Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Asking For Money. Receiving Forgiveness.

Just sent out our stewardship letter today.    End of the year.  Sunday is Christ the King.

The rap on churches is “they’re always asking for money.”  Turns people off.  I guess I bought into that because “asking for money” has not been a particular strength or interest of mine.  Maybe it’s part of the “oldest child” syndrome.  It’s hard to ask for anything when you’re raised to be self-sufficient and independent. 

Congregations tend to shy away from raising the issue of money, and a lot of other issues, afraid to alienate anyone.  Keeping people quiet and calm and in the pews.  Except, that hasn’t worked so well…

Still, we try to keep the lid on politics, issues of justice, equality, or anything controversial that might get people riled and excited.  As if keeping people calm    
was a Christian teaching of the highest order.

Isn’t faith, by definition, controversial?   Isn’t obedience to the God of love a sure-fire recipe for push back from all the places in the world where love flies in the face of “business as usual?” 

Was for Jesus.  King of the Jews.  King of all that was a laughing stock, broken, despised and contemptible.  God’s chosen One.

Can we be disciples of Jesus and live irrelevant lives in communities that value everything bland and innocuous and avoids anything controversial?  Especially when the heart of our faith demands of us: open minds, open hearts and open arms? 

Faith is permission to ask for what we need, because faith requires us to be open to the needs of others.  Even when it’s controversial.  Especially when it’s controversial. 

Faith is a whispered plea for pardon, improbably granted in a moment of utter forsakenness.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

These are the moments our faith lifts up.  This is where we are directed to look for meaning and peace.   

Faith is not a means of avoiding the unseemly, for tip-toeing around disagreement.  Faith is a means of living authentically by living for others. 

That in itself is the height of controversy. 

Thursday, November 07, 2013


I have lived a long time without a leaf vac/blower.  Without the obsession or the sense of personal affront that leaves scattered across the lawn seems to evoke in some suburban neighborhoods.  As if the summer was a party that got out of hand. People come out on their lawns in the fall like tired hosts after the guests have gone, clearing glasses, dumping ash trays, before climbing the stairs and turning in for the winter.

Admittedly, I have lived an atypical life.  Most of my life has been spent either in church owned parsonages, or in cities where leaves were rare things.  All the fall leaves required was a a rake, if you absolutely just couldn’t ignore them.  Get them to the curb and the city will come by in big sucking trucks and haul them away.  Usually by Thanksgiving.  It was all  very casual, and in its own way, a little pathetic.

But all that’s changed.  I own a leaf vac/blower.  It blows leaves into a big pile, sucks them up and mulches them in a zippered bag.  You empty the bag into larger, clear plastic bags and line them up by the curb.  Monuments to a kind of communal Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder.

Our house now has three deflated sacks of minced leaves out at the curb.  The sight fills me with an ironic sense of pride.  

Blowing leaves around your lawn is a kind of absurd thing, and being new to this, I was very self-conscious, heightening the absurdity factor even more.  So many questions came up.  Do you blow the leaves out to the curb?  Get them into a pile on the lawn?  Do you clean the gutters by the  curb?  How far into the street should you chase strays?  Where do “international waters” start on a neighborhood street? 

I was sure the neighbors were all looking out their windows thinking, ”Amateur.”

I knew that I was jamming my leaf vac/blower into the spokes of the circle of life.  Fallen leaves were meant to return to the soil.  To nourish the tree.   But something bigger was going on here. 

I was standing in solidarity with my neighbors.  Holding up my end. Buying into shared meaning, and I had to admit, grudgingly, the lawn looked neat and unnaturally green for this time of year.  Shared meaning does that. 

But meaning doesn’t just happen.  We create it, and in creating meaning we are shaped and created ourselves.  Our communities.  Our families. Our selves.

Meaning is the mirror in which we see our own reflection.  We wash our face, comb our hair in it.  We shave in it or put on make-up before going out into the world. 

Meaning is the blood that carries oxygen to the organs and limbs of our lives, and it carries away the wastes and toxins our lives produce. 

Sometimes meaning overwhelms you like a wave.  You move from one place to another as we have just done and start again.  What does it mean to be starting again at our stage in life? 

Or, you have children, they grow and leave home.  People die, leaving great holes.  Foundations without houses to cover them. It’s all variations of a theme.  These are meaning tidal waves.

And sometimes meaning just floats out of the air like a bright leaf you can chase all over the yard with a high powered leaf vac/blower, to bag for someone to take away.  Because you just do, that’s all.

A deep silence fills the chilly twilight, our three bags of leaves at the curb like the bags in front of every other house.  Behind them, up and down the block, the house windows are all beginning to shine.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Stumbling Into Heaven

I’ve been going through a dry spell lately.  I get these every once in awhile.  Writer’s block seems too lofty to describe it.  Writer’s blah is more like it.  

One of the ways I cope is by trying to write my way through it.  Reviewing the day and trying to get one small thing right.  Easier said than done.   

Life in the abstract seems a priceless gift. In the particular however, it’s often pedestrian, mundane, arbitrary and hardly worth noting.  That is unless you want to get really depressed.  I’ve certainly lived more of my life distracted and bored than enthralled.      

I say this knowing that a life is these mundane events, strung together, morning to evening to morning again.  A seamless progression.  Brushing teeth, sorting socks, picking out a tie, or shoes for the day, walking the dog, heating leftovers; all of it the form and substance of what somehow adds up to our one priceless life.  Yes, this is grace.  

That knowledge is fleeting though.  Through a glass darkly, as Paul says.  My greatest fear sometimes is that this will all become painfully clear to me on my deathbed.  My greatest hope is that it won't be too late.  

Maybe all the convoluted theological jargon about Heaven is nothing more than a life lived where the ordinary is finally seen in its sacredness.  And maybe ushering in the Kingdom is nothing more than honoring that sacredness.  Attending to it in our own life, and in the lives of others.  

I keep coming back to the image of Jesus, raised from the dead, on the lakeshore at dawn,  squatting over a fire cooking a few fish for the disciple’s breakfast.  

In such is heaven found.  

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


From my journal today.... "Truth is not complicated. We make it complicated so that we don't have to own up to our lack of courage to simply name it, change and grow accordingly." 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Moving Is Like Playing Whack-A-Mole

It is amazing how disruptive moving is, or, to frame that positively, how important routines and disciplines are to creativity.  I think I've placed far too much emphasis on inspiration in my writing and in my work.  Moving has reminded me, inspiration is mostly a matter of just showing up every day.   

Now, things are coming together in our new home.  Moving a short distance helps us whack one mole before the next one pops up.  That's what moving feels like.

Last night, sitting out on the deck in the early evening, the thinning leaves and trees dark shadows dissolving into the darkening September sky, I actually wrote a few lines.  The dust may be settling.

I am surprised how comforting it is to be in a neighborhood again, surrounded by other houses and other lives.  Maybe that stems from the simple animal comfort of presence.  Of other people carting their trash to the curb, walking their dogs, leaving in their cars in the morning and coming back at night.

Or, maybe it is the familiarity of this floor plan in our new place.  We lived in a house like this with our boys through middle school and high school, and left for college.  This place takes us back and moves us forward. 

The places we go and the stops we make along the way become part of our evolution as people.  We think we leave a place and move on, but we never really leave.  It comes with us as the people we have become from having lived there.

Friday, September 20, 2013

My Summer Vacation

This summer, we went back to the Gulf Coast of Florida for our vacation, and I discovered snorkeling.  The Gulf of Mexico was exceptionally clear this year.  Something I am profoundly grateful for after the BP oil spill.  Stepping into that warm, clear water felt like standing in liquid forgiveness, the limits of which I hope we never test again. 

So I went to the tacky t-shirt shack, a fixture at all beach communities, and I bought a mask and a snorkel that sealed itself if I went completely under water.   What a world they opened to me.     

Suddenly, our little beach was like swimming in an aquarium.  I felt like the plastic diver  in the aquarium we used to have in our living room, forever about to discover the treasure chest with the lid that kept opening in a stream of bubbles.

As soon as I put my face in the water, connected to my world through the plastic tube by my ear, I found myself in the middle of a school of bait fish.  Shiners the locals called them.  They were about an inch long with green backs, blue eyes and sides made of a thousand tiny mirrors.  They swam straight at me like snow flakes when you’re driving at night through a snow storm.

Below them, I could see the larger fish, Jack and Redfish, darting up from the bottom, feeding on the stragglers.  The sunlight,  a spidery web of light underwater, created endless patterns, brilliant flashes as the fleeing shiners turned to avoid me.  A garbled cry of amazement and joy caught in my throat.  What beauty lay just below the surface!

I realized that water is just another kind of atmosphere, and as I swam connected to the world above by the thin pipe whooshing full of my own breath by my ear, I felt like I was flying, held by the water, my shadow gliding across the rippled sand bottom 12 feet below me.  Startling the small fish for whom every shadow means danger.

After awhile some would swim along just below me, using me for shelter from the birds above and the larger fish below.  What grace to pass through this new world extending shelter to these temporary little traveling companions.

How many worlds exist like this, just below the surface of my life?   I get the uncomfortable feeling that there are undiscovered worlds like this at my finger-tips all the time, and that God is so much grander, so much more present around me than I ever imagined.

We often make redemption and salvation a personal matter.  Turn Jesus into our personal savior, like the personal flotation device my seat cushion can supposedly be turned into if the plane we arrived here on were to go down over water.  Some things you just have to take on faith I guess, because I’d surely drown trying to figure out how to do that.  It takes me a couple of trys to locate the correct buckle for my seat belt.

Swimming in the blizzard of these shiners extending my accidental grace and protection, gives me a sense of the grandness of creation.  Can God's redemption and salvation be any less grand?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Spirituality Of Moving

Living in an area with lots of military personnel, moving is a fact of life.  Clergy aren’t quite as mobile, but we do our share of relocating too. 

My wife and I will be moving again in about a week to the new church parsonage in Riverside Estates.  The process of moving again helps me understand, just a little, the lives of the military families that are part of our congregation and community. 

For the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about our move here.  I’ll be sharing tips, mistakes, hopefully some small successes, and exploring the spirituality of moving.  You’re welcome to come along...  

Yesterday, I rented a 16’ truck and picked up a new sofa, recliner and area rug at Costco.  I remember when our entire lives fit inside a 16' truck.  The fact that it doesn't now is a testament of the way our lives together have flowered.  Children. Children's spouses. Grandchildren. Dogs.  So many blessings. 

Sure, some of this accumulation of "stuff" represents the typical postponed decisions.  Even after only a couple of years.   Lots of this stuff is headed for the trash.  Probably should have been there long ago.  Many of my books fall into that category.  I still have my books from college and seminary.  A lifetime ago. 

For a writer, books are companions.  They are relationships, lessons learned, a record of the questions and collective wisdom that has shaped my life.   In the age of ebooks, the time has come my friends... 

Things are coming together in the house.  The congregation has done a great job getting things ready for us.  Looks good…hopeful…with our new rug down, the empty bookcases in the study waiting to hold the books I’m not ready to part with yet.  It becomes possible to imagine a life here.  It begins to take focus and shape. 

The sofas, the chairs, the rugs, the pictures on the walls, the books on the shelves…these are all the silent witnesses to our lives.   I haven't always paid them the attention and respect they were due.  I've mostly taken them for granted.  I realize that as they are taken down one by one, wrapped or sealed in  cardboard boxes.  This is exhausting work.  Slow and painstaking.  Thankfully, my wife shoulders the bulk of this.  Driving the truck, lifting and sweating is the easy part comparatively and  I’m better suited to that.

I believe it's true that a life observed is changed simply by being observed.  These things carried from our old place to our new feel like an extension of ourselves.   A bridge to take us from who we were to who we will become.  They are the immense gratitude, sealed and delivered,  for all that has been.  They are gestures of faith in what is yet to be. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I (Still Have) A Dream

Today is the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington” and the "I Have A Dream" speech.  I’ve noticed how our remembering the “March” tends to disconnect the “March” from its original purpose.  Civil rights.  The end of inequality, oppression and injustice. 

There are isolated attempts to re-connect the “March” to the struggle for civil rights, but as an event, with an anniversary, the 'March' becomes an institution, nestled safely in the arms of history.  Because the “March” represents many things.  Civil rights, and in equal or greater parts, nostalgia for the time when we were young and things mattered and the music offered us a version of ourselves we embraced and remember to this day.  Part fiction, part hope, and all of it fading faster than we'd like to admit.    

Today, we stand on the verge of military action in Syria.  An action that seems a foregone conclusion.  Should it be?  Shouldn't there be some discussion or debate? 

On one level, it is an all too present reminder of how oppressive power opposes change and the means it will use to preserve its interests.   We stand at this anniversary trying to celebrate how far we've come and swallow the bitter sweetness of what that means individually, while all around us are the signs of how far we still need to go. 

The things the “March” helped bring about, today are systematically under attack.  Even while we celebrate.  Even as we’re encouraged to remember. 

Dr. King recognized the systemic nature of oppression and injustice and how race was (and still is) a big piece of an even bigger puzzle. 

He began to speak out against the Vietnam War and was criticized for doing so.  He was in Memphis when he was shot and killed, organizing for the end of segregation and better, safer working conditions for the city's trash collectors. 

The “Dream” was opening new vistas and wider fronts.  Calling on him to travel new places and develop new ideas and grow in new ways.  The “March” soothes us, the “Dream” challenges us and equips us for what’s ahead.

As sweetly nostalgic as it is to remember the “March,” to revel in the grainy black and white images of our history, it's not the “March” we need to commemorate, it's the “Dream”. 

It's the “Dream” that points us to where we are going.  And, it's the “Dream” that needs our vigilance, debate and protection to keep it from becoming just another piece of history.     

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In The Fullness Of Time

Timing is everything in life.  I believe that.  I also believe that I have squandered far too many opportunities waiting for “the right time” which never seemed to come.  Especially if I felt intimidated or overwhelmed.  I can always find something wrong with the timing when I’m feeling overwhelmed.  

Out of a certain degree of necessity, I have perfected the art of procrastination.  Procrastination gets a bad rap sometimes.  I’ve learned to value procrastination.  Some truly forgettable ideas have come and gone in a flash.  I go to bed thinking I can’t wait to get started and I wake up wondering “what was I thinking?”  Procrastination has saved me an awful lot of embarrassment.

I’ve come to understand that timing in life is not a matter of finding the right or wrong moment, but learning instead to trust the moment.  Whatever the moment.  To seize the opportunities each moment presents and understand the limitations.   And I’ve also learned that the more I can get my ego out of the way, the easier that is to do. 

I know that God has a way of slipping a burr under my saddle when God wants me to set out in a new direction.  Trusting the moment is sometimes nothing more than acting on the desire God has placed in my heart, acting in good faith, and waiting for the “fullness of time.”  Which is always God’s time, and not mine.  Thank goodness.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Holistic Worship

Our dog walker's worship has been filled with surprises.  Our little "pack" has grown each week.  This week, we met a 3 month old Swiss Burmese Mountain dog.  Cute and fuzzy, and when full grown, will weigh in at 150lb or so.  We’ll want to stay on his good side.

Each Sunday, a couple of labs run out to greet us and insist their bath-robed, coffee toting owners come out and meet us too.  This has sparked some good, impromptu conversations with our neighbors.  Conversations that wouldn't happen without this ministry. 

I think this is what I appreciate about our "dog walker's worship."  The "holistic" aspect of it. 

We tend to "compartmentalize" worship.  It happens outside our everyday lives.  On a Sunday, a day most of us are off, though not as many as there used to be.  We come to a special place, designed for well behaved adults, where we sit and sometimes stand, to praise God.

Pets are not allowed.  Heaven forbid!  Though pets play such an important part in the lives of so many of us.  They are companions for the elderly.  Trusted confidantes to the young navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence.   Their presence in a household is a blessing a thousand times over.  But worship makes no provision for them. 

The same dynamic happens with children.  In order to worship, children are expected to behave like little adults, because worship is designed for adults.  Children's sermons, and activity bags notwithstanding.  Aren't these really designed to keep children entertained so they will sit quietly, like little adults? 

And if they don't keep a child occupied sufficiently, parents are often left with no other option but to rush their child out of worship to a nursery, or a "cry room" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" often feeling embarrassed and apologetic.   I remember those mortified feelings, though I learned that I was bothered by my kids making noise more than the people around me.  I think that’s still the case today, but I don’t know that it helps parents now, anymore than it did for me. 

Our dog walker's worship offers a welcome, holistic approach to worship.  We don't need to step out of our lives to join God.  Our lives are a blessing from God, and God is found in the everyday living of our lives, walking the dog, playing with our kids.  God is present in all of it.  

I'm wondering how we can bring this holistic approach to worship and apply it to children.  We have a dog walker's worship.  What about a liturgy of the playground? 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Finding Forgiveness

 I have a system for walking the Mount Vernon Trail with the dogs.  I walk down hill on the left side, and up hill on the right.  You see, downhill bikers are going a lot faster, with less time to react to a man and two collies, than uphill bikers.  Everyone gets more time this way. 

The only time this system doesn't work is in a valley.  Then, everyone is barreling down hill no matter which way you’re going, and it’s run for your lives.   

This morning, we'd just gotten to one of those valleys.  Lots of them have bridges, which makes sense when you think about it.  We were walking downhill on the left, when I saw a cyclist on the other side of the bridge also coming downhill, on the same side of the path.  An older guy, clipped mustache, like an accountant or a banker in spandex.

We stepped to the right on the bridge in plenty of time.  He gave me a withering, contemptuous look, as he flew past.   

What a jerk, I thought to myself.   

From my reaction, I was immediately aware of the tenseness and stress I had been carrying on this walk. The pressure behind my eyes, the tightness in my shoulders.  I had been grinding my teeth too, without being aware of it.  Now I was. 

My brief encounter with “spandex man” had opened my eyes to what was going on inside of me.  For this entire walk, hadn’t I been as unconsciously annoyed by the cyclists as spandex man had been with me?  They felt like an intrusion.  To what? 

We continued walking, and I thought about that.  We were on a level stretch so the dogs and I were walking on the right side of the path.  I heard an "on the left" from behind me, so we stopped to let the cyclist pass, and I said, "OK. Got it." to acknowledge I'd heard. 

It was spandex man again.  He said something to the effect that I wasn't giving him enough room to pass…eh, more or less.  I guess he thought we should jump into the bushes and let him have the entire path.   

It was like a match hitting the remaining fumes of my anger. 

"Stupid a**hole, get off and walk if a bike's too much for you."   

Wow, I thought.  I hadn't reacted that way to anything in a long time.  Not that it was wrong.  Actually, my knee jerk description was pretty much on target. 

Was I really carrying that much tension?  On another day, a stupid a**hole like that wouldn't have gotten a rise out of me.  What was going on in me today? 

Maybe spandex man came back because I had more to learn.  I began to pay attention to the cyclists, and my reaction to them.  And God sent another almost right away.  Almost the identical scenario. 

"On the left" 

"OK Gotcha." 

We stopped and waited.  Another cyclist.  This guy was more like Yogi Bear on a bike.  Ear phones in.  Shirttail flying.  No helmet.

When he passed, our eyes connected and he said, "Nice dogs" a little too loud because of the ear buds.  I nodded and smiled.  He wouldn't have heard me anyway. 

It was like that with the rest of the cyclists we met on the trail today. 

What had changed? 

Spandex man had awakened me to the stress and tension I was feeling.  Even had me express it.  That awareness prompted me to hold myself in compassion.  I extended that compassion to the cyclists, many of whom are out here on a hot day riding to deal with their own stress and tension.  We were all here, me, the dogs, the cyclists, to get our bit of exercise. 

My interactions with cyclists became opportunities to practice compassion.  We were all out here together, trying to cope with our lives.  Dealing with our own a**hole-ness.   I can be a royal a**hole.  To spandex man, I was. 

By the time I got back to beginning of the trail, my tension and anger was gone, lifted like a cloud.  I finally got around to wishing compassion for spandex man. 

Words like those that passed between us have a tendency to burrow under the skin.  To stay there and fester.  I'd been on both sides of those exchanges.  I know.  Awareness and compassion had enabled me to enter into a different future. 

This is what forgiveness is.  Not diminishing the event, or forgetting it ever happened.  It's about how we carry an event forward into our lives. 

We can use an offense to create separation, and if we do, we remain frozen in a solid block of resentment.   Or, an offense can be an opportunity to connect compassionately with others.  Including the offender. 

Forgiveness isn’t about the past.  Or about making wrongs right.  It’s about what kind of future you want. 

So, let me say thanks, spandex man.  From one a**hole to another. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Is God?

I walked the dogs early this morning.  The steamy heat is already building in the air, a small down payment on what’s to come later today.  

So we take the shade walk, down Surrey Ct., through the wooded path to Mount Vernon.

When we get to the woods, I let the leashes out so they can run and explore.  FanCee likes to linger over each scent.  She stays close to my side.  Savoring.  Moving slowly.  

Prince covers lots of ground.  Excited nose gorging on the pungency of the cool damp earth, wet leaves, the invisible scent markers of every animal that has passed this way.  Exuberant, tail high, waving like a flag.

All of this lost on me.  A human’s sense of smell is a tiny fraction of a dog’s.  As I watch them, I can’t help but wonder, why does all this exist?   All these smells and aromas, scents and traces of things.  An abundance.  

Almost instantly, I realize that for me, it doesn't.  None of it.  These scents and smells are called into existence when the dogs sniff them.  

I'm not talking about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one hears it.  Who cares unless the tree falls on you, and then if it's a big tree, it makes the last sound you'll ever hear.  

What I'm talking about is God.  More specifically, God's presence in the midst of it all.  Let me be even more specific.

What is God?

This morning, I understand that God is a dog's nose, close to the ground, greedily delighting in every scent treasure there to be discovered.

And God is my eyes watching with a different delight and happiness, my heart perceiving the layers of meaning, my ears suddenly aware of the cardinal's throaty song in the branches above.

God is the trees around me erupting into the heavens, leafy faces turned to the searing sun, sheltering me, the dogs, in coolness, providing shelter for the cardinal and every other bird I hear at this moment I am too ignorant to name.

Could it be as simple as this?  We are God's senses, the instruments of God's delight.  We are the means by which God experiences creation, indeed, calls creation into being.

Every living thing is God's eyes and ears.  God's taste and touch.  God's nose, low to the ground, in loving communion with the cool damp earth, taking it all in.   

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Circle Unbroken

The journal app that I use provides a writing prompt every day.

Today’s was: “Talk to yourself in your writing.

Hasn’t that been my greatest fear as a writer?  Any writer’s greatest fear?  A believer’s deepest anxiety?  A prayer’s most profound doubt?  That we actually live in an echo chamber.  The words we write reach no further than our own eyes.  The petitions we pray from the depths of our hearts land on our own deaf ears.

Isn’t this the root of the existential nightmare that reality is nothing more than my own projections, and I stand in the middle of an unbroken circle, utterly alone?  I am reduced to  inventing dialogue partners which end up being just different aspects of myself.

Today though, I was prompted to ask a different question.  Or perhaps, the next question, because all of what I wrote above is certainly true.  The question is, so what?  Why should any of that be a fear?

The most basic truth in not that we’re alone.  It’s so much bigger than that.  The most basic truth is that we’re alone, together.

Press your ear close as I address myself, because I can’t address myself without addressing you.  I can not pray my heart’s deepest desires without praying yours.  And maybe the reality is that when I write, when I pray, I’m not praying or writing to God as much as I am praying and writing through God.  And God through me.

Yes, the circle is unbroken.  It is just much bigger than I imagined.  Everything is in it, nothing is outside...both utter isolation and complete communion.  It is all here. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Trending Fear...

I had some flyers made for our “dog walkers” pet friendly worship service starting on Sunday, June 30th (7:45AM if you’re interested).  I posted them in places with a community bulletin board; supermarket, pet shop, the gym.  I always asked permission first and at each place they were fine, until they saw it was for a church.  Then, they needed to ask a supervisor. 

Now they all posted our flyers (thanks!), but their hesitancy was something to consider. 

Some will interpret that hesitancy as proof of a secular war on religion.  I think that’s baloney. In fact, that self-serving explanation is another symptom of the larger problem. 

Religion today has somehow become associated with the worst tendencies of human nature.  Intolerance  Judgmental.  Divisiveness.   

A recent Gallup Poll shows that people’s confidence in religion went from 68% in 1975 to 48% in 2013.  While their confidence in the military has gone from 58% to 76% over the same period. 

These trends indicate the high level of fear present in our society today.  When fears run high, the most regressive and reactionary voices sound the loudest.  Those voices have helped push the Christian voice in particular, far afield of what Jesus actually taught. 

Jesus teaching spoke to the best in human nature.  Jesus called us to live up to our best, not down to our worst.  We are at our best, living to our fullest, when we reflect God’s nature. 

How do we do that? Jesus didn’t teach fear.  He taught love, acceptance, forgiveness.  Compassion for the poor.  Mercy for the downtrodden. 

Jesus said, over and over again, “Fear not!”  In fact, it’s the first things the heavenly messengers declare in the Bible. 

This is what we need to hear today.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rivera Blows Save. Reveals Secret Of His Success.

In an interview following his first blown save of the season against the cross town rival Mets, Mariano Rivera inadvertently revealed the secret of his storied success. 

“I guess someone went to bed before the end of the game, didn’t they?” 

Rivera declined to name names.  “They know who they are,” is all he would say. 

Rivera has announced that he will retire at the end of the season, and barring some miracle, tonight was the last night he will pitch at Citi Field in Queens.  He has enjoyed tremendous success against the Mets, converting 22 of 25 save opportunities, including tonight’s blown save.

He shook his head with profound disappointment and said, “Could you not watch with me one hour?  Twenty minutes!?” 

Looking directly at the camera he said, “Let’s suck it up now.  If you don’t get on the ball, I’ll never get my playoff bonus this year.” 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Queasy On The Circle Of Life

I mowed the lawn today and I ran the mower over a garter snake.  I didn’t realize it until I saw a big chunk of it coiled in the driveway.  I thought it was the whole snake, until I got close and saw the truth.  Until I saw bits of snake in the grass.  For some reason, I wanted to find the head.  I stopped the mower, and like a macabre Easter egg hunt, searched the grass for it.  But I never found it. 

I’m not sure why this bothered me so much.  Why I felt this overwhelming need to apologize.  To ask forgiveness.  I wasn’t sure to who, or what exactly.  But that didn’t make the urge any less.

Of course the act was unintentional. Of course I couldn’t be held responsible. In fact, I never would have known if a large piece of the snake hadn’t landed in the driveway.  I would have finished and simply admired the uniform beauty of even an imperfect mutt of a lawn like mine.

I know “circle of life” and all that. Spinning in circles can sometimes make you sick to your stomach. 

Like the time I ran over the rabbit hole with the mower, the sickening thwack, thwack that stopped the motor.  I had no idea what had happened until I looked underneath, astonished, heartsick, the bloody pulps unrecognizable, and the single baby rabbit left, peering up out of the fur lined nest. Stone still. Practicing being invisible.

I've never been in a tornado. I’ve been following the news out of Oklahoma.  Is a tornado like a lawn mower passing overhead? 

An ELCA news release about the tragedy mentioned that two ELCA congregations were in the path of the storm.  They were not damaged.  The reporter who wrote the story quoted the rostered lay leader of the congregations, who proudly said that the “hand of God had protected the buildings.” 

I thought about that surviving baby rabbit peering out of the nest.  And I remembered how inadequate everything felt after that.  How I removed the dead rabbits, careful not to disturb the nest any further, and continued mowing because there was so much more left to do, and very little that I could say about it. 

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Someday Maybe I'll Have A Great Lawn

Lawns.  They can be an obsession.  On the TV sitcoms I watched growing up, men were concerned with three things.  Going to work.  The family car.  And the lawn. 

These were the tacit boundaries of a man's life.  You were either going to work, under the car, or doing something on or to the lawn.        

Now, I was a little worried.   I didn’t have a car, didn’t have a job and lawns where I lived were not much to write home about.  The houses where I grew up were spaced like kids in first grade gym class, at arms' length.  Kids in first grade have very short arms.     

But we lived next door to the church where my father was the pastor, so we probably had the biggest lawn of anyone I knew.  It felt like a little park.  The neighborhood kids loved to bring their sleds in the winter when it snowed because we also had a hill. 

When there wasn't snow on it, the lawn was pretty much green except the dirt parts where we played run the bases and home run derby. And the parts where we threw the ball for the dog to fetch.   Didn't seem like all that much to worry about. 

Maybe a job and a car wouldn't be such a big deal either when the time came.  I attribute this to my overriding, and sometimes unfounded, sense of optimism.  

Turns out jobs and cars were a little more complicated than I first believed.  Lawns?  Forget it.  Lawns always been way beyond my control.  Most of my adult life, I’ve lived in church parsonages where no one would ever consider seeding the lawn, not when they already put in electricity for Pete's sake. 

And besides there was always all those kids around playing run the bases, home run derby and the dogs slobbering after tennis balls.  Green looked pretty good to me most times.  Whatever was actually growing in it.   

It’s taken me a long time to appreciate a good lawn.  The kind that feels like a lush carpet.  A green so deep it seems right off a paint card from Home Depot.  I am in awe.

And, maybe some day I’ll get into having a great lawn and all the dedication and work involved.  But I’m still mostly happy with green.  And with grandkids now, and tricycles,  and dogs chasing squirrels, balls and each other, it’s just as well I think. 

When I want to appreciate a good lawn, I take the dogs and we go up the street, where the houses have some of the lushest lawns I have ever seen.  I stand and admire them and the dogs flop on their backs and roll around, groaning contentedly.  Then after awhile, they get up and shake and we go back home, where there’s squirrels to chase and balls to fetch on well worn paths of dirt that for me at least, have always been the surest path to happiness. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

It's Coming Through A Hole In The Air

10And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  22I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 

President Obama held an oddly subdued news conference yesterday.  He was asked if he “had the juice” to complete his agenda.  He indignantly quoted Mark Twain, “the reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”  As though he could simply will that energy.  But that kind of energy doesn’t come from pride.

Then, almost to prove the point, he proceeded to field questions about one dreary stalemate and debacle after another.  Gun background checks, immigration reform, sequester cuts, and perhaps the most troubling of all, if that’s even possible, the one hundred men in Guantánamo on a desperate hunger strike.   

One hundred men who have been imprisoned for more than eleven years now, without ever being charged, and despite having been been cleared for release over three years ago.  They remain suspended in legal limbo by the shameful political winds and our spineless political leaders.  Starving themselves to death is the only relief at their disposal. 

In stark contrast to this nightmare, John’s vision of a “new Jerusalem” in Revelation offers a sweeping vision of God’s redemption.  God’s redemption is not only of individuals.  It includes kings and nations.  Presidents and Prime Ministers.  Senators and Congressmen.  It is the redemption of the political processes that govern our lives and the policies which too often turn on the whim of self-serving politicians and their wealthy patrons while leaving the weak and the poor to fend for themselves.

John’s vision of redemption is the antithesis of the “nightly news” reality.  In the “new Jerusalem” God’s will saturates reality, like water soaking a dry sponge.  Nothing is left untouched.  God future doesn’t look down on the political reality, God lifts it and restores it to the life giving purpose God intended. 

Isn’t this what Jesus taught us to pray?  “...Your Kingdom come, your Will be done, here on earth, as it is in heaven.”  In heaven, the poor are fed.  Justice flows like a stream and God wipes away every tear.  

In teaching us to pray this way, Jesus is challenging us to live this way. But we can’t get there through pride, or greed, or fear.  We run out of juice before we’ve even started.  The only way to receive energy for the work ahead is to align ourselves with God’s future now. 

Not that it will be easy.  But in God’s future, the sweat and toil is part of the glorious fulfillment of what’s coming.    

Monday, April 29, 2013

Be Not Afraid...

Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is Risen, Alleluia!  I woke up this morning with this TaizĂ© chant on continuous loop in my brain.  Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is Risen, Alleluia!

We’ve been singing this chant at the beginning of worship since Easter.  Yesterday was the Fifth Sunday of Easter, so I guess that’s a pretty good yardstick of how long it takes for a song or phrase to take root.  Now, I’m grateful.  It feels like such pleasant company on a rainy, quiet morning.   Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is Risen, Alleluia!  

These are some of the lasting gifts of worship.  The parts that latch onto us and trail us out to our cars, floating in the air like bits of dust suddenly visible in the streaming light pouring through a window in our life.  Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is Risen, Alleluia!  Even on dark mornings like this.  When the throaty song of the cardinals singing in the new green canopy, dripping and freshly scrubbed, is the brightest light to be found.  Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is Risen, Alleluia! 

Our worship needs more of these moments.  More chants, more music, more opportunity just to linger together in the cathedral of these words.  To allow the simple reassurance of our faith to guide us in the challenges and the opportunities this moment presents us. 

It’s always unnerving when the familiar approaches to life no longer work.  When circumstances call for something new.  Our daughter and son in law just brought their new baby home from the hospital.  Gabriel Alexander.  Now, everything must change.  The familiar routines that made their household work must be re-thought and re-created.  Who they are as parents; who we are as grand-parents, requires similar imagination.  Everything shifts to make room. 

We face such moments all the time.  Individually and together, in our workplaces, in our families and in our churches.  Each moment gives way to the next, and the next and the next....

Be not afraid, sing out for joy, Christ is Risen, Alleluia!  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The God Who Suffers From Guantanemo to Boston

I began yesterday morning by reading the powerful first hand account of SAMIR NAJI al HASAN MOQBEL, a US prisoner at Guantanemo, who has been on a hunger strike with 40 fellow prisoners, since February 10th. The piece entitled “Gitmo Is Killing Me,” was published in the New York Times editorial page on April 15th.

The link is here:

It describes in horrific detail the force feedings he and the 40 hunger strikers endure twice a day at Guantanemo. It also describes the injustice of being held for more than eleven years without being charged. The hopelessness that spawns such a desperate hunger strike. My heart was broken, my indignation burned. What could I do to put an end to this?

Then, yesterday afternoon, the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. Three dead at the time of this writing, including an eight year old boy who was celebrating with his dad at the finish line.

I can’t imagine the blinding turn from euphoria to horror at that moment. For all the families and people there to celebrate. To honor the hours of individual training, dedication and discipline to accomplish such a feat. To simply rejoice and cheer for the best in all of us.

How my heart goes out to them, and my prayers for them offered as balm for their wounds. I suffer with them, weep with them and hold fast to the goodness, love and mercy I treasure, resisting the pull back to fear and blind retribution.

At worship this past Sunday, we talked about “why God continues to allow evil in the world,” and re-framed that question to a more Biblical perspective; “why God continues to suffer at the hand of evil in the world.” We reflected on a God who acts to transform evil, who pronounces words of forgiveness from the cross, and calls us to take up our cross and follow the Way of transformation and new life.

Many reject that God. The God who suffers evil, even to this day, in order to transform it. They prefer a god who declares war on evil. A god who commands them to take up arms against it.  This is a false god. No matter what religion claims it, no matter what culture demands it, no matter which people act on it.

To witness people suffering—any people—is to witness God suffering. To inflict pain on anyone is to inflict pain on God. To exploit human life, to waste it either by spilling blood or stealing dignity and hope, is to oppose the God who raised Jesus to new life and declares God’s final answer to evil.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Know That I'm Forgiven...But I Don't Know How I Know

photo by Amanda Christensen-Graef
I once had someone question the Absolution offered at the end of the Confession of Sins.  She said, “I don’t need someone to forgive my sins.  God does that.” 

Leonard Cohen wrote these lines in a song called That Don’t Make It Junk.

“I know that I’m forgiven,
But I don’t know how I know
I don’t trust my inner feelings
Inner feelings come and go”
                         (Ten New Songs) 

Of course God forgives sins, but without someone to declare that forgiveness to me, my forgiveness becomes an internal phenomenon.  A product of my inner feelings, which change more often than the weather.  Worse, forgiveness becomes something I do for myself. 

We have a tendency to make faith largely a private, internal matter.  And yes, our relationship to God is highly personal, deeply intimate indeed.  But God is more than the private relationship God and I have. 

An important part of my intimate relationship with God is the way it drives me to engage the world.  My relationship with God compels me to be relationship with others.  And God addresses my heart not only through an internal voice, but in a spoken word that enters through my ear.  A word that originates from outside of me, beyond my control.  A word spoken that draws me into it. 

When Absolution is pronounced by a pastor, a minister or a priest, it is pronounced on behalf of God.  It draws us out of the echo chamber of our own inner feelings, and into relationship with our brothers and sisters. 

Luther, taught children to make the sign of the cross (touch your head, your heart, your left shoulder and your right shoulder) like this:  God is in my head, God is in my heart, God is on my left, and God is on my right. 

God is inside of me, and outside of me.  God is not my possession as much as what and who possesses me. +

Friday, February 22, 2013

And We're Off....

Lutheran worship follows the basic progression of Western catholic liturgy.  There is the Entrance Rite, Word, and Meal.  These three  movements comprise the Liturgy. 

Each of these large movements are made up of smaller pieces, like a symphony.  The Entrance Rite, for example, contains an invocation, supplication and praise, ending in a concluding prayer which captures the worship theme of the day (Prayer of the Day).

The Entrance Rite focuses our attention and draws us into the presence of God.  It typically begins with a Brief Order for Confession of Sin and Forgiveness.  “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us...”  That’s 1 John 1:8.  Just about everything we say in the liturgy comes from the Bible. 

The Entrance Rite ushers us into God’s presence by immediately taking us out of our comfort zone and our self-serving.  Our admission into God’s presence is our admission that we are not who we claim to be, despite our best efforts. 

And, if we’re listening carefully at this point, we’re also acknowledging that much of the brokenness and suffering we experience is self-inflicted.

Why is this admission important?   Does God take some perverse delight in making us feel bad about ourselves?  Well, let’s look at that for a moment.

In every other aspect of our lives, we strive to “put our best foot forward.”  Our goal is to “make a good impression.”  This is the path to success, right?  And success equals happiness.  This is the underlying formula for most of our recipes of living the good life. 

Take politics for example.  Candidates seek success (votes) by pointing out their opponent’s “sins,” and ignoring their own.  Or, if they’re really sophisticated, they try to spin their own frailties and shortcomings into something positive.  That’s the way our world works.

To be successful, project an image of strength and certainty.  We’re captain of our own ship, master of our own fate, and we know exactly where we’re going.   

The trouble is that underneath that projection, we know the truth.  We project strength to cover our weakness.  Certainty to mask our doubts.  Independence to hide our insecurities.   

Yeah, we’re the captain of our own ship, but the instruments are all jammed, there’s a thick fog, and we’re flying by the seat of our pants not sure where we’re even going.  But, don’t tell anyone. 

We invest a lot of energy keeping that a secret.  Making a good impression requires lots of emotional suppression.  As the gap between who we are and who we claim to be (in order to be accepted, successful and loved) widens, our stress increases.  The bigger that gap, the greater our stress.

Some come to think then, that it pleases God when we feel awful about ourselves.  When we’re filled with self loathing.  So we confess our sin with gusto.  We pull out a laundry list of sins and delight in adding to it.  Even if we have to make stuff up.  Heck, it’s all for a good cause.

But, trying to impress God with either our sinfulness or our goodness is equally boneheaded.   Besides, it’s a complete waste of energy.  Because it is not necessary.  How do you impress someone who already loves you?  Why would you want to? 

So, why do we have to confess our sins when we come before God, if God isn’t just trying to make us feel bad about ourselves?   What’s the point?

It’s like carrying heavy bags around with you all the time.  Baggage filled with fears, anxieties, secrets that can never see the light of day.  Coming into the presence of God, we finally get to put those heavy bags down.  Under God’s loving eye, we might even get the courage to begin unpacking them.

In the act of confession, we are relieved of the burden of having to impress God, and each other, and freed to be who we are.  We are freed to relate to each other in new ways.  We are freed to engage our world in new ways.  Supportive, cooperative....not exploiting and self-serving. 

And, as we hear in the declaration of absolution that in spite of everything, we are loved by God deeply and unconditionally, we’re  turned to a new path.  Given a new road map to happiness, peace, fulfillment, contentment and joy. 

And you can leave all that baggage here.  You won’t be needing it where you’re going. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What IS Lutheran Worship Anyway?

One afternoon, I was in Manhattan for a meeting.  I had some free time before the meeting started since I lucked out on the subway.  Every train arrived right after I did.  So I stopped at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. 

I love going into Saint Patrick’s.  The hush of the sacred just steps off of Fifth Avenue is always startling and refreshing.  The contrasts remind be a lot of DC.  The poor struggling with their lives in the shadow of power. 

You go into St. Patrick’s, and the homeless are sleeping on pews under the watchful eyes of the saints, people are praying, lighting candles, or browsing the side altars like they're shopping for vegetables.    

This particular afternoon, Mass was going on at the main altar.  As the doors closed behind me, the hush descended and I heard the familiar Hymn of Praise...This is the feast of victory for our God.  Alleluia.  Alleluia. 

They were singing right out of the Lutheran Book of Worship, Setting One, in one of the largest Roman Catholic cathedrals in the world. 

That’s the perfect place to begin thinking about Lutheran worship today.  Our Lutheran worship isn’t unique.  It grows out of the Western Catholic liturgical tradition.  A tradition we share in varying degrees, with Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians), and the Reformed Churches (i.e. United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist etc.).   

So, what was Luther’s beef with the Mass?  In truth, not much. At least in practice anyway.  In the Reformation, Luther brought basically two innovations to the Mass.   First, he translated the Mass from Latin into German.  Something he did with the Bible too.  

Second, he restored the Word (preaching) to the Mass. In Luther’s time, the Mass stressed the sacramental.  The Lutheran understanding of the Mass held Word & Sacrament in equal importance and equal esteem.

The Sacraments were tangible expressions of the Word.  Nothing more and nothing less. 

That’s about it.  Two things, but they were doozies. 

It should be noted that Roman Catholics pretty much embraced Luther’s changes to the Mass with Vatican II about 50 years ago. 

Anglicans applied Luther’s principles and innovations and developed many rich spiritual resources, like the Book of Common Prayer, that still serves all Christians today. 

The biggest and most enduring thing that Luther did in terms of shaping the Mass was to connect worship to the daily lives of people.  He made the Word accessible.

For Lutherans, the Word of God doesn’t exist to support the life of an institution.  The Word & Sacraments were to nurture and enrich the lives of the faithful and equip them to live the Good News.  To be a blessing for all. 

These innovations continue to define Lutheran worship. 

Lutherans fiercely guard the integrity of the Word and Sacraments while continually struggling to find new ways to connect them with the ever changing lives of people. 

To be sure, sometimes we’re better at guarding than innovating. 

We still know that worship practices and forms will change and evolve as people’s lives change.  That’s a given for Lutheran worship. 

The integrity of Lutheran worship is not that we keep doing things the same way, but that we find new ways to declare the same thing: God’s unconditional love for all in Christ.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Lutheran Pastor Forced to Apologize

The Rev. Rob Morris, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church (a congregation of the Missouri Synod) in Newtown Connecticut, was forced by Missouri Synod church officials to offer a written apology for participating in an ecumenical prayer vigil in Newtown, following the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Unlike the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS) forbids its clergy from participating with other faiths in worship. 

The prayer vigil, held in Newtown, two days after the shootings in December, was attended by President Obama, and Muslim, and Jewish leaders as well as other Christian clergy and families of the first grade class where the shootings occurred. 

I’ve included links here for those who want to read more about this story. 

NBC News

Religious News Services

I’ll admit, there was a time when my first reaction to this would have been anger.  And yes, I’m still angry.  The general public doesn’t understand the difference between the ELCA and the LCMS.  All they see is Lutheran, and so I and to some degree all Lutherans, are tarred by this brush which I personally find offensive and the antithesis of everything I believe and confess as a Lutheran.

But that’s not my strongest reaction anymore.  My strongest reaction is sadness.  Sadness at the missed opportunity to bring the love of God close to people who desperately needed it. 

Pastor Morris was right to stand with the brokenhearted, to offer comfort to the inconsolable, to represent the visible presence of God in solidarity with those who weep at such unthinkable loss.  As a pastor, and as a human being, it would have been unthinkable for me to be anywhere else. 

I’ll leave the Missouri Synod leaders to work out their own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing that every church body today, yes, even the ELCA, has been guilty of all manner of failings and shortcomings when it comes to bearing the grace of God to the world. 

Instead, I want to affirm the mystery of what God calls us to be as the church.  God invites us into relationship, not that we may take possession of God.  As Paul says quoting the hymn in Philippians: Jesus did not count equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself. (Phil. 2:6-7). 

This self-emptying is mark of our relationship with God too.  It is our ongoing work.  We are not called into relationship with God in order to take possession of God, but so that God may take possession of us.  So that we may work with God the way a sail, properly set, captures the wind without ever possessing it. 

Each one of us will have a different take on the mystery of our relationship with God.  None of us will ever fully understand it, or give proper expression to it.  That’s OK.  We’re not supposed to.  Because we are not called to perfect our relationship with God.  We are called to be empty vessels, that we may be filled with God’s love and so be in loving relationship with each other. 

Any understanding of our relationship to God that demands that we be less than human or humane; that we turn our backs on our brokenhearted sisters or ignore the tears of our grieving brothers, is flat out false and misguided.  That is an understanding that seeks to exploit God, not to be filled by God.  

Thank you for your faithful service Pastor Morris. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Super Bowl & the Spoils of Victory

Mercifully, Ray Lewis long ago dropped off my radar.  After his shady plea bargain deal where he admitted conspiracy and obstruction that let him off a double murder charge, I thought he deserved to just fade away.  And, unless you were a Ravens fan (which I am not, even though Joe Flacco is a graduate of my high school alma mater in NJ), that's exactly what he did. 

Oh, but now he's back.  The Ravens won the Super Bowl!!!!!  Congratulations Baltimore…I think.  Because now we are treated to a revolting parade of Ray Lewis, prancing and preening, spouting his obnoxious infantile nonsense about leadership, perseverance, morality  and God. 

You see, in the eyes of Ray Lewis, the reason the Ravens won the Super Bowl is because God is a huuuge Ray Lewis fan.  Evidently, Ray Lewis found religion.  Or rather, God and religion finally caught up with Ray Lewis and his awesomeness.   

Since I've gotten up this morning, I've seen Ray Lewis interviewed on three different channels (mis)quoting St Paul and Romans…."If God be for you, who can be against you."  Too bad San Francisco.  New England.  Denver.  God's just not that into you.

There he was at breakfast on the morning shows.  Again later when I went to the gym in the locker room.  On the treadmill on the big screen.  Again in the locker room after the tread mill.  And then, the hyper ventilating talk jocks shouting back and forth about the blown calls, the blown lights, the blown opportunities, and poor Ray Lewis!  How he was being soooo unfairly treated in the media for his spirituality and how he's turned his life around!

OK, wait a minute guys.  Breathe into a paper bag for a few.  What Ray Lewis is spouting has nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality.  Or with God.  As far as being unfairly treated…I wonder how the families of the murdered young men feel about how unfairly Ray Lewis has been treated in the media, the NFL, and by life in general while his career never missed a beat during the years since they buried their sons?  

No, if anyone is being unfairly treated here, it's God.   It's those who struggle with real spiritual issues like those grieving families. 

Ray Lewis, and his inane posturing cheapens and grossly demeans genuine spirituality and faith. Despite Ray Lewis delusional perspective, God's goals and the goals of an NFL football team really have nothing to do with each other. 

Despite what is often popular perception; a football game, a baseball game, basketball game, bowling, bocce, you name it; are not mini morality plays where God doles out favor.  In fact, I hate to break it to you, but I think God was watching Downton Abbey last night.  Especially while the lights were out.  Anyway…

Just to be clear, if you want to find God in sporting events, God's there.  Just not where Ray Lewis thinks.

Ignore the buffoon trotting around the bases pointing to the sky.  Watch the pitcher who just watched his pitch sail into the seats.   

Forget the purple confetti and the trophy, the locker room with the champagne soaking everything.  Head over to the other locker room where you can hear the showers dripping. Where cameras and questions seem a tasteless intrusion.  Where adults sit and stare at the wall. 

You see, that's what Paul was actually writing about in Romans, when he said, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

God & Guns

On an online clergy discussion list I occasionally participate in, a hospital chaplain confessed his weariness and frustration dealing with the aftermath of gun violence.  In his ministry, he regularly dealt with shooting victims.  Their families.  Their friends.  He felt like he was drowning in a rising tide of pain, anger, grief, revenge, and ultimately death and despair. 

He posed a question (in the middle of a rant at what he perceived to be the silence of the church and the Christian community at large), “What does God and our theology have to say about guns?”  

The answers from the clergy who responded were appalling.  Not just in what they said, I found them to be little more talking points.  Reinstating prayer in schools, violence in video games, teaching abstinence when it comes to sex, warning against a government that is deviously plotting to enslave its citizens after it disarms them, and finally even reaching back to the oldies but goodies hit parade, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”   A lot more often than people with pasta do, no doubt.  

Any theology or serious grappling with what God is calling us to be was completely missing from their answers.  

To be fair, I’m sure they thought the same about my responses to them.  Just more talking points from the other side.  That’s a shame.  I think the original question deserves serious consideration. 

So, here is how God shapes my thinking as a follower of Jesus when it comes to guns.

It comes from the Lord’s Prayer.  The prayer Jesus taught us and the prayer we pray together every Sunday.  What are we really praying for in this prayer?   

In the Lord’s prayer, we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...” 

Now maybe there’s a vision somewhere of God’s kingdom as a place where the heavenly host are armed to the teeth with assault weapons and extended ammo clips.  I once saw a tattoo of a cherub wearing an ammo belt across his chubby little chest.  If this is how you envision God’s Kingdom, the Lord’s prayer is pretty much descriptive of your reality I suppose.  But then, you have other issues to grapple with.

Didn’t Jesus tell Peter to put down his sword (as guns weren’t invented yet, you may substitute freely), when the authorities came to arrest him?  A good guy with a sword may not be the best antidote to a bad guy with a sword (and ironically, a slave bystander is the one who winds up losing an ear in the exchange) as far as Jesus is concerned. 

In fact, Jesus’ last public act in his ministry is healing that slave’s ear.  Ministering and healing those caught in the cross fire of violence, even as he is about to be swept up into it himself.  Isn’t this a repudiation of the our violent world?  A world where we turn to weapons to make us powerful and invincible?

Isn’t that the very fantasy that the mass killers were playing out, in Aurora, Newtown, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and so many other places? 

Armed to the teeth, they acted out their power fantasies and in almost every case, wound up dead by their own hand.  The final victims of their own superior fire power and “invincibility” which turned out to be anything but.

When Jesus was arrested, he didn’t shout to his followers to take up arms as he was being dragged away.   Doesn’t Jesus explicitly say to Pilate, “my kingdom is not from this world. If it were, my followers would be taking up arms and we’d have a battle.”  

Like Jesus, whatever power we have comes from another place. 

Jesus call to arms came earlier that night, as he draped a towel over his arm and washed his disciples feet.  He left them with the command, “Do one another as I have loved you.” 

Isn’t this is what we pray for, in the Lord’s Prayer?  Aren’t these are the marks of the Kingdom ruled by the will of God, that we pray will come about here on earth?  

As people who pray this prayer then, we are called to live as midwives in the birthing of this new kingdom.  This is what Jesus meant by calling us out of the world and sending us back into the world.  We are agents of a new order.  An order that is coming, but not yet. 

This is also what we affirm in praying the Lord’s Prayer.  What we pray is predictive of a future time (“your kingdom come”), not descriptive of the present moment.  We are called out of the world and sent back into the world, not as the world will be, or even could be, but to the world as it is.  To the world where guns exist.  To the world where Peter had a sword (you may again substitute freely) to draw in the first place.

As those called out and sent back, we are sent to model a new way of relating to this world as it is.  Guns exist, and will continue to exist, but not as expressions of our power and invincibility.  Those things come from another, life-giving place for God’s people.  Guns exist as part of a world that is being overshadowed by a new order.  A new order we are charged to bring about.

In light of the new order that is coming, an order that we pray for whenever we gather in worship, guns can, and should be regulated and placed within strict limitations, along with the chaos and havoc guns can create.  The way that God put limits on chaos in creation.  The very things our hospital chaplain dealt with everyday. 

Enacting those limitations would be tangible evidence of what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer.  Not necessarily the fulfillment of God’s will.  But certainly signs of that Heavenly kingdom drawing near, and that’s what God sent us back into the world to do, isn’t it?   

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Granduer Of The Obvious

I went to the Metropolitan Washington DC Together in Mission event on Saturday.  The speaker was Brian McLaren.  I’d read a couple of his books, and sort of knew what to expect.  Solid thinking presented in an accessible way.  A trademark generosity of ideas and spirit that marks his work. 

I don’t want to go into detail now, other than to say I thoroughly enjoyed the day.  McLaren lived up to his reputation.  What I’ve been reflecting on most from hearing him speak is the way the truth hides in plain sight. 

Listening to McLaren was a little like watching the sun come up.  Something that happens every morning, without exception.  A perfectly ordinary event.  So ordinary, most of us don’t bother getting out of bed to see it. We’d much rather sleep.

McLaren had a way of peeling back the ordinariness to reveal the grandeur of the obvious. 

This is, it seems to me, the job of both the pastor and the poet.  To just see what is there to see.  To point out the eternity tucked away in the ordinary comings and goings, the risings and the settings that define the borders of our lives.   God is in these mundane places and events.  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Gun Violence...Let's Do What We Can

This morning, I heard NJ Gov Chris Christie explain the evolving conservative position on gun control.  It must be part of an overall focus that addresses violence in our culture.  Guns can't be singled out.  This broad stroke approach includes, mental health care, violent video games, and violence in the media. 

Christie said it’s not healthy for kids to be blowing people away in their basement for hours in violent video games, like Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, apparently did.  Christie went on to say that he and his wife do not allow these kinds of violent video games in their house. 

While I applaud the Governor, and agree with him about the violence of American culture, I disagree with his conclusion that you can’t deal with guns except in a larger cultural context.  This entirely misses the point.  You have to start somewhere.  And guns are by far, the most lethal expression of violent culture.  The culture with fewer guns is by definition, less violent.

The only means we have of changing our violent culture is by changing the way the culture manifests itself.  In other words, to address guns IS to begin changing a violent culture.  Moreover, it is the easiest part of the violent culture to begin fixing.  Here’s why it’s important to do what we can do. 

Most people are perfectly capable of distinguishing the fantasy world of violence in a video game with violence in real life.  However, for those who find that distinction harder to make, i.e those with mental and emotional illnesses, it’s even more important for the culture to reinforce the distinction. 

For example, in the fantasy world of a video game, a player can wreak unimaginable harm and destruction, as Gov Christie rightly notes.  Blowing fantasy people away left and right.  But, when the culture mimics a fantasy video game and makes 100 round magazines and semi automatic assault weapons available in real life, the culture in effect colludes in blurring the line between fantasy and reality.   It invites those with mental or emotional illnesses to step across that treacherously thin line, and provides them the tools to do it.

There are no quick fixes to cultural violence.  We can choose to focus on what lies beyond our control, and use that as an excuse to do nothing, or we can change what we have the power to change, and take it one step at a time. 

Governor Christie, let’s roll up our sleeves and change what we can.  Now.