Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mundane meaning…

First of all, I wanted to say thank you to the congregation for helping with my unique situation last Sunday. If you were elsewhere, here’s what happened. I’d planned- months ago- to have a guest preacher the Sunday following Christmas. Tabitha and I were going to her family’s farm in Mississippi, as we’ve done for years. Lo and behold, come early November, we became foster parents, and foster parents need court orders to take kids out-of-state. Wasn’t going to happen that soon! Sorry Deb and Johnny; we’ll make it another time!

Still, I didn’t cancel our guest minister (former PCCC intern and talented future minister, Hayden Kvamme). I simply told him, “Look, you focus on preaching. I’ll take the rest of the service.” It made my workweek lighter, and was a lovely, workable plan. Then, Tabitha’s grandmother died. The funeral was last Saturday, in Illinois. So for the first time in my life, I was solely responsible for a child from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. I was really scared!

I mean, could I handle all the playing, feeding, bathing, book reading…alone?! And at church, he’s spent the past month with Tabitha, out of the sanctuary, playing around, and is still getting used to new people in a new environment- with expectations he’s not sure about- and he doesn’t understand, though certainly notices, the not-so-subtle, sometimes annoyed glances and signals they’re trying send, because they’re still getting used to him (and to multiple kids at church again), and he’s a delight, but a handful, and didn’t I already say I was, if not preaching, nevertheless working? And…Ahhhh!

That was my anxious internal monologue last week. Again, Thank you; we survived!! Folk were understanding and quick to offer help, though all he did was watch toy videos with headphones on. Whatever works, amen?! Indeed, the entire weekend felt that way- whatever works, just make it through, check the big boxes of sleep, reading, food, but otherwise, let him basically set the agenda.

Which means I spent much of last weekend crawling on the ground, zooming toy cars back-and-forth. We took Fawkes the Dog for a walk, and that became a two-person/one-canine game of tag on a muddy baseball field. “Downtime” found us watching multiple three-minute YouTube videos, each showing someone playing with a different matchbox car track or toy rescue ship. Minute after minute, hour after hour, our time ticked by in such fashion.

And it was beautiful. It was also incredibly mundane, but surprisingly more profound for being so. After all, we didn’t really accomplish anything. The wooden workbench he got for Christmas still sits in its box, unassembled. We did some coloring, read books, but didn’t make progress on his subtraction skills. We played. We made things up, and swapped funny faces, and pretended to race with cheetahs. When it finished, and he was in bed, my imagination- and back- muscles were sore! Yet I still like I’d accomplished something amazing. He was happy. He knew he was cared for. He was learning he could be himself, and that’s enough to make his life a blast! If not for that endless succession of mundane moments together, I’m not sure the weekend would’ve been so meaningful.

Don’t we often describe God as our Divine Parent, who’s always with us? I usually remember that conviction when I’m stressed, needing help, praying, “God, bring me peace!” But what if I invited God into my mundane moments? Or just noticed God is there too? I typically associate deep spirituality with bible study or meditation, not playtime or potato peeling, but maybe should change. I mean, if my weekend of solo foster dadding was so jampacked with ordinary, incredible meaningfulness, then maybe our Divine Parent- so anxious for a closer relationship with us- would relish my normalness just as much, if not more. Even be glad to let me set the agenda, as long as we ticked off those big boxes of kindness, compassion and grace. Next time I’m watching the Broncos, then, perhaps I’ll pray, “Hey God, did you see that?!” I know S/He’s a fan, maybe not of Denver football, but certainly of you and me.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Celebrating Ministry,

About four years ago, Plymouth Creek began an incredible ministry, especially once you consider our church’s small size. We committed to- every Sunday- providing a bus driver to PCCC members and guests with difficulty driving to worship. The large congregation I served in Lexington, Kentucky also ran a bus ministry. They stopped by three elder living facilities around town weekly, then dropped folk off after service. I had that model in mind when we started our own journey, with one significant shift: Our pool of potential drivers was about one-tenth the size!

But we made it work, and spectacularly. Let me remind you how we were able to create this service, and why. Around ten years back, one of our sister congregations, in Fridley, ended their active ministry; to use language from one our founding documents, they “dissolved into the greater Body of Christ.” From everything I’ve heard and seen, this church- Valley View Christian- was a beautiful, close-knit group of faithful Disciples. Unfortunately, the march of time and shifting societal values (not to mention a retaining wall built for I-694 that shrouded Valley View from public view) conspired with other things to challenge their ability to sustain a budget. Ask Ruth for the full story!

So they closed their doors, sold their building, gave some money to SACA- the local foodshelf- and the remaining proceeds were invested, with earned interest designated to help Disciples churches seed new ministries. It was a beautiful, generous vision. But before others could access those funds, Valley View members needed, still, to get to church!

Well, several joined Plymouth Creek, so we initially received that interest to hire a weekly bus service to transport these folk, their guests, and others. The Valley View fund, then, was paused from helping others as originally envisioned. Unless…say…the Valley View fund gave PCCC money to buy and operate a bus ourselves…and if several PCCCers committed to helping, by driving, their neighbors. So we asked around and what do you know?! A group of volunteer drivers said Yes!

We applied for the funds. We got them. We bought a bus. And now, we bring these dear friends to worship weekly, while they bring their friends and neighbors (some whom have joined our church). Plus, throughout Minnesota and Iowa, churches annually apply to the Valley View fund for help create new ministries, including youth work, food pantries and enhanced elder care. A teenager dying from cancer attended a football game for her beloved Iowa State, because of that money. Which is to say, because you- Plymouth Creek- said, “Yes, I’ll serve by driving!” Our church, and many other lives, are simply better.

I write about this for several reasons. For some of you, we’ve had a bus that some drive weekly for as long as you’ve been here, and didn’t know why. Some of you maybe forgot that story, or never knew its full impact, and perhaps took for granted what great ministry it does and is! But I also wanted to share that our initial cadre of bus drivers has diminished, for several reasons- health, say, or moving- all of them important and fine. But that means those who remain have gone from driving once every two months to once every month, and while they’re wonderful, giving souls, I worry that will provide them too much of a burden.

So I’m hoping a couple of you- men and women (there’s no rule that only dudes can drive!)- will reflect on this ministry’s value, and celebrate its success by saying Yes! to being a driver yourself? If so, call me, and not only will I celebrate with you, I’ll also give you one of the special, coveted Plymouth Creek bus driver caps…

And thanks for considering, dear friends. Consider it a potential Christmas/New Year’s gift you can give, not just to your church, but many others besides. As our Regional Minister loves to say, we are Disciples Together, and that’s awesome, because by working together, worshipping together, being together we make God’s world better.

Grace and Peace,
Shane Isner

P.S.- FYI, anyone’s welcome to ride along to see this ministry in action, or if you’re wondering about utilizing it sometime, which you’re welcome to…just let me know!

P.P.S- Get ready for the 2015 Cinema Sermon Series, starting January 10/11 with…Superman!!
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Loyal priorities…

My fraternity used to hold our annual initiation ceremony in a nearby cave. The setting proved moving to each initiate. We’d begin before sunrise, so newbies walked into the ritual cloaked in darkness. The cave was a tourist site, so it had lighting along the walkways and walls, which we used to dramatic effect. The facility’s caretaker had been a fraternity brother during college, hence our use of that cave. And we loved it! It’s added gravitas and perspective, plus a big helping of cheesy melodrama, but hey, it was college…

After my junior year, however, we stopped using that cave after its owners informed us we were no longer welcome. The reason was simple. During our ceremony that year, one brother arrived intoxicated and caused problems. While everyone else got organized, he stumbled around sections we’d been told were off-limits. He broke a precious stalagmite. He defecated on the floor. The caretaker who’d vouched for us was justifiably furious. We were embarrassed. What happened next, however, has remained with me as an incredible lesson in ethics. My fraternity had a decision to make: What should we do about this brother- and friend- who’d cost us so dearly?

Some immediately demanded he be expelled from the fraternity. It was a serious moral failure, they said, not to mention misconduct covered by our by-laws. Others, however, believed we had a deeper commitment- loyalty to our brother- and that priority trumped all. “Make him pay a fine,” they said. “Or do community service. He’s apologized, after all. Isn’t that enough? Plus, he’s our brother. We can’t be disloyal.”

This popped to mind recently for several reasons. First, the US Senate produced a report detailing America’s use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11. Some were horrified and outraged by that behavior. Others said we shouldn’t disparage CIA patriots just trying to keep us safe. That would be disloyal, they claimed, and in the face of continued threats by brutal lunatics like the (so-called) Islamic State, we must remain staunchly, unmovably loyal. Whatever moral failure this torture represented- this thinking goes- is secondary to loyalty.

In roughly similar fashion, the (to my mind) more repulsive behavior of those in the (so-called) Islamic State- sex slavery, beheadings- is often done in Islam’s name, an ethically demanding religion that historically condemns such acts. Nevertheless, IS fighters do it, explicitly targeting folk they consider threatening, yet described as apostate or heathen, aka “not in my tribe.” Thus, they’re being loyal to “their own” by terrorizing others “not like them.” And so they justify practices that, in other contexts, even they would deem morally abhorrent.

The point is that in those, and other diverse situations, a tension develops between loyalty and other virtues, with loyalty competing among goodness, respect or compassion for top billing. Use that idea to reflect on the behavior of some police and protestors in recent stories about Ferguson, Staten Island or other killings of unarmed black men, and it helps explain many strident responses. Loyalty is powerful, and for some it’s the highest- or only- moral priority. Always.

My fraternity, ultimately, decided to forgive our brother, and expel him permanently. I lived with him off-campus my senior year, but never advocated his return. He was wrong, after all, in both his cave behavior and his argument that loyalty should be our chief concern. There’s another standard of goodness beyond that, we believed, and I still affirm, however difficult sometimes to discern, or hold ourselves accountable to. It’s even what makes forgiveness possible. Without a higher moral priority, only those most power win, along with whomever they deem most loyal.

What does that mean regarding recent news? Well, you’ll surely decide for yourself! But as you do, consider asking yourself the following: Would I hold myself- or my child’s attacker/torturer- to the same standard I’m holding others to now? Or am I simply being loyal to people who look like me, vote like me, or post on facebook like me? If the latter- and that’s a temptation Everyone faces!- remember there’s a beautiful place in God’s Kingdom for loyalty, but it’s not first place.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Saying grace…

Here’s the prayer my family says every meal now that a foster child joined us last month. You may recognize this deceptively profound supplication; it’s rather famous. It goes, “God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food. Amen.” Note, that when saying the Ah in amen, it’s traditionally held for several beats: Ahhhhhh-men.

You can guess why we pulled this out for a five-year-old. The short sentences form a rhyming, easy-to-remember couplet. And sure enough, by week three’s end, he had it down pat. Thus, now he’s dogmatic about him leading the prayer, leaving us to catch up. But initially, while Tab and I introduced it, we spoke slowly, precisely, in a tone and rhythm that resembled melody so the rhyme would stick in his mind. The strategy worked. Wahoo!

However, it led to me not really praying, simply saying the words. Know the feeling? Like during the Lord’s Prayer, have there been Sundays when you’re thinking about speaking in the right words in rhythm with everyone else, but not really about what they mean? That’s a perpetual temptation for me. So I created a counter-strategy several years ago: recite the words until one line jumps out as particularly relevant that week, and let it be my focus. When I do this, of course, it means I don’t think through the prayer’s full gambit of meaning. But that’s fine. I say it often enough, I’ll get to the rest eventually.

Anyway, that’s how praying this “God is great” prayer had become for me- recitation and not devotion. So now that he’s memorized it, I decided to invest more spiritual energy in truly praying to God. Which means recognizing that when I say those words, God’s actively listening, actually present; that when I “thank God for our food,” a spiritual “You’re welcome” may come. The feeling was great! Plus, I further discovered that, oftentimes, my pre-foster table prayers were suspect too. In a way peculiar to adults, I hadn’t thought much about how God was hearing my prayer, but more about what clever words I could string together. Ugh. That’s also compromised praying, not fully effective. The eloquence of prayer should be in our hearts, not in our tongues, amen?!

Besides, while beautiful, poetic prayers are wonderfully useful in many situations, the mammoth proclamation of what we’re saying with the foster kid has bowled me over the deeper I’ve listened. I mean, consider the heavy freight those apparently “simple” words actually carry? They present the #1 conundrum monotheists have ever faced, in just two sentences- “God is great,” and “God is good.” WHOA! Ponder that pairing, and try to make it simple. You can’t.

“God is great” is a claim about the power, prestige and primacy of God. It’s akin to the label “Creator,” that one who made the heavens and earth, hurricanes and tornadoes, who, in Job’s words, controls the Leviathan. That same one, we then suggest, is “good,” meaning worthy of praise, love, and devotion. And so doesn’t mistreat God’s creations, doesn’t use them as playthings. Honestly, that’s a hard-to-justify supposition at times, like when facing cancer, or making sense of a tornado destroying your neighborhood, or when mental illness enslaves a loved one. The goodness and greatness of God seem to contradict.

Which is another reason I’m glad that’s become our table prayer with the five-year-old. Not only are we, together, cultivating a practice of routine devotion, but we’re ensuring it’s more than fluff. It’s substance. I want any child I’m blessed to influence to learn that faith well-lived is faith deeply considered, that our posture before God shouldn’t be blandness, but toughness, doubt, and striving. That will help the child- it helps me!- craft a truly strong spirituality, the kind that’s reliable in hard times, not simply a comfort when life is already easy.

Not that he understands this now! But one of you recently told me something right: kids learn from what we do, more than from what we say. So if I want to be effective, I must pray these words, and not just say them. Lesson learned, and learning.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Little wisdom…

I saw a parody headline several years back that’s come to mind in recent weeks. Written above a picture of a young adult preacher on some fake news website, the headline read: Pastor Looks Forward to the Birth of His Second Sermon Illustration. Nice. Now that I’m a foster father, I plan to get in on that gig. But rather than clutter our pulpit with cuteness, I’ll expound here on some little wisdom the kid recently delivered.

We were driving near downtown, talking about everything God made. He mentioned the trees, and I said, “Yep, God made those.” He brought up birds, and I was like, “Them too.” He pointed out buildings, and declared, “God made everything.” I responded, “Well, we humans make buildings. We’re kind of like God in that way. God created the world. We create stuff too.” He pushed, “So God made you, me, every tree and bird, but not the buildings?” I decided to backtrack on my earlier claim, and replied, “Kind of. I mean, God started the process. Watched birds, animals and us evolve over millions and billions of years.” He was like, “Whoa! That’s a long time!” I said, “Yeah. Evolution was how God created, and that was very slow.” He observed, “God must’ve been being very careful. God didn’t want to make a mistake.” I answered, “Brilliant.”

And it was, amen?! I mean, I figured that wasn’t the appropriate time to mention natural selection and the extinction of Neanderthals. Evolutionary biologists certainly wouldn’t endorse an idea that we evolved in some linear, orderly way. That nuance aside, however, people of faith have long included in our idea of God the characteristic of Creator. However life came to be, we’ve claimed, God had a hand in the process, guided it somehow toward life.

Personally, I like to imagine God in constant partnership with life’s building blocks, nudging new combinations this way, then that way; allowing the chaos, brilliance and indeterminacy (a fancy word for Freedom) of ALL matter to work its magic. In other words, the notion that God had reality on puppet strings from second zero doesn’t fit for me. Rather, God’s always been improvising with our universe’s possibilities like Jazz musicians with the key of A major, discovering along the way what beauty emerges.

And what I find so insightful about the kid’s response to the length of that “jam session” (to use another Jazz term for what we boringly call Creation)- i.e. that God was being careful, not wanting to mess up- was his intuiting the purpose of it. I mean, we could imagine a god who created without concern for those things that were created. Perhaps making the world was a simple act of self-exertion, a cosmic showing off of, “Let’s see what I can do.” Indeed, many of the pre-Biblical Creation stories that the Bible drew upon and adapted thought of their gods in that way. Those gods had little care for humanity; we were play things, existed mainly to serve them. We were made for the gods’ sakes, not our own sakes, and those divinities couldn’t care less about us.

By contrast, the great religious genius of the Ancient Israelite storytellers was their understanding that within the created order was a plan for love, companionship and goodness. Others put it this way: There’s a moral reality to reality. We were created by and for Love. So the idea from modern science, that we evolved over eons and weren’t made whole in six days, adds an incredible dimension of depth to that religious insight. God took so long because life needed careful attending, patient development. We- life itself!- matter so much to God, God didn’t want to mess up.

Consider that the next time you hear the flawed claim that somehow religion and science are opposed. My five year-old foster child understood how the two can work in tandem, how religious folk needn’t be defensive when confronted with other methods of discovering truth. Indeed, if we were all as open to discovery and hope as children can be, the music we’d make together would sound much sweeter, the harmonies more true.

Grace and Peace,

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Waiting game…

Blessedly, the weather broke this past weekend from its below zero funk and snow from my roof melted completely. Along with it drained the ice that was clogging my gutters and downspouts, and forming a small, growing ice dam. Last winter, I became familiar with the joylessness of ice damming. They formed in both front and back of my house. Fixing the damage that caused once spring arrived cost us more money than I’d like to admit. This year, though, we found a solution in front; a heating element installed in the gutters I’d hadn’t before noticed and now leave plugged in. No such opportunity for battling ice exists on our rear-facing roof, alas. So as winter began recently, I waited.

And this waiting may be the worst kind; when you suspect something problematic might happen, but you don’t know for sure, though if the cold continues, and more snow falls, and ice keeps forming, that uncertainty ends. You will know. And I mean, KNOW, that it’s only a matter of time before the feared outcome happens - in this case damage to our first-floor ceiling plaster. A word exists for that type of waiting- dread. And praise the seasons’ spirits for extending above freezing temps for two recent days, thereby eliminating our ice dam, for now. My dread receded too.

Another form of waiting also entered my mind of late. Hopefully, it entered yours too. This waiting may be the best kind, on the opposite spectrum end from dread: Expectation. We’re entering Advent soon (or by the time you read this, we may’ve entered) and, of course, that’s the Christian season for waiting, for preparing to honor the annual remembrance of Christ’s Christmas birth. What an interesting decision our religious forebearers made, Amen? Devoting one whole month to waiting. Or perhaps I should be more specific; Advent is devoted to practicing waiting, of the best kind- Expectation.

Expectation is that waiting when you highly suspect the thing you desire will come. You don’t know for certain, obviously, since the future isn’t set yet, but barring unexpected calamity, the wait will end well. I expect a joyful end to our Advent waiting again this year. Christ will arrive. Joy will be born anew. And that expectation helps me fill my inner, emotional space with hope, rather than dread, as this active Advent waiting continues.

As I said, this was an interesting - and smart – decision by those who built Advent into the Christmas calendar. Because the truth about most waiting in our lives is it falls elsewhere on the waiting spectrum. Rarely are we overcome with dread, I hope. Ice dams looming shouldn’t produce the same emotional experience as, say, desiring to upgrade your phone. Nevertheless, many modern Christians aren’t well practiced at good waiting, at turning expectation into hope. Indeed, as technology has improved so rapidly in recent decades, I think we’ve gotten worse at waiting, worse at filling our emotional spaces constructively.

So Plymouth Creek intends to take that reality head on this Advent, and embrace the season of waiting like a friend. In worship- through choir and scripture, sermon and candle lighting- we’ll reflect on the insta-fication of modern life, lamenting its excesses, honoring its gifts. What do you encounter regularly, and except immediate satisfaction or resolution to? Bill paying disputes? Social inequities? Emotional turbulence when you don’t get your way? Some of that’s fine and good, but I worry we’ve all gotten too good at self-righteously, impatiently shouting, “But I don’t want to wait!”

The wisdom of Advent, by contrast, makes the audacious claim that we can deepen our lives by celebrating waiting. Or, at least, we can become better Christians by understanding its contours enough to distinguish between good and bad kinds of waiting, dreads and expectations, problems to abide or solve immediately. So join me in trying to play this waiting game well, in worship, in daily devotionals (if you want ideas, call and I’ll help out!). And please pray for my roof! Or maybe that its owner learns enough to head his dread off, so all will be well.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Way, Way Up…

My inner seven-year old boy came rushing out in gleeful giggles last week. It began when I heard that the European Space Agency was landing a probe on a comet. All my dormant astronaut dreams bubbled to the surface, and I marveled loudly, “Wow! A comet!” I’m sure Tabitha got annoyed with my constant, dramatic enthusiasm. I didn’t care. This was Too Cool.

Sadly, while the probe landed safely, it also bounced, settling under a small cliff face. Because it’s solar powered, the resulting shadow means it probably won’t be sending info for long. Nevertheless, that we encountered something so wildly Outer Space seems a wonderful achievement! Next thing you know, we’ll be mining those comets, or sending them Bruce Willis to take selfies.

Again, this is very exciting to me, in a youthful, mouth-gaping way. But I didn’t grow up to pilot space shuttles; I’m a pastor. So it’s my job to think about (cue cheesy music) what it all means… Fortunately, I received a prompt last Sunday, when one of our youngers said- “Shane, your next sermon should be about alien life and God. What do you think?” Awesome question! But since I’d already chosen my next (several) sermon topic(s), I only had this letter available to answer.

I think the comet mission provides a good framework for considering that theological quandary. Because at one level, what space agencies do, and what religion does are incredibly similar. Don’t get me wrong; there are obvious differences! For instance, one reason for launching the probe was determining if comet mining is economically viable. Call that “Exploring reality to see how easily we can exploit places we don’t live.” Religion has done some of that before, of course, with tragic results. But it’s not our core mission, nor what we do best.

Still, another aspect of this story should sound familiar. The probe was also sent to gather knowledge of unknown places. Call that “exploring reality to learn more about what we don’t know.” Another way of putting that is- We’re searching for truth. And isn’t that search also critical to worship, spiritual growth, faith? I think so. Jesus didn’t call himself The Truth so we’d become less curious. We’re described in Genesis 1 as “made in God’s image.” In other words, we’ve created to be co-Creators with God, participants in the exploration and truth-mining business.

And I bring that up because astronomers claim our planet is one among many millions. The universe is massive, and our solar system exhibits no discernibly unique quality. Therefore, the law of averages begs for the conclusion that our earth isn’t the only place life exists. Perhaps even conscious, intelligent life. Indeed, it would be most surprising, given the numbers, if we were alone among the stars. The question isn’t if we’ll encounter life elsewhere, then, but when and what kind.

To which the religiously less-imaginative might shout with horror, “That impossible! It’s not in the Bible!” But neither are solar systems or black holes, and both are real. Or maybe they’d say, “Jesus saved humanity!” Absolutely true, but why couldn’t God reveal Godself to, even redeem, alien civilizations? After all, God reached out already in multiple ways on our earth- Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity. And more important than all that is the mission we’ve always had as religious folk: searching for and celebrating truth. Why does that matter? Because every truth teaches us more about this God we worship and claim created all.

Thus, my answer to our younger one’s question- What do I think about alien life and God? A) I’d bet some kind of life exists beyond this planet, and b) we’ll encounter it eventually. And most important c) that won’t be a problem for religious folk, for it’ll be a tale as old as time. We’ll be discovering new truths about Creation, and by extension, the Creator, who we’ll still believe loves us and guides us with grace. As long as we don’t revert back to those exploitative ways, in fact, we might learn enough new things about life we’ll sustain ours longer on this fragile planet God gave us to cherish, and protect.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Foster Caring…

Tabitha and I welcomed a foster child into our home for the first time last Friday. He’s five, energetic, fun, and apparently, I’m older than I once was. My upper lip is scratched from an accidental elbow during an enjoyable game of “Let’s Flip onto the Couch!” My knuckle is scuffed, my wrist a bit prickly (though that one’s from our other post-toddler, Fawkes the Dog). Crawling around the basement floor didn’t use to light up my knee’s nerves. In short, I’m becoming my father, which- all things considered- would be a blessing. But it may mean I have hip surgery in my future. Ugh.

But so goes life, from generation to generation, right? Passing on the torch, creaky joints, and with them, (hopefully) some wisdom. It’s suddenly my turn to play a part in that drama, however small and temporary as a foster care dad. Thankfully, we’re not alone on the journey. We have community around to help solve problems, discover unknown options. Family and friends, neighbors and church, people like you- generous, compassionate, empathetic (if it sounds like I’m sucking up, well…a little pre-emptive goodwill never hurts).

Besides, one funky thing about church is we don’t always choose our “family.” When the Isners (Johnson’s, etc.) welcome another, in some way, you do too. Perhaps some heads up, then, about several things would help our mutual transition go smoothly. Before you ask, please know I can’t tell you the backstory of why he’s in our home. For starters, I don’t know it all. Besides, as I told a dear friend last week, “I’m not allowed to divulge. His story is his story; he gets control over when it’s told and to whom.” Such a standard is basic respect, I feel. Particularly when the topic involves something so vulnerable as what trauma disrupted a child’s family. Similarly, it’s probably helpful to know he calls us “Tabitha and Shane.” We’re not Mom and Dad, after all, just temporary guardians; opening up our family, but not replacing his. Indeed, our main goal is to love on this little rascal, keep him healthy and growing, until he can rejoin his family, if that’s possible. We’re not sure how long those determinations will take. 6 months?...8? That’s ultimately controlled by the parents, courts and social workers.

In the meantime, we’ll be playing together, dancing goofy, reading books, eating macaroni and cheeses, and learning about life- him and us! For example, already in the past few days I’ve discovered something you parents (or adult caregivers) likely figured out long ago. Namely, that caring for another can lead to the caregiver experiencing a perpetual state of catch up. I noticed this while taking a brief break after Tabitha got home from work. I opened my email, twitter feed, etc., and all had backlogged more than usual. And I knew there were dishes undone, laundry loads to attend, a dog walk I should’ve gotten to, a filling TV show watch-list (anyone else love Sleepy Hollow?!?), plus games to play and play with the youngster. I’ve been stressed about to-do lists before. This weekend felt different. Perhaps because another relied on my ability to get things done. Perhaps because my priorities were shifting real time; those ‘tasks’ that just last week were about personal enjoyment seemed less critical.

I didn’t even watch the Broncos game. Calm down. I listened some on the radio. Which leads to Obvious Observation about Parenting #1: Caring for another makes what you care about less important, but shouldn’t eliminate it entirely. I mean, if I don’t read every tweet I’m accustomed to, I’ll be fine. If, however, I never watch the Broncos play, I’m doing something wrong. That’s the wisdom embedded in Jesus’ commandment- Love your neighbor as yourself- i.e. be less selfish, life will improve, but don’t neglect yourself entirely. Or thus I’m thinking during week one of foster parenting. If that conclusion seems rushed, well, so does my life these days!

In anticipation, then, thanks for your patience. And for foster caring with Tabitha and I. You’ll enjoy the young man; we certainly do. If we do it together, we may even keep up!

Grace and Peace,
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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sweet Expectations…

I wasn’t expecting to find an Advent Calendar for sale at Starbucks recently. Honestly, I don’t anticipate seeing them peddled most anywhere these days. They strike me as artifacts from earlier eras, when Church had more sway over American pocketbooks. But society has changed. Religiously, we’ve grown more fragmented, diverse, and less invested. To discover, therefore, that cosmopolitan Starbucks chases profit from Advent Calendars seemed odd, though also lovely, in a quaint, nostalgic way.

My first Advent Calendars were gifts from faithful Grandma Ray. Sure like seasons, every November a package would arrive from Chicago with my name on it. I’d open the seal with delight. Inside was a card, perhaps five whole dollars, and my new Advent Calendar, typically a decorated sheet of cardboard with perforated windows. All were numbered. Each corresponded to one day in the season of waiting for Jesus’s birth. Occasionally, Grandma outdid herself, and the calendar wasn’t flat and boring, but a 3-D pop-up house, or castle. 

Yet the instructions were always to open one window per day – no peeking! – until Christmas arrived. I loved those calendars, and not only because their annual arrival re-communicated Grandma’s love.

The daily discovery enhanced our seasonal waiting, beyond simply distracting from dreams of Santa’s sled. You see, the windows, when opened (and we usually did it together as family), told part of the Christmas story or said something affirming about God, or life. Reading those messages, then, focused attention on stuff like meaning, not that I thought about “meaning” at age seven. Rather, I’d talk with Mom about love, or with Dad about joy, depending on what we found behind the window that day. This Advent Calendar ritual helped us wait for Christmas less greedily, more significantly.

The Starbucks calendar, as one might expect, wasn’t decorative cardboard destined for family kitchen tables. It was a wall hanging, twenty-five tins of various sizes glued on, each numbered…and taunting. Because behind every lid, the Advent devotee found a chocolate, or a candy. The advertisement explained, “Something sweet for each day,” promising to make your holiday waiting more bearable.

The Grinch in me wants to call that cheating. It’s like having your Christmas candy and eating it too early. It’s like replacing the season of waiting with twenty-five days of Christmas, gifts consumed before the pear tree’s partridge even arrives. Sure, a tiny toffee on December 15 isn’t a Christmas gift on par with the soft sweater I hope my wife surprises me with (Honey, you reading?). Nevertheless, replacing the meaningful words I experienced in childhood with tangible things changes an Advent Calendar’s function. It doesn’t prepare one for Christmas, or do something different than Christmas, really. It merely extends Christmas earlier.

But the Grinch in me isn’t the only part of my admittedly multiple-personality soul. In fact, as a pastor and Christian- and, more basically, a human- I should want more Christmas, more often, for more people. Not in the sense that I want everyone to be Christian. Interfaith diversity remains an American development I celebrate. Rather, it’s that infectious hope, that optimism, that abandonment of cynicism that arrives annually during the holidays that I’d love to discover more often in my neighbors’ attitude, in my own mind and heart.

Indeed, snide observers in recent years have disparaged “Christmas Creep,” as if it’s an obviously bad phenomenon. Holiday sales starting ever earlier. Cards arriving sooner. Festive sweaters worn longer (well, perhaps that’s a problem). And much of their criticism’s valid, given crass commercialization of religious observance and family tradition. But I’ve sometimes noticed too a sneaking encroachment of holiday cheer into our oft-depressed culture. What of when seasonal love crowds out the sadly hip detachment that threatens our collective well-being? A sweet-a-day from Starbucks during December won’t solve those dilemmas. But they may longer delay a return to dreary normal. And I’d like to think that’s a valuable contribution, one Grandma Ray would celebrate, were she still around to send me packages. Preferably, another cardboard castle would arrive. But I’d take sweets-holding tins. And since I don’t like chocolate, I’d share that joy with neighbors, like Christmas arrived already.

Maybe it would linger awhile.

Grace and Peace,
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“I want you to be less Christian…”

Good evening…

“I want you to be less Christian…” What a great goal, amen?! Dear Lord, how I pray for that in my own life, for our church, for believers worldwide.

But first, some context. Those words came from a video I saw of a pastor promoting his new book. It’s provocatively titled, PostChristian: What’s Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?, and promises “to piss you off.” So…I’m intrigued! By the way, his name is Christian Piatt; he’s a Disciples of Christ member, like us (wahoo!). And he uttered the above quote during an event he held at some local church, sometime during his ongoing national tour. As such events go, he read selections from his writing, engaged the audience’s questions and concerns, basically offered his thoughts on living faithfully in the 21st Century. A worthy topic, indeed.

And I tell you this because Plymouth Creek will host him- Wednesday, November 5th, 5:30-7:00PM. We’ll provide dinner, childcare if needed, and seek to deepen our collective faiths.

Please come! And bring inquisitive friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, whomever! After all, it’s not typical our small congregation has opportunity or resources for such an event. Nationally prominent bloggers/authors like Rev. Piatt usually command larger stages, and speaker fees. But last week, his production company sent notice that he’d be in our area soon. As a Disciples church, they thought we might appreciate his words, if we could arrange our mutual schedules. Turns out, we could, without disrupting choir practice! And because of a recent donation for outreach purposes, we had funds to offer a reasonable honorarium. Some would call that, “A God Moment.”

Anyway, that’s all boring details of what and how it worked out. Let me explain why I’m looking forward to the evening. Because, as he said, I want YOU to be less Christian, and I suspect you want the same.

Our sermon series this fall, in fact, has been about that issue. We’re exploring questions many folk wonder about, but often don’t express. Why does God allow suffering? Do only Christians get to Heaven? Why is Christianity so associated with violence/gay-bashing/demeaning women? Certainly, many non-churchgoers ruminate on those themes. Yet lots of churches consider it out-of-bounds to discuss them openly, to question together, to doubt. Anything besides complete acceptance of that “old time religion”, as expressed by your over-confident preacher, and you’re suddenly, “less Christian.”

You know, however, I’m of another opinion: that modern faithfulness requires questioning, actively exploring ideas that some deem “un-Orthodox”, but are reasons many uncommitted young (and older) adults avoid church nowadays. Like the blessings of interfaith cooperation, or so-called “non-traditional families.” We live in such fast-changing times that new possibilities, and challenges, arise constantly. Without an attentive, inquisitive faith, we’re at risk of society passing religion by. Of Jesus’ followers becoming unable to share a Gospel worthy of the name Good News anymore.

But as Rev. Piatt implies in the quote I opened with (but didn’t complete; sorry, I tricked you), that’s a dynamic Jesus confronted in his day. And helped his disciples answer! As Piatt said, “I want you to be less Christian…And more Christ-like.” Perhaps he refers to that instinct Jesus constantly nurtured to battle with his overly-“religious” Pharisee opponents, who worried more about rules and traditions, than helping the poor, forgiving trespassers, discovering new answers to real-life problems, loving all, even enemies. If so, like I said, great goal! Be less Christian, more like Christ! After all, Jesus didn’t found a religion. He showed us a way, a path to true life (John 14). And if this provocative author can help us engage that way further for our time, it’s worth 90 minutes on a Wednesday evening.

So, again, I hope you attend, and invite others to join you. We’ll take up an offering also to help IOCP, because why not give at the same time we get?! And whether you come or not, remember that your pastor want you to be less Christian. And more Christ-like. Because our world still needs Jesus, amen? Situations change. Love remains essential. Especially the unconquered kind, which Jesus offers, eternally, and showed us a way to share with all.

Grace and Peace,
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Meaningful words…

One of our congregation’s members is on the ballot this November. I hope you vote. Either for her or against her, or should you live outside Minnesota’s 3rd, for whichever congressional candidate best represents your political hopes. Because participating in our democracy matters. Lifting your voice is an act of faith. And this election has me thinking about how Christians use “our voice” to impact society, beyond simply voting.

For example, not long ago, I had conversation with friends about the word, “justice.” I had used it in a recent sermon. That sparked interesting feedback. So I talked it over with pastor pals, for their ideas. And it occurred to us how this term had taken on litmus proportions in many circles. Like among seminary trained ministers, whose schooling likely taught them (as it did me!) to pray enthusiastically for justice, preach about justice, conceive the very work of God’s Kingdom come as justice be done on earth. 

That notion has deep Biblical roots. Hebrew prophets used “justice” to critique their leaders for forgetting the poor and orphaned. Jesus began his ministry quoting the justice-loving Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” As such, many contemporary theologians and pastors describe the entire point of church as God’s people championing justice. They want all Christians using their “voices” for that project, and criticize those who won’t.

But something odd often happens in that process. These calls for justice frequently overlap with certain political agendas, namely liberal ones. One pastor even bragged to me about it years ago. S/he’d written an article listing several reasons Christians should support healthcare reform. Describing the writing, s/he casually remarked, “I basically cut and pasted from President Obama’s website.” Merits of those reasons aside, this nonchalant fusing of faith with liberal politics left me uncomfortable. Surely celebrating “justice”, in a Biblical sense, need not always mean, “I’m liberal”, right? Is our Christian voice that narrow, that unimaginative, that constrained?

It reminds me of how the just-as-Biblically-important word “freedom” was deployed last decade. In response to 9/11 and the Iraq Invasion, “freedom” frequently signaled “conservative.” I can’t tell you how many mailings our church received from conservative religious organizations, demanding all “freedom loving” Christians lift their voices in support of conservative political issues. Therefore, many liberal Christians began avoiding the term like Ebola. Though Paul profoundly claims, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” they couldn’t stomach it. They were different. They loved justice.

In other words, these key words- with all their Biblical wisdom, guidance and inspiration- became litmus tests for speakers and hearers. Are you with us, or against us? I find that sad, and not terribly helpful. Perhaps even dangerous to faith itself. We need deep values like justice and freedom, to say nothing of compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, to enter the public sphere, to guide decision makers and voters toward more holy solutions to common problems. But if one or the other value becomes totally identified with a particular party’s policies, then our distinctive Christian voice becomes diluted. Our Christian identity becomes cheapened.

Or, and here’s what really worries me, Christians will simply check out. They’ll stop wanting to raise their voices because they fear being co-opted by our divisive politics. And they’d be right. But imagine that scenario with me. This community of faithful souls, committed to loving their neighbors, welcoming back the prodigal, binding the Samaritan’s wounds, decide they’ve got nothing to say about our nation’s most pressing struggles. Which values then will take over? Winning at all cost? Doing what’s best for only your preferred party? At the expense of the common good? That, frankly, scares me. And I hope it scares you.

So let’s be different Christians. Those whose abiding concern for God’s Kingdom trumps partisan leanings. Those who enjoy coming to the Table with sisters and brothers who may vote different, but love Jesus too. Let us lift our voices for justice and freedom, faith and hope and love, to better the lives of all neighbors. Because Jesus’ arms were that wide-open, God’s love that vast. And enduring.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

You might be next. - Rev. Tabitha Isner

I heard on MPR today that Americans just aren’t giving money for Ebola the way they do for natural disasters. Following the earthquake in Haiti, a disaster which took the lives of over 200,000 people, charities received over $1.4 billion. In contrast, the Ebola virus will likely kill more than that number in the next six months, but very few charities are reporting significant donations.

So why do we donate for natural disasters but not for outbreaks? I think the answer has to do with fear.

When a natural disaster happens, the damage is largely done by the time we hear about it. The fact that an earthquake happened in Haiti is terrible, but it is not a threat to us here. It’s sad, but it’s not scary.

The Ebola outbreak is different. There isn’t a day on which it “happened.” And because there’s not a date when we can say it started, there’s also not a date on which it ended. It is still happening. The damage is far from being done. Instead, it is growing, expanding, deepening by the day… and you might be next.

When terrible things happen to other people, but we continue to feel safe, it awakens our sympathy. We feel grateful for the blessing that it wasn’t us, and we become generous givers.

When terrible things happen to other people and we might be next, it awakens our anxiety. We feel sorry for the people who have been victims, but our fear keeps us focused on protecting ourselves rather than on helping those who have already been affected.

A few years ago I would have made this observation and then concluded that it’s a crying shame how fear and self-preservation stand in the way of loving your neighbor.

Today I find that conclusion unsatisfying.

Let’s say we apply the same “fear makes you selfish” principle to police brutality such as that seen in the Ferguson shootings. As a white woman, the shootings in Ferguson and surrounding areas seem to me analogous to the earthquake in Haiti. The fact that it happened is terrible, but it’s not a threat to my personal safety. The fact that it happened to those young men means nothing at all about what will happen to me. But to a young black man (or the parents of a young black man), this spate of police shootings may sound a whole lot more like Ebola. Not only did it happen to those young men, but it’s possible that I might be next.

But contrary to the “fear makes you selfish” notion, the fear that those young black men face is not a barrier to their compassion. Their fear is what makes them truly able to empathize. And when they stand up to this injustice, it is extraordinary precisely because they are afraid. Precisely because they have good reason to be afraid.

In contrast, if I attend a protest, raise my arms, and shout “don’t shoot,” my actions don’t reflect my selflessness. They reflect my privilege. I can afford to do that because I know it’s highly unlikely there will be any real consequences for me.

So what am I to do when faced with a tragedy and protected by privilege? (I’m not entirely sure – this idea is new to me!) But here’s what I’m going to try..

1) I am going to admit that my privilege results in my inability to fully empathize or understand. And because my personal experience isn’t relevant, I am going to commit to reading, listening, and asking for the stories of those who have experienced what I have not and likely will not ever face.

2) With those stories in hand, I am going to try to imagine that I might be next. I’m going to let it play out fully in my imagination. The idea that this could happen to me, to my family. I’m going to let it overwhelm me, terrify me, paralyze and outrage me. I’m going to let that fear loose on my gut and my nerves.

3) And having felt just a small portion of that fear, I am going to remind myself that it is someone else for whom this nightmare is a reality. And that it’s unreasonable to ask someone in that state to take sole responsibility for righting this wrong. So I had better put that privilege to good use.

If you have good ideas for how to develop compassion in the face of privilege, send your ideas along. I’d love to hear them!
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014


I spent part of this week in conversation with healers. The majority were early career pastors like myself, learning more about good ministry. The others were health care industry leaders, who gave us presentations and led discussions. These included a Nurse Practitioner dealing with public health and sexually transmitted infections, a doctor committed to integrating western and eastern medical practice, and the CEO of Health Partners (the country’s largest non-profit medical delivery system).

So it was a full few days, and my head is spinning. I’m convinced I really, really need to imbibe more vitamin D! And I’m wondering how spiritual people, not to mention local faith communities, should think and act together regarding health.

We know the basic fallback plan, don’t we? Simply pray about ours or another’s health when problems arise. This happens in our church. Weekly, we invite folk to share prayer concerns with their sisters and brothers during worship. That serves two functions, to my mind. First, and most obvious, it lifts those situations before God’s light. Mysterious though the mechanics of such prayer will always be, spiritual folk have long believed it somehow mattered. The technical term is “Intercessory Prayer”; you’re interceding for another’s well-being. “God, Rosa needs help. Please help her!” It’s not the only prayer we should ever pray, but it’s well-known and focused on health in moments of need.

Honestly, I’m never certain if or how intercessory prayer works. It’s hard for me to imagine God picking and choosing health care winners. Still, the accumulated evidence of millennia of earnest prayers from all kinds of religious people, and the positive reports they’ve left behind, convinces me it’s not a waste of time. Perhaps there’s some spiritual energy that gathers as more people pray. Maybe that somehow reaches the prayed-for, and in cases where the odds of recovery aren’t zero, this attention could help tip the scales to energize her body to fight back harder and achieve healing, with God’s help, in whatever way.

But who knows?! Prayer is mysterious. It’s neither a sure bet if “done right,” nor a fruitless exercise for fools. Two central virtues of good religion are humility and compassion, and prayers for healing, properly understood, practice and nurture both. So keep praying, and pray well!

The second thing our weekly prayers accomplishes, though, is less about the person prayed for, than the prayer-ers themselves. Someone wise once said, “I pray not to change God’s mind, but for God to change mine.” And when we, during worship, put our personal concerns aside to listen to another’s pleas, we’re augmenting our individual agendas with God’s and our neighbors’. That makes a serious difference. First, it assists our spiritual growth, because you can’t grow spiritually by making life more about you. The Dali Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Besides, when a community gathers in prayer for a loved one in crisis, a co-worker with cancer, they’re creating space for everyone else to know, “Here, we are safe. Here, you are loved.” However that impacts the particular situation we’re praying for (and I pray it does!), the effect- if practiced well- affects the whole. It builds confidence in the listener who may not be experiencing crisis, right now. But should it come, they know a whole community will hold them close to soul.

So it’s like preventative medicine, right? When a group of faithful partners or friends communicate regularly that health matters to each other, health itself is built. That’s because health care isn’t simply about taking drugs when you’re sick. It’s surrounding your life with the nourishment and attention it needs to be strong and whole. Which we can’t do alone, amen? Individuals without community feel not only lonely, but less healthy. Alternatively, if you’re loved- and know it- life is stronger and better. Not perfect, obviously, but critically enhanced.

So help your neighbors build health by praying for each other. Not just during crisis, but…well…whenever. And ponder what else you can do to build them up before life smacks them down. Chances are they’ll then do the same for you.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, October 2, 2014


In the course of my workaday, church pastor life, I have occasional opportunity to chat with consultants. Rarely is this by choice. I’ll be at the office when a call comes in, “Can I speak with the pastor?” “This is he,” I say. The pitch begins. “I’m Ms. Johnson, and I want your church to grow.”

Well, how very nice of you, I’m known to think; services are at 10, and all are welcome. But that’s not the growth Ms. Johnson has in mind (names changed, of course, for propriety’s sake). She’s not offering to join the church. Instead, she has a program to sell, a great opportunity: Five proven principles for making your church get bigger.

Typically, the call ends quickly, and not only because our church can’t afford it. Frankly, I’m skeptical of most church consulting programs I’ve encountered. First, it often sounds too simple, too easy. Five basic principles, three stress-free program changes, just clearly articulate the church’s vision and values. And then, so the narrative seems to suggest, all will be well and all will be lovely. Again, I’m unconvinced, though I realize my response is slightly unfair. No consultant I’ve spoken with actually promises quick fixes. They’re typically honest about how challenging it is for churches to discern and define their identities. They understand, usually, that modern religion isn’t paint-by-numbers. Nevertheless, if there truly is some secret to explosive growth, I haven’t heard it. Perhaps that explains why each consultant markets different products and plans.

That gets to my second reason for skepticism, derived from several plans our church previously crafted under outside guidance. Invest in youth ministry, paper the neighborhood with invitations, within two years hire a family minister, within five years build a bigger sanctuary because, obviously, you’ll be bursting at the seams. Some of those ideas proved useful, I’ve heard; these were tried before my arrival. But they weren’t sustainable, and community life became challenging (as it always will!), and these old plans now read to me like records of failure. At least, that’s how some experienced it. So another plan was crafted, with different ideas, but those didn’t pan out as dictated either. The deflating sense of “we can’t do this right,” however, returned in force. And it hurt.

Thus my disinterest in the church growth guru industry. I’m cognizant, though, of what my wife would say (she the statistics master and early career church consultant), “Your experiences with consultants don’t define all consulting.” Truth! That got me wondering recently about what kind of planning or consulting would stir my soul rather than stoke my suspicions. An idea emerged, that I’m sure wise consultants have sold before, but it’s new to me.

You see, I realized that I get annoyed when churches talk about getting bigger, and call that growth, as if the two are obviously the same. But are they? My wife says, rightly, that focusing on numbers matters, but also that counting the right numbers matters even more. The church-growth-as-getting-bigger project has the benefit of simplicity; only one number matters- How many people attend your church. This provides clarity for decision makers. Do what adds more people, avoid what keeps them away.

But suppose you’re convinced- like me- that a church can get bigger, but not truly grow. Or it can stay the same size, and grow wildly! Then, measuring “growth” would include different numbers than simply how many attend weekly, right? Obviously, attendance numbers matter. A lot. It’s hard to grow in discipleship, spiritual depth, faithfulness when people aren’t coming, with their energy for worship waning. Still, isn’t a church growing when its attendance is stable but its frequency of Bible Study increases? When it uses more funds for feeding hungry neighbors? When its sermons more consistently address issues broader than solely church concerns? When members talk more about authentic family struggles than budget or building troubles?

I’m unsure how I’d transform that insight into a consulting process; I’ll leave that to my brilliant wife! But I find the question interesting. And I’m anxious to hear others’ answers. What’s the difference between church growth and simply getting bigger? How would you measure that?

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dear Mr. Bowlen,

Firstly, I offer you and your family my best wishes as you struggle with Alzheimer’s. May God be near your spirits with courage, hope and peace.

I grew up a Broncos fan in suburban Denver. Many fond- and sad!- childhood memories involve the team you’ve long owned. Joe Montana, playing for the Chiefs, breaking our hearts with a last-minute drive. The pride you echoed for the Broncos-loving public, when we finally won the big one, and you said, “This one’s for John.” I’m closer to my family because we cheered on your football team together. My sister married a Broncos fan, and that’s been a bridge for our relationship. It always felt like you cared not simply about Broncos’ profits, but the pride, the joy it could nurture in my home city.

I’ve since moved to Minneapolis, but remain loyal to my first football love. I root for them weekly, enthusiastically. I’m writing, however, not simply to say thank you, but to ask your organization for help.

Every week, I’m blessed to preach for a small church in a Minneapolis suburbs. They sportingly tolerate my football obsession, until, that is, the Vikings play the Broncs. But we’ve all watched with slow-building frustration as recent, terrible news engulfed the NFL. Ray Rice punching his wife. Our hometown Adrian Peterson hurting his child. Reports about head trauma in football, seemingly neglected or willfully overlooked. Sadly, it’s felt like these issues were handled by league leadership, less with concern for their moral impact, than for the PR fallout or impact on income.

That’s not the sport I grew up loving, and I attribute that positivity in many ways to your decency, your integrity. Your franchise appeared well aware of its unique stature in Denver, and therefore, its ethical responsibility. I commend you for that success. Perhaps that’s why, as I’ve heard many recently question whether considerate people can still watch or support NFL football, I’ve been reluctant to join the critical chorus. I love my team too much.

But I love the children in my church more. I want them to admire moral leaders. One young man and I have connected previously over his beloved Peterson jersey. I hurt for his parents now having to say, “You can’t wear that. He hits his children.” My wife and I recently discussed the proper, Christian response these heartrending stories. I said, “If Broncos players were in the news, I’d feel greater responsibility to speak up. I’d probably write the Broncos a letter…” She responded, “Why don’t you anyway? They should know how their fans feel too.” She was right.

Truthfully, this letter isn’t just for you. I write one to my church weekly, about varied topics, spiritual and otherwise. But this is my first such letter addressed to someone else, which I’ll share with them also to read. Perhaps they’ll overhear my pondering, and think more deeply about the role of their own voices in our society. Because whatever team we root for- or don’t- these events are big enough to demand thoughtful evaluation.

I wonder, were I in your position, how I’d interact with the Vikings’ owners, the Ravens’, Rodger Goodell. Would I pressure them to stop reacting, and start leading better? What core values should the game stand for? Because something feels lost, like football’s leaders are hiding, dissembling, making excuses. Given its outsize influence, shouldn’t the NFL more readily sacrifice winning or revenue, for player safety, and their families?

Given your franchise’s positive reputation, I hope Broncos leadership currently advocates for a course correction. I’d love to celebrate my team being agents for positive change. Plus, I don’t want to stop watching! Should this flood of mistakes, of tone deaf responses to battered spouses and hurting children continue, however, I worry I’d have no choice but to leave my Manning jersey tucked away, neglected.
I’d be glad for a response, if your staff has time. Nevertheless, I’ll be rooting passionately, for goodness, not simply wins. And again, may the good Lord bless you in your trials. May your players be safe. May love prevail always, forever and now.

Grace and Peace,
Rev. Shane Isner
Pastor, Plymouth Creek Christian Church
Plymouth, MN

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Effective discipline…

I don’t recall why I was being disciplined, the last time my parents ever spanked me. But I remember my response. I was old enough to have learned sarcasm, and I didn’t like that I was in trouble, though I’m certain discipline was called for. I’d probably mouthed off to Mom, or hurt my sister, or done something inappropriate that growing boys do. My father said, “Son, bend over,” and took out his belt. I did as I was told.

The spanking was swift, and light; just two or three two raps. Though not enough time lapsed for my stubbornness to have waned. In fact, in an act of ill-considered defiance, I laughed, then declared, “That didn’t hurt!” In my memory, I see my father’s head shaking, thinking, “Is he serious?” He’d obviously not meant to deliver much physical pain, but instead encourage feelings of remorse for my misdeed. In an instant, however, he reconsidered. “Then we’re not through here,” he informed me. I stiffened. I knew I’d crossed the line, and the second go-around wouldn’t be so soft. I bent over again. The belt came out again. This spanking was also swift. And it hurt, though not as much as it could have. Dad knew the message had finally sunk in.

Honestly, that’s one of the few memories I have of childhood corporal punishment. My parents used it rarely, and pain was never really their goal. It was the idea that mattered. The sound of my dad’s belt being removed had symbolic value. Its leathery swish communicated that I’d gone too far, that I knew better, that disobedience was at an end. Usually, the punishment included time in my room, or further grounding. In other words, it seemed part of a larger strategy. Not an end in itself, nor an outlet for their anger. For that last fact, I’m grateful.

But I suspect some children couldn’t say the same about their parents’ spankings. And it’s in my mind because of recent news that local football star Adrian Peterson was arrested for disciplining his son. My dad used a hand or a belt. Peterson used a tree branch, a “switch.” I don’t remember ever receiving bruises. Photos of Peterson’s son show broken skin, and swelling. No one but them can, of course, say exactly what happened. But apparently, Peterson struck his child repeatedly, and with greater force than my parents applied.

That’s what the grand jury, who indicted him, suggests in any case. Perhaps, as a professional athlete, he’s simply stronger than my father. But I wonder if that’s all. It shouldn’t take much self-control to deliver your parental message, while refraining from injuring a four-year old boy. That said, I suspect the public will listen to his explanation with some sympathy, and not just because he’s famous. Attitudes toward corporal punishment are changing in our country, but surveys show it’s still quite popular. Over two-thirds of Americans approve of it. That’s 15% fewer than 1980, and there are variances by region, race, religious and political identity. Nevertheless, it has majority support from all groups asked. Much more than, say, domestic violence. Obviously.

But I don’t plan to spank or strike my children. Count me among those whose views on this have changed. I didn’t grow up thinking corporal punishment was abuse, and I still don’t. Not in every situation, at least. What I wonder now, though, is whether it’s effective long-term. Studies reveal that it solves immediate behavior problems; kids who fear pain typically stop their actions. But it can also encourage future aggression among children, while changing the parent-child relationship dynamic. Plus, there are effective discipline techniques that cease bad behaviors without hurt, like talking through natural consequences of dropping a toothbrush in the toilet. And ultimately, I worry that if physical punishment is in my parenting arsenal, I might take it too far someday.

I’m guessing that’s Peterson’s issue. He wanted to parent his son, but couldn’t manage his frustration when it mattered most. Now he has to rebuild for his boy that sense of safety every child should expect as their God-given right. May that rebuilding come swift.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The peace that passeth my understanding - Rev. Tabitha Isner

As a person of faith, I’d like to believe that I am filled with the Holy Spirit. Not in a speaking-in-tongues way, but in the sense that God’s Spirit impacts all aspects of my life, that God is present in each of my moments, helping me to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. But to be honest with you, it just isn’t true. When I am caring for a distressed friend, it’s usually true. When I’m mentoring my “little sis,” it’s mostly true. But for the largest chunk of my time – the time I spend at work – it’s just not true. I am NOT Spirit-filled.

Sometimes I think the problem is my job, the environment in which I work. It’s a bureaucracy, filled with excessive paperwork and excessive meetings, and it requires excessive patience to wait for anything actually to get done. So, day after day goes by, and I rarely feel a sense of accomplishment or appreciation. But it’s not just me, and it’s not just my workplace. We’re all frustrated. Resentful. Impatient. Defensive.

At work, I am often NOT Spirit-filled. And yet, it’s not never. When it does happen - when a spirit of grace and peace and gentleness fills my heart and mind, when I speak to my colleagues with patience and empathy as my sisters and brothers on this journey - I find myself completely caught off guard by my own actions and words. It’s not that they feel wrong or inappropriate. Quite the opposite. They feel wonderful. Like a cool breeze sweeping unexpectedly through a stuffy room. They feel right and obvious. Like the muscle memory of climbing into bed in the dark. Of course I am filled with the Spirit! Of course I am responding to a stressful situation with grace and peace and gentleness! It’s the most natural thing in the world.

And I’m 100% baffled about how it happened.

The thing is, I’ve been praying for peace. I’ve been praying that the Spirit might grant me the “peace that passeth understanding,” that standard Christian notion from Phillipians 4:7. I imagine it as the Zen calmness of one who knows her place as God’s beloved child and therefore is unruffled by the stress of deadlines and unscathed by the rough edges of inconsiderate coworkers. It’s a good prayer, I think, the kind that, if granted, would bring me closer to God and also to my neighbors. I’ve been praying it for months now and simultaneously reading books and blogs about how to make it so. But to no avail. I still don’t get it. I haven’t found an effective trick for staying in that Spirit-place throughout the day or for ordering up an injection of Spirit when the need arises.

Sure, I have those unexpected moments when it just happens, but I want more. I want to be the expert on the peace that passeth understanding. I want to be able to do it consistently, on command. I want to be a master of Spirit-channeling. I want to control it. The Spirit. The chaos-ordering, death-defying, church-birthing, millennia-crossing Spirit of God. If I’m being honest with you, I have to admit that I don’t want the peace that passeth my understanding. I want the peace which I completely understand, and can predict – but that others are impressed by, saying, “I just don’t understand how she does it!” And having put it that way, I have a sudden clarity that I’m not going to get it.

So back to the drawing board. No, not the drawing board. The prayer mat. It’s time to give up my self-conception as the expert designer and instead assume the position of baffled gift-receiver. It’s time to pray this prayer again, this time asking for the ability to blindly accept the Spirit’s incomprehensible gift of peace; to lean in to the fact that I can’t control when the Spirit shows up in me, I can only welcome it when it arrives. It’s time to pray for the peace that passeth right over understanding and skips straight to my heart. I pray it comes to you too.
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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Opening words…

I crowd-sourced this fall’s sermon series on Facebook, and received great responses. Thanks Facebook friends! My setup was simple- “Say an unnamed pastor wants to preach on ‘tough questions’, what should s/he ask?” Spoiler alert: the unnamed preacher was me. Strangely, my friends figured that out quick. And their wonderful responses re-taught me an important lesson for us religious types.

You see, I can separate my Facebook network into three categories. First, there’s my family. Then, church contacts and colleagues. Finally, I have what I’ll endearingly-describe as “Shane’s heathen college buddies.”
About that last group- I attended church some as an undergraduate, but not too much, and most of my pals weren’t religious. They still aren’t. But they’re great people- most of them- ethically considerate, spiritually interested, compassion rich. And like a majority of college-educated young adults, they have little time for church.

Or, to put the point more finely, little interest in “organized religion.” That isn’t news, of course. But one effect of that worldview has consequences for church attendees, which played out on my Facebook page. People from all three friends’ categories contributed. Those already engaged in church asked questions like, “How can the Bible help me be a better parent?” or “What about predestination?” My unchurched chums sounded different, however, asking, “What’s up with sexism and religion?” Or “How can anyone hope to understand the Will of an Omni-whatever Being?”

Now, it’s not like these diverse, lovely inquirers had wildly different concerns. Many people accustomed to parking their butts in pews on Sunday mornings, and those preferring park benches, wonder about evil, ecology, suffering, death, life, forgiveness, etc. What struck me was the dissimilar tones of their queries, their disparate starting points. A subtle, but distinct-seeming language of ‘Insider v. Outsider’ emerged.

After all, let’s be honest: If you’re not an already committed Christian, it’s probably not interesting to wonder, “What must The Church do to stay relevant?” A curiosity, maybe, but not an immediate problem. Or you’d ask the question skeptically, saying to your (that’s-really-your-job??!) pastor/buddy, “Hasn’t modern science made religion outdated?” Or “Isn’t the Bible too old to be relevant?” Maybe it is, friend. Touché.

In other words, while good Christian souls have recently watched a slow erosion in our numbers, some have wondered whether we’re suffering, fundamentally, from an image problem. That’s particularly true in churches like ours- not-Evangelical, moderate-minded, open. The thinking goes, “Hey, our values aren’t very different from many who don’t spend Sundays in worship. If only they knew that…through a better marketing campaign, or something…we’d start growing, right?” There’s something to that. It’s one reason for this sermon series. I figured that if we advertised to neighbors that we ask similar questions as they do, maybe they’d pay us a visit.

Then, I collected submissions, and it turns out, we might not be asking similar questions. Have Christians grown so accustomed to being “insiders” we no longer address our neighbors’ concerns? Perhaps so. Not in every situation, but often enough to matter. And if so, then whatever “outreach” we attempt could fall on deaf ears. Because we’ll sound deaf, to the hurts and hopes of local families, to the doubts and ideas of potential friends. Not because we’re indifferent, or don’t share similar wonderings, but because we’re not seeing faith from these others’ perspective.

And that means we’re not acting like Jesus. If there was one marketing ploy Jesus perfected, it was crafting his message in terms and stories that non-Disciples identified with instinctively. Was he that glorious and brilliant? Well, sure, but he also did one thing consistently well: He cared what was happening in the lives of those he wanted to serve, and aimed his efforts, his ministry at that directly. He was no guardian of Insider Language. He wasn’t concerned with solving The Church’s problems. He worried more about people’s problems, and how his truth could illuminate theirs.

So I adapted our questions for this fall to sound more like my college buddies than my Christian friends. Not because one is better, but I’m betting we’ll connect more with new people if we start from where they already are.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Significant faith…

Sometimes, churches spend all their energy trying to answer small questions. And frequently, that’s because these questions are quite important. For example, if we decide to use a projector in services, or decide against it, that’s unlikely to make a huge difference in whether or not God’s Kingdom will fully come. So in the grand scheme of things, it’s a smaller question, but it’s still significant to us. Answering it could help Plymouth Creek worship better by helping us, say, clarify our church identity, or connect greater to younger people, or enhance our singing and scripture reading. So I’m glad we’ve been exploring it recently, and am anxious for your feedback. Nevertheless, there are bigger concerns in faith and the world around us to which we might also attend.

In other cases, churches focus on smaller questions- the order of prayers, the number of meetings- because they know larger issues can be dangerous, divisive or complex. Better to debate, this thinking goes, the process of communion (trays v. going up front, real bread v. processed hunks) than open a can of spiritual worms that could upset our Christian sisters or brothers. Or maybe it would shake our own embattled faith, we worry. Enough threatens our personal lives and families that we’d prefer church be about better arranging our building and grounds than, you know, the BIG stuff. Less worrisome, that way. Safer.

The problem with that tendency- if that’s all that’s ever addressed- is it smacks of a church grown complacent, grown too comfortable with who they are, how they view God’s world, what they already like and “know.” That’s a recipe for church stagnation, not to mention rather boring, amen? I mean, consider people most likely to seek a new church (and, therefore, change “how things are currently going”)- young families buying new homes, adults nearing retirement or moving closer to grandchildren, folk enduring divorce, bankruptcy or job loss. Their main religious curiosity probably isn’t whether God smiles or frowns about clapping after sermons, right? Not that you often have reason to clap after my sermons! But you get the point, that not-yet members typically ask large questions: Where is God in my struggle? Where can I serve next? Does this community wrestle with the values that I do? And if a church never puts that stuff on the table, it communicates clearly, “I’m sorry. Unless you conform to our current standards, there’s no place for you here. Because we like how we are now, and avoid change.”

Which is why I was so delighted the Board wanted me to develop the fall sermon series about asking Big Questions. I mentioned this in last month’s letter; it obviously excites me. Stuff like, “Why does evil happen?” Or, “Does Hell exist?” Or, “Why won’t God just end war, dang it?!” It shows a mature church, I think, one anxious to develop the gall and the faith to get deep, to get real with each other, with God, and to connect with neighbors in attractive, effective and worthwhile ways. After all, most people ask such questions. Maybe not often. Maybe not after they’ve found decent enough answers…for now. But mostly, Big Concerns are common ground, within the church and beyond. We may not always like others’ answers- or Pastor Shane’s perspective- but that’s our church’s great strength. We have freedom to think different, to believe different, and still, we are one.

So that plan runs September 7 through Advent, sermons on questions you’ve sent me or told me are tough to grapple with, let alone answer. I hope they’re interesting, provocative, and inclusive. I promise they’ll focus on big things of shared concern. Also, plan for Sunday School, 9am sharp. I’m teaching an autumn series on non-Christian religions; Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, then Native American Spirituality, all before Christmas. Guest speakers will join me occasionally. Bring your questions, your curiosity and your faith. And bring a neighbor! Because church that’s doing stuff that’s significant should be like God’s love: you just can’t keep it to yourself! You need to share it, pass it around, and joyfully anticipate how that might change you for good.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Storms of August…

The great American prophet Martin Luther King Jr. ended his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail with these words. “Let us all hope that…the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
In the past two weeks, that fog rolled back mightily into the town of Ferguson, Missouri. And maybe- may it not be true- across many other communities of our nation.

I’m sure by now you’ve read the news. An unarmed African-American youth from Ferguson- Michael Brown- was shot dead by local police, and people throughout his predominantly black town rose in protest of the killing. Unsurprisingly, competing details and stories emerged about what initially happened. What’s incontestable is that these protesters and police have clashed terribly in the days and nights since.

I’ll describe the picture that grabbed my attention most. Several local police, dressed in military camouflage and body armor, stood crouched with automatic weapons pointing directly at one young black man approaching them, hands held high to the sky. Without context, I’d have wondered if that was a scene from some foreign war zone or rebellion. Instead, it’s a striking image of fear and misunderstanding in our own country. And of rage.

You all know that I live in a diverse community, and that the largest racial group among my neighbors is African-American. It’s also the youngest neighborhood in Minneapolis. I see kids playing constantly. Running up and down the street, avoiding cars, bouncing basketballs, interacting with their older brothers, many of whom gather on front steps and around shiny automobiles, enjoying the summer and life. During National Night Out recently, I met a couple of my young adult black neighbors for the first time. One bragged sheepishly about his basement recording studio. “Wow!” I said, “Is it fancy?” “Nah,” he responded, “Just a little something where I can have fun and make music.”

It was a small window into his dreams, his joys, his tenderness, and I realized later what a gift for me that was to receive. Had I seen him on the streets before, I wouldn’t have understood his heart at all. Maybe I would’ve assumed something about who he was by the jeans he was sagging, the straight-brimmed cap he cocked to one side, the youthful smile or sneer of a still-developing sense of masculinity and self-respect. And if so, perhaps I’d have assumed uncomfortable things, generalities I’ve heard in other parts of our society, that those actions are symbols of criminal young men, of dangerous people, when they’re done by urban black youth.

I want to say that this experience has little to do with what’s happening in Ferguson. That it’s simply about my own ignorance and attempts to understand my community. But I can’t shake the feeling that misunderstanding between black Americans and white Americans exists more broadly. And could be increasing, and that it’s got something critical to do with the mutual suspicion between Ferguson protesters and police. On the one hand, the difficult news we’ve seen about looting and violence makes my heart go out to those police. It would terrify me to be in charge of responding to such explosive circumstances, all within the gaze of national attention. On the other hand, it seems clear that those destructive behaviors were the work of a small subsection of protesters, and yet in many cases, the broader mass of citizens were treated like threats, not neighbors.

That makes me wonder. In her incredible, challenging book The New Jim Crow, social scientist Michelle Alexander shared two research findings that have stuck in craw since I read them in 2013. The first was that, when asked to close their eyes and imagine a generic ‘criminal’, 95% of Americans picture a young black male. Such are the facts those neighbors I met recently deal with daily; they embody a far-reaching, negative societal stereotype. Whether that urges the Ferguson police to act toward their community with less compassion and more aggression, I can’t honestly say.

But it’s certainly a question that needs to be asked. And for outside observers like us, it’s worth examining our hearts and ideas to know on what basis we make our judgments. Are we quick to condemn the police because we assume they’re always acting with racial bias and mistrust? I met a former Minneapolis Chief of Police in recent weeks, and am certain he’d counsel a different course. His beat for years was my diverse northside neighborhood, and he talked about the challenges and joys colorful community. Thus, he’d encourage his newest officers to get out of their cars and meet their neighbors, to be part of the community. He was also clear about the dangers that police can face in our complicated and sometimes well-armed society. I want local officers to “protect and serve” always, not only my block, but their lives too.

Or are we quicker to focus on the initial event that sparked the fury, and think that Michael Brown “was asking for it” because he acted young and aggressive, and was found later to have smoked some weed? The other fact Ms. Alexander shared in her book that stuck me was that, contrary to popular wisdom, young black men are no more likely to use or deal drugs than young white men. But they’re something like 3-5 times more likely to go to jail for it. I smoked marijuana a few times in high school. It was youthful rebellion, I think, against my judgmental Christian school’s expectation. But I went to a private high school without officers at the front door, and lived in white suburbs without police roaming the streets. What would my life have been like would I have been in my current neighbor’s shoes and did the same things? In a word: different. Statistically, I’d be likely to have an arrest record, maybe done some jail time, not attended seminary. And I’d probably be angry about those disparities, prepared to protest and rage when something happened locally that felt like another injustice, another example of my society ignoring my dreams, my humanity.

This letter is already much longer than I typically write, though I’m at a nice desk and not in jail. Please forgive my obviously conflicted feelings and wordy, unfinished impressions. But this story has stung my gut, and challenged my best hopes for who we should be as a nation. Dr. King prayed we’d become a beloved community, not a society of suspicion, and that feels in danger to me today. May it not be so. May we remember that every fog, whether of atmospheric origin or of misunderstanding, can be lifted- or rather, broken through- not by more darkness, but by shining light. Jesus called himself a light for the world, because his unconquerable commitment to love over fear could always, with God’s help, blaze through every cloud. He believed it and so do I. But then, he called us lights for the world too, calling his followers to embody his hope, his faith, in God and in one another, to be one, united not divided.

Look upon any police officer you see this week with more appreciation and a prayer for safety, will you? And look upon your neighbors, of whatever color, with greater compassion and love too. And by all that is holy, shine your light. It’s from God. And it’s needed.

Grace and Peace,
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Thursday, August 14, 2014

To be…

In 2010, I opened to our church a small, but meaningful window into my childhood development. As part of our annual Cinema Sermon Series, I preached on Dead Poets Society. Growing up, I watched that movie more than many times. It’s about schoolboys learning to find their own voice, learning “to be extraordinary.” As a growing adolescent, I wanted to be extraordinary! And that picture helped me think it possible.

I’m reflecting on it today because its star is dead. Robin Williams played the teacher who challenged his students to “seize the day.” He counseled, “Carpe diem, lads. For one day, we’ll all be food for worms.” Those words haunt me this morning, but he wasn’t wrong. We’ve all got one shot to make it count.

Honestly, I’ve never been one to mourn a celebrity’s death. Perhaps that says something about my youth or whatever, but it’s simply not been part of my experience. Robin Williams’ suicide, however, strikes me differently. I’ll confess, I loved many of his 1990s films. From the coming-of-age Dead Poets drama to his crazy, blue Aladdin genie to his tortured, strong psychologist guiding another troubled young man in Good Will Hunting. The man, or these roles he played, struck me as fundamentally decent. Honest about the troubles we face, but defiantly good, and that’s a beautiful thing in our oft-too-cynical world. He was a manically energetic comic who treated laughter like medicine, or maybe like a drug. Or both. Sometimes, that line is too close for comfort.

But the movie that’s most concerned me since I heard the news was his spiritual experiment. In What Dreams May Come, he plays the husband of a woman who’s committed suicide. A tragic irony sits prickly on my conscience today, though I think Tabitha said it best. “I hope he believed his own movie,” was her response, significant since it’s among her favorite films. If you haven’t seen it, permit me to ruin the plot. Still, watch it anyway. You see, before his wife’s death, Williams’ character himself had died. He watches her grieve in a limbo state of afterlife. Then, his love takes her own life. And his task is to find her, but that’s near impossible, because instead of Heaven, she’s gone on to Hell.

Recall that in classic Christian theology, Hell was the punishment for suicide. I hate that doctrine, but it’s significant in this film, although it explores a markedly nontraditional- and much better- hypothesis. The woman’s perdition isn’t God’s punishment, you see, but the effect of her own darkened soul and decisions. She can be redeemed, theoretically, but as a suicide victim, the film suggests that road is untraveled. Can she see beyond the jail of the darkness that’s trapped her, that led her to such extreme pain? Long story short, the answer- as all good spiritual answers are- is love. If love can find its way back into her terrified soul, she might be free. She might enjoy rest eternal.

That strikes me as entirely right. We confess, every Sunday, that Love created this world, and sustains it. And as Christ’s core message- indeed, God’s very character- saving Love is eternal. Which suggests to me that Hell isn’t a final destination. It might exist, but more real I feel is the always available grace of God. Thus, on that great gittin’ up morning, we’ll encounter Jesus waiting, arms wide open. Our final test will simply be- Can we open our arms in return and receive God’s love? A poignant reality for folk wrestling with suicide is an inability to accept they’re valuable, lovable, worthy of hope. It breaks my heart to know that’s true for too many, but I’ve been in darkness before. It hurts hellishly.

But the reason I do this job- and more important, the reason I attend church- is an unshakeable conviction that, “neither life nor death nor anything else can separate us from the love of God.” That includes our own darkness and sin, all our shame and brokenness. May we have courage enough to accept Love daily. And may that brilliant, tortured, decent performer abide in light, and rest eternal.

Grace and Peace,
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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Stranger Welcoming…

Many people begin life in some form of basket or crib, or in Jesus’ case, a barnyard manger. But most also enjoy stability underneath their infant beds. Unless your name was Moses.

Do you remember that strange story? According to Exodus, Moses was born in Egypt when his Jewish people were slaves to the Pharaohs. Moses’ mother, desiring a better future for her son, took drastic, surprising action. She placed him in a basket, and floated him down a river with all the danger that course invited. She hoped Pharaoh’s daughter would find him, react with compassion and then provide him shelter. Her heartbreaking gamble worked, for, indeed, little Moses became the royal woman’s adopted son. He was raised in Pharaoh’s household, prepared by providence to lead Israel toward freedom…eventually.

I was reminded of that story recently during a conversation on current events. The topic was the many immigrant children now housed near the US border. Honestly, I haven’t followed that story as closely as, say, conflicts in Israel/Palestine or Ukraine. My reasoning is simple, if sad: I’m tired of the constant fighting among Washington’s elected officials. And it feels to me like, whenever immigration comes up, already heated rhetoric gets even hotter, and nasty accusations fly faster than Navy jets.

Then, something happened that surprised me, and maybe didn’t get as much coverage as the daily blaming within Congress. A broad group of religious leaders issued statements of support for the migrant children, calling the country to show compassion. Now, it’s normal for faith leaders to speak out on topics of national concern. What’s atypical, though, was the range of people lifting their voices, together. After all, Southern Baptists and US Catholic Bishops frequently agree about, say, opposition to gay marriage, while others like the UCCs or Unitarians declare their support of the question. But for this topic, all those normally at-odds people said much the same thing: Our faith calls us to react to vulnerable children “with compassion, not fear.”

It’s not hard, I think, to discern why. Besides Christ’s call to “let little children come unto me,” there’s something hardwired in most folk to treat kids’ travails with more gentleness than adults’. Perhaps it just feels different when the faces representing our current national disagreement about immigration and border policy can’t shave, retain some baby fat, and look simply in need of a hug. I’m sure these faith leaders disagree about both the causes of and appropriate responses to the situation. Some blame Obama administration policy; others the violence these kids experience in their home countries. Some think we should send them home, albeit carefully; others that we should grant asylum, welcoming them into our communities. But underneath that division was something I found both striking and hopeful. None thought it wise, or moral, to paint these kids as invaders or threats to our country, our jobs, our ways of life.

That’s where Moses’ story felt instructive. Imagine the fright his mother experienced that day in the river. Will he survive the waves, the crocodiles? Will I ever see him again? Surely, some of those thoughts entered the minds of these unaccompanied minors’ parents too. Nevertheless, they looked to the hope of America, trusted its people’s compassion, and sent them on with a prayer. I struggle understanding, or even endorsing that grave decision. I’ve also never lived in abject poverty or among violent instability. But what I know is we have children in need in our country asking us to be caring neighbors.

So, again, I’m cheered that a vast range of faith leaders focused on what unites us, in this instance. Which doesn’t prescribe a particular policy response, simply a way of thinking together about the question. And that is, namely, through the lens of our hearts and compassion, not through fear or partisan division. Should we do that, I think we’d find a good way to meet their needs, and our country’s too. Who knows? We might even learn to tackle of other complex issues with more grace and less accusation. God knows we need fewer attacks in our public discourse, more unity, and- always- faith, hope and love.

Grace and Peace,
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