FRIDAYS FROM FAIRMONT
November 20, 2020 – Ephesians 1:15-23
Most of our popular images of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are all wrong. The first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated not during the first, but during the second autumn after the colony was established. More than half of all the Pilgrims died during the first winter during what they called ‘the starving time,’ when a ration of five kernels of corn was apportioned to each adult for a meal. As they sat down for that first thanksgiving they were surrounded by the graves of their children, wives, and husbands. When they sat down to eat a Thanksgiving feast together their hearts were still broken from the grief and trauma. But still, they celebrated their gratitude. It is still a local custom in Plymouth that on Thanksgiving Day, in the middle of the bountiful tables, five kernels of corn placed on a red maple leaf are set at each place to remind us, we who now enjoy a such bounty, of the “starving time” long ago. Five kernels to remind us, to whom we give thank and what it is we truly give thanks for.
Thanksgiving, not the day, not just the holiday, but a life lived in thanksgiving is an act of insurrection against the powers and death-dealing assumptions of this world. Thanksgiving defies every power that would seek to bind us, even death. Thanksgiving means that we cast our allegiance on God alone as King and no lesser power or prince. Thanksgiving is all the more heart grabbing precisely because it emerges most clearly out of the pits of human pain and need, not the summits of satisfaction. It is there where thanksgiving will change you because it is there where the Kingship and sovereignty of Christ matter most. He descended into Hell. And now there is no place that is not subject to his reign and rule. So while it may not seem like any other Thanksgiving, it is precisely in the depths of anxiety, separation, and loss, that we embrace the magnitude of the gift we have received and the sort of King we thank.
November 13, 2020 – Exodus 33:12-23
Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and God’s people had come a long, exhausting way through their wilderness journey out of Egypt, through the waters of deliverance, through the dry desert, to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and now they have turned their eyes toward the Promised Land. And even though God had always provided a way through the wilderness, God’s people still chose to disobey God and worship false idols, turning away from the one true God.
Moses now stands with the Promised Land on the horizon but also with the uncertainty of knowing who would lead Moses and God’s people into the promised land of milk and honey. “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here,” Moses cries out to God. All Moses wanted to know was that God would go with them into the days ahead. And not just that God would go with Moses but that God would go with God’s people also. Without God, they were nothing. God’s presence was everything to Moses and God’s people Israel. How would they move forward without God present with them?
This is the heart of our Scripture passage for this Sunday. Will God be with God’s people not just for one day but for all of their days? It may seem like a ridiculous question in light of all that God has promised and done for Israel, but the sin of God’s people had broken the trust and the relationship between God and them. Moses was desperate to know that God would indeed go with them.
Moses’ cry of desperation is one that echoes down through the generations! We, too, cry out to God to know if God will be with us in our wilderness journey. In these days of pandemic and monumental change in how we are the church together-yet-apart, we too must know that God is with us and will be with us beyond these days of COVID.
God had a promise for Moses and God has a promise for us, too! Join us in worship this Sunday to hear once again God’s promise of presence and hope.
November 6, 2020 – Exodus 32:1-14
Human beings have a nearly infinite genius for crafting idols, by which I mean a finite object to which we ascribe infinite value. The worship of those idols is the most popular religion in the history of the world. While we may scoff at the primitive superstitions of ancient Mesopotamians worshipping golden bulls or Egyptians worshipping ibis headed deities, idols come in far subtler varieties. Power, wealth, fame, security, family, love, nation, pleasure, control, food, sex, chemicals, risk, reward, beauty, certainty, sports, technology, entertainment, and most of all the self are more common idols to which we ascribe our time, money, and devotion. Often these can be very good things in themselves, which is precisely what makes them so insidious. The problem is that humans confuse these intermediate goods or means with ultimate ends possessing ultimate meaning and value.
Right now, our community is wracked with partisan political conflict. But politics, the winning and losing of elections, is simply a means of organizing decision making in society. And the process of ordering society is simply the means to provide for the best possible social circumstances so that people may live their best lives. But you are not supposed to ask the next question in our secular society. Why do we want to live our best lives? To what end? For what purpose? That question actually points us toward the ends of human existence. To that question, politics has no answer.
But God does. Scripture does. We do.
The way to avoid idolatry in all its forms is to give infinite meaning and value only to things that are truly infinite and one of those things is our relationship with an infinite being we label God. In Exodus, we learn all about the formation of that relationship and the lengths to which God will go to safeguard it and save God’s people. God’s hurt and anger are no surprise when the people turn away from both the promise and the blessings of that relationship to frolic before of a cow effigy. The problem is not the idol. The problem is the people in their feckless commitment.
So, what will God do? God’s past response to this sort of betrayal was to flood the world and destroy almost all life on the planet. Can God change God’s mind, and if so how and why? This is the question we will consider on Sunday morning.
And until then, be gentle with yourself.
October 30, 2020 – Revelations 7:4, 9-17: Who Shall Stand?
This Sunday is All Saints’, a day to remember those who have died, especially those who have died in the past year. The Book of Revelation is very particular about the ultimate state of those who have died trusting God, they dwell in eternal communion with God and each other. They are bonded together, like the seraphs, in common song. It is no surprise that Handel borrows so liberally from them for his oratorio, Messiah. And it is a vast chorus, too many for any mortal to count. This vast assembly is what we call the communion of saints.
Being a saint is not about being especially pious or churchy, it simply comes down to the question whether you want to be close to God. Those who do in this life are, at least according to Revelation, part of that assembly. Those who do not always can opt out. God respects human choice.
Being a saint is also not an individual activity. It is a group project, rather like a choir in which each voice is a unique contribution but all defined by the work the whole, hence “the communion” of saints. Their primary activity is giving witness to the truth. They testify to who God is and participate in the inner work and identity of God. The clear boundary between saints starts to blur as they begin to look a bit less like people and a bit more like God.
What we summarily call heaven, with all its cultural assumptions drawn from everything but scripture (think Dante, Milton, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Good Omens), is not so much about a place as it is about a relationship: human beings belonging to and belonging in God. Into that relationship our blessed dead now belong because that is the relationship for which we were made.
October 23, 2020 – 1 Peter 2:4-10
I do not consider rocks often. They are easy to overlook because they are common and seemingly inert. It takes a particular sort of person to really see a rock. Geologists see their origins in ancient lava flows. Sculptors see beauty that can be released from within. Jewelers see how they could be set in gold. And children may appreciate their hydrodynamic qualities for skipping. You need to see differently to really appreciate a rock.
Peter (ironically named the rock) describes Jesus and the church the same way. For some they will have no significance or value, but with the eyes of faith, you can see that these rocks are living stones of the temple of God, the literal meeting place between God and humanity, all resting on Christ the foundation and cornerstone. What you see all depends on how faith shapes your perception.
75 years ago, in the booming months after the end of World War II, 41 people met together in the old Van Buren Township fire station and saw a thriving congregation where others only saw a cornfield. Fairmont Presbyterian Church is the hope born of their vision built out of lives and relationships. This Reformation Heritage Sunday we celebrate our Reformed tradition focused on faith alone. But this Sunday in particular, we consider how that faith and the vision it provides us not only gave birth to Fairmont, but even now shows us the way forward.
October 16, 2020 – Exodus 20:1-17
“God spoke all these words…”
Ten Words! Ten words spoken by God to God’s people Israel – and just newly named as Israel at this point in the desert – to show God’s people how to live. Ten Words for life and living for God’s people in the wilderness.
The Ten Commandments have taken on a life of their own through the thousands of years of faith interpretation. We may think we are approaching these Ten Words with open eyes and open minds and open hearts but our present day Western Christianity eyes have a definite biased filter on them. We must look at these words of law – part of 613 total laws in the Torah – in a new and honest way if we are to understand how they speak to us today.
This Sunday is Children’s Sabbath, a day we celebrate the gifts and faith of children. You will be deeply moved by the voices of our children and by their pure faith as we worship together via livestream. The Ten Words from Exodus 20 are a gift to us just as the children are a gift to us. These Ten Words teach us how to live and to love. And our children teach us how to live and to love.
The Children of Fairmont, Loralei (our Children’s Director), and I invite you to worship with us this Sunday as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath and as we celebrate God’s law of love for us.
October 9, 2020 – Exodus 17:1-7
It’s hot. I’m hungry. I’m bored. Are we there yet? Complaints are to be expected on a long road trip. They often sound like whining. But sometimes they raise legitimate grievances that must be addressed. The Hebrews, wandering through the amusingly named Desert of Sin, are quickly running out of water. Acute dehydration is a potentially life-threatening problem when you are hiking through the desert. So, they complain first to Moses and then to God. They are not asking for anything too luxurious, just water to continue their journey.
Unlike how we react when confronted by complaints, God responds and God provides. Not only that, this whole episode opens a new chapter in the relationship between God and the Hebrews. Up until now in Exodus, God tests the Hebrews. Here the Hebrews test God and far from being punished for it, they are led to the next big step in their journey and their relationship with God.
I once thought that the Hebrews were whiny and did not trust God. The very real pain and suffering of the past months for so many people has led me to change my mind. Sometimes the most vulnerable and honest sign of trust is acknowledging our pain and grief to someone we love. God is big enough to handle it. That kind of painfully honest sharing may in fact lead to a deeper relationship we call faith.
October 2, 2020 – Exodus 16:2-15
You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, well, you might find
You get what you need.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Freedom can be difficult. The Hebrews learned this the hard way. Liberated from bondage in Egypt they began wandering in the stony desert wastes of Sinai. Nothing grows there. It’s hot during the day and cold at night. They were hungry and there was nothing to eat. This was not what they thought they signed up for. So, they do what we all do when our expectations are not satisfied. They start complaining.
God responds to whining better than most of us. God provides. Every morning God rains down some sort of flaky substance on the ground. They don’t know what it is, so they call it, “what is it?” or in Hebrew man-hu (aka Manna). At night God rains down quails into their camp. It may not be what they expected (no one expects poultry precipitation!) or what they wanted, but was enough. Actually, it was more than enough. It was an abundance.
God provides abundance, but there is always a stipulation. They can only eat the food that day. They cannot store it, dry it, can it, freeze it, or salt it away. They cannot hoard. They cannot control the means of commodity distribution which was the central source of Pharaoh’s power (remember they were previously building granaries in Egypt). Instead, they are going to have to trust that God will provide. They are going to need to learn to trust that God would provide their daily bread.
Trust is hard for human beings. We tend to want to be in control. We like to know where we are going and where our next meal will come from. And when our plans for the future and our systems of control and security get interrupted, we tend to get mad, sad, or scared or all at the same time.
Right now, we are learning a lesson in trust the hard way. Covid-19 has made a cruel mockery of our plans and our assumptions of scientific miracles on demand. We are being forced to relearn the lesson that every generation needs to learn. We are being forced to learn to trust, especially when we are not in control. Life, real life, has nothing to do with survival. We are saved through trust.
September 25, 2020 – Exodus 14:19-31
My imagination of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea is shaped more by Hollywood than by scripture. Cecil B. DeMille portrayed it as a grand, dramatic spectacle Charlton Heston firmly in charge. The Bible describes a rather different scene. The parting of the sea does not happen all at once. It happens gradually over an evening. Second it unfolds at night. The pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews on their journey is now behind them so when they descend into the sea they are walking into darkness. Finally, it is not so much the waves and the waters that stop the Egyptians, that will come later, but the mud.
It is so easy to get caught up in the spectacle of it all that we jump over a small but important detail. The chariots of the Egyptians get stuck in the mud. Chariots do not work so well in mud. But chariots are also the pride of the Egyptian army and the premier weapon system of the late Bronze Age, so the Egyptians push and pry and do everything they can to get their beloved chariots up and running again. They are so focused that they fail to notice that the winds have changed.
Sometimes God intervenes in history in dramatic and decisive ways. Sometimes God obliterates God’s opponents. But sometimes God merely sets up the conditions for people to destroy themselves. The Egyptians could have escaped. They could have walked back to their shore. What prevented them from doing so was their attachment to the means and symbol of their power. And so, they died.
Sometimes the way ahead merely requires us to let go. Letting go can be hard, but sometimes it is a matter of life and death.
September 18, 2020 – Exodus 12:1-14
One of the great comforts of our faith, among many, is the gift of ritual. Rituals to mark significant and meaningful moments in life and faith. Rituals that we come back to again and again and again, and yet we find new and sincere meaning in them each time. Rituals of faith allow us to mark God’s presence and work in our lives in the midst of busy and sometimes meaningless days.
Our Old Testament scripture passage from Exodus 12 gives us an inside view of one of the most important – if not the most important – ritual of faith for God’s people. In this rather detailed and somewhat difficult litany of the first Passover, we see God’s hand of redemption in the lives of the Hebrew people who were suffering under the torturous rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. As slaves, the Hebrew people lived bitter lives of endless, back-bending work and lived through the horror of their beloved children murdered by Pharaoh.
In this litany of redemption, God calls the Hebrew people to be ready for the moment when God would save them from slavery in Egypt through the trembling and unsure voice of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” This moment of redemption, the Exodus, would be a moment to mark all days. It would be THE moment to mark all days for all of time for the Israelites.
Remember this day! In this moment, God saved God’s people from slavery and kept God’s promise to generations upon generations. And to this day, generations of God’s people remember and recite the litany of that night when God passed over the Hebrew people and saved them from death.
This story is our story too! God has marked his redeeming mark upon us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, are called to remember that day. Come, join us as we worship the God of Redemption and remember.
September 11, 2020 – Exodus 3:1-15
Sometimes faith can move mountains and transform our lives.
Sometimes God steps in and changes everything.
And at other times, something altogether different happens.
Moses was a mess. He was on the run from the Egyptians for murder. He had anger control issues that frightened the Hebrews. His life followed a downward spiral eking out an existence as a free-lance shepherd in the scrubby hills of Midian. He married his bosses’ daughter and gets promoted to middle management. That was there he was probably going to remain, minding a flock of sheep on the edge of the desert. And they were not even his sheep!
Then something happened, or more precisely Moses noticed something happening. Moses was not a particularly religious man. His faith is not mentioned up to this point. He was probably more Egyptian than anything else. But he sees something odd, a shrub burning out on the edge of the desert that did not burn up. We have no idea for how long that shrub had been burning, but it catches Moses’ attention. He gets curious and turns aside with his flocks to go and check out this flammable shrubbery. And in that instant salvation history turns.
In the church we so often focus on faith being the necessary and sufficient condition to connect with God, but Moses suggests it is much simpler than that. Moses has no faith, at least not yet. Moses is simply curious. That small measure of curiosity opens him up to this mysterious, wild God of the desert and this God’s plan for an audacious rescue mission.
That wild God of the desert still seeks out the curious and invites us to join in that ongoing rescue mission.
September 4, 2020 – Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
The book of Exodus provides the underlying story of liberation for the rest of the Bible and Western civilization. It is filled with amazing miracles, none more so than an all sovereign God who intervenes in human history on behalf of the powerless. Exodus has inspired everyone who has struggled for human freedom for the past 3000 years and has taught successive generations that oppression is never inevitable. And all of it starts with amazing, stubborn, courageous women who refused to cooperate with the politics of death.
Amram and Yocheved had a baby boy who was born under a death sentence. Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys must be drowned in the Nile. But for this baby, the Nile would become a means of deliverance as would other waters later in his life. His clever sister Miriam guided his floating bassinet into the waiting arms of a most unlikely savior. Pharaoh’s daughter was precisely the person who should have handed this baby over to the authorities. From Pharaoh came death. From Pharaoh’s daughter came life. She sees a child, not an enemy, not an alien, just a child, and she has compassion for this infant. Of course, she quickly figures out who this might be and she devises a plan to hide him in plain sight.
Sometimes the biggest miracle of all is simply when one human being does the utterly unexpected. Sometimes the biggest miracle of all is choosing life in the midst of death.
August 28, 2020 – Romans 12:9-21
It is easy, for the most part, to love those who love us. It is easy – again for the most part – to love our family, to love our close friends, to love our church family. But it is in the loving of strangers and even enemies that we really struggle, and understandably so! It is especially difficult in these days of deep political divide, deep theological divide, deep racial divide, and deep pandemic grief and weariness to love our neighbors and strangers and enemies.
It is hard enough to follow Jesus when he calls us to love our neighbors. Yes, Jesus did tell us even to love our enemies!
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:43-44
But we might be easily tempted to say, “Well, Jesus was God, you know! So, of course, he is able to love his enemies. We, on the other hand, are not God!”
But now the Apostle Paul, who was as human as it comes, joins in with the mandate of Jesus and calls us to “Let love be genuine…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”
At first, this passage from Romans 12 reads like the perfect vision statement for any church or faith community. It is so beautiful and so powerful and we are moved by Paul’s words and mandates. But then we realize that the living out of these words seems almost impossible given our brokenness, sin, and humanity.
This is our challenge for Paul’s words to us for this Sunday! How do we live with genuine love? How do we love our friends and family, let alone our enemies? What does it mean to be “church” today in this time of deep divide?
Join us for worship this Sunday as we seek to be faithful to both Jesus’ and Paul’s calling to love one another. You can find the worship link and bulletin link at Fairmont’s website www.fairmontchurch.org.
August 21, 2020 – Romans 12:1-8
Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome is full of passages like this that at first glance seem to be saying much the same thing, but look closer because Sunday’s reading is actually extraordinary.
What is the purpose of your life? That is the question that Paul is addressing. The purpose of your life is this, to uncouple or unconform yourself from the world and the way that this world tries to define and mold us and instead to be transformed (literally in Greek metamorphisized) by the renewal of our minds (including our intellect, emotion, and will). That is what God wants for you and your life. God does not want a perfect life according to some preexisting set of rules or expectations. Rather what God wants is our openness to change, a willingness to be transformed into something, into someone else. And when we do that, when we are open to that kind transformation, then we are offering up the real work, the real worship that God has been wanting from us all along. Offering up a transforming and transformed life is, according to Paul, what God wants and takes delight in.
So, how does one do this? Paul suggests you first need to think rightly. Specifically you need to give every thought its proper due. This was not a uniquely Christian idea. The Greeks and the Romans included it as one of the cardinal virtues of human life. We normally translate that virtue it as temperance, but it means more that avoiding excessive consumption. It means avoiding excess in all things, like thinking too highly or too critically of yourself. It means letting go of the anxious chatter of our monkey minds and holding onto what is right in front of us. When we do that, the possibility of transformation opens up. And it is important to add that this process of transformation may not end with our deaths. Indeed, once freed of certain physical constraints, that is when transformation gets interesting.
For millennia, human beings had treated God like a vending machine–insert the right sacrifice or offerings (like a goat, candle, worship service, or prayer) and withdraw the blessing you seek. Paul says that was never how God worked, that is just how we operate and in our arrogance assumed that God operated. What God wants is nothing less than you, but not just you as you are now. What God wants most of all is you when you are a little bit more like God. And as Trinity God is change. That work of transformation is what your life is for.
August 14, 2020 – Joshua 1: 1-9
This summer, it seems that strength and courage are harder than ever to find…and more necessary, as even ordinary day to day activities can seem intimidating and daunting. A trip to the store never took such preparation. Drawing strength and courage from our friends and loved ones helps to keep our lives afloat, but we all have bad days. Sometimes, it all just becomes a bit too much. Sometimes, we find it impossible to be strong or courageous, especially when we seem to have been shoved into the deep end of a Coronavirus pool without a life vest.
Joshua’s story is a complicated one, full of questionable choices and difficult stories. At the beginning, though, he is just a man…a man thrown into his own pool, without warning, without preparation, without a mask or a vaccine; thrown into leadership of his people with only four words: “be strong and courageous.” Easy for God to say, but when the time comes to lead the armies into battle, to take the land by force, to step out of Moses’ shadow…when the time comes to stand up for what you believe in, to take a leap of faith, to say goodbye…what then?
Thankfully, the answer for Joshua – and for us – is that God provides all the strength and courage we will ever need.
August 7, 2020 – Romans 11:25-32
God is not transactional. God will not be bargained with or bribed. Similarly, once God’s mind is made up, the world changes and no one and nothing can change it. That seems to be Paul’s point. He is wracking his brain to figure out the absence of his people, the Jews, from the early church. He is struggling to hold together all those ancient promises and the way in which God had used Israel as God’s special agent to introduce monotheism to the world and the very clear absence of Jews from the early church. What was God up to and how could he reconcile ancient promises with a very present predicament?
Paul returns to the basics. God’s promises are unconditional and irrevocable. God’s purpose of blessing all humanity through this curious elect people called Israel cannot be thwarted simply because some of those people rejected God’s purposes. Instead, God now seems to be doing something curious. God has called two people side by side to achieve God’s purposes, Israel and this rag tag bunch of former gentiles called to faith through Jesus whom we now call the church. The church, this new community formed from God’s invitation to faith, are now grafted into the mighty and ancient tree of God’s providence reaching all the way back to Abraham.
As to the question of why this is so, Paul offers no answer. Nor can any human. It is not a mystery to be dissected, analyzed, and understood. It is an invitation to be celebrated. And that invitation is for you.
July 31, 2020 – Romans 10: 5-17
The early church had a problem: Jews–or more precisely the lack of them. God became incarnate in Jewish flesh to a very Jewish family in a Jewish village. Jesus grew up to become a Jewish Messiah fulfilling Jewish prophecy and law. All his followers were Jews and his brother James was known for being particularly devout. And yet, the church did not really catch on among the Jews. Instead, it caught on with the people they least expected, gentiles. So, what was going on? What was God up to? And even more unsettling, what did this mean for God promises to the patriarchs and Moses long ago? Was the covenant done?
Paul, a learned albeit sometimes slightly neurotic rabbi, directly addresses this question in the middle of his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 9-11 Paul lays out the relationship between God’s twin creations: Israel and the Church. Paul explains exactly what is up with Israel, its purpose and its destiny. And those answers are deeply intertwined in the mission and identity of Christ.
More immediately for our current predicament, lots of people are wondering where God is in the midst of this Pandemic. Paul has some concrete answers, promises so concrete, you can build you life on them.
July 24, 2020 – Romans 8: 21-39
Beyond forgiveness lies something even better: belonging. The “Good News” is not that we are forgiven or that the Kingdom of God comes near, or even that Jesus is the Messiah. The good news is more basic, more immediate, and more relational. We belong to God. Period. Full stop. No qualifications. This was the Good News, literally the gospel, that Paul shared two generations before the familiar Gospels were written.
Now belonging to God might not be such great news depending on the sort of god we are talking about. That is why Paul spends much of his letter to the congregation in Rome going over God’s resume and explaining all the wonderful loving things that God has done demonstrating God’s wonderful loving character (e.g. creation, the patriarchs, the Exodus, Israel, and most of Jesus’ self-giving love). This God we belong to keeps going out on a limb for us over and over again and on that basis has more than demonstrated that in this God we can find our home even though we may be alienated, cut-off and afraid.
The lists of threats and dangers are different for us. Few of us are at risk of famine (actually its opposite is a greater danger). Few of us are at risk of sword blows. But we are at risk of corona virus. We are at risk of isolation, depression, despair, and grief. And so, Paul’s message is the same for us as the struggling congregation in Rome. Yes, the pain and grief are real, but so too is your true identity in God. You belong to God. Nothing in this universe can change that. So, do not be afraid.
July 17, 2020 – Romans 8: 1-4; 12-25
“Who will save us from our wretched sinfulness!”
That is as succinct of a summary for the first seven chapters of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome as I can find! Honestly, some days I feel like the answer is “no one!” But grace upon grace is the answer the apostle Paul gives to the early followers of Jesus and gives to us.
Listen to these words again:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul wrote these words toward the end of his long and world-changing ministry. The book of Romans is belovedly known as Paul’s theological “last will and testament” and these words in Romans chapter 8 are the heart of the last words Paul wanted the early church and us to hear. We struggle each day with “life in the flesh” and with our inability to love God, love one another, and even love ourself as we should.
There are very few of us who need to be reminded, as Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What a predicament we are in as humans! We strive so to be who God has created and called us to be yet, daily, we hurt one another and we turn away from God. But “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and we do have hope in the midst of our despair; hope that God is making us a new creation in Jesus Christ. It may be hard to see but God has adopted us as God’s own children and we are loved! What does it mean to be “in Christ?” What does it mean to be children of God? How do we live a life in the Spirit and not in the flesh? Paul presents this struggle we live with as Christians and followers of Jesus, and gives us the hope we need to continue on.
We will gather again for live-cast worship this Sunday and together will hear Paul’s words to us that we are beloved children of God and heirs to all that Christ gives us.
July 10, 2020 – John 6: 56-69
The sermon did not go over well. 5000 people came to hear Jesus and 4988 wandered away confused and confounded. He turns to the twelve who remain and they become his disciples, but Jesus wonders if they too will go away. So ends Jesus’ longest sermon the Gospel of John, his most extensive presentation on who he is and what he is up to. And the people don’t like it.
I have always wondered, did the crowd abandon Jesus because they could not understand what he was talking about, or because they understood precisely what he meant? John, never one to eschew obfuscation, often presents Jesus symbolically like surrealist poet. But here maybe he means what he says. You must take my body, my blood, my life, my being, my substance and essence inside you. You must make me a part of you. Then, and only then, will you be alive truly, perfectly, abundantly, and eternally. That is a bit much for the crowds. It is a bit much for us. We prefer divine consolation with occasional sprinklings of ethics and rituals. But wholesale dispossession of the ego at the center of our lives? That is something up with which the people will not put!
It is hard to move yourself from the center of your world. All our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings eternally center on an intuitively presumed, but rarely examined “I.” Jesus is suggesting that the self is highly overrated. It tends to get clingy. Attachment to anything and everything that is not God leads us to suffering. The one way around this dilemma is to let go, which is far harder than it sounds. Prying loose the ego’s grip on our lives is both unsettling (indeed it would be the ultimate form of unsettling) and at the same time liberating because it creates space for something or someone else not of our making. Jesus demonstrates this metaphysical escape trick most perfectly in the cross. Only in self emptying of everything, even life itself, can one be found, embraced, lifted up, and made anew. When God does this in and through Jesus on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, it ruptures space time. But when we do it, realizing how disorienting it will be, we are not lost. We are found. We are held. We are lifted up.
Lord, to whom else can we go? You alone are the Word of life.
July 3, 2020 – John 6: 51-58
The Gospel of John has no last supper story. Instead, the entire Gospel is about what happens when you take Jesus into yourself. The entire book can be read as an extended meditation on who God is in Jesus and in turn we become when Jesus is in us. Sin and forgiveness are not of much concern to John. Sacrifice and punishment barely mentioned. Jesus dying for our sins is nowhere to be found. Instead, the main focus of John can be summarized by the nutritionists’ axiom: you are what you eat. So, what do you eat?
What do you take inside your body and inside your life? What do you make a part of you and your story? What give you life its vitality, energy, and potential? For many people it is the junk food peddled by our markets and media that define us all as commodities or consumers. Security, fame, power, money, charisma, sex, success, and prestige, are all pleasurable confections offered by the world. But none of them endure. None of them sustain. And none of them will help us grow to become truly human the way we were meant to be. Only one sustains. Only one builds us up. And He offers us nothing less than God life to nourish our lives.
For John, the Lord’s supper is really no different from the Lord’s work. He gives us new life. So, for John, the sacrament of communion is not so much a curious ritual with little shot glasses and bread cubes (or whatever form of the elements you may be using at home). For John communion is instead the continuous vital experience of divine exchange operating at the depths of our being, growing God life inside us. We do not “do” communion. If we really follow what Jesus taught, we actually become the communion of God and humanity. For John there cannot really be a “Last Supper” because Jesus nourishing his disciples in new life is happening right now, inside you and inside the life of every child of God. The communion that matters is the one we embrace right now.
June 26, 2020 – John 6: 35-51
This is a season for getting by. Parties are cancelled. Vacations are postponed. Restaurants are scary. And I am getting sick of my own cooking. My main entertainments are walking my dog and angst laden German Netflix series. It is not necessarily pleasant, but it is enough. You can get by for a long time on enough, but you will never thrive.
Jesus offers the crowd bread, the most ordinary of foods. It is enough to satisfy their hunger. But Jesus is not satisfied. He wants them to want more, look deeper, and become more. So he starts to unwind the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Jesus explains the bread of heaven, how God gave it to the Hebrews in the law at Sinai, how they received it in the wisdom of the Prophets, and now how they are receiving even more. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. If you accept my life as part of you, you will never die. This bread will be a far richer meal than they anticipated.
Some say that God always provides for our needs. That is not quite right. God provides much more. God does not want us to get by. God wants us to thrive. God does not provide us with just enough. God always gives us too much. And we call that curious, irrational generosity, grace.
June 19, 2020 – John 6: 24-35
One of my favorite memories as a young child is the smell of fresh baked bread wafting through my Grandma Kelley’s home. Even better is the memory of the taste of that hot bread smothered with butter. There is nothing quite like homemade bread, especially bread prepared with love.
As we continue hearing from John 6, the Bread Discourse as it is known, we will be “smelling” the wonderful waft of bread as we think about what it means to trust in Jesus, the Bread of Life.
We are hungry. Hungry for peace. Hungry for love. Hungry for answers. Hungry for community. Jesus understands our hunger. We as broken, sometimes desperate, human beings usually fill ourselves with bread that does not satisfy, bread that perishes quickly. Jesus calls us to what sometimes seems impossible: trust in him. What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of coronavirus and social distancing? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of virtual worship and Zoom fellowship? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of social unrest and the systematic scourge of racism? How do we will fill ourselves with bread that is eternal?
As the Body of Christ together, we long to be true disciples of Jesus and we long for the bread that truly satisfies. Come, let us worship together this Sunday as we hear John’s words to us about true bread.
June 12, 2020 – John 6: 1-21
Miracles are complicated. I don’t know how they work. That is sort of the definition of a miracle. For the next few weeks, we will be looking at one of Jesus’ miracles, the feeding of the 5000. We are going to be spending some time with it because Jesus spends some extended time with it. A loaf of bread is more than a loaf of bread. What it means for Jesus, for the crowds, and for us will be our consideration this Sunday.
One of the problems with miracle is that people normally think of them as supernatural events that provide us with the results that we want. Using that definition of miracle, God is essentially a vending machine. The Gospel of John refers to miracles as signs, an event that points us towards a deeper truth. Do not doubt the power of signs. A two-foot red octagon next to the road can cause my car to come to a screeching halt. The signs that Jesus shares point to a greater power.
We will be unpacking Jesus’ cryptic use of signs and to what or to whom they may point. And then we will consider what those signs do. Do they give us rewards for good behavior, or are they signposts pointing us forwards towards a destiny we cannot yet see? So, John poses the hard question. Do we trust God because of the things God can do that we want, or do we trust God because God is God? It is a test that every one of us will answer.
June 5, 2020 – John 15: 1-11
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, presumes an unsettling level of intimacy with us. For John, Jesus is not just the one who saves us out there and now waits at a comfortable distance presumably, “at the right hand of God the Father.” Instead, Jesus is in here, in us. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” may sound poetically comforting, but it is perhaps Jesus most provocative statement in the Gospel. If God is in some sense in us and we are in God, then all our assumptions about what a “self” is, indeed what life is, are wrong. Creator and creation are no longer quite so hermetically sealed off from each other. There is real connection and exchange. The vine gives the branch life, sustenance, and form. And the branch gives the vine its actualized expression and bears its fruit into the world.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” What would it mean for our lives, for our identities, and right now most of all for our communities, for us to conceive of all our lives both as completely interconnected and as the medium through which God expresses and gives form to infinite love in the world? This is the question that Jesus poses to all who would follow him. He is waiting for our answer.
May 22, 2020 – John 17: 1-11
In his last days with his disciples before his death on the cross, Jesus shares with the disciples all that he desires them to know for the living of their days. These powerful writings in John (chapters 14 through 17) are known as the “farewell discourse” and our passage this morning is the “farewell prayer” which is the benediction, of sorts, of the farewell discourse. Farewell prayers were known in Jewish literature in ancient Mediterranean times and thus were familiar to the intended audience of John’s gospel.
As we approach this beautiful and somewhat baffling scripture passage, it must be noted that John’s gospel is known for its sectarianism and, at times, seemingly exclusive writings. The gospel of John can be difficult to understand, especially as we read it through our “western society eyes” in the year 2020. Even so, God’s Spirit is ever with us, guiding us in our understating and interpretation of the scriptures. May it be so for this passage, too!
In this farewell prayer, Jesus prays to God for his beloved disciples and for all who trust in him, beseeching God to protect them and make them one as Jesus is one with God. These passionate words are for us, also, as we seek to know and love God and to love one another. At this time in history we so desperately need to learn how to be one with God and one with one another. Join us in worship this Sunday (link below) as we worship God and seek to understand how we can know the God of creation who has come to us in Jesus the Christ.
May 15, 2020 – Hebrews 6: 13-20
This week is Youth Sunday. With the last two months a blur of fear and isolation, it certainly does not feel like May. We are all struggling with the time lost, and our students are no exception. Sports seasons, science fairs, spring concerts, school year wrap-ups…activities and milestones that are so important to children and teenagers…all cancelled. The loss is particularly potent for our three seniors, as their last [insert any meaningful school activities here], senior proms, commencement ceremonies, Baccalaureate services, any kind of closure for their thirteen years of hard work in school, and summer plans and parties have all been taken from them. Even fall semesters of their freshman years of college seem to hang in the balance as institutions decide how to move forward.
In light of the grief associated with so much loss (and it is grief, and it is loss; make no mistake about the reality of emotional strain on our youth), it would be easy for these young people to slip into sulky defiance and anger at the unfairness of the world and their circumstances. In fact, that is probably what society expects of them. Instead, our youth have rallied in the face of more disappointment and anxiety than any student their age should have to maneuver. Their resolve is strong and their faith is stronger, and it is that resilient faith that they wish to share with you on this, the most peculiar of Youth Sundays.
At the beginning of the year, the PYC selects a scripture verse to drive Bible study and small group discussions for the program year. In September, the youth chose this verse excerpt from Hebrews chapter 6: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” Throughout the year, we have studied scripture and shared in conversation about what it means to have an “anchor of the soul,” and ways to remain anchored to our faith and to our God, especially in the midst of struggle. How fitting that they should get a chance to put into practice all they have learned…and all they already knew. Let them show you. Look to our youth, and let them teach you what it means to truly be anchored in your faith.
“It’s not the building that defines your relationship with God, it’s your own faith.” -Abby T.
“Though this free will created a whole history of sin and struggle, it allowed for a depth of emotion and love that would prove to be impossible otherwise.” -Cassie S.
“Being anchored means to be grounded. It means you won’t drift away. You stay in whatever you’re anchored in, from being anchored in faith to being anchored in a community.” -Max B.
May 8, 2020 – John 14: 1-17
Question: what is the difference between a fundamentalist Christian and an atheist? Answer: on a true/false exam about Jesus, the fundamentalist marks every question “true” and the atheist marks every question “false.”
The problem is not the questions or the answers. The problem is presuming that faith is a true/false exam.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” (NRSV John 14:1). Sounds pretty simple hunh? Affirm some list of propositions about Jesus and voila you are good to go. For many people that would be their functional definition of the Christian faith, a true/false exam. Unfortunately, it sort of misses the point and that point is faith.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” It is a problematic translation due to the deficits of the English language. In Greek the word faith has a noun form that we translate as “faith” and a verb form that we translate as what? There is no verb form of the word faith in the English language. You cannot faith something. So, we substitute another word, but in doing so subtly change Jesus’ meaning. We say we “believe.” But belief is not quite the same thing as faith. Belief is more of a head thing. Belief is something I do all by myself. When we say we believe something what we normally mean is that we give our intellectual assent that some proposition is true and correct. I believe that the sun rises in the East simply means that I believe that is true and valid statement. But Jesus is not a statement. God is not a proposition. Any attempt to treat them as such is idolatry. And any attempt to reduce faith to belief ignores most of what Jesus seems to be concerned about, namely trust, relationship, belonging, and life abundant.
So, I would propose a well-merited edit, a better substitute until we can introduce a verb form of faith. Trust. Trust in God, trust also in me. Trust is always relational, always dynamic. Trust always has a past and a future. Trust is not just about ideas, it is about character, caring, and commitment. Trust demands risk, not mere assent. Trust transforms us over time, changing the way we look at other relationships and the world. And best of all, I can trust someone I do not understand. Indeed, the people I trust most in my life I will never completely understand. We call that love.
Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. It is not that hard. It takes a bit of risk, but so do all our important relationships. And if you extend that trust, I promise you it will never be ignored. If you extend that trust, it will change you.
May 1, 2020 – John 10: 1-10
I never much liked gate keepers. College admissions boards, committees on ministry, performance juries, and hiring teams all perform important tasks, maintaining boundaries and standards, but no one finds their work pleasant. Whenever I hear about Jesus as a gatekeeper, I tend to recoil a bit with traumatic flashbacks to being the last one picked for junior high gym class teams.
My surprise came when I realized I had been misreading this passage all along. Jesus does not call himself the gatekeeper, the evaluator, or judge. Jesus says I am the gate. Jesus is the way into the belonging and security of the sheepfold and Jesus is the way out into green pastures and good waters out in the world, not the one excluding us from it. Jesus is not talking about letting some in and keeping others out. He is talking about providing an abundant life for the sheep.
Sometimes we get so obsessed with judging and evaluating both ourselves and others. Something innate in human nature likes to build walls and define who is in and who is out. But not Jesus. Jesus invites all who recognize his voice to follow, not just follow into the sheepfold, but into abundant life now.
Friday, April 26, 2019
One of the great gifts of scripture, among many, are the post-resurrection narratives found in the gospels. Luke gives us one of the most beloved accounts known as the Road to Emmaus. This will be the only post-resurrection story we will look at during our Easter season at Fairmont because beginning in May Pastor Brian will be preaching on the ultimate resurrection story found in the book of Revelation!
This Sunday we will take a long walk with two bewildered and devastated followers of Jesus who had believed so passionately that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah – until he was crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. How quickly and wonderfully their sorrow and disappointment will turn to unbelievable joy as the resurrected Jesus – still unrecognized by the two who are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus – walks along side them and teaches them about all that was to be and to come.
There are so many moments in this endearing story where we can so easily enter in and become part of the narrative. We have all known times when God was ever present in our lives and yet we did not recognize God. Times when we needed to know God’s presence and yet felt so bewildered and alone, and then God comes to us in unexpected and surprising ways.
Friday, April 19, 2019
It all starts in pain and fear. Fear of failure and the sharp pain of grief. There is nothing sentimental about the Bible’s portrayal of resurrection. Instead scripture lifts up the fear and pain of these three days as the epitome of human experience, where all our hopes go to die. We are all intimately familiar with where resurrection begins.
But then the Bible’s account heads off in an altogether unexpected direction. This Jesus, abandoned by his disciples, reviled by the crowds, condemned by the religious officials, and crucified by the Romans would not stay dead. After being really truly dead he was now really truly alive. Resurrection is the most unnatural thing in the universe, indeed it is the refutation of our nature and every human expectation. If the dead can no longer be counted on to stay dead, then we are are living in an altogether surprising universe where what we always expected turns out to be plain wrong.
The women, Mary from Magdala and the rest, are the first to imagine the possibilities of what this might mean. They hear the testimony of the angels and begin to re-imagine everything he taught them and everything they experienced with the aperture of their hope now wide open. The run out to re-narrate the disciples memory that had been so corrupted by fear and shame. The women use the story to re-narrate the disciples’ lives and in doing so set them free. And Jesus’ disciples have been at it ever since.
This weekend, instead of wishing others “happy Easter,” or instead of proclaiming, “he has risen indeed!” consider sharing in the work of Easter. Consider doing precisely what the women did that first morning. Go and tell someone the story and more importantly retell them the story of their lives reframed as a part of Jesus’ story and a part of God’s story. And then get ready for something amazing.
Friday, March 15, 2019
The Gospel of Luke mentions the city of Jerusalem more often than any of the other Gospels. For Luke, Jerusalem is almost like another character in the story. But it is a decidedly conflicted character. Jerusalem is the locus of divine holiness on Earth, the object of pilgrim’s yearnings, and the center of Israel’s religion. It is the city that will one day welcome the Messiah with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And it is ground zero for God’s great transformation of resurrection. But Jerusalem is also the city that kills God’s prophets and turns its back on God’s way. Jerusalem is the city that turns faith into a business and sells the priesthood to the highest bidder. Jerusalem is, in other words, a stand in for us in all our confusion and contradictions.
It comes then as perhaps no surprise that Jesus will not be delayed or distracted from his mission to Jerusalem, even if, especially if, it requires his death. Where we are confused by our mixed motives and ceaseless rationalizations, he will be single-minded in his mission. And in Jesus’ determination we can take comfort that no matter what, he comes for us.
Friday, March 8, 2019
Our culture has a hard time with temptation. Desires, it is presumed by our markets and media, should be satisfied, not repressed. Indeed, suppressing one’s desires is viewed as somehow pathological. And of course, most of what we call temptation is simply a matter of choice between alternatives. But the story of Jesus’ temptation takes us much deeper to the very heart of the matter asking not what do you want, but rather the question that lies behind it: who are you?
Notice how subtly Satan introduces the condition, “If you are the Son of God . . . “ He is not asking about Jesus’ hunger, he is inquiring about Jesus’ identity. Exactly what sort of Messiah will Jesus be? And to make matters worse, Satan offers the opportunity to do good, to end hunger, reform the world political order providing peace and justice, and to enact scripture and publicly demonstrate Jesus’ divine authority. None of those things are inherently bad. Real temptation is never to do bad. Real temptation is to do good for the wrong reasons, reasons that will deny your true identity. Jesus knows who he is and it does not come from the power he wields. Jesus knows whose he is and will not be the Messiah without God. Temptation cannot touch him. Frustrated, Satan will bide his time for a more opportune moment in a Garden called Gethsemane.
Our Lent begins with the hardest question of all that will define your temptations and your response to them. Who, precisely, are you?
Friday, March 1, 2019
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story of Jesus appearing to a select group of disciples not as familiar Jesus of Nazareth, but rather as something, someone else, Jesus the Christ. The Gospel authors reach the end of their vocabularies as they simply describe him as “other.” But that otherness turns out to be interconnected with the deep purposes of God and God’s work in the world. Indeed, Moses and Elijah, the superlative prophets of the Old Testament, show up to discuss his own departure (literally exodus). It is all very impressive and very mysterious.Normally on Transfiguration Sunday we focus on the special effects: Jesus revealing for the first time part of his full majesty. But this Sunday I am less concerned with what the disciples saw (which they apparently had a hard time describing) and more concerned with how they saw it.
You can run right over the clue if you are not paying attention. It is there in the very first line. Peter, James, and John went up to the mountain with Jesus to pray. They did not go up to see a miracle. They went up to share in a time of prayer and everything that follows in this passage is all about what is revealed to them through prayer. Apparently they were up there for quite a while because they were falling asleep in their prayers. Nonetheless, through prayer they catch a glimpse, if only for a fleeting moment, of Jesus in the full glory of his true identity.
So if prayer is a way, perhaps the way, to see Jesus, now comes the uncomfortable question. Do we want to see Jesus?
BESIDE STILL WATERS
November 24, 2020
This week we are reminded to participate in one of the most important practices for maintaining our emotional and psychological health. This annual call to psychic hygiene is made all the more urgent by the stress, anxiety, and isolation that are undermining so many people right now. Many people pay extravagant fees to therapists to participate in such therapies, but you can do it for free. If you do it, regularly, methodically, every day, I guarantee that it will change you and make you a happier, more caring, less stressed, and open to the world. This practice is gratitude, and while it may be concealed behind mountains of turkey and stuffing, it is the essence of our celebration of Thanksgiving and absolutely necessary for mental, spiritual, and emotional health.
Every single day, ask yourself the question, what am I grateful for today? It need not be extraordinary, standing ovation appreciation. “Pretty grateful” would be quite sufficient. Then you need to give a specific answer. Generalities that are often associated with existential states of being are not helpful. Be particular and, as far as possible, concrete. “I am grateful for feeling the strength of my legs walking up that final hill when I was out for a walk with my dog,” is much better than, “I am thankful for my health.” Similarly, “I am thankful that my wife made me a cup of Verona coffee this morning in my favorite mug,” is much better than, “I am thankful for my family.” You don’t need a lot of answers, one or two is enough. When you answer, try to remember both the feeling you had at that moment and then experience the feeling you receive when you recollect it. Hold on to those feelings for a moment.
This daily practice of recollecting gratitude does a number of things simultaneously. Psychologically, it reedits our process of memory making, creating a positive experience or two out of each day. By changing the character of memory, we lower our stress levels and begin to see the world as a slightly less threatening place. This subtle form of cognitive editing then has potentially protective benefits against a whole host of problems like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Physiologically, the practice of recalling and expressing gratitude lowers blood pressure and reduces levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Socially, sharing in gratitude deepens our bonds of connection and intimacy with those we share with. Emotionally, it grounds us in benevolence outside our selves. And spiritually, it begins to shift us away from the “I” as the center of our universes and notice that certain goodness that we call providence all around us. Gratitude makes room inside us for something new to grow. The gratitude we practice may be one of the most effective non-pharmacological interventions we can make for our own health and wellness with the only known side effects being deeper emotional connections, a stronger sense of empathy, and more attentive presence to our lives.
If you feel beleaguered by this pandemic, anxious about what will come, and lonely in isolation, there is something that will help, giving thanks. Not the day, not the meal, but the personal spiritual and emotional discipline of daily giving thanks allows us to rewrite our lives according to a script of abundance and grace.
We are all free to write the story of our own lives inside our heads and hearts. You can make your story a tragedy, a comedy, or a farce if you want to. Or, you can make it a chapter of a bigger story. You can make your story Gospel.
Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving, Brian
November 17, 2020
The Noonday Demon
In this autumn of our discontents, I find myself suffering from a malady called acedia. Acedia (pronounced uh/’see/dee/uh) is the ancient name that the early church and monastic communities gave to the vague feeling of listlessness and lethargy. This slowly sneaking torpor is not an intense emotion, rather it is more like a creeping pall of fatigue, indifference, and a lack of enthusiasm for everything. Acedia marries apathy with restlessness, never finding actual repose. In the early Christian monastic communities, acedia was called “the noonday demon” that prevents whole-hearted work, rest, or play. Instead, it manifests as an indifferent anxiety in which many of the things that previously gave us delight now seem hollow.
John Cassian, one of the founders of Western monasticism in the Fifth Century, wrote extensively about this subtle emotion and its effect on monks. A monk’s mind “seized” by this emotion, wrote Cassian, is “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room. . . It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading.” He feels, “such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast. . . Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.” Somewhere in the middle ages, acedia was unhelpfully grouped in as one aspect of the sin of sloth, which is both inaccurate and rather offensive to sloths (who are actually quite industrious). Acedia is not laziness, but rather inhibits both labor and repose in equal measure with a constant sense of anxious distraction without any clear object
Acedia is a useful term because ancient and medieval authors understood it to be an emotion, not a mental health condition. So often we use clinical language of depression and anxiety to describe our present state, but those things are specific mental health diseases. Acedia is both subtler and more inclusive of our current experience. Like cloistered monks, we find ourselves cut off from each other, separated from many of the things we love, and constantly hearing news and rumors of unsettling news. We have constricted our physical space to our homes and our social horizons to immediate family. Few of us have travelled more than a few miles from our homes in months. Having reconstituted many of the emotional and sensory conditions of monasticism in our pandemic shut down, it is now no surprise that we suffer from their same infirmities.
Having trouble focusing, writing, praying, playing, or resting, I find some comfort in the notion that I am not alone in this condition. Everyone seems to be feeling acedia, which may be the new/old emotion that perfectly describes our present condition. I also find comfort knowing that we are not the first people to wrestle with it, which means we can also learn from their cures.
The cure for acedia was quite simple, doubling down on the regular daily demands of life and love. Faithfulness in following the ordinary simple scheduled pattern of life (this does presume you have a regular pattern of life) is the customary treatment for acedia in the monastery. Of course, the privileged abundance of choice and leisure that is so characteristic of our culture may be part of the problem. Duty, discipline, and simple attention to where we are and what we are doing at that moment provide the balm to cure acedia from our hearts and minds. It is not the fruit of our labors, but the attentive labor itself that provides the cure.
So, my friends and fellow weary travelers, keep going and in the going itself, in your daily intentional acts of kindness, love, attention, dedication, and care, may you find precisely what sustains you through this season.
November 10, 2020
The Healing Power of Creation
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? -Psalm 8:3,4
I took a long walk yesterday. It was surprisingly warm weather for early November and the smells and sounds of autumn were abundantly present. It was a glorious day, especially knowing that the cold of winter will be here sooner than I want! I am always amazed at how much better I feel when I get outside to hike or work in the yard or walk my dog. There is healing in the sights, sounds, and smells of creation. I know this in my head – that being outside in creation is invigorating – but I forget all too soon about the healing power of God’s creation when it comes to days of anxiety, grief, depression, apathy, and fear…when it comes to these monotonous days of pandemic.
My walks and hikes during these days of COVID have been much more meaningful and mindful. I treasure my time alone, in creation, outside of the confinement of work-at-home, walking with more intentional steps as I pray and breathe and relax and feel my body take each step. I am grateful for my health and for a beautiful neighborhood in which to walk, all the while being aware that so many others have neither.
Another small moment of creation peace and healing comes at night – sometimes late at night – when I look up at the vast expanse of the night sky. I find such deep peace and surprising hope these days in the night sky, the stars, the planets (Mars has really put on a show these past few months), and all of the brilliant lights which dot the beautiful darkness. Seeing these planets and stars each night and knowing that they will still be shining far beyond my own existence and life, somehow gives me comfort in the midst of days riddled with anxiety and angst. These brilliant lights of the universe remind me that I belong to the Creator God and that even though my life may seem insignificant compared to the vastness of creation, I am still a beloved child of God.
I know for many of you, COVID has made work and family life more difficult and demanding. And for others, this pandemic has created more isolation and alone time than you desire. Each of us are in unique places and spaces these days. My prayer, as always, for you is that God will meet you where you are and bring you into God’s marvelous light and love. May the healing power of God’s creation find you and speak to you this week and beyond.
Love to you in Christ,
November 3, 2020
Anxiety is the precursor emotion and raw material out of which fear is made. Anxiety is not fear, at least not yet, because it lacks a specific object. I am afraid of wasps, distracted drivers, physical education classes, and my own potential incompetence. All of those fears are specific and directed toward something I dread. Anxiety is different. Anxiety lurks beneath all those fears as a pervasive readiness to be afraid, even though we may not yet know of what. Anxiety heightens our threat response putting us all on general alert. Anxiety awaits like a coiled spring wound tight for the moment it may erupt into fear.
Today, I have had lots of conversations with lots of people about their anxieties. Absence of our normal social rhythms and the regulating effects of social contact have made these anxieties even more acute. You can see it in peoples’ stress responses–listlessness, irritability, binge eating, fatigue, insomnia, and self-medicating to name a few. But you cannot really talk about it because there is no object of thought or fear to discuss. Anxiety is like a dank vapor that permeates everything but cannot ever be grasped.
I have several short-term remedies for anxiety. First, get out of your head and into your body. I go for a several mile walk with my dog every morning that (while it induces fear in local squirrels) subtly shifts my focus from the endless what ifs to the immediacy of the weight on my feet and the air in my lungs. My dog has no time for anxiety and always pulls me back to the givenness of now.
Second, talk to people, even if they are dead. Conversation always reframes our current dilemmas perceived and otherwise within a broader context. Things are rarely as bad as they appear and the problems we confront are rarely novel. Consider this thoughtful reflection on our American presidential elections:
For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.
These words were written not last week or last month, but in 1835 by Alexis De Tocqueville as he observed the American penchant for “factional ardor” and division. Sometimes, we gain the best perspective and context from observers long dead. Few problems are truly new and yet we have a genius in muddling through.
Finally, I turn to hope. Hope is not a fuzzy wishful emotion that things will somehow get better. Hope is form of perception that penetrates appearances to notice the underlying pattern and progress of life. Hope lets you see what the world, media, markets, and politicians tend to hide (like humanity is materially better off in almost every possible way than any generation in human history and the rate of improvement is accelerating). Hope re-centers our vision away from the urgent to the important, away from the presenting problem clamoring for our attention to the enduring, eternal, and steadfast. And at the center of my hope lies not political parties, but an invitation to a dinner party from a steadfast and stubborn host who will not take no for an answer.
So, for this election night and all our anxieties, I would submit to you a short poem from some 3000 years ago by people not so unlike us. Psalm 146 reminds us see beyond all the artificial passions, intrigues, and feverish excitement to what is and what shall be.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The Lord reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.
Do take care and be gentle with yourself and others. This is a tender time. –Brian
October 27, 2020
The First of November is All Saints’ Day, the day when we remember all those who have died in the past year. All Saints seems especially poignant this year because of all those we have lost to Covid-19 and our inability to gather as community to share both our gratitude and our grief. We all need safes spaces to lament in order to heal and there is so much right now to lament—sickness, lockdowns, cancelled everything, stress, exhaustion, frustration, separation, and social conflict. We can all still mourn and rejoice with abandon, but we need to do it on our own. And as a pastor sometimes I feel rather useless, only able to encourage people at a distance.
Facing uncertainties, I have been taking some solace from the journals of another pastor, William Bradford, the sometimes preacher and longtime governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony, the man perhaps most responsible for the survival of the pilgrims in the new world. He wrote with searing honesty about his own uncertainty in those difficult early years of the colony, especially the winters. He took solace in the history of our ancestors who faced much the same. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Hebrews 11: 1-3. What I so desire is that vision to see beyond the mess of the present moment, to see through faith to the real that lies beyond all our and my anxieties and uncertainties.
Two of my spiritual teachers keep nudging me forward. Meister Eckhart, the great medieval Dominican mystic once wrote, “Wisdom consists in doing the next thing you have to do, doing it with your whole heart, and finding delight in doing it.” Serendipity and delight merged when I heard a slightly more contemporary spiritual teacher, Anna from Frozen 2 singing the same sentiment in, Do The Next Right Thing: “This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down. But a tiny voice whispers in my mind, ‘You are lost, hope is gone. But you must go on. And do the next right thing.” Despite all our anxieties and forecasting, the master plan is well beyond our pay grade. Neither I nor any mortal know what is going to happen next. It does not matter. Actually, it will only drive you crazy if you dwell on it–what may happen next week, next month, or next year? All we have, all we have ever or will ever have, is what is right in front of us. All we need to do is be fully present and attentive to the moment we are in and do the next right thing. And then repeat.
I wish I knew what will happen and I so wish I could change the painful circumstances in which so many now find themselves. So did all our ancestors in faith that went before us. Neither they nor we are privy to the patterns of providence or chance. But they did have faith, which helped them to see the truth emerging right before them. They had faith which focused their perception on the only thing requiring their attention, the moment before us right now. They simply did the next right thing. That is the lesson of the saints for us. It is not so hard, but it does require focus. Just do the next right thing. And then repeat.
October 20, 2020
75 years ago, the suburbs of Dayton essentially ended at Stroop Road. Beyond lay cornfields. In those first exciting months and years following the end of World War II, new communities were created out of temporary wartime housing that we now call Kettering, Centerville, Springboro, and others. In the spring and summer of 1945, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began planning a mission church for these soon-to-be-developing communities. Reverend Roland “Rit” Anderson was called to be the founding pastor. On September 18, 1945 the Presbytery of the Miami Valley approved $2400 for the purchase of the site. Originally meeting in the Van Buren Township firehouse, donated caskets from a nearby casket factory served as the initial pews. By October the small meetings started growing and moved the Dorothy Lane School. Later that month, the Presbytery met with 42 families who indicated they wanted to form a new congregation. On October 14, 1945, Fairmont Presbyterian Church was officially authorized to form as a congregation. On November 5 the first officers were elected and on December 3 the new congregation was officially incorporated. In 1948, the “basement church” was constructed (now the lower level beneath the sanctuary, you can still see the old front door inset on the north side of the church office). This was understood to be the foundation for a much larger sanctuary when funds would allow it. Finally, on Christmas Eve, 1952 the Fairmont congregation moved into its present sanctuary.
History can be read as a sterile record of events and dates. But the events and dates are merely the markers of memory for hopes, dreams, risks, sacrifices, commitments, and love. This Sunday we are marking the 75th anniversary of Fairmont and celebrating the tradition we have received. Our tradition demonstrated the energy, intelligence, and creativity of our founders starting a church beyond the edge of town. Our tradition has emphasized both the caring of belonging as well as service to our community. Our tradition has stressed the formation of hearts and minds for our children and adults. Remarkably stable (Fairmont has only had seven Pastors), our tradition has underscored attentive stewardship, collective decision making, dialogue, mutual respect of differences, curiosity, and most of all hope. These qualities, virtues of life lived together in community, are our true tradition and our treasure.
The historian Jaroslav Pelikan once stated, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” At Fairmont our tradition is a living, vital inheritance that is guiding us through the greatest public safety crisis in our 75 year history. We are creating new ways of worshipping, teaching, equipping, and serving our community just as our forebears did in fire stations and school rooms 75 years ago. Our mission field now extends to the horizon of every member’s social network. And in all of this we are aided by connectional technologies that could not have been imagined 75 years ago. We are guided by our past into God’s future sharing together in traditioned innovation.
The world has changed profoundly in the past 75 years. Our mission has not. The church really does not have a mission. We are simply one small part of humanity’s response to God’s mission: inviting belonging, sharing the story, and shaping our lives. That is what Fairmont is for. That is what Fairmont does. That is what Fairmont will do. If we remain faithful to that purpose, I am certain that our future is bright because that future belongs in and to God.
May God bless Fairmont. Far more importantly, may God through Fairmont bless this world.
October 13, 2020
Recently, I was part of a Bible study conversation on Mark 5:25-34, the story of the woman healed after twelve years of bleeding. She was healed by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. There are many powerful gems of truth in this gospel story but the one that spoke to me most deeply was the reminder that we all need the gift of touch.
This woman who Jesus healed had been completely isolated and ostracized because she was “unclean” in the eyes of the religious law. For years and years she was unable to be held or touched by anyone because of the purity laws of her faith. Her emotional and psychological pain must have been horrendous. In just one sacred moment, she found the courage to go to Jesus, in the midst of a great crowd, and touch the hem of his garment. Jesus instantly knew that she had touched him and felt the power of healing go out of him to the bleeding woman. With one touch of Jesus’ garment she was healed.
One of the great griefs of these days of COVID is that we cannot touch each other. We must, for the sake of keeping the virus at bay, keep distance from each other and are not able to hug or shake hands or put our arms around the shoulders of friends and even some of our distant relatives. We are missing such a simple but profound part of our humanity – touch. Even on the rare occasion when we actually have an in-person gathering – social distanced or outside – we must sit far apart from each other and wear masks. The simple gift of touch has been taken away from us for this time of pandemic and we feel the absence of it in our souls.
I do believe when we come through this time of pandemic and “no touch” gatherings that we will find a new appreciation and even joy in some of the most simple parts of being human, namely the gift of touch.
On Sunday, October 25th, at 12:30 p.m. we as a church will gather in the parking lot of the church for a “no touch” gathering to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Fairmont Presbyterian Church. We will be sharing a “tailgate picnic” together from our cars and will be masked and spaced apart in the parking lot. It will be great to be together again even though we cannot hug each other or shake hands! We will have the joy of being in each other’s presence and sharing a boxed lunch (provided by the church) and we will find a new way to be together as God’s people without the gift of touch!
You are all invited to our “tailgate picnic” on October 25th BUT you must RSVP to the church (email or phone) so that we can know how many are coming and be best prepared. You can RSVP at email@example.com or (937) 299-3539.
Blessings and love to you!
May the Peace of Christ “touch” your hearts.
October 6, 2020
My morning walk takes me through a stand of enormous trees that always seem to have something to teach me. Other than one stubborn maple, they are all in various stages of changing and letting go of their fall foliage. Every morning, I look forward to their fiery crimsons and dapple pale gold crowns. But I know they are impermanent. Soon they will all let go. Leaves do not just fall as if by random accident or pulled by autumn breezes, they are systematically let go. A tree (at least deciduous trees) lets go of its leaves for a very good reason. By releasing their leaves, a tree can conserve water and energy for the cold, dry winter ahead. It also helps the tree release pollen in the springtime so it can make more trees.
The fancy name for this whole process is abscission (which shares a linguistic root with our word scissors). Abscission goes through several distinct stages. First it starts reabsorbing all the useful nutrients from the leaf back into the tree. Chlorophyll, which makes leaves green, is one of the first nutrients to get recycled back into the tree. That is why leaves change color, because the tree is reclaiming its little harvest of nutrients for the winter ahead. Then the tiny abscission cells get to work snipping the leaf from the branch and pushing it out into the world. Finally, these same cells grow a protective coating over the spot where the former leaf connected to the branch. It is all an amazingly interconnected process of biochemistry and biomechanics expressed in the beauty of a flaming sugar maple.
I have a lot to learn from trees. I too love impermanent things and I have a very hard time letting go of them. Partly it is aging, partly the gentle, enforced ascetism of Covid-19 quarantines and social distancing, that snip away fondly held hopes, plans, habits, ambitions, and pleasures. I cannot do what I want to do. I cannot go on that vacation, dine at that restaurant, see those friends, go to that theater, or hear that concert. Behind those preferences, are dearer and more tightly bound assumptions to which I tightly cling like I am in control, I can make everything right through my competencies, and I know what the future will hold. The tireless abscission of Corona Virus snips these off these dearer commitments as well despite my emotional objections. Shorn of those fondest attachments, I fear not only what will happen, but who I will be.
Trees are not known for their self-pity. They simply get on with the essential business of tree-ness–breathing, growing, and letting go. They do not grieve the autumn, but let it come, gracefully surrendering their crowns knowing that the letting go is the essence of their pattern of life. And so it could be, and so it should be, for us.
Letting go of our fondest presumptions is especially difficult in a world that celebrates possessing, clinging, and achieving. But it is the essence of our way of living. The formal theological name for this is Kenosis, self-emptying. It is the way of the cross. During Lent, I look to the cross to remind me of this eternal truth, but in the fall, the trees testify all on their own.
The forest sings a sermon both beautiful and demanding. The truth is all around us. The way to life begins in letting go.
September 29, 2020
Last week I had a little meltdown one evening. I was sick of my own cooking and I let my frustration show. For a little while I was a bit of a pill—irritated and irritating to everyone around me (sorry Lisa). The problem was solved with a frozen pizza and vegetatively watching Big Bang reruns. An hour or so later, I had regained my composure and was fit again for human society. I still cannot tell you what exactly happened or why. All I knew in that moment was that I was mad and sad.
Scientists once imagined human beings as thinking creatures who occasionally feel. Now we understand that we are much more like feeling creatures who can think. Our emotions are always there shaping our perception and behavior lurking just beneath the surface of language and conscious perception. Hidden though they may be, our emotions color every experience, every preference, every judgment, and every decision. They are the powerful unseen territory of us.
In our midweek Connections class, we have been discussing Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized trauma and the pathway to healing our hearts and bodies. Unlike so many books on race, it is not expressly about politics. Avoiding that stalemate, Menakem takes an entirely different approach. He focuses on what lies beneath race, racism, and our perennial debate: feelings of pain, fear, and shame. He observes that these feelings are the concealed drivers behind rage and avoidance, anxiety and depression, rationalizations and brutalities that we inflict on others and on ourselves. If we limit our discussions to the cognitive realm of policies and justice, we will never address the pain that lies beneath. And if we do not squarely face that pain, then it will return from generation to generation.
Last week I watched the wonderful 2018 documentary on Rev. Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? What struck me was the consistent theme through Rogers’ lifetime of work, trying to help children understand and manage their emotions. In his 1969 Congressional testimony, Rogers said, “I feel that if we can make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” The key for Rogers was neither to avoid nor deny feelings, but rather to recognize them as a part of us that we could then choose to act on or not.
While Mr. Rogers and Resmaa Menakem are infrequent conversation partners, they both speak to the very real need for adults, who may be so gifted in other aspects of their lives, to grow emotionally. With pandemic fears, economic anxieties, low grade depression, partisan rancor, and claustrophobic isolation, it is so easy to either get lost in our feelings and let them overwhelm us. We act out, lash out, or shut down, following scripts we learned as infants. It does not have to be that way. We can identify and own our feelings without being controlled by them. We can choose which we act on and which we can lovingly disregard. We can tag those that do not really belong to us, but others in our lives. We can feel deeply without becoming our feelings.
Last week I was mad and sad. Mad that the world was not working out the way I wanted and sad about not knowing when it will ever end. Any three-year-old would understand those feelings intuitively. But I am not three. I get to choose what controls my life and my behavior. So, I choose to hope despite the sadness and worry. I choose because choice is the gift we all received. We are more than our emotions, or at least we can be if we choose. . . And a frozen pizza sometimes helps. –Brian
September 22, 2020
Our souls are in danger. There are powers and principalities at play that do not seek human welfare, but their own divisive ends. Our endless 24/7 news cycle clamors for ceaseless attention with an infinite variety of fears, anxieties, and offenses tailored to trigger the lesser angels of our being. By all appearances and forecasts, at least for the foreseeable future, it is all going to get worse. Between now and election day and who knows how long after that, the shrill voices instilling discord and fear will only grow louder and more insistent.
The endless media diet of fear and anxiety, outrage and offense, a cacophony of chaos real and imagined, threatens to spill over into our perceptions about other people, our selves, and our world. Our politics, so far from offering constructive solutions to pandemic, recession, discrimination and a thousand other ills, now fans the bonfires of mindless rage and conflict. The problem is that if you consume this diet of discord for long enough, you become it. If you allow it to shape your opinions and habits of mind, it becomes your opinions and habits of mind. You are what you eat, and also what you read, watch, and listen to. So, what kind of life, what kind of person do you want to become?
Our souls are in danger and I would like to propose a temporary, stop-gap remedy: a news fast. Severely limit your consumption of all TV, newspapers, periodicals, radio, and most of all social media to no more than thirty minutes each day. Regardless of which news media outlets you listen to, little in the next 42 days will shape you as deeply and as faithfully as a news fast. At worst, you might be less informed about current events. At best, you may save part of your soul.
Moderation, compassion, forbearance, consideration, restraint, and equipoise, were once distinguishing virtues of a human life, well lived. They provide the grounding habits of thought and action that nurture and sustain our practice of the presence of God as well as a life lived in peace with others and the world. They are practices we can actually do that can change not only the fervor of our hearts, but the quality of our creation. Etty Hillesum, the Dutch mystic who died at Auschwitz, wrote from her concentration camp, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
There is danger around us, but there is hope. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27. For that peace to mean anything we need to claim it and make it our own. Now turn off the TV and go for a walk in nature, show someone you love them, create something beautiful, read a poem, pray, or simply sit in silence. Spiritual healing is no secret, it is merely seldom followed. –Brian
September 15, 2020
The Bridge to Nowhere
The city of Choluteca, in southern Honduras, is located on the Choluteca River. A beautiful silver bridge once crossed the river in that city. This bridge was a gift from the nation of Japan to Honduras. In October of 1998 Hurricane Mitch, a category 5 hurricane, devastated the country of Honduras with rainfall amounts up to 75 inches. Hurricane Mitch left 1.5 million people homeless and almost 7,000 people dead or missing.
The city of Choluteca was heavily damaged, receiving more rainfall than any other place in Honduras. While the bridge withstood this powerful storm, the roads leading to and from the bridge were completely washed out. Due to the massive flooding of the hurricane, the Choluteca River (which is several hundred feet wide) carved itself a new channel and no longer flowed beneath the bridge at all; the bridge now spanned dry ground. This impressive structure quickly became known as The Bridge to Nowhere.
Startling images (easily found online) of this Bridge to Nowhere invoke immediate reflection for us as people of faith about our present day church and the reality of six months of pandemic. Best practices and traditions which have for decades worked for the church, no longer work for this time of “the church has left the building.” The spiritual bridge which once spanned a deep-and-wide river, no longer connect the opposite shores. What worked for our church in February 2020 does not necessarily work today, deep into the isolation and devastation of coronavirus.
We are in the midst of a monumental shift in best practices for church and faith. The church was already beginning, somewhat slowly, to realize that traditions and cultures from the 1950’s were no longer relevant for the church of the 21st century, cling as we may to those 1950’s traditions! But the coronavirus pandemic has flung us fast-forward into a new way of being and doing church. We have always proclaimed that “the church is not the building,” as Loralei shared with the children on Sunday, but we may not have really believed that until now. We are deeply aware in a very visceral way that “we” are the church! We the people of God -wherever we are – are the church. At home, at work, outside, at the grocery store, at school, in front of a computer, or in the sanctuary of Fairmont – wherever we are, we are the church of God. Body and spirit, head and heart, young or old, we are worshiping God and being church in a brand new way in this time of pandemic.
We the church – the Body of Christ – must not lose hope. Instead, we must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and learn a new way to “be church” in this day and time. Culture and society change, but God does not change. We must build a new bridge that spans the physical limitations we are experiencing with this virus and embrace a new way to “be” the church.
Let’s go there together!
Blessings and love,
September 8, 2020
I want to talk about politics. Does that fill you with dread? As it is so often practiced in our nation, it should. What we usually observe are various competing groups talking past each other vying for power to impose their policy preferences on the community. Politics becomes a highly stylized form of violence that separates us and keeps communities divided into mutually hostile groups.
There is a better way. One of the frustrating things about Jesus is how he refuses to be identified with the political factions of his day. In his refusal to play the game, he annoys every faction. Instead, he keeps working on expanding the imaginations of everyone he meets. Through his parables and healings, he nudges his audiences to imagine a world that operates on different foundations. In his teachings and willingness to cross social boundaries, he coaxes, demonstrates, and urges us to expand our imagination of life and living beyond our own circumstances to a vaster frame of reference: empathy for all life. Indeed, it is that empathy—identifying one’s own life with that of another—that is given its perfect and ultimate expression in the incarnation. God’s empathy with humanity is perfected not in an emotion or a thought, but a human life.
Empathy is the sustained practice of incarnation in our lives. Empathy is that set of qualities and practices that allow a human being to connect, identify with, and care for another. As it makes sense to me, empathy consists of three dimensions. Emotional empathy is our capacity and willingness to imagine the feelings, sensations, and experiences of another as our own. Cognitive empathy is our ability to carefully observe the emotional states of others and discern the causes for such emotions. Constructive empathy (which we could also simply call compassion) is the willingness to act on behalf of the welfare of another. All three are necessary and important, but everyone is differently equipped.
My hope is that in this season of isolation we—all of us—could both deepen and expand our sense of empathy. We are all suffering in different ways and to different degrees. Pain hurts, but it is also an invitation to enter into the pain of others. Now we are all vulnerable and, in our vulnerability, we have the choice between opening ourselves to the moment, which is definition of courage, or hiding behind our personal and collective defenses. Because I feel pain, I can imagine better what another person feels, understand what it looks like and feels like, and may (hopefully) be more willing to do something about it.
What if our politics were based not on competition, but on empathy? What if winning and losing mattered less than connecting to, identifying with, and caring for other people? What if the content of our politics consisted of how best to do that? If any of that were to happen, even to the smallest degree, we would transform our hearts, our nation, and then the world. If any of that were to happen, our politics would be a source of renewal and hope rather than dread. None of it will ever happen at the level of parties and factions. It never has. It happens one human life at a time. That was Jesus’ lesson and our invitation. And there is no better time to start than now. –Brian
September 2, 2020
Today is Lisa’s and my twentieth wedding anniversary. Many months ago, we had grand plans for a celebrative trip. Covid-19 thought otherwise. Tonight, we will meet in a park for a long walk and then go home to prepare a favorite dinner together, share a bit of reading, and, as usual, go to bed early. If you would have told me a year ago that these would be our anniversary plans, I would have been rather disappointed. But now, I am wondering if this might be precisely the most fitting way to celebrate two decades of marriage.
Constrained by cancelled trips and postponed celebrations, we all face a temporary suspension of the future. Absent grand plans for the future, some are driven to depression. Admittedly, I do miss trip planning perhaps more than the actual going. The future will of course return some day. There will be other vacations and other anniversaries to celebrate. But today, absent the distractions of possible futures, we have the blessing of now. Today, this bench, this path, this meal, this bottle of wine, all nudge us to look not to the possibility of future delights, but the immediate blessing of this moment in its perfect ordinariness. It is so easy to get caught up in day dreams of future pleasures that we ignore the joys that are right before us. Our minds and hearts are always inclined to live more in the future and the past than in this moment. But right here, right now, there is enough. Right here, right now there is abundance. And if we fail to notice what is right in front of us, our hearts can harden as we become vulnerable to despair over uncertain futures beyond our control and ungrateful for what we already enjoy.
The lessons of pandemic shutdowns seem to align with some of the important lessons of marriage. Our family photo albums document our celebrations and vacations, important high points of life well lived. But the real blessings of marriage lie not in those punctuated moments of revelry. The real blessings lie in the ordinary moments of contentment, adaptation, challenge, comfort, and growth sharing this journey with another soul. Those moments of profound ordinariness–washing dishes, sipping tea, walking the dog, paying bills, making the bed—contain hidden blessings if only we pause and pay attention. We grow together, and sometimes apart, and then back together again each becoming someone we never could have anticipated from who we were on our wedding day. The joy lies in the not in memories of who we once were or expectations of who we may yet become, but rather in the delight of discovery again and again in the ever-surprising now. And the beauty of all these blessings in the ordinary is that they are never contingent on chance and circumstance or even Covid-19. They are always present in and as this very moment.
The experience of our lives is not as much the product of reality as it is the product of our perception of reality. We choose to pay attention or not. We choose to live in the past, present, or future. We choose the things to which we assign value and meaning. It is, in every moment, a choice. Hope and joy are far more durable in the now than anywhere or any-when else. There is an infinite welling up of love giving itself away in and as this very moment. Today I hope you rush out to meet it. –Brian
August 25, 2020
When I first heard that the ancient redwood trees in Big Basin Redwoods State Park were burning in the midst of the raging wildfires in California, I wept. I wept openly. So much lost. So much burned to the ground. So much grief. Grief for the lives and homes and businesses which are being destroyed. Grief for those ancient redwood giants which hold the stories of thousands of years. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. So much grief.
And surely my tears held more than just the devastation of wildfires and the thought of losing those ancient giants, some as old as 2,000 years. Those tears held in them the grief of a worldwide pandemic, the grief of preaching to an empty sanctuary, the grief of trauma held in black bodies, the grief of trauma held in white bodies, the grief of so many young adults struggling with depression and anxiety, the grief of political divides and nasty name-calling.
There is a lot to grieve right now. I know each of you feel it and hold it in your own bodies these days. Somehow the raging fires in California speak to our collective grief.
But the ancient redwood giants have a lesson to teach us. These giant trees have hope to bring to us in the midst of our grief. Reports from inside Big Basin Redwoods State Park show that although the campgrounds and park buildings, sadly, have burned to the ground, most of the redwoods have survived. These amazing giants have lived through fires much worse than the current fires burning through the Big Basin area. Redwood forests have survived centuries of wildfires and stand tall to show it. The thick bark of the redwood tree acts as a fire retardant, giving the tree the coating it needs to survive wildfire after wildfire. These ancient giants have survived through the flames and the devastation of hundreds of forest burns. And from the ashes of the fallen trees, new buds will soon grow as tall and magnificent as before.
Like the ancient redwood trees, we will rise up through our grief and our brokenness and our sin, too. New spring-green buds of hope will grow out of the ashes of this pandemic, and even out of the ashes of our racism and division. Christ calls us to die to ourself and to be reborn in the waters of baptism. We have hope in Jesus Christ who makes all things new.
Look up, my friends. Look up at the mighty branches of the great redwoods, towering above all the dirt and ashes and mess on the ground below. God has given us sure and certain hope in Jesus, the One who died and lives again. Spring-green buds in the midst of ashes! Thanks be to God!
In love and hope,
August 18, 2020
On Reading Slowly,
The irony of all writing is that the most important truths cannot be expressed in words. Metaphor, simile, illustration, and allusion all approach what we are trying to share, but like asymptotes, never quite reach their limit. So instead we use language to point towards something ineffable hoping that the reader or hearer will intuit that to which we point. Communication, at least about life’s most important truths, therefore requires a delicate dance of hope and trust between the speaker and the hearer and between the writer and the reader. Communication is always and necessarily relational.
In our tradition of revelation summarily called Judaism and Christianity, we tend to rely on ancient books to discern the character of God and the quality of our lives. But for such enormities, pale words, whether in Hebrew, Greek, or English seem woefully inadequate. There is a world of difference between the exhilaration and utter terror on the edge of awe that threatens to utterly engulf the self and those limp words on the page, “the fear of the Lord.” “The Love of God,” teases at, but cannot deliver, the utter rhapsodic ecstasy of being lost in the transcendent divine bliss of Trinity. Sometimes, I fear that the church has confused the map with the destination and the words with the Word.
Lately, in this time of disruption and distancing, I have found myself having a hard time praying. Too many anxieties and idle daydreams barge through my intentions squatting on my attention. Perhaps you too have felt some of this spiritual and emotional attention deficit. When lost in the constant busyness of ceaseless thought I either take a nap, and use sleep as a gentle drug to quiet my mind, or I double down on the words hoping that from the outside something or someone might meet me there. I try to read slowly, very slowly, forcing myself to speak the words aloud simply to prevent my mind from racing on. Then sometimes, someone shows up. Not in anything as coarse and language, but in the subtler hues of presence, intuition, and emotion I catch a passing glimpse of Truth in the periphery of perception. I read slowly not to fully consume the words and arrogantly presumed meanings that I import, but rather to hold the author’s hand hoping that Truth may show up. Having been trained by the practice of law to scan pages diagonally at the rate of 120 or so an hour, I can only manage this with poetry and scripture where my eyes do not presume to navigate their unfamiliar topographies of form and genre. So lately, I read the Bible not so much to learn about God as to meet God. And I read poetry not so much to discover its meanings as to encounter the heart of another person. Sometimes, someone shows up.
Disruptions to our daily patterns of living have caused annoyances, hardships, and a mild, all-pervasive depression. But disruptions to our daily habits of mind can open us to something more important than our selves, our desires, or our presumed conclusions. Unmoored from the well-worn ruts of perception in which all we ever find is what our unconscious selves present to our conscious minds, we may yet encounter something or someone else. There is Truth out there looking for us, if only we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and open to it. –Brian
August 11, 2020
I have discovered a new Corona-Virus friendly hobby, genealogy. It permits me to socially distance from the living while I draw closer to the dead. My family, like so many in the United States, had little sense of its own past. While I knew my grandparents from my childhood, and vaguely remember one great grandmother, our family was small so I had little sense of coming from anywhere or anyone. Instead of family stories, we had vague categories of national origins in Europe. There were no elders, no rituals, no traditions, no ancestral artifacts, land, or stories, just our little family trying its best to make it in this uncertain world.
Thanks to the internet, and the fastidious labors of the Latter-Day Saints, genealogy is now a cross between library science and database management. Through public records, I have been able to piece together bits of a story that was inaccessible to me. Beginning with the life markers of births, deaths, and marriages, I am steadily filling in the terra incognita of my own past in the pasts of others. While I would like to tell you about all the famous people I am descended from, the truth is I come from the sort of people that the world usually forgets—farm laborers, servants, stone masons, and home makers. But when I re-remember them, perhaps the first time they have been recollected in years if not centuries, I find both a certain comfort and energy. Simply gazing down on the family tree, some branches of which I can now trace to the sixteenth century, conveys a courage for simply being. I know they overcame obstacles–like emigrating to the United States. And they bore searing hardships–the long toll of early deaths bears silent witness to chasms of grief. But they endured and each in her or his own way experienced this life, all contributing to make me. In a very real genetic and epigenetic sense, I carry them with me.
Ancestry is not the same thing as the communion of saints, but it is a subset that better fits the size of my mind and heart. I cannot conceive of that great cloud of witnesses as anything more than pure abstraction, but these 128 or so ancestors have names and places I can explore, and perhaps even stories. I can even imagine them in the faces of people I love.
This is a hard time. We are all suffering each in our way and each to different degrees. But we will get through this pandemic and all the other calamities and reckonings that swirl around us. Others have gone before us through much the same, if not worse, and if you listen carefully you may just be able to hear them praying for us. None of us is alone. We all come from somewhere and someone. And so did they. Down the great chain of being, we all belong somewhere and to someone because that great tree has one foundation and one living taproot. I close my eyes and imagine them around me and I know, no that’s not quite right, I feel in my body that all will be well. We are held by unseen hands and loved by hidden hearts that perhaps only now in loving us have found healing from their griefs. We depend on each other. And when all the branches of this family finally see and know the vast magnitude of our shared belonging, then the Father’s reunion celebration will begin. –Brian
August 4, 2020
From Lament to Hope . . .
This afternoon I sat on our little front porch with Lisa talking about the Women’s Gathering at Fairmont this fall. The theme is, “From Lament to Hope.” While it was chosen more than a year ago, it seems oddly prescient for our current predicament. The tricky thing is that there is no direct pathway from lament to hope. We all want to go from whatever mess we are in to the outcome that fulfills our desires, which we call hope. Such a wish is understandable, very human, and very misguided. We, of course, want to assert our own solutions, self-help programs, self-control, resilience, and planning, as we deftly navigate time and chance to reach our preferred destination. But that is not the way life or this universe works. We are in charge of far less than we presume.
People who encounter real suffering and loss know the vanity of our assumptions far too well. Some losses cannot be overcome or gotten over. Some losses become a part of us. And one such loss that comes for each of us in time is the hard lesson that none of us is really in control. It can be a painful and certainly a humbling lesson, but it need not destroy us or our future. The lesson is simply one more fact that makes us human. The lesson helps teach us how to live.
There is a river in time and circumstance that carries us to places we would not choose to go on our own. There is a pattern in events woven into the warp and woof of this creation that shapes us, not the other way around. We can and do of course deny it, curse it, cajole it, and occasionally attempt to bribe it, but the river carries us despite our tantrums and entreaties. And the interesting thing about a river is that it has its own curious course and currents quite independent of anything or anyone floating along in it. You cannot directly cross over a river in a straight line. You hit eddies and tidepools that detour our progress. When you finally do get to the other bank in the shortest line possible it is never where you intended to land on firm ground. It is always someplace new, unexpected, and unchosen.
I want to get out from lament and move directly to hope. I particularly wanted this yesterday as I found myself flooded with anxious static emotion, a restlessness that comes from trying too hard to rest after working too long. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, I found my home and my life oppressively small. I wanted to get out. I wanted to get all this Coronavirus induced grief behind. I wanted to get to the other side as quickly as possible. But what the benevolent one was trying to teach me once again was the value of surrender. Instead of kicking and pushing against the current, all I needed to do was let go and surrender to it. If you float along, it may carry you quite some distance, but you will in due time but not in your preferred time, reach the other side.
The strange land called hope is out there. There is a future and it is marvelous. But the way to it cannot be navigated by human desire or agency. Jesus taught us that the way into that future was not found in resisting, striving, or dominating, but only in surrendering and letting go, knowing that the current will carry us to a new home and a new life. So, stop paddling so hard. I know it is hard and I know it is sad. Let yourself be sad. Let yourself be lonely. Let yourself be scared. These are not afflictions to be overcome; they are part of being human. If you do that, if you just let yourself be, the other side will find you, who you become will become more true, more steady, more hope-filled that you can imagine from here. –Brian
July 28, 2020
with apologies to Saint Augustine and Marcel Proust
Lately, I find myself reaching for my calendar more than ever before. I rely upon it both to help me orient myself—exactly what day is it? —and to help remember and in remembering construct some sort of narrative of memory. In this season of canceled . . . everything, I find that one day blurs into the next without much distinction or difference. Work, sleep, eating, chores follow a constant rhythm forming a pattern that extends not just from day to day, but now from month to month. Memory has flattened and without the familiar topography of change and circumstance, I begin to lose those distinct moments upon which to attach perceptions. So, while time passing goes on much the same as before with its varied moments of idleness and industry, recent time passed has become a blurry absence in memory. Like a long drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we know we have travelled, but cannot really say for how long or where we have been in the mile after mile sameness of it all.
I think that some of us are suffering from minor (or in a few cases major) depression caused by short time memory failure. The problem is not forgetting. The problem is that in this season of shutdowns, lockdowns, isolation, cancellations, and aloneness, new memories are not being created. Many of us have only the most fleetingly tenuous grasp on the present and none whatsoever on the future, so we tend to rely on the past as our reservoir of meaning, purpose, and feeling. Our past is never really past because every experience, perception, and emotion is shaped by our memory of the past. Memory is the mind’s unreliable narrator that makes sense of the present. And while memory is a notorious deceiver, at least it is comfortingly accessible. Without its orienting navigational overlay onto the present, we begin to lose track of not just where we have been, but where we are, indeed perhaps even who we are.
Since March, many of us have been experiencing essentially the same day over and over again. Without my calendar I could not tell you when it started (March 13). And no one knows when it will end. So, we are confronted with the tyranny and the invitation of the now. One can of course numb oneself to the now (Netflix and daiquiris anyone?) or pretend that nothing has changed by trying to replace memory with endless doing. Or one can face it directly. The fleetingly insubstantial moment of now is normally squeezed almost out of perceivable existence between the tectonic pressures of our nostalgia/trauma of the past and desire/fear of the future. But absent the defining compression of future and past, the extensive moment of now reveals its true nature. Now, without future and past, is what we call eternity. The eternal moment of now is always inviting us into not just a new way of perceiving, but a new way of being, one that we usually discard as ephemeral in our headlong rush into a future that we never seem to reach. Before considering your “next” thing, consider that for God, or indeed anyone living into eternity, perception of time would coalesce into an ever-present moment of now.
I am haunted by the some of the most enigmatic verses of scripture, the part of Ecclesiastes that follows immediately after they Byrds’ lyrics. “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. . . I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” Ecclesiastes 3: 11, 14-15. In this ground state of Now, Now as eternity, past and future are not irrevocably lost, they are perfectly present.
Why are we so unwilling to go there, or then? Why do we run away to our plans and reminiscences? I suspect because it is so vulnerable. Being in the Now deprives us of all controlling and defining narratives of memory and desire. Now makes us shed both defining traumas and nostalgias and the unspoken wants that drive our lives. Now may contain all truth, all belonging, every memory and hope, indeed may be the holy ground where we meet God, but it leaves us naked, stripped of defining identity and reassuring agency. All you can do is behold, which is distinctly underwhelming to most of our egos. But in that beholding of the Now is not just the invitation into, but an actual experience of eternity.
Put your calendar down. Actually, you are going to need to set down quite a bit more. This is hard, really hard for so many of us. Stop worrying so much about doing . . . anything. Breathe. Feel yourself planted on the Earth. Feel your heart beating. Do not try to think. Do not try to do. Instead, simply feel. Not in this moment, but this moment of now itself is nothing less that God giving God’s own self away in love for you and me and this pattern we call creation. Now is God-love given away for us and for our being in and as this moment. And it only took me a pandemic and a global shut down to notice. -Brian
July 21, 2020
I heard on the radio over the weekend about a new endeavor by lemonade company Country Time. The mega corporation has decided to provide one hundred dollars to anyone under the age of twelve whose parent applies on their website, the premise being that children are unable to have their usual lemonade stands in this summer of pandemic. Country Time intends for the little bit of money given to each of these families to help stimulate the economy, stating on their website their hope that the money will “help kids preserve the values of lemonade stands, honest work, and entrepreneurship, while putting a little juice back into the economy.” Presenting their case that even the littlest entrepreneurs should get the same treatment as the “big guys,” they are calling this new endeavor “The Littlest Bailout.” More information about the program can be found here: https://www.
While at first glance the idea may seem silly and unnecessary, the message it presents is much deeper. What might this pandemic society look like if we all took it upon ourselves to “bail” one another out? How might things look different? I have a hard time keeping my critical eyes, ears, and mind out of the way when I interact with fellow humans these days. Everyone seems annoyed with everyone else, and no one seems to be meeting others’ expectations of how they think we should all behave. I find myself frustrated when I go out, frustrated when I stay home, and frustrated when I participate in any conversation surrounding current events. I do my best to keep my judgement of others’ behavior reigned in under the premise that we are all struggling, lonely, frustrated, angry, annoyed, and the list goes on…but I am far from perfect. There are days I absolutely wish someone would come along and bail us out, and not just with lemonade stand cash. We need help.
But here’s the thing: when I step out of my frustration and criticism and judgement, just for a moment, I remember that we have been bailed out, long ago, by one who loves and cares for us more than anything in creation. Long ago, on a cross, we were more than just bailed out. We were given new life. And when I remember that, I can remember to show a little more patience, a little more forgiveness, and a little more gratitude in my day to day living right now. How are you showing this kind of sacrificial love to those with whom you disagree, especially right now? How are you living this kind of grace-giving life even when you are angry with your church, your grocery store, your neighbors?
I cannot bail out all of creation, all of the world, or even a few hundred children with lemonade money. But I can bail out one person at a time – my neighbor, my Target cashier, the Winans barista – with kindness, grace, and understanding that are universally understood and appreciated. And so can you. Country Time may be on to something here. There is something to be said, I think, for making lemonade out of…well. You know. ~Rachel
July 14, 2020
But now thus says the Lord, who created you…do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. Isaiah 43:1-2
As these long, hot, and somewhat undefined days of COVID summer creep along I find myself in need of some simple spiritual practices in order to keep my mind and spirit in the right place. Especially when I go to the grocery store or any of the few essential trips that I must take these days and I see someone not wearing a mask or not social distancing or not washing their hands, I am grateful for a simple prayer mantra which allows me to pray rather than “preach at” some poor soul! Silently, I begin to chant and pray Kyrie Eleison which means “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, have mercy on me” as I judge another human being, “Lord, have mercy on them” as they risk their health and that of others, “Lord, have mercy on us all” as we walk through these hard days together.
Emotions are raw and edgy these days, as we all know. In our world, in our country, in our own homes, we are in need of God’s presence to go with us throughout our days so that we might “pass through the waters” and not be overwhelmed as the prophet Isaiah promises us. God is with us. We belong to God. Do not fear.
Any simple prayer mantra can be a safety net for us when we are feeling vulnerable or angry or impatient or without hope. Just muttering the word Shalom under our breath when we are anxious or tired invites God’s peace to be with us and with our neighbors. Maybe the simple words My God and My All prayed continually by St. Francis of Assisi speak to your heart and bring calm to your spirit. Or the prayer Maranatha, “Come, Lord.”
In the Gospel of John which we have been studying and preaching since the beginning of the pandemic, we hear Jesus’ invitation to his followers and to us to drink more deeply of the living water, Jesus the Living Water. How do we do that? How are we drinking more deeply of the living water of Jesus during this time of drought and depression and isolation? I know there is no easy answer to this question as each of us are struggling with our own grief, fatigue, loneliness, and angst during this time apart but Jesus promises us that if we drink of this living water, we will live.
My prayer for each of you is that you will drink more deeply of the living waters of Jesus, and my prayer is that even the simple prayer mantras of Kyrie Eleison, Shalom, My God and My All, or Maranatha might allow you to take even just a sip of that living water in this time of thirst.
Peace and love,
July 7, 2020
Everywhere I seem to turn, whether it be at Kroger’s, watching TV, at the gas station, the General Assembly of the PCUSA, or even at church, I encounter our present golden age of grumpiness. Allow me to define my terms. By grumpiness I mean the interconnected behaviors and assumptions of a general dissatisfaction that the world is not the way we wish it to be combined with assumption that this unfortunate state of affairs is the fault of others, others whom we assume to be either negligent or bearing malign purpose. It is not simply sadness about how things are. It is sadness redirected outward into prickly madness.
Everyone seems grumpy now. Since early March we have been living under the shadow of fear which cannot be contained, mitigated, or predicted. Moreover, our sense of control over our “normal” lives has been pulled from under our feet with social distancing and all the normal pleasures of life cancelled. Compounding all of this is our collective incomprehension decoding the emotional cues behind our masks. Is that person smiling or smirking at us? Without our near constant flow of non-verbal emotional cues, we revert to our feral instincts assuming ill will behind every face mask. And what is the result? Lack of trust, the break down of relationships, institutions, and cooperation, and, of course, ever increasing grumpiness feeding its own growth.
Grumpiness is not all bad. As I mentioned, it is comprised of two components. First, we are disappointed, unsettled, anxious, and saddened by the way things are. That sadness is an honest and authentic response to pain. Normally, all by itself, we call that form of sadness, grief. Grief is the necessary experience of every mortal creature who loves life, beauty, and other creatures. Grief always arises because this world is touched by a pall of darkness from the very beginning that tinges every joy with the melancholy of inevitable loss. That is what this life and this world are like. Things do not always work out. We lose those we love. Everything mortal ends.
Given this reality of loss, the ancient answer of the church is not to deny or ignore the pain, but to sit with it and ultimately step through it. The pain is the embodied experience of letting go, letting go of our dreams, letting go of our loves, and even letting go of life. The curious thing is that in letting go, we finally find ourselves held. In letting go (a great metaphysical maneuver to bypass mortality that Jesus demonstrated on the cross) we finally liberate ourselves from all those attachments that kept us bound for so long. In letting go we finally find ourselves to be not only free, but in a reality more beautiful, loving, and rooted than anything our frustrated desires could dream of.
The problem is that this process of letting go or self-emptying can get misdirected. Grief is the greatest teacher of wisdom, but only if it does not get distracted towards others and transform into grumpiness and anger. We are afraid of looking inward and asking the hard questions, so we start hurling our grief outward onto others hoping that it will somehow stick. The shortest and most dangerous separation in the human heart is between grief and anger. Grief always wants to conceal itself as anger so it can go unnoticed, unprocessed, and unhealed. So, we ascribe fault to others. We push them away. We blame, accuse, and judge. And then we find ourselves ever sadder and more alone.
I look around our nation and often into my own heart to see the vast seas of unprocessed grief in which we paddle our lives. Time does not heal all wounds, it only conceals them as they sink down and become a part of us and for too many, become us. This danger befalls not just individuals, but entire nations.
There is another way, but it is hard. Job posed this same challenge and Jesus supplied the answer. We can face our pain. We can befriend it. We can walk through it. My pain is my pain and belongs to no one else. Blame will not remove it. Accusation will not lessen it. The pain is simply a part of being mortal. But if I listen to it and loosen my need for control and predictability, I find myself upheld from somewhere else, from someone else.
The present crisis is not fundamentally a question of virology, public health, cancelled vacation plans, deferred gatherings, personal freedoms, collective responsibilities, civil rights legislation, family expectations, or even national character. The present crisis is simply asking us whether we can face our own feelings and grow up. -Brian
June 30, 2020
With the need to find more outdoor and socially-distant hobbies this summer, one that I have become particularly fond of is river kayaking. Feeling the burn in my biceps and on my sunbaked skin, the cool water sprinkled on my legs with each lift of the paddle, trusting the gentle current to carry me to my destination, all against a backdrop of bent and ancient sycamore and birch trees (whose low-hanging branches I admittedly try to avoid for fear of spiders in my hair). It is a lovely new outdoor recreational activity, and typically a somewhat leisurely one.
A few weeks ago, I was kayaking with my friend Alli on the Great Miami River. It was a wonderfully pleasant afternoon; we could not have asked for better weather or friendlier water. Twenty minutes from the pull-out point at the end of our three-hour trip, the fluffy clouds were replaced completely and without warning by a menacing sky and driving rain. Alli and I pulled onto a beach on the riverbank as we debated what to do. With no way to view the radar and no perceivable break in the unannounced monsoon, we decided that our most beneficial and logical (albeit perhaps not safest) course of action would be to keep paddling toward the pull-out point. Back on the water, the lenses of my glasses became immediately covered in gigantic rain droplets, like windshields without wiper blades. Unable to make out anything but blurry water molecules, I took off my glasses and shoved them into my bag. Though I am legally blind without them, I concluded that fuzzy vision was better than no vision at all. I pulled my boat up alongside Alli’s and informed her that she should take the lead as I could not see more than a few inches in front of my kayak, and I would follow right behind her. And so we made our way slowly down the last mile of the river, Alli confidently navigating around every rock and eddy as I (quite literally) blindly followed, trusting her judgement and the water’s flow.
Much like learning to walk in the dark, navigating a river blind requires a great deal of awareness and trust. You must learn how to read the water not visually but physically. You need to feel the current beneath you and hear the bubbling of white water around the sharpest hidden rocks. And when those senses inevitably fail, you need someone who can guide you around the hazards that you cannot see.
These waters – the waters now in particular of Montgomery County and the waters of our world – are anything but still. The good news is, we have a guide who doesn’t just show us the way. Our guide IS the way, and the truth, and the life. And so we paddle. ~Rachel
June 23, 2020
This is getting harder. People are still getting sick. People are frustrated. People are angry. You can see it in the news from the streets and the mood of the nation. We are moving towards a partial church reopening that, while it is the least bad option available, really makes no one happy. Everything now seems to be making do. Amid all the frustrations, compromises, and indefinitely deferred futures, I just get tired. Maybe, you do too.
So, I went for a walk in the woods.
Amid ash and oak, elm and walnut, I am surrounded by icons of truths far below words and beyond my endless spinning thoughts. A giant maple, with a trunk more than a yard in diameter, has silently stood watch on that lawn for a century. Her canopy nearly touches the earth forming a shelter from innumerable storms and changes. From the eternal twilight beneath her boughs, I watch as branches mighty and minuscule bend and wave in the rolling wind. She has stood there far longer than I have been alive, and by the grace of God, will likely stand long after I return to dust. And her key to majesty and beauty is not strength but resilience. She bends before the wind, but always returns to her true form following a pattern locked deep inside her genes. I lean against her trunk gazing up into the verdure in wonder, gratitude, and awe.
On Sunday morning I had a related moment of wonder, gratitude, and awe listening to Judy Bede’s prelude on the old Shaker hymn, Tis the Gift to be Simple. Normally, the tune is played in A Major with bright consonant tones. But that is not where Judy started. After a brief introduction, she introduced the main theme in clashing dissonant chords that hinted at the form, but none of the content of the ultimate conclusion. In her musical offering, Judy enacted and demonstrated the lyrics without uttering a single word:
‘Til by turning, turning, I come ’round right.
Always returning to the same simple form, Judy allowed the dissonances to follow round and round in their own unhurried pace as the melody bent and bowed to intruding flats. But the pattern held steady and strong finding at last rest and resolution in the tonic conclusion, there resolving into precisely what it was meant to be from the first note.
Bent, bowed, but unbroken, we trudge on through chance and circumstance. The world does not care a wit about our preferences or bend to our wills. Instead, it is we who learn from the book of creation, beauty, and grace. In its pages lie the deep wisdom of the trees and mystery behind the music. True strength lies in gently yielding while always knowing your true form. True beauty lies not in the absence of pain and discord, but in their tender interweaving into deeper harmonies we could never have imagined without them.
So, I make do, not as failure and compromise, but rather as the essence of being a creature growing in and being shaped by this creation. The Creator’s themes are long and winding and we have only our few measures to play. But the great theme is not merely beautiful, it is beauty itself and it is Truth. And we, even we, even now at this moment amid our fear and frustrations, are an absolutely essential part of it. Because we know who we are in the vast intention we call God, we bow and we bend, but we will not break. –Brian
June 16, 2020
Learning How to Walk in the Dark
Like a lot of people right now, I am not sure of where I am going or what I am doing. There are so many uncertainties swirling around us right now—is it safe to go out in public, is corona virus growing or receding, how should I respond to racial injustices and civic protests around me? Last February the way forward seemed so clear. Now, not so much.
I remember as a child learning how to walk in the dark. You open your eyes wide, but they provide no useful information. So, you reach out your hands to feel your way along. You cannot tense up your fingers, lest you jam them on a wall. You need to reach out ever so gently trying to sense presences before actually running into them. You need to move slowly, paying attention to subtle body sensations–a change in the patterns of air movement, or the creak of a floor board near the center of the hall. You strive brush against the world, not smash into it, and you can only do so at the speed of careful perception.
The second thing you need to do is have a very clear sense of your own body, your own kinesthetic sense of up and down, left and right. Normal visual cues will not aid you in the dark. If you want to remain upright walking down a dark hallway, you need to be tuned into and trust your own sense of balance.
Finally, you need to have some sense of your own motion through space without actually watching yourself move. You need to be aware of where you have been–how many steps, how have you drifted or staggered, and how far have you come?
If you do all these things with gentle, attentive perception, you can walk in the dark. You will never walk quickly, but you will get to where you are going. What matters is not speed, but careful, observant attention to the signals from around you and to the signals arising within you.
I do not know where I am going right now or precisely where I am doing. What I do know is how to get there. I need to remember to relax my anxious responses and my tendency to reactively clench as if to receive a blow and instead reach out with gentle hands, a gentle mind, and a gentle heart. I need to spend less time worrying about what ifs and more time attending to what is, here and now. Perceptions, rather than anxious imaginings, provide the useful clues. I need to know myself, especially my perennial habits of wandering off into self-doubt, projections, and attachments. I need to be exquisitely attentive to my own sense of value, meaning and purpose. Finally, I need to know where I have been, the commitments, consequences, and follies of a lifetime that trail off into the wake of memory.
The odd thing is that I have never really known my destination. It has usually been a projection of my desires. What has changed me and shaped my life are those moments when I have attentively walked in the dark. In those moments, and not when I presumed to know where I was going, have I been found.
Maybe it takes walking in the dark to make us pay attention and realize that we are not alone.
Maybe it takes walking in the dark to get anywhere at all.
June 2, 2020
In this season of Easter now drawing to its close, my imagination has been haunted by bodies–bodies tortured and resurrected, bodies recognized from their wounds, bodies transformed by grace, bodies empowered through the breath of God, and bodies embraced in ascension as part of God’s own identity. And then I think about other bodies–brown bodies, white bodies, police officers’ bodies, bodies frightened and in pain. Seeking to follow a curious God incarnate in a first century Palestinian peasant, one cannot ignore God’s clear focus on the human body as both an expression of divine creativity and grace and the medium through which both divine truth and judgment are revealed. The Gospel of John in particular focuses our attention on bodies because for John it is through and in bodies that the truth is revealed and humanity is presented with a choice, literally a crisis. Do we see in one Jesus of Nazareth a mangled insurrectionist dying on a cross or in him do we see both truest humanity and truest God?
I do not know what I do not know. But I know my body knows more. I know my body seems to retain the hurts, shames, and anxieties of not just my life, but my ancestors as well, even when I cannot articulate them. And I know that my body grants me access, privilege, deference, and respect in so many environments, even if I cannot tell you how, why, or when. If this is true for me, I assume it is true for others. Conversely, I suspect that the traumas of generations reside in the flesh of many of us. Maybe you too have had hints at this sort of knowledge that is literally in our flesh and bones.
Something has shifted in our world. Maybe it was the pent-up anxiety of pandemic restrictions. Maybe it was the unprecedented economic carnage experience so disproportionately by communities of color. Maybe it was simply the pent-up rage of a people who have been forced to endure too much. The constant parade of African Americans killed by the agents of the state in our country—Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephen Clark, Botham Jean, and Breonna Taylor, to name but a few—threatens to numb our sensibilities and reduce tragedy to mere statistics. But then the shocking film of George Floyd brought something new to our collective conscience—horror and compassion. George Floyd should not have died. He was handcuffed lying prone on the street. And you could hear him beg, begging for a breath of air from the officer kneeling on his throat, and begging for his mother, “Momma, I’m through.” What I did not know was that Floyd’s mother died two years ago. Seconds before his own death, he cried out beyond his own anguish for his mother, a primal plea that comes up deep from within our bodies moments before their destruction pleading for rescue, release, and mercy. You cannot hear Floyd’s anguished plea and not hear its echoes across time and mortality all the way back to the cross. You cannot hear Floyd’s pleas and not be haunted by them.
The Gospels’ vision lesson works in two dimensions. Vertically, it challenges us to see God in Jesus. Horizontally, it challenges us to see that same God present in every person, every neighbor, just as in our selves. The failure to see in either direction is the essence of Sin. John in particular goes further claiming that the failure to see constitutes eternal judgment upon ourselves. The unfortunate truth however is that it is far too easy to fail to see that which we do not wish to see, far too easy to justify, rationalize, ignore, or obscure. As a white man in America–ridiculously overeducated, protected and content, safe behind all my clever words and connections–it is far too easy for me to not see the pain and suffering in my neighbors, my literal neighbors here in this community, one of the most economically segregated in the nation. But a dying man calling out for his mother, that even I cannot ignore. Nor should I.
So, what should we do? Pray for peace? Certainly, but prayer all by itself is a lousy substitute for action. Peacefully protest? Always a good thing, but history suggests it not terribly effective method for producing lasting societal change. The truth is that our current predicament is the consequence of millions of discrete choices, choosing against black bodies, for many centuries. No action, no reform, no prosecution, or policy could undo centuries of harm, even if we knew what we should do and we do not. Moreover, the deepest hurt is not in our law codes, or even our culture (although it is abundant there), but in human bodies testifying to centuries of trauma.
Or perhaps we should issue a statement, a proclamation decrying racism, oppression, and brutality. My inbox is littered with institutional censures of structural racism and prejudice, some curiously from institutions that at one time actually owned slaves. But if our commitment to our common humanity, justice, and human compassion must be proclaimed in a press release rather than simply demonstrated in our collective and individual character, then such words are obscene lies. So yes, racism is evil. White supremacy is a corrosive lie rooted in sin. Extra-judicial killings of unarmed, handcuffed men are atrocities. And there is something deeply malignant in our society that continually metastasizes our national original sin of violence towards people of color. But what should we do?
I do not know what I do not know. And my knowledge of the life experiences, hopes, and pains of people of color is minuscule. Perhaps, right now it is best to avoid declarative sentences altogether and simply listen. That is how Fairmont responded in the past, hosting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1968. Those panels expressed discomforting truths to more than 400 in the audience, convicting testimony that has never disappeared, only waited for verdict. Before I was born, a few hundred white people at Fairmont were simply willing to lean into the discomfort and listen. Maybe right now I should just listen, with all my anxiety and all my discomfort when I would rather turn away (recognizing we are all anxious and uncomfortable). But then we cannot merely listen, we need to bear witness. We need to listen compassionately to the truth of others and then point the world to that testimony. As good news bringers (aka evangelists) this should be an old habit for us. We are not particularly good at saving the world, but we can point to the truth. And the truth, if we are brave enough to bear and share it, may yet set us free.
The hard work of changing the world lies not in changing our laws but in changing ourselves. That can only happen when we let the truth of others break open ours. This requires us to look inside us to places we prefer not to go. It requires us to look outside ourselves in compassion (which literally means to suffer with) to perceive and testify to others’ truths. But I suspect that if we learn to see God in a man dying on a cross, we will also be able to see our neighbor in man calling out to his mother with his last breath. And when we can hold our witness to both in truth, loving our God and our neighbor, then I suspect we will be getting closer to the answer we seek. –Brian
May 26, 2020
I heard a prayer this morning that stopped me in my tracks. In his deep southern, South Carolina accent, beloved professor and theologian, William Willimon prayed these words, “God, I praise you for your great, glorious turning toward us.” God’s great and glorious turning toward us…
I am so drawn to these words. In all my fumbling and fickle attempts to really know and love God, I always come back to the painful awareness that I am lacking and unworthy. Which in the end takes me back to focusing on me and my actions, and all that I have or have not done to know or love God.
God’s great and glorious turning toward us is God’s action of love and redemption, initiated by God, completed by God in Jesus, and sustained by God through the Holy Spirit. There is no “me” in the ultimate work of salvation. God turns toward me. God turns toward us. Even when we are fumbling and fickle and failing. It is God who turns toward us to redeem us and love us and call us.
Hold that image in your mind, that image of God turning toward you, toward us. In the presence of the great and glorious God, all of who we are melts away, even our failures and fumbling. Of course, we are unworthy and lacking. We all are. God knows that yet turns in love toward us to redeem us and heal us and call us. This is the nature of God. Love.
I have many fragile and false markers I use to define who I am:
-the mistakes and the successes in my life
When my great and glorious God turns toward me, I can only see God and God’s love for me, and not those false markers I create for myself and others.
As I pray for each of you during these days of being together-but-apart, I imagine you at home alone or with your family, in your yard pulling weeds or planting flowers, in your makeshift office at home juggling work and children, or venturing out for the weekly grocery shopping adventure. I also imagine you tired, frustrated, short-tempered, and anxious, and at other times joyful hopeful, grateful, and content.
My prayer for you during these long and uncertain days of this pandemic is that you will see God turning toward you with love and redemption, and that you will simply and wonderfully receive God’s turning.
May 19, 2020
One of the hardest lessons of faith is that we are not in control. The universe does not revolve around us, nor does it care about our intelligence, industry, cunning, or craft. We camouflage over this hard truth with our strategic plans, risk assessments, and long-range forecasts. In “normal” times we are able to maintain the charade. But not now. Now we simply respond to what happens according to our best knowledge and values, knowing full well that our best knowledge is woefully inadequate. It is profoundly, sometimes embarrassingly humbling.
But curiously, it is precisely in the humbling that we find a solid truth to stand upon. Humble and humiliation both derive from the Latin word humus: the earth. To be humbled is to be brought down to earth, which is of course our home, from what we are made, and where we live and love. To be humbled is to learn who we truly are, creatures made by a Creator around whom this world unfolds. Once humbled, our lives can at last learn to bend with all creation to the Creator’s love and care in the great cosmic dance. We were not made to be autonomous, self-defined, or in control. Indeed, that was the essence of the problem in the garden long ago. We were made for a relationship defined not by us, but by our Maker. And in that embrace, is peace, bliss, and belonging beyond anything we could every dream or do.
I am just a little person in a big world and so are you. But we belong to someone who loves us and weaves time out of love for us simply as a place for belonging together. Today may not be a good day, nor even tomorrow. But God makes time for us, and on that day we will dance.
May 12, 2020
This is going on a long time, much longer than I expected. I do not mind the closed shops or even the closed restaurants. For me the hardest thing is the disappearance of the future. Beyond a few days out, everything is now indeterminate. Plans, events, celebrations, even deadlines have blurred. The presumed certainties of the calendar have collapsed into mere functions of probability. We simply do not know what will happen or when, and so we are forced by circumstance to content ourselves with an endless repetition of now.
For those of us who derive much of our self-worth and identity from future oriented industry, this can be a devastating loss. Goals, deadlines, and plans have all become fuzzy and porous as waves of pandemic wash in and out eroding all our assumptions. The once presumed road ahead is now more like trackless grassland extending out in all directions. You can see a long way, but the prairie covers your track and everything to the horizon rolls in motion before unseen winds. You know you are still standing, but cannot see your feet, let alone the trail.
One of the few genuine gifts of this moment in our history is precisely this moment. Social isolation, the slowing of doing, and the clouding of every moment except this moment forces us to look down and pay attention to this and only this moment. A quick inventory reveals that we are in fact stably grounded, breathing, reasonably healthy, and reasonably sane. So why are we all so afraid of living into the eternal now of this moment, which is of course the only point in time which we will ever occupy? Why do we endlessly yearn for the faraway horizons of the future that are, of course, mere projections of our desires?
I am here now. Where else could I ever be? I feel the air moving in my lungs. I feel the weight of my body pressing though my feet into the good earth. There is only one moment in time in which God can reach any of us and it is now. And there is only one place in all creation where God can reach any of us and it is here. The whole mystery of the incarnation made the here and now sacred as the sacramental vessel where the divine and the mortal meet, mingle, and dance. The past is utterly inaccessible to me. My memory is already hard at work re-editing it. The future is beyond my grasp. It will come as it will regardless of my plan and anxieties. But right here, right now God is giving away God’s own self to me in creative love in and as this very moment. Not soon, but now. Not close, but here. Welcome to the sacred crucible of now.
May 5, 2020
People ask me lots of questions for which I do not have answers. When are we going to open the church? Will older adults return to worship? What is going to happen? My problem is not that I have neglected to consider these questions. My problem is that the answers to these and many others are unknowable at the present time. Lack of knowledge and lack of control make me feel alternatively anxious or incompetent. I try to bury those feelings through busyness and talking to people, but I know they will come back. Perhaps you too have felt some of these critical, worried voices popping up inside your head and heart.
The most common human response to these darker feelings is avoidance. The nightly news recites an account of daily infection statistics and then ends the newscast with some human-interest story about a puppy. If we really are in control and we really do define our own identities and outcomes, then that is the best we can do. Science, politics, and culture will provide the only answers we can cling to, even it they don’t provide much. In such a world, the only rational response is despair or avoidance, hence all those puppy stories.
In an odd way this whole pandemic mess is strengthening my faith by weakening everything else that I might depend on. I am daily confronted by my own ignorance and anxiety and I can hear it behind all the talking heads on television as well. Daily I am reminded how little agency I exercise over my life and my community. And even more personally, I am reminded how I cannot generate my own feelings on demand. I do not have the freedom to create myself, let alone my world. The beautiful thing is that I do not have to.
The first and greatest freedom of a Christian is the freedom not to have to create yourself or your world. We are instead created. The second freedom is closely related. Who we are and what we do is not the product of our skills, knowledge, or achievements. Rather, who we are is the result of an encounter. Our lives are defined by a relationship, not by ourselves. I am defined by a relationship with one who loves me despite myself, a relationship with one who adopted me despite my running away, despite my anxieties, and despite my incompetencies. None of my stuff really matters, only the relationship. Only God.
If all your hopes lie with humankind and our skills and knowledge, then today is a day to despair because all those hopes eventually end in the grave. But if you believe in a God who is meeting us as us in the middle of this and every mess, then you are now free to teach the world how to live . . . and how to die . . . and how to live. The first commandment—you shall have no other gods before me–is the greatest commandment not because it forbids idolatry, but rather because it points our way beyond ourselves to freedom and to life itself. B.