything together and let the casserole bake. After pulling it from the oven, I dutifully dipped in my tasting spoon. But it didn’t taste like I’d expected; indeed, it barely tasted at all! So to ‘spice things up,’ I added extra ingredients, then seasoned the concoction with (way too much) salt. When the next tasting revealed I’d overdone the saltiness, I added more extra ingredients and tasted again. This led to another round of seasoning, then another round of spices, until the flavor profile became more muddled than my fifth grade band practice.

Now, I’m certain experienced cooks would have much to critique. But what I learned from the failure was the value of incremental pacing. Especially when a sauce is weak, ‘shock and awe’ is not the best strategy for making it edible. Pinches of paprika perhaps, a miniscule measurement of marjoram…maybe. But handfuls of sodium and ounces of cayenne can put sauce past the point of no return. Quickly. I should’ve remembered my Aesop’s fables, and proceeded tortoise like- Slow and Steady. It may not have worked anyway, but would’ve given the food a fighting chance.

I mention this regrettable episode in light of something I did last week. As part of this year’s CROP Walk, I fasted for a day in solidarity with the hungry folk for whom we walked. I’ve fasted before, and each time is unique. So what struck me this time was how weak I felt as the day went on. Certainly, the feeling was relative. Skipping a few meals is far from what famine-stricken Somalis are currently enduring. Nevertheless, as I performed simple tasks or ran errands, what started with slight hunger pains become a full-bodied yearning for sustenance. And what surprised most was how distracting that was; the large disruption this emerging weakness imposed on my ability to focus or think.

Which prompted a spiritual question: When you feel weak, is it helpful to summon all your strength and try overwhelming weakness with a kind of spiritual/psychical ‘shock and awe’? Or is that counter-productive? Take, for example, the experience of starting something new (a ministry at church, workout regime, pattern of behavior, prayer routine). Almost regardless of what it is, a newbie will feel vulnerable, even ‘weak.’ Yes, you might really want to do this new thing; saw how meaningful it was for others. But it requires learning much you don’t know, building skills you don’t have, letting go of old habits and occasionally failing. Some, of course, try the shock and awe method- work at it real hard, non-stop until they no longer feel uncomfortable. But how many diets have been scuttled by pushing too hard, too soon? Getting good at something takes repetition, and so for most folk, patience.

A favorite section of mine in the Bible deals with cultivating patience as regards weakness. It may not work for everything, but it’s worth pondering. In 2 Corinthians 12, regarding an unnamed weakness, Paul hears God say, “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, rather than battle what troubled him with the strength of his psychological fortitude, instead Paul practiced turning it over to God. Which wasn’t a one-time experience. But that makes sense. Ever asked for forgiveness? Or tried forgiving someone else? Didn’t happen all at once, did it? But, if you took time to cultivate spiritual endurance by regularly admitting your need for God’s grace, that may not have made things easy, but I’d bet it helped. A lot!

Certainly, when I felt weak while fasting, it was better to admit that feeling and release it to God, rather than scold myself for not trying harder to focus better. With that tactic, the weakness didn’t dissipate immediately. But as I repeated, slowly but surely I felt better.

Now if only I can replicate in my cooking…

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The more things change…

A group of Plymouth Creekers, on September 23, had lunch with a monk. We were spending the day at St. John’s University- looking at their world-famous Bible, worshipping with the monastic community- and our tour guide, Brother John, joined us for a meal. We didn’t expect it; we figured he had better things to do. But he said, “I don’t mean to presume…but do you mind if I dine with you?” Absolutely!, we responded, and were very glad he did.

After all, how often do you hang out with a member of a monastery? For much of Christian history, monks were folk whom non-professional Christians encountered regularly. And that’s still the case in some Catholic or Orthodox communities. But at least since the Protestant Reformation, certainly in America, those who’ve undertaken this unique vocation have receded to the periphery of many Christians’ consciousness. Some even wonder, “Why would someone ever become a monk? Isn’t that just…running away from life?”

Well, as we discovered, that answer is No. At least, for Brother John. I think the entire group found him approachable, charming, and well informed about issues Christian communities face. We discussed the always sensitive topic of music in church. He talked about how many monks from his monastery once served small Minnesota parishes. But that ministry has diminished in recent decades as both monastery and churches struggled with lower numbers. Sound familiar?!

But the conversation that sticks with me was when he taught us Protestants about the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. You’ve heard about that, right? According to Roman church teaching, the afterlife isn’t simply a one-time decision about Heaven or Hell. Rather, in the Middle Ages especially, theologians began postulating that God created a middle option, a holding cell, where folk who didn’t deserve damnation, but hadn’t yet merited Paradise, would reside after death. There- in Purgatory- the soul would abide, sometimes performing penance for sins in life, hopefully receiving the prayers of still-alive family or friends. And at some point, God would likely relent, saying, “Alright, now you’re in!”

I used to think this a funny idea. But the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve understood how compassionate it was. Christians used to look at great saints as the models for Christian behavior. Which is cool, since saints often performed remarkable, courageous acts of charity and faith. The problem is, well, most of us aren’t saints! So if being a saint was the goal, what about the masses who fell short?

Purgatory. And notice, that’s much better than Hell! Put differently, the church taught that even if you weren’t an exemplar of virtue or revered martyr, nevertheless through your everyday goodness, willingness to atone for your mistakes, and the continued love people gave you after death, you could still receive the ultimate reward- Eternal Paradise. Effectively, this meant we weren’t powerless; that everyday people mattered to God, and crucially, what we did could make a difference. In the days the Purgatory doctrine developed, most people lived quite un-empowered lives. Typically serfs (slaves) on some lord’s lands, often at the mercy of merciless armies. Still, the church taught, when it comes to eternity, you had something to work for.

Whether I believe in Purgatory or not, I like the notion of viewing normal people with dignity and respect. And in the Purgatory idea, as originally intended, that’s what transpired. Of course, as Brother John pointed out, most good ideas get misused, and Purgatory is no exception. Still, for the time when it arose, Purgatory enriched the faith and lives of everyday Christians, and thus, served a need that others in society denied them. Indeed, he continued, all good church doctrine should have exactly such life-giving, practical implications.

Which brings up an interesting question, that I’ll simply leave for you to answer for yourselves, or in a reply email to me if you wish: If positive, this-worldly impact on our everyday lives is the standard for good doctrine- and, therefore, not Eternal Truth or Tradition- what beliefs remain good for our church today, and which, while meaningful long ago, might be jettisoned, for no longer helping people?

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hunger pains…

Jesus spoke much, according to the Gospels, about fasting. He said, “When you fast, don’t walk about dirty and disheveled, seeking others’ praise. Rather, clean up! Put on a good face. And your Divine Parent, who sees in secret, will reward your faithfulness.” Similar instructions appear in elsewhere, counseling his disciples about this unique spiritual practice. But one thing Jesus never says is how to actually fast.

“Simple, Preacher. Just don’t eat!” Sure, whatever, but I’ve still got many questions. How long should I fast for? Can I have water? Tea? Juice? What if I’m a manual laborer, or how about pregnant women? Notice that in his teachings, Jesus takes for granted: a) That his disciples actually intend to fast, and b) They know what it involves. Apparently, such behavior was routine back then; like a cultural warehouse of fasting wisdom had developed, to which everyone had access.

But times change. And I doubt most American Christians have ever intentionally fasted. Our question for Christ wouldn’t be, “How can I glean greater spiritual benefit from my fasts?” Rather, we’d cry, “Seriously, Jesus? You want me to do what?!”

Scholars have long debated the evolution of fasting. Perhaps some poor hovel, one day long lost to memory, had a thin Autumn harvest. There wasn’t enough food for the village, this argument goes, so to conserve what they had, everyone abstained for ‘spiritual reasons’ on a weekly basis. Or maybe pious ancient migrants, traveling far with limited storage, occasionally limited their caloric intake, calling it prayer for traveling mercies, and the practice was handed down.

Who knows? What I can testify to, however, is that it’s a spiritually enriching experience. We talk sometimes about sacrificing for God, and typically mean giving money, or using our time and talents to help others. But causing our tummies to grumble in hunger? Sounds strange, right? Well, it’s not! If you’re healthy enough, that is, or don’t have strenuous labor to perform, occasionally battling through hunger pains focuses the mind on God’s grace. Like a school bell ringing hourly, telling students class is starting, when your empty stomach complains while fasting, it whispers constant reminders. “From whence does real sustenance come,” it can query. “Do you thank God enough for your daily bread?”

Of course, another reason people fast is to act in solidarity with the world’s poor and hungry. Having enough to eat daily, indeed, having the option to fast intentionally, is a great and wondrous blessing, which we should never forget. Nor should we allow that privilege to close our eyes to those who go without. Jesus, in fact, preached as much about the evil of hunger as basically anything else. As such, his spiritual ancestors ought regularly seek to ‘share the feast.’ And, as it happens, this month Plymouth Creek will do exactly that.
As you know, every year we walk in the CROP Walk, having fun and raising funds for hungry folk in our neighborhoods and throughout the world. This October 9, we’ll do that again. So I encourage you- a) To walk!, and/or b) Give to those who do. Talk to me or Chana Weaver with any questions.

But I wonder if this year, we might take another step…Will you fast with me for the 2011 CROP Walk? Not the day itself; that’d be unwise. But how about the day before, October 8? I’m imaging that as many who can (and if there’s any question whether you’re in good enough health to fast, don’t, or ask your doctor) avoid food all day Saturday. And at church, before service, we’ll have break-fast food and juice available. If that sounds intriguing, do a little research into the ‘how-tos’ of fasting, or ask me. You needn’t even tell others you’re doing it, although God will surely smile. While you’re at it, use that day to pray for yourself, your family, your church and especially those who hunger throughout the world. It’d be best, of course, if we didn’t have to walk, if everyone had enough already. In the meantime, thanks for following Jesus’ Way, and loving God’s Children enough to share your daily bread.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pyramids of service…

At a recent Servant Leaders meeting, we discussed an idea that I ‘borrowed’ from Woodridge Church’s Minister of Outreach. It’s a model for enriching our Christian faith, she claims, by deepening our commitment to service. Particularly, it helps churches help worshippers incorporate such ‘other-mindedness’ into their typical day-to-day. Not a bad mission, I thought…

Anyway, the Woodridge minister gave me a chart describing what I call a ‘Pyramid of Service.’ Level one- i.e. the first steps on the pyramid- are one-time, easy acts of service with little to no follow up. Serving food at a homeless shelter, packing meals for Feed My Starving Children, helping an elderly neighbor clear out gutters in the fall- all these are wonderful, simple activities. At PCCC, we’ve done many before, and this autumn will offer more such opportunities. On October 9, we’ll do the Minneapolis CROP Walk together; a fun afternoon for which we raise money to combat local and global hunger. In November, we’ll do something similar for IOCP- the Sleep Out- an enjoyable evening fundraiser (in a cardboard box!) for housing and homelessness in the NW suburbs. I hope you’ll join me in these and other acts of service.

Level two gets a bit involved. This is when you commit to an ongoing service project, or provide leadership to organizing level one events. For instance- those who make the Sleep Out happen have increased their service engagement; those who regularly drive the Sunday morning bus share a similar dedication. In coming months, we’ll add another ‘Level Two’ opportunity at PCCC. We’ve committed to partnering with St. Barnabas on the first Wednesday evening of every month to provide IOCP with volunteers for their food shelf and thrift store operations. Once a month, couple hours in the evening, serving neighbors in need of food and clothing. Not a bad regular activity to practice your faith, I believe! If you want to help out, let me know.

Level three, needless to say, goes deeper still. It’s when you focus your energies and undertake greater responsibilities for the well-being of folk in need. I have difficulty defining this ‘level’ as clearly as others. Certainly, longevity matters- keeping a ministry like Sleep Out, CROP Walk, church choir, the Community Garden operating year after year come to mind. As does becoming a mentor for at risk youth; opening your home to a family or single mother in need. PCCCers display level three-like service to God’s Kingdom in many different ways already. But if you’re aching to go deeper, yet are having trouble deciding where your efforts would be used best, please call; we’ll grab coffee! I like few things better then helping folk enrich their faith/life through service.

As you can tell, I found this model useful for thinking about service, especially since our vision is “To become a beacon of openness and service in the NW suburbs.” The SL Team did too, although we noticed that it’s not as simple as moving up the pyramid like you would climb a ladder. Sometimes, it’s helpful to ‘take a step back,’ unload some responsibilities so you can rest or be more effective in other pursuits. Other times, it’s imperative to stretch yourself, launch into unknown waters, trust God will carry you through. Further, you can have a deep, abiding commitment to one ministry at church or in the community, while still participating in the CROP Walk or attending monthly service nights. We can be on several levels at once; the key is cultivating a desire to serve!

So if you’ve never done much service, we’ve organized opportunities to get your feet wet. If you’re wanting more, but are unsure of your time or energy level, we’ve got that covered too through ongoing, lower-risk projects. And if you’re searching for a ‘calling,’ or particular venue to make a lasting difference, PCCC will help you discern that path with God’s help. Mostly, though, I hope you know how grateful I remain for all the acts and lives of service you lead already! May we use that service and compassion together to reach out to many others, and shine a brighter, bolder light of love.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Letter from our Pastoral Intern

I love dirt. Wait. I mean, outdoors. Yeah. Being outside. Sifting dirt through my hands. Not gardening, just thinking. I like to feel connected to the earth, to the air, to the creatures I find in the dirt… but I love water. I need water. Water… for the dirt… hmmmm.

I grew up on a farm in the heart of the Red River Valley. My father was a grain farmer, later farming soybeans and sunflowers, but mostly wheat and barley. We had alfalfa fields we cut for hay to feed our horses. We raised Arabians. Fall season’s trail rides in the sand hills of North Dakota remain some of my most treasured memories.

I grew up in the Lutheran church—American Lutheran, now ELCA, in my small eastern ND town 20 miles west of Fargo. My maternal grandmother helped found that church. I was born with music and born into the church. The Sunday school director had a vision for the formation of future church musicians. As a 4th grader, I began playing hymns for the adult Sunday school opening. We would sing the same 2 or 3 hymns for at least a month until I was ready to move on to a new one. “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” was one of my first favorites. Key of F with just one flat and a simple chord progression.

I was in 10th grade on the very first Earth Day, and the military draft was very much on the minds of many, calling older schoolmates to war in Vietnam. We formed an inter-faith youth coalition to “rap” about war, zero-population, world hunger and peaceful resistance.

After college, Jim and I taught public school music for a year before going to a missionary training school in Bloomington, MN. We were with a missionary group for 13 years, and during that time spent a year in Ivory Coast, West Africa, then 6 years in France, with time in Bible school and home mission. We lived communally under a theological structure that was fundamental and patriarchal. I learned to distrust my own relationship with God and worked diligently to suppress what was surely a rebellious and unsanctified heart. Along the way I lost my passion for people, my creativity and my self.

In the mission field, I asked too many questions and challenged too many people and precepts of authority. We came home. I fell apart. We began to live life in Minnesota and raise our children in a smaller place, but had become sensitive to a larger world. I began to work on shredding, then piecing my faith back together. My adventure changed from traveling the world in order to “win souls” (as if I were one who ever could) to living life in a way that I respected, even loved how I was wired.

For the next 15 years I was part of a study group that helped me rediscover my self. One book we studied was Parker Palmer’s “Let Your Life Speak—Listening to the Voice of Vocation” where the reader is challenged to find that first deep joy. My memory, pre-verbal, was of sifting warm earth through my hands, watching the wind create waves in the green-blue wheat fields on the prairie. I felt an awareness and relationship with God in and beyond the nature that surrounded me. By expressing that I love dirt, water and air I open a pathway to layers of meaning above, below and beyond that first thought.

The beauty I experienced was of the power and provision of Love. Music fed my soul, and ritual linked me with my family of origin and of faith. I am a teacher. I am “wired” to create space for people to discover their authentic self and to allow themselves to be loved by God and grow in relationships—human and Divine. Music and theology—art and theology—have always been my inner dialogue partners.

I thought I myself had exhausted the possibility of acting on the dream to explore music and art from a deeper theological perspective, and that it would have to be enough to create that space for my children. But my dear friends challenged me to envision it for myself: First with gentle nudging, finally bluntly telling me outright to stop whining, at least apply to seminary and then see what would happen.

Here I am. Three years have passed. I am astonished to be midway into my MDIV and that it is already time to do internship. We will explore ways of imagining and expressing God’s great love for each of us and for the world. Thank you for opening your doors to me as I open my heart to who I am, to who you are and who we are together.

Lynda Lee

Pastoral Intern, Plymouth Creek Christian Church
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Thursday, September 8, 2011


For professional football fans, August is typically a strange time. On the one hand, we’re bored. We’ve endured months of Sundays free of our beloved competition. We’ve memorized countless articles analyzing the prospects of our favorite teams. But by August, everything worthwhile has been said. Thrice. Thus, without actual games, we’re parched for novelty.

On the other hand, a whiff of newness arrives: training camp and preseason games. And to some, that’s very exciting. But to me and many, it’s a mirage in a desert, a stick-with-no-food at the State Fair. The games aren’t meaningful competition, just another excuse to rehash stale story lines. Aka, boredom with manufactured excitement. As I said, August is a strange time for NFL followers.

This August, however, was different. Many of us fans spent summer months arguing and analyzing, as football fans do, though it was about the NFL lockout, not the actual sport. But- glory be- that ended; the NFL opened for business. So this August, football fans had mere weeks to dream, despair and fantasize as fervently about the coming season as it usually takes us six months to accomplish. Boredom was not our challenge. Stamina for the month-long sprint was. And while that made August strange in a new way, it was refreshing.

I’ve often thought church folk have August lulls like football fans. It’s been months since our last great holiday; months until our next. Sunday School and choir took a hiatus way back in June. Friends, even the pastor, miss multiple Sundays- different ones than those we miss- so the typical ‘normal’ feels slightly askew. Some churchgoers even admit (rarely to the pastor!) that summer can feel a bit…boring. Although this August, with Baptisms, house moves, dedications and garden harvests, wasn’t as typical as many I’ve experienced.

Nevertheless, for gridiron and God fans…September has arrived! NFL competition begins in earnest September 8. Many churches plan “Rally Days” for when Sunday School activities get moving the following Sunday. The choir might even wear robes, once they reform (probably not, but their singing will be appreciated!). And it’s like the cycle has renewed, normalcy returns, plans become activities become memories and results.

And the question becomes- How has the summer prepared us? In football, the answer’s obvious. Either you strain a muscle or you don’t. Your team achieves more victories or they disappoint. Pretty quickly, the discerning fan learns whether her team’s offseason time was productive time. Whether all those dreams and arguments she’s been producing were intelligent or…wishful.

The analogy isn’t so clear for churches, though. How do you prepare spiritually for the return of the ‘Program Year’ (as some call it) or for, well, anything?! Prior to training camp, athletes lift more weights, memorize new playbooks, have corrective surgeries and the like. Christians, I guess, can read the Bible, pray at bedtime, practice compassion when neighbors in need come calling. But those are things we do whether Sunday School is meeting or not. Yes, the ‘neighbor’ in question might be at your summer cabin or on a family trip. The actions, though, don’t change; we don’t get a break from love.

But maybe there are points of relevant comparison. Taking time to rest and relax always does a body and spirit good. Also, Fall and Spring are times when churches most typically see visitors ‘checking them out.’ How we respond to these guests- with invigorated welcome or halfhearted yawns- might say something about how we’ve used the summer. SS teachers and choir directors obviously plan lessons and performances. But anyone can come to the Table with a fresh perspective or fun idea, a challenging project or prophetic thought. When folk were out doing the summer thing, maybe those weren’t as ripe for sharing. Now, though, a new season having begun, perhaps it’s time to call me up and add something to our church life together.

Whatever the case, I look forward to this new season- football, but especially church! And I hope you’re getting ready too. Plymouth Creek Sundays won’t feature the bone-crushing entertainment of our gridiron heroes, but I pray it’ll prove more exciting and …healthy over the long-term.

Grace and Peace,

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Early childhood…

Do you remember the first book you had read to you? My answer: “I haven’t the slightest clue!” The earliest book I can remember, though, remains a favorite: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

We didn’t own it at my house, mind you. I only encountered this Dr. Seuss classic each winter when Mom and Dad would drive sisters and me to grandma’s house near Chicago. There, Grandma Ray would read us The Grinch, seemingly every time we asked (i.e. every day ending in –y). In part, that was the classic “see how late we can stay up by having grandma read multiple bedtime stories” strategy. But mostly, we loved the book, and especially the sound of Grandma’s voice as she inflected and soothed, entertained and taught. Suffice to say, my grandkids will encounter The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and I hope they love it as much as I!

It turns out that my early childhood experience was lucky. From early on, I recall understanding how books worked, how to turn the pages, etc. Not just Grandma, but my parents and others had taught me- before I could make conscious memories- that reading and stories were worthwhile pursuits. My wife would tell you that maybe they did the job too well, that I spend too much time reading now! But as a researcher of early childhood education, she’ll also tell you that giving young kids the gift of reading is as good a gift as any.

Did you know that some children enter kindergarten having no idea what a book is, or how to use one? Coming from my home, that would’ve been impossible. But why would you, at age 5, if your parent(s) didn’t value reading, or were always working, or were illiterate, or couldn’t afford books…?

Did you further know that the most significant predictor of a child’s future success (after the predictable big two- Race and Family Income) is the number of books present in a child’s home? When Tabitha told me that, it blew my mind. Of all the educational investments we make, whether a family has a book, bookshelf or library of books for children ages 1-5 matters the most. Of course, it’s not just the books. It’s what they represent- respect for education, capacity to buy books, stability in housing. Still, reading to kids has an outsized impact on their future, well before they can read themselves.

One role I play on behalf of Plymouth Creek is to serve on the Advisory Council for IOCP’s Caring for Kids Initiative. CfKI provides some low-income families that IOCP serves with affordable, quality early childhood education (and children’s books!). It’s a great program, since one important antidote for factors that weigh on a child’s potential is to give the kid great childcare. Multiple studies show how munchkins from low-income families who receive good pre-K education perform much better than their peer groups. Further, they save society anywhere from $8-15 in future costs (reduced income taxes, prison, welfare) for every $1 invested.

But great childcare is expensive! Hence, CfKI, which in a few short years has built capacity for 80 local kids to receive great childcare (the need’s about 400, so we’re getting there…). And a recent study of CfKI’s work more or less ‘proved’ its effectiveness. Pretty cool table for PCCC to sit at, amen?!

Anyway, I mention all this because CfKI has a fundraiser on Saturday, September 17 at the Hilde Center in Plymouth. Called Family Fun Night, and it should be, well, a blast. A ‘walk’ begins the event, followed by a showing of Toy Story 3. Plus Games, Music, Face Painting; a child’s perfect night out. So if you or neighborhood families want an enjoyable evening, that also supports an incredibly effective initiative for poor families in our community, stop by. More info’s available at, or on the bulletin board at church.

And please join me in prayer for all the children in our midst. May they have love and guidance at home and elsewhere, as well as folk all around working to make their future better.

Even if that’s a simple as reading a book.

Grace and Peace,
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Faith matters…

I use a Dell computer when writing these letters, sermons, emails, everything. It’s what I know; it works for me. Friends of mine, however, use Apple computers, and to their minds, I’m a club-wielding, Stone Age Hunter/Gatherer for not having joined them in the iWorld of Apple. With an evangelical furor that would impress Billy Graham, these adherents to the cult of Steve Jobs (God bless him in retirement) wait breathlessly whenever a new Apple product. The iPod- Revolutionary- they swooned! The iPad- Transformational! The iPhone- Iconic, a natural evolutionary extension of the human hand! And here I waste my time on PCs, alas.

A while back, however, I joined my friends in their iObsession, purchasing an iPhone to replace my previous cellular companion. And with some grudging admittance I must say that, yes, the gizmo is quite handy. Not an epoch defining leap forward, but certainly a useful tool. It plays audio books and music; it downloads email and news; its GPS function has frequently saved me from having to stop and ask directions. Maybe you recall the once-ubiquitous iPhone advertising campaign- a person says, “I want to (insert random desire here- like ‘find good local restaurants,’ or ‘play addictive, avian-inspired games’).” And the announcer says, with breezy self-confidence, “Yep. There’s an app for that.” App, of course, being the hip contraction of the word Application.

Indeed, if you’ve ever seen the vast treasure store of possible downloads for the phone, there is- usually- an app for whatever that is. This one tool can perform many a useful feat, most of which have nothing to do with telephone calls.

Well, it seems to me that, if we switch topics from gadgets to faith, modern Christians of our ilk struggle with the exact opposite issue. Ask, “Why does faith matter in your life? What are its…applications?” And you’ll get all sorts of answers. But many are halting and hesitant, or simplistic generalities. Which isn’t to say we don’t believe that faith matters. It’s just we’re cautious about making too broad a set of claims (having cringed at the hubris of less-hesitant members of Christ’s church), or feel uncertain in the ever-changing world of modernity. Our instincts, our spirits tell us that faith matters greatly, and maybe during certain life events that became blessedly obvious. In everyday conversation or living, however, many wonder, “Is there an app for faith…”

This fall, we’ll tackle this topic head on. The sermon series I’ll preach is “There’s an App for That: 10 Ways Faith Matters.” I’ve chosen a set of ten great Biblical stories, most familiar, a couple less so, each of which, I believe, highlight a particular issue or idea that puts faith into practice, that teach us why faith matters today- to us, and to God’s good Creation. Without giving away all the secrets, these applications of faith include, “The App of Serenity,” “The App of Global Community,” “The App of Impossibility.” All together, I think, we’ll see a parade of beliefs and activities that present updated reasons for living faithfully as Jesus’ Disciples. At the very least, I hope it inspires you to articulate your own thoughts about why faith matters to you.

Also, this month we’ll welcome a new addition to our ministry team. United Theological Seminary is sending us an intern- Lynda Lee- who’ll serve with us September 11 through mid-May. Lynda is currently a member of Spirit of Joy Christian Church, proud wife, mother and grandmother, accounting professional, creative devotee of exploring the arts in worship, and a thoughtful, faithful woman pursuing ordination. Many of you remember past interns, having told me good stories about their time at PCCC. As such, I believe we have much to offer Lynda in her ministerial formation. And I know we’ll receive much from her work and worship in our midst. Please make a point of being present that Sunday to welcome Lynda; tell her why this church matters to you, the difference it’s made in people’s lives already, and especially how you hope it will grow in its impact and mission. For, indeed, faith matters! There’s many an app for God’s love.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, August 25, 2011

An inside dog…

One reason Tab and I recently moved was to find a fenced-in yard for Fawkes the Dog. As working puppy parents, we leave Fawkes kenneled for long stretches quite often. And if you’ve met her, you know she’s not a terribly low-key canine. When allowed, Fawkes will run and play and jump all over you until she’s exhausted. So if we don’t walk or take her to the dog park, come human bedtime she’s still rearing to go, forcing the Sand Man to wait impatiently. But if she had a backyard to run around in- we schemed- it’d be great for her, for us and courteous to said Sand Man.

Fast-forward to Fawkes’ first encounter with this new backyard. She, OMG, loved it!!! So much to sniff, so far to run; doggie heaven it appeared to her. To us, it appeared, mission accomplished. The next day, however, she ran a little less. The next day, less still. Ditto the next, until she didn’t want to be left outside anymore. She preferred to be near us indoors, as she’d been accustomed. An inside dog she’s been so far. Does that mean an inside dog she’ll remain?

Mind you, from the moment she encountered the new backyard, life’s been chaotic. We’ve shuttled back and forth from the old to new place; spent nights packing, painting, cleaning, unpacking; our patterns ended, all was strange and different. And it’ll be awhile before things return to a new normal. So I assume Fawkes has responded to these upset rhythms by going with what she knows. She’s decided that sleeping inside, staring out windows is much safer, much less anxious than venturing outdoors. After all, Mom and Dad have barely been around to ease her into the new backyard. And until then, well, do what’s familiar.

How do you teach an inside dog to make a home outside? I’m sure dog trainers have opinions on that subject. If you apply that question metaphorically to churches, I know church gurus have ideas galore! And sometimes, their strategies work.

I had soda this week with an outreach pastor at a nearby evangelical church. Good guy, strong faith, abiding commitment to Christian Unity. One thing we talked about was how different churches have different gifts. Our Catholic and Orthodox siblings, whatever their drawbacks, understand spectacle, mystery and splendor unlike any other. Mainline churches like ours, however stolid we can be, have long proved adept at putting faith into action for the betterment of society. Evangelicals, for their part, while often rigid and uncritically closed in their understandings of God, nevertheless have been outside much more than we, bringing people in, and have gotten very good at it. Their passion for helping people learn to know and receive God’s grace is a gift we’d do well to learn from.

Something my evangelical colleague mentioned that inspired me was his recent work at a trailer park in Corcoran. It’s an economically depressed place, apparently. Residents are viewed by broader society as outcast failures, if people take the time to view them at all. A place of real need, it seems, i.e. a place Jesus would care about a lot. So this guy decided, years ago, to get involved, even if at first he was hesitant to step out. First, he organized a VBS. That established relationships, which kept growing. Now, they’re bringing folk to church and are even dreaming about building a community center for the park’s residents. Might even move in himself. He described those efforts as a blending of gifts- combining the old mainline concern for social justice and blessing the poor with the evangelical fervor for building relationships and witnessing to folk about Jesus. As that happened, I reflected, he wasn’t an inside dog anymore. He’s waaay outside- his church’s walls, the safe confines of his wealthy, respectable Christian community, outside his comfort zone- but as he said, “I’ve learned so much about just how BIG God truly is. And it’s awesome!” Amen.

The Big Dog, who lives inside our hearts also, is nevertheless outside all boundaries and limits we erect. Barking at us to come join Her/Him, tail wagging mightily.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, August 18, 2011


At summer camp last week, I had a conversation with a group of high schoolers that I thought as rich and deep as any I’ve had recently. You’ll appreciate the simplicity and struggle their questions relate, and presumably, find them familiar.

It began with me asking what they thought about Communion and Jesus’ invitation to all at the Table. They wondered, “Just who does deserve to come to the Table? Have I earned a place? Do I deserve that honor?” The conversation then turned more general, and I asked if they’d ever received a gift for no reason. That really got them going. “I was taught you’re supposed to earn what you get,” they said. “So I feel bad when someone just gives me something. I always try to make up for it, to give them something in return. Otherwise, I feel guilty.” And then, they turned that experience on God, guessing that, “If I feel this strongly about my own moral behavior, God must too. God wouldn’t throw fairness out the window when it comes to judging our actions and choices, right?” Is God all about fairness, about making sure we get what we deserve?

Sounds familiar, amen?! Not only did such questioning spark the Protestant Revolution, but they reside still in the hearts of many Christians, committed as we are to being as good as possible. It’s not always easy to be decent to others, to treat people “as we want done unto us”, especially when we’re not getting the same kindness in return. So, we may figure, the reward for it all is that at least God smiles upon us, counts us more worthy, invites us to deeper communion when we do things right.

Then I asked the students, “So does what you’re saying mean that God loves you more than God loves those who don’t act as ‘good’ as you?” Suddenly, their commitment to fairness hesitated. “Uhh, I mean, God loves everybody…God just wants us to be good.” Sure, I countered, but if you are good, do you increase in God’s sight, deserve extra helpings of divine love. “I don’t think so…God loves everybody…I think…” A tough conundrum we faced.

So I asked, “Have you ever given a gift for no reason?” And that fired them up too, although this time they weren’t so concerned about whether it was ‘fair’ or not, or if they received anything in return. In fact, the gifts they described giving felt even cooler because they were received graciously, with no expectation to ‘return the favor,’ simply a recognition this gift came from the heart. The students said, “I gave the gift simply because I loved my (friend/parent/sibling/etc.), whatever their faults. And I wanted them to know that, to feel better just because.” I found that experience also quite familiar.

And I suspect you do too. In which case, I’ll ask you the same question I asked them, “Is it possible, or even likely, that’s how God feels about us?” Put differently, why would we transfer the human experience of guilt and fairness onto God’s feelings toward humanity, rather than our joy and pleasure at giving gifts unfairly to those we love?

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, I believe the second of those options- that God thinks grace, forgiveness and overwhelming love are more important than ‘fairness’- is more likely to be correct. 1 John claims, “God is love,” and so everything else we understand about God derives from what we understand about love. Do those we love always deserve the love we shower upon them? No, but that doesn’t matter. Can we be supremely angry at someone we love without ceasing to love that person? Yes, although surely none of us would prefer that! When those we love already shower love upon us, is our response to that motivated by ‘being fair’ or simply by the love that flows between us? I suspect it’s mostly the latter.

In which case, maybe fairness isn’t so important after all. Maybe Christian life is founded on something more-than-fair, what the reformer’s called Grace, but I prefer, simply, Love. May that infiltrate your lives anew this week.

Grace and Peace,
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