Bread for the Journey-Devotions

Confronting Evil

Few things are harder than knowing when to confront evil and when to deny it the oxygen of being taken seriously.  This Saturday there will be an Alt-Right rally in Charlottesville which will bring together true believer haters and some folks who probably don’t know the history of when and why all those statues of Confederate soldiers were erected (If you don’t, stop reading, go to the wonderful podcast Backstory, and click on “Contested Landscape:  The Battle Over Confederate Monuments,” http://backstoryradio.org/episodes).  My bishop and other religious leaders will also be there at a different rally, as a silent witness against the divisiveness.  I could not be prouder of them.  But I will not be there—and it is not for the noblest of reasons.  I just think being ignored is more painful to bigots than being actively confronted.

Long ago when I was in grad school at LSU, David Duke, the blow-dried Klansman, was a regular feature on our campus.  Duke was not the stereotypical bigot—Brooks Brothers suits and PR smarts instead of hogwashers and a plug of Redman.  He and his crew spouted their bile on the drill field and, it being the early 70’s in south Louisiana, he could gather a few like-minded people to listen.  The vast majority of students, however, ignored him and you could tell it drove his cadre nuts.  They were all set to rumble; being dismissed as merely ignorant, silly, and irrelevant took the air out of their bombast.  Ever since then my default has been to deny such idiocy the dignity of acting as though it needs to be rebutted.  The Alt-Right deserves the same intellectual consideration that you would give astrology in a science class or leeches in a hospital.

As I said, it is hard to know when we need to be more active in confronting hatred.  When the vulnerable are in direct danger we can not simply ignore the ignorance.  Whatever our strategy there should never be any doubt about where we stand.  So let me be clear:  The Alt-Right rally in Charlottesville is not about politics; it is the cynical, wicked manipulation of fear and resentment.

I will be praying for the folks who have made a different choice than I regarding the best way to respond to this hatred.  I affirm their conviction and their witness.  I invite you to stand for reconciliation in whatever way seems best to you.  Pray for those who are being manipulated—and for those who are doing the manipulating.  If we are trying to follow Jesus, we don’t get to exclude anyone from our care.

Calling in Daily Life

I have no idea whether he would call himself a Christian, but his actions illustrate living out a disciple’s calling.  Few things are more difficult than working with families as they deal with end of life issues for a loved one.  Emotions are fragile.  The choices are seldom black and white.  Exhausted bodies and minds, pushed to their limits by long hours of worry, strain to do the right thing when nothing can really be “right.”  It must be very hard to be a doctor in those moments.

I have observed a lot of these conversations over the years.  Some doctors march in and dispassionately lay out the options like a stockbroker offering the cost/benefit analysis of buying a new public offering—and make their exit as quickly as possible.  He didn’t.  He began with their pain, acknowledging how wrenching it is to sit in their chairs.  Then, with infinite patience, he shared some possible courses of action and the probable consequences.  More than that, he offered himself as one who would honor the difficulty of their decisions and work to ease the pain of both patient and family.  Maybe he would not say it this way, but from where I sat he was not just doing a good job; he was offering a ministry.

One of Martin Luther’s great theological contributions is his bold assertion that every work, from the most obviously religious to the most socially lowly, can be a place where the holy breaks through into the world.  It is not just preachers who have a calling; every Christian has the privilege of serving the gospel through the mundane tasks of a typical day.  There are few actions which can not be imbued with deep dignity if done to reflect love of God and neighbor. 

Think about the most difficult or unpleasant task on your agenda today.  How can you make it a moment when the love of Christ is shown to those around you?  How can you live out your baptismal calling to be a minister in the service of Jesus Christ?

Winery Sign

I just about blew cab franc out my nose.  Gail and I were enjoying a tasting at a local winery when she gestured to a sign on the wall:  “Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can, and wine to accept the things I cannot.”  For some reason this variation on the Serenity Prayer (generally attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous) struck me as particularly funny that day.  Maybe I just needed to laugh, but I think it was because most of us alternately have a hard time getting energized for hard tasks and staying mellow in the face of intractable problems with no easy solution.  The sign was wry acknowledgment of the human condition where we all need a little help to keep on keeping on.

Still, at the risk of killing a delightful piece of whimsy by over-thinking it, I wonder if this says more about the way we approach life than we would like to admit.  Do we not have a tendency to look outside ourselves for happiness?  We buy a car to feel sexy, pop a pill to be energized, suck down a cold one (or three) to relax, change our job repeatedly to feel fulfilled.  Whatever the problem, we assume that something “out there” can fix it, if we just find the right thing.  But as Cassius observes in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”  The discontent we feel is often rooted in a mismatch between what we are doing and what we value.

Don’t get me wrong.  Anyone who knows me will tell you I am big fan of good coffee and fine wine.  I just don’t want to depend on them for attitude adjustment.  If you are lucky enough to have some summer hours when daily demands are not so pressing, let me suggest that you spend some time (maybe with the beverage of your choice) pondering what is most important to you—and whether your average week reflects those priorities.  You might need a little less coffee and wine.

 

Tar Paper Roofs

I was recently at the beach and it happened again.  Sitting there, staring out at the Atlantic, with the gentle breeze kissing my cheek and the swoosh of the lapping waves lulling me into a torpor, my thoughts turned to—tar paper roofs.  There must be some strange kink in my brain’s wiring which makes this happen; I never go to the beach without thinking about those roofs.

At least I know where the image comes from.  For many years I had a campus ministry conference each summer in Chicago.  Often that conference was at the Lakeshore campus of Loyola University.  If I was very lucky I got a room near the top of a high rise dorm with a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan.  If I was not so lucky I got the tar paper roofs.  The back side of that dorm faced out, not on blue water and sailboats, but on a sea of black roofs baking in the sun.  As far as the eye could see an ocean of blackness.  I sometimes wondered what it would be like to spend your whole life sweltering beneath those roofs, perhaps with an El track clanking outside your window day and night.

Time away is a wonderful gift in our busy world, space to take a deep breath and let the cares of life drop away.  Respite in the green places of creation I find doubly refreshing for the soul.  I rejoice in those times and places.  I need them for mental and physical health.  I commend them to you as sources of healing.

But maybe as we savor this gift we might remember that it is a gift—that not everyone has the option to check out for a week or more.  Maybe we can spare a thought for those who labor just as hard as we do, but in jobs which do not afford the time or excess income to escape the tar paper jungle.  And in remembering them we might begin to understand some of the anger and despair they feel.  Those tar paper roofs are more than an urban reality; you see them in rural trailer parks and on shotgun houses, in the coal fields of Appalachia and the Reservations of South Dakota and Arizona.  They represent a lack of choices and the sense of being stuck on a treadmill with no relief in sight which feeds frustration with a rigged, callous system.

I do not mean to bring a thunderstorm to your beach week, but when you get back you might ponder Jesus’ words, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”  (Luke 12:48)

Hope for Change

“Our planet has seen a relentless rise and fall of species and dominant life forms.  We ourselves are constantly changing and there is no reason to assume that homo sapiens is the final form of the human.  If we do not destroy ourselves we will probably evolve into something new.”  That is a rough approximation of what I heard as I pushed through leg presses at the gym, listening to one of those podcasts on science which brings home the tiny time people have been on earth.  I don’t know why the ongoing transformation of our species had never occurred to me, but I realized my unspoken assumption had been “Yes, life evolved from single cells to humanity, but now we are good; the process is finished.”  Yet creation continues.

And not just on a cosmic scale.  Governmental institutions change.  Neighborhoods change.  Worship changes.  Our bodies change.  Demographics change.  The turmoil in our society centers on how much and how fast we want change to happen.  The angriest people are those who want to freeze time and go back to good ole days that never were (or were only good for certain people) and those who are so frustrated by the pace of change that they are prepared to blow up the good in pursuit of the perfect.  Both reactionaries and revolutionaries have a hard time with the pace of change in the real world.  It is equally hard to stop the rain from coming down and to compel it to do so.

Change can be frightening, but the possibility of change is one of the great hopes which the Christian faith lifts up.  God is constantly recreating the natural world—and that includes us.  We need not stay stuck in old patterns of living because the spirit of Christ is alive in our world and in us.  This week we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, an unexpected outpouring of power and possibilities—a down payment on God’s promise to make all things new.

We do not get a choice as to whether our world will change; it most definitely will.  We can, however, choose whether we will be part of God’s action in the world or resist it.  Some changes are not for the better, but God is never absent in the midst of transition.  That is the witness of the saints who have endured wars, technological upheavals, and intellectual revolutions before us.  Wherever our species ends up, we can be sure it is ever in God’s care.

 

Sucking Sand

The other day I asked a friend how things are going.  “To tell you truth,” he said, “I’m sucking sand.”  I suspect the phrase refers to either a depleted oil well or a pump trying to pull water from a dried up irrigation pond.  In any case the image is wonderfully descriptive.  All of us get to a point when we feel we have little to offer.  It’s not necessarily that the demands of the job are so great or that our family schedule is any more hectic than usual.  No, the issue is that we are pulling from a pool of energy and enthusiasm which is not being renewed.  So what do you do when you are sucking sand?  A few things that may help refill the pond:

Put a walk on your schedule. You can not read the gospels without noticing that Jesus constantly takes time to draw aside from the demands of his ministry.  He does not always succeed in getting away, but it is clearly a priority.  So treat a walk—or time at the gym, or whatever allows you time to disengage—as an important part of the day. 

Make time for people who love you.  Sometimes being around people draws the energy out of you, as you try to meet multiple expectations.  But being with those who only agenda is to enjoy your company is great way to recharge the battery.

Keep learning.  We often feel tired when we are really just bored.  Life loses its zest when we cease to grow.  Read a book which stretches your mind.  Take up a hobby which engages your soul.    Cultivate curiosity about the world around you.

Find a way to listen for God’s voice.  There is no one size fits all spirituality and God has a way of surprising us, coming in unexpected ways.  Yet there are places parched Christians through the centuries have consistently found a refreshing pool:  in reading the scriptures, in gathering with others in worship, in sharing the Sacrament, in being immersed in the wonder of creation.  Our days are filled with insistent voices which make demands and offer only conditional affirmation.  Be sure to allow yourself to hear the voice which spoke at your baptism, “This is my beloved.”

It is hardly profound, but nevertheless true:  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  No matter how important the work, if you do not take time to fill the pool, you will soon be sucking sand.  Find a way to allow the living water of God’s love to flow into your reservoir this day.

Sharing the Load

My friend Ginnie Aebisher recently posted this on her Facebook page:   "Leadership is a set of functions that need to be performed! It is not housed in one single person. Organizations/Systems are forever looking for that special person who can and will do it all! But leaders can't do anything without those who support them and take up the cause to walk with them"

The words have the ring of modern systems theory but the insight is as old as Moses getting run down by trying to adjudicate every dispute among his recalcitrant band of wilderness wanderers or the early church commissioning deacons in Acts. It is not a hard concept:  Nobody can do it all.  Nobody has all the gifts necessary to do the task.  There is no leader without great followers.  So why do we—and here I am really thinking I—have such a hard time getting it? 

A mixture of motives gets us in over our heads; some are admirable, and some less so.  We want to use our gifts well.  We want to serve noble causes with great passion.  So we try to do more than our skills and energy allow.  But there is also the need to be in control, the lack of trust in others, and the aspiration to be the irreplaceable messiah who makes it all happen.  I can not speak for you but I know the drive to do too much leaves me frayed, scattered, and unreasonably resentful because folks have not done things I never asked them to do.

So my spiritual discipline for this day is to remember that I am not the messiah; in the church that slot has already been filled by someone much more suited to it.  I am also making it a point to give thanks for the many people who step up long before I ask them to, the people whose love supports me each day in ways great and small.

If you are feeling a little stretched, let me suggest that you allow yourself to ask for and receive the gifts of others.  That is smart, honest, and ultimately the path to more effectiveness in the tasks we take up and a healthier life/work balance.
 

Baseline

I can breathe.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for me it is.  For a couple of years I have struggled with congestion, coughing, sneezing, and raspy throat.  I have seen an ENT, had sinus surgery, been tested for allergies, refitted my bedroom, pulled out the rugs, turned on the humidifier, run an air filter, and swallowed, squirted, and puffed various medications in multiple combinations.

I do not want to get too cocky (maybe it is just a temporary reprieve because some allergen count is extra low) but today I am not having to wonder if I will get through a sermon without coughing (and I don’t think I am keeping my wife awake at night, sounding like a moose giving birth).  Looks like we have found the solution and I am thankful.

I give you this brief window in to my respiratory health only to emphasize that this saga has taught me not to take breathing for granted.  The wonder of our body is that, for the most part, it operates on automatic pilot.  Eyes see color and shapes, blood cells deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells and take away the waste, muscles respond on cue, and in each moment our brain generates millions of commands, calculations, and integrations of data without conscious thought.

We easily take such wonder as our right, assuming a baseline of health which is actually pure gift.  So we focus on what goes wrong in our day rather than giving thanks for blessings received.  We gripe because we have to sit through a boring PowerPoint presentation rather than being thankful that we have the strength to sit in the chair, the vision to see the graphs, and the intellectual acuity to be bored in the first place.

And it’s not just health.  We complain about politics and forget millions whose idea of a great day would be having enough food to keep their baby from starving and not being bombed.  We take our most intimate relationships as givens and fail to treasure those most near at hand because—well, because they are near at hand, as constant as the picture which has hung on the wall for 25 years.

Some would define deep spirituality as mindfulness, as the ability to notice every moment and appreciate it as an explosion of blessings erupting all around you.  Today, study your hand’s movement, notice how your lungs work, give thanks for your spouse’s smile, rejoice in the phone call from a friend.

As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,

“Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

 

 The Agony of Isolation

This week the church observes Palm/Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  Beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem we mark the suffering and death of our Lord.  This is the time of the year when the popular press runs stories about the excruciating nature of crucifixion and flagellation.  We are treated to all the gory details of the events which the gospel writers relate.

Sacred art has often rendered the physical suffering of Jesus with exquisite detail.  (See, for example, Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece) But as we enter this week my thoughts are more on the agony of isolation.  I would not for a minute minimize what it must feel like to have a crown of thorns thrust deep into your scalp or your skin flailed to ribbons.  Yet, I suspect even worse for our Lord was going through such torture feeling abandoned and forgotten.  We can endure a great deal of pain if we have those who rally around us; without such support the suffering is magnified a hundredfold.

I guess my thoughts are on the pain of isolation because lately I have talked with a lot of folks who have mentioned it.  “Since X died, it is as though I have dropped off everyone’s radar.”…“I just sit here all day watching TV; nobody comes to visit.”… “I feel like I am in this deep, black hole and I have no way to climb out—and the world just keeps on going without me.” 

To visit a nursing home is to weave your way down a hall filled with plaintive eyes, to walk by an army of sad souls who, whether accurately or not, feel that they have been cast aside.  That is why we resist visits to such places isn’t it, because it reminds us that our worst nightmare might become reality?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not ask his disciples to bear his cross.  He asked them to stay awake and be with him as he struggled.  It is most assuredly not easy to do that, to sit with another’s pain.  Yet sometimes that is all we can do and sometimes it means more than we can guess.  As you observe Holy Week I invite you to think about how you can “watch and pray” with someone who is feeling forgotten—and then take time from your busy schedule to ease their isolation.  I can assure you that it is not what you say, but that you show up, which is most important.

Open Our Eyes

During Lent Luther Memorial offers an opportunity for worship each Wednesday at noon in the chapel.  This year the overarching theme of these services is “Open My Life.”  As we come together this week we will pray these words as part of a litany:

When we cannot see the beauty of your creation,

open our eyes, that all living things thrive and grow.

 

When we neglect the poor, the sick, and the grieving,

open our hands to do your work in the world.

 

When we ignore the cries of injustice in our midst,

open our ears, that all will know your love.

Preparing for this service I realized that we will pray those words the day before the House is scheduled to debate and vote on a healthcare proposal which will radically affect the health of millions.  I happen to think the proposed legislation is very bad, but the specifics of this proposal are not this Bread’s focus.

Rather, I am stuck by how the debate has focused on whether the policy will or will not save money—as though saving money is in and of itself virtuous.  If that is true, then miser Ebenezer Scrooge, rather than Jesus, is the exemplar of morality.  Cost cutting seems to be the only thing we can see.  We do not see those who will be affected; they do not matter if we can create a smaller bottom line.  Yet Lent is a season in which we are particularly encouraged see that to which we have been blind, to allow our eyes to view that which we would rather ignore because it is so disconcerting.

Reasonable people can disagree over how best to respond to suffering in our society, but if we don’t think seeing that suffering is important, and that responding to it is a priority, then let’s retire the phrase “Christian nation” once and for all, for clearly the priorities of Jesus have no standing when we make hard decisions. 

Do we dare to open our eyes and see the pain beyond our comfortable decks?  Will we allow the cries of the outcast to penetrate through our ear buds and the drone of ESPN?  “Open our lives Lord, that all will know your love.”

International Women’s Day

March 8 is International Women’s Day.  As I write that sentence I imagine some rolling their eyes and mumbling, “Here we go again, more identity politics.  Why can’t we just celebrate people instead of specific groups?  Why do we need a special day to remember women?”  I understand the sentiment.  In the best of all possible worlds there would no need to lift up sub-groups for recognition and affirmation.

But we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.  We live in a world where 70% of those living in poverty around the globe are women.  We live in a country where women on average earn 10-20% less than men when doing the same job with the same training and experience—and where the glass ceiling remains a reality in upper level jobs.  We live in a world where jobs dominated by women (teaching and nursing, for example) are systematically undervalued.  We live in a world where we get apoplectic about the loss of [male dominated] manufacturing jobs, but seem to care very little that service jobs, which women often hold, do not pay enough to support a family.  We live in a word where guys still get kudos for “helping” with childcare and household chores, even when their spouses are working the same number of hours outside the home to make the domestic budget balance.

By all means let us pray for the hastening of the day when Paul’s promise is fully realized—“There is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ”—but let’s have no illusions that we have arrived, either in the church or in society.  Until that day comes let me suggest two simple things we can do. 

Let us open our eyes to the injustice that women face each day and resolve to do what we can make it better.  The first step in making change is eschewing willful blindness and then acting where we can. 

Second, today make a point to recognize the contributions of the women closest to you and say “thank you”…..And in a point of personal privilege, here is my shout out to the most amazing woman I know:  teacher, musician, friend, volunteer, and patient spouse—Gail King.

A prominent African-American observed that he hates “Black History Month” because it becomes a way to confine recognition to single month and implicitly gives permission to forget about Black contributions and challenges for the rest of year.  A comparable danger exists when we have International Women’s Day.  Let’s not make it one and done; let this day be the beginning of ongoing awareness, appreciation, and action.

Congruent Confession

Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergy I knew had not looked and acted like undertakers.”  Perhaps it is unfortunate that he traded in a derogatory stereotype (those who work compassionately with the bereaved at the most horrible moments of life exercise a hard and noble calling), but we understand his critique.  All too often there is a disconnect between the joy which the gospel is supposed to give and the affect of those who proclaim it—and the problem is not confined to church professionals.

There is much hand-wringing these days about the church’s loss of influence in our culture. There are a lot of factors in play, but one is certainly this disconnect between what we say and what we do.  We say the gospel spans all divides, but 11:00 is still the most racially segregated hour of the week.  We assert that God is gracious, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” but those outside the church often perceive Christians as seething over lost privilege and quick to judge anyone different from themselves.  We assert that Christ is the center and the source of all truth, yet many Christians are terrified of science which challenges their ignorance and prejudice.  We proclaim Christ as the hope of the world, but many of us are lukewarm in our passion and reluctant even to invite a friend to worship.

Why should others take Christians seriously when the example of Jesus seems to have precious little impact on our actions?  Why should they believe in a God who cares about peace, the hungry, and the creation, when those who say they are Christians are the most reliable defenders of bellicose foreign policy, reduction in aid to the poor, and the plunder of the creation for short term profits?

What we say may not be as important as how we say it.  Our witness is a combination of words, attitudes, and actions.  My worship professor made this point in discussing hymn selection.  “The music should support the words,” he said, “and when it doesn’t, the text is weakened.”  Then, to illustrate, he pulled out a hymnal and read the text of a well known Easter hymn, “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Won.”  Read the words yourself; they are joyful and triumphant.  Then hum the ponderous dirge which usually accompanies them.  They do not go together; indeed the music sucks the life out of the words.

Words are important, but the music of our lives needs to fit them if the world is to hear a confession of joyful hope.

BK

Grasshopper and Ant

An update on a familiar fable:

Grasshopper was passionate.  When something excited him he went all in; he held nothing back.  You had to admire the full bore enthusiasm with which he lived life.  The only problem was that he went all in on something new just about every week.  True to his name, he hopped from one cause to another: from saving the whales, to fighting the latest cabinet nominee, to whatever outrage popped up on his Facebook page.

“Slow down,” said ant, “I get exhausted just watching you flit around.  There’s nothing worth getting that agitated about!  You make yourself—and everyone around you—crazy,…and you know what:  No matter what you do or don’t do, the sun is still coming up tomorrow.  Be smart, save your energy for what really matters.”

“I’ll rest when I die,” retorted grasshopper over his shoulder, heading off to another meeting.  And after years of living that creed, that’s exactly what he did.  He died—vaguely disillusioned that the world was stubbornly unchanged—admired by some, but alienated from many by his habit of riding roughshod over anyone not as passionate as he.

Ant was the picture of prudence.  He seldom misspoke because he saw both sides of any dispute.  He never gave his money to lost causes because he studiously avoided any group outside the mainstream.  Nobody disliked ant.  He never took a controversial position; you might as well dislike water.  Ant husbanded his emotional and political capital for that day when it would be needed.  Ant was a soldier shrewdly saving his shot for the big battle.  But the big battle never came; he never found anything he cared enough about to risk his reputation, his friends, or his resources.  He too died.  Acquaintances remembered him fondly—but only briefly because he had touched few people at any depth.

The moral of this little fable is not subtle.  As persons of faith living in the world we face two temptations.  One is to dissipate our energies in random busy-ness, often resenting others for not being equally engaged in trying to make a difference in all the ways we champion.  The other is to live so fearfully that we never give ourselves to anything which matters.  Everything is not worth our passion, but some things are—some causes and people are worth the risk of putting every chip we have on the table and going all in. 

In II Timothy, the apostle writes to his child in the faith, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  As we try to respond faithfully to our world, may we have the discernment to know where Christ most needs our gifts and the courage to go there, whatever the cost.

Created in the Image

If you have not found Turkish author Elif Shafak, I highly commend her to you.  She has a way of marbling an engaging story with invitations to theological reflection.  Her Forty Rules of Love:  A Novel of Rumi is a wonderful introduction to that great Sufi poet.  I am in the middle of her The Architect’s Apprentice and found this exchange between an inquisitor and a Sufi teacher on trial for heresy to be thought provoking.

“Is it true that you said you have no fear of God?”

“Why should I fear my Beloved?  Do you fear your loved ones?”

“So you accept that you have claimed to resemble God.”

“You think God is similar to you.  Angry, rigid, eager for revenge…Whereas I say:  instead of believing that the worst in humans can be found in God, believe that the best of God can be found in humans.”

Notice two things about this passage.  First, there is great resonance between the gracious sentiment of this Sufi teacher and the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament tradition, which speaks of us created in the image of God.  These days it seems that we are constantly emphasizing how we are different from our Muslim brothers and sisters.  So it is particularly important for us to be attuned to those places where we can find common ground.  Every religious tradition is multi-faceted; it is easy to find opportunities to quibble, to focus on nuances in interpretation where we might disagree.  But part of living in the spirit of Jesus is seeking to build bridges rather than fortresses.

Second, Shafak reminds us that though we are supposed to be created in the image of God, all too often we create God in our image.  Out of our fears, angers, prejudices, and selfishness we easily create a god who is equally petty and punitive, in order to validate our weakness.  That is perfectly understandable; it just does not happen to be what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.  Our calling is to go beyond being a cipher for our culture and its shortcomings; we are to be distinctive agents of change, which serve a loving God’s vision of justice and compassion.

The challenge of being formed by Christ is not a new one.  From the beginning Christians have struggled with allowing God to remake them, rather than trying to remake God.  Paul’s counsel to the Romans is as timely now as it was in the First Century:  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

BK

 

 

Come and See

If you ask people what part of discipleship they find most difficult, I suspect many would say “evangelism.”  Loving your enemies is hard and Jesus’ teachings on the use of wealth are sure to pinch corpulent Christians who have way more than they need.  But, in my experience, sharing their faith is hard for most believers.  The word itself often makes folks think of a smug aggressiveness with which they do not want to be associated.  But at the heart of our resistance to being evangelists is usually a fear that we do not have all the answers to awkward questions.  Maybe we need to take a clue from Jesus on how to do it.  In the first chapter of John’s gospel Jesus asks a question and offers an invitation; together they are the keys to making an effective witness. 

Seeing two of John the Baptizer’s disciples following at a distance, Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” [1:38]  He does not start by pushing his agenda; he begins by trying to understand the needs and concerns of those he wants to engage.  Evangelism is rooted in having a meaningful relationship and relationships can not grow until we take the time to understand other persons.  What are their hopes and hurts, their longings and dreams?  If we do not know those things our witness can not be personal and it is unlikely to speak to our hearer.  Sharing our faith with others is like giving them a suit—we can offer something off the rack, but it will be much more satisfactory when we tailor it to their needs.

The two disciples express some tentative interest, so Jesus invites them to “come and see.”  In essence he says, “Walk with me.  Listen to what I say and watch what I do.  Test for yourself whether I am the real deal.”  We sometimes imagine that evangelism is constructing an airtight case for Christianity, that our task is to argue people into the kingdom of God.  In fact, it is more like telling your best friend about a restaurant which serves the most amazing seafood bisque and saying “check it out!”  Evangelism is not about our brilliance or eloquence, but about our willingness to tell another person about something which has given us joy and purpose.

A question:  “What are you looking for?”  An invitation:  “Come and see.”  These are at the heart of evangelism.  Look for an opportunity to speak one or both this week.

BK

Hurt and Hate

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their pain.”

These words from writer and social critic James Baldwin begin a chapter in Jonathan Sacks’ wonderful book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (perhaps the best theology I have read in the last five years).  I have been reflecting on them a lot lately.  Wherever I turn—whether to my Facebook feed, the morning paper, radio news as I drive around, or personal conversations—I am struck by how much anger and distrust is out there these days.  You have to go back to the era of Viet Nam war protests and Civil Rights marches to find a time when there was such polarization.  It seems to me that the task is two-fold, understanding what is going on and finding a way forward that moves us beyond a bunker mentality, where we view those with whom we disagree as malevolent.

It is incredibly hard to do, but as Baldwin implies, the first step may be to consider that those we perceive as haters are hurting—and then making an honest effort to understand their pain.  Hate is at bottom a desperate effort to blame someone else for my misfortune, to bolster my sense of self by dismissing another as unworthy of concern.  But when I sense that you are taking my pain seriously, that you want to see the world through my eyes, it is harder to see you as the enemy.

I am not saying we should gloss over injustice or excuse bad behavior simply because someone is hurting.  We do not do that in parenting and we should not do it in our life together.  But can’t we make an effort to understand the frustrations and fears which might prompt another to lash out?  Can’t we do that; particularly if the alternative is continuing to stoke a cauldron of bitterness which will bubble over and scald us all?

This Bread appears the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, between celebrating the Prince of Peace’s birth and the festival of fresh beginnings.  What better way to mark this week than to resolve to see others through eyes more interested in understanding than condemning.

BK

Grace Note

Bear with me.  This Bread for the Journey may seem to start out like one of those insufferable Christmas brag letters (“Daughter Susie won the Indy 500 and was awarded a full ride to Oxford; son Roberto developed a cold fusion reactor over spring break after scaling Mt. Everest...”) but I promise there is a nobler purpose.

Recently Gail and I received a note from our son’s boss, Carolyn.  Scott is marking ten years with his company and she wrote to tell us just how much she and the company appreciate him.  You may think that is a bit unusual, sending the parents of a 36 year old man a note about their child.  And that is just my point.  It was unusual.  In the midst of a very busy time she took time to craft a beautiful note which affirmed both Scott and our parenting (yes, I blushed).  She did not have to do it.  Nobody was expecting it.  It came as pure grace into our mailbox, and I suspect it may be the best present we get this holiday season.

I am not interested in ranting about the commercialization of Christmas; gifts as a sign of appreciation of those we love are fine.  The fact remains that most of us have way more junk than we will ever need.  We may think, in the moment, that our world will implode if we do not get the latest gadget, but in reality we will not give a second thought to that gadget two months from now.  I can assure you that I will remember Carolyn’s note long after our Christmas cactus is compost.

Few of us need more stuff, but everyone needs to know they are appreciated.  All of us want to feel valued and no one likes to feel invisible or forgotten.  We do not necessarily have the coin to buy lavish presents, but each of us has the power to bless by noticing another person and then speaking a word of kindness and affirmation.  So wrap up your beloved’s heart’s desire and stick it under the tree; accept my benediction on your generosity—go for it!….But consider also telling a few folks in specific detail why you think they are special—especially those who have no reason to expect an affirming word from you.  Drop them a note.  Stop by on a cold day.  Surprise them with a little piece of grace, a reflection of God’s unmerited love given to all of us in this Nativity season.

BK

Traveler or Tourist

Are you more a traveler or a tourist?  In a recent issue of The Christian Century Peter Marty discusses the historical difference in the two.  In previous centuries travelers were people who were interested in expanding their horizons and taking risks to do so.  They ate local food, ventured off the beaten path, and expected to be challenged and disoriented by strange experiences.  They actively engaged the places they went, trying to meet new people and see the world from their perspective.

Today tourists are much more common.  Tourists want to be insulated from the places to which they venture.  They go sightseeing, but end the day in a hotel which serves familiar dishes.  They collect pictures but few new ideas or perspectives.  Their goal is be in a place without dealing with its smells, language, or customs. They have little interest in being changed by new experiences.  They are much more likely to remember the day the air conditioning on the tour bus failed than amazing tapas from a street vendor.

I suspect there is a little traveler and tourist in all of us.  I am much bolder in exploring new ideas than in venturing into the hinterlands of distant country.  Our risk tolerance varies from one context to another.  Still, the biblical preference is clearly for folks to be travelers rather than tourists when it comes to the journey of faith.

The life of faith calls us to bring what we know into conversation with what is unfamiliar.  It invites us to ask how seeing a new way might change our understanding of God.  Being a faithful Christian traveler means taking seriously a new context and trying to find language which speaks in fresh ways.

Some years ago I was at a conference in Phoenix.  A colleague who served in the area and I were standing on a mesa looking out over miles of cookie cutter homes.  “You know,” he said, “most of those folks have absolutely no interest in what this area has to offer.  All they want is to create a bubble of Wisconsin in a warm place.”  I wonder if the church is too often like that, more eager to create a bubble of familiar holiness than to be changed and invigorated by new challenges. 

Traveling always carries a certain risk, but doesn’t anything which gives life?

BK

 

Maintenance and Innovation

This morning as I was puffing my way through squats, curls, and step-ups at the gym I listened to a Freakonomics podcast entitled “In Praise of Maintenance.”  Apropos, I thought, given that I was there trying to hold back the ravages of aging.  The piece’s central thesis was that as a society we value innovation and entrepreneurship over maintaining what we already have.  We reward the bright new idea, but devalue older systems which are essential to our wellbeing. 

So, we get ever more exotic phones but drive on roads and bridges crumbling from neglect.   We write libraries of books and papers on new approaches to education, even as we allow class sizes to balloon from lack of funding.  We laud the inventor of a new medicine, but hardly acknowledge the guy who maintains our plumbing and sewer systems (and thus does much more than the inventor to prevent disease and keep us healthy). 

What particularly caught my attention about this thesis was its implications for how we treat one another.   When we make innovation and entrepreneurship a fetish, we not so subtly devalue the contributions of folks who do the unglamorous but essential tasks of fixing, making, and maintaining the stuff of our lives.  When we give outsized reward to a few we create resentment among the many who know their work is indeed valuable.  As a side note, that insight is worth considering as a lens through which to view the recent election.

Yet my point is closer to home.  The church is often guilty of looking for the next big thing, the next sparkling program which can bring in the hoards and balance the books.  We want a breakthrough idea and the charismatic leader to implement it.  We neglect to proclaim loud and clear the unconditional love of God.  More than that we too often forget to celebrate the silent saints who plod along mowing the grass, serving the meals, turning on the heat, showing up at the food bank, contributing to the relief of the poor, and calling on the sick and shut-in.  So this week’s Bread is for all of you who seldom hear your name called for recognition, but just happen to be the foundation on which God builds a holy presence in the world—thank you.

Innovation and maintenance are not opposites; we need both.  Let’s celebrate those who show us a better way, while never forgetting to value the teachers, engineers, policemen, craftsman, and countless others who, by attending the basics of our life together, literally ensure that our world does not fall in around us.

BK

Hard Year

I did not realize how bad it had gotten until he said that.  Most Sunday evenings I call my Dad in Louisiana just to check in and see how he is doing.  Our conversations are seldom earthshaking; mostly we bring each other up to date on the mundane stuff of our lives.  Last week my Dad said, “With all this election mess I can’t think of a year I will be gladder to see over.”  I offered some perfunctory commiseration on our poisonous progression to the polls, and we moved on to other topics.  Only later did I reflect on his statement.

This from a 93 year old man who has seen a lot of hard years.  In his youth he endured the untimely death of a beloved brother.  He lived through the Depression and served in the Pacific.  He saw the upheaval surrounding the war in Viet Nam and experienced firsthand the bitterness of desegregation in the Deep South.   And this is the year he is most ready to have behind him?  What does that say about where we have come?

You might say his comment was hyperbole, that he would not literally say that this has been the worst year of his life.  But the fact that he would say it at all, that he would put this election season in the same league with such desperate, acrimonious times, should give us pause.

Certainly, we want to take a step back from the apocalyptic rhetoric which enflames more than it persuades.  From a purely pragmatic perspective we do not want a scorched earth political landscape going forward.  But more than that, disciples of Jesus are invited to reflect on whether we are a distinct voice for the way of our Lord or just recruits in somebody else’s cause.   When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” he does not mean that we abandon the world to injustice by political quietism.  Yet he does suggest that the full rule of God will come in ways other than power politics, with tools and attitudes which value reconciliation more than victory.

One way or the other, this year will indeed pass.  The question is whether we are doing things as Jesus’ disciples to make the next one better—or just gearing up for act two of toxic times in our nation.

BK

 

Theology and Literature

I was recently talking with one of our campus ministry alumni who is now in seminary.  She was pouring over the offerings for “Jan-term,” trying to decide which intensive course to take.  Jan-term is not generally a time to take core courses; more often it is a chance to enrich your education.  She looked up from her computer and asked me, “So, what do you wish you had taken in seminary that you didn’t.”  After all these years, what do you realize would have been most valuable?”  What a great question—and one that got me thinking.

I toyed with telling her something which was safe and preacherly:  “I wish I had taken more Greek....I was not prepared for dealing with folks at the end of life…If only I had studied more church administration….”  All of those would have been true.  Instead, I told her to look for a course exploring theology in literature.

And that is the counsel I would give, not just to budding pastors, but to anyone who is serious about the spiritual journey.  Poets and novelists help us see in a fresh way; like prospectors, they go into the depths of human experience and bring out golden nuggets of insight.  Gifted writers see the ordinary and show us how the holy is lurking there.  They take musty truth, yellowed with age, and invigorate it with fresh images which make it as bracing as jumping into a glacial lake.  The best writers tell the truth about life, with all its pain, joys, and confusion.  Then they let us look over their shoulders as they face the darkness and find consolation—or not.

It is no accident that many of our favorite passages of scripture are the stories of Jesus, the songs of the Psalms, the dramas of Genesis, or the soaring poetry of Isaiah.  The poets sneak under our defenses and invite us to enter into their stories—and we discover that those ancient stories are our stories, old but ever new.

If you want to feel the glorious scandal of God’s love, read Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation.  If you want to understand the necessity of grace, attend a performance of Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neil.  If you want to see what original sin looks like, spend some time on William Golding’s island in The Lord of the Flies.  If you want to read a scathing critique of both humanity and the church, listen as The Grand Inquisitor speaks in Dostoevsky’s short story.

These are a few writers who have enlightened, inspired, and challenged me.  I would love for this Bread to begin a conversation.  Feed your soul.  Look for writers who can open up your theological imagination—and then tell me about your favorites.

BK

 

Luther’s Lunch at 12:05 p.m.

In nine days LMLC will launch a ministry of hospitality that will feed anyone who stops by  the Campus Center between 12 & 1:30 p.m. on a Friday;  Luther’s Lunch at 12:05 p.m.  The Campus Ministry Committee has enlisted the help of students, church members, and campus administrators.  We have targeted food insecure students and their families.  However, anyone can drop in for food and a warm welcome.  

As we planned we discovered that the menu was the hardest detail.  What can be served to people of various ethnic backgrounds and food allergies?   In order to honor the limitations canned soup will be served so ingredients can be readily shared, bread, fruit or vegetables, and water will be served.  A flurry of considerations followed; safe food handling, where to purchase items, signage and so forth.  You get the idea. 

During the last few weeks this ministry has soundlessly incubated in the hearts of designing servants in the church.  Now it is time for the fluffy seed pod to take flight.  It is time to share the information with people in the community who can help advertise. There is something powerful about releasing information.  Once the word gets out we can’t control the outcome.

That is a little scary.  What if we unlock the door, prepare the food, set the table and no one comes?  What if we unlock the door and find 50 people waiting to be served?   What if, what if? 

I would invite you to volunteer.  Come see what happens on Friday. The time commitment is manageable.    In addition I would invite prayers of support.   May God work through us so we may serve those in need. 

 

JCMS

 

Joy in Ministry

Last Sunday afternoon a group of our members saw a performance of Clybourne Park at Virginia Tech; then we gathered at my home for refreshments and conversation about this provocative play.  As we sat around someone expressed appreciation to Gail and me for hosting the event. I heard myself say, “This brought together three things I love—drama, good food and beverages, and stimulating conversation with good people—it was no burden at all.”

Later that evening I started reflecting on that statement.  It was absolutely true.  Though one might have seen the organizing and hosting as part of my job, it did not feel that way.  It felt like a wonderful moment when something important—reflecting on the roots of prejudice and the difficulty of adapting to change—intersected with other things which give me great joy.

Our ministry in the world should not be just picking the low hanging fruit, doing only the things which we find fun.  But neither should it feel like drudgery.  When it does something is wrong.  I wonder if one reason we sometimes lack joy in our identity as disciples is that too often we are doing tasks simply because we think we ought to do them, rather than because we have gifts and passion for the work.

If you are like me, each day your mailbox is filled with solicitations from very worthy causes and groups.  Yet only one or two really speak to your heart and, therefore, get your contribution.  Faithful, joyful discipleship involves paying attention to what deeply engages our heart, finding that particular place where we have gifts and passion which others may not have at that moment.

As Christians we share a single calling:  to love God and our neighbor.  But that calling is best expressed when we bring our unique interests and gifts to the task.  What are your joys, abilities, and passions telling you about where God needs you this day?  What is the work you might take up which would feel like more like a lark than a duty?

BK

 

Soon Be Over

It will soon be over.  As the vitriol in our political climate grows, perhaps you, like me, have been taking some consolation in the thought that it will all be over on November 8.  Except, of course, it won’t.  There will be winners and losers.  The winners will claim an outsized mandate and the losers will mount a rear guard action to keep anything substantive from happening.  Some will gloat and others will be reinforced in their belief that the country is going to the dogs.  Though the campaign is over the reasons for the acrimony remain.

Long after the yard signs come down, the issues which divide us continue to stand.  We have been treating ourselves to a bender of bitterness, throwing down shots of scorn for those with whom we disagree, but we will awaken on November 9 with a political hangover and the awareness that all that bile has not gotten us any closer to solutions.  We will still have to decide how to both ensure our security and be people of compassion.  Manufacturing jobs will not magically reappear.  Like it or not the demographics of our country are changing and we have to find a way to live together as one people—or admit that the American claim to weaving one culture from many strands is just a fiction.

We like to think that things will work out.  But that is just the point, things don’t work out.  People work things out by hard effort.  We start to make progress by admitting that the problem is not out there, but fundamentally within ourselves.  We say we want civility, but rage at the guy who cuts us off in the parking lot.  We expect our leaders to give us solutions to complex problems, but can’t be bothered to listen, really listen, to those who do not see the world as we do.  We would rather silence than acknowledge the pain of another.

Christians do not have policy answers which nobody else possesses, but we do have a mandate to be people of peace, people who are more concerned about building understanding than winning arguments.  That is the contribution which followers of Jesus can offer.  Whether we are liberal or conservative our call is to be persons who strive for reconciliation when division is at its worst.

To the church at Thessalonica Paul wrote, “Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”  [I Thess. 5:13-15] Some words are timeless; perhaps these are ones for this political season.

BK

 

Faith for All

Sunday was the first meeting of the Faith Five formation group targeting youngsters in K-6th grades and their parents.  I was thankful to see four of our youngsters and their parents.  We had a variety of activities planned: some that were passive and some active.  In addition to conversation about prayer, the group put together hygiene kits for homeless women.  This new model will use on-line prompts that can be used in between meetings.  About every three days I’ll be sending out an e-mail to families that will reinforce what was learned on Sunday and offer a preview of what is to come.  (If you would like to receive them too, let me know. jstallings@lmlc.org)

This Sunday we had the help of three church members and the students from confirmation class.  It was a peek into intergenerational ministry.  Expertise was offered in creating lessons and teaching, various support roles, and the presence of the middle schoolers modeling faith.  Everyone seemed engaged.  There are some tweaks to be made between now and the next meeting, but from my perspective it’s a beginning.  We are building a scaffold that will communicate five basic faith practices to parents and youngsters: share, read, talk, pray, and bless.  It’s about living out our baptismal covenant.  It is about creating intentional conversation about God. 

I suspect this sounds like a report. I want to share, but I also  want is to spike your curiosity regarding your own faith development.  I hope that each member in our congregation is engaging in some kind of faith feeding; on Sunday, in one of the small groups that meet throughout the week, the Thursday morning gathering, the college or the youth group.  There are plenty of options.  Which one interests you? Or I invite you to name an unmet need.

 

JCMS

 

Filters

My morning Facebook feed brings this quotation from Martin Luther:  “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long does not sin; whoever does not sin enters Heaven.  Thus, let us drink beer!”

I have no idea whether the attribution is authentic.  Luther said some pretty outrageous things, but the theology is sketchy to say the least.  True or not, the sly, tortured logic illustrates our very human capacity to create justification for what we have already decided to do.  We like to think our actions and opinions are driven by an objective assessment of the facts, but it is far more likely that we filter the facts to fit our assumptions.  Each day we take the pieces of reality which bombard us  and try to fit them into some sort of matrix which gives them order and meaning.  About the last thing we want is truth which stubbornly refuses to fit into our neat world view.

Sometimes we just misinterpret.  Consider the little fellow whose teacher dropped an earthworm into a glass of vodka.   It quickly shriveled up before their eyes. “Now,” she said, “what do we learn from this?”   He quickly replied, “If you drink a lot you’ll never have worms.”  Probably not the lesson she intended, but data has no meaning until it is interpreted and seen in a context.

Filtering and misinterpretation have serious consequences for our life together.  In our politics we assume stupidity and ignoble motives in those with whom we disagree.  In our relationships we are hyper-attuned to the smallest slight and blind to what we might learn from another.

When Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus what he would like Jesus to do for him, Bartimaeus replies, “My teacher, let me see again.”  Maybe that is what we need to praying for this day and every day—clear sight.  Few things are harder than getting beyond our own fears, assumptions, and biases, yet until we do so all our judgments are flawed.  We are like one who wears yellow sunglasses 24/7—and then assumes the whole world has an amber cast.

We will never totally get beyond our biases.  Still, a good starting point is to acknowledge that we have blindspots and then consciously make an effort to see the world through the eyes of those with whom we have the most trouble. As uncomfortable as that may be, the payoff is likely to be both greater compassion and a more accurate view of the world.

BK

Sometimes moving is more than furniture…

Last week big changes occurred for my Mother. She left the assisted living facility that she has called home for eight or nine years to move to a nursing home. The staff has cared, befriended, and loved her. 

On Monday morning the movers arrived.  They carefully wrapped the furniture that would go to my house and the pieces that would be delivered to my daughter in South Carolina.  These two African American men worked systematically without a break until the van was loaded.  Earlier in the day I had lamented that there were eleven boxes that needed to be taken to the Y Store.  The men volunteered to drop them. It was an especially nice favor.

At lunch time my tiny car led the way with the van following.  Just as everything was going smoothly we approached the uphill climb out of Warm Hearth the engine of the truck failed.  Anthony the lead man remained calm, apologized and said that the dispatcher had knowingly sent them out with a quirky van that seldom had problems.    He put out the road hazard signs and waited to proceed.

We made it to the Y Store where the engine quit again; this time for good.  Again Antony remained calm and apologetic. He said I should go to my apartment and wait.  The company was sending another van.  Once they moved all the furniture into the new van they would come and unload.   They arrived at 6:30 p.m. They had waited all afternoon in the heat with our furniture. They didn’t make it home to their families until late on Monday. They didn’t make it to South Carolina until Tuesday.

Why am I telling you about this?  These men work according to the jobs accepted by their company. They told me that they don’t work every day although summer is “moving season”.   They do back breaking and essential labor.  They seem to work for a company that doesn’t appear to respect them enough to send them out with a reliable vehicle.

 It got me thinking; the only way these men (black or white) would be invited into a white person’s home is to do manual labor. I don’t know anything about their world yet they know plenty about mine.  They are asked to wait in the heat caring for someone else’s stuff. They are asked to sacrifice their backs for a family piece of furniture that doesn’t belong to them. In this instance, I suspect that they work for a company that values the income generated, but sees them as a means to an end. 

This encounter helped me realize that I am naïve. Not intentionally indifferent, but unaware. Anthony and his helper should be treated with the same respect as my mother.  This experience has made the sharp divide stand out to me.  The divide is what the Gospel invites us to reconsider.  It is a point of transformation where the awareness alters our behavior.  I offer this reflection for your consideration.

 

JCMS 

 

Unexpected Acceleration

Last week I was working out and listening to a podcast which concerned the “Toyota unexpected acceleration” controversy.  You may remember when this hit the headlines a few years back; cars were reported to accelerate for no good reason and could not be stopped.  Hysteria is not too strong a word for what followed:  law suits, investigations, dire warnings—and denials from Toyota that anything was wrong.

If you are interested in the full story you can hear it on the Revisionist History podcast.  Cutting to the chase:  Brakes override throttles very well and the explanation for sudden acceleration is almost always drivers getting confused and hitting the gas instead of the brakes.  When people get distracted and frightened, they make very human errors, sometimes repeatedly.  They say they did the right thing but the “black box” in newer cars, which records use of brake and throttle, tells a different story—in virtually all cases of reported sudden acceleration the brakes were never applied.  Still, in the Toyota case, folks wanted to believe the car was the problem.

My primary point is not automotive but relational.  It is very human to resist taking responsibility.  When things go wrong we want to blame something “out there” rather than admit any fault of our own.  This tendency is not a moral failing; we are not lying.  For the most part we really do think the problem is external.  Fear easily distorts our perceptions and actions.

So, our marriage or friendships go south because the other person is so unreasonable.  The economy is in the tank because “those people” are not working hard enough and others are shipping jobs overseas.  We can’t get ahead because the system is rigged and we can’t catch a break.  The problem is everywhere but within ourselves.  The demonic thing about this is that the angrier we get—the more fear is in the driver’s seat—the less likely are we to see how we are contributing to our problem.

Of course there are times when external factors are indeed at play, but not nearly as often as we assume.  We are much more likely to look for a scapegoat than to do the hard work of self-examination.  Next time it feels like things are spinning out of control, pause for just second and consider whether there is anything you can do to turn down the fear.  I am guessing you will make better choices and see the world more accurately.

BK

Remembering Who We Are

O my soul, bless God.

   From head to toe, I’ll bless his holy name!

O my soul, bless God, don’t forget a single blessing!

   He forgives your sins—every  one.

   He heals your diseases—every  one.

   He redeems you from hell—saves your life!

   He crowns you with love and mercy—a paradise crown.

   He wraps you in goodness—beauty eternal.

                                         --Psalm 105:1-5a  The Message

This psalm is a part of the upcoming readings for this week.  It recalls the many ways God has blessed human beings.  Throughout the whole psalm it talks about God’s relationship with his people.

Human beings are the only ones that want to remember; history, journals, lists, memoirs each recall a time and place for a nation or an individual.  Part of what makes us human is to remember. Have you ever thought about that?  A whale doesn’t really care.  A blue crab is never going to write a memoir, but humans we want to know where we have been, what we have done, and who we have met.

I’ve been doing a little packing at my Mother’s apartment.  I found a bird caller that belonged to my step-father Hal.  It is a little red wooden cylinder with an aluminum stopper.  When the stopper is twisted it produces a generic bird call or the sound of an angry squirrel.  This item was a great find. It made me remember his love for bird watching; the hours he would spend sitting in a field for the Christmas bird count, the foreign places he would go to bird watch, and all the adventures he had in the wild.  It was a pleasant to remember him. We like tactile things and the written word to help us remember where we have been, what is happening now, and where we might go from here.

We need the writings in scripture to remember the beginnings of our relationship with God. We need to remember how we are cherished and loved by God.  The ways we are called to be disciples who share Gods love with others.  The nourishing word and sacrament shape us and our understanding of God.  How can we know God unless we read, talk about it and practice faith? How can we recognize God if we don’t live in community?  

We need to remember who we are.  How can we know if we do not remind each other or teach each our children the stories of God?  How will we know who God intends us to be unless we engage in the living word of God?  The “buzz words” shared by the psalmist connect us with a powerful God.  May the steadfast love of God come alive in us all. 

 

JCMS

 

A Plague O' Both

“A plague o' both your houses! I am sped.”

So speaks a bleeding Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, his wound the result of getting in the middle of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.  In that moment he does not care a whole lot about who is right or wrong, who started the cycle of recrimination and revenge.  He is literally sick unto death of the whole mess.  He is sped, done, finished.

Maybe that is how you are feeling after the political conventions, with three long months of presidential politics still in the offing.  “A plague on both your houses; just make it all go away.”  I feel it too.  Whatever your leanings, following politics these days is like hiking next to a ruptured sewer line—the path has interesting sights, but the smell is always there.

Let me assure you that this Bread is not about urging you to support one candidate or the other.  Rather, in these trying times, I invite you to avoid the extremes of quietism and acrimony.

Quietism puts up its hands in despair.  Faced with momentous choices, it emotionally checks out and refuses to believe that anything really matters.  “Wake me when it’s over.”  Tempting, but this amounts to rational people ceding the field to the rabid.  Instead of thoughtfulness we have a society driven by mere passion.

At the other end of the spectrum is acrimony and demonization.  We are fully engaged but assume others are stupid, ignoble, and utterly devoid of integrity.  Nuanced answers to complex problems are way too much work, so we opt for simplistic slogans.  Trying to understand the pain of others takes a lot effort, so we just dismiss their concerns without a second thought.

Quietism and acrimony are entirely understandable responses to our toxic political climate.  Indeed they are the most basic animal responses to unpleasant stimuli—flight or fight.  But don’t we need more than our most primitive reactions in these troubled times?  We need the “new creation” of which Paul speaks; hearts and wills transformed.  We need the hard way of Jesus, committed to loving justice and mercy while reaching out to those who care little for such things.

One wit said, “He who can keep his head when all others are losing theirs—obviously doesn’t understand the situation.”  We dare not pretend that our political choices do not matter, because the way we live together matters.  A fractured society needs followers of Jesus to make a distinctive witness. We might modify that whimsical comment:  “Those who seek both righteousness and reconciliation when neither seems near—are obviously trying to walk the way of Jesus.”

BK

 

Something Rotten

What do a Broadway show and Rudy Giuliani have in common?  Stay with me for a minute.  I recently saw Something Rotten; that’s not a judgment, it’s the title of a musical playing in New York City.  Set in Shakespearean England, the play’s premise is that an aspiring young playwright is searching for the next big thing.  He consults a soothsayer, who tells him the next big thing will be something called “a musical,” a theatrical experience where the dialogue suddenly stops and characters break into song.  The young man is incredulous, and becomes increasingly so when the soothsayer starts talking about dance breaks and production numbers.   Of course, its one big inside joke, a musical about all the tropes of musicals.  The serious point (if there is one) is that there was a time before musicals.  This art form which we take for granted, and many love, was once strange and brand new.

The day after I saw Something Rotten former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani was in the news, roundly condemning all  Muslims as a danger to America.  I wondered what he would say to someone asserting that all Italians are filthy criminals, that they refuse to learn English and are a dishonest, violent people who harbor Mafioso thugs, that their immigration to American threatens to water down the pure Anglo-Saxon bloodlines, that they are a political danger because they owe allegiance to a foreign sovereign (the Pope)…Wait, actually that's exactly what Nativists said when waves of Italian immigrants hit Ellis Island in the late 19th Century.  The irony of a Guiliani in New York City spouting such vitriol would be hilarious if the blindness were not so sad and the potential consequences so dire.  I guess all it takes to get your xenophobe card is a few generations of assimilation, the decades needed to move from feeling like an outsider to joining those who revile “them.”

Something Rotten and Rudy Giuliani, in their own ways, remind us how hard it is to envision and accept change to what we take to be the constants of our lives.  We instinctively react to changes with disbelief, resistance, fear, and anger.  But that is finally a losing proposition.  The world does change, with or without our consent, and our task is not to stand like guards at the fortress of the past but to be scouts which discern new possibilities on the horizon.  The world is too dangerous, the challenges too complex for us to think scapegoating is an effective strategy.  More than that, it is antithetical to the gospel, assuming we care about that…

BK

 

Baking Bread

Last week I was making communion bread for a memorial service.  I haven’t done this in quite some time. I had forgotten how comforting it was to think about who would attend the service, the feel of warm dough under my fingertips as several ingredients were held together with oil, molasses, and honey.  I savored the time to think about my friend as well as the loved one she had lost.  I enjoyed recalling the various times I have celebrated this sacred meal with colleagues, family, and church members.  The holy presence of God always shows up for dinner whether it is a grand cathedral, a sick room, a windy beach or a frosty hilltop.

All these thoughts prompt me to appreciate the call to live in community.  Community is essential. Most people have a network of individuals that will respond if they lift a hand and ask.  These people gather when someone is sick, when a child needs another loving adult, or when someone is dying.  The same ones join in the celebrations of life. God made us for community, to be in relationship with God, and to care for creation.  It makes me think of the passage from Acts where it says the “apostles devoted themselves to teaching, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.”      -The Message, Acts 2:42. 

Our landscape becomes unbearable when we cut ourselves off from God and each other. Wendell Berry writes in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays:  “People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull. They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.” 

The ways in which we lose each other accumulate like grass clippings when we listen to the morning news.  Each day we learn about callous grabs for power, heartless greed, and carnage. As humans we can’t seem to push away from the tasteless table of misery.  How can we continue? What will heal us?

I think that it comes down to trust.  Somehow healing can’t be a solitary endeavor.  We have to believe that the table is set with the “body and blood of Christ given for all”.  Healing is about hospitality and the gathered community.   It is about coming together to celebrate life, to mourn, to dance, and to feast so that we do not lose each other—it’s about our relationship with God, God’s word, and God’s life giving presence in the sacraments.    JCMS 

Find Your Ministry

I am a big fan of our national parks.  When I think of the places which have fed my soul over the years, names such as Smokies, Yellowstone, Tetons, Rocky Mountain, Olympic Peninsula, Grand Canyon, and Acadia immediately spring to mind.  Whether your idea of roughing it is backpacking in the wilderness or an RV without a TV dish, you can find something in our national parks to celebrate.  That is the assumption behind an advertising campaign which marks the centennial of the National Park Service.  The tagline invites you to “Find Your Park.”  As you plan your summer vacation, I hope you will consider doing just that; our park system is a multifaceted gem which is worth exploring.

That tagline got me thinking about something similar.  So herewith I launch my own micro-campaign:  “Find Your Ministry.”  Summer is usually a time of respite from some of the duties which consume us the rest of the year; so use at least a little of the time to reflect on where you would like to invest your time and energy.  Ministry is not one size fits all.  Each of us has gifts which we would love to invest if we could find that place which both meets a need and energizes our heart.  The genius of the National Park Service campaign is that it invites folks to discover that whether a person’s tastes run to deserts, glaciers, sea shores, historical sites, or urban landmarks there is something in the system to savor.

I wonder if one of the reasons Christians are not always deeply engaged in ministry is that we are asking the wrong question, never getting beyond, “What has to be done?”  Yes, there are certain tasks which must be done in a church and I am thankful for those who do them.  But I would love for more folks to ask, “What is my ministry; what is it—out of all the possible ways I could serve God—that I am blessed with the time, energy, and ability to do.”  I am pretty sure that our enthusiasm for ministry would grow if we took a little time to listen to how god is calling us in the things which make our eyes light up and our hearts swell.

This summer, “Find Your Ministry.”  The world will be better for your efforts and you will discover the deep joy which arises when gifts and calling match like a tongue and groove.

BK

 

Sidewalk Courtesy and Trash

I meet him most mornings as I take my daily walk around the neighborhood.  I’m trying to keep lungs and knees in some sort of working order; he is exercising his two dogs.  Because one of the dogs is both big and skittish we often do a little sidewalk tango, one of us yielding to the other.  Sometimes he pauses at an intersection until I pass; if there is no traffic I give him the sidewalk and walk on the far side of the street.  We have talked very little, but I have always thought he is the kind of guy I would like to know better.

This morning I saw him in a different place.  I was driving down Main St. and he was walking in to work (I assume).  I was caught behind a bus at a traffic light, so I could observe him for a minute or so.  He was walking with a friend but twice in thirty seconds he stooped down and picked up some trash off the sidewalk.

Perhaps you are wondering where all this is going.  Sidewalk courtesy and picking up trash are not earthshaking events.  That’s just my point.  If you are like me you spend a lot of time feeling overwhelmed by events you can not control or even mitigate to any great extent:  devastating floods, interminable wars, chronic poverty, a rising tide of poisonous prejudice—and the list goes on and on.  We can, however, control how we live in the blandly ordinary moments of life. We can make our corner of the kingdom a little less ugly and vicious.

I am sure my dog walking friend has no idea I saw him this morning.  But I want to thank him for that small action along the street.  I would guess that he will not even remember it; most of the time people who brighten the world do so less out of intention than because that is who they are.  We can and should put our shoulders to the work of dealing with the “big” issues of our day.  That work begins in basic courtesy and anonymous acts of kindness and service.

BK

 

Values and Fear

I had already written this week’s Bread for the Journey—then Orlando.  As I write this 49 persons are confirmed dead with others in critical condition following the shooting at a gay nightclub.  The politicians have mounted their respective ramparts, using the incident to emphasize positions long in place:  We need gun control; everyone needs to be armed.  Secure the borders against Muslims; stop anti-GLBTQ violence.  We are at war with an international conspiracy; the greater danger is home grown intolerance.  Each will tend to favor one position or the other, but parsing the politics is not the point of this Bread.  Rather, I invite you to think about a more fundamental issue.

Writing in the aftermath of this tragedy Karen Tumulty observes, “It has always been true that the toughest issues pit our values against our fears.”  Our values are supposed to be the gyroscope which keeps us balanced when the world is spinning; they are the North Star by which we steer when we feel lost and disoriented.  That’s why we call them values; they are what we hold dear, the convictions we will not sacrifice to expediency.  It is precisely at the moment when we are most afraid that we must reflect on what values we will not compromise.  Nothing is easier than affirming unfettered free speech when hateful rhetoric presents no real danger or glibly calling for greater security when we believe we will not feel the burden of irrational prejudice.  We prove we hold our values precious when they drive our actions at inconvenient times.

My goal this day is not so much to tell you what you should value as to invite you to seriously reflect on what you do in fact hold dearest.  Just as important, think about what is making you fearful this day.  Fear is most powerful when we do not acknowledge it, for then it steers us without our conscious consent.  When we name our fear we can better assess its reality and the cost of letting it drive our lives.

To prime your pump I offer two quotations, a prudential observation attributed to Benjamin Franklin and a timeless promise from our Lord:

  • “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
  • “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  (Luke 12:32)

BK

No Simple Template

“But if everyone did like him, who would grow the food and cook the meals?”  I love it when people refuse to simply go along.  Our Thursday morning faith group was in the middle of a session on Francis of Assisi and we were suitable impressed by the saint.  There is no way you can dislike St. Francis.  He is justly one of the most admired figures in church history—gentle, humble, a model of simplicity, magnificent in his ability to discern the holy in the ordinary, his life an eloquent testimony to the graciousness of Jesus.  But all those virtues meant he lived as a beggar, absolutely dependent upon others for the basics of existence.  So she gently asked whether he really is the model for all Christians.  Should St. Francis be the template for Christians in the 21st Century?

Maybe a better question is whether there is any template at all.  A few years ago it was popular to wear a wristband bearing the letters “WWJD” for “What Would Jesus Do.”  While that is surely a better ethical guideline than asking “What would Pastor King do,” I don’t think it is the right question.  The question suggests that we are all the same, that we have the same gifts, opportunities, responsibilities, and challenges.  Asking what Jesus would do assumes that God needs me to do the exactly the same thing that Jesus needed to do.  Certainly we try to follow in the way of Jesus, listen as he speaks, and attempt to let his spirit guide our decisions.  But that is different from assuming that every Christian has the same calling.  Part of the challenge of faithfulness is discerning what God needs from me in this particular time and place, which may be different from what God needs from you.

Some years ago I read a brief piece of fiction in a magazine called The Other Side.  The author imagined arriving at heaven’s gates and very proudly telling God how he had turned his back on the fame, money, and prestige of writing for a major magazine.  Instead he had spent his life writing for a small religious newspaper.  Much to his surprise and chagrin God castigated him, “I gave you a great mind, a bold heart, and incredible writing skills.  Every week you were in a position to lift up the need for justice and mercy to millions of people and you squandered the chance to do great good.”  That parable has haunted me for 35 years, a reminder that calling is complex.

Discipleship is not a one-size-fits-all garment.  Part of the hard work of following Jesus is asking exactly where he wants me to go.  It goes without saying that there is an ever present temptation to evade the harsh demands of faith by making our preferences the preferences of God.  But there is also the temptation to ease the tension of living in a broken world by aspiring to a faux spiritual purity far above the muck of daily life.  There is no simple way of discerning our call; perhaps the best we can do is seeking to align our hearts with the prayer of another great saint, Ignatius of Loyola:

O my God, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve to be served,
to give without counting the cost,
to fight without fear of being wounded,
to work without seeking rest,
and to spend myself without expecting any reward,
but the knowledge that I am doing your holy will.

BK

 

Know Where You Stand

Daniel Berrigan died recently.  If you are a certain age that name is likely to inspire intense emotion.  Daniel and his brother Philip were highly visible faces of the anti-war movement of the ‘60s.  For some, these men, a Jesuit and a former priest, were the embodiment of what religion looks like when it engages the world with faithfulness and courage.  Others saw the Berrigans as symbol of religion taken captive by political agendas.  Daniel Berrigan was a hero to many (I think he and Farrah Fawcett were the top two dorm posters on my hall).  But to many, he was like sex, drugs, and rock and roll—a force destroying America.  Few were neutral about Daniel Berrigan.

One obituary of Berrigan quoted him as saying, “Know where you stand and stand there.”  That is either simplistic or sublimely profound.  I lean toward profound because it calls us to two things which we need but so often lack—discernment and courage.  Discernment is hard work, which is why we resist doing it.  Discernment demands that we consider many paths, weigh many options, and make a decision.  Discernment involves being willing to be in that uncomfortable place where we see complexity rather than simplistic answers.  Discernment demands patience when the future is still shrouded and the humility to consider that we may need to change our minds.  Discernment is the antithesis of zealotry and political partisanship.  Discernment is difficult but its fruit is the conviction that we have arrived at a path we can walk with confidence because we have asked harder questions than any critic can pose.

Knowing the right path is one thing.  Walking it is another.  Nothing is easier in our “trending culture” than to see where the crowd is going and fall in line.  The herd is a comfortable place to be, but it is in living on the edges that we see the new, the challenging, and the transformative.  It takes courage to be on the edge, doing what is right simply because it is right.

You may or may not think Daniel Berrigan’s stand on war or his interpretation of the Christian faith was correct.  What is undeniable is that he knew where he stood and stood there against great odds.  He showed both discernment and courage.  Can you and I say the same?

BK

Be Bold

Ten days ago I was in Lower Manhattan with seven other women. Over the years we have shared many adventures; training for triathlons, bike trips, the conquests and calamities of parenting, shopping, and dining experiences. This was by far the most interesting venture.  We were in NYC for what they claim is the world’s largest charitable bike ride. After walking over the Brooklyn Bridge from our hotel to pick up the ride packets, strolling through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, exploring Chinatown, and Little Italy we were languishing on the sidewalk looking for a cab. 

               An Uber driver with an SUV came to our rescue.  We piled in and began to make small talk with the dapper man whose name we couldn’t say or spell.  “Have you lived in NYC all your life”?  He smiled and launched into a heartfelt story.  He had arrived with his parents and multiple siblings from Corsica over 50 years ago.  All they had was a $1.  Almost immediately he began to work on the docks where he lost half of his hand and little finger when it was crushed by a pipe. He married and had two children who completed high school and graduated from college. He proudly told us that his daughter was an accountant and his son was a fire fighter in the city.  He said this is “the greatest country.  My family is living proof that you can come from poverty and become someone.  I am proud to live in this country-your country saved my life”.

               Over dinner we discussed the events of the day.  We agreed that more people needed to hear the earnest story of our Uber driver.  We talked on about the  city papas enjoying the playground with their young children or meeting an Orthodox Jew holding the hands of his children—asking everyone who shared the sidewalk if they were Jewish-then saying "Pesach" for “Happy Passover” or “may God bless you” if they were not. He was an amazing witness for his faith tradition as well as demonstrating respectful acceptance for non-Jews, just as the driver was a witness of hope.

               These experiences made me think.  How can “shy Lutherans” or introverted Christians become enthusiastic about faith and hope so that we unabashedly share it?  It’s a challenge for many so I’m throwing it out there.  We often get caught up in sharing how we have been mistreated and don’t remember to tell stories of hope. Frequently we are reluctant to share our faith-how can we courageously share our roots—the central identity of our being with joy and passion?

               The season of travel will arrive soon when many more of us will have the opportunity to be among strangers.  It might be easier to tell stories of faith and hope as an out of towner.  After some practice sharing we could bring it home and boldly share with others the joy we find in Christ.  (Believe me it will be as big a challenge for me as you!)

JCMS

 

                

 

Weight Club

I joined the Weight Club a few weeks ago.  For a long time I’ve tried to get some daily exercise, but I decided I needed to add strength training to my routine. Given the loss of muscle mass which accompanies aging, I did the math and realized that I can not walk enough miles to keep my weight down.  If I do not want to look like Jabba the Hutt (or destroy my joints) I either have to start eating a super model’s diet of sprouts and water for dinner (a non-starter for one who loves cooking) or do some strength training,

The reason I resisted doing this earlier is more psychologically complex than I care to ponder in depth, but I’ve gotten a bit of insight.  I notice that amid the planks, pushings, pullings, and puffing I have two main feelings which alternate like a strobe light:  shame and superiority.

The shame is easy to understand.  Surrounded by buff college bodies and guys older than me who have way more discipline, I am painfully aware of how I fail to measure up.  My body in the gym is like Ramen Noodles at a Five Star restaurant.  Knowing it was going to feel like that I put off the day of reckoning as long as I could.  Few folks seek out the places where their flaws are obvious.

Why I sometimes feel superior is harder for me to understand; maybe it is a compensating shadow side of the shame.  But when I look at those buff bodies I think about all the time that has gone into sculpting those layered muscular forms.  I may think, “Is this really what we are put on earth to do?  Isn’t this is exhibit A of the American obsession with physical beauty, our denial of death, and the way we make sports and fitness our idols?  Wouldn’t some moderation be better?”  Since I did not want to be one “those” people with their skewed priorities, I resisted joining the club.

I am not proud of either of these feelings.  My point is that neither shame nor a judgmental attitude is the least bit helpful in moving us to a healthy place.  All of us have things of which we are ashamed, places where we do not measure up in our own eyes.  The appropriate response is not to obsess about the past, but to take positive steps in the present.  By the same token, it is petty and futile to think you can lift yourself up by deprecating another’s choices.

You do not have to read the gospels closely to see that Jesus does not shame people.  He simply invites them to make a change, to believe a new future is possible.  However, he does have harsh words for those who look down on others—primarily because it blinds them to the work they need to be doing on themselves.

So let me invite you:  Today, lose the shame and be a bit more gracious toward those who make choices which are not your own.  I am trying to do that when I go to the gym, remembering that I am loved even if my gut drags the mat and that the hours I spend reading novels to feed my imagination probably looks pretty wasteful and self-indulgent to those who prefer lifting weights.  To the degree that we can let go of shame and the desperate need to feel superior we are healthier in spirit and body.

BK

 

Strangley Warmed

“Don't worry about gathering a crowd. Get on fire. They'll come to watch you burn." --John Wesley

This quote from John Wesley was not familiar to me until Sunday evening after we had finished a congregational planning meeting.  During the afternoon many church leaders assembled to uncover the strengths and passions of the congregation.  A couple of ideas surfaced—as we continue to process the discoveries of the day new directions will emerge.

The Wesley quote caught my eye for several reasons.  The Holy Spirit is what sets us on fire. The Holy Spirit has to be present to move us forward.   If the “fire” is not there the embers smolder and burn out. The quote invites us to ponder what we do.  In our life together, are we doing anything that needs to burn out?  Some activities or programs that are repeated can lose relevance and they need to die.  In the same way ideas may be glowing and need to be fanned into full flame.  This is our opportunity to think critically about subtracting or adding initiatives.

The quote reminds me of something that our presenter asked us to consider as we cast a vision; is it doable, is it fun, and most importantly is it faithful?  Do we have the gifts and resources to do it? Will the initiative engage the congregation from younger to older?  Will whatever we do help us to faithfully live the Gospel?  If we implement an activity--will it add to our faith?

This quote inspires all of these thoughts and seems very appropriate to me as LMLC moves forward with prayer, passion, and a new vision.  Come be strangely warmed by the fire of the Holy Spirit that burns within.  Join the excitement and add your ideas as we imagine the future of LMLC. 

JCMS 

 

Oak Tree on the Agenda

Some years ago I read an article by a church consultant entitled something like “Get Rid of the Oak Tree.”  His topic was not landscaping but better meetings.  He told of a congregational council which had “oak tree” on its monthly agenda for a year.  A very old tree stood in the front of the church yard and there was much debate concerning what to do about it.  Some said it had been there for years and had caused no problems, so, they said, leave it alone.  Others lobbied to cut it down before it fell on the church, reasoning that was just a matter of time before it caused a problem.  Still others suggested that it be trimmed, but that option prompted further discussion about whether trimming should be done by the property committee or a professional team.  Round and round they went, taking up valuable time every month—and never reaching a decision.

The author said that every church has an oak tree and it is important to identify the things which suck energy from the group, act thoughtfully on them, and then move on to what is most important.  In my experience that author was right on; most groups do tend to get sidetracked by niggling issues which take up way more time and energy than they deserve.

The insight applies to more than church meetings.  Think about your daily mental agenda.  Is there a conversation you really need to have with someone, but you keep putting off because it is likely to be awkward or unpleasant?  There it sits in the back of your mind, taking up space on your agenda but getting no closer to resolution.  Unresolved problems in relationships are emotionally draining; more than that they block us from more constructive ways of spending our time.  Like a car stuck in the mud, we just churn our mental wheels without getting anywhere.

Better to forthrightly seek reconciliation.  Paul offers some good counsel, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger [Ephesians 4:26].”  Note, he does not say we should pretend that everything is okay when it is not.  Rather, we admit our anger, but then move toward reconciliation as quickly as possible.

What is the oak tree you need to check off your agenda?

BK

From Mary Oliver

My mind is swirling this week.  I bet you are too.  When I can’t figure out a good reflection to share I turn to the poet Mary Oliver.  She always provides some calming words before I rush into the world. 

-JCMS

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.                                                                                                                                                           

Hello, you who make the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the

miserable and the crotchety---

 

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light---

good morning, good morning, good morning.

 

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

 

 

 

 

 

Barolo Day

I opened the aged Barolo last week—and it was wonderful.  If you know a bit about wine you know the Barolo region produces some of the great wines of Italy—usually with a price to match.  But this Bread is not about how good the wine was but why it took me so long to open it.

When I pulled it out of the rack,the bottle was so dusty I could hardly read the label; that tells you how long I’d saved it.  This was a special wine and it deserved a cosmic convergence of the stars:  the perfect main dish, the perfect group of friends to share it, the perfect occasion.  This was not for mindless quaffing; this was for savoring.  The only problem was that the perfect alignment never came.  I could always find an excuse for leaving the Barolo on the shelf.  So there it lay, like a fine painting hanging in the linen closet.

In a rare moment of lucidity I realized that if I was never going to drink this precious Barolo, I might as well have a rack of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill.  So with Gail, a valued friend, and some pretty good Lasagna we popped the cork and had a great evening.

There is certainly a place for extravagant gestures, for killing the fatted calf on a special occasion.  An anniversary or graduation ought to be suitably marked. And most of us can’t afford Barolo every night.  Still, I wonder if we often fail to celebrate as much as we could.  Instead of waiting for the perfect occasion, we can savor the ordinary, but still wonderful, moments of life.

I once read that Americans suffer a great deal of depression after their summer vacations.  Researchers speculated that the reason is that people work solid for 50 weeks and depend on two weeks away to give them enough joy to last the year—and are inevitably disappointed because no vacation can measure up to such expectations.  Better, researchers said, to intersperse fun over the course of the whole year.

Are you vertical today?  Do you have a friend?  Is there food in the pantry?  Is the bursitis in you knee not quite so achy?  Is the tree outside your office window blooming?  Has someone shown you a small kindness?  Sounds like ample reason to pop the cork on the Barolo to me!  Don’t wait for the perfect moment to rejoice; declare it.

BK

Marked with the Cross of Christ 

Yesterday around the dinner table the college students were excited; class rings for the 2017 graduates had arrived.  There were more than a few satisfied students with new sparkles adorning their hands.  It was fun to look at the rings and have students explain the various symbols.  This led to conversation about the upcoming Ring Dance; dresses, suits, shenanigans for mentors and mentees in the CORP of Cadets.  Clearly class rings are an important part of the Hokie identity for students heading into their last year of study.

It would seem that our community never lacks for an opportunity to celebrate!  The Holy Week, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday services gave us plenty of opportunity to reflect and rejoice.  At the Vigil on Saturday Claire and Xavier reaffirmed their Baptism stating what they believe about God coupled with the invitation to continue to live as God’s people sharing their gifts with the community of faith.   For all who attended the Vigil was an opportunity to remember our own baptism, a pivotal point in our Christian identity. 

I’ve been thinking about that evening of celebration and how the baptized  will respond.  Do we wear the identity of Christ and live it in our daily lives with as much fervor as a class ring? 

Several years ago the then Presiding Bishop of the ELCA Mark Hanson wondered how our living faith would manifest itself if each Christian had a small cross tattooed on the right hand between the thumb and forefinger. The mark of the cross would be visible when shaking hands, handling money, or reaching for items.  What do you think?  If your dominate hand was marked with a small cross would it change anything? 

I’m not suggesting that anyone rush out and do this; I am inviting reflection and action. The cross of Christ is a symbol of our identity and our Risen Christ.  It is something to celebrate and share.   As a congregation we still have the responsibility to guide our young friends like Xavier and Claire. As a community of faith we need the encouragement ourselves.

How will the “spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence” be kindled in you?

JCMS

Lady in the Van


Last week I went to see "The Lady in the Van", a movie about a homeless woman who parks herself in a playwright’s driveway for fifteen years. This is one of those movies which could easily send you into sugar shock—curmudgeonly old woman and hapless young man slowly discover one another as violins swell in the background. But, for the most part, Maggie Smith in the title role and a good script keep the treacle in check; there is cayenne in the chocolate. Some in the neighborhood see Mary Shepherd through rosy glasses, an odd but endearing old soul. Alan Bennett, the playwright whose driveway is filled with garbage, bags of human waste, and Shepherd’s hand-painted yellow van, has no such illusions. At one point he describes his squatter as smelly, rude, racist, and ungrateful—yet he invests himself in her welfare for fifteen years.

I write this during Holy Week, a time when television is filled with sentimental costume dramas featuring longing stares and chiseled bodies. I don’t have any real problem with these dramatizations of the Passion. In a culture where colored eggs are more likely than the empty tomb to be seen as the defining symbol of Easter, we can celebrate anything which gets the basic story in front of people. I have only one request, let’s not get too quickly to Easter morn. Passion Week is not a sentimental tale which ends “and they all lived happily ever after.” This story invites us to confront all the darkness which we inflict on one another and to marvel at God’s amazing willingness to see us with no illusions—and still stay invested in our welfare.

We need not indulge in self-flagellation, but let’s get beyond the illusion that we are such swell guys and gals. The wonder of Easter is that we are not always—or even often—so swell, but God loves us anyway. St. Paul cuts to the heart of the matter:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)
Love sees clearly and still gives. Holy Week shows us what that looks like in painful detail. May we see, give thanks, and follow where Jesus has led.

BK

 

Weeds to Flowers

Last week I was in Florida with the college students for Alternative Spring Break. (Tough calling, but someone has to do it, right?)  One of the ministry tasks was to prepare a parcel of land for a Habitat House.  The lot had been abandoned for a while. It was full of glass beer bottles, trash, and rotting vegetation. Our Habitat leader inspired us to be through so children could play safely. In addition a chain link fence had to be removed along with five tree stumps.  We used a machete, an axe, a pry bar, a shovel, our wits, and brute strength to remove the stumps that were intent on remaining in the ground. Each member of the mission team gave it their all.  We extracted the fence posts and the stumps. Our reward was to see the Habitat crew chief place stakes for the foundation.  From an eyesore to property with a purpose; alleviating homelessness.

While I was raking up debris and trimming back bushes I had time to think about my Lenten journey.  Have I been faithful to the task?  Have I been pulling up the stuff that blocks my relationship God; have I allowed God to make any progress in transforming my spiritual life?  

I want my Lenten journey to be less like the roots that won’t yield and more like the bush that I was poised to whack just as the adjoining neighbor Mike came out and stopped me. He informed me that the spindly group of sticks with yellow leaves was a hibiscus.  I didn’t believe him, but I left the plant alone.  When our mission team returned to the lot on day two of the cleanup—there were five flame orange hibiscus blossoms reaching for the sun. The bush apparently needed the debris that blocked the sun to be cut away; from an eyesore to bursting with new life.

Because God is God and God’s love is more powerful than sin-we are transformed. In God’s eyes we brim with purpose and the possibility of new life.  We need to surrender the stubborn roots that are a barrier to the abundant and joy-filled life that God intends for us.  Lent isn’t over, besides the possibility of transformation is never out of reach; God is always walking us out of darkness into the light.

 

JCMS 

Wildfires

It’s not the lightning; it’s the tinder.  During the wildfire season in the West, we often hear a news story about why fires are getting bigger and hotter.  Most wildfires in remote areas are caused by lightning strikes.  The number of strikes has not radically changed in recent years.  Lightning has been setting forests and plains on fire since long before there were humans to see it. 

What has changed is what’s on the ground when the strike hits.  Drought, logging practices which leave a lot of debris and combustible small plants on the forest floor, along with our reluctance to let smaller fires burn, have ensured there is abundant fuel when lightning strikes.  Formerly, lightning might struck a tree and cause a fire.  But it usually burned itself out fairly quickly because there wasn’t enough fuel to sustain a wildfire.  Now those random strikes decimate whole forests and the communities which border them.  Forests are increasingly receptive to becoming an inferno.

It’s not the lightning; it’s the tinder.  Surely, what we hear daily from political candidates is appalling and should not be ignored or condoned.  I have not personally heard such naked appeals to racism, bigotry, and fear-mongering since my South Carolina high school was desegregated in 1970.  Candidates slander one another and appeal to our most base selves.  We dare not minimize the culpability of those who manipulate the fearful.  We need to take them seriously—as seriously as you’d take a cranky toddler with an Uzi.  It’s not that he has anything intelligent to say, but he can cause a lot of harm.  However, when you get to the heart of the matter, these muck miners are not the problem.

There have been and will always be those who incite to hatred.  We can no more stop them than we can stop lightning from striking the forest.  The most terrifying reality is not those who spew fire, but that they are finding tinder eager to be inflamed in our country.  We cannot wish the lightning away, but we do not have to be welcoming fuel for firebrands.  That we can control.  Christians can say in no uncertain terms that we follow the one who said, “Let not your hearts be troubled” and “Love one another as I have loved you” and “Come unto me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest” and “Love your enemies.”

If we do not want to do that, then let’s at least stop claiming our goal is return our country to a mythical Christian Eden—because clearly we would be holding in contempt all that Jesus taught and died to proclaim.

Rejecting rage tactics is not enough.  We must accompany our firm condemnation of prejudice with an equal measure of compassion for those who are hurting so badly that scapegoating makes perverse sense.  We make little progress if we simply hate haters.

All the evidence says that we are in for a lot of lightning strikes in the next few months.  We can’t stop that.  But perhaps we can make sure that our little corner of the forest is so soggy with the waters of our baptism that the fire does not take hold in our lives or in the lives of those we have the power to influence. It’s hard to burn with hate if you are awash in the awareness of God’s love.

BK

The Bread was prepared for you by Pastor Stallings.

In the wee hours of this Sunday morning the students from Lutheran Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech and Radford University will leave for an Alternative Spring Break Trip.  This will be the first time the Radford ministry will make such a trip.  Sharing will enhance the experience for both groups.  Our team is made up of four men and four women; some traditional and non-traditional students that will bring a unique view to the experience.  During the haul down to the Sunshine State we will do some bonding before working on a Habitat build, two feeding ministries, as well as projects at our host church. Both campus ministries can do this because of the generous gifts from members of LMLC and the endowment funds given by a former student of Lutheran Campus Ministry a number of years ago.  It is a privilege to have the time to take students out for a week and the resources for them so the trip is less than $100 apiece.

​What does the team get for $100?    Throughout the week we will learn to notice and care about the needs of others. We will discover our vulnerabilities and privileges. Perhaps we will acquire more humility and gratitude.  We will learn about giving and the challenges of receiving help gracefully. Perhaps we will experience what Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his book Life Together. “Nobody is too good for the lowest service.  Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously.  We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest—perhaps reading the Bible—passed by the man who had fallen among robbers.  When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own way, is what counts.” 

I’m not trying to reduce God’s way to a cost benefit equation.  The opportunity for a “divine appointment” with God is priceless. 

 

JCMS

 

The Bread was prepared for you this week by Pastor Bill King.

“Veni Sancte Spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit) is the beginning of one of the great hymns of the church.  Called the “golden sequence,” you will find it in liturgies spanning from the medieval church to the modern Taize Community.  It speaks the longing a worshiper feels for God.  But when you think about it, the words don’t exactly make sense, do they?

Is God in some distant celestial realm, awaiting a prayerful summons?  Is there a place where God is not already present?  Paul asserts that God exists mystically within every heart.  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words  [Romans 8:26].”

Praying “veni sancte spiritus” might seem akin to saying “come oxygen come” just before taking a big breath.  Do you need to invoke that which engulfs you in every second of every day?

No—and yes.  God is indeed present in all times and places.  God is eagerly drawing near to us, hoping to pull us into a holy embrace.  Paul is right; we constantly carry God’s Spirit with us.  But the invitation is still important.  In The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis notes that one of the distinctive things about God is that the Holy One can not ravish, but only woo.  We often define God in terms of power, but, in fact, love is the defining characteristic of the God revealed in Jesus—and lovers do not barge in where they are not invited.

The Lenten season is about offering that invitation.  Just as we have good friends whom we somehow never get around to inviting over for dinner because our schedules are so crazy, so it is easy for us to get so busy that we never actually block out time to invite God into our hectic lives. 

For the rest of Lent, let me suggest a simple spiritual discipline.  When your alarm goes off in the morning, before you get out of bed, repeat three times, “Veni Sancte Spiritus.”  (Or mouth whatever invitation seems most natural to you) With the hosts of saints who have gone before you, open your heart to the One who longs to comfort, guide, challenge, and sustain you in all that your day will bring.

 

BK

 

Knots of Love

In preparation for the last winter storm I bought yarn; two skeins of a multicolored rough spun yarn that is brown, tan, light and dark turquoise. I’ve noticed that many people buy milk and bread for winter weather events, but not me. 

I wanted to knit a cowl to keep my neck warm for Sunday. Cowls are quick and easy. However when the cowl was done the fabric was too stiff to drape gracefully. I decided to rip out the stitches and make a scarf. After I had knitted half the pattern—I noticed that some stitching had gotten out of order making sloppy work of this fine-looking yarn. Again I ripped and begin afresh. I am glad to report that the third iteration of the scarf is going well. My only hope is that there will be another cold snap so I may enjoy wearing it. 

You might be wondering why I am telling this yarn. (Pun intended) I think our relationship with God is like a knitting project; similar to the Israelites before us, we make mistakes; we try again and again until something pleasing comes from the effort. Through the Old Testament stories and our own relationship with God we can see the pattern of sin, repentance, and God restoration. God always pursues his beloved children with grace and love. 

When we remember God’s extravagant love during Lent, the days ahead can be filled with candid examination, deconstruction, and re-creation. 
JCMS

 

Blood and Ash Wednesday

My agenda for this day includes two items; I need to proof the worship folder for Ash Wednesday and schedule a blood test as part of my annual physical.  It occurs to me that the two items have something in common; both involve pausing to consider what I would prefer to ignore.

Most of the time I give little thought to the blood coursing through my veins and the amazing physical processes it enables.  Nutrients get delivered.  Waste is filtered and carried away.   Thousands of chemical reactions go on automatically without an ounce of conscious oversight on my part. But an aging body is more like my ’89 Volvo than a brand new BMW; there is a high probability that something is going to get out of whack.  So, on the theory that with both bodies and cars it is better to monitor problems than to wait until they stop you dead, I am going to have blood drawn.  I would love to entertain the fantasy that my lifestyle requires no change from when I was 18.  That is just not true and my long term health depends on facing that fact.

Reading the Ash Wednesday liturgy line by line is pretty brutal. It includes an uncompromising recitation of all the ways we fail ourselves, our neighbor, and God.  Then comes the ashen smear on your forehead with an ominous invitation, “Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return.”  Why do we immerse ourselves in the experience of Ash Wednesday and Lent?  Denial is a much more pleasant option.

We do Lent for the same reason that I have blood drawn.  If we are going to be healthy we need to face the reality of our existence.  Relationships do get broken, so they need some attention.  Life is short, so we don’t want to sleepwalk through it.  We are sometimes callous or greedy, so we need to apologize and make amends.

Lent is not about self-hate or gratuitously dwelling on the dreary.  Lent is a gift, an opportunity to take our lives off of autopilot and reflect on whether we are as spiritually healthy as we would like to be.  Embraced it gives us time out from the incessant demands of daily existence to take our bearings and be sure we are on the path that leads to life.  Most of all, Lent is thinking deeply about the divine love, revealed most fully in Holy Week, which does not want us broken, drifting, or filled with regret—and giving thanks for it.

Blood test and Lent—think of each as a diagnostic tool which leads to health.

BK

What Good is Blame? 

Our community is once again in the spotlight of judgement and shame. Nicole Lovell a vivacious 13 year old student at BMS has been killed. Not one but two Virginia Tech students have been arrested in relationship with this crime. The news media is writing about the possible role of social media. The accusations of parental failure and youthful error are circulating. The general 'goodness' of the student body at Virginia Tech is being judged. I'm not sure that this tragedy can be reduced to such simple equations of blame.

 

I remember a time when I was a youngster and I was at my best friends house. We were sitting on the basement steps with wax crayons melting them on the hot water pipe over our heads. The colorful splashes of wax made great random pattern on the steps until one of hot droplets fell on my BFF's eye. There was screaming and yelling. This is all your fault --it was your idea so its your fault.

Brene' Brown's research on shame and vulnerability says that there is always someone to blame. She goes onto say that blame is a 'way to discharge the pain and discomfort of some event.' Blame fogs 'our lens of reality and strips us of our power to make a change for the better. We either hold others responsible for our own shortcomings or blame ourselves for others' problems. Blame can keep us stuck in cycles of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and even trauma'.

I don't think blame in this situation or any other is going to make anybody feel better. This tragedy has devastated the Lovell family, the middle schoolers, the David Eisenhauser and Natalie Keepers families, and the students at VT.

The fact is three lives have been irrevocably changed and the wrenching heartache is shared by us all. We are earthen vessels that stand in need of Gods' forgiveness, love, and grace. 'The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. ' -John 1:5. The spotlight shines on our community calling us to be faithful: to accompany those who are doubled over in pain, to care for one another, to assist our young people to be resilient, and for all of us to live as people of hope in God.

JCMS

 

Parker's Vet Trip

Whenever I talk with my son, Scott, at some point the conversation usually turns to Parker.  Parker is his dog and a lucky dog she is—when I die I want to come back as Scott’s dog because he is wonderfully attentive to Parker’s needs.  Most of the time Scott’s tales of her exploits are pretty light, but this week was a little different.  In a freak accident, Parker face-planted and broke her jaw.  Telling us the gory details of the trip to doggy ER, anesthesia, operations, and splints Scott said, “As I was taking her to the vet I was feeling so bad for her; I knew she was hurting.”  Then he added with wry laugh, “And I was wondering how much this was going to cost me!”

As we hung up the phone Gail and looked at each other and smiled.  “I guess our boy just discovered what it’s like to be a parent.”  Anyone who has every had a child can relate; there is nothing you would not do for your beloved, but, sentimentality aside, kids (or dogs) can be an expensive proposition.

The more I thought about Scott’s comment the more I realized it has an application far beyond dogs and children.  When we understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus we inevitably find our hearts torn by the suffering around us.  Life is a lot easier when you don’t have that pesky voice of Jesus murmuring in your ear about “caring for the least of these.”  When we see the pictures of need or hear the tales of woe, like Scott, we  feel bad and long to alleviate the pain.  I would be simpler indeed to have as a credo, “Go for the gusto; look out for number one.”  But that is not the sort of person we want to be.

Still, there is a cost and we need to realize that if our awakened feelings are not be merely stillborn intention.  Jesus was honest about the cost of following him.  There is always a cost—it may be paid in fewer hours to go running, passing up a phone upgrade to give money to the food pantry, lost sleep as we ponder another’s need, or missing a party to volunteer—but there is always a cost.  Discipleship involves understanding that our call is more than feeling bad, but responding in love by paying the tab.

The thing is…it’s worth it.  That’s what Jesus dares us to believe.  Scott’s wallet is going to be a little lighter by the time Parker is fully healed, but I think he will count the cost as worth it because giving love has a way of enriching us in subtle ways.  Scott will get to play with his crazy dog, that’s the immediate payoff.  But beyond that he will have practiced compassion in a concrete way which opens him up to receiving beauty and love from those around him.  The tit-for-tat payoff of investing ourselves in others is not always obvious, but the impact is like a thousand small brushstrokes which over time build up to form a beautiful picture in our lives and in our world.

Christian Formation is Critical

Last weekend was Winter Celebration: a Virginia Synod Retreat for 9th-12th grade students from across the commonwealth.  The theme was Take Your Mark.  The passage from Hebrews 12:1-3 grounded the event.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” and let us with perseverance run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Three youth from LMLC, our Council President, and I went.  On top of a mountain in Lynchburg we talked about the cloud of witnesses that accompanies us throughout life and the presence of God who sustains us during every aspect of faith and life. 

As a congregation you should be proud to support this ministry of Christian formation.  During our cabin conversations when other youth “tuned out” the youth from LMLC articulated their faith and reflected on their relationship with God.  In addition it was great to see two recent graduates from Lutheran Campus Ministry-The Well.  They were serving as small group leaders and chaperones for youth from their new churches. 

I am thankful for the ways that LMLC supports the youth and the college students.  The future of the church will be secure in the hands of these young people.  In fact go check out the picture of all the graduating seniors  https://www.facebook.com/Luther-Memorial-Lutheran-Church-184005411663379/      I hope the church and the world are ready for them, because these young women and men are sharp and ready to make contributions to both!     JCS 

 

 

Moment of Clarity

Maybe I was just too tired to care, but I don’t think so.  Last week I was visiting my family in Louisiana.  As they say, “You can’t get there from here.”  On the best of days it takes pretty much a whole day to fly from Lake Charles to Roanoke.  This was not the best of days.  We landed in Charlotte, sat on the tarmac for twenty minutes, ran like scared rabbits to make our very tight connection (you literally could not have a longer walk than the one we had from our incoming to outgoing gates)—and discovered that our flight had been canceled.  No more planes that night and the three flying the next day were totally full.  The solution?  American Airlines put us on a bus from Charlotte to Roanoke.

I am not a patient person.  I certainly was not excited about a midnight bus ride.  Yet somehow it did not seem so bad.  I think it was because in my head I kept seeing that iconic picture of a little Syrian boy on the beach, drowned trying to escape the hell in his home country.  As we rode through the night up I-77 I was thinking, “I am warm and fed.  In a few hours I will be safely in my bed.  This delay is the worst thing which has happened to me in a week; how many millions of people would love to say that?  The most onerous consequence of all this is that I will be a little sleepy when I go back to work in the morning.”

Please do not read this reflection as a pious proclamation that I have achieved some sort of Zen state of equanimity in the face of adversity.  On the contrary, I am pretty sure I will be irritable and cranky the next time I face a small sling or arrow of outrageous fortune.   This Bread is more a thanksgiving for being given a moment of clarity.  Much of our unhappiness can be traced to a loss of perspective.  As I write this a bunch of Vikings, Redskins, and Tigers fans are in agony—but last time I looked the sun was still coming up.  Finally, much of what steals our peace of mind just doesn’t matter in the long term.  My hope for you is a life giving moment of clarity and perspective next time you confront a challenge great or small.

BK

 

IMG_3515

 

O Morning Star

Today is the feast of Epiphany.  It’s a razzle dazzle kind of day in which we want to recognize shiny things—not just any shiny thing—but a star that guides the nations to come visit the newborn King. The verses of Isaiah 60:1-7 alludes to the incarnation of Jesus.

If you prefer a more poetic rendition read the New Revised Version of passage.  Below is Eugene Petersons take on it.  I often refer to him to jolt me out of complacency.

“Get out of bed, Jerusalem!

      Wake up.  Put your face in the sunlight.

God’s bright glory has risen for you.

       The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,

All people sunk in deep darkness,

       But God rises on you,

His sunrise glory breaks over you.”

Epiphany abounds with inexpressible joy that God has sent Jesus to be with us; Jesus who brings light and life to all.  May we celebrate and give thanks for the full vision of God’s glory. 

JCS

 

Thou Art the Man

Periodically I have a “thou art the man moment.”  If you do not know the allusion it comes from the confrontation of King David and the prophet Nathan.  David, out of hubris and lust, murders one of his loyal commanders and commandeers his wife.  Nathan comes to David and tells him the story of a rich man who had a big flock but, for a feast, killed the one lamb of his poor neighbor.  David is enraged and vows judgment on this wicked man.  Nathan replies, “Thou art the man.”

My latest moment came last week as I was reading a passage by Joan Chittister on the subject of non-violence.  She writes, “…nonviolent resistance is committed to making friends out of enemies…The goal of nonviolent resistance is to concentrate on issues rather than belittling, demeaning, or destroying people who hold positions different from our own.”

As I read those words my heart was strangely warmed, not with the joy which John Wesley describes at hearing Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans read in Aldersgate, but with shame at how often I have failed to make the distinction between perspectives I find troublingly  dangerous and the people who hold them.  We dare not be afraid to bear witness to the often unpopular way of Christ.  But there is never any excuse for making those to whom we speak feel dismissed and disdained.   Even if others are mistaken they will never consider a new way if they believe we have no interest in understanding and respecting them.

There are a lot ways to be violent and only some of them involve guns, knives, and fists.  When we are more interested in being right than in understanding, we yield to violence.  When we are more interested in coercion than persuasion, we yield to violence.  When we oversimplify and stereotype another person because nuance is too difficult, we do violence to a child of God.

It did not take me long to think of moments when I have done violence to another in talking with my children, in casual conversation, in Facebook postings, in writing a sermon.  Words are powerful tools and in these days when there is so much violence around us, when guns are blazing in Paris, Syria, and San Bernardino, and verbal blasts are exploding on the campaign trail, we do well to consider how we can be agents of non-violence.  We do not have to agree with one another, but we can at least commit to respecting the dignity of all with whom we come in contact.

 

Zen Seeds

The devotional resource I have been using quoted this brief saying from a Zen master, “The seed never sees the flower.”  Such brief observations are less about conveying information than inviting one into reflection, and on that day it worked.

The image of the seed is, of course, a familiar one in the New Testament.  Jesus told parables about seeds, soils, and the things which make for growth.  Thinking of his impending passion, he observed that a seed must die if it is to give life.  The image is familiar, but somehow I had never really pondered the relationship in time between seed and flower.  What does it mean that the seed never sees the flower?

I am one of those people who likes to have the whole thing mapped out in advance.  Before I start I like to have a pretty good idea of where I will end up.  That is true whether I am taking a trip or writing a sermon.  I have a hard time beginning unless I can see the conclusion.  That makes me pretty focused for a sprint, but not so good in a marathon, where the goal is far removed from the starting point.

So I found this Zen saying to be an important reminder of how the really important transformations in the world take place.  Imagine how many generations of Black grandmothers in the Jim Crow South kept planting the seed of dignity in their children until the soil was finally ready for it to sprout.  How hard that must have been to keep planting when the evidence was so strong that there would never be a flowering.

Imagine how hard it must have been for the early Christians to keep the faith for several hundred years when it appeared that this little sect would be a tiny footnote in the historical narrative of Rome.  Generations were born, grew old, and died without seeing much which looked like success as the world measures it.

Sometimes we are blessed to see the fruition of our efforts:  a child grows up and makes us proud, we take a hard project to successful completion, the candidate for whom we labored wins the election.  Yet just as often we feel more like a single drop of water in the stream pushing up against a granite bank—we can’t see that we have made any immediate impact.  It is hard to remember that millions of drops on that same spot will carve a gorge.

Advent is a season which prompts us to understand that planting seeds is just as important as seeing the flowers bloom, for, absent patient planting, there will be no blossoms.  We may never know how our words redeem another from despair; how a chance act of kindness prevented a suicide or a relapse.  We fling the seeds and let the flowers take care of themselves.  Our task is to faithfully plant and not despair when the fruits are delayed—and to give hearty thanks in those moments when the seed does see the fruit.

BK

 

Finding the Right Words...and Ears

In his Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen discusses the symbolism of shoes.  In many parts of the world shoes distinguish the rich and free from the poor and disenfranchised.  He writes, “For many poor people, getting shoes is a benchmark passage.  An old Afro-American spiritual expresses this beautifully: ‘All of God’s chillun got shoes.  When I get to heab’n I’m going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all ovah God’s heab’n.’”

Perhaps it was the recent controversy at the University of Missouri over the racial climate which made me notice, but I looked at those lyrics and reflected on how some might react to Nouwen’s rendering:  “This is just what you would expect from a white European.  Blacks are portrayed as illiterate and unable to speak proper English.  This is the Uncle Remus image of the American Black which perpetually condescends and infantacizes a people.”

Nouwen could have written, “All of God’s children have shoes.  When I get to heaven, I’m going to put on my shoes; I’m going to walk all over God’s heaven.”  But then the critique might read, “In the midst of bondage no slave ever sang the words like that.  To render the lyrics this way is to sanitize a dark time and render invisible a heroic people who crafted a distinctive voice in the face of oppression.”

Let me be 100% clear:  The civil rights struggle in our country is ongoing and in some ways more challenging than in earlier times because deeply ingrained attitudes are a lot less visible and much harder to confront than Jim Crow laws.  De jure racism was the low-hanging fruit—and brazen racial gerrymandering and voter suppression laws make it clear that even that battle is not over.  We still have a long journey to racial justice and harmony and we need to be on the road.

I mention a song lyric to illustrate that even when we want to move ahead we may not be sure of the language to do so.  We want to be respectful but we are not always sure what that means.  I have heard both black and white persons offer each of the above critiques or ones very much like them.  Each, in its own way, lifts up an important facet of the challenge we face.

We are going to be on this journey for a long time.  May I suggest two principles?  First, let’s listen to one another.  Let’s listen especially to those who daily live the legacy of racism.   This is not about political correctness. It’s not about what folks “ought” to feel or see.  This is about the empirical reality that I can only understand you if I let you tell me what you experience day after day.

Second, let’s assume, unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that folks are trying to understand and be respectful.  We make mistakes.  We unintentionally offend.  Can we make the default assumption that another is unaware rather than malevolent?  In his exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism, Luther says that part of not bearing false witness against our neighbors is that we “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”  Whether the context is the struggle for racial justice, disagreements on the youth soccer field, or the upcoming mud wrestling matches we call presidential primaries and elections, Luther’s words are worth memorizing and displaying as your computer’s screen saver.

BK

 

Birthday Greetings

I understand that Facebook is piloting a new setting.  Whenever a friend’s birthday comes up on your feed, it will automatically type “happy birthday” or “have a good one” (your choice) on their timeline.  That way folks who have a lot of Facebook friends don’t have to waste a lot of time typing…

No, I’m kidding.  To my knowledge this new setting is not in the works, but I wonder why not.  I am not sure why so much typing goes into expressing sentiments with all the personal warmth and thoughtfulness of an election season robo-call.  Just out of curiosity I clicked on all 123 greetings posted on a friend’s birthday.  There were precisely two which could not have been just as appropriately posted on the Facebook pages of Attila the Hun, Godzilla, or Snoopy.   Virtually nobody spoke to the unique humanity of this person I know to be very special indeed.

Perhaps I sound like a grump, an old geezer screaming at the kids to get off his Facebook lawn.  Don’t get me wrong; I like being remembered as much as the next guy.  I’m not against giving folks a shout out on their birthdays.  Au contraire, we desperately need to create genuine community in a world which treats us as numbers and interchangeable pieces.  We should take time to offer genuine appreciation to one another.  When so much of daily life conspires to make us feel unimportant, someone naming why we are special to him or her is a great gift.

I worry that the faux intimacy of dashing off a formulaic birthday post fools us into thinking we are creating the real deal.  Community happens when we know and are known by other people at more than superficial levels.  Affirmation is meaningful and supportive when it reflects some awareness of the complex combination of traits which makes me who I am.  Friendship is cheap when it does not cost us at least a little time and thought.

A modest proposal for those who use Facebook:  Tomorrow when all those birthday prompts pop up (“Today is Joe Blow’s birthday, send him a greeting….”), instead of responding with a Pavlovian, “Happy birthday” to them all, pick out one person who really has meant something to you, one person who might need you to name their specialness, one person whom you’ve appreciated but never gotten around to telling—and write them an actual note that tells them exactly why you are glad they were born.

Maybe it’s just me, I’d rather get one diamond than a hundred pieces of gravel— wouldn’t most folks?

Grace at the Buffet

It was not the best breakfast buffet you’ve ever seen, not even in the top hundred.  Stale pastries, bruised apples, and brown bananas would have been a step up from what was laid out at the conference I attended last week.  The coffee was good, but the rest left a lot to desired.  Indeed, it was not immediately obvious exactly what was being offered.  At one end of the table were juice glasses filled with an unknown gelatinous substance that came in a variety of colors (including that industrial green they painted my elementary school bathroom).  Best bet:  fruit smoothies—though folks seemed reluctant to take that bet.

The other option was a brownish glob with a white film on top, served in a parfait glass. In the tone little boys use as they poke a dead insect with a stick, someone asked, to nobody in particular, “What’s that?   Carl piped up, “I think it’s Mucinex.”  We all did a small double-take because Carl is not the sort who makes snarky comments (in contrast to yours truly).   Then, like sun slowly peaking through the clouds, it hit us.  “Do you mean Muesli?” Ed ventured. The line exploded in laughter—with Carl laughing the loudest of all.

Carl is one of the smartest pastors in our synod and yet he was totally unconcerned by his faux pas.  I realized that is one reason I like him so much.  He takes his work very seriously and does it with exceptional skill, but he holds his ego with a light hand.  He admits his limitations and acknowledges his mistakes, without being overly concerned about either.  I envy him.  I am more likely to be mortified by failings and become either defensive or brooding.

The ability to laugh at yourself is to be prized, but my point is a little more than that.  Carl knows Martin Luther’s writings far better than most and I suspect one reason for his healthy attitude is that he has internalized the core of the Lutheran confession that we can not—and need not—justify ourselves.  Carl’s self-worth is not rooted in his accomplishments or lack of screw ups.  I think he actually believes that he is valuable because God’s has called him beloved, apart from his manifold gifts and accomplishments.  Because God has pronounced him precious, he worries less than most about proving it.  He just goes about living as faithfully as he can.

Theology can be terribly abstract.  “Justification by grace received through faith” easily becomes a slogan.  Sometimes it shows up in something as mundane as confusing Mucinex and Muesli and being able laugh instead of cringe.  Whatever challenges you face this day, may you rest in the assurance that you are loved beyond measure, that no mistake or failing can take that away.

BK

Love is Attention

What does love look like?  When I was growing up it looked like my Dad working very long hours in a dim study to ensure that my brother and I had a safe, secure home and every opportunity to realize our potential.  It looked like my Mom teaching me to read with a primer called Little Lost Bobo, sacrificing a job she loved and a career in which she could have excelled so that I could thrive (a sacrifice for which I never really thanked her).  Once a year it looks like me trying to write a poem for my wife, Gail, on our anniversary.  Every day it looks like her choosing to appreciate my smallest virtue and forgive my manifold failings.

Think for a minute and I suspect you can come up with your own mental picture of what love has looked like in your life.  This week I ran across a phrase which sums it up, “Love is attention.”  It was a throw away line in an NPR interview, but it lingered in my thoughts all day because it is the golden thread which runs through virtually every expression of love I can think of.

In our “click and go” world there is no more precious currency than our undivided attention.  Some have money to spare; a big check may or may not mean love.  But ignore your phone while you are talking to someone, take time to write a thoughtful note of condolence or thanks, listen intently while another pours out her sorrows—then, my friend, you have given a priceless gift which is rarer than rap at the Grand Ole Opry.

When we give our attention we give our verdict, “You are very important!”  We give an invitation, “Let me know you better; tell me what is important to you and how we can enrich one another.”  We give warmth to one who may be chilled to bone by the world’s apathy and antagonism.  By the same token when we are habitually late for meetings with someone, when we fidget with our text screen during conversation, when we never willing linger to “just to talk,” we make it equally clear what we think of a person.

On our best days we may aspire to being one of the movers and shakers who accomplish great things for the good of humanity.  Such is a worthy goal, but the truth is that most of our grand projects, which seem so important in the moment, really aren’t.  In terms of changing the direction of the world, our agendas usually have about as much impact as a six inch rudder on an aircraft carrier.  In contrast, a moment of attention at a critical moment may turn someone’s life around.

Think about the people who have made the greatest impact on your life.  I am willing to bet it was someone who gave you the gift of their full attention.  Maybe you can be that person for someone today.

BK

 

I Don't Care...

I am a sucker for a deliberately provocative line which first sounds absurd then pivots to deliver a zinger.  Such was this statement by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber during a recent interview on Fresh Air:  “I don’t care what people believe: I care what they hear.”

Now that is a heck of a thing for a pastor to say, akin to a politician claiming, “I don’t care how people vote.”  Isn’t the whole point of being a preacher (or indeed a committed Christian) bearing witness to Jesus because we do care what people believe—care enough to share something we think is life-changing.  I argued back at my podcast, “What do you mean you don’t care?”

Her point, however, was not, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.”  She was not saying it makes no difference whether you live in destructive or life-giving ways.  She was certainly not counseling an attitude which looks like tolerance but is really apathy in the face of another’s suffering and poor choices.

She was, I think, acknowledging that we do not have the power or wisdom to dictate another person’s beliefs.  Even assuming that we have a perfect understanding of who God is and what God is trying to do in other’s lives (which we don’t), we can not impose our ideas and perspectives on them.  Caring about belief in that futile way is the stuff of inquisition and jihad, an admission that we trust coercion more than our confession, that we prefer lip service to deep transformation.

We should not care what people believe, in the sense that it is not our job to ensure they are properly growing into God’s intention for them (that is the Holy Spirit’s portfolio). But, as Bolz-Weber notes, we should care what others hear from us in word and deed.  That we can control.  We can control whether others deduce from our witness that the God we confess is loving and concerned about justice.  We can control whether we convey bitterness or forgiveness, unmitigated justice or grace.  A few may reject Christ because they find the arguments for faith inadequate, but that number is dwarfed by the many who turn away because they see little in believers’ lives which  engages and welcomes them.

Consider how much effort you put into trying to impose your will on the often unwilling.  How is that working out for you?  Might it not be better to invest that energy in embodying Christ’s love and letting others discover for themselves a way that leads to life?  How very different our witness and effectiveness might be if we mentally began each encounter by silently repeating, “I do not care what you believe; I care desperately whether you hear God’s grace in these next moments.”

[If you did not click on the link in the first paragraph, I strongly encourage you to do so.  It is both wonderfully engaging and the best statement of the Lutheran emphasis on grace I have heard in a long time…The interview really is worth your time.]

BK

 

Of Cigars and Fish Heads

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”  Though some attribute the quotation to Freud himself, most believe it to be a witty critique of Freudian over-analysis of dreams and symbols.  We can see great significance where there really is none.  I thought of that observation last week as the drama of a clerk of court, jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, played out in Eastern Kentucky,.  Some have tried to frame this as religious persecution, but sometimes ignorance and bigotry is just ignorance and bigotry—nothing more or less.

To risk belaboring the obvious, there is nothing new here.  This is the same defense that prejudice has been offering for at least sixty years:  “My faith tells me that blacks are inferior (Ham cursed in the Noah narrative).”  “The Bible says that the races should not mix.”  “God does not want blacks and whites to marry.”  “Scripture says that the woman’s place is in the home—and therefore it is fine to pay them less in the workforce…”  The intellectual pedigree of these arguments is not Jesus, the Apostle Paul, or Martin Luther King Junior; it is George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms.

As I said, I risk belaboring the obvious, but I think there is a bigger issue to which persons of faith do well to be sensitive.  Some believers act as though calling an action or belief “Christian” or “religious” somehow places it beyond critique.  Music can be trite, repetitive, and unimaginative, but that is okay because it is “Christian Rock.”  The characters can be stiff as sheetrock and the plot totally predictable but we are supposed to give it a pass because it is “Christian literature.”  Calling creationism “biblical” is supposed to magically make appalling bad science somehow credible.  By the same token some suggest any attitude or belief should receive credence just because its adherent claims it is rooted in his or her “religion.”

This sort of uncritical thinking does religious faith no favors; indeed, it gives evidence to those who say that religion is just a way to give divine sanction to ignorance.  Calling something Christian should not free it from scrutiny; it subjects it to the greatest scrutiny of all:  Does it really reflect the life and ministry of Jesus?  Of course Ms. Davis should have the freedom to believe homosexuality is wrong (which is different from ignoring the law she had pledged to uphold), but she does not have the right to assert ignorance as fact.  She does not have the right to claim the sanction of Jesus when she so clearly has little of his spirit.  She does not get a free pass because she is sincere, anymore than my neighbors should have gotten one in 1964 because they sincerely believed Blacks were too dumb to vote.

The sad thing is that unless other Christians, ones who have caught the gracious vision of Jesus Christ, call her and her ilk on it; the world easily sees Christians as intellectually lazy and morally hidebound.  At some point you just have to say it:  The rotting fish head of prejudice stinks no less if you call it a “religious” fish head.

In criticizing Ms. Davis I risk becoming that which I critique, self-righteous.  I only mean to say that I believe she is wrong and that measured by the standard of Jesus, her actions are more a betrayal than an affirmation of his Way.  I invite you to make your own determination of whether she reflects the spirit of Jesus.  Just don’t say the question is out of bounds just because her actions are rooted in her religious beliefs…

BK

 

Bread for the Journy, September 2

Last Friday a friend helped me deliver my chaise lounge to the re-upholster.  This piece of furniture was the queen seat at my grandmothers home complete with a Jetson’s era TV remote. When the lounge came to my mother’s house some thirty-five years ago it was the place where she recovered from two nasal surgeries. This lounging couch made to my house thirty five years ago where I snuggled with my daughter as we read Junie B. Jones books. Now it lodges in my apartment by a sunny window where it makes a reading and napping nest on a winter afternoon.

It’s not a great piece of furniture, just enduring.  It has been prized by generations and revived from time to time with new stuffing, restored springs, and fresh fabric. Someday I will pass it on to the fourth generation. 

So why am I taking you on this sentimental journey?

In a way it is like our faith which has been passed on from generation to generation.  Maybe you remember what it says in Romans 8:16b…”we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…”  In baptism we are brought into God’s family.  The gifts of God are put in our hands; scripture, the sacraments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the gifts of community and service.  This is our inheritance that we want to share with our children.

Our children will come to value all of these things when we lead them by the hand to Sunday school and worship.  Our children will believe what they see modeled by their parents as they participate in their own Sunday school class, worship, pray or read scripture.  Our children will come to live it when they see members of the household of God involved in service.  Unlike my chaise lounge which is a sentimental passive form, our faith is a living active identity in Christ, where we find comfort, challenges, and new life. 

The program year is beginning this Sunday.  There many options for Christian formation. These are occasions to find community, to learn, to raise questions, to enrich our faith and pass on to our children ways to reach out to our neighbor in service and share the love of God.

 

JCS

 

Cost of Change

Catherine Booth, co-founder of The Salvation Army, observed, “If we are to better the future we must disturb the present.”  These are words simultaneously simple, eloquent, obvious, and profound.  They point to a paradox of life:  everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.  All of us long for a better future, but we generally resist anything demanding change.

Last week I was counseling with a young woman who has found it hard to get her life on track.  She knows she can not continue in a dead-end job, living hand to mouth, but finds it hard to move in another direction.  “I’m just afraid of shaking things up; I guess I’ve gotten comfortable in a strange way, even though I know this is not what I want.”  She could just as easily have been a woman in an abusive relationship, a man in a bad marriage, or anyone who gets up in the morning dreading another mind-numbing day. Until the cost of staying put is more than the fear which change ignites, we prefer lethargic misery to the anxiety of the new.

A similar dynamic operates in groups and organizations, including the church.  Luther Memorial congregation is in the midst of strategic planning and one way to think about the overarching question we are asking is, “What are we willing to disturb in the present in order to be where God needs us to be in the future?”  That is a particularly hard question to face when there is much about our present which we value.  It is one thing to boldly set out for a new land when the place you live offers few prospects; it is quite another to turn your back on a comfortable home with only the possibility that the distant country will offer new delights.  Still, there is an iron logic which we can not escape, “If we are to better the future, we must disrupt the present.” There is no beautiful garden without the temporary ugliness of plowing and seeding, no exhilaration of reaching the far shore without the terrifying disorientation of time on the open sea.

I offer this Bread because fear of change seems so powerful these days.  Politicians pander to our anxious awareness that the past (often viewed through a rosy, nostalgic haze) is gone and will never come again; they invite us to dig in our heels against new realities—and possibilities.    That young woman I mentioned is hardly alone; she is legion in our society, despairing that her future can be better than her limited present.

There are scary challenges before us, but Scripture bears witness that our God is a god of journeys, one who calls us to boldness and dares us to trust that we will be sustained as we are faithful.  God desires that we live with joy—as individuals, as a society, and as a community called together in Jesus’ name.  Are you feeling the need for a change?  Dare to disrupt your present in the hope of realizing God’s future for you and our world.

BK

Diverse Art

I’ve been doing some interior decorating.  For the past two years the long office wall which my desk faces has been blank.  Now four pieces hang there:  a bright impressionistic painting of Maasai men which I bought in Tanzania, a reproduction of Andrei Rublev’s icon “The Trinity,” a black and white rendering of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, sketched by friend and given to me as a gift; and a cross-stitch of a favorite poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning which my wife made for me.

I don’t know what one with a more polished eye than mine would say about this grouping or the way I have them hung; they have little in common in style or subject.  What unifies them is my life; each calls to mind a special person, a place, a turning in my journey.  Each represents a brushstroke in the painting which is me. I have been formed by the diverse experiences, people, and ideas which put these particular artistic expressions on my wall.

Earlier in my life I felt a much greater need to like some types of art and dislike others, to think in terms of either/or.  That had more to do with my ignorance than the merit of the art; I disliked what I did not understand.  I hope I have grown; one sign of aesthetic maturity is greater appreciation of different styles and themes, a more comprehensive vision.

What is true in art is often true of religion.  We limit what we can appreciate.  We seldom say it so explicitly, but we may act as though granting the beauty or truth of a “non-Christian” perspective is somehow being disloyal to our core convictions.  In a misplaced effort to honor our faith we choose to be willfully blind to richness which also comes from God, but is not explicitly Lutheran or even Christian.

One reason Jesus inspired such devotion was his way of blurring the distinctions between holy and profane, religious and secular.  When communicating the most sublime truth he preferred images as ordinary as seed, weeds, and sheep.  He could look at a Samaritan, a centurion, or leper and see something precious to affirm.  In a world which loves to divide us, it is smart—indeed crucial for our survival—to cultivate a broad vision of the holy.  But more than that, we cheat ourselves when we refuse to receive an unfamiliar or challenging perspective.

I will always have a special place in my heart for Monet or Rembrandt, but I’ve learned to appreciate the passion and insight of Jackson Pollock or Salvador Dali.  So too we can find delight in the parables of Jesus and still be moved by the poetry of Rumi or benefit from pondering a Buddhist koan.  The first words of that cross-stitch hanging on my wall say it well, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…”  Open your eyes to today.  Cultivate the ability to appreciate beauty and truth wherever it may present itself for your delight and edification.

BK

Power of Gratitude

The devotional book I am reading recently included this observation by 13th Century mystic Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘Thank You,’ that would suffice.”

My thoughts immediately ran to circle of which I was a part a few weeks ago.  “Sisters in Sobriety,” the Alcoholics Anonymous group for women which gathers weekly at Luther Memorial, graciously invited me to join them for an “open meeting” (in contrast to closed meetings, which are limited to those dealing with alcoholism).   The women who took their places in the corner of the fellowship hall were a cross-section of our community.  Some obviously bore the marks of poverty or a long battle with addiction.  Others could just as easily have been heading out to their children’s soccer match as attending an AA meeting.  You would pass them on the street and never guess the internal life and death struggle in which they are engaged.  Whatever their differences the sense of community was palpable.

The focus of this particular meeting was “gratitude.”  For an hour I sat in increasingly moved silence as one after another bore witness to the power of simply giving thanks.  Several told essentially the same story.  “The turning point came when my sponsor demanded that each day I write down three things for which I am grateful.  I hated her for making me do that; I thought, ‘This is so lame.’  But one day I realized that I really did have something to be thankful for.  Then I did not feel quite as much need to drink.”

The meeting was an outpouring of thanksgiving:  thanks for a day of hiking, thanks for the women in the circle, thanks for a new job, thanks for seeing that they did not have to be perfect, thanks for patient friends and family.  Above all, they gave thanks for just one more day of sobriety, one more day of experiencing life, with all its joys and sorrows, without the haze of alcohol.

All too often we do not savor the preciousness of  the ordinary.  We take for granted the ability to see the sun rise, to hear a baby’s laugh, to walk without pain.  We assume as our due friends who care for us, abundant food, and a secure home.  We are much more likely to focus on what is wrong than the thousands of blessings which fill out laps, to become outraged when something which was ours as pure gift is taken away.  Whatever the hard lessons losing much to alcohol had taught them, the women in that circle had learned to give praise for the simple things—and it was transforming them bit by bit.

Gratitude is not a sappy denial of the pain we experience; it is simply noticing that in the midst of that pain there is also much which is fundamentally right, precious, and joy-giving.  It is the commitment to echo the Creator’s judgment on our world, with all its sadness and setbacks:  “It is good.”  Gratitude flushes the pus out of our festering sense of self-pity and allows us to heal from whatever has wounded us.  It is the stream which cools our pointless rage at the world and opens us to receiving blessing in all circumstances.

Take a page out of the Sister’s playbook:  On rising and retiring this week, take time to explicitly say “thank you” for three specific things.  You may be surprised at what a difference it makes.

[Note:  Before writing this Bread I explicitly asked the convener of the Sisters in Sobriety group if I could share my thoughts on their meeting.  She assured me that as long as no personal details were shared, it would be fine.  I would never want to compromise the good work they are doing.  If you are aware of someone who could benefit from this group, they meet each Monday and Thursday at Luther Memorial, 6:30 p.m., and except for rare exceptions, such as the invitation extended to me, meetings are closed for the sake of confidentiality]

BK

 

Vacation and Sabbath

What do a visit to the Gettysburg battlefield, a guided tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reunion with old friends, wine tasting in the Finger Lakes, riding roller coasters, hiking in the Poconos, long drives with your spouse, and seeing a production of Antony and Cleopatra have in common?  They are all things I did on my recent time away.

Before you hit delete, let me assure you this Bread is not merely, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”  Nothing is more tedious that a detailed description of someone else’s fun.  I share this list, not to tell you what I did, but why.  All these pursuits fed my soul in one way or another.

This is the season when many of us are blessed with the luxury of taking a break from the tasks which occupy our energy most of the year.  (In passing,  remember it is a luxury, many do not have the gift of respite, due to a lack of money, time, or schedule flexibility.  We do well to begin time away with a bit of thanks.)  Let me offer a suggestion as you head out:  Make it more than just vacation; make it a time of sabbath.

Vacation is merely not doing what you usually do; it is ceasing to work.  There is certainly value in that; sometimes our most pressing need is to stop pushing ourselves.  But a vacation which is no more than ceasing to work is a bit like a diet which is only not eating bad stuff; a good diet is also choosing that which builds up our bodies.

Sabbath is different from vacation.  Sabbath is more than ceasing, it is actively embracing that which heals, energizes, inspires, and renews.  Sabbath has an intentionality which carves out time and energy for the pursuit of what feeds us.  I do not mean to suggest that our time away should be as driven as our time at work.  No, my suggestion is that you think about what really gives you joy, what makes that crush in your chest ease, what puts spring back in your step—and be sure you use precious time away wisely.

Most of us do not give much thought to what really gives us energy.  Before you head out, think about what will re-center and renew you. Your list will be different from mine; Shakespeare is not necessarily better for this purpose than a few days at the beach with an escapist novel.  I do invite you, however, to think about what you need so that you do not waste the gift of time.  Don’t just take a vacation; receive a sabbath for the sake of your soul’s health.

BK

 

Getting Ready for New Students

During the last couple of mornings I have been a hostess at the religious preference table during new student orientation.  Parents and students are in town to get the low down on the transition to the university.  It’s an interesting parade of people; some are confident leaders, timid followers, some are excited and some are clearly overwhelmed. At these sessions there is a lot of information to be gathered, digested, and implemented, but overall the atmosphere is hopeful and exciting. 

It serves as a reminder that in the near future we will be meeting and greeting these terrific young people.  In an effort to understand the incoming students I looked at the Beloit College list so I can get a snap shot of their experiences.  The list has 55 comments—I’ve picked out 12.  Knowing the context from which they come is a way that we can extend the hand of hospitality to them as they move into the community, attend our classes, and worship at LMLC.

·        When they see wire-rimmed glasses, they think of Harry Potter, not John Lennon.

·        Women have always attended the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.

·        Courts have always been overturning bans on same-sex marriages.

·        Joe Camel has never introduced on of them to smoking.

·        Hello Dolly…cloning has always been a fact, not science fiction.

·        Female referees have always officiated NBA games.

·        Hell has always been associated less with torment and more with nothingness.

·        While the number of Americans living with HIV has always been going up, American deaths from AIDS has always been going down.

·        The rate of diagnosed diabetes has always been shooting up during their lifetime.

·        “Good feedback” means getting 30 likes on your last Facebook post in a single afternoon.

·        Since Toys R Us created a toy registry for kids, visits to Santa are just a formality.

·        “Press pound” on the phone is now translated as “hit hashtag.”

While this list gives us a picture of their differences-one thing we have in common is that we are children of God living out our vocation as we seek to serve God. 

JCS

 

 

 

Giving Thanks for Seeds

Periodically someone comes up to me and says, “Pastor, I don’t know how you do it.  I could never stand up and preach every week (by the way, how do you make sense of that tiny sheet of paper?).  You get pulled so many directions; your schedule’s always getting turned upside down; people nipping at your heels for the smallest thing….”

I won’t lie.  There are days when I might trade my calling for something else, but then I suspect you would say the same thing about your job.  Whenever I have “one of those days” I sit back, close my eyes, and flip through my mental rolodex (okay, so that dates me) of all the saints in the congregation whose faithfulness is so much a given that it like respiration in the body—essential yet easily unnoticed.  Week in, week out, money is counted, linens laundered, bulletins folded and stapled, grass mowed, schedules painstakingly made, meals cooked, rides arranged, planning done, coffee brewed, clean ups completed, forms filled out, visits made, prayers offer, caring telephone calls made, backpacks gathered, food distributed, children taught, words of affirmation spoken….

The privilege of being a pastor is that I get to sit at the nexus of where so much care and compassion is being offered. I am blessed to see how the care of my people makes a difference in people’s lives.

Jesus said that the kingdom is like a little seed.  It starts out small and grows big.  It gets planted and when you turn around twice it has somehow come to maturity.  Sometimes the fruits of the Spirit’s action are dramatic and obvious.  I write this on the day when the Supreme Court has upheld the dignity of gays who desire to marry.  I rejoice in this fruit come to maturity.  More often the kingdom’s fruits are less obvious, but no less meaningful for the one person whose heart is lifted by a moment of care.

In a world where there is murder in Charleston, ISIS on the rampage, misconduct in the pastoral ranks, naked selfishness in regard to the health needs of our neighbors, and a glut of pundits who are often wrong but viciously never in doubt, it is easy to lose sight of the seeds which are growing slowly but inexorably to make Christ known.

I invite you to join me in flipping through that rolodex (or contacts list) and giving thanks for all those who give Christ a body in our world.

BK

All in How You Ask the Question

My congressman sent out a questionnaire that included this question, “Do you support or oppose the Environmental Protection Agency enacting new regulations that make it harder to use coal as an energy source, killing local jobs and driving up electricity rates? 

You will not be surprised to find out that the overwhelming majority opposed the EPA’s action—and that, of course, was Congressman Griffith’s intention.  This was not a true survey; this was a ludicrous, ideologically driven phrasing of a question to get the answer he wanted.  My point, however, is not primarily the politics of coal, but the power of words.

Suppose the question had been phrased, “Do you support or oppose policies which help make air clean, water free of pollutants, and Southwest Virginia and the rest of the world a fit place to live for generations to come?  Do you believe that we should pursue short-term expediency at the cost of our children’s health and future?  The numbers might have been a little different.  It’s all in how you ask the question.

The ability to name and frame is among the most important powers we have.  It matters whether we call the poor among us “unfortunate neighbors” or “deadbeats.”  How we respond to immigrants is driven by whether we see them as the source of “cultural enrichment” or a “threat to our way of life.”  Our attitude toward the plight of those without access to good healthcare pivots on whether we see it as “their problem” or “our problem.”  Words matter.  Our words construct the filter through which we see the world.

There will always be those who deliberately frame questions so as to evoke fear and to appeal to the basest, most short-sighted selfishness.  Christians are called to frame our questions and responses so as to seek the common good.  Not once did Jesus make a decision based on what was in his personal best interests.  He sought what was best for the least and lost.  When we follow him, we do the same.

BK

 

Thinking about Words

Yesterday I read a stimulating article.  It was on-line.  I wish I had bookmarked it.  I can’t find it.  I’ve tried every combination imaginable. The gist of it was something like this: words that we should eliminate from our vocabulary. It really didn’t focus on “you know” or that word “like” which tumble out after every third word for some.   The article wasn’t about the over-use of amazing, always, very, or awesome. (I have fallen prey to these.)

               The article challenged the use of words that can hurt others. Maybe you have heard of the term “microaggression” which refers to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”  I think microagressions can be expanded to include women, men, sexual orientation, or references to “certain” people.

  I’m not just talking about the N-word. We have known that the N-word is strictly off limits since we were old enough to have our mouths washed out with soap, however this offensive word still crops up. 

I’m talking about popular words, seemly innocuous words that people to say; “that is a really black idea”. It can be used to refer to something that is wrong, mysterious or dark.  It seems harmless enough until there is a dark skinned person in the circle of conversation.  Then it can imply that some are naturally wrong.  In spheres of conversation one might hear that something is “lame”; meaning it is unoriginal, stupid, or lifeless. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much, but think about those who have lost a limb or those who are wheelchair bound. How does that sound to them?

               I am guilty of using; “gyp”. I grew up with this word that speaks of being swindled. I learned from my college students that it casts aspersions on a group of people from South Asia.  Another one I have used when identifying a motorcycle is “rice burner”--that’s a bike which is not the full throttled roar of a Harley, meaning; cheap, not American made.  I’m trying to weed these expressions out my vocabulary, but l learned these phrases on the playground.

               In the early years of my ministry whenever I was invited to fill a pulpit in down-East North Carolina I was usually the first clergywomen folks had experienced. One summer I was asked to preach in a small historic church in Halifax.  I was pleased to be invited into the community known as "The Birthplace of Freedom". This is the location for the adoption of the Halifax Resolves, which was the first official action by a colony calling for independence. 

              I worked extra hard on my sermon, because I wanted to make a good impression. Following the service I remember sharing punch and cookies in the churchyard.  A well intentioned country lawyer/gentleman farmer came up to me and asked “What do I call you? Pastor-ette?” I was taken aback.   I knew better than to do anything other than laugh and gently correct, but his words stung. He meant no harm he was just thoughtless.  That’s how most microagressions are; small things that add up to bigger things.

             It is a challenge to avoid double-edged words that we learned in our youth. It’s not about being PC.  Clearing hurtful words from our vocabulary is about respect.  It’s about loving others like Jesus loves us.

JCS

             

 

Walk Facing Traffic

I know it’s not a big deal, but it’s a peeve.  In a desperate attempt to fight the battle of bulge I walk around my neighborhood every morning.  Maybe I missed the memo which changed the protocol, but when I was a wee lad in first grade I learned to walk on the left side of the road, facing traffic.  So that is what I do.  By actual count, nine of the ten people I met this morning were on the right, which is to say putting them and me on a collision course.  Joggers, other walkers, people with dogs on long leashes—I did a dance with them to decide who stepped out into the street.

What is wrong with these people?  Why would you NOT want to be facing traffic, particularly when music pumping through your ear buds makes you functionally deaf?  What makes people so into themselves that they ignore the rules?  What makes me…care…?

When I stop to think about it, I realize my aggravation is rooted in a few assumptions:  that my way of walking is empirically better, that these folks were taught the “rule,” and that they are deliberately choosing to flaunt the rule.  Put it that baldly and my peevishness looks pretty silly.

I lift up this micro-crisis of social interaction because it is an example of something much bigger.  Most of the anger we feel toward others and which festers within our hearts is rooted in just these assumptions:  we are right, others really know that, and they are either stupid or choosing to be difficult.  Take your pick—religious intolerance, lack of political civility, tension with spouse or kids—all are rooted and fed by unspoken presumptions.

We save ourselves a lot of heartburn by realizing that most preferences are just that, preference, not eternal truth.  Life is a lot better if we live it as graciously as we can, assuming, not that others are stupid or intentionally mulish, but that they happen to see the world a little differently than we do.  Luther put it this way; we are to put the best construction on the actions of our neighbor, trying to give his or her behavior the most charitable interpretation….

…but I still don’t see why you wouldn’t want to see something coming which can splatter you.

BK

The Art of Looking

Have you ever seen the Blacksburg town flag?  Is it something you like? Would you hang a small version of it on your mailbox or stake it in the garden?  Do you even know if we have a town flag?  As far as I know the only town flag that we have is one that is associated with the university that is orange and maroon.  

We see it all over town and notice it on cars, lawns, flagpoles, clothing, and more. We appreciate it and for the most part we enjoy the relationship with Virginia Tech.  When we are far from home and see the school symbol we are apt to talk to a stranger. We would notice if the town suddenly became devoid of this symbol. 

Our lives are full of symbols, responsibilities, and tasks.  Sometimes life is so full that we can’t even see where God is active.  We might even feel that God has abandoned us because we don’t notice what God is doing for us through other people. 

We have to practice looking.  Alexander Horowitz talks about the practice of seeing on a website called Brain Pickings.  “We see but we don’t see; we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its objects.  We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.”

As the summer emerges and pulls us away from frantic schedules maybe we can pause and look deeply. Figure out what we value, drop some things from the schedule that aren’t life giving, and see the things that we have been missing.  Maybe in our daily devotions we can pause each day to name a few places where we have seen signs of God’s grace. 

 

JCS

 

Personal Brand Statement

It’s the end of May and that means it’s retreat time.  For many years the pastors of Luther Memorial have blocked out some time at the end of the program year to think back over the past months and reflect on what went well, what could have gone better, what furthered the mission and ministry of LMLC, and what was a not so good a use of time, energy, and resources.  Then we begin to think about what new initiatives might be worth trying.

One result of that time is sometimes a pithy statement which summarizes our anticipated focus for the coming months.  Some of you may remember the banner which hung at the front of the narthex:  “Disciples Under Construction.”  That was the year we decided to make Christian education and formation a high priority.  The focus we set for ourselves may or may not be expressed in a banner, but we try to have one—if only for ourselves.  It’s like a ship’s captain focusing on an island on the far horizon; it keeps her from drifting aimlessly about in the sea.

Along with reflecting on the ministry of LMLC I usually take the occasion to do some personal reflection:  What has given me joy over the past year?  How has God used me and how have I perhaps refused to go where I was called?  Am I using the gifts with which I have been entrusted well?  What do I need to change if I am to be the person God calls me to be?  And, amid all the hard questions related to what I ought to be doing, how can I learn to savor and receive the gift of life in Christ.

One exercise I employ is to ask, “If I were branding myself, trying to summarize my driving attitudes, priorities, and goals in just a few words, what would they be?”  So, for example, I might decide that “Blessed to be a Blessing” summarizes my belief that God showers love on us so that we can do the same for others.

What would you say?  If some folks were honest their branding statement might be

  • Get all you can—the grave comes soon.
  • Body, Babes, and Beer:  the Holy Trinity.
  • I got mine—sorry you’re a wimp.

I offer some extreme examples to keep from biasing your own reflection, but I invite you to take an honest look at what you really value—and how it meshes with your professed identity as a follower of Jesus.  In ten words or less, what drives your life; what’s your slogan?

BK

Transitions: Part Two

The town is full of parents who are packing up  their students for the summer or here to celebrate graduation from Virginia Tech with a son or daughter.  When I think back to my own college graduation I don’t remember having a clear vision of what I was to do.  I knew that I had to have a job that would support me, but I wasn’t even sure that it would be in my field of study.  

Last night was the last gathering of the college group.  We had dinner together and were talking about plans, expectations, and celebrations.  These young people have a far more refined notion of what they will be doing, at least professionally. Some will jump into jobs, others to graduate school, and some will continue the draining work of looking for a job in their area of study.

From my perspective the larger issue for all of us is living out our vocation—who has God called us to be?  Whatever the path we choose, be it professional or personnel, single or married, gay or straight, urban or rural, whatever the path happens to be-how will we live it as God intends?   External forces push us toward achievements, goals, and accomplishments that may take us far from what God intends.

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer talks about understanding vocation as something very different from the clamoring external forces.  He says that “discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not.  It comes from a voice ‘in there’ calling be to be the person I as born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

There are many pressures, norms, and expectations that pull at us. It is a delicate balancing act to maintain the tension.  Sometimes it means that we have to let something go, conserve time with God, or recover the gifts we once possessed.

I love living in this community where we regularly ponder things that our students confront. It keeps us fresh, honest with ourselves, and if we allow it, in touch with God who calls us to be “real” not just “faking it” by serving values that are disconnected from vocation.

As we participate in the cycle of launching students and we approach the summer we can think about our vocation as Fredrick Buechner frames it “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” 

What is that for you, our church, the community, and the world?

JCS

 

 

Longing for Work

 

And to Adam [God] said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…” [Genesis 1:17]

Work is a curse.  One stream of biblical interpretation takes the above verse to mean that work is the price we pay for sin, for disobedience to God.  Life was mellow in Eden; all was provided.  There was no need to work.  Work is punishment for refusing to trust God.

There’s another voice in Genesis, however, which sees work as a wonderful sign of God’s trusting humanity with the task of caring for creation. (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it.”—2:15) God entrusts us with a vocation (literally “a calling”) to be what one theologian calls a “created co-creator.”  Work is not a curse; it is a privilege which allow us to be part of the ongoing drama of creation.

I got to thinking about these two different views of work as a result of a series of  pastoral conversations I had recently.  One person I talked with is being crushed by her job.  Each day brings stress which has little payoff.   Like Sisyphus of myth she feels that she endlessly pushes a pointless rock up a hill—simply do it all again tomorrow.  No joy, no satisfaction, no sense of purpose.  For her work has indeed become a curse.

From that conversation I went straight to several others, conversations with people who would give anything for the aggravations of daily toil.  Their bodies have betrayed them and weakened limbs can no longer take them to any work site.  The hours plod.  Their spirits plunge because they can no more take up the most basic tasks.  They too feel crushed—not by their work, but by the lack of it.

Driving home from those tear-stained talks my mind churned over the juxtaposition of the cries I had heard.  How very hard it is to remember that we are precious children of God, totally apart from our work.  On one hand we may feel compelled to endure the inhumane in a futile effort to prove ourselves worthy and, on the other, we often doubt our basic value when deprived of the ability to do the work we long to do.

I was also reminded of what a gift it is to do meaningful work.  I love my job and know I am blessed to do it in the context of a particularly wonderful congregation—but there are days when you could have it cheap.  As I write this I resolve to give thanks for the next workday aggravation because it means I have been entrusted with a task worth doing.

Meaningful work need not be paid.  Part of our challenge is to discover in each moment that holy task which God is calling us to do with whatever energy and skill we possess.  That may be planning a massive project from a board room or simply offering the kind word and smile from a sick bed which makes someone’s day.

Work is neither our sole source of value nor a curse.  It is an simply an opportunity, one more sphere where we can allow the Spirit of Christ to flow through us to a broken world to bring a little healing.

Transitions

One day last week I was driving through town toward the office-I was loving the confetti colored tulip beds, the damp smell of the earth that hung in the air, and the promise of the trees as they probed the sky with rusty scarlet and lime buds. There was a Mom jogging beside her son as he confidently peddled his bike. He was comfortably balanced on two wheels, his helmeted noggin looking ahead, and his mother lightly holding onto the strap of his backpack just in case he wobbled.

It made me smile broadly as I remembered doing this for my child.  When she was learning to ride a bike she was so resistant to parental help. It was a male contemporary in the “hood” that challenged her to ride a two wheeler.  After a few crashes she was off roaming the neighborhood triumphantly peddling and enjoying her new independence.

In a few weeks my daughter will pack up her car for a summer internship in Florida. I already know that it is 745 miles away.    I’ve never been separated from my girl by such distance and time, but I realize that we have been practicing for this moment all her life.  I know that.  She knows that.  From the moment she began to walk to her first triathlon I’ve been encouraging her to pursue her dreams. She is fiercely committed to her vocation, amazingly savvy, and ready to confidently stride out into her future. When the leaving taking comes, I’m sure there will be lots of reminders, a few tears, and a fair amount of pride as she takes off for the next adventure.

Being a parent is tough.  Our calling is to jog alongside, to lightly hold on, release and repeat until finally we let them go.  It’s all about the moment when the chrysalis will open and a butterfly emerges to fly off. It is our job to help them find wings, wish them well, and let go.  Parenting is a tough job.

The task of parenting is challenging because of the culture of fear that churns around us. The ethos of fear is not new, it just seems to morph with each generation. One year it is a wild group of peers, another it is bullying, and there is racism, teachers who act inappropriately and sometimes parents who over react. It is a myriad of things that creates an undercurrent of fear that taints parental judgement and youthful opportunities for freedom. Just ask my daughter-I’ve done (do) my fair share of over protecting.

As we transition into the end of the school year when kids are promoted, youngsters go off to residential camp, learn to drive, make college visits, and pack for college or their “first” real sustaining job—our task as parents is to let go,  to trust them to make good decisions, and love them in success or failure.  I think that is why there are so many passages in which Jesus says “be not afraid for I am always with you”; such passages comforts parents and children. 

 

JCS

 

An Imposing Faith

“What we need in our country is value-based education, education that will build character…We can’t do that without religion, so religious studies must become a part of school curriculum.  The second thing that is required is a complete overhaul of the current setup—every single textbook should rewritten to reflect national pride.”

There is nothing particularly striking about the paragraph above; it expresses the sentiments of many in our country:  Squishy, value-neutral education is undermining the nation and the solution is to force feed religion and national pride to our children.  You hear this every time there is a debate on a controversial book, home schooling, or what ought to go in an American history textbook.  Except….this was not an Alabama state senator trying to return America to its supposed Christian roots.  These are the words of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging education reform which would put the Hindu scriptures at the heart of the country’s educational system.*   Suddenly they sound very different don’t they?  “Hey, I didn’t mean those religious studies….”

It is one thing to be in the majority, when you are in position to impose your will on others, but it is quite another when you are the one being imposed upon.  When we start defending the practice of imposing faith on others, the implicit assumption is that we will get to choose what version of faith gets imposed.  I’m pretty sure the folks who want to require Bible study in the public schools would not want me to teach the unit on Genesis 1.  Hint:  I think it is lousy science.  Likewise, I wonder how they would respond to Mr. Modi when he says, “I am perfectly happy to teach religion in the schools—let’s start with the Bhagavad Gita [which is what he has proposed].

I am certainly not trying to demonize Mr. Modi.  Quite the contrary, my point is that he holds a position you can find all around the world—among Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Marxists, and assorted ideologues—a position which causes untold pain and suffering.  We think we can solve the problems of the world by imposing whatever idea can command majority support and by squelching honest critique.  What we usually get is sectarian violence.

Perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with Jesus.  All of the above would be worth saying in a discussion of Madisonian democracy (one of America’s great contributions to the world, with its eloquent defense of minority rights), but why in a Bread for the Journey?

Jesus never felt the need to coerce others into belief nor did he prostitute religious faith to  ethnic identity and national pride.  He bore witness, lived faithfully, and loved without limit.  He assumed that if you do that you do not need to hammer people with governmental coercion—or the equally brutal will of the cultural majority.  Those who want to force religion into education are not crazy; there is hedonism and a cynical “me-firstism” in our social fabric where values such as justice and mercy should be. There is indeed a rot in our value system.

They are just wrong in the solution they propose.  The sad thing is that their actions betray that they do not trust the faith they espouse or the God they confess.  Bullies are insecure—count on it.  They doubt that their ideas can withstand honest scrutiny.  Jesus commissioned his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Do we dare to simply bear witness to his teaching and example—eschewing coercion—and trust that the Spirit’s movement in another’s life is all the power we need to see genuine transformation in lives and society?

*(The Christian Century, 4/15/15, p. 14)

BK

 

On December 1, 1990 in a small rural church filled with family and friends I got married at 33.  I remember being giddy with happiness and full of plans for the future. I never expected to be divorced 25 years later.  I initiated the divorce in June of 2013.  It has been a very long 22 months to get to the point where I can say that as of April 8, 2015 the divorce is final.  I feel lightheaded from the struggle and not entirely sure what the future holds, but ready to open the door.

What have I learned?

It’s hard to live a lie.  For more than ten years I didn’t want to admit to myself or to anyone else that I had made a mistake.  If I had to do it over I wish I’d had the courage to take steps sooner.  Pride can get in the way no matter how many times you visit a marriage counselor.  The reality is some situations really are broken beyond repair.

The last  months have been a challenge.  There has been ample time to think about regrets, culpability; mine and his, collateral damage, intense pain, anger, and grief that you can’t even mention, because few people understand. The death of marriage is like an encroaching desert; you can see the landscape becoming lifeless, feel the sting of sand eroding your sensibilities, and grow parched until something makes you realize that not even God intends life to be desolate.  I have found that new life comes slowly, tentatively, but it is as welcome as a desert flower.

How have I survived? I have a good attorney, a good counselor that I work with regularly, friends that have accompanied me through every moment without judgement, and a church that has done the same. These are not listed by priority, because each is vital.

I have to say that the freedom came earlier than April 8th. Right before Holy Week I had to go to court.  I didn’t want to, but I figured it was worth fifty-five minutes of my life to tell a judge my unadorned story.  I discovered how powerful it was to speak the truth that surrounds the secrets of alcoholism and emotional abuse. Fear and shame can’t thrive when light exposes the isolation and fear.  In the end the judge affirmed that my marriage had ended a long time ago and that we needed the assistance of lawyers to break the fetters of inertia.

I am profoundly thankful to all of you; your care, support, and patience.  For me this Lenten season has underscored the need for introspection and the essential sustenance of community. My own sense of new life has a beginning in the Resurrection of Christ.

 

JCS

 

Conservation and Innovation

Last week on the eve of Holy Week observances columnist Leonard Pitts observed how the proclamation of Easter Sunday had become the touchstone for the world’s largest religious faith.  Then he continued, “But that faith has in turn been a source of ongoing friction between those adherents who feel it compels them to redeem tomorrow and those who feel it obligates them to restore yesterday.”

I can not think of a more succinct statement of the tension which runs through the contemporary church.  Throughout its history the Christian faith has served two sometimes contradictory functions.  The church has been the custodian of morality and a rich tradition.  In times of chaos, faith has often been an anchor for both individuals and societies.  When our world mistakes novelty for truth, religion has often been conservative in the best sense of the word, conserving that which ought to be valued even if it is not fashionable.

Unfortunately that has sometimes meant defending the indefensible merely because it was familiar—think, for example, about the church’s persecution of Galileo, anti-Semitism through the centuries, and the Southern church’s silence regarding Jim Crow laws.  Yet that is not the whole story. Christians have passionately labored, in Jesus’ name, to envision a new future.  The university, hospitals, the push for universal education, and ongoing concern for the marginalized in society—all of these are part of the church’s legacy too.

The art in being a faithful disciple of Jesus is knowing when the critical need is to conserve and when God’s call is to innovate.  If you pause for just a second I suspect you can readily decide whether your default mode is to see Christian faith in terms of conservation of the past or innovation going forward.  All of us have a preference, and, if the truth be told, it is probably more a function of our personality than our carefully developed theology.

In this week after we have observed the ultimate sign of God’s desire for reconciliation I offer two observations.  First, the world and the church need both conservers and innovators.  Without the first we become slaves of the trivial and the tawdry, without the other we are in bondage to our prejudices and doomed to irrelevance when the world inevitably changes around us.

Second, being part of the body of Christ means that we need to work hard to receive the gifts of those who see the priorities of faith differently than we do.  It takes no great exercise of will or spirit to get along with those who share our preference for conservation or innovation.  But putting the best construction on the words and deeds of those with whom we disagree—ah, that is a challenge worthy of people who have understood the implications of a cross and empty tomb.

 

BK

Slowing Down to Attend

How has the Lenten season treated you?

During the week of Ash Wednesday I sent a blurb to the parents and youth of the congregation to practice some Lenten disciplines.  It included the following: turn off the TV, log off the internet, put your phone on silent, and try these things.  Share the high and lows of your day with your family.  Read and reread the scripture lessons from Sunday, do theology by talking about the lessons and how they relate to your life, pray for one another, and bless one another before going off to do homework, chores, or to bed.

So how did it go for you?

I tried doing these things in a journal.  I was not always successful. I did discover that I don’t like journaling.  I found that I really wanted the time with God in the morning…and I enjoyed the weekends when I could sit with my devotional materials for a little longer and enjoy the quiet. It was the quiet that I craved.  As I go forward I want to hear the birds call to one another and the sound of peepers at night.  Now before you frame me as the do-gooder-self-righteous-pastor please note I tried and was not always successful.  I did some things regularly enough to know that I want to continue with the practices that deepened my time with God.

That’s one of the purposes of Lent-to explore various disciplines and discover what your soul is thirsting. Today’s Bread for the Journey isn’t intended to be a test or another check list of things we have done-we have plenty of that built into our lives.  It’s about slowing down.  It’s about doing those things that help us relish our relationship with God, to deepen it, and find joy.

Lent is almost over, but we don’t’ have to put aside what we have learned about prayer, caring for one another, deepening our understanding of scripture, or discovering that we are surrounded by God’s grace on daily basis.  

JCS 

 

Willful and Willing

You need to take responsibility for your own health care.  That’s what all the literature says and based on my observations in hospitals and nursing homes it is certainly true.  I yield to no one in my appreciation of doctors, nurses, and all the other people who serve in medical facilities.  They meet people when they are in pain and at their most vulnerable and anxious.  Most of the time they do an exemplary job in delivering fine care with great compassion.  But they are stretched thin and overworked.  They are balancing the needs of multiple people at the same time.  You need to ask questions, understand your options, and follow up if something seems wrong with your own care or that of someone you love.

Still, there are limits to how much control you can have.  I had sinus surgery last week and the experience made me keenly aware that at some point you are absolutely dependant on others.  I can’t read an MRI to know what it is saying about my internal orifices.  I can click on sinus links on the internet until my eyes cross, but I will not know as much as one who has devoted his life to understanding them.  I can weigh therapeutic options, but finally I have to trust experience and competence greater than my own.  And as the anesthesia hits your system…your last thought is that, like it or not, your only choice is to trust.

Negotiating the health care system demands our best efforts and discernment.  But it also brings us up against the limits of autonomy.

It occurs to me that this is not so different from cultivating a healthy spiritual life.  A rich devotional life is not an accident.  It takes a decision to block out time for prayer.  It requires a choice to spend time in reading the Bible or devotional literature.  It is opting to spend time in service rather than idleness.  It is the result of seeking God in a world which is not always attuned to seeing the holy in the hubbub.

But after we have done all that, after we have worked hard to bring ourselves into the awareness of God’s presence in our lives, we have to wait.  God can not be commanded to appear like a genie out of the lamp.  The best we can do is open our hearts to receive what might come in a verse of scripture or the song of a bird on a hiking trail.  After we have put forth our best effort we stand with open hands trusting that one who is wiser than we will fill them with what we need to be healed and empowered.  The life of faith is never one of passivity, but it is often one of trust and patience.  We can not command grace to come to us; we can only give thanks when it does.

 

BK

 

Savoring the Feast

I’ve been told that the servers at fine restaurants reach the point that all they want for dinner is a burger and fries. Surrounded by fine food day after day, they cease to experience that rush which patrons get when a perfectly presented plate is placed on the table.  That symphony of scents, which is such a treat for the diner, thrills them no more than a can of beanie weenies.  It’s hard for me to imagine, but I am told it’s true.

On second thought, it’s not so hard to imagine.  One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you can find it hard to receive the blessings you serve to others.  You read a passage of scripture and immediately begin to ponder how you would preach it.  Instead of hearing the text as a life giving word from God, you automatically dissect it, hoping to identify context, author, and style—and, please dear God, a pithy hook on which to hang a sermon.  Rather than precious gifts by which God speaks to the deepest places of your heart, the liturgy and the scriptures become “tools of the trade.”

Does that every happen to you?  Do you ever find yourself, like a jaded waiter, holding a precious feast in your hands, unable to savor it?  The preacher proclaims, “God loves you just as you are; you can let go of all the guilt and self-hate you are carrying.”  And you are thinking, “Yeah, yeah, god loves me…now when is it we need to be at the soccer field.”  The pastor presents bread and wine with the solemn affirmation, “for you.”  But that promise, that the creator of the cosmos actually knows and cares for you, fails to move you to awe or lighten a leaden spirit.  It is not so much that familiarity breeds contempt as that it breeds spiritual numbness.

One way to appreciate fine food is to eat the dish while trying to notice exactly what makes it special.  You ask yourself, “Is that oregano I taste?  What are the shallots bringing to the sauce?”  Try that this week in worship.  Pay attention to the ingredients while you eat.  Twirl the words of the hymns on your spiritual palate.  Attend to the sweetness of the gospel and linger with a bite-sized phrase.  There is a reason that the Bible often compares life in harmony with God to a fine feast.  Pay attention. God’s Word will delight and nourish.

 

Deja Vu

What signs of God's grace have you witnessed lately? 

Yesterday I spent the early morning hours with my Mom in the hospital as she waited for her foot surgery.  When the moment arrived for her to be whisked away to the holding area and the operating room her attendant was like an old family friend. I recognized him.  At some point the same orderly had pushed my gurney through the halls to the operating room. A few summers ago his smiling face and easy going manner ushered my acutely sick daughter into the OR to remove her appendix. Somehow his familiar presence made it easier to entrust my mother to the mysterious healing of the hospital staff.

Later that afternoon after she had gotten settled in her apartment at Showalter her physical therapist stopped by. It was like Déjà vu.  I knew him! He had diligently worked with my daughter when she broke her collarbone. His presence gave me confidence. If there was anyone who could motivate my mother’s desire toward mobility, he would be able to firmly push her to walk.

During the quiet hours of her first post-operative nap, I got to thinking about what made the day easier. I felt so lucky to know some of her helpers.  I am grateful for them, but what about the people who pass through my life—your life?  Do we offer security to them when they come to our door seeking help with an academic or clerical question? Do we offer genuine hospitality that makes them feel secure? Do we recognize the person who regularly does something that makes life more pleasant; like the barista that puts hot water into a travel mug to heat the container on these frigid days before pouring the flavorful coffee?   In the minutia, in the simple stuff we find God. 

Open our eyes, gracious God to see the dozens of ways that you reach out to us and help us do the same with each other.  Amen.

JCS

 

Intimate Blessings

The wintry weather made road conditions a bit iffy and so our Ash Wednesdayservices were very intimate this year.  Let me emphasize that I am not using Bread for the Journey as an opportunity to chastise those who felt it unsafe to be out.  Nor am I using “intimate” as a euphemism for sparsely attended.  I say our services were intimate solely to lift up the blessings of the small service.

Too often we judge events and initiatives based on how big, how popular, how well-attended they are.  I would certainly have wished for ideal weather and 100% participation in the solemn worship which sets the tone for Lent.  But that was not to be.  What did happen was that that we gathered in our chapel, looking out into a snowy courtyard which was visual embodiment of Lent’s message of life out of death.  What did happen was a sense of community in our worship which is not always as easy to feel in a larger space.  What did happen is that Christ came into our midst just as surely as if the sanctuary had been filled to overflowing.

I share this simple experience for two reasons.  First, our chapel is a wonderful place for prayer and reflection.  I invite you to treat yourself to a little time apart in this space during Lent—or whenever you could use some Sabbath time from the crush of life.  But more broadly I share this story of an intimate Ash Wednesday to remind us that much of life is about finding blessing in what is second best.  Sometimes, in life or in liturgy, things do not go as planned.  We can bemoan what was lost or we can be ready to receive the blessings made available precisely because our preferred path was closed.

BK

 

When my daughter was around 7 years old I recollect marking her forehead with a smudgy cross on Ash Wednesday.  I looked into her eyes and said “You are dust and to dust you will return.”  I remember tears springing to my eyes and thinking, ”This is my little flower, my most beloved daughter who has just begun to live-how can she be so mortal?”   It was a hard-edged moment to realize that what I love most was fleeting.  

When I think of that and “Jesus as God’s beloved son with whom he is well pleased” I begin to realize how profound the gift of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection really is. 

Today we start that 40-day journey to the cross. Sometimes people give up something in order to experience the pain of God giving up his son to death on the cross. Giving up chocolate or wine may help us have a better complexion or a healthier liver, but doesn’t really open us to God’s presence.

Lent is a time to intensify our spiritual practices individually and corporately.  As a church we become more intentional about prayer, silence, corporate worship, Scripture study, giving to the poor, and service to others. It’s a way we create space for God to come to us. These practices assist us to see our mortality, willfulness, and make us aware of God’s presence in our lives.

During the next forty days why not take a different approach.  We are hard-working people committed to many things; school, work, our children, caregivers to spouses or parents, and our own pastimes.  Why not make the time to be truly present to God by giving time to these spiritual practices. It’s not about productivity or spiritual multitasking; it is about building a relationship with God that sustains and feeds our hungry, frazzled, and needy selves. It’s about renewing our weary souls.

Presiding Bishop Eaton says “We might shy away from this whole business because it seems so inward focused and self-absorbed. It’s not. It’s the spiritual equivalent of putting our oxygen mask on first before assisting others. Practicing these disciplines is so that we can glorify God and serve in ways that are abundant and clear”. 

Come to worship today at noon or at 7 pm. Come throughout Lent to partake in the Wednesdayevening worship services where we will gather with our sisters and brothers from St. Michael. Come and learn about the steadfast love of God who gives us everything.

 

JCS 

 

The Bread was prepared for you this week by Pastor King.

Sometimes it is the juxtaposition which gets you thinking.  Three things are on my mind today.  Last evening I saw Selma, the movie which deals with the pivotal marches and brutal police repression which galvanized the civil rights movement.  I am thinking back to how I reacted to the news footage of those events on the Huntley-Brinkley Report.  I wonder how Jim Crow could ever have been a position anyone defended.  We’ve come a long way, I think.  But…

As I write this there is yet another Alabama governor vowing defiance and yet another chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court refusing to honor the law of land because they believe civil rights are gifts which may be granted or denied based on a majority vote.  Fifty years later and Bull Connor is alive and well.  Now the issue is not race, but sexual identity and the freedom to marry.  I feel this toxic mix of disgust and despair welling up in my gut—disgust that cynical politicians never tire of pandering to prejudice, despair that it continues to be a winning political strategy in the South which I love…

And then comes the third thing, one of those “quotation for the day” emails which many of us get.  From Catholic reformer Dorothy Day:  “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” 

Just when I was settling into a nice comfortable seat of self-righteousness.  Just when I was all set to cast thunderbolts toward those benighted souls who shamelessly defend injustice.  Just when I was neatly dividing the world between those I care about and those I can easily dismiss, Dorothy Day reminds me of Jesus’ pesky call to love even those I find most unlovely.  It is easy to care about the oppressed—and make no mistake, we can and we must give special care to those who are most vulnerable—what’s hard is loving those so bound up in their fears that they are blind to the hurt they cause.  It’s hard to remember they are like cats thrown into a sack, more scared than deliberately malevolent.  When the nastiness is so overt it takes great effort and a healthy measure of grace to remember that those folks are deserving of both censure and compassion.

Who is the person for whom you are feeling the least love right now?  Is it possible to see God in his or her face?  To the degree that we allow ourselves to love the unlovely we free ourselves from pointless rage and create a small place for understanding to grow.

BK

 

 

 

Not Just for Women

Last week I was able to take a day off with the parish and campus pastor from Western Carolina University. We planned a day of “girl stuff” that began in a big box store that sold cosmetics-a lot of cosmetics. I was amazed by the volume and variety of items.  Most were targeted for women, but there were dozens of products for men. I never knew that so many “paints, polishes, and powders” existed.

As I browsed the aisles I noticed that displays promised rejuvenation, dazzle-ment, fulfilled dreams, and flawlessness with products called Bliss, Serenity, Grace, Purity, Basic, and Peace.  (I don’t know what the brand Urban Decay was offering, but the name implies major reconstruction to me.)  I have to admit I was fascinated. 

What are we seeking; the fountain of youth with poise and style? That seems pretty obvious but what deeper longings are these products trying to address?  When I think about alternative names for the product above harmony, tranquility, cleanliness, genuine, and reconciliation come to mind. It seems reasonable in this world where messy political, social, and personal problems exist that something to spackle over all the fissures to create perfection might be desirable.

God does not expect us to be perfect, he expects us to be human; to bring the chipped and broken pieces of our lives to him. Remember when Jesus was selecting disciples? Did he go to the homes of the elite? No. He called together an unlikely assortment of ordinary people to do his work; fishermen, tax collectors, a blatant tormentor, a sneaky betrayer, and so on. Jesus didn’t overlook people with a questionable past.  Jesus called everyday men and women with shattered dreams to lead, to heal, and to serve in communities of faith.   

In God we are given more than we can imagine. God offers us wholeness that can’t be found in pots of paint, polishes, or powders. God shows us how to live with the grace of forgiveness. God puts us to work by using our weakness to express the strength of the Gospel just as that power was stated in the birth of a helpless baby, the cleansing waters of baptism, and the sustaining meal of the Lord’s Table. The promises of God fill us with a calming peace and satisfying joy.  Thanks be to God.

 

JCS 

 

Ina's Legacy

One of my favorite parts of the week is the time I spend with my “reading buddy.”  Valley Interfaith Child Care Center (VICCC) has a program that pairs a child with an adult for half an hour of reading each week.  It is a laid back time when the only agenda is for a child to receive a little extra attention and develop a love of books.  Two weeks ago I went to the VICCC library and pulled an assortment of books off the shelf.  My little guy and I settled down on the couch and prepared to read.  On the title page of the first book I opened, up in the right hand corner, was a single word, “Dunford.”

Ina Dunford was my daughter’s kindergarten teacher.  Over the years our paths crossed many other times as she worked with the Christmas Store, To Our House, and VICCC.  She was one of those folks who are habitually found planning and staffing ministries of compassion.  And sitting on that sofa I knew I was going to her funeral the next day.

I’m pretty sure that the book I held in my hands came from her kindergarten days.  It had the heft and content to be a “class book,” one of those books which teachers put out each year in their rooms to enrich the learning of a new generation of students.  After she left the classroom I suspect Ina decided that donating the book to VICCC would touch a few more kids.

It was a little eerie, but in a warm way, to see her name in that book.  After her death, Ina’s legacy of caring continued.  It got me thinking about the influence we have on people through little things.  Like ripples from a stone cast into a pond, the effects of our daily actions radiate out, so that even beyond death we may have an impact on others.  She, of course, had no idea that I would pick up that book and share it with my buddy.  But her act of kindness reached far beyond where she could see.

The thing about a legacy is that it is seldom the consequence of a self conscious effort to leave one.  The best legacies are those formed, like stone walls, by hundreds of single acts of faithfulness and care.  So, what kinds of stone are you putting in your wall today?

In Julius Caesar, Marc Antony says, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  I am thankful that this was not true of my friend Ina; may it not be true of us.  May we scatter seeds of care which keep sprouting long after we have drawn our last breath.

The Bread was prepared for you this week by Pastor Stallings.

This past Monday the skies were azure blue and clear. The sun shone warm like an alluring dream. Even though it was a holiday there was a lot of activity at the church.   People from Virginia Tech Graduate School who were moving in equipment for the parent cooperative child care which occupies a classroom on the second floor of the church. Some of the “helpers” were children. They were making good use of their time playing with the empty boxes. These boxes were big enough for two children to sit in or a carton that could conceal all but a set of quickly moving feet.  The laughter was contagious. I found myself pausing to watch and quietly chuckle as they darted around the sidewalk.

Simultaneously at the von Bora Haus a contractor was unloading tools and lumber; the work at the homeless shelter was beginning.  What a fantastic way to start the week; two outreach ministries of the church going on right before my eyes.  It’s a sign of hope to those who need care and shelter. These are powerful signs of God’s action in the world.  Pretty good stuff.

In the midst of Monday there are other things; households where children don’t live up to their potential, family members who are declining health, relationships that are silently fading or couples struggling to conceive, students entering their last semester with  fear of the future, and folks who grieve. These are headline grabbing moments that can occupy waking hours and disturb sleep. These are Monday challenges for the community of faith; to encourage and support one another as we move forward. 

The thing that keeps me going through the “Monday challenges” is that God is with me. Psalm 46 reminds me that God is a refuge, but also a strength that helps me to do the challenging things because I know that I am not alone.  God is not just with me, but with you, with everyone drawing us together to make a difference for one another by offering mercy and reaching out to those who carry heavy burdens. We find out that we don’t go alone when people pray for us or accompany us through difficult times.  If you ask me that is hope, that is pretty good stuff. That’s God stuff in your life and mine.

 

JCS

 

2015

I started the New Year with a mini-vacation.  My daughter and I went to Charleston, SC for a few days.  It was a long drive. After driving for what seemed like forever we crested the bridge crossing the Intracoastal Waterway to catch a glimpse of the vast pulsing gray waters of the ocean.  It seemed like there was an audible sigh of contentment that filled the car as we arrived at our destination.

I have to admit that the marsh land during the winter is nearly as mesmerizing to me as the ocean. The brown stalks of cordgrass which produce a maze of rivulets through the marsh, the undulating yet predictable tide, and the quiet docks with boats straining against their lines, waiting for something to happen capture my imagination.

Maybe you are waiting for something to happen too.  The New Year brings the possibility of change as the days of 2015 unfold.  I want to be clear I’m not necessarily referring to resolutions.  My guess is that resolutions have been made by many and some are already like the broken reeds washed up on the shore line and waiting for the tide surge to sweep them out to sea where they can be forgotten.

I am talking about the possibilities that fan out like the rivulets in the marsh. As a congregation what paths of service will we travel?  What new ways will enrich our prayer life, understanding of scripture, or traditions will we institute to share faith with our children?  How will we support the grieving and those in need of healing? Can we avoid being hypnotized by the rip tides that aren’t life giving? What projects will we underwrite with our resources and how will we strive to be a part of the Baptismal waters that pulse around us? 

I want to close with this poem. Like a wayfaring stranger I stumbled upon this hidden treasure while I was writing this Bread.  The words seem particularly fitting in light of the questions and the light of Epiphany that shines around us.  May the light of Christ lead us boldly forward.   -JCS 

Take the journey,
road of unknowing.

Behold the child,
holy, before you.

Honor the child,
holy, within you.

Kneel in awe;
let wonder be your faith.

Bow in obedience;
let love be your sovereign.

Offer the gifts,
precious, that you bear.

Betray Herod and his use of you,
free.

Go by a new way,
changed.

The light, still shining,
illumine your way,
make your world beautiful.

--Steven Garnass-Homes

 

Advent in the Hospital

If you want to understand advent, linger at a hospital.  I have spent a lot of time in hospital and nursing home rooms over the past few months—though not nearly as much as some of our members and their families.  Visiting with them you realize that it as all about waiting:   Waiting for the doctor to make rounds.  Waiting for the tests to come back.  Waiting to see if the newest drug is going to work.  Waiting for the physical therapist to work you in.  Waiting for a broken bone, a ripped tendon, or a battered body to heal.  Waiting, most of all, for time to pass in the midst of mind-numbing tedium.    Forget about fire and brimstone, hell is being stuck in a sick room while Montel, soaps, and vacuous game shows drone on…and on…and on in the background.

You wait with a mixture of fear that the darkness will only get deeper and hope that today will be the one when the dawn breaks.  You wait for the gears of the medical system to grind slowly to some resolution.  You wait for the mysterious healing energy of your body to turn the tide against decay.  You wait, wishing you could do something to speed up the process and in the realization that you are pretty much powerless to do much except cultivate patience.  You wait.

The great virtue of the experience is that it strips away all the superfluous things of life.  Beyond that room there is nothing.  You discover how much energy is wasted in worrying about things which just do not matter, how many priceless moments you have failed to notice like diamonds scattered at your feet as you rush through life.  But you also savor the beams of light that do pierce the darkness:  the visit from a friend, the plant which shows up unexpected, the unfailing kindness of a CNA, the card which reminds you that you are not forgotten, a wise word from a book or the scriptures which feeds your soul.

Advent is the season of waiting, the season which reminds us that we are not in control.  This season proclaims that God comes—seldom on our timeline—but God comes.  We may not have the resolution for which we pray to God, but we will have God in the midst of whatever comes.  Whatever we are waiting for we do not wait alone.  This season reminds us that our longing for Emmanuel, “god with us” will finally be satisfied.  The night may be so inky we can not see the way forward, yet it is in the darkness that the faint light is most easily seen—if we open our eyes.

If you are waiting in the darkness this advent, may your vision be attuned to the flickers of light on the horizon which heralds God’s coming.

BK

HOLIDAY TO DO LIST

1.      Buy BE presents

2.      Wrap gifts someone in hugs

3.      Send Gifts Peace

4.      Shop for DONATE food

5.      Make cookies love

6.      See  be the lights.

I recently saw this on social media site.  I thought that it would be good fodder for today’s Bread.   We are entering into the final days of preparation during this Advent season.  Maybe you are feeling like your list has become a marathon of “merriment” to be fulfilled rather than a time to watch and wait for Christ. So, a few comments:

1.      BE PRESENT:  The hunt for the perfect gift is at a frenzied pitch. This search pulls us away from what is right in front of us.  There are those who don’t need a gift as much as they need someone to be present; to listen to them, to help with homework, or to work alongside of them.

2.      WRAP SOMEONE IN HUGS: I enjoy making things festive for others, but it is important to remember that there are those who long for a hug that communicates the connection we have with each other especially for those who have recently lost a loved one.

3.      SEND PEACE: Mailing gifts to those who are beyond our immediate reach is an important way to share the love of the season.  I remember the glee I have experienced upon the arrival of a package in the mail.  However, in this fast-paced society of ours what we often experience is transient. I don’t know what you long for, but I long for is peace of mind, world peace, quiet time, and the peace of God that passes all understanding.

4.      DONATE FOOD: I appreciate good food as much as anyone. This is part of a memorable family gathering.  Yet it is important to remember those that don’t have enough food or any food.   The church will be remembering this need at our Christmas Eve worship services by inviting everyone who attends the services to bring a canned food item to the manger.  Meals at the Manger will help Micah’s Backpack provide for food insecure children in our area.

5.      MAKE LOVE: This phrase isn’t directed toward people in a committed relationship.  This is for all of us. Making love, expressing Christ’s love for humanity and our love for Christ, agape love is that sense of mindfulness for family, neighbors, and strangers that reflects the love Christ shares with us.  It is that deep care toward one another that holds us secure.

6.      BE THE LIGHT: I love to see the Christmas lights brightening the black winter sky as much as anyone. The intent here is the opportunity to live the Advent promise; to emulate Jesus Christ the light of the world.  In our own sphere of influence we can share the light and love of Christ with all whom we meet.

I hope you don’t see this reflection as a new list of “shoulds.” My intention in sharing is that you might see the list as an encounter with transformation; from frenzy to peace, from ought to love, from things to the inexpressible joy of being present to one another, and making Christ the honored guest during our celebrations.

JCS 

 

A House in Indy

Gail and I spent our Thanksgiving in Indianapolis, visiting our son.  Scott has just purchased a new house and he was eager to show it off.  Scott’s house was originally built almost a hundred years ago and is located in a neighborhood which was once very nice, became blighted, and is now on the rebound.  Creative, adventuresome folks are buying houses on the edge of demolition and fixing them up.  Like many of the houses in his neighborhood, Scott’s was taken down the studs before the rehabilitation began.

The walls are now pristine and the appliances are new.  The colors are slightly edgy; the general vibe is more steel and glass than suburban beige.  But the dark hardwood floors, windows, and door frames are the originals.  You can see the marks, dents, and distress which come from decades of a house being inhabited.  The creaks when you walk remind you that this house could tell some stories. 

And that is why I love it.  Neither “cookie cutter modern” nor “stuck in the past faded glory”, this is a house which brings together the best of two worlds.  It is has a sense of  history, but is fitted for the present.

Reflecting on that fact got me thinking about some words from Jesus.  “…Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” [Matthew 13:52] 

The challenge of faithful discipleship often consists in knowing what to carry over from a rich tradition and what new ideas, methods, or perspectives to embrace for the sake of making a more effective witness to God’s kingdom.  So, for example, the King James Version of the Bible is unsurpassed in poetic beauty and cadence—but its language can be incomprehensible to one encountering the gospel for the first time.  Sometimes we need to use words which are less eloquent but clearer.

The treasure of the church is that we have a rich tradition AND creative people who can take liturgy, organization, or theology down to the studs and create something beautiful and functional for God in a new world.  This week think about what God needs you to be doing in the wonderful, ongoing renovation of the house of faith. 

BK

Mindfulness for Thanksgiving

In my office is a lovely library desk that came from my grandmother’s house. It has all kinds of carvings made out of tiger maple and walnut. The marble top is substantial in weight and beauty.  As a child I remember dusting all the knobs and curlicues. It’s a beautiful piece that serves a practical purpose in my office; to hold the papers for projects that I am working on. The table has been around long enough to show  wear. There is water damage, a cracked drawer, and a few places where the veneer is bubbling up.

As I consider this table, it is a lot like the tables that we will set for tomorrow’s feast; flawed.  A favorite trivet will cover the place where the surface has been scorched. The table leg that the family dog gnawed when it was a puppy will be placed in the darkest shadow where no one can see the imperfection.

My table is like the people who will gather for the feast tomorrow; imperfect.  Uncle Raymond will drink too much, cousin Sue will come, but she will be a silent spectator, imprisoned behind a wall of depression. Awkward Trevor will be tolerated, but that is not the same as warmly embraced. Some people won’t be invited; their daughter loves another woman or the unkempt, smelly or worse, homeless.

For all the efforts to set a pretty table, prepare favorite dishes, and create a festive atmosphere, the veneer of cheerfulness may be brittle especially for those who miss someone who has died, whose health is fragile, or is exhausted by a fruitless job search. 

I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer. I simply want to recognize what lurks under the surface for many and to remind us all to respond with tenderness for others and for ourselves. 

Tomorrow we gather in gratitude to acknowledge the abundance of life and to thank God who sustains us.   May all our get-togethers be blessed whether they are rocky or delightfully raucous.

JCS

 

 

 

Single Minded and Narrow Minded

In preparing for our Sunday morning adult educational opportunity, the Luther Forum, I ran across an observation by Henri Nouwen.   After an extended time of prayer he wrote, “I felt the great difference between single-mindedness and narrow-mindedness.  For the first time I sensed a real single-mindedness; my mind seemed to expand and to be able to receive endlessly more than when I feel divided and confused.”

“I felt the great difference between single-mindedness and narrow-mindedness.”  I suspect many find Nouwen’s words paradoxical.  We tend to think that these two attributes go together.  Certainly, that is what we often seem to observe among those who receive press attention as church leaders.  Passion for Jesus is too often associated with an accompanying unwillingness to grant anything good outside the community of faith.  Those who claim to be single-minded in devotion to Jesus are often equally passionate in their antipathy for Muslims, immigrants, and science.

Nouwen reminds us that passion and bigotry are not the same thing.  Devotion to the way of Jesus is going to be make us more, not less, likely to see in a more expansive, accepting way.

Great scientists often observe that the more they know about the mysteries of the physical universe, the greater their awareness of what they do not know.  Their passion for the most comprehensive theory prompts them to greater humility in making dogmatic statements.  Something comparable happens when we devote ourselves to understanding the depth of the revelation we find in Christ.

To seriously ponder what it means that God came among us in love is to see that the barriers we put up between our little national, ethnic, and religious tribes are both absurd and a denial of what Jesus lived and taught.  When we are single-minded in following Jesus, we discover that many of things which divide us are much less important.  The more we make seeing the world through the eyes of God our goal, the more beauty and truth we see in places which had been beyond our gaze.

Historians have often observed that great cracks in the wall of racial segregation in America appeared as a result of soldiers fighting side by side in wars.  When your only goals are survival and the military mission, you simply have no time or energy for bigotry.  Racial divides were relativized and rendered unimportant by overwhelming common cause.

Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”  There is our mission—we are part of God’s reconciliation—everything else in discipleship is secondary.  The more single-minded we are in our devotion to that call, the less justification we find for our narrow-mindedness.  This week make living and emulating Jesus your single priority—and discover how things which you thought were so very important and divisive fade into irrelevance.

 

BK

 

Advent--Season of Stripped Down Devotion

This time of year is both exhilarating and challenging.  I love the crunch of the leaves underfoot, the colors of the hillsides, the lacy frost edging the bushes, and even the herd of deer that sneak across the golf course to forage.  When I get out early to swim I enjoy cresting the rise near Brown Farm; surveying the town shrouded in long ribbons of fog and the barren mountains standing watch.

The challenge of these days is that the darkness lasts longer, the windows are closed and I can’t hear the night sounds, the flowers have died back and the abundance of brown landscape is depressing to me.

It’s a mixed bag, I appreciate the riot of color, but I don’t like the bland scenery that follows.

 I was trying to think positively about these changes and that of the liturgical year.  Here is what I came up with; it is a great time to look at the bare bones of my spiritual life. What practices sustain me on my journey, what could be improved upon?  What practices are life-giving and what can be pruned away?  Just as the trees are stripped down to sturdy trunks and branches—the  upcoming liturgical season of Advent offers us time to examine our interior relationship with God.  With longer days we can spend time sharpening our faith, quickening our pace to serve others, and bury ourselves in deeper conversations about God.

Spending more time with Jesus can be like the season-exhilarating and challenging, but very much worth the effort. 

JCS

 

 

 

An Acted Sermon

Last Sunday was All Saints Sunday and I wrote a sermon for that day.  But I wish my congregation could have seen the “sermon” I saw earlier in the week.  I was privileged to preside at the interment of a retired pastor who had been in our area for a number of years before increasing dementia forced his children to move him to another community.  I got much more than I gave.

The committal liturgy is a very brief service, consisting of a few scripture readings and prayers.  The extended family gathered on a sunny hillside and I said my few words.  As I stepped back from the casket, a halting but robust voice began, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”  Immediately the whole family picked up the tune and the Doxology rang out across the cemetery, in the face of deep sorrow, a song of confident defiance.  It was a bold proclamation of Paul’s words, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”  Death does not have the final word their song proclaimed.

If you have been to a graveside service you know what comes next.  There are some awkward words of consolation spoken to the family and then folks begin to drift back to their cars.  The American way of death usually spares everyone the grim reality of seeing burial.  Not today.  As soon as the last notes died away, the funeral home staff began to break down the sanitizing set.  Up came the Astroturf which keeps you from seeing the mud of a grave.  Down came the tent, the slipcovered chairs, and the apparatus for lowering the casket into the hole.  Finally, all that remained was an open grave and, incongruously, a backhoe with a front bucket full of dirt brought from behind a grove of trees (the logic being, I suppose, that you would not want the grave’s dirt next to the hole during the service—a little too much honesty).  Then, with solemn dignity, the family took up shovels and began to fill the grave, one last sign of love, thanksgiving, and respect for the one they laid to rest.  I watched in silence and pondered their confession of faith.

Here was no denial of death, no pretending that the pain is not real.  Rather, there was an acknowledgement that ruin comes to all flesh—and a refusal to believe that this is the deepest truth.  In the face of the great mystery we have the resources of the community and the promise of Christ.  We lean on one another and rest in the faithfulness of God.  We journey as far as we can with those we love—even to the messiness of a grave—and then commend them to God in hope.

Honesty, thanksgiving, and defiant hope.  As I said, I wish my people could have seen that sermon last week.  It was a lot better than the one I wrote.

Fear Not

During these last few days, I’m not sure if it is summer or fall.  The temperatures are reminiscent of summer, but the dancing leaves on the pavement say “autumn”.  My sense is that both are welcome experiences even as harsher conditions approach.

In the church office the phone has been ringing regularly.  The callers are not sales people, but members who want to notify the pastors about loved ones. As blast e-mails fill our in-boxes we are feeling our mortality along with our sisters and brothers in Christ.  For  the senior students of the congregation there is a certain excitement about the transition from college to the work world, but even that is tinged with apprehension as the job hunt intensifies.   Some others in the community fear Ebola or some dread brooding on the horizon.  There is fear and anxiety churning in many of us.  Our prayers rise like incense; thick and profuse.

When things seem uncertain I recall the passages in scripture where angels and Jesus himself say“Fear not” or “do not be afraid.”  Kathleen Norris refers to these words as exorcism; a powerful word that conjures up the complexities of fear.    Through exorcism the power of fear is banished or dispelled, and filled with the holy.  God comes with vastness, might, and truth to remind us “I am the Lord your God…who stirs up the seas so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name. I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand, stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, “You are my people.”   (Isaiah 51:15-16)

As we navigate these waters of uncertainty may we support each other and be aware of God’s presence embracing us whatever our concern.

JCS 

 

Dealing With Difficult People

“How to deal with difficult people.”  I was at a continuing education event last week and that is what the speaker’s slide proclaimed.  The presentation was very good and I understood what he was trying to offer us.  All of us, both pastors and parishioners, need to find constructive ways to engage those with whom we have conflict.  There are techniques for turning down the heat in an exchange:  listening well, breathing deeply, and asking clarifying questions.  These are helpful.  I know what I am supposed to do—even if I am not particularly good at applying my knowledge.  But as I sat there, I thought that there is one thing I need to do before I start applying any other techniques:  try as hard as I can to avoid thinking of the other person as a “difficult person.”

I suppose there is something primal within our DNA which inclines us to put people into simple categories of “friend” or “foe.”  When we were coming out of the caves, the ability to identify potential threats was important for survival; a correct assessment mobilized all sorts of biological responses which decreased the probability of being prey.  But the moment we start thinking of someone else as a threat, as a “difficult” person, we can be pretty sure we are already shutting down some of our best skills for understanding.  Some people do present difficulties, but that is different from tagging them as “difficult,” as though that defines their core.  Just as the best doctor does not think of Mr. Jones as the kidney in room 323, but as Mr. Jones who has a kidney problem, so we need to remember that others are always more than “difficult.”  Each person we encounter is a complex mix of joys and sorrows, gifts and challenges.

That thought was fresh on my mind as I opened Facebook and ran across a clip which included words something like this:  “My name is Tom Jones and I love my church because it is where I experience God’s grace.  I am a gay man and I am not an “issue;” I am a child of God.”  Once again I found myself thinking about how our labels easily dehumanize others and block us from relating to them with kindness, openness, and understanding.

The labels we put on one another have some limited utility, but more often they are signs of emotional and intellectual laziness.  I easily think, “If you are a _______, then I do not have to take you seriously.”  This week think about the labels you stick on people to avoid confronting the complexity of their humanity.  You will probably experience some confusion; it is much simpler to deal with our created cardboard cutouts than real people.  But you will also see the world a little more honestly—and perhaps with a bit more compassion.

 

​BK​

 

Should the Wine Taste Better?

“Why can’t communion wine taste better?”  That is one of the questions taped to the door outside the confirmation class.  Just as Luther posted 95 theses as the starting point for debate on the critical issues of his day, Pastor Stallings invited the students to post their own burning questions for discussion.  To be sure the answer to this question does not have the weighty import of a statement on the nature of justification.  Perhaps the author was not even serious in asking.  Still it raises issues worth thinking about.

The short answer to the question is “because it is inexpensive.”  With wine, as with many things, you usually get what you pay for.  Five dollars a bottle is not going to get you something you’d drink with a fine steak.  Common sense and good stewardship suggest that you do not use the finest Bordeaux for the Eucharist, since nobody will taste more than a few drops on a dipped communion wafer.  I suppose you could say we use cheap wine for the sake of authenticity; the wine in the upper room was probably nothing special.  But that would be an after the fact justification.  Really, it is an economic decision which makes sense when balancing a variety of spending priorities.

But my first Lutheran pastor and mentor would beg to disagree.  In our very small student congregation, much of what we did was of necessity done on the cheap.  But the communion wine we used was a moderately expensive sherry.  David’s feeling was that we should not give God second best.  He did not want to associate the precious gift of grace received in the Supper with cheap wine.  So we had sherry and fresh bread on the altar.  The richness of the elements’ taste was, in David’s view, a sensory way to convey the richness of God’s mercy.  And I guess it worked because I can still remember the smells at those Eucharistic celebrations.

On one level, the quality of the wine is not terribly important.  God can and does come to us in whatever wine we put in the chalice.  That is what’s crucially significant.  God comes in the ordinary and makes it the channel of the extraordinary—whether we are talking about Mogen David Vin Ordinaire or our lives.  So, I doubt if we will change the wine we use for weekly worship.

Still, a broader question remains:  Do we tend to think that we can always give God second best?  It is one thing to use inexpensive wine; it is quite another to offer God less than our best when it comes to how we deal with others, to where we put our resources, and to what we give our energy and creativity.

Some days I think David was right.  Maybe if we modeled giving God our best at the table we would more often do it in our lives.

BK

Dancing Through the Revolution

This quotation from Emma Goldman came across my desk last week:  “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”  I have no idea who Emma Goldman is, but I like her style.

Since “revolution” is a political term one naturally reflects on the toxic political climate which plagues our country these days.  There was a time when leaders engaged in hyperbole to make their case, but you knew that they knew that is what they were doing—exaggerating for the sake of political theater.  These days they really seem to believe the vitriol which they spew.  They appear to be convinced we are one election away from the collapse of Western Civilization because their opponents hate God, country, and kittens.  That contempt for those who see the world differently is dangerous and unworthy of anyone who claims Jesus as Lord.  But politics is not my main point here.  I am more interested in how her words apply to the church.

Few things are more off-putting than Christians who manifest conviction without joy.  To use Goldman’s image, it is quite possible for us to invite people into the revolutionary love of Christ and do it with a grimness which says there is no dancing allowed, no joy to be found in following Jesus.  I literally experienced that kind of religion in my youth, the kind that banned dancing because it was too sensual (or as the old joke put it, banned sex because it looked too much like dancing).  But there is a more subtle religious dourness which takes itself so seriously that it does not take others with kindness. 

Discipleship is indeed serious business.   Taking up the way of Jesus means offering God the one life we have.  But the moment we find our faith making us bitter and judgmental, the moment we start looking at another with contempt because they do not seem to “get” the revolution which we think Christ is behind—then my friend, we need to think long and hard about whether we truly on board with Jesus’ revolution or just following our own angry agenda. Only the rabid want to join a revolution characterized by self-righteous rage.

The revolution of Jesus includes dancing.  The gospels make that abundantly clear in their accounts of his ministry.  St. Paul also gives us some good markers of what it looks like when Christ is guiding the movement of our hearts: 

“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23a].”

BK

 

St. Cassian of Imola

Fun Fact:  St. Cassian of Imola is the patron saint of afflicted teachers.  According to legend, this 4th Century teacher was condemned for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods.  The authorities turned him over to his students who stabbed him to death with their pointed metal sylii, the instruments used to mark wax or wood tablets.  I live with a teacher and I can imagine a few prayers being offered up by her and her colleagues to St. Cassian in these first days of school.  There are days you can use all the help you can get. 

I wonder what St. Cassian thought as he was tortured by those to whom he had given so much energy.  Surely there was a sense of sadness and betrayal.  He had offered them his best and the result was martyrdom at their hands.

We need not worry about being skewered by a colleague’s pen or impaled on our children’s tablet stylus.  But we certainly know that sense of being misunderstood and receiving anger when we sought only to offer our best counsel.  St. Cassian bore witness to the truth as he understood it and that honesty was not appreciated.  Jesus said that the truth will set us free; he did not say it will make us popular.

One of the hardest challenges of discipleship is speaking the truth without sounding self-righteous.  It is hard to disagree with prevailing norms without being merely disagreeable.  Yet that is part of our calling, to speak with both courage and gentleness, with both confidence and humility.  Here, as in so many places, we cannot find a better example than our Lord.  Before speaking he regularly took time to go apart and pray.  Faced with the perceived need to speak an unpopular word, we do well to take time to gather our thoughts and soften our wrath.

That does not guarantee that we will escape being stabbed to the heart by an angry retort, but we will have at least borne witness to the reconciling attitude of our Lord.

BK

Looking for Treasure

Baptism starts with an earnest request usually made by parents that is satisfied through water and God’s word when the community of faith gathers around the Baptismal font.  From that day forward it is the task of parents (and the congregation) to keep the promises they made to God.  (If you want to refresh your memory as a parent or member of the congregation, look at page 228 of the ELW.)  Baptism is not something that is once and done-it is a journey with God that unfolds throughout life. The treasures of God are unpacked over the years.

These treasures include the discovery of who we are as God’s children, how we learn about God’s love and grace through the scriptures so that we become passionate disciples of Jesus Christ who practice the faith and serve God in all that we do. It is a vast commitment.  Unlike fast weight loss programs that promise results in six weeks faith formation doesn’t happen that way.  It is about nurturing infants, children, youth, young adults, and ourselves at home as well as at church over a lifespan.  

Martin Luther was convinced that both father and mother are the first teachers of faith. That’s why he wrote the Small Catechism.  He wrote the Large Catechism for priests that they might have a guide for teaching the adults entrusted to their care. As Lutherans we learn these things, so that we practice God’s love at home, within the community of faith, and the world.

Like Baptism, faith formation starts early, but you may wonder what infants take in.  One of my professors at Duke Divinity School said that children at the breast should know the comfort of hymns, prayer, and scripture shared with them before they become readers.  Parents and grandparents should share the scripture and prayer with young children at meals and bedtime. We shouldn’t abandon communication with adolescents, but kick faith talk into high gear.  Even adults need others to accompany them through mutual conversation.  John Westerhoff used “should”, not to discourage participation in faith formation, but to emphasize the critical role of parents, mentors, youth advisors, pastors, and grandparents.

Over the summer I’ve been doing some reading in area of Christian formation.  One resource recommends immersing our children and ourselves in the language of faith. The church does its part by offering various opportunities on Sunday and throughout the week, but one or two hours a week isn’t going to do it. Christian formation is a partnership between church and home. The best place to nurture faith is where discipleship is modeled by primary caregivers every night.  

That is why we are having the Faith Formation Fair in the Fellowship Hall this Sunday. I want you to know what the church has to offer, but also I want share with you some modest practices that can be used to form passionate disciples.  It is an honor to be one of your pastors, to be an ally, to accompany, and to be accompanied on this journey of faith.

JCS

 

 

A.M.D.G.

From Pentecost through Christmas in 1974, priest and writer Henri Nouwen spent seven months as a “temporary monk” at the Abby of the Genesee, in upstate New York.  During that time he kept a journal which later became, The Genesee Diary:  Report from a Trappist Monastery. I have been using that book in my daily devotions.  Part of the entry for June 9 reads,

“I remember vividly how the Jesuits in high school made me write above almost every page A.M.D.G. (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—to the Greater Glory of God), but I am overwhelmed by the realization of how little of that has become true during the twenty-four years since high school.”

That one sentence got me thinking about several things.  Two of the most fundamental questions we can ask ourselves are, “Why am I here?” and “Why am I doing this?”  Simply putting four letters at the top the page did not ensure that all of the Nouwen’s work would indeed be “to the greater glory of God,” but I have to believe it raised his consciousness that life is a gift meant to be spent in more than mere existence.  Most of the time we imagine life as a series of tasks which we tick off, one after another.  A good day, we think, is when we fall into bed exhausted but with no leftovers from the ‘to do” list. 

Think how your day might be different if you thought of each encounter, each mundane action, as an opportunity to bear witness, in some small way, to what God has done and is continuing to do in the world.  My guess is that that two things might happen:  You would find more value in certain tasks which now seem tedious and you would stop doing other things because they are clearly not worth doing.  Small activities can be filled with great significance if done in a thoughtful way, but sometimes we discover we are investing too much precious time and energy in the wrong things.  “How can this bring glory to God” is a question which can help us find the holy in the ordinary—and save us from a lot of grief if there is no good answer.

Nouwen’s words also got me thinking about the power of rituals and signs.  Luther suggested that when we wash our face in the morning we should remember our baptism.  The cold splash becomes, says Luther, a reminder of whose we are, the promises we have been given, and the call to ministry which comes in baptism.  Maybe writing AMDG is not for you.  Perhaps you, like me, are too groggy first thing in the morning to make the association between shower and sacrament.  But consider some little sign which might remind you of what is important:  a note on the mirror, a string on your wrist, a small rock in your pocket, anything which jolts you out of sleepwalking through life.

One final thing:  Nouwen was stricken by a guilty conviction that his twenty-four years since high school had not been to the greater glory of God.  In fact, when he penned those words he had already written some of the 20th Century’s most profound and popular books on spirituality—and he would write many more.  Any objective assessment would say that he, if anyone, had lived the intention of AMDG.  His struggle reminds us that we need to be gentle with ourselves.  Yes, we do the best we can.  We strive to remember whose we are and why we have been given life.  But at the end of the day we have to be willing to let go of our need to be perfect and allow ourselves to rest in the love which is the heart of the gospel.

BK

Listening, the Most Generous Gift

“Listening is the most generous gift you can give to another person.”  Ironically, I heard those words as I was walking around the neighborhood insulated from other people by my ear buds.  My morning routine includes a long walk, usually listening to a podcast.  This day a TED talk on our diminishing capacity to truly listen played on my iPod.

I smiled in recognition, realizing that I seldom really hear the people who may greet me on my daily rounds because I am focused on whatever is streaming into my ears.  But then I lost track of the podcast because I started thinking about that one sentence.  Listening is indeed a gift where demand greatly outstrips supply.

Think about your average interaction during the day.  Do you really listen or are you just biding your time until you can make a response?  Can you honestly say that when someone speaks to you they have your undivided attention?  Sometimes we make it obvious that the person in front of us is not terribly important, such as when we check text messages or pick up in the middle of a face-to-face conversation (which, on the scale of sheer tackiness, are right next to chewing peas and mashed potatoes with your mouth open).  Most of the time it is more subtle and unconscious.  We just allow our thoughts to drift to the next item on the to-do list of our busy day.

Researchers tell us that one of the things widows and widowers most miss is simply the experience of being touched, not sex per se, just human contact.  I suspect that most of us have a comparable need to be heard, really heard.  We yearn to get beyond superficialities and share who we are.  We speak and we long to know that another person has understood our joy or our pain.  The other does not have to have answers for our problems; connecting is what we crave.

The thing about listening is that it is both so easy and so hard.  It costs us nothing except a little time and the willingness to give all our attention to this one person who is speaking to us.  But that is terribly hard, isn’t it?   As any pastor or therapist will tell you, it is exhausting to be fully present for another person; listening is every bit as draining as writing a report or chasing kids around the playground.  That is why “listening is the most generous gift you can give another person.”  When we listen we share ourselves.  To fully listen is to say to another person, “Right now there is no more important person in the whole world than you; all that I am is at your disposal.  In this moment I want nothing more than to understand what you are saying.”

Listening, the gift we all have the capacity to give.  It’s free, but both costly and priceless.

BK

Speaking to Those Who Are "Wrong"

When you read Paul’s letter to the Romans there is absolutely no doubt concerning the centrality of Jesus Christ in his personal and intellectual life.  Romans is the closest thing to a detailed systematic theology of Christianity which you will find in the New Testament.  It is a letter which asserts with total confidence that in Jesus we see the definitive picture of God and in Christ’s death and resurrection we glimpse Holy Love at its fullest. 

So it is striking to see how Paul talks about the Jewish faith out of which both he and the Lord have come and how much love he has for those he regards as, at best, lacking in some critical insights.  In Romans 9:3-5 he writes,

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

What I notice in that passage is how Paul bends over backwards to acknowledge the profound religious debt he has those who have often been his adversaries in spreading the gospel.  They may be “wrong” in their failure to appreciate the full import of Jesus, but they are still heirs of promise.

All of this came to mind for me this week as I thought of two ways of relating to other faiths.  On one hand we have had the example of ISIS, the radical Islamist sect in Iraq which is so bigoted and religiously root-bound that it even blows up the shrines of other Muslims who see their common faith a little differently.  If that were my only frame of reference I might well be tempted to regard the followers of Islam with a mixture of fear, pity, and anger.

But I am fresh off a continuing education trip to Turkey where I repeatedly encountered devout Muslims who were at pains to acknowledge the witness of Jesus with appreciation.  More often than not the mention of his name would be followed by a reverential “peace be upon him.”  I have no illusions that my new Muslim friends would agree precisely upon the significance of Jesus, but I am pretty sure we could find a lot of common ground as we confront the suffering of the world.

Globalization, obscenely powerful weapons, and ecological crisis make interfaith dialogue more than a good idea, they make it a necessity.  Paul gives us a hint about how we might proceed:  Make a list of everything you can possibly affirm in the other before you tee off on his faults.  Think how different religious disagreements would be if we started with a commitment to find common ground before we began fighting….

….and you know, affirming all we can in the other is a pretty good exercise in our families, our church, and our political life together.  Admitting that another person may have wisdom is not the same as caving on your convictions; it is just valuing the deepest truth more than the illusion of having all the answers.

BK

Icon Far From Home

Last week two of our members gave Luther Memorial an icon.  These generous folks are downsizing so they offered this work of art to the church.  They bought it some years ago from a vendor on the streets of Moscow.  No claims were made regarding its origin, so it is almost impossible to know its provenance.  It was purchased simply because of its inherent beauty.

I do not know where this icon will ultimately “live” but right now it is sitting on the altar in our chapel.  I put it in there so that anyone who visits the chapel might be able to use this icon for the purpose for which it was created, as a means to enter into holy reflection and prayer. 

I am no expert on iconography but the central figure of this icon appears to be the Virgin Mary.  The picture is primarily written (you write icons rather than paint them) in rich browns and reds.  But the figure is outlined by brass with an aged patina, so the icon has a soft glow when light strikes it.  A slight vertical crack in the wood runs through the Virgin’s face.  To her side is a smaller figure, which would normally be the infant Jesus (at least in my limited experienced).  But this is no Gerber baby; this is more of an older child, even an adolescent.  He stares out at you with what seems to me like a slightly quizzical look.

As I stared at that icon I began to ponder where it had come from and how it came to be in our chapel.  Perhaps it had a place of honor in some small chapel in the countryside.  Perhaps it nurtured generations of worshipers, who, like Christians in most times and places, ceased to notice its beauty and began to treat it like the wallpaper of their church.  Perhaps that Madonna and child looked out in mute sadness as the community of faith they inspired dwindled during the Communist years and the church’s vestments, sacramental vessels, and icons were plundered for a quick buck, relics of a distant day.  I imagine that quizzical Jesus asking, “What the heck is this…..” as he looks around our small chapel, so distant and so different from the Russian Orthodox houses of worship half way around the world.

I look at the crack through the Madonna’s face and the green vestiges of metal polish in the cracks and crevices of her brass adornment and think what a hard, long road she has traveled to invite us into contemplation of the mystery of God among us.  Across the miles, perhaps across centuries, she bears witness that generations rise and fall, once fearsome governments ultimately fall into the dust, and simple saints offer their prayers in the silence of quiet places—through it all God has promised to come if we but pause to open our hearts in welcome. 

It would be hard to name music more different from the world of this icon than the 19th Century gospel songs of America, yet there are lines from one which come to my mind as I look at this Russian Madonna:

            Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord.

            Abide in him always, and feed on his Word.

In our chapel in the company of the Madonna, in your favorite chair, on a mountain path…take time to be holy this week.

 

BK

Your Theology on a Sign?

Last week Gail and I drove up to Indianapolis to visit our son, Scott.  We passed a church with one of those marquees displaying a pithy saying out front.  This particular sign reminded passersby that “Exposure to the Son prevents burning.”

My response to that sign was a like Roman candle, a series of reactions one right after another.  First I smiled at the pun; I’m a sucker for word play.  Then I frowned.  This sort of “turn or burn” theology is not the core of the gospel proclamation, it does not work over the long haul (just how sincere is discipleship based on the thesis, “turn to a loving God or he will fry you”?), and its high visibility in our culture is a major reason that many dismiss the Christian faith as merely an appeal to ignorance and fear.  But then, after a moment of wallowing in self-righteousness, I began to reflect on what that sign does.

Those words most assuredly do not represent my vision of what it means to follow Jesus, but they certainly communicate loud and clear a vision.  In reading those six words I get a pretty good idea of what that community of faith believes about Jesus, why they think he matters, and what they want me to do.  So, if I do not like their proclamation, what would I propose as an alternative? 

You might say that Christian faith is too serious and complex to be reduced to placards and bumper sticker proclamations.  That is certainly true.  You can’t communicate a whole tradition in one sentence.  Nuanced ideas take more than six words to express.  But still….if you had to sum up your theology in one short, easily repeatable phrase what would it be?  Here are a few alternatives I like better than the one in front of that West Virginia church (none original with me); I’d love to hear yours…

  • Christians don’t claim to be perfect just forgiven.
  • God loves you just as you are…and too much to leave you that way.
  • Be all you can be, follow the way of Jesus.
  • Christian:  claimed, called, sent for the sake of God’s world.
  • The love of Christ is free, but not cheap.

 

BK

 

Beginning the Day with Thanksgiving 

My day started with an amazing message on my answering machine in my office.  It was from a man named Hector who was visiting his brother.  He worshipped at Luther Memorial during Holy Week.  He came several times.  He called today-some months later just to say “thank you. I will never forget your kindness and the way you made me feel at home.”

What more can I say?  I was surprised and most humbled that Hector who came among us for a short time, remembered.  He continues to pray for this congregation.

Hospitality is indeed an important aspect of extending the ministry of the church.  It speaks volumes about the love of God we experience; our cup overflows with God’s love.  We have enough which enables us to share it with the stronger. 

Thanks be to God!

JCS

 

Come with Questions

It’s fun to hang out with young children, most of the time. What I especially like is that they will ask questions-lots of questions about anything! It is amazing what they think about—their minds are open and their imagination is unfettered.  “What if”…”Why” seem to bubble up to the surface as often as 100 times a day according to researchers.  It will come as no surprise that this behavior tapers off and almost completely stops by middle school. It seems that as they mature they stop asking questions because there are no rewards for curiosity, just answers.   No wonder Virginia Tech has included “unwavering curiosity” as one of the five aspirations for student learning to reinvigorate the asking of questions. 

I wonder if we as Christians haven’t been influenced by the same cultural climate. We don’t like asking where things are in the grocery store much less something about scripture. Sacred questioning was frowned upon back in the dark ages of my youth. Whatever Herr Pastor and the Bible said (in that order) was the truth.  It seemed that God didn’t suffer questions, doubts, or complaints.

Times have changed.  The straightjacket of sacred questioning has all but been stripped off by most or at least the lacing has been loosened.   That is one of many strengths in this congregation; we have a sacred culture where unwavering curiosity is welcomed.

This past Sunday during worship two of our young ladies in grade school were given Bibles AND a reading list of favorite verses from parents and pastors.  I was only half joking when I told them they had their summer reading list. I hope the new books and lists will peak their interest. I hope that they become ravenous readers of the Bible.

 What if the rest of us did some summer reading* of scripture and allowed the questions to bubble up—maybe there wouldn’t be a hundred a day-but “what if” and “why” became a regular part of our language of faith?  What would happen if we took the story of Pentecost seriously and let the wind of the Holy Spirit blow out the cobwebs and in its place a new thing took root?    

JCS

*On the church website the week’s lectionary passages are posted with a reflection. http://www.lmlc.org/teacher-family-devotions-

 

The list of Essential Bible stories that I gave to the girls is a hot link. 

 

For Mature Audiences Only

I am willing to make the case that the PBS series Call the Midwife is one of the best television series of all time.  The humanity of its characters, the pitch perfect writing, and its treatment of lives rooted in religion (neither romantic nor cynical) make this series about midwives in 1950s east London worth anyone’s time….which is why I find it slightly incongruous that each episode is preceded by a big, black and white “MA” warning. 

“Mature Audiences.”  That’s the same warning that appears before slasher movies, the same warning that accompanies “slice and dice” television shows featuring serial killers, the same warning that goes on pornographically violent video games. And what is it that earns Call the Midwife the “MA”?  Birth.  That’s all I can figure.  Every week there is a least one scene in which a woman gives birth.  We are not talking graphic pictures of genitalia, just tastefully photographed depictions of women engaged in the excruciating act of giving life to another.  Murdered bodies, gun fights, seductions—these seem to be fine in prime time, but, for heaven’s sake, let’s protect the kids from seeing the reality of how we all come into the world.  That might traumatize them forever…

Some years ago I heard one wag suggest that “we need to get sex out of the gutter and back in the church where it belongs.”  I took him to mean that the church too often treats sexuality as shameful, leaving the culture to define how we think about it.  The inevitable result is that we end up thinking poorly about this primal force at the center of our lives.  What should be beautiful becomes distorted.  What should be celebrated becomes hidden and tawdry.  Sexuality is one of God’s good gifts to us and there is no reason why we should be ashamed of it or talk about it with a smirk.

I am not suggesting that every show is for every person, but I am suggesting that we sometimes get it exactly backwards, mindlessly accepting things which are contrary to the gospel and treating that which affirms life, sacrifice, and compassion as embarrassing.  So, this week, a few questions:  What would it mean to be truly mature in our thinking about sexuality; how do we get sex out the gutter and back where it can be affirmed and appropriately celebrated without shame?   How do we raise up a people of faith who know how to use but not abuse this gift from our creator?

BK

 

Take Time to be Whole

“I must look like hell.”  That was my initial thought after the third person solicitously sidled up to me and asked if I was doing okay.  It had been one of those weeks which every pastor has from time to time:  two deaths within a short period of time, serious illness of another person, a time crunch to get a few projects done before going out of town.  Throw in a high pollen count which made my eyes feel like sandpaper and a cranky computer and, sure, I’ve had easier weeks. But this is the stuff of being a pastor, certainly nothing which entitled me to special attention and care.

Then I started thinking that maybe it was not so much that I looked so bad, but that the folks around me were just that perceptive and thoughtful.  Maybe my problem was less that I was run down than that I was unable to graciously receive what they were eager to offer.  And maybe I was unable to practice what I preach to everyone who comes into my office stressed and exhausted:  “Take time to refresh; the problems will be waiting when you return.

As you read this I am away from Blacksburg doing some continuing education (the source of the aforementioned time crunch).  So for this week’s Bread let me offer three things:

  • A sincere thanks to those who care enough to care for me despite my superman delusions.
  • An admonition to be realistic in what you expect of yourself.
  • An invitation to appreciate those around you who carry you even when you do not realize you need to be carried.  They are the ones who make “the body of Christ” a reality and not just a pious image.

BK

Caring for One Another 

Life is fragile.  I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know. Most of us have had firsthand experience.  Maybe it was your child that became ill or had a bad accident and the long hours in the hospital that had you teetering between life and death.  Perhaps it was the unexpected or even expected death of a loved one that made you realize-life is precious filled with moments of priceless joy.

The way the community of faith shares Gods love in times like that is one of the most amazing things I know and one of the privileges of being a pastor.   It is a costly endeavor no matter the age to be faithful to one another and to God. As we go forward, as we continue to be faithful it makes me think of this passage from Philippians 4:8-9. May it give us insight, courage, and hope that we are indeed surrounded by Gods care.

“Finally beloved, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worth of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” 

JCS

Looking Within

In June, as part of my continuing education, I am planning to visit Turkey.  This trip is not primarily the usual excursion which pastors take to sites of historical significance for the First Century church, places such as Antioch and Ephesus.  We will see a little of that, but the primary focus of this particular trip is greater cultural understanding in a world often beset by stereotypes.  So in preparation for this trip I have been reading Rumi, the great writer and Sufi mystic, who is often regarded as the greatest Turkish and Muslim poet.  Here is one small sample of his work:

O pure people who wander the world,

amazed at the idols you see,

what you are searching for out there,

if you look within, you yourself are it.

Though written in the thirteenth century, this meditation seems to speak to the longing I sense all around me.  The American soul often seems to be one part arrogance, one part despair.  We are overawed by our technological wizardry, brimming with bravado rooted in all the scientific advances we have made.  We feign an optimism that every problem has a solution amenable to human ingenuity.  But beneath the bluster is what Thoreau called “quiet desperation,” the realization that we easily sell our lives too cheaply.  We slave at a job which fails to fulfill or we invest our energy in hot cars, new electronic gadgets, and perpetual partying which do not finally satisfy our longing for something which matters. 

We are looking for ourselves, says the mystic, looking for the person God intended us to be.  We are looking for that place where our need to be loved and our need to love merge, that place where desperation gives way to rest in the knowledge that we are profoundly valued—and thus have much to offer, not out of fear, but from gratitude.

Sometimes (not often, I grant you) people think preachers are fonts of wisdom.  Yet I am often struck by the wisdom of those I serve.  Not too long ago I was talking with a very gifted woman about the many stresses in her life, one of which is her job.  “I am tempted to just quit,” she said, “but I am pretty sure I would just carry the problems with me.  I need to work on me.”  I think Rumi would smile at this dawning of insight.  Would that we all had that much self-awareness….

BK

Holding Up Another's Arm

It had been a typical hospital visit, like hundreds I have made over the years. Our conversation was pleasant, if not particularly profound.  We talked a bit about the circumstances of her hospitalization and her hopes for the coming days.  As is often the case at the end of a pastoral call, I ended our visit with a prayer.  Prayer seems a good way to gather up the conversational threads and weave them together before God.  We held hands and I offered a prayer which was sincere but not terribly eloquent.

I let go of her hand, ready to leave—but she did not let go of mine.  “Every time you pray for me,” she said, “I want to pray for you.”  Then she offered her own prayer.  She lifted up the needs of others we both knew to be in special need of care.  She prayed for the ministry of our congregation.  And she prayed for me.  I can not speak to the efficacy of my prayer for her, but I know I left that room empowered and strengthened for the rest of my day.

In Exodus 17 there is the story of a battle.  The children of Israel confront the army of Amalek.  When Moses raises his hands, holding the rod which parted the Red Sea, the tide goes for Israel.  When he is overcome by fatigue and his arms droop, the Amalekites begin to prevail.  So, the text says, Aaron and Hur station themselves on either side of Moses and hold his arms up until the battle is over.  I am not so grandiose as to think of myself as Moses, but I certainly think of that woman in her hospital bed as Aaron, lifting up her pastor.

My point is two-fold.  First, we all need someone who is willing to support us in times when we are weak; just as much, we need to be willing to receive what others have to offer.  Second, there is never a time when we have nothing to offer.  That dear saint has spent much of her life giving to others, even from a hospital bed she found a way to keep giving.  Lines from an old gospel hymn, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling,” capture her sentiment for service well:

If you cannot be a watchman,
Standing high on Zion’s wall,
Pointing out the path to heaven,
Offering life and peace to all,
With your prayers and with your bounties,
You can do what God demands;
You can be like faithful Aaron,
Holding up the prophet’s hands.

My prayer for you this day is that you will find a place to hold up someone’s trembling hands.

BK

 

Watch & Wait 

The services of Holy Week start tomorrow.  We begin the Triduum—the three great days that lead to our Easter celebration on Sunday.     On Maundy Thursday the scriptures tell about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and celebrating Passover with them.  On Good Friday we gather around the cross to recall Judas’ betrayal, Jesus trial, and crucifixion.  Saturday is a day of transition, where we ponder the desolation of death as it turns toward the early moments of resurrection hope.  It’s a three-day drama that happens in one continuous service.

Some pastors use today to re-read their vows of ordination. A professor at Duke Divinity School commented on the striking symbolism: “before we clergy read to our congregations the stories of the betrayal of Jesus by those who he chose to follow and serve him, we first pause and remember the ways that we have betrayed our calling and recommit ourselves to follow and serve.  During the week we recommit ourselves to keeping watch with those who agonize in their own gardens of despair. We pledge that we will no longer run away from the cross in our daily lives but cling to it. We renew our vow that we will not flee the suffering of the world but rather seek solidarity with those who suffer and bear witness to their plight. And above all else, we stake our souls on the belief that we are called to bear Easter’s hope to a Good Friday world”.

Martin Luther referred to the priesthood of all believers.  He thought that everyone could do priestly work”.  Luther believed that in any vocation a holy calling and work would be found.   This solemn calling comes to us in the waters of baptism. As followers of Christ all of us are called to bear Easter’s hope in a Good Friday world.  All of us are called to gardens of despair.  Today we remember those who live daily with violence, those who are lonely, persons in declining health because of age, loved ones who are facing pernicious diseases, neighbors who are in the midst of grief or those who face an uncertain future.   Like the services that begin tomorrow where we are called to faithfully pray with Jesus-we are called to watch and wait with those who suffer in the garden.

I invite you to participate in the Triduum and to remember your baptism with all the gifts God has given to us.

JCS

 

 

 

 

 

Some Things Go Hand in Hand

When I was ten years old, my grandmother and I went shopping for a doll.  Nana was very patient with me as I checked out every doll; the brown haired ones or the one with a frilly crinoline underskirt until I picked with one with shoulder length strawberry blond hair.  Her name was Veronica.   I took her everywhere.  I had her for about a week when I took her to a game of kickball.   That was the last time I saw her. I looked everywhere; under the bushes, on the bleachers, by the water fountain.  I even looked in my bedroom hoping against hope that I had really left her safely at home. I had done everything I could to find her.

Someone had stolen my doll. I was beyond sad. I wanted my best friend to come over.  Not to help me look for the doll, I had already done that.  I wanted her to sit on the curb and let me cry.  In truth it was more than the doll, it was the time spent with my Nana, her patience, and that she loved me enough to buy something that I would enjoy.

Why am I telling this story? 

The changing weather means that we will be getting out more-like this weekend when many people around the community will help with The Big Event.  The college students will be leading a lock-in with the youth and various service projects that address hunger among elementary children in our area. Members of the congregation will tackle projects at the churches homeless shelter.  It’s good stuff-necessary stuff.

Sometimes it makes us feel good and look good as followers of Christ. There is nothing wrong with that.  We do good things for others because it is a way we express our gratitude to God, but there is more to it. 

Before you lend a hand this weekend I want to invite you to remember these things. The youth need adults to give them time—to love them through the awkward drama AND to listen to their struggles.  Homeless people need a safe place to live, but they also need people to listen to their stories about becoming homeless. Children need food, but they need people to know why they are hungry.

Listening to the story is ministry too.  It may not seem as productive, but it builds relationships and it deepens our connection to the gospel. 

JCS

Choosing New Places

I am one of those folks who always keeps a book by the bed.  It is seldom a professional book—you will not find systematic theology or Ten Secrets to Effective Stewardship on my bedside table—primarily because late at night I don’t have the mental acuity to glean much from such books.  No, it’s usually a novel, picked explicitly to help me gear down at the end of the day.  My first requirement of a book is that it be a good read; it must have characters or plot which keep me engaged.  But I value one other thing. 

I want my bedside book to take me to a place I have never been, can not visit, or would prefer not to experience in person.  That may be a physical place (the heart of India), a social place (the mean streets of New York), an historical place (medieval Europe) or a psychological place (inside the head of a detective on the trail of a killer).  From even “mindless entertainment” I want something which expands my world.  The power to take you across boundaries is one of the things which distinguishes mediocre, good, and great writing.

One reason I read is to force myself across boundaries.  It is dangerous to forget that everyone is not like me or that my reality is not yours.  Compassion literally means to “feel with, but it is hard to feel with you if I do not know what the world looks like from your perspective.  Most of us spend our days with folks just like us.  We assume that the challenges of daily life are pretty much the same for all—but that is just not true.  The girl who goes to school hungry, fresh from watching dad beating mom, with her gums throbbing because there no money for a dentist most assuredly has a different educational challenge than my children had.  If we think twice, we know that.  Yet we seldom alter our expectations. 

So whether you read a book, listen to a news story which challenges your world view, go to a provocative movie, or volunteer somewhere that makes you terribly uncomfortable, go out of your way to see the world in a new way.  Cross some barriers.  That is part of what Christian discipleship is about, following Jesus to places we may have never been, would rather not see—but need to be.

BK

 

 

What do you do when you go to Philadelphia?  Do you check out the architecture? The sports teams?   Do you go for the art, the flower show, or the historical sites?  Well, if you go with the college students you go for the service learning.  

Last week five of us drove North with friends from UVA to the city of Brotherly Love; a city that is also ranked as 4th in the nation for hunger and poverty.  One in every four residents of Philly is a recipient of SNAP or food stamps.  We visited ministries where they teach people transferable skills, heard about churches that are lending agents to neighborhood businesses/mosques/temples, toured areas by the railroad tracks where people “live” under the parking decks. We volunteered at two enormous food distribution centers, talked and worshipped with people from different religious traditions. Yes, we managed to squeeze in some historical sightseeing.

On Thursday afternoon we were in center city where it was windy and bitter cold. It was probably 7 degrees with the wind chill.  My colleague and I were walking across Independence Mall to get coffee.  We passed a group of people waiting for the bus.  There were three people that stood out; a mother and her two children.  The four year old girl was huddled next to her mother wearing white leggings, a bright yellow cotton sundress, and a long sleeved shirt that she had pulled over her hands. Her bare ankles and feet were pushed into sneakers. She wasn’t wearing a jacket or even a sweater. Her eighteen month old brother was in a similar state; wearing sweatshirt and jeans.  The boy was plastered against his mother’s neck. The mother was clad against the elements in a thin fleece jacket.  I was so shocked that I am not sure I knew what I was seeing until later that evening when I had time to process the experience. 

Sometimes we have to go to somewhere else to “see” what is right in front of us. I know that this happens in our ‘burg on our own street corners.  It would be easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the abject misery that surrounds us.  Such experiences remind us that we live in a dark and sinful world.  On the other hand, we could see this as an opportunity. This kind of  experience can strengthen our will to partner with agencies and ministries that do God’s work of bringing light and love to those in need.  May God grant us courage to move forward with hope.

JCS

 

 

 

Seasons of Life

As I write this, it is Spring Break week at Virginia Tech—and it makes precious little difference to me. For most of my professional life, serving as a campus pastor, the world pivoted around the academic calendar.  This was the week when most of my “congregation” was absent from Blacksburg and so I spent this time catching up, decompressing, or, more often in recent years, going on a service trip.  Sitting in a different chair I am now much more aware of Lent’s demands than the ebb and flow of students from campus.  This is just one small sign that I am in a different season of my life.

A piece of us wants to freeze time, to find the familiar and settle into its routines as into a cozy rocker before a raging fire.  It is not to be.  The variables of life keep changing all around us.  Old friends move.  Career demands change.  Our bodies can not do all that we once took for granted. Family dynamics get shuffled by death and birth, marriage and divorce, the aging of parents and our children’s coming of age. New knowledge brings fresh perspective and hard won wisdom breeds discontent with ideas now become too small.

Perhaps we focus on what is lost and deeply mourn that which we loved.  Sitting here I am slightly envious of my colleague, Joanna, and the adventure she and our campus ministry folks are enjoying this week on their break trip to Philadelphia.  As natural as it is to miss what is gone, it is ultimately as futile as trying to hold back the tides from our sandcastles. 

Far better to receive the gifts of each season.  It will be nice have this week with my wife—and not to spend it in a sleeping bag on a church floor or living out of a backpack.  More than that, I will probably spend some time with an elderly member who always fills me up by her graciousness.  I’ll sit with some men in Bible study who inspire me by their intuitive sense of the holy.  Each season has it fruits which we can pluck and savor if we do not waste too much time mourning that which was both beautiful and bountiful but now past.  Memories are precious; we can and should value them.  A deep sigh naturally arises as we think of past joys.  Yet life awaits…

The crocuses are peeping up; winter is slowing giving way to the season of tender possibility.  May your new spiritual season be filled with something beautiful—and may you have eyes to see it.

BK


Identity Theft

When my Uncle Elias died around Christmas I spent time entertaining family, fielding e-mails, and reconnecting with my relatives.  I tried to untangle the connections for my daughter as I introduced her to people she had never met.  Cori is Uncle Elias’ youngest daughter, my first cousin and her children Ursula, Beatrix, and Rufus are second cousins.  Mimi is Georgina’s daughter and Uncle Elias’ step-daughter.  You can see that it is complicated, like everyone else’s family.  It’s about relationships formed at childhood, around dinner tables, vacations, and visits.  All these encounters bind us together and shape our family relationships.  

When you think about it most everything is relational.  Many things that surround us are relational.  We create identities on Facebook, Twitter, with schools, teams and organizations.  Even when we scour magazines for recipes the advertisements that cover every page try to tell us who we should or could be if we use a product or buy a certain piece of clothing.  (Think about the Oscars this past Sunday; the stars were identified on the red carpet and immediately associated with a clothing designer.)  We are surrounded by “things” that tell us who are.

That’s identity theft.  Not the kind that affects our credit score or dare I say our relationship with Target;   it’s identity theft because all these products, gadgets, cars, teams, schools, neighborhoods try to tell us who we are.  At the end of the day when we return to our homes, brush our teeth, and apply the moisturizer, we are still God’s beloved children.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  Today gives us an opportunity to admit we are fragile human beings that need to work on our relationships with each other and with God.   The Lenten journey provides time to reclaim our identity, to wrench it back into perspective.  It is about gathering with our church family around the table of the Lord, to drink in God’s word in the study of scripture, and to pray for the world in need.  We are given the opportunity to remember the cross, our life in Christ, and return to our identity established in the waters of Baptism.   

Come let us make the Lenten journey.

JCS 

Revelation

If I could claim credit for just one piece of writing it would probably be Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation.”  It is a perfectly cut literary gem which reveals the offense and beauty of grace.  Mrs. Turpin is a priggish, self-righteous woman and then a minor miracle happens.  Looking out at a Deep South sunset…

“A visionary light settled in her eyes.  She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast hoard of souls were rumbling toward heaven.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and a band of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people, whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud [her husband], had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.  She leaned forward to observe them closer.  They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

We are left to wonder whether she will be transformed but there is no doubt that for a brief moment she has seen in a new way.  For one instant her pig pen has become the throne of God drawing near to save her from herself.  This is a moment of what the Bible calls transfiguration, the ordinary giving way to wonder, both fleeting and undeniable.

Sometimes I end my Bread for the Journey with an exhortation. But the thing about transfiguration is that you can not compel it.  You can’t exhort, “Now go out there and experience the holy in a jaw-dropping way.”  Revelation is not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying hard to have an epiphany.  Moments of transfiguration come to us as pure gift.

We can not compel transfiguration moments, but we can be open when they come.  So maybe I have an exhortation for you after all:  be attuned to the fact that the ordinary may suddenly blaze with wonder—maybe even expect it.  In the laugh of your child, in the touch of your friend, amid the tension and chaos of the work day, be assured that God comes if you have eyes to see.  And when God comes, filling the mundane with a glimpse of eternity, something can change in how we see the world and the people in it.

BK

Filled With Good Things

My day began at 7:30 a.m.  with the Wednesday Women’s Bible Study.  This morning I was especially thankful for the deep, enlivening conversation and the laughter we shared. Words can hardly express how meaningful this time is and how I look forward to our time of questions, ponderings in God’s word, and prayer.  

One of the scripture passages that we looked at was Psalm 104:24-33—which is one of my favorites.  It begins with “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…I will sing to the LORD as long as I live.”   The passage calls to mind all the things that bring joy.  I hope I can remember to sing this song of gratitude for the abundant life I have even when I am feeling befuddled and thankless.

Immediately on the heels of the study group was a trip to Floyd to meet with other pastors of the New River Conference.  The wide expanse of blue sky peppered with clouds above the sheen of snow was stunning. (Yes I know, some are exhausted by the cold, but the passing views made it worthwhile, at least in my opinion.) 

The meeting had phases of fellowship, business, Eucharist, and sharing.  It was the sharing that was potent.  We heard about a 32 year journey filled with the anguish of a life forever changed, stretches of unrelenting ambiguity, the arduous work of healing, and a day of God designed freedom to forgive the unforgivable.  All I can say is Wow!

Sometimes I am not always aware that God is a moment-to-moment presence in my life. I get hijacked by busy-ness or blinded by dazzling distractions. Sometimes I need a day like today; a two-by-four in the middle of my preoccupied forehead to remember that God buoy’s all of humanity in the mundane as well as the extravagant.

I guess this is my way of saying to all of us-be on the lookout. We are surrounded by Gods presence.  As Psalm 104 says, Gods hands are “filled with good things”. 

 

JCS

 

Perspective

I was loaded for bear.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, because in the great scheme of things it was not a big deal, but with that phone call I was prepared to deliver a jumbo load of righteous indignation onto someone’s doorstep.  “How can you design a system this way?”  “Is this the way you treat your most loyal patrons?”  “I have better things to do than….”  Oh, I had rehearsed it all in my head and was ready to go to war!

She wasn’t.  She endured my opening salvo and simply said, “I am really sorry you had that problem, let me see what I can do to fix it.”  And she did.  We’ve all talked to robo-responders, when we feel that they are just trying to get us off the phone.  Maybe that was the case this time, but I do not think so. It felt like she genuinely wanted to make it right.  As a result I felt my anger deflating like a cheap air mattress.  A few observations:

Most aggravations just aren’t worth the psychic energy we invest in them.  This was about a few show tickets, not the fate of the free world.  The “problem” was primarily my outsized indignation, not the online system I did not like.  A sense of perspective is important, whether you are an artist attempting to accurately portray the world or somebody merely trying to live a reasonably happy life.

The writer in Proverbs was right, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” [15:1] Sometimes the best thing we can do when confronted by irrational anger and expectations is to lower the temperature of the exchange.  It has nothing to do with right or wrong (Actually, I think I caused my own problem in this situation); it is about preferring resolution and reconciliation over winning. 

Every day we are on both sides of the kind of exchange I’ve shared.  Sometimes we are the aggrieved party; sometimes we have the chance to make it right for someone having a testy time.  I am sure that young woman forgot about our conversation five minutes after we had it, yet her graciousness positively colored my whole morning—and prompts this Bread for the Journey.  You never know how much banking the fires of your anger or being kind in the face of unreasonableness will improve the world far beyond the immediate encounter. 

BK


What's your song? 

During the last weekend of January I took some time off to head to the beach before a campus ministry retreat that was held in South Carolina.  I always enjoy being in that area because it is so close to where my grandmother lived on James Island.  I took the opportunity to drive by the dock where my cousins and I went crabbing as children, I took pictures of my grandmother’s house that once stood alone underneath massive live oaks gazing across the Charleston harbor.  These days the house is crouched in a development and the harbor can’t even be seen.   I enjoyed it; even the tears that I brushed away while I lamented the changes.

The best part of my trip down memory lane was wondering along the edge of the ocean on the south end of Folly Beach.  I learned to love the sun, sand, and water on that beach.  How do I know that I enjoyed it?  I meandered around for eight miles while the wind buffeted my back. My chapped hands were full of shells. I stopped to admire the patterns in the sand left by the wind and tide.  The soothing constancy of the water as well as the amusing sand pipers scuttling after lunch were a delight.  The placid marsh grass and the smell of the pluff mud   were a balm to my weary soul. Even more than that, I realized that I was humming the liturgy of Now the Feast and Celebration—especially the hymn of thanksgiving…”holy, holy, holy, are you, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory…”  It seemed so incredibly wonderful to hum this music while savoring God’s creation. 

Two things; Sabbath rest—time to worship God and appreciate all that we have been given is important.  The time to be refreshed is essential.  Second, the liturgy of worship sticks in our minds.  It becomes ingrained—like favorite pieces of scripture it can be summoned—it plays in the background of being.  So if you think children don’t learn anything in worship, think again.  When I face the congregation during worship, I see little heads bobbing and feet moving.  Just as I remember the tune-so do they.

Thanks be to God!     JCS 

 

 

Of War and Peace

I was loaded for bear.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, because in the great scheme of things it was not a big deal, but with that phone call I was prepared to deliver a jumbo load of righteous indignation onto someone’s doorstep.  “How can you design a system this way?”  “Is this the way you treat your most loyal patrons?”  “I have better things to do than….”  Oh, I had rehearsed it all in my head and was ready to go to war!

She wasn’t.  She endured my opening salvo and simply said, “I am really sorry you had that problem, let me see what I can do to fix it.”  And she did.  We’ve all talked to robo-responders, when we feel that they are just trying to get us off the phone.  Maybe that was the case this time, but I do not think so. It felt like she genuinely wanted to make it right.  As a result I felt my anger deflating like a cheap air mattress.  A few observations:

Most aggravations just aren’t worth the psychic energy we invest in them.  This was about a few show tickets, not the fate of the free world.  The “problem” was primarily my outsized indignation, not the online system I did not like.  A sense of perspective is important, whether you are an artist attempting to accurately portray the world or somebody merely trying to live a reasonably happy life.

The writer in Proverbs was right, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” [15:1] Sometimes the best thing we can do when confronted by irrational anger and expectations is to lower the temperature of the exchange.  It has nothing to do with right or wrong (Actually, I think I caused my own problem in this situation); it is about preferring resolution and reconciliation over winning. 

Everyday we are on both sides of the kind of exchange I’ve shared.  Sometimes we are the aggrieved party; sometimes we have the chance to make it right for someone having a testy time.  I am sure that young woman forgot about our conversation five minutes after we had it, yet her graciousness positively colored my whole morning—and prompts this Bread for the Journey.  You never know how much banking the fires of your anger or being kind in the face of unreasonableness will improve the world far beyond the immediate encounter.

 

BK

 

For Me Too

Last night the college students met for the first time in 2014.  It was wonderful to hear laughter bouncing around the rafters complemented by excited voices talking about break and the challenges of the semester. 

For devotions I chose a passage that would help us talk about the uncertainties of the future. I used Matthews’s account of the visiting magi.  I wanted to point out the risks that the magi encountered on their quest to follow the star;   the perils of travel and the possible consequences of their encounter with King Herod.  I wanted them to see that we can plan for the future, we can set goals, and have certain expectations, but sometimes things change.  Unforeseen things happen.  I wanted to stress that even with the unexpected, we can go forth confidently because we are a part of a community of faith and God is with us.

I didn’t realize that I would be the one living by those words.

 Today I took my car in for an oil change before going to South Carolina.   I got more than I bargained for when they did the all points inspection of the car.  I ended up having to buy two tires to replace the dangerously tread bare ones.  I vaguely remember hitting a pot hole on the interstate back in October.  I guess that knocked everything out of alignment and led to the shredding of the tires.  

While waiting on my car I had time to reflect on the situation and realized this was what I had been talking about last night.  Things happen that aren’t planned.  Now in the grand scheme of things my situation is literally a (hard) bump in the road—there are other things that can affect us for the long term-an illness, a death, a broken relationship, the loss of a job.  When our lip is quivering and our eyes are blurred with tears that’s when we need to remember we belong to a community of faith and God is with us.  It may not change the situation, but it will transform our journey through bewildering changes. 

JCS

Letting the Old Fall Away

At the end of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape  Letters,  a fledgling Christian dies in the bombing blitz of World War II.  Screwtape, a devil, describes what it was like for the man, saying it was a moment of absolute clarity, when what was hidden was suddenly obvious, when all the struggles of living by faith were swallowed up in the certitude of God’s care.  Death for the man, says Screwtape, was like suddenly shedding an old, dirty garment.

I thought about that chapter in the book this week because I happened to talk with three of my favorite Christians, all over 80 years of age, and they sounded a common theme.  To paraphrase, each of them said, “At this point in my life, I see how little much of what divides Christians means.  There is so little that I am willing to go to the wall for.  My spiritual journey has been about slowly letting go of the unimportant elements of religion and focusing on the basics.  Do you love God?  Do you love your neighbor in tangible ways?  If so, you are my brother or sister in faith.”  Growth for them has been about shedding the nonessential and shopworn.

These are not people who are tolerant because they have no opinions.  They are not gracious because they adopt a “whatever” attitude toward anything which inspires strong feelings.  On the contrary, they feel passionately about loving God and loving neighbor, and that is what gives them permission to slough off the things that do not matter.  I like precision in theology and appreciate beauty in liturgy.  I am perfectly willing to say that some expressions of the faith are more congruent with the life and witness of Jesus than others.  But I wonder if I sometimes go to the wall over the wrong things, if I am passionate about things which prevent me from seeing the beauty of Christ in another.

Is there one thing which you can let go of this week, that you can shed like a parka on a summer day—a too rigid preference, a “righteous” resentment,  a grudge that has been taking up emotional space for way too long—so that you can focus on what is worthy of total commitment?

BK

Many Ways to God

On Sunday afternoon the members of the Confirmation Class and their families helped take down the Christmas decorations, had lunch, and then worked on some prayer practices.  I was intentional about this because I find that this is one of the more difficult things for young people to do.  Actually I think it is one of the more challenging practices for all of us.

In our minds eye I think we hold the image of the older man dressed in a green and blue plaid flannel shirt, hands folded with head bowed giving thanks for baguette and a bowl of soup as if this is THE way to pray. After all, this guy has been fixed in this position for eternity.  This is one prayer posture that we can adopt, but it is not the only one.

That is precisely what I wanted the Confirmation Class and their parents discover. I prepared three stations; a labyrinth with a guided meditation, prayer boxes to decorate, and a contemplative experience with various pictures to inspire reflection.  There was prayer through movement, a tactile experience, and quiet meditation. 

Toward the end of the session I began to ask the students what prayer experience they liked best. I was honestly surprised by their responses.  It was divided pretty evenly, but I didn’t expect as much enthusiasm about the labyrinth or the quiet time. Maybe this group is more introverted than I thought or maybe these teenagers like us are looking for an opportunity to spend time with God in quiet ways.  Our fast paced life creates a desire for such space.

I think we all want to grow closer to God.  Prayer is a way to strengthen our relationship with God. I encourage you to experiment with different times of the day, use a variety of postures, pray using the Bible or just speak from the heart about your needs and the needs of this broken world.  Wherever and whatever you choose God is ready to hear from you.

JCS

Naming a Blessing

“How many blessings do we still have left?”  She had used the phrase several times, but for some reason I heard it—I mean really heard it—this time.  I was at the Valley Interfaith Child Care Center, helping to deliver the baked good and tuition assistance Luther Memorial is giving to clients of the Center as a congregational Christmas Outreach ministry.  A steady stream of parents had been coming through the doors, picking up their little ones, and leaving.   So the director of the program was mentally taking inventory, “How many blessings do we still have left,” that is, “How many children have not yet been picked up.”  Two observations about that choice of phrase:

First, in that moment I felt very good about supporting the work of this agency.  It is great when folks do their work with competence and efficiency.  It is even better when they begin that work with the assumption that the person in front of them is not simply a beggar at the feast but both a precious child of God, deserving of all the respect we can give them, and the means by which we may be enriched.  Yes, little children are amazing; they melt your heart with a smile.  But anyone who has spent much time in a day care or classroom will tell you that sometimes it takes an act of will to see anything in a little face except a cranky, demanding ball of mucus-dripping energy.  I have to think those children at VICCC are better off when the folks caring for them start with the assumption that they are first and foremost a blessing.  I suspect my most testy encounters would be much improved if I thought of the scowling face in front of me as a blessing.

That got me thinking about the great power of naming.  If I call that piece of paper which is always on my desk a “to do” list, I think of those tasks very differently than if I call it my list of “ministry opportunities.”  I can have “appointments” or I can choose to have “chances to serve.”  I don’t think this is just a cutesy word game.  Remembering that every person is a blessing, every day a fresh opportunity to make Christ known, fundamentally changes how we live in the world and our openness to give and receive joy in the simplest of encounters.

BK

Jaws of Grief

Last week I was clicking through the channels and happened upon Jaws. Yes, in these days of computer generated graphics, the shark sometimes looks comical; you can almost hear the gears creaking in its mechanical mouth.  Still, I was reminded of what makes this such a great movie.  Director Stephen Spielberg has an incredible capacity to keep you off guard.  That signature music builds, the shot comes in tight and … nothing happens.  Then, just when you settle in to take a deep breath and relax, the savagery begins.  The unpredictable timing keeps you on edge for the whole film, vaguely anxious, even when things seem normal.

I give you this mini movie review because Jaws can teach us something about the dynamics of grief.  Following a death or other great loss, most of us are pretty good at girding up our loins, marshalling our resources, and getting through the immediate crisis.  When we are bystanders to another’s pain, we usually pick up the sound of that tense music and rush in to give whatever support is necessary.  That’s wonderful; by no means do I want to minimize the necessity of doing all we can to support those in crisis or being there when folks are too numb to think for themselves.

Yet, in my experience, the really devastating attack comes a little later.  The obvious crisis has passed, you think the worst is over, and you are finally settling into what passes as the new normal after coming to terms with your loss.  Then, like that shark in Jaws, a wave of despair hits you.  The attack is doubly devastating because you thought you were all done with the agony and now you are facing it without the support of those who rallied to your side in the immediate aftermath of your loss.

My point is simple:  Grief is not a one and done sort of thing.  It is a series of pulsating pains, often excruciatingly unexpected and triggered by a sound, a smell, or a memory.  If you are struggling with profound loss, be gentle with yourself and don’t expect to be perpetually in control.  And if you care for someone who is dealing with a death, the loss of a dream, or debilitating injury, remember that long after the Jaws theme has stopped sounding in their lives, there is a lot of pain lurking. Make a point to be there after the immediate drama is over and the unexpected attack hits their heart. 

 

BK

Do lists matter?

 I am a list maker.  I appreciate the feel of paper and scratching out the things I must do during a week.  I delight in crossing things off -I feel accomplished.  I feel like I have fulfilled my purpose. 

I just want you to know that yesterday I didn’t really get a chance to cross anything off the list.  I attended the VT Campus Pastors meeting and I made dinner for the college student (which in this instance was my volunteer thing, not my job).   I was just sitting down to do some sermon study work when a student walked into my office. 

I can’t say much about the encounter other than he was a little scruffy and absolutely beleaguered by the stuff happening in his life.  In the moments that followed the introductions my “to do list” became inconsequential. Ministry off the rails happened. I am pretty sure that it was the most important thing that I did all day.  I don’t say that because I did anything spectacular; it was God moment.  It was sacred space in which two strangers found common ground in the presence of Christ.  It was pure God.

In my small group Bible Study/prayer group we have been looking at John 4:5-42; the Woman at the Well.  It’s an amazing God moment in which Jesus makes sacred space to talk with a woman who has been so rejected by society that she can’t even draw her water with the other women.  She has to go alone when it is scorching hot.  In the midst of candid conversation Jesus begins to slake her thirst for peace, wholeness, and acceptance.  It is a wonderful story that challenges us to put aside our agendas or “to do lists”, and let God work through us. 

Maybe I have it all wrong-my list is off the rails ministry and when I leave space for God to squeeze in-God’s work happens.  Maybe it is that way for all of us.  God’s work, our hands.  

JCS 

Hole in a Bucket of Water

 

Last week I was at the ELCA’s pre-retirement seminar (No, this is not an oblique announcement of my resignation; when you became a “person of a certain age,” you go).  I was talking with a friend of many years.  “So how much longer before you hang up your cleats,” I asked him; “are there things you want to see happen at the congregation before you leave?”

“I’ll go as long as I feel like I am being effective.  I have no illusions about how indispensible I am.  The day I walk out the door, the good folks at St John’s by the Gas Pumps will be on to someone else.  You know what they say: Put your hand in a bucket of water, take it out, and see how big a hole you left.”

A little bit of gallows humor, I suspect, to keep at bay the fear of irrelevancy which we all share.  Yet often there is wisdom in humor, dark or otherwise.  Perhaps the most important choice we make each day is how we will use our time.  Will we hit the gym, read a book, write a paper, call a friend, plan a presentation, read to our child, go to a meeting, or opt for one of the hundreds of other possibilities we have?  We want our lives to matter, but we do not want to be slaves to a schedule we hate.  The choices are seldom straight forward.

So how do we make those choices?  I’ve lived long enough to realize that sometimes the choices feel impossible.  Do you spend time with your son or work the extra shift which means you will have the money to feed, clothe, house, and educate that same beloved child?  We need to be gentle with ourselves when either choice provokes guilt. 

That being said I think there is one principle worth keeping in mind:  You are all the world to someone—or several people—for others, you are just valuable.  When push comes to shove it is those primary people who should get the first bite of the apple which is your life.  Yes, history is filled with people who sacrificed their families, their health, and their friends because they felt a compelling need to work for a cure, abolish slavery, or take the gospel to the far corners of the earth.  If your work is truly that important, then go for it and humbly ask forgiveness of those you use, abuse, and ignore.  For the vast majority of us, that is not the case.  More often we spend our lives sacrificing the important to the merely urgent, and then regretting it.

Pondering that bucket of water and the hole we do not make can be rather depressing—life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  But it can also be liberating to realize that it does not all depend on us.  God is acting in the cracks of life, has been acting long before we came on the scene and will be doing so after we depart the stage.  Our task is not necessarily to change the world by ourselves, not to be perfect, not to work until we drop in a harness which some other mule will fill tomorrow.  Sometimes it is enough to be the world to just one person at a critical moment.   There is a difference between sloth and sanity; the better we learn to distinguish the two, the happier and more fulfilled we are.

BK

Music and God

Sometimes it just happens.  Sometimes I find that I don’t have anything profound to share when it is my turn to write “Bread for the Journey”.  If I force myself to write about something-anything, you the reader end up feeling bruised and battered like a can that has been kicked around.  If I write about some current event I am apt to build walls not tear them down. When I am feeling less than inspired I look at the books in my library for something that sparks me and may offer something to you.

I found it; a word about compassion from a place that I found unlikely and completely refreshing.

Music has an incredibly important role to play in the development and maintenance of compassion.  Our brains are hardwired to respond to music in a way that even the smartest neuroscientists don’t yet understand.  Some people put aside scientific explanations and simply see music as God’s way of speaking.

As life gets more and more rushed, we’ve learned to treat music in the same way we treat food—we choose items that we can consume faster and on the run. Hence, the only time we get to listen to music is on our commute or while we’re doing something else, such as housework.

But music listened to for its own sake, with our full ability to hear and nothing else going on, no other purpose in mind is a powerful spiritual practice that can feed the soul. A deep soulful connection is often a gateway to compassion.

So check out your CD collection or look at you iPod menu.  Which is the album that immediately transports you to a thoughtful, even emotional place?  Choose that one.  Listen with complete focus. When you are done, just sit quietly for a while until you are ready to rejoin the world.  My guess is that you will have relocated your connection to compassion.  Now go and live it!  

 

JCS

 

Gotta Lift 'um Up

Fruitvale Station is one of the most humane movies I have seen in a long time.  It tells the story of events leading up to the tragic shooting of a young black man by BART police at a transit stop in Oakland.  Not the least polemical, the film gently shows the complexity of racial relations in America and how small events can have tragic consequences.

When Oscar, the 22 year old center of the story, is shot, he is taken to the hospital.  The anger of Oscar’s friends is palpable as they gather in the ER waiting to learn whether he will live or die.  But Oscar’s mom, clearly a person of faith, repeatedly exhorts them, “We gotta lift him up y’all, we just gotta keep lift’n him up.”  Those words moved me on multiple levels and lingered in my mind long after I left the theater.

They were oil on troubled water.  At the moment when she could have quite understandably yielded to hate for a totally senseless act, she modeled something deeper.  She could have stoked the fires of a brewing riot, but she focused on what she and those who loved Oscar might be able to do to bring him through.  How much time do you and I waste of just being angry?

They were a confession of faith.  If you have never been privileged to be in a black congregation when the community gets serious about prayer, you have missed one of life’s great worship experiences.  You feel the power flowing from folks who are speaking boldly to a God they fully expect to be listening.  The will and the love of many get funneled together, becoming a great wave of confession and intercession.  Consider how often our own prayer, public and private, is pro forma.  We expect little and are not surprised by the meager results.

They encapsulated our calling as people of God in a broken world.  We have just got to keep lifting one another up.  When illness comes; we gotta lift one another.  When disappointment comes; we gotta lift.  When life beats down our brothers and sister, when those who work for justice get discouraged, when we look out and see hunger and despair—we have got to keep lifting, because that is what it means to follow the one who lifted a cross.

There are a lot of folks bending low—some right near you…”We gotta lift ‘um up y’all; we just gotta keep lift’n ‘um up.”

BK

WOW 

Recently I changed my cover picture on Facebook to a snapshot that I took while I was in New Mexico a number of years ago.  It is a picture of a mesa bathed in the fiery colors of a desert sunset. Every time I see the photo I am struck by the power produced in a barren land and wowed by this outcropping.  I am filled with awe at the variety of God’s creation.  It also reminds me of the renewal I experienced out west. 

Anne Lamott has written a book called Help, Thanks, Wow.  In it she talks about the ways we ask for assistance, the thanks we offer to God, and moments we are utterly bowled over by God. She says the wows come in all shapes and sizes.  There are lower case wows and those that are so boundless that all we can say is “God” in a reverent voice.

As the season changes there will be plenty of opportunities to experience these moments.  I hope that in the business of the days ahead, we will all remember that God gives us these gifts that offer renewal and joy. 

JCS

Finding a Passion

There’s a controversy brewing on the banks of the Thames.  The prestigious Southbank Center of the Arts is host to four resident orchestras and a variety of other musical artists.  Beneath the center is a graffiti-covered concrete cavern known as “the undercroft,” which skateboarders regard as hallowed ground, the birthplace of their sport.   The Center wants to open up more space for much needed rehearsal rooms and outreach to the neighboring community, but that would mean moving the skateboarders down the river.

As I listened to the story on NPR I was struck by how passionate each side is about its art—and that is how both the musicians and the boarders see their pursuits, as art.  Perhaps it is obvious that music is art.  But so too is skateboarding, says the group’s leader. “It is an art form. It is about pushing the boundaries of human achievement and what you can do, not only on a skateboard, but with your mind.”

Maybe you could happily live your whole life without hearing another operatic aria.  Perhaps you wish daily that those cannon balling skateboarders would get off the sidewalk.  Most of us will have an opinion on the best use of the space at the Southbank center.  But arguing for one side or the other is not my purpose.  Rather, I invite you to consider the importance of having something which takes you beyond yourself, something which engages you beyond the tasks of daily routine, something which keeps you from going dead inside.  Our spirits are meant to stretch and explore the limits, whether that is mastering a Mozart flute concerto or executing a “fakie switch 360 shuvit” (yes, I confess I had to look that up).

Stretching is particularly important for us as disciples of Jesus.  We don’t want to just go through the motions.  Our calling is to push beyond our comfort zone, exploring new ways to invest ourselves in the work of Christ.  When the apostle Paul was pulled into a controversy at Corinth the issue was not practice rooms or skateboarding; it was whether Christians could eat food offered to idols.  That might seem trivial to us, but it threatened to rip that community apart.  His counsel, which serves us equally well, was “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”  We can differ on how we judge the merits of one position or another, but if we are clear about our ultimate goal, we’ll work through our disagreements.

Here is hoping that whatever you do this day stretches your spirit, fills you with passion, and gives you an opportunity to show Christ in your little corner of the world.

BK

hands

Off into the Future & Beyond

There’s a lot of uncertainty out there.  There always is when we begin a new year.  As our children begin their work with new teachers and classmates, we pray that they will “click”.  In the back of our mind we are rehearsing the lines we will relate at the family seminar of “learning to work with people we don’t like”.   For older students some are learning what classes will challenge them as they advance toward their goal of graduation.  For adults the uncertainties of the future can cover a sweeping range of topics; professional pinnacles, thorny choices regarding health, factors that hinge on the wellbeing of aging parents or the unexplored frontier when a beloved partner dies.  As I said uncertainty abounds.

During the weekly meeting with the college students we were using Genesis 12:1-5a as a springboard for our conversation. God assured Abraham and Sarah that they would be a blessing to all families as God promised them descendants in their advanced years.  Hagar and Ishmael were a distraction that produced jealousy and anger.   It wasn’t the smoothest introduction to parenthood or God’s promises. There were mysteries and the hurdles of uncertainty to overcome.  No smooth sailing for those two, but God was faithful.  God accompanied them every step of the way.

Sometimes we overlook Gods faithfulness. We wake up in the morning to feel the weight of uncertainly on our chests like an unwelcome X-ray apron in the dentist’s office.  We may greet the morning with a desire to pull the covers up over our head and retire to the secure cocoon.   

As we stare down the uncertainties and push down the rising lump in our throat we briefly assume we face the future alone.  Like Abraham and Sarah we temporarily forget the posse of friends that surround us.   

When the fog of ambiguity settles around us God is faithful.  He is the light and the truth. God is the rock and the sure foundation upon which we stand.  What more could we want as we make our way forward? 

JCS

 

Close to You

“Just like me, they long to be—close to you.”  Karen Carpenter’s sweet honey voice oozing out of the iPod took me back to my college days.  I thought of lazy days studying—and dozing—by a placid lake.  I recalled dorm nights, wondering if I would ever find someone who’d sing me that song.  I remembered the exhilaration of walking back from my first date with the woman who became my wife.  Most of all I remembered the kaleidoscope of possibilities that song evokes for me, those days when the world was laid out at my feet with infinite possibilities.

But this was nothing like the carefree days of college.  This was a vigil.  His infinite possibilities were rapidly narrowing to one.  He was dying and there was nothing anybody could do about it.  The sighs filling the room were not romantic sweet nothings but his gentle gasps for breath.  The words of love gently spoken to him were probably unheard—and if heard, not long remembered.  This was as far from a boisterous football tailgate as you get.

At first the juxtaposition of the song and the sparse hospital room seemed vaguely absurd.  The longer I sat there the more I saw something beautiful and powerful, something which moved me to tears.  It’s wonderful to celebrate the bloom of new love, to passionately confess that all you want from life to is to be near your beloved.  I’ve known that feeling and can attest it is intoxicating ecstasy.  Still, love is easy when limbs are strong, minds are clear, the future is bright, and the road wide open.  It’s a lot harder when all that is left are memories.  If you want to see mature love, sit by the bed of the dying and see care poured out with little hope of reciprocation.  “Close to you.”  He had nothing left to give, but his beloved still wanted nothing more than the privilege of being close to the very end.

I preach a lot of sermons; most of them at some point talk about love.  Some of the most powerful sermons need very few words because they are preached by long, excruciatingly tedious hours of faithfulness.  Sometimes the preacher does well to shut up and let those who really know something about love teach him.

BK

 

 

A couple of weeks ago at the close of my sermon, I gave the congregation some homework.  On one side of the index card I asked folks to write “God wants to give you all good things”. On the other side folks were to write a concern, worry, or fear that they were willing to share. At the close of worship, each congregant was invited to pick up someone else’s card to use in their daily devotions.  The purpose of the exercise was to build Christian community (not to identify the author) and encourage prayer in our congregation.

The task seems to have been welcomed by several folks.  I heard that people put them in their Bibles, on bedside tables, or in devotional book so that they could regularly remember this person in prayer.  A couple of folks even mentioned that we should do it again.

Some folks forgot to pick up a card.  I ended up with nine.  I took them to my office and placed them to the left of my computer.  It’s in a place where I see them several times a day.  The concerns were eclectic and disquieting.  I have remembered to lift up these prayers, not because I am the paid Christian, but I want to be faithful.

A couple of things have come to mind following this experiment.  I have viewed this exercise as a way to build community. I like the connection with God and these concerns.  I am amazed by what was written.  It was an act of trust to share such personally troubling requests.  Each has been a privilege to receive.  Finally, it has reminded me that we all carry a heavy burden and some carry theirs quietly.  I hope that they don’t feel alone or that it’s not worth mentioning.

I’m writing my devotional about this not because misery loves company, but as followers of Christ at LMLC we share celebrations, tears, and concerns of each one.  Coincidentally, as I write this and sip some tea the message on the tag is “We are here to love each other, serve each other, and uplift each other”.    As children of God that’s a great summary of our call to faithfulness.

JCS 

 

Dronescape

Last week I attended the opening of a show by two talented members of Luther Memorial congregation, Donald and Joanna Sunshine.  Their work is on display at Glade Church in Blacksburg.  Not all the readers of Bread for the Journey are from the Blacksburg area, but if you are, it is worth a trip to Glade.  (You might call ahead to be sure the gallery is open)

One of Donald’s watercolors, entitled “Dronescape,” continues to haunt me.  I would not presume to say what the painting “means” or what it represents (assuming it is even intended to be representational), but I can tell you how it affected me.  I associate landscapes and seascapes with natural beauty.  Sometimes that beauty is savage and dangerous, but more often it is serene and peaceful.  For me Donald’s painting evoked the slums above Rio, the camps in Gaza, and the shacks of the poor which hang tenuously on eroded hillsides all around the world.  Consider, the work said to me, another kind of “scape,” one whwere the sculpting power is not wind and water but the savage energies of war and technology. 

Many mornings I wake up to news of a drone strike in some far away place.  But “drone strikes” had always been a rather abstract, bloodless idea for me.  When I thought about them at all, they brought to mind men sitting in front of screens far from the muck of a battlefield who, at the end of the day, go home to their families in some suburb beyond the beltway.  Donald’s painting has got me pondering the consequences of drones in the real world—and I suspect that was at least part of the point.

The morality of drone strikes is not my point in this brief meditation.  That is a topic with more facets than a fine diamond.  If there is a political point to be made, the painting and its title do not need my commentary; they speak for themselves.  Instead, I invite you consider how often we are oblivious to the consequences of our actions.   For good and ill we impact others daily and yet we are usually blissfully ignorant of how a word or gesture affects another.  We launch multiple drones each day and then move on to the next item on the to-do list, seldom pondering what destruction we may have left behind.  

I wonder, if we stopped to consider the consequences of our actions, how many of the things we have said and done would we take back? In my experience, few people are deliberately hurtful, but we are often thoughtless.  Take a little time this week to notice how others are affected by interacting with you.  Are you a blessing?  What does the dronescape around your passing look like?

BK

Changing Times

I have been enjoying the cooler weather these last few days, even if it does suggest a change in the season.  The traffic around town has picked up and the places of commerce are busier…all hinting that the new school year is about to launch. Many of us are scrambling to fit in one last escape before schedule overload.

 I’ve been thinking about all the changes that are moving our way.   I have heard that the Middle School teachers are excited to be back on Prices Fork.  I imagine high school students, teachers AND parents are a smidge eager to see the inside of the new school.  Parents of kindergartners and college students are priming the pump for adventure.  It’s a draw as to who is trying to convince whom as the milestones accumulate. These changes imply growth, maturity, and a new era for all parties concerned.

 I was recently talking to a parent about her fear of high school; academic challenges, access to dating, to drugs or alcohol.  These are realities, but it is also an exciting time when students begin to dial in on their interests.  They have an opportunity to select classes, friends as well as activities.  As I recall I enjoyed seeing my daughter get fired up about robotics and drafting.

 Change can be daunting, but there is another way to approach it.   We were born for change.  We were made to embrace life. God gives us the tools so that we can venture out.  God pushes us to become engrossed in loving creation and our neighbors as much as he/she does.  God does not invite us into a life that is the same old same old.  If we find ourselves stagnating, we are like a horse, which has taken the bit between the teeth, refusing to go where it is directed.   That’s when it gets hazardous, sitting atop a half-ton animal who won’t behave.

 Anne Lamott identifies indigestible domestic pain in her book Help, Thanks, Wow.  Things like death, divorce, old age, drugs, violence, joblessness, or a brain damaged children.  These  plot twists mean change.   If we don’t change with them, if we don’t allow God to work on us, we never let go of our bad habits, rage, grief, and fear.  We are hurt beyond any reasonable chance of healing.  We stagnate.

 Just like a new school year; we can hit reset, renew, and recharge.  We can grab the milestone and move forward.  Through grace and gratitude God helps us reframe life. 

 

 JCS

 

Be Still

Last week I was sitting in the Virginia Tech Horticultural Gardens during the afternoon.  It was a perfect day, the kind which prompts poetry.  The humidity had finally dropped below needing a snorkel just to breath.  Though the sky was sunny, the canopy of trees over my bench made the temperature in the shade perfect.  A little stream’s constant burble was punctuated by assorted avian chirps.   And I was having a very hard time enjoying it.

I knew this was good for me.  I knew it was good for my ministry.  I learned long ago that taking time away from the office to read, ponder, pray, and journal is absolutely essential for my emotional well-being.  There is nothing like a serene, beautiful place to allow the minutia of living to fade into the background, nothing like sitting quietly to give random thoughts space to sort themselves until the tender shoot of an insight emerges from the muck of distraction.  I know prayer is possible at any time and any place, yet it is more likely to be rich when the phone can not ring.  I knew all this intellectually.

But it sure looks like slacking off.  Even though I had a couple of books and a pad at hand to prove that I was “working,” A piece of me wondered what the good folks of Luther Memorial would say if they saw me sitting quietly in a garden in the middle of a work day.  In the midst of whatever chaos fills our days, God enjoins, “Be still, and know that I am God [Psalm 46].”  But how very hard that is for this pastor!  I imagine it is even harder for you, who can’t even claim “professional development.”

Marva Dawn calls worship a “royal waste of time” and another writer has said that prayer is “wasting time with God.”  Both are being ironic; there is nothing more important than being present to God.  But they capture how the practices of faith look to a world which always values doing at the expense of discerning, which thinks we should be perpetually running—even if we are not sure where.

Summer is the time for vacations.  I hope you get some time for decompressing.  But taking time for spiritual growth is different from that.  Being still before God is not the same as playing golf or reading on the beach—though those are great stress releases—it is the way we stop and make space for a friend to touch and enrich us.

My prayer for you, in the middle of your very busy lives:  that you may find your own Horticultural Gardens, that place where you can receive what God is eager to give you.

BK

Strangers in Need

As many of you know, I was in Asheville last week.  I was there with an assortment of cycling friends to do a charity ride and relax.  It was marvelous to catch up with everyone (during the weekend there were 11 of us).  I got to meet the latest set of twins who were born seven weeks ago, reconnect with someone I haven’t seen since she moved from the area five years ago, and revel in the relationships that have been built around biking, running, and swimming.  The visit to the Folk Art Center, the food, and the bike rides were pretty good too!   

These women are my traveling troupe. They are widows, married for years, new mothers, divorcees, and young singles who are strong, thoughtful, adventuresome, and above all caring women.  We are intertwined in each other’s lives when there is a crisis, a celebration, we trade training tips, or a cup of tea. We look after each other.  I am truly blessed to know these women.

On one of our trips into downtown Asheville we saw a woman that I am still thinking about.  She is a nameless soul dressed in a dirty tank top and lime green capris. I don’t know her-I will never see her again, but I wonder who looks after her? 

We were waiting for a light to change at a busy intersection.    She appeared out of nowhere; stumbling and lurching across the street.  The runway lines of the crosswalk couldn’t guide her drunken gait.  She came to an abrupt stop when she fell in the gutter.  The tender flesh of her face took the brunt of the impact.  She was presumably trying to sit on the curb next to an equally stoned young man. Who was he; her son, a friend, a protector, or a pimp?    

What happened to this woman?  Was she a victim of circumstances that forced her on the streets? Did she make some bad choices-although blaming her isn’t particularly helpful.  She is a vulnerable human being and a child of God.  Despite her disheveled behavior, who looks after her?

We could go back and forth about the reasons or the solutions.  Most likely no response will emerge, just frustration and maybe anger. However, this prayer has helped me to think about this encounter with a stranger who needs mercy.

Hear our prayer today for all women and men, boys and girls who are homeless this day.

For those sleeping under bridges, on park benches, in doorways or bus stations.

For those who can only find shelter for the night but must wander in the daytime.

For families broken because they could not afford to pay the rent.

For those who have no relatives or friends who can take them in.

For those who have no place to keep possessions that remind them who they are.

For those who are afraid and hopeless.

For those who have been betrayed by our social safety net.

For all these people, we pray that you will provide shelter, security and hope.

We pray for those of us with warm houses and comfortable beds

that we not be lulled into complacency and forgetfulness.

Jesus, help us to see your face in the eyes of every homeless person we meet

so that we may be empowered through word and deed,

and through the political means we have,

to bring justice and peace to those who are homeless.  Amen.

JCS

Greater Than the Parts

When I was in seminary, all my classmates knew Epiphany Luther Church, in St. Matthews, S.C.  It was a tiny congregation which depended on the seminary to send a student each week to be the preacher.  Presiding at Epiphany was an odd experience.  You arrived at the congregation a few minutes before 11:00.  At the appointed hour, somebody would check his watch, walk up to the altar, flick his Bic to light the candles, and then nod to the seminarian to begin.  When you stepped into the pulpit you saw about eight people (on a good Sunday) dispersed over a worship space which could seat 150.  That made for a strange dynamic; if you made eye contact with someone, they felt like you were preaching directly to them.  You had to be very careful how you said lines that were the least bit confrontational, lest someone feel singled out.

I don’t know the history of that congregation.  I never sensed any particular animosity among the faithful remnant who worshipped each week.  But it was hard to feel much sense of community when the congregation was spread out, one or two to a pew, all around the nave.

I thought about Epiphany, St. Matthews this morning because Sunday’s worship at Luther Memorial was the exact opposite.  More than one person commented to me that, because it felt so intimate, they liked gathering in the smaller space of the picnic shelter for our Care of Creation themed worship.  Okay, perhaps we gathered so tightly to be sure we did not get rained on, but the effect was that we could better see and hear one another.  The sum was indeed greater than the total of the individual parts.

My point is a simple one, which I think needs to be made repeatedly:  The life of faith is not an individual sport.  We need one another.  We are most joyful, effective, and what Jesus intended the church to be when we share our lives in worship, in service, and in small study and prayer groups.  This week, think about one way in which you can build up a sense of community and common purpose in the congregation with which you identify.  Sing a little louder.  Drop a note to someone who is having a hard time.  Invite someone to lunch.  Greet a stranger after worship.  The possibilities are many, but the goal is the same, to make the welcome of Christ tangible to all you meet.

BK

Mr. Happy

He had everyone looking at him—and if you have ever walked on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in the middle of the day you know what an accomplishment that was.  In any big city, the wave of humanity swirls obliviously around just about any distraction.  Past silver painted mimes, homeless folks slumped against the storefronts, street preachers announcing coming calamity, outrageously tattooed, dressed, and coiffed characters, the anonymous tide rolls on unheeding.  But this little boy had everyone’s attention. He screamed loud enough to drown out the siren of a passing fire engine and his eyes bugged out so far I feared he would burst some capillaries.  When his mother reached in to grab an angry arm, flailing like a buzz saw, I got a look at his T-shirt.  On the front was a smiley-face over the inscription, “Mr. Happy.”  I laughed out loud at the incongruity.

Sometimes incongruity is no laughing matter.  The speaker at the conference I was attending last week in the Windy City reminded us of something I have been reading a lot lately:  Despite Christian self-perceptions, those outside the Church increasingly regard it as a bastion of intolerance.  They perceive the saints simultaneously wearing a T-shirt that says “We are all beggars at the table of God,” and checking IDs at the church door to make sure only the right kind of folks come in.

Check it out for yourself.  Jesus reserves his harshest words for those who ought to know better, the people who have been incredibly blessed by God but insist on looking down on others.  When you have received mercy, says Jesus, the proper response is to spread it around wherever you can.  As our gospel lesson from a few weeks ago noted, when you really experience love, you can’t help but show it. (Luke 7:36ff)

That is not the same as having a squishy “anything goes” attitude which refuses to discern between what gives life and what causes pain.  Jesus famously told a shady lady, “Go and sin NO more.”  But it does mean that our lives should match our confession.  If we believe we have received mercy, let’s be merciful. Having experienced God’s patience with our persistent failings, let’s be patient with that annoying co-worker.  As we humbly claim God’s forgiveness, let’s be quick to offer it to others.

So, a little exercise:  This week imagine you are wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a cross and the words, “Mr. (or Ms.) Grace.”  How many people would laugh—or cry—at incongruity between your shirt and your attitude?

BK