Beside Still Waters – Weekly Spirituality Blog

BESIDE STILL WATERS

Our Weekly Reflection, on God, Life, and the connection between them.

November 21, 2023

The first step is the most important. The first step is to pay attention.

Attention is both the foundation for both morality and spirituality. Attention is by definition to focus on something, someone other than yourself. Attention necessarily shifts the center of our own personal universes from our unending personal dialog in which “I” am the one who always perceives, feels, judges, and wants, to something outside ourselves. Attention is the intentional choice that opens us up to learning, wisdom, and love. The problem for most of us is that we are all consumed by our endless internal monologue in which the “I” is the absolute center of experience which becomes subjectively indistinguishable from reality itself.

I would like to propose attention as the most important thing we need to nurture this Thanksgiving. Gratitude, awareness and appreciation of the magnitude of the gifts and gifting we have received, Is one of the many benefits of attention. The older I get, the more I prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas. Christmas, as we culturally celebrate it, is wonderful, especially for children. But Christmas is a nonstop blur of colors, lights, music, food, and most of all presents. Christmas is a sensory overload of music and tinsel with each new feature seeking to grab our attention for a fleeting moment. The colors of Christmas are bright green and red with shiny gold and silver twinkling from garlands and the tree. Christmas is a holiday that rewards attention deficits with the dopamine hit of ever greater novelty all set against the stark white background of fresh snow.

Thanksgiving is altogether more subdued. Its rewards are subtle but less fleeting. The colors of Thanksgiving, muted browns, rusts, and beige, do not clamor for our attention. The leaves underfoot provide a mottled mosaic that softens the diffuse afternoon light. And while there may be high drama in the kitchen trying to reconcile the cooking temperatures of white and dark Turkey meat, after all the food is served, after the plates have started their long soak, there is nothing more to do. Sated, rested, and together, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Thanksgiving, specifically the time after the meal with family, is perhaps the closest Christians come to a true experience of sabbath. There comes a moment after the meal when the world is precisely the way God intended.

Then and there, if we choose, we can participate in a remedial lesson of paying attention. All the hurried busyness is over, and nothing needs to be accomplished.  In that moment you can experience the world precisely the way God intended it to be. You can simply be. And in that being, paying attention especially to those around you and the blessed state of contentment, can lead to a deeper experience of gratitude and grace.

The world spends a lot of time and energy to keep us perpetually distracted. Billions of dollars are spent on the Internet to keep us diverted and preoccupied with things people want to sell us. Ever since Immanual Kant, we have been taught that the crucible of all meaning, purpose, and value dwells exclusively between our ears. Ever since Friedrich Schleiermacher, we have been taught that what passes for religion in our culture dwells there also. And today our culture demands that we live not so much in the present moment but in a constant tensive state of desiring (or stressing over) the future. We no longer live fully in the now but in the indeterminacy of what could be. Desires and their fulfillment are what our society defines as “The Good.” Delving ever more deeply and attentively into me and my passing wants has never brought me anything except selfishness, anxiety, guilt, shame, and depression. The way out is simple, but it requires a conscious choice. You need to start paying attention.

Thanksgiving can be much more than a day. Thanksgiving can be a way of living into a life of gratitude, connection, belonging, and delight. And it all starts by paying attention.

November 14, 2023

This past Sunday afternoon I had one of my rare opportunities to talk to some honest spiritual guides and teachers. Over pizza and sippy boxes of juice I talked to our youth about their experiences of the divine. The beautiful and insightful gift that young people offer is that they have not yet learned what sorts of answers are out of bounds in our polite, flattened, disenchanted world. They have not yet been secularized by reason. Instead, if you take the time to build up a bit of trust and honestly listen to their stories, they can tell you about things, events, experiences, sensation, and perceptions that adults ignore, discount, or exclude as possible.

We talked about spirituality–the seeking of, experience of, and reflection upon encounter with the divine. Spirituality is the vital energy that infuses not only religion but life with meaning, purpose, and value. Spirituality is the common human itch that cannot be scratched by anything in this creation. Spirituality is the shared human predicament and experience of connecting with someone, something utterly unlike us and yet connected to us. Over time, our culture slowly suffocates any sense of actual encounter and instead offers up a secularized, hedonistic notion of spirituality as whatever makes you feel good. But before that happens, young people still have an opportunity to perceive, remember, and share.

Churches are equally culpable in flattening our spirituality into either ethics (being good) or self-congratulatory satisfaction (being saved). Sometimes when we talk to children in church we speak of “God Sightings” by which we actually mean some behavior or phenomena congruent with God’s stated intentions for our lives and world. For example, when someone is especially kind to another, we might call that a God sighting. What we most definitively do not mean by “God Sighting” is an actual visual appearance of the divine person, power, or agency. Those sorts of actual God sightings are what people may have experienced way back in Old Testament times, but we, especially in the church, no longer expect God to actually show up. So, we content ourselves with teaching our lessons from the Bible on theology and ethics and content ourselves with that.

Children and youth have not yet learned the implicit assumption of divine absence. They have raw, visceral, inexplicable experiences that they want to share and in doing so somehow connect or validate. The briefest study of the history of Christian mystical experiences quickly confirms that their experiences are fully consistent with those of believers down through the centuries. Since Paul’s first encounter with the risen Jesus, men and women have been seeing, hearing, and sometimes bumping into some sort of manifestation of Jesus ever since. Visual, auditory, tactile, and emotional encounters with some sort of supernatural presence that seems to seeks to connect, heal, and embrace are a core, although often overlooked, dimension of Christian witness. So, when our children tell me about a word they heard on the wind spoken by no human voice or a moment when the doorway of perception is opened to reveal a real beyond our normal perception, I know that they are not hallucinating or mentally ill. Quite to the contrary, they are spiritually healthier than most of us. They are catching glimpses, hints, and whispers of what saints and mystics have been sharing for centuries. God is in fact all around us simply waiting for us to pay attention.

Participation in religious communities in the United States declines every year. We often blame the forces of secularism. What we fail to consider is how we have secularized the church. Have we so diluted the good news of a passionate God actively seeking communion with us such that we would not even notice if that God actually showed up in our lives? Have we flattened the agency and intent of the Creator of the Universe into optional, passive, ethical preferences? Recently I attended a church gathering of pastors and other church leaders where we were encouraged to share “good news” from our congregations. Every item shared was about expanding programs, funding, or membership. Every item shared could have been shared by any other non-profit social service organization in our community. God was never mentioned. Jesus was never mentioned. The Spirit was never mentioned. If all we have to share and show or even yearn for is what we can see and touch and count, then we have truly lost our inheritance.

Sometimes you need to talk to a child to be reminded of the things that you once knew that the world made you forget. Sometimes you need to talk to a child to remember how to see, hear, and feel. There is more around us, more presence, more happening than we could possibly imagine. All we need to do is remember how to pay attention.

November 7, 2023

In 1938, two young Jewish musicians—Hyman Arluck, the son of a Synagogue Cantor from Buffalo, and Isidore Hochberg, a son of Russian speaking Orthodox Jews from the Lower East Side—wrote a song that nobody wanted. They had been commissioned to write it for a new film, but the producer did not want to put it in because it seemed so out of place. The original screenplay never included it. Nonetheless, they persevered. They wrote the song from the uniquely Jewish perspective of yearning for deliverance from oppression and the desire for a better life somewhere else. Their music and lyrics gave expression to the plaintive yearning of children raised in ghettos and yet somehow touched the universal human hope for the future. They wrote perhaps the most deeply Jewish and most deeply human song ever penned. They called it Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Perhaps you have heard it.

I have been thinking about that song and its yearning in the past month. The war in Gaza continues in its daily crushing toll of human lives and misery. Some 240 hostages are still held by the government of Gaza ruled by Hamas. Worryingly, Hamas now reports that they have now “misplaced” 60 or so of them. And all the while the civilian population of Gaza continues to suffer horrifically as their government uses them as human shields. It is all tragic and so much more complicated than reported in our media. But that is not what concerns me most pressingly.

Jewish friends and neighbors here in Dayton, staff of Synagogues, and teachers have all reported a frightening and tremendous increase in incidents of anti-Jewish hate speech, threats, and warnings. Anti-Semitism has erupted in Dayton threatening the lives and safety of friends and neighbors. As Christians it is our ethical, moral, and Biblical duty to call out, denounce, and eradicate such hatred whenever and wherever it arises. Prejudice against Jews is an outward expression of sin, contrary to God’s intentions and diametrically opposed to Jesus’ saving work, that same Jesus who was born, lived, and died a faithful Jew.

The relationship between Christians and Jews has always been conflicted and often tragic for the Jews. As Reformed Christians, Presbyterians take Romans 9-11 seriously, that is we believe that God has one continuous plan for the salvation of humankind called covenant. That covenant is first with the Jews, that is the people of Israel, and then through the grace of Jesus Christ with the gentiles, that is the rest of us. Jesus’s saving work does not undo God’s promises to Israel, but rather extends those promises to us. Eventually, “all Israel [including all of God’s children] shall be saved.” Romans 11:25. Consequently, Reformed Christians do not evangelize or discriminate against Jews because they are, in a sense, our older brothers and sisters in the family of the people of God. And we further believe that as part of the people of God, Jews must be shown the same respect as fellow Christians.  It is perhaps not surprising then that Jewish communities in nations led by Reformed Christians like Holland and Switzerland have generally found their lives safer than elsewhere where ancient slanders of “deicide” still linger. To express hatred of the Jews as Jews is therefore not merely vile prejudice, it is willful blasphemy and potentially a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit, the only sin that Matthew mentions shall not be forgiven.

Does this mean that the government of Israel or particular decisions by particular people of Jewish ancestry cannot be questioned? Not at all. The government of Israel, like the government of most nation states, has made many stupid decisions. Jewish people are not necessarily angels by any means. What we must instead eradicate is any group identification, group slander, and collective blame against a people simply for being who they are. Moreover, we should never hold one people to a moral or legal standard that we would not impose upon ourselves. Anything less is rank hypocrisy. And these standards are equally applicable to Arabs and Muslims more generally just as they are to Jews.

My concern about rising anti-Semitism is both pastoral in that I see it as a dangerous cancer in our community and personal. The first Jewish family I ever knew were the Fienbergs who lived down the street from me when I was in elementary school. I would play with their son Anthony who occasionally left school early for Torah classes. His mother Joyce was always so kind to me when I came over to play offering me wonderful cookies. They were not strange or exotic, but just really good cooks with a house made for playing hide and seek. They moved away when I was in fourth grade but I always remembered her gentle kindness. Joyce Fienberg, along with ten other worshippers, was murdered while attending Shabbat morning worship at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 18, 2018. The murderer explained in his social media post that he wanted to kill Jews.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” So Edmund Burke, one of my heroes, is reported to have said. That means that we cannot politely ignore evil: lesser, greater, middling, it makes no difference. While that evil, prejudice, bias, and slander is always directed against “them,” it is ultimately directed against all of us.

We all long for somewhere over the rainbow, a place without hatred, prejudice, and violence. Yearning for a better tomorrow is part of the human condition, but so too is our capacity to act. A couple ideas for things we can do in our community: write a letter of support and encouragement to the senior rabbi at Temple IsraelTemple Beth Or (both Reform), Beth Abraham Synagogue (orthodox) or Chabad of Greater Dayton, with our friend Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin. Support Temple Beth Or’s Brisket & Art Fair on December 4th. Send donations to the Jewish Federation of Dayton or even subscribe to The Jewish Observer, Dayton’s Jewish monthly. Similarly, local relations with Muslims always need intention for open-hearted curiosity and welcome. Learn about the Dayton Mercy Society and/or the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton for events and services, or support the Dayton Islamic School, located in Beavercreek.

There is a better future out there and not merely in the memories of lullabies or the dreams of bluebirds. We can build the bridge to that future and make that hope our world every day.  You can pay attention, use your words, and shape your actions to help to build up and heal relationships right here in Dayton. This is not politics, driven by intergenerational wounds from afar; this is faithful stewardship of Jesus’ way of the Heart, Mind, and Courage. The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true, if each of us will choose and act.

–Brian

October 24, 2023

Warning, this may be a little nerdy.

Last Saturday night while trying to relax into sleep I was read an article from the current issue of The American Journal of Physics (like we all do) with the wonderful title, “All Objects and Some Questions.” You can read it here. It presented a thermal history of the cosmos. One chart caught my imagination, a logarithmic plot of everything that exists or can exist as graph of mass versus size as measured in radius. And by everything, I mean everything from the smallest possible quantum particle at the Compton Limit to the Hubble Radius, which is the size of the observable universe. You can awe at the chart here. This chart does not merely include everything that is, but everything that could be in our universe. It also illustrates the bounds of what is possible in this universe. Relativity will not permit black holes smaller than the Planck Limit. Similarly, quantum uncertainty rules as out of bounds particles beneath a certain size all fading into a probability function. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the chart is the patterned procession of creation in ordered arrays.

Logarithmic charts like this that embrace, well everything, have always inspired me. Why this universe with these parameters and not another? For that question there is no answer. What is the relationship between mass, size, and energy? Now that is a question worth pursuing. In seeing it all plotted out so simply I am first struck by the harmony of it all. It resonates (at least logarithmically) with pattern, subtle but comprehensible. Catching a barely informed glimpse of that pattern makes me feel like a part of the whole, everything that ever was, is, and ever will be in this creation.

It may sound odd, but I find the process of doing science, or at least me vicariously reading about and sometimes catching fleeting glimpses of the doing of science, pastorally comforting. Mutual comprehensibility connects us and reminds me that I live in a universe filled with mystery, wonder, and awe just waiting to be discovered. One of my heroes, Johannes Kepler, discoverer of the three laws of planetary motion, and occasional chief astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor wrote:

We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for their song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens . . . The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment. Johannes Kepler, Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596)

Not only was this universe made from mysteries and wonders, but we were made to perceive, delve, wonder, and explore them. The mysteries and the awe-struck wonderers were made for each other.

We live today in a violent world filled with outrage, anger, ignorance, greed, incivility, and constant anxiety. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Institutions, the rule of law, civil society, and religion itself all appear under dire assault. Of course, that was also true back in Kepler’s day as the Thirty-Year War raged across Europe and committed Christians killed a third of the population of Central Europe to persuade each other of their opinions about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Despite or perhaps because of all that Kepler turned away from the court and politics and gazed deeply into the night sky, glimpsing patterns no one had ever imagined before. Behind our parade of shambling calamities, there is a still order, beauty, pattern, and purpose.

So, I turned off my doomscrolling on the Associated Press. I let go of Gaza and Ukraine, our anxious and vengeful politics, global warming, economic inequality, and the endless decline of the church. I let go of it all through a simple chart. Because I knew what its authors did not. This chart was not really a logarithmic plot of density. This chart was an icon, an image painted by the creator. And as with all icons, you do not look at it but rather look through it like a lens to the one who created it.

October 17, 2023

I am sad and mad and scared. I am sad grieving the senseless loss of life in Israel, the greatest one-day loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust. I am mad that death dealing cynical, terrorists like Hamas could cause such suffering both for Israel and for the Palestinian people. And I am scared for what this means for the future of a land that I love.

In great suffering, the calling of all faith communities is to hold space for people to honestly grieve and remember that even now in the middle of such loss, God is not done with us or with those who have died. Most of all, we sit in silent witness with those who are in such pain where there are no words. Dear friends have lost family members, some to death and others to the uncertain fate of captivity. Other younger friends and acquaintances are now deployed in harm’s way. There is nothing I can do to help them or relieve their pain, so I simply hold them in prayer, envisioning them all happy, healthy, whole, and together.

My sorrow is tinged with rage. I rage at Hamas and their calculated murder, rape, and abduction of civilians, as well as rage at their total disregard for Palestinian safety and security. I rage at Hamas for their destructive and publicly affirmed creed seeking the destruction of all Israelis everywhere simply for who they are. The timing of these massacres was intended to prevent the one thing that Hamas cannot countenance, the possibility of old enemies in the Middle East making peace. As someone who seeks to follow Jesus, I abhor war. However, sometimes, there are things worse than war. Sometimes force must be used to protect the innocent and stop evil. This is a lesson that my Jewish friends have taught me well. Powerlessness in the face of evil is no virtue.

I am angry at voices that create a false moral equivalence hinged on the word, “but.” I want to excise our use of the word “but” in our moral discourse and imagination. Evil is evil. Period.  For beheading of children and dragging elderly civilians to their deaths through the streets there can be no moral or political justification. Yet so many in the chattering class insidiously insert the “but” of cynical relativized doubt mocking the pain and slyly insinuating that those civilians somehow indirectly deserved their fates. “Yes, what happened in Israel is tragic, but look what the Israelis did in Gaza!” The “but” denies everything that goes before. The “but” says I am ritually saying what I am required to say even though I do not believe it. “But” removes us from shared compassion as fellow human beings and sets us up judge over our neighbor. “But” replaces morality and simple honesty with cynical rhetorical spin.

Instead, I would like to suggest the expanded use of the word “and.” “And” includes and acknowledges the reality of everyone’s pain and loss without comparison, evaluation, or justification. “And” bears witness without judgment. Israelis have suffered tremendous pain and loss. And Palestinians have suffered tremendous pain and loss. “And” does not try to balance the equation of terror or hint at false equivalencies. It merely acknowledges the pain of both sides. Today especially I am haunted by another terrible loss, another terrible evil, in the murder of six-year-old Wadea Alfayoumi, killed in Plainfield, Illinois simply because his family was Palestinian. Shedding innocent blood, solely because of one’s identity is abhorrent evil for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Finally, I am scared, scared for the people of Israel and Gaza. I am scared for the hundreds of civilian hostages and their families. I am scared for the citizens of Gaza callously and forcibly being used as human shields by Hamas. I am scared for how this conflict might spread to Lebanon or elsewhere. I am scared about the possibility of a regional war and all of war’s uncertainties. I am scared about how this conflict will cause new wounds, harden hearts, and foreclose hopes.  And finally, I am scared how all these new hurts, wounds, angers, and scarred hearts will drive us all further away from the life and community intended by the Father of us all.

To confront this all I know how to do is preach, pray, and teach. So that is what I intend to do. I hope you will join me.

If you might want to hear more about the Gaza conflict, I invite you to watch the interview I conducted with my dear friend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield yesterday. You can watch it by clicking here

October 10, 2023

Matthew’s gospel brings us a healing story of two blind men who not only beg Jesus to heal them but yell loudly at Jesus to heal them. The feelings are definitely on the surface in this story! It is a short pericope of scripture but there are deep truths to be found here.

You may be more familiar with this story from Mark’s gospel in Mark chapter 10. It is the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. The passion is the same in both gospels but Mark gives us a few more details and one less person to be healed. But what Mark’s gospel does not give us is what Jesus was feeling. Compassion. Jesus is moved with compassion and touches the men’s eyes and heals them.

It might seem like a small detail and, of course, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is the same compassionate healer. But the writer of the gospel of Matthew seems to bring the focus of this story straight to Jesus. The men who are healed are unnamed. We know very little detail about them. The story is shortened. But Jesus is spotlighted for his compassion. We see Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

This Sunday is Children’s Sabbath. A day we celebrate the gifts of children and remember children here and across the world. Every year, places of worship across the nation and from every religious tradition, join together in common concern for the struggles children, youth, and families face. This Sabbath is our expression of shared commitment to listening deeply to the voices of children and youth.

The beloved children of Fairmont will be leading the entire worship service at 10:30 a.m. I know you will be blessed and will see and hear God in their faces and through their voices. The children will be lifting prayers and liturgy about the compassion of Jesus and his healing touch.

Our 8:30 a.m. worship service will also be held as usual in the Fellowship Hall with our wonderful Praise Team! Join us either service (or both) for a meaningful sabbath day.

October 3, 2023

Sometimes one seeks out meaning and purpose in life. And sometimes, a meaning and purpose seek out you.

Please consider this my confession, or perhaps explanation, or perhaps an apology.

I have been serving in ordained ministry for the past 19 years. And now almost everything I once knew about ministry is now obsolete. In past generations it took many decades, even centuries, for this to happen in ministry and in other professions. Now it happens in just a few years. Luckily, I still obsessively read and learn trying to keep up with the constant waves of change, but admittedly it takes more and more effort. The problem is not so much the speed at which I learn. The problem is that time itself is accelerating in our culture. The rate of the rate of change has increased.

We live in a culture and a world that is in a constant state of acceleration and this impacts every person and every institution. The primary impact of this acceleration on people is exhaustion and anxiety. The exhaustion is self-evident. The anxiety is the result of our nagging sense that we are not keeping up. We are all haunted by a nagging sense of guilt or perhaps doubt that we are not running fast enough or doing enough. And of course, we are not because we cannot. You cannot ever do enough.

I am 54 years old. There are fewer days ahead of me in life and in ministry than behind. I need to be a bit more strategic about how I spend them. The great pastoral cause to which I feel drawn is the issue of time. Behind so much of the stress and anxiety that I hear about in people’s lives and all the consequences (depression, stress, disease, despair, divorce, addiction, etc.) lies the problem of time and its acceleration. We are busy with busyness and have redefined a purposeful life as busyness. And in doing so we are now moving faster than our souls can go.

I would love to say that the solution is simply to slow down. We could all become a lot more Amish. But that is not going to happen. Instead, I suspect that our response will need to be both more subtle and insidious. We need to change our relationship with time right in the middle of the accelerating torrent of the busyness we have made.

The word “secular” does not mean without religion or spirituality. “Secular” literally means the world of chronological time, the saeculum in Latin. Moreover, the word “world” is not a designation of place, but rather a designation of time. World comes from the Anglo Saxon “wer” meaning man (e.g. a werewolf) and “alt” or “elt” meaning age or time. Wer-alt or world is literally the age of man. So, when I say that what I want to pastorally address the secular world in the years God grants me to serve, I am not talking about a place or even a concrete thing, but rather our relationships with time. What I really want to be about is pointing beyond our secular world towards that which is beyond it and our human constructions of time, namely eternity.

I cannot change the world. And neither can you. But we can point beyond it. We can refuse to be captive to it. We can help others see the chains of bondage that we have forged for ourselves out of our culture’s conditions and presumptions. We can help to free ourselves and others. And we can all, together, point towards a far-off horizon of a place and time so different from the age we have made. I think that is precisely what Jesus was trying to do in all his rather cryptic messages about this hazy notion of “The Kingdom.” He could not really point to anything in his world that was like it, but he could point beyond us altogether.

Time, as we have fashioned it and accelerated it, seems to be keeping us apart from God, apart from our neighbors, friends, and families, and apart from our selves. The technical name we use in the church for those impediments that keep us alienated and separated from God and each other is sin. It is not a moral failing, but rather a structural precondition of our lives in this secular world. That is what we need to identify, map, contain, constrain, circumvent, breach, disrupt, and ultimately restore because we were not created to live in the secular world. We were both made and destined for another Kingdom beyond all our time altogether.

This will not be easy. The world has some rather pointed ways of pushing back. The Greek term in the New Testament for one who gives witness, one who points, is martyr. But a little death to the world can sometimes be good for the soul. And according to Jesus, the cosmic irony is that the more loosely one holds onto one’s own life, the more connected one becomes with life itself.

To point both to and through those moments of eternity poking through into our secular world is to be about the work of reenchantment, reclaiming the holy and transcendent amid the banal, material and mundane. But that is our work because that was Jesus’ work. Now it is our turn.

–Brian

September 26, 2023

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a world before time. Not a world before the sequential passage of causal events, the web of space time linking cause and effect that started at the Big Bang, but rather a world before the mechanical measurement of time. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world in which the passage of time and the passage of life were and the same? What would it be like to live in a world where the passage of time was only measured in natural events of sunrise, sunset, phases of the moon, and seasons? And while I would not like to live in such a world if it meant giving up on modern medicine and sanitation, I do wonder whether I would think differently in such a world, whether I would be different in such a world.

For the vast majority of human history, the vast majority of human beings lived their lives to the rhythms of the natural world.  You got up with the sun and went to sleep when it set. There would be no urgency or rushing because things would simply come in their natural order. There was always a lot of work, but you could not speed it up. You can only milk your cows once a day no matter how productive you might want to be. In such a world, there would be little room for increased efficiency and productivity. Time management would be an oxymoron. The daily rhythms of the natural world would rather manage human life.

Without a sense of mechanical time, I doubt I would ever feel rushed. Tired? Certainly. But the anxious hurried panic set against the stopwatch would be literally unthinkable. Time present would unfold coextensively with life lived. The very modern notion of getting our work done so we might have time to live our lives would be nonsensical. Instead, undistracted by imperatives other than custom and nature, we might actually have an opportunity to pay attention. In such an extended world of the present, it may even be possible to notice ways in which the past was still with us.

I have been wrestling with the notion of time and all the mischief it causes our souls. It impacts all of us and everything we do. In my real life I am always living partially in an imagined future, seeking to shape its outcomes through my efforts today. I live in a mental world of multiple possible futures each shaped by my own presumed agency for which I am responsible. Nearly infinite causally linked lists of what-ifs endlessly cycle through my mind each demanding urgent attention. The ability to influence events often feels less like freedom than a burden constantly trying to wring some marginal agency out of each and every labor. Since we can shape the future, our to do list are necessarily endless. This is the gift and the curse of the Enlightenment. Human beings have stolen the ability to shape our own future, but like Prometheus, we pay a price. We now must toil, not just in our labor, but our in anxiety about our labor. There is always more to be done. There is always a way to be more effective, efficient, or productive. We will never do enough, produce enough, be enough. And then we wonder why we are so exhausted.

There is another way. The modern world does not like it. You will need to let go of some control over the future (it was always a bit of proud fantasy anyway). You will also need to let go of our fond status symbols of self-important busyness that we wear like a badges of honor. Instead, you can relocate the center of your identity, value, and worth away from our long lists of what we do into who we are in relationship with others. We can imagine our lives and our very selves not as achievements, but rather emergent expressions of connection with others. We can let go of all our human doings for human being and in doing so perhaps discover true freedom for the first time.

Jesus’ invitation to a new way of life he calls the Kingdom of God is not so much a place as a time. Eternal life is not really really long life. Eternal life describes the quality and not the quantity of life. Eternal life (Zoe Ainon) literally means life of the age of the Kingdom, a quality of life contrasted with the realm of time, the secular (saeculum). And that life is grounded not in achievement but in connection, belonging, and relationship, especially in and with a God who is connection, belonging, and relationship. According to Jesus, it is for this kind of life we are made, summoned and destined. And you do not need to wait until you die in order to experience it.

Sometimes I grow weary of this world of clocks, calendars, and to-do lists that we have made. And when that happens, I pause. Slowly, I breathe. I pay attention. And sometimes, just sometimes, eternity erupts again into the now reminding me that despite all the distractions, I belong.

–Brian

September 19, 2023

Literally beside often not very still waters . . .

If you take Highway 61 North from Duluth, Minnesota you soon enter another world of rock, wind, waves, and trees. The road hugs the shore of Lake Superior as it winds past waterfalls, hidden inlets, and around, over, and occasionally through solid stone hills. It is a hard land of taconite stone. The hills are literally made of iron. After about two hours of this scenic drive, you will come to the tiny fishing village of Grand Marais (population 1,340). You will not get lost. Highway 61 is the only paved road in Cook County. If you see welcome to Canada signs you have gone too far. When you get to Grand Marais, turn right off the highway past the old Coast Guard station and park your car. Head towards the breakwaters and ignore the no trespassing and “Danger Navigational Structures Use at your own risk” signs. When you cannot go any further without getting very wet (the average water temperature is 43 degrees), turn left into the giant maze of basalt stone that makes up the breakwater forming the harbor. It looks rather like a labyrinth designed by giants playing with Minecraft. And there you will find my temple.

A temple is a place where the transcendent God of the universe is mediated through and encountered in the material world. The rocks, actually one giant quarter mile long rock, is such a place for me. Here the continental shield juts out onto the surface. The sub-basement of the continent holding North America together for the past billion or so years extrudes from the depths of the earth. The Basalt was formed from when the world was young, far too old for fossils. This rock is not older than dinosaurs. It is older than life itself. Innumerable ice ages and their scouring glaciers have only polished it.

Since the last ice age, a mere 10,000 years ago, the middle part of the rock has been colonized by life. Dwarf spruce trees, mosses, ferns, and lichens cling tenaciously to the rocks despite the soil being only inches deep. They grow slowly here, sprayed by the icy waves that often lap and sometimes pass over the island.

All is quiet here, with only the wind, waves, and the occasional precocious Herring Gull. Since 1985 I have been going there to belong, connect, and listen. This is where I prayed through loneliness and despair. This is where I sought clarity in vocation and relationships. This is where I go to say thank you and to grieve. And in due time, this where I hope to have my material remains to be scattered, becoming a part of the island itself awaiting the day when all things are made new. I keep a picture from that spot to remind me of the view from which I will wait.

One of my favorite things about this place is that it has no formal name. People call it “Artist’s Point,” but that is just a local convention since the 1970’s. It has no name on maps. Even the Anishinaabe/Ojibway simply used their generic word for land between bodies of water to describe it. Naming things tends to be our first step in making them idols. This holy spot is anonymous.

I live my life mostly in a world in which accomplishment and efficiency are valued above all else. I know that is not so in my better and more grounded moments, but the constant messages of our culture are hard to ignore. I work hard today hoping that some day life will calm down. But there is no way of knowing whether I have ever done enough. That is the logic of secular modernity. And that is why I retreat to this nameless rock forming Grand Marais’s harbor. Countless worries and lives, peoples and empires, species and epochs rise and fall before it, yet it quietly remains itself. There is no doing here, no achieving, only the wind and water. Even though I cannot directly perceive the holy, numinous, and eternal intersecting and penetrating this world, I can experience hints, feelings, intimations, and an uncanny sense when I walk on holy ground.

Despite our best efforts to the contrary, despite our culture’s willful denial and all its rewards for collaborating with the secular and chastisements for suggesting there is more going on beyond our philosophies, this world is porous. Time and eternity touch here and there, now and then. The transcendent and the immanent permeate each other and interact in subtle and surprising ways. That interaction, that enchantment, cannot be observed and described so much as beheld and participated in because to observe would mean to hold yourself apart in order to observe. In those places and moments the opposite happens. Difference and separation are overcome. Communion happens. And, if only for the most fleeting of moments, I belong. I am home.

–Brian

September 12, 2023

I believe the last time I logged onto Facebook was in 2018. Generally, my inattention has served me and my blood pressure well. There are however some important things that happen in social media. Pastor Kelley, who is infinitely better informed about contemporary church conversations than I will ever be, thoughtfully shared with me one of these conversations that arose over the past two weeks.

Recently, a Presbyterian Pastor named Alexander Lang quit his position as Pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Arlington, Illinois as well as ministry altogether after ten years of service. He shared the reasons for his resignation in his final sermon posted on Facebook. That sermon and his associated articles triggered a tsunami of blogs, applause, condemnations, sympathy, blame, handwringing, extolling, trolling, and even some thoughtful reflection by the vast, verbose, and well-connected commentariat of mainline pastors. The past two weeks have been a time of reckoning among pastors.

Pastor Lang stated that his reasons for quitting ministry were: (1.) stress; (2.) loneliness; (3.) increasing division within the church; (4.) adverse impacts on family; and (5.) doubts about the future of his church. These are all heavy burdens to bear. I empathize with Rev. Lang and the adversities he encountered. His pain was palpable and heart breaking. I hope that he and his family find rest and healing. And, I have no doubt that given his considerable gifts, he will do well in the future however he wishes to invest his efforts.

But then, like every other pastor who dipped into this torrent of commentary, I began to think about myself. Do I experience those burdens and how do I react to them?

The immediate answer was that his experience was not mine. I experience stress, loneliness, division, imposition, and doubts from time to time. But those are all temporary sensations, not permanent conditions. They pass in time, and I have come to trust that they will pass. Ministry, like any profession, has good days and bad. Fairmont, like any community, has good days and bad. And I, like any person, have good days and bad (often exacerbated by fatigue and hunger). I expect and anticipate setbacks and frustrations but know and trust that there will not be only setbacks and frustrations. There will also be new opportunities and satisfactions.

As I listened more closely to Rev. Lang’s sermon something else struck me. He was trying to do ministry on his own. He never mentioned colleagues or friends, counsellors or coaches, clergy groups or communities of shared practice. Ministry can be lonely, but one can choose to be less alone. But you must choose.

I have been blessed with an abundance of relationships. I am blessed to share in ministry at Fairmont with Pastor Kelley who is not only my professional colleague, but my trusted friend. My clergy group has met for over seven years now twice each month with pastors from across the United States, Australia, and England. My book group meets to discuss arcane texts. My pastoral counsellor always directs me to look for what God may be doing in any situation. I have found sharing with many of you so meaningful as we look to how our stories connect with each other and God’s story. And in all things, my partner Lisa is always there to listen, comfort, and challenge. Like so many middle-aged men, I am not particularly good at friendships, but I am learning, and I know it takes choice and a risk.

There was someone else missing from Rev. Lang’s painful confession. He never mentioned God. I firmly believe that my actual work of ministry is absurd. What I do makes no sense in the world and is exceedingly unlikely that what I do will achieve any of my desired purposes. My sermons, teaching, leadership, and companionship outwardly accomplish very little. Religious participation in the United States is plummeting and I cannot slow let alone stop that trend. And if I believed for a moment that I am either (A.) responsible for any of this, or (B.) capable of changing any of this, then I would indeed be despairing and morbidly distressed. But I am not for the simple reason that I am not in charge. God is. And that fact simultaneously relieves, reinforces and redirects me out of potential gloom.

 

Rev. Lang, as far as I can tell, was trying to do ministry without reliance upon God. Secular ministry is an oxymoron. Without God, we are bound to not only fail but fall into misery along the way. My most important prayer in worship is the one you never hear. Just before preaching, I always something like, “Well God, I have these words. They are not particularly good words. Someone else could provide better ones. And some of my thoughts may be just wrong. But I am the one showing up today and there does not appear to be anyone else. So, between my speaking and their hearing, please substitute your own. Speak to their hearts so that they may be healed. And please forgive me for my slapdash prose.” What you hear is not me. A sermon is not a performance. What you hear is the living encounter between you, a book, and a supernatural deity, an encounter we call the Word with a capital W. Like a mediocre volleyball player, my goal is not to get the ball over the net and score. I only need to set the ball up so that it can be played by the Holy Spirit. In this modest role I find enormous relief.

Rev. Lang never mentioned his prayer life, his practices, his study, or his contemplation. Doing ministry is my day job. Seeking union with God is my life’s work. Whenever I take the time and pay attention, I know that God is there. My problem is not God’s absence, but my inattention and nearly infinite powers of distraction. In quiet stillness I am returned to the mystery at the heart of all things that I seek to serve and share. Moreover, in my reading I get to learn from all my fellow seekers from centuries past with whom I share in this relational power that sustains all things, including me.  God’s faithful presence and this great cloud of witnesses hold me up when I just want to crumple away.

Finally, this relational, trans-subjective, supernatural, autopoietic, emergent mystery that I summarily call God redirects me away from my own self, my desires, and my frustrations towards it/her/him and everyone else along the way. There is a pull, a hunger, a yearning that realigns my life like iron filings around a magnet. In this moral life I can perhaps get a bit closer knowing I will not arrive. The motion of the journey is what brings delight, purpose and hope. What I really want is to return to that destiny that is also source even though I am not there. My life is not really mine. It is God’s. The very best I can do is simply point towards a distant horizon for which I yearn.

The great theologian Karl Barth framed a print of a portion of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altar Piece behind his desk. It depicts John the Baptist, in the corner away from Jesus, standing off in the shadows away from the piercing brightness of heaven’s light, simply pointing towards Jesus. I cannot get to God myself. I cannot directly help you get to God. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Truthfully, I cannot do much. But I can point. And so that is what I labor and love to do.  I can point towards what I have seen and felt. I can point towards my greatest desire knowing full well that I do not yet fully know it.

My heart laments that Rev. Lang appears to have genuinely suffered for his failure to do what mortals cannot. At best, we point, pray, and hope together, pilgrims all sharing in this journey in all its delights and hardships.

I pray for the healing of Christ’s church and all its ministers who suffer. But for me, I delight in sharing with you in this crazy, confounding communion we call church. I find inspiration in those fleeting theophanies that propel my life. I find resilient confidence in the ever-accessible silence of God’s immanent presence. I find direction from the desire, the God-shaped hole in my heart, drawing deeper into the mystery. And I find deepest satisfaction in sharing all this with you while you share your own deepest desires, satisfactions, and encounters with me and each other.

Alone, there is no hope.

Together with each other there can be joy for today.

Together with each other and with God there is joy everlasting. So, do that.

The work may be hard, but it is good. And we do not do it alone.

 

–Brian

September 5, 2023

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10.

The question for us is, what exactly is an abundant life?  For Jesus it was a life lived in rich, intimate relationships with God and other people directed towards the ultimate saving purposes of God. I am not so sure that distant horizon still informs our imaginations. For most of us, abundance is understood to be busyness.

Being busy gives us a sense of importance and value. Being busy is recognized and rewarded by our culture and economy. Interconnection, efficiency, and ever-expanding productivity and achievement are the markers of a good life well lived. Being busy makes a strong claim about what is good. And so, we go faster, afraid of not keeping up and missing out. Despite that strong urge, nothing in our culture tells us where to go so quickly. Speed of life is its own goal –speed– without any particular direction or purpose. You simply know that you must be or are supposed to be a happy, fulfilled self because you are busy.

The problem is that being busy all by itself brings us no closer to any particular goal, meaning or purpose. We have simply learned to run faster in circles. And it is killing us. Our lives move at an ever-greater pace going nowhere.

One aspect of morality is having a goal or aiming towards a purpose. That end, whatever it may be, provides a guide to structure our practices, habits, values, and character. When an end goal is shared by a community over time, it becomes the organizing principle structuring our institutions across generations connecting the living and the dead. The meaning and meaningfulness of such a life  or a community are defined not so much be the arrival at those ends, but the striving towards them.

In our own Reformed theological tradition, the chief end of human beings is not an open-ended question. The purpose of humanity has been defined: to glorify God and enjoy God forever. We exist to delight God and in doing so, reciprocally experience the delight of God. Our purpose, our destiny, an delight is to enter ever deeper into that kind of love and belonging that resembles God’s own love in Trinity. But how often do you get up thinking to yourself, how can I worship and enjoy God today as the first and primary aim of my life and work?

This next year, we will be considering the accelerating busyness that infects the modern heart and mind and how it makes us miserable. The Germans have a word for it, Zeitkrankheit, literally time-sickness–the psychological unease and spiritual atrophy that comes from a need to constantly do more faster.  It is the existential condition of a life moving faster than the speed of a soul. It impacts congregations as well as individuals and whole nations.

The solution is to exit from our accelerating treadmill of time. Eternity intersects with time, penetrating every moment, if only we pay attention. That attentiveness is what we seek to nurture and strengthen, a faculty for human beings to pay attention and in doing so to resonate ever more deeply with God and neighbor.

There is a way forward towards abundant life. The world will not teach us.  But God will.

–Brian

August 22, 2023

I read an extraordinary article in this week’s issue of the Atlantic by David Brooks entitled, “How America Got Mean.” Brooks observes the massive increases over the past 25-30 years in all measures of depression and despair ranging from suicides to feelings of hopelessness alongside increases in judgment, hostility, and violence between people in the United States. While he notes many contributing causes like social media, economic insecurity and inequality, growing cultural diversity, and the privatization of American life (all of which I have commented upon at one time or another), he concludes that the underlying problem is moral:

The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. . . In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation. 

We all seem to have some sense that something is broken but no clear sense of the underlying nature of the problem let alone how to fix it. Brooks offers at least one cogent explanation.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, moral formation was a central part of education nurtured by not only churches, but schools, civic organizations, professional groups, and even government. Forming and equipping people to be good people was central to the work of churches, schools, fraternities, civic organizations, professional groups, and even government. Forming good people to live good and meaningful lives together in close knit communities was the goal of these labors striving to shape people who would be, “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.”

This work was possible because there was still some sense of a shared moral vision. Truth, goodness, justice, and beauty were not matters of personal opinion and taste but had an objective claim upon our lives. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s focused on engaging that shared collective conscience and social institutions reinforced it and applied it to individual lives.

And then, Brooks observes, it all went away.

The changes happened shortly after World War Two with the growth of expressive individualistic humanism. Carl Rogers, Norman Vincent Peale, Dr. Spock, and basically everything in the 1960’s pushed the notion that the problem of human nature was rigid authority structures that prevented us from expressing our “authentic” nature. What was needed was liberation from all that stuffy morality. This view presumed that people are inherently good and only need express that goodness to lead necessarily healthy, meaningful, and helpful lives.  To serve that end, all institutions, practices, and even cultural habits that reinforced moral formation were dismantled to serve self-expression and the liberation of the authentic self.

Meanwhile, at a much higher level the same thing happened among the curators of thought at universities as they shifted from questions of ultimate meaning to matters of research. Not only does one not get tenure for asking what is the meaning of life, the question is not supposed to be asked at all because there is presumed to be no answer beyond what a particular individual believes at a particular moment. This shift then slowly trickled down the education ladder to preschool in which skills and abilities, the tools necessary to compete in the market, have supplanted instruction in manners and morals. We end up with what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called emotivism: whatever feels good or makes me happy is the good and right thing to do. It is not the case that people who do not believe in God or any objective truth are necessarily bad people. They can choose to be good. The difference is simply that such goodness is merely a personal matter of taste.

In the postwar era, psychology replaced philosophy, theology, and ethics as a guide to healthy and meaningful human life because psychology promised to liberate the self from structures that might constrain it. Self-realization became the highest goal of human life. Duty, morality, service, devotion, and even worship were downgraded to be useful if and only if they served human self-realization. And all of this simply presumed that there was an actual self somewhere down inside us worth realizing.

Moreover, morality was subsumed under psychology such that personal will, choice, and character were buried under therapeutic diagnoses. Cruelty, self-centeredness, greed, lust, sloth, and wrath were replaced by the DSM’s penitential lists of personality disorders. And as disorders, no one is actually responsible for anything. Good and bad were replaced by healthy and unhealthy.

The problem is that absent guard rails to human wants and desires most people tend towards self-centered narcissism and absent a shared system of meaning most people live meaningless lives. The result is fragile narcissists who think they are the center of their worlds but who cannot tolerate the slightest setback, frustration, or slight. That pain is then compounded because there is no broader system of meaning to buffer or make sense of it all. People experience meaninglessness and the despair and anxiety that go along with it because they have never known meaning. Instead, they turn to the numbing or distracting charms of tribal politics, chemicals, entertainment, or acquisition.

So, if that is the problem. What is the solution?

We are.

At least we are a part of it.

The Reformed theological tradition begins with the well demonstrated observation that people left to our own devices tend to serve our own wants and interests to the exclusion of others. “Natural” human life is as Hobbes noted, nasty, brutish, and short. Human nature is precisely what we are trying to overcome. What we need is not ever more “authentic” expressions of our nature, but an altogether new nature. And that is what we seek, nurture, and offer.   It does not come from us. Rather it comes as gift from somewhere and someone else entirely.

We tend to forget that Jesus is not merely God, but human. Not a human like us, but a human the way humans are supposed to be. Jesus is the prototype for what we can be once perfected. Jesus emphasizes this when he tells his followers in John that he is the way, the truth, and the life. I believe he meant that quite literally. Our aim should not be to be ever more ourselves but more like him. Human nature is what we are trying to overcome, not unleash on the world and other people.

Second, we try on, practice, explore, and apply that new identity in life together with other people, especially people who are not like us. We make mistakes, lots of them. And so, we learn forgiveness and humility. We learn other people’s stories. We learn to love across differences through analogical emotional imagination we call empathy. And slowly, ever so slowly, we start to grow up together. You cannot do this alone. You specifically need to do it with people who drive you nuts. They are precisely the people who have the most to teach you.

For our children we start out with some basic rules that are like training wheels for virtue. Hopefully they do not bump into them, but if they go too far off the mark you will hear a horrible rumbling noise to let everyone know something has gone wrong. Over time, the rules matter less and less because children learn to live life inside them. They learn unconscious habits of behavior that dwell somewhere below conscious thought. That is the thing about virtue; it is not a decision it is a persistent habit. We learn to become moral beings by acting as moral beings around other moral beings in community. Moral formation is less like an academic class and more like learning sport. Patterns of thought and behavior sink down deep into our bodies like muscle memory unreflectively activating into moments of courtesy, courage, and compassion.

Finally, we need to push back against our culture’s nihilistic

obsessions. Efficiency, performance, achievement, and ability are good and important things. But the moment they become the chief ends and goals of human life they become idols. The Church of Jesus Christ points in a very different end that leads past the negation of all human achievement, performance, and success in the cross towards a very different end goal. You and I were made for intimate belonging and sharing with God and each other. If you can hold onto this why for living you will be able to endure every how. Unpacking how we do that and what that means is a noble pursuit not just for this life but for your life to come.

Our work is clear and urgent. We are not so much meant to be the school of morals as its gym for training and practice. The lessons are clear but demanding. The work will demand your whole life and give you back a better one. And the work is good.

–Brian

August 15, 2023

In Praise of Adiaphora

I do not participate in social media beyond these weekly emails. I find very little worthy of our time or attention in those echo chambers where everyone seems angry all the time. My only contact with cable TV news comes indirectly while sitting hostage in various waiting rooms. It always surprises me how much we describe as news is not, and by news I literally mean new events that should be announced. Instead, so much of the content appears to be people venting outrage over things others have done, or in a weird meta-discourse expressing outrage that others have not expressed sufficient outrage. Yeats described our predicament well, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.”

A category of thought that I find helpful is adiaphora. Adiaphora comes from Greek, and it literally means things undecided or lacking in moral consequence. There are good things like virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love). And there are bad things like the opposite of the virtues (foolishness, tyranny, gluttony, lust, cowardice, despair, scorn, and hate). But most things in this world and most choices in this life fall between these poles. Most things lack moral valence. Most things are undecided. Most things are adiaphora. Two people can disagree about adiaphora and both of them may still be good and virtuous.

While the term comes from ancient Greece, it became very important during the Reformation. There are things that the Bible commands that we must do. And there are things we are forbidden from doing. But then there is a vast undefined middle ground. For example, during the Reformation the Lutherans and the Anglicans held that as long as they did what was required (like prayer and reading the Bible) and refrained from doing what was prohibited (like sacrificing a goat) other practices were permitted but not required (like candles, flowers, hymn singing, and instrumental music in worship). Our puritan ancestors took the opposite position that anything not required was prohibited (which is why Presbyterians did not sing hymns until quite recently).

What I would like to suggest is broadening our scope of adiaphora. There are so many questions, issues, and challenges that are now alloyed to righteous indeed holy anger. The left and the right cudgel each other with scorn and judgment over the slightest perceived infractions. Our culture rewards the cultivation of rage. Temperance, equipoise, detachment, balance, and self-restraint are not our culture’s preferred modes of being. We now live in an emotionally adolescent world. One way to push back on this infantilizing trend of discourse and thought is simply to expand the realm of what we do not know and even if we do know, do not value it as absolute moral truth. My education keeps revealing to me vaster realms of my own ignorance at higher levels. Moreover, my education keeps revealing to me how utterly unqualified I am to judge others or their ideas. All that I do not know and all that I cannot ethically evaluate is adiaphora and the bigger that realm becomes, the better human I become.

Heaping scorn and derision upon others appear to be a popular form of entertainment in our culture. Of course, it is only fun when “our” side is heaping scorn and derision on “them.” Over time, conflict as our preferred mode of communication is driving out trust and actual sharing. As a result, we find ourselves more and more isolated. One tiny suggestion to help fill in the gap between us is to renew that ancient category of adiaphora to, if not to backfill the chasms between us, at least make them less fraught with toxic danger.

What we do not know is a lot and what we cannot judge or evaluate is equally vast and the sooner we let go of those things, the sooner we can actually be present with and for each other to learn, connect, belong, and love.

Adiaphora is not indifference; it is the start of wisdom.

In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.

August 8, 2023

In the past 45 years, approximately forty million Americans stopped attending church or other religious worship on a regular basis. Meanwhile the total population increased from about 275 million to about 340 million. This shift we have observed since the late 1990’s is the largest change in religious participation in American history, bigger than the Great Awakening (s), bigger than the post war church boom, and it has all happened right in front of us.

Some secular voices celebrate this change as undoing religion’s position in American society. If the decline in religious participation was associated with improvements in American mental and physical health, community participation and solidarity, lifespans, chemical dependency, loneliness, civic participation and engagement, family stability, philanthropy, and overall happiness, they might have a point. But all those indicators of social and individual health have declined along with religious participation. As we have become progressively more “dechurched” we have slowly become sicker, lonelier, shorter lived, angrier, more isolated, more addicted, more disengaged, divorced, depressed, anxious, uncertain, belligerent, intolerant, lonely, and despairing. Even for purely secular reasons, the dechurching of America is a cause for concern.

So, why has this happened. Like many huge social changes there are several dynamics at play. First, our society no longer rewards religious participation. You get no social capital from participating in church. Whereas a few generations ago church attendance was expected if you wanted to be considered a good citizen, that is no longer true. Absent that incentive, many people simply stopped coming.

At the same time, American life has become increasingly hostile to religious participation. Our society is not built around the values and ends of life together in the church promoting mutual care, love, a search for ultimate meaning, personal sacrifice, and seeking the common good. Instead, we live in constant meritocratic competition seeking to maximize individual successes both professional and financial. Because the competition is constant, so must our efforts. The average number of working hours is growing not shrinking. Efficiency, getting ever more done with our finite time, is the chief value. We prepare our children for lives of workism through the ever-expanding list of extracurricular activities in an endless arms race for credentials and experiences. Meanwhile longer lifespans mean that families are now increasingly responsible for the care of aging family members. It all adds up to insolvable time pressures in which the easiest thing to discard is church.

Underneath it all we have undergone a tectonic shift in the unstated assumptions that once undergirded religion. The way we think about ourselves, and our world is simply different than that a few generations ago. We usually do not notice it, but the ways we think about ourselves, God, and church have changed. We tend to measure the vitality of church by secular measures, counting people and dollars. We in turn value our religious participation for the ways it can outwardly impact us—giving us pleasure, greater efficiency, or aiding us in hardship. A few generations ago, those things would have been valued, but all derivative from the simple fact that God is God. But now in order to keep up with consumerist demands and expectations the church must constantly offer more, better, faster. Modern churches often aspire to becoming vaguely spiritual self-help not-for-profit organizations meeting collectively on Sundays for life advice and perhaps a positive emotional experience. Having surrendered to secularism’s assumptions, the church finds itself exhausted and often exhausting.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas observed that the church no longer seeks to heal the human soul of sin, but rather, “pastoral care has become obsessed with the personal wounds of people in advanced industrial societies who have discovered that their lives lack meaning.” The problem of course is our way of life. We try to offer up a prayer and a kind word to help people get back into the competition when the problem is our way of life itself. Like physicians in the corner of a boxing ring, we lance the blood blisters so the competitor can compete, not so they can actually be healed. We encourage people to belong and connect more deeply with community, when community for so many no longer exists. We urge people to be authentically themselves and find their truth, when the truth is not in us and we know full well that it never has been.

What then should the people of God do? Go back to the beginning. First, this shared way of living that Jesus taught us that we would later call the church was then, has always been, and is now profoundly counter cultural. The church does not exist to make it easier to get by. The church exists to invite you into a shared new life. That new life will not necessarily be the one valued by the dominant culture. The church from its earlies days was both gifted and equipped to help nurture genuinely new patterns of living. And a church that offers anything less in the face of modernity’s secularism and alienation will not long survive. Nor should it.

This will require us to offer genuine community and belonging. And that requires courage, vulnerability, and sharing. A church that does not demand this from its members is not the church that Jesus spoke of. It is mutual self-giving that makes the difference. It does not merely change the one receiving, it changes the giver. In a world starving for genuine connection, this self-giving in community could make all the difference.

The second thing we can do is re-enchant the world. We can begin to root out the insidious ways we have let go of ultimate meaning, truth, and God, in our habits of mind and feeling. We can attend to mystery and cultivate awe. We can blur the presumed boundaries between you and me, between I and world, and between God and all of us. We can look at the world as an exquisite loom of self-replicating connections rather than individual selves living in splendid isolation. We can begin to tell our story as part of the old, old story in which we are not the sole purpose for our lives, but rather in which we all live to participate in something deeper, older, and more beautiful than anything we can imagine.

None of this will look all that impressive by the world’s standards. The marketing skeptics will scoff at us. Religion’s despisers may not even notice any more as the church begins to look less and less like our culture. There will be no more cathedrals or monuments to religious vanity.  Politicians will ignore us. Rather our work and our love will take form in the only monument Jesus ever sought, human beings, born anew together, starting with you. Jesus calls that untried alternative ekkleisa, literally the gathering, what we have translated “church.”

The path forward has always been with us since Pentecost. We simply need to choose to follow.

August 1, 2023

Tonight, a rare event will occur. Tonight, there will be a Super Moon, a full moon coinciding with Moon’s closest approach to Earth in its orbit (perigee syzygy to be precise). Tonight, the Sun, Earth, and Moon will all be aligned. Accordingly, the Moon will be about 6% brighter and there will be stronger than normal tides all around the globe. Moreover, in August there will be not one but two full moons, the second of which is called a “blue Moon.” The infrequency of this calendrical event leads to our expression about infrequent events.

We tend not to notice the moon and its cycles so much because we organize our calendar and the patterns of our lives around the sun. The moon’s phases shift around in our calendar because we pay attention instead to the much brighter light of the Sun. But the world of nature, for example tides, the migration of birds, and reproductive cycles, all take their cues from the Moon’s subtler cues. All the oceans of the world slosh about from one side of the globe to the other in predictable rhythms as the moon exercises its gentle pull. Consider the next time you take a dip in the ocean and feel the movement that you are moving and feeling a vast cosmic dance of gravity, matter, and space time. And of course, as creatures made mostly of water, these same forces and rhythms act upon us.

This summer even subtler interactions were discovered. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory (LIGO) appears to have observed a very powerful but very long (like a light year) wave of gravity pass through our solar system and us. Like throwing two sufficiently large rocks (think two supermassive black holes colliding) into a big enough pond (think the universe), all observable creation momentarily changes in motion and dimension for a moment as the ripples in space time itself radiate outward. You probably did not even feel it, but for a moment you became taller and shorter, heavier and lighter.

At every moment of every day we are deeply connected, interconnected, interpenetrated, and affected by forces beyond our understanding and imagination. We move to the rhythms of powers unseen. The more carefully you look, the fuzzier the line gets between inside and outside.  And yet, we maintain a carefully curated fiction that we are somehow autonomous individuals, alone, apart, detached, and sovereign. Intellectually and scientifically, we know that is wrong, but we build our lives around that falsehood. Even worse, we build our culture around this lie.

You and I are all embedded creatures. We are embedded in thick overlapping networks of connection, influence, attraction, development, and motion. We are affected not only by our immediate environment but also by forces beyond our perception. We are porous, not bounded, beings. Unfortunately, the habits of mind perpetuated by secular modernity impose unscalable boundaries between mind and world, self and nature. And along the way, we gather all meaning, all truth, all beauty, goodness from the world into the mind of the detached observer. We have disenchanted the world and left it sterile all for the goal of creating our own autonomous order to life.

This may all sound like prattle, but it has an urgent point. The reason we feel so disconnected from the world, each other, God, and our selves and relatedly the reason that religion, spirituality, and all systems of truth that look beyond the individual are collapsing is because we have chosen to think and live in ways that no culture or society ever has before. We feel separated because we have chosen to separate the self from everything else. We have slipped from the constraints of belonging at the price of alienation and in return have received power, agency, and control. For me, it was not worth it. I will take belonging over power any day. Or, as the great prophet Don Henley wrote, “Freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talking. Your prison is walking through this world all alone.”

So tonight, if the sky is clear as it should be in Ohio this evening, go out and do not just look at the moon, go out and behold . . . and be held.

July 25, 2023

You have too much to do. So do I. We all want to be a good employee, citizen, father/mother/son/daughter/aunt/uncle/grandparent/grandchild, and friends and some of us want to be good golfers, artists, bakers, poets, wood workers, writers, healers, listeners, students, savers, leaders, fantasy football players, crafters, volunteers, and spouses. All these roles are expressed through our actions and the more roles we have the more actions we must undertake. All this work has both accelerated and expanded by technology such that we are all expected to respond to everybody right now. Our relationships require constant review and updating on social media. And it never stops. This endless work is the price we pay to live in the modern world. Nowadays we do not live our lives, we perform them.

The solution that we are offered is ever greater efficiency, doing more work with less time. We multi-task, overbook, sprint from one meeting to another enabled by Zoom, and read Wikipedia summaries instead of books.  We bring to do lists on our vacations are check our email from beach.  In the end we fail. We run out of time. Our bodies demand our attention through exhaustion, stress, or illness. Our cardio vascular systems get a vote on our productivity. Unfortunately, it is called a heart attack. For the modern world there are only two speeds: fast and dead. And even the dead do not get a respite. Funerals are now regularly arranged for Saturdays so as not to conflict with people’s work schedules.

The world of time, the vast space time in which dimension and chronology define not just ours but every life is formally called the saeculum. The saeculum is the realm where measurement, action, and temporal causation matter. We live most of our lives within the saeculum and often do not notice when it defines not just what we do but who we are. While you may never have heard of the saeculum, you are probably more familiar with its adjective form describing our world of time—secular.

There is an alternative, but the world does not like it very much. You can step out of time for a moment. An instant, a gaze, a breath, a conversation with a stranger or someone you love, or a glimpse of beauty can all pull you out of time into timelessness. Secular is not a world without God. Secular is a world flattened and compressed without access to eternity. Despite the secular’s best efforts to conceal, confuse, and make us forget, little invitations to eternity keep popping up in time—a child’s unfiltered laughter, a sense of awe that drops you to your knees, a glimpse of beauty that makes you gasp, an unexplained tear as the final note fades. The invitations are all around us and within us, if only we pay attention. Greater efficiency will not help you find or embrace them. You will need to pay attention and be fully present here and now.

Memory creatively writes an unreliable narrative about our lives that we call the past. Our desires and our fears constantly restock a showroom of attractive and terrifying possibilities all demanding our attention that we call the future. We do not live in either one.  We live in the present, that infinitely brief instant of now. Although it may be short, perhaps infinitely so, it is only here and now that intersects with timelessness. The exit to eternity does not lie in the future. It is right now.

 

Do you want more to do? Or, would you rather be more?

The choice is yours.

Right now.

–Brian

July 18, 2023

It comes as a surprise to most Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land to discover standing immediately adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the holiest place for Christians containing both the traditional locations of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Islamic Mosque of Caliph Umar. One generally does not expect to find a mosque in the courtyard of a church or vice versa. But the long, complicated story of Jerusalem produces more than a few incongruous neighbors.

In 637, an Islamic army swept out of Arabia led by the second Caliph, Umar Ibn al Khattab. The city of Jerusalem, now without its Roman garrison, faced a dire situation. They could resist and be destroyed; indeed, everybody expected a bloodbath. Or, they could talk. The Christian Patriarch Sophronius negotiated the protection of the Christian’s civil and religious rights in exchange for the payment of tribute. No homes would be destroyed, no churches would be plundered, and no lives would be taken. The Caliph entered the city not so much as a conqueror, but rather as new management.*

To celebrate their mutual cooperation, Sophronius invited Umar into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray together. The Caliph politely but firmly declined. He explained to the Patriarch that while he appreciated the hospitality, it would be a very bad idea. If he were to enter the church and pray, the Caliph clarified, some of his followers would someday turn the whole building into a mosque. So, the Caliph and the Patriarch knelt down together out on the bare pavement in the courtyard under the open air. And just as Umar predicted, a mosque was built over the spot of their shared worship.

As a curious dilettante of late antiquity, I know that early Muslims and Christians were not singing Kumbaya together. But they did manage to live alongside each other in relative peace and harmony for the next four hundred years. They did manage to work with their Jewish brothers and sisters to clear the Temple Mount and helped build the Dome of the Rock (with its admittedly supersessionist propaganda towards both Jews and Christians). They did not create an ideal society of angels, but in an age when my Northern European ancestors were still enthusiastically practicing human sacrifice, they created a community of relative tolerance, creativity, and peace. It was the unfortunate unsettling of this delicate equilibrium by invading Turks some 450 years later that would set the crusades in motion.

I study history to nurture a sense of incarnate as opposed to idealized hope. Human nature does not appear to change very much. We are all alike in the ways we can be appalling to each other. But despite that tendency or pervasive flaw, there are times and places where creativity, compassion, and connection seem to happen. If the people of the past could overcome the worst of our natures, then so can I and so can we. So, I imagine a world where political and religious leaders are so considerate of one another that they seek ways to honor each other’s traditions. It can happen because it did happen.

It is easy to despair. Our doom scrolling media readily confirms our gloom. But if you look back carefully, our story is not merely one awful thing after another. People can learn. People can surprise. And of all the places on Earth, Jerusalem and its stories seem to have more than its share of surprises–stones that listen and speak, and dead men who get up and walk. Jerusalem still tells us who we really are and who we can be . . . if we listen.

–Brian

*A truly nerdy endnote—With two short exceptions the city of Jerusalem would remain under Islamic control for the next 1300 years until the surrender of the city by the Ottoman Empire to Great Britain in 1917 during World War One. The final flag of surrender that marked the formal end of thirteen centuries of Muslim control can be seen today in the Darke County Historical Society Museum in Greenville, Ohio.

July 11, 2023

A Grief Observed

Over the past two weeks, I have spent 28 hours in airport terminals waiting for things to happen that were utterly beyond my control. While frustrating, boring, and a bit uncomfortable, this time has provided helpful perspective into how I and other people relate to ourselves and our world.

In my attempts to fly to Israel and lead a study trip for 24 pastors, I experienced four consecutive flight cancellations across three days, three airports, and two airlines. While the first cancellation and crestfallen return home to try another day felt like a defeat, the second became interesting, the third revelatory, and the fourth comical. By the third day I arrived at the airport with the preternatural certainty that my flight would be cancelled but that I nonetheless needed to sit and wait. At one point I considered asking my fellow passengers if they too were waiting for a gentleman named Godot. I ill-advisedly told an agitated and self-pitying fellow passenger on flight four that this was in fact my fourth consecutive cancelled flight, to which she responded, “Ah, then you’re the problem. Do not get booked on a flight with this guy.”

Understaffed air traffic control centers and insufficient flight crews are the mundane causes of my odyssey. The more interesting aspect was what I saw in myself and others.

Days of cancelled flights are an opportunity to observe grief in clinical miniature. Denial passed quickly with gasps of “Oh Come On!” and plaintive sighs of “no.” It usually took people several minutes to comprehend their situation and begin to respond. This usually provided me the opportunity to quickly rebook through the airline apps before all the surplus seats disappeared (to no ultimate avail). Denial was quickly followed by the loudest and ultimately most self-destructive response of anger usually directed at the nearest innocent gate agent. It struck me as curious and counterproductive that so many people complained, insulted, berated, and bullied gate agents who had no culpability in the cancellations and were often the only people who could assist the now stranded travelers. Anger emerging from the travelers’ grief led them to act against their own self-interests leaving collateral emotional damage in their wake.

While I relied on the airline’s own computers and bypassed human interaction altogether, I felt the need to thank the gate agents for their assistance, equipoise, and grace. After the desperate mobs dispersed, I spoke with the airline gate staff who spoke of their genuine sadness about the travelers’ circumstances and their relative powerlessness to do anything about it. They talked about their own stress of trying to help but all the while being blamed for the mistakes of others up the chain of command. I asked them how they coped with the abundance of anger that was heaped upon them and they told me about their employee training on deep breathing and conflict de-escalation. I commended them for their fortitude and wished them well.

Bargaining unfolded across apps, call centers (after a two and half hour wait), and airport desks, as travelers desperately attempted to preserve vacations and appointments. They all attempted to exercise some degree of agency in a system that was conspiring against them. Failures in anxious bargaining simply made the anger worse or else redirected the emotional energy inward into despair.

You could hear depression follow bargaining. People grew quiet with hushed tones as they soon realized there was nothing they could do to change their immediate circumstances. They would not be getting to Brooklyn, Baltimore, or wherever tonight and no amount of cajoling, bribing, or scheming would change that. Their plans had irrevocably changed without their consent and facing that reality forced them to face just how powerless they were.

And finally came acceptance. Okay, tomorrow then. Maybe. In my case tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow (which did indeed creep along in this petty pace albeit only till Wednesday not the last syllable of recorded time). Acceptance was not merely passive resignation to new facts. Acceptance necessarily led to a new understanding of the limitations of our own will, agency, and control. When flight five finally did take me to JFK, it was a cause for giddy surprise and celebration. Low expectations heighten life’s pleasures and intensify delights.

Waiting around for cancelled flights at airports is one of our many many teachers of humility.

I imagined pilgrims to the holy land across 15 centuries waiting in ports or walking beside dreary endless caravans in journeys measured in months and years not hours. Subject to heat, hunger, thirst, bandits, storms, pirates, and plagues, my delayed journey was luxurious in comparison. But what we shared in common is that the journey changes you by redefining you on a new scale. Removed from the familiar, what we can see and touch, and control, we are forced to reckon with our own smallness, finitude, and limits. Our wills and desires count for far less than our autobiographies and egos can healthfully comprehend. We are little people in a big world far beyond our control.

Humility is the foundation of wisdom. It is the starting point for all our true journeys. And sometimes the delays carry you further than you could imagine.

–Brian

July 4, 2023

On this Independence Day as we celebrate the ratification of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 by the Second Continental Congress, I wish you, most of all, a safe and joy-filled holiday. I know there are many who are working on this holiday, and I am grateful for their labor and service as I am enjoying a day-off with my family.

I must be honest to say that as a wife of an Air Force veteran who served in multiple wars, as a mother of three children – two of whom have been burned by fireworks, and as the master of two labradoodles who were shaking in fear last night, I am not a big fan of fireworks, especially the local amateur kind. When I was in high school, a stray bottle rocket landed on the shingles of a neighbor’s house. The neighbors were not home but their basset hound was in the backyard. A friend and I climbed the fence and carried that dog out of the backyard and to safety until the firemen and the owners arrived.

I do love celebrating our country. I could just do with fewer fireworks and more community service and celebrations that don’t trigger war-weary veterans and terrified animals. The Fourth of July has the highest number of lost pets than any other day due to dogs and cats that bolt from the house in fear, so take extra care with your pets today.

My celebration of this day is simple gratitude to God for God’s abundant goodness and grace to each of us and to our nation. We don’t always deserve it, but God is gracious and kind, even with our erring ways.

We sang one of my favorite national hymns last Sunday in our second service of worship: God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand.

God of the ages whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
Our grateful songs before thy throne arise.

Its powerful trumpet calls on organ – especially with our talented organist, Judy Bede – touch the heart strings and fill us with pride. The lyrics of the hymn were written by Daniel Crane Roberts, the priest of a small rural parish in Vermont, for the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876. Roberts served as a private in the 84th Ohio Volunteers during the Civil War.

Sung originally to the tune Russian Hymn, Robert’s lyrics were later sung to a new tune written by George Warren in 1894 called National Hymn. It is a soul-stirring hymn which reminds us that we are blessed recipients of a gracious and loving God.

This Fourth of July holiday may we lift our voices in praise to our God, who abundantly provides.

Blessings,

Pastor Kelley

June 27, 2023

Summer Sabbath

In the quiet, peaceful setting of Bergamo Center in Beavercreek, Ohio, twenty-six women from Fairmont joined together this past Saturday for a day of sabbath rest and renewal. What a gift it was for women of faith to be together to reflect, rest, and respond to God’s call for sabbath.

Time was spent in conversation, connections, and even meditative coloring. We hiked, walked the labyrinth, and shared quiet time in the Bergamo grotto. It was a healing time of sabbath renewal and covenant community.

Sabbath is sacred. Our deep need for sabbath worship, rest, relationship, and renewal is critical to our spiritual life. Sabbath is life. And yet, so many of us – I included – short-change our time of prayer and connection with God.

In Genesis 1, the first of two creation stories in the book of Genesis, God creates all of life out nothing, out of the formless void and darkness. Each day brings a new creation from God, deemed as “good” with each day of creation completed. But on the seventh day, God finished the work of creation and rests, calling that seventh day of rest, “hallowed.” Sabbath is the completion of all of creation.

Hallowed. Sacred. Set apart. Holy.

Most of us think of Sabbath as our recuperation time following a busy, chaotic week of work, school, caregiving, and family demands. We labor during the week and we find sabbath rest on the weekend. Our labor and the need to renew ourselves for our labor becomes the end goal for Sabbath.

But Sabbath is not recuperation time. Sabbath is life. Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. Sabbath is our end goal; Sabbath is our calling.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his beloved book “The Sabbath”:

To observe Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air of which we inhale when we ‘call it a delight.’

Sabbath rest and worship can happen in a myriad of ways:
-Sunday worship
-personal prayer
-communal prayer
-prayer walks & labyrinths
-centering prayer
-mandala meditations
-retreats
-meditation on scripture
-Lectio Divina
-singing
-Examen of each day

The most difficult part is simply beginning. Finding and committing to Sabbath worship or daily prayer or meditative practices is the first step.

No shame, just invitation to enter into God’s holy and loving presence.

So what is holding you back from sabbath time? What one small step can you take to incorporate more sabbath time with God and God’s people?

We are truly in this together. And our God of love is calling us.

Peace,

Pastor Kelley

June 20, 2023

One of the most important lessons I ever learned came from almost failing Calculus II. I had been quite good at Math in High School, at least as grades might suggest. Then my freshman fall term in college I met my limit. Try as I might, I did not understand. Russ, the saint of the math lab at Carleton College along with his tutoring minions, tried to help me. I spent hours in the library trying to solve ʃ sin3 x dx using U substitution. No amount of effort, study, or raw repetition helped. I had reached my limit. Because of a merciful professor I pulled out a B.  In the next term I changed my major from economics to history.

While I cannot perform trigonometric integration to save my life, I learned something important that perhaps actually did. There are things in this world, in this life, that I simply cannot understand no matter how hard I try. I have limits (which is an ironic thing to learn from a Calculus class).

Father’s Day can be somewhat poignant for me. My father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a cerebral aneurysm at the age of 57. I was 31 years old and in seminary when he died. There are so many moments that I have wanted and still wish to share with him. There have been so many conversations I would have wished to have. But they were not to be. I felt the grief, the pain, the sadness, and the longing for what cannot be. But what I never felt was the intense questioning over why—why him, why now, why this way? I knew, not so much as an intellectual matter but rather as a given fact of being a mortal creature who almost failed Calculus, that there were things utterly unknowable to me. Given that I cannot understand Trigonometric Integration, I really had no business presuming comprehension of God’s deep providential plans for creation and everything in it. There is a horizon to my perception, deduction, and comprehension beyond which I simply cannot see. That does not make me stupid, unmotivated, or uncurious. That makes me human.

Beneath so much of our pain, underneath our angers and rage, buried somewhere below our fears and anxieties, you will usually find a deeply buried bitter taproot of grief. We preserve it just beneath conscious perception and defend it against direct rational interrogation afraid that somehow to address it directly would be to lose the precious connection that once stood where the grief now lies. We crave the attachment that once was so precious that sometimes we settle for attachment to the pain. And then we amplify that pain by the unanswered questions of why. The why’s never seem to go away. They mock us like cruel ravens of ceaseless thought croaking a chorus of questions for which there are no answers only greater resentment, frustration, and alienation.

I do not think that I will ever know the why of things, at least not in a fashion I can summarize, integrate, and ultimately use for my own purposes. My sneaking suspicion is why is well beyond my understanding and always will be. What has surprised me is that in accepting my own ignorance, or perhaps I should say mortal ignorance, I have found a kind of comfort. Hard limits provide firm boundaries for both my anxieties and my ambitions. Frustrated by not knowing the unknowable, bit by bit by bit, one begins to let go of questions that will only frustrate. I no longer ask so many why questions. Instead, I try to focus on how, where, when, and who.

Where and when lead me to be fully present here and now. They remind me to be full attentive to the weight under my feet, the air moving around me, qualities of color and line I construct into an image of space, and my presence within that space. How directs me towards my being in the world and towards others in that moment. How am I being me? How am I relating to others. How am I engaging in gratitude, expressive delight, and love? How am I giving expression to my one wild and precious life? How am I moment by moment, through every thought, action, and reflection, becoming me?

I do not ultimately find value in why and its solicitations of meaning and purpose. Why offers empty promises of satisfaction and wholeness that never satiate our yearning. I think it may be because we are not made for the why’s of this creation. There is no why shaped hole in my heart.

Instead, I think we were made to find our ultimate meaning and purpose in a different question altogether, a question that will take us a lifetime of struggle, unpacking, discovery, and surprise, and perhaps a good time longer. Our lives our made to engage the question of who. Who are you and who am I and how do all our collective who’s fit together into a vast cosmic who that we collectively call God? Who is a relational question. Who brings us together. Who necessarily draws us out of our selves into encounter and surprise with another. Who brings us into communion where we can share our pain and our joy and in that sharing find healing. We heal the pain not by asking why, but by safely sharing it with those who share their wounds too.

The incarnation of the creator of the Universes that we call God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth preferences the question of who over every other question. I leave the why’s to the religions of the world and the philosophers. For me, I will follow the question of who and look forward to being surprised in our shared becoming, especially as we share our wounds.

I am a mortal.
I have limits.
What I will never know is a lot.

But I am not alone.

This I know.

–Brian

June 13, 2023

Sound of Silence

Kent and I attended the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra concert last Saturday (a favorite cellist of ours was playing).

It was a special concert with “an evening of music from the legendary Paul Simon, exploring his unique artistry as a songwriter from his years with Simon and Garfunkel through his solo albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. An evening of timeless hits and poetic storytelling ignited by a rock band and the sublime power of a full symphony orchestra.” The soloists, band, and orchestra were outstanding.

I grew up with the music of Simon and Garfunkel. Their fifth and final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in 1970 was the first album I ever owned. I was eleven years old. Out of the nineteen songs on the concert playlist for the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, I knew every word of every song. I have listened to the comforting and harmonious voices of Simon and Garfunkel for over fifty years.

Hauntingly beautiful ballads and folks songs such as The Boxer, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, America, Scarborough Fair, and The Only Living Boy in New York carried me through the fickle and fragile days of childhood and youth. But the song that has been playing non-stop in my head since the concert last weekend is one that has been called “the anthem of our generation.”

The Sound of Silence.

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again…

I have heard that song hundreds of times and still am deeply moved by this solemn hymn of darkness and silence. It is so beautiful. I could not imagine this song being any more powerful than it was.

Then this happened:

I asked some of our Fairmont youth if they had heard of Simon and Garfunkel. Most of them had not heard of them nor did they know the music of Simon and Garfunkel, except for one song –The Sound of Silence.

And they did not know the Simon and Garfunkel version of The Sound of Silence. They knew a cover version of The Sound of Silence by a band called Disturbed sung by their lead singer, David Draiman. I began to hear about this cover version by Disturbed again and again.

Disturbed is an American heavy metal band from Chicago formed in 1994. Heavy metal is not my thing when it comes to music, although I respect all genres of music and musicians. How could a heavy metal band cover a song such as The Sound of Silence – an anthem of sorts for our generation – and do it any justice at all?

So, I listened to David Draiman sing The Sound of Silence. And I listened to it again and again and again. And I wept each time. In what is a completely different version of Simon and Garfunkel’s anthem for our generation, David Draiman and his band Disturbed have brought this 1960’s song of darkness and silence back to a new generation of people, and made us hear the angst and the longing in this song, as if for the first time.

You may or may not like Disturbed’s cover version of The Sound of Silence but you have to listen to it. With his deep, warm baritone voice moving from gentle, flowing notes to passionate, angst-filled words, the listener is brought back to the powerful and disturbing meaning of The Sound of Silence echoed by Paul Simon in a recent interview:

We don’t know how to talk to each other, we don’t know how to listen to each other, and therefore we don’t know how to love each other.

The third verse of the song speaks it clearly.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

I am moved so deeply by Disturbed’s cover of The Sound of Silence because when I listen to their version – which is rough and dark and resonating – I feel the brokenness of humanity in their music, and I know that we have to do better.

We don’t listen to one another.
We don’t talk to one another.
We don’t know how to love one another.

In our scripture passage for this Sunday, from Matthew 11, Jesus speaks with angst to the people:

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 

We are talking without speaking.
We are hearing without listening.
And the silence is not disturbed.

God is calling us to do better. To listen to one another. To talk with one another. To love one another.

God can do the impossible, even with us.

Peace,

Pastor Kelley

June 6, 2023

We are now about half way through the Gospel of Matthew during year two of the Great Story series, the story of Jesus. And while Matthew contains some the loftiest ethical visions of the New Testament, I find its lived reality altogether more challenging.

One of my difficulties is that Matthew is more critical of Jews and Judaism than any of the other Gospels. I have no idea how I will preach on chapter 23 (just take a look and you will understand, it’s a lot of woe). Part of the problem is that when we read a Gospel, we get more than just a story about Jesus. We get the story of Jesus revised according to the lived memory of an author and a community with all their real concerns, hopes, regrets, wounds, and biases. This is of course how all human stories get told, through human lives. In the case of Matthew, between the lines of the text we can overhear the very real pain of a people who have been excluded from their communities and in some cases their families because of their devotion to Jesus. Pain kindles resentment that sometimes bursts out as judgment. Curiously, the group Jesus attacks more than any other in Matthew’s Gospel are the Pharisees, who are barely mentioned in Mark’s Gospel and do not appear to have been socially or politically prominent during Jesus’ lifetime. But they were important when Matthew was being written. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, they were the only Jewish group left standing who began the centuries-long work of transforming ancient Second Temple Judaism into the Rabbinic Judaism we know today. I presume that Matthew’s audience thought of themselves as good Jews, albeit worshipping the Jewish Messiah. No wonder they reveled in every instance when their Jesus threw a rhetorical punch at their critics.

Another or my difficulties arises from Matthew’s lack of interest in or concern for women. Matthew’s Gospel tends to leave them out. Perhaps this is because of the lack of women in the original oral source material. Or, more likely, it reflects the patriarchal chauvinism of Matthew’s culture. One could imagine a reactionary response to female leadership among the traumatized survivors of the Great Revolt. Amid the plundered wreckage of Israel, there was likely little room for more egalitarian leadership while everyone focused on material survival and doubled down on centuries-old gender roles.

I approach all scripture as inspired by God through the Holy Spirit, but then transmitted through human beings with all our flaws and failings. Culture, language, emotions, and experience all color our perceptions and shape our recollections. Discrepancies between the Gospel stories do not disturb me. Those sorts of discrepancies are precisely the way eye witnesses provide slightly different accounts of the same incident. The Bible is both divine and profoundly human.

One of the recent creative adaptations to fully explore this idea is crowd funded television series, The Chosen. Textually, critically, and canonically, the show is a mess with its writers taking generous speculative liberties with the Biblical narratives. But at the same time, I do like the way the show urges us to inhabit the narrative from inside the lives of its main characters, considering their motivations and their flaws. Given our focus this year on the Gospel of Matthew, I could not help but be drawn to the character of Matthew in the show. Matthew is portrayed as a young man on the Autism spectrum, perhaps with Aspergers. Because of his cognitive differences, as much as his profession, he is excluded from community and belonging. For him, the problem is not sin as immorality, but sin as separation and exclusion. For this version of Matthew, Jesus’ invitation to salvation is an invitation to belonging.

This led me to reconsider the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. Matthew’s community was a dead end in the history of the church. They were Jews preaching to Jews, probably in the Golan Heights or lower Syria. It did not work out. Their neighbors rejected their message. They instead doubled down on the oral law, which would eventually become the Mishnah. You can feel Matthew’s community’s pain and worry throughout the Gospel as the people they loved the most rejected the message that made sense of their lives and gave them hope. They were a community defined by the trauma of ostracism, isolation, and failure. And yet they clung to a hope beyond all those separations.

Traumatized communities (and individuals) sometimes produce poignant literature and art revealing in all its discomforting particularity the awkward unprocessed pain of life and sometimes inflicting that pain on others simply because it has nowhere else to go. I have seen it in families. I have seen it in churches. And in Matthew, I think I see it in scripture.

The Gospel of Matthew testifies to the good news, teachings, and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, but if you read carefully, it also testifies to the tenacity and hope of a community that held onto that good news when everything told them to do otherwise. The Gospel still troubles me, but I also love it, because in its struggles and occasional outbursts I can see glimpses of not just God, but myself.

–Brian

May 30, 2023

Memory is a slippery thing. It is far more than a record of events and sensations. Memory actively edits our recollections of the past, hiding some things, elevating others, and modifying the past we connect with internally in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden even from us. This past week I was reminded how much those subtle forgotten memories can impact us.

Two weeks ago, Lisa and I went to Princeton New Jersey to attend Rachel Boden’s graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary. Lisa and I both graduated from PTS (Lisa earning both her M.Div. and PhD. From PTS) about 20 years ago. I had not spent any time there since and was looking forward to reveling in fond nostalgia. But that is not what happened.

The campus was the same. The literally ivy colored stone quads were the same. Even Hoagie Haven (a storied Princeton dive) was the same. The continuity of place and memory should have brought contentment for happy memories well preserved and a feeling of gratitude for a meaningful life lived since. Instead, I felt a growing sense of slightly claustrophobic unease. It was not that some long hidden suppressed memory was now brought to light. My factual recollection of events was unchanged. Rather, I began to feel the subtle shadows of memories of feelings instead of events–feelings of isolation, the alienations of class and caste, and the imposed shame of competition, comparison, and judgment.

Princeton, at least to a Midwesterner, is a town defined by old money and class. Everyone is outwardly friendly with well-practiced smiles, but inwardly aloof, constantly assessing and evaluating, making minute evaluations of status anxious about one’s own. Princeton is filled with beautiful private gardens and private preserves to which only the select are invited. The Seminary often reflects the culture of the community more than the ethos of the Church. I distinctly remember being told that in my first ministry appointment at the local Presbyterian church as the Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University, I would not be invited to eat lunch with the other pastors but was welcome to eat instead with the support staff (who were not invited either). Our low status did not merit inclusion. Lisa remembers going to sing Christmas Carols at the President’s home and being told that as a student she would need to go around to the back of the house and enter through the servants’ entrance. And above it all loomed the constant sense of judgment, evaluation, and comparison instilled by professors who themselves had been so wounded by judgment, evaluation, and comparison. The summary of Princeton’s rather deprived spirituality among my classmates was: 1.) pray; 2.) do it on your own time; and 3.) do not talk about it.

After 20 years I thought all of this was well in the past. But walking down Nassau and Alexander Streets it all came back not as memory but as mood. I found myself becoming more self-critical, quicker to evaluate and judge myself and others, readier to speak than listen, and vaguely ill at ease in my own skin. What I was remembering were feelings as they came creeping back into subconsciousness. Frustratingly, those feelings stayed with me for a time after I left like sticky mildew.

Then I returned, back to Ohio, back to Fairmont, and back to me. The daily rhythms of life with their subtle satisfactions rolled back the memory of feeling with the sensate immediacy of the now. I walked my dog, read scripture, worshipped with you, met with our staff . . . and then I was clear again. Again, I was me. Something inside me kept whispering, “be here now.” And so, I am.

We all carry baggage. Mine is mostly carry on there to remind me when I am where I am not supposed to be. Others carry far heavier and more pressing burdens of trauma and loss. Some baggage will be clearly remembered as formative events from our past. But far more of us carry hidden burdens of emotion that we cannot quite identify until they begin to impose upon us. Disposing of them is challenging. True total forgetting is nearly impossible. While we may not be able to excise the past, we can learn to live with it more healthily. Memory, even the lasting stains of emotions, need never define us or control us. We can leave them contained and undisturbed in the past where they cannot hurt us. We do not meet ourselves, others, or God in the past, only the present. Freedom and healing are available, here, now. All we need to do is show up and be fully present to the here and now.

My future, insofar as I can imagine it, is shaped too much by my anxieties and uncertainties. My past, as far as I can recall it, is tinged with too many regrets and criticisms. There is only one good place to live free from all that. There is only one place to live and love in freedom. Be here now.

–Brian

May 23, 2023

One of the unstated presumptions of our society right now is that we are saved, redeemed, and sanctified through separation. We sort ourselves into like minded communities with similar attitudes, lifestyles, and beliefs. We prefer consuming the media and literature that validates and endorses our preexisting opinions. We avoid anything we might perceive to be unduly provocative, challenging, or threatening. Indeed, we may seek to label such expressions with a trigger warning or drown such voices out entirely with our disdain. We ostracize those who fail to maintain the boundaries of our preferred group’s orthodoxy. And then we find ourselves far more divided than ever before.

We are all familiar with the symptoms of this polarization impacting everything from our politics to light beer. But what lies underneath is this unstated desire to associate with others who are like us. Encounters with others and otherness only produce anxiety. So, we double down on our fences on our lawns, social media accounts, and in our hearts. We divide and then enforce those divisions with our judgments enforced by contrasting acts of exclusion and embrace.

In the church, I have been struck at the number of people and organizations that want us to sign onto petitions, manifestos, open letters, and pronouncements. When asked, I always politely explain that we do not sign onto statements of any sort regardless of what they are purporting to support or decry. We do not do media statements; we do ministry. The problem is that for many people, if we do not literally sign onto their preferred beliefs, we are necessarily opponents. This frustrates me because our reluctance has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of their causes. The reluctance comes from the functional foundations of the church—why we exist and what we are on earth to do.  The church was not created to be right. Being right and being with the right people will not save us.

We are not saved by separation, no matter how just, merited, or righteous. We are saved by association. And that free association is what the church of Jesus Christ on earth is called to proclaim and practice.

This weekend, our text from the Gospel of Matthew encompasses Jesus’ embrace of three outsiders: a hated tax collector, a socially marginalized hemorrhaging woman, and dead little girl. Each embodies different sort of outsiderness. The man (Levi/Matthew) was hated for his political and economic associations. The woman was ostracized for her physical disability, unhygienic appearance, and ritual impurity. And the little girl was the most separated of them all. She was dead. And yet Jesus traipses over each of these boundaries of social, political, economic, cultural, religious, and even biological  separation to embrace, welcome, and restore.

I was struck by how quickly our society settled on a common vocabulary for imposing and sustaining intentional social isolation during COVID—Social Distancing. It is telling that we have never agreed on its opposite.  Would it be social gathering, social, social assembling, getting close, coming near, or something else? They all sound awkward and not quite fitting not so much because of our limited vocabulary, but rather because of our limited imaginations that are always quicker to separate than connect. But that connection is precisely our task and our purpose.

I have another name for the opposite of Social Distancing. I like to call it The Kingdom of God.

–Brian

May 16, 2023

The Surprises of Grief

Grief shows up in unexpected places. I was running errands on my day off yesterday, and found myself thinking “I’ll go visit my mother-in-law and check in on her,” only to quickly remember that she is gone, no longer living at Randall Residence, no longer living. Grief seems to be an ever-flowing underground stream, not always visible but always present, always moving and changing, always showing up in surprising ways.

During our prayer time at a home communion gathering today, grief was spoken again and again: a daughter newly diagnosed with cancer, a beloved family pet that had died, a dear friend under hospice care, the death of a family member. Grief is woven in and out of the daily fabric of our lives, always present, always moving and changing, always showing up in surprising ways.

Sometimes the only way to heal from loss and death is to sit with the grief, name the grief, befriend the grief, lift the grief to God.

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
-Psalm 30:5

God is ever present in our grief and our suffering. The dark nights may be long, but joy does come in the morning. Healing does come. And our faith gives us tools for healing, too. Studies have clearly shown that prayer and meditation change our heart, soul, body, and mind. There are spiritual practices which allow us to sit with our grief – all the while never alone – and give that grief and pain to God.

Meditation, prayer, walking, journaling, the examen, and even storytelling are spiritual practices which allow us to befriend our grief, find healing, find a way to live with grief. Being together with God’s people, sharing our stories and wisdom, is also a way to sit with our grief, together as fellow travelers in this fragile world.

What are your stories of being surprised by grief? What are your stories of being surprised by God in the midst of your grief?

I am grateful to be on this road with you.

Pastor Kelley

May 9, 2023

We appear to be in something of a mental health crisis, especially for the young. Anxiety, depression, addictions, post-traumatic stress, eating and identity disorders, attention problems, and a whole range of other maladies are at epidemic levels. These problems appear to be interfering with people’s abilities to make meaning, hold jobs, learn, maintain relationships, and enjoy life. The problem is that the tool kit we use for addressing these problems, what we collectively call psychology, is in its infancy and often more art than science. Our solutions are inadequate for the problems we face.

Psychology is the study of the psyche, which is the literal Greek word for soul. It is not simply our rational, cognitive, problem-solving mind, but the whole of the rich and often hidden internal landscape that makes us hidden including impulses, instincts, and emotions. We are each comprised of hidden enigmas often unknown to ourselves. Yet it is from precisely those hidden parts that we are propelled to act in ways that often surprise or even disturb. We do not simply choose who we are. Instead that complex bundle of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make us us appears to be an emergent phenomenon.

Once upon a time, before Freud exiled religion from psychology as a collective delusion, psychology took as its focus the total whole of a human being, including the spiritual bits. Early pioneers like William James and Carl Jung recognized that not everything that was going on inside of us was us. Sometimes, somethings inside of us appeared to be coming from somewhere or perhaps someone else.

William James, the first professor in the United States in the then-new field of psychology was particularly interested in what he called “spiritual experiences.” His monumental 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, examined in exquisite detail the patterns of people’s experiences with the transcendent, divine, holy, or numinous, however they may have understood that. He interviewed people from across diverse faith traditions, religions, creeds and none at all and identified certain commonalities.

Across religions and faiths and cultures for thousands of years people have been and are now experiencing moments that are characterized as ineffable—incapable of clear description in language yet somehow overwhelmingly powerful and important. These moments are what James called noetic—these experiences convey a tacit of knowledge, often of a sense of unity or connection, that seems connected beyond human reason to divine knowledge or wisdom. People who experienced these moments all described them as transient—brief passing moments as measured by our watches that somehow feel timeless. Finally, James noted that in all these experiences, the person experiencing them was utterly passive. Something was being done to them or through them. They did not cause it, bid it, or conclude it. Taken together—Ineffable, Noetic, Transient, and Passive—these criteria provided James with evidence of a common human spiritual faculty. It seemed to James that we were somehow wired to resonate and connect with something or someone at the very foundation of our being. Moreover, James noted that individuals who had such experiences tended to healthier, happier, wiser, calmer, and more hopeful.

Of course, what James described psychologically, the church has understood theologically. Part of our shared work is the tending and mending of human souls beginning with our own. Interestingly, new functional MRI imaging of test subjects in deep spiritual states demonstrates simultaneously intense activity in the prefrontal cortex areas associated with attention and perception and a noticeable decline in activity in the parietal lobe that, among other things, provides us with our bounded sense of self in the material world. It is almost as if these deep spiritual states permit us to slip out of ourselves for a moment.

Modern psychology, psychiatry, and even psycho pharmacology are all important and valuable tools that help millions of people. I have found their therapies to be tremendously useful in my owns struggles with anxiety. If you struggle with a mental or emotional issue, I urge you to seek competent help. And, they are incomplete if they fail to recognize the importance and function of the human soul. There are fundamental parts of us that are not us. If we ever want to find true healing and wholeness, we need to consider our connections to that something and not merely our behaviors and emotions.

Hamlet reminds his friend and us, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Not all of those things are “out there.” Some of them are inside us, fascinating mysteries that lead beyond our lives to that somewhere or something to which I simply ascribe the label God. That is where the real healing waits.

–Brian

May 2, 2023

The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy, recently released a report on a pressing public health problem leading to significant increases in chronic disease and premature death. The problem is loneliness.

Approximately half of all Americans report measurable levels of loneliness. This cuts across introverts and extroverts, urban and rural, young and old. It is not the same thing as solitude, which is always voluntary and intentional. Loneliness is the rather the condition of being disconnected from other human beings. Chronic loneliness increases the risk of heart disease by 29%, dementia by 50%, and stroke by 32%. The overall increased change of premature death causes by loneliness is comparable to that of smoking daily. Moreover, loneliness hurts whole communities, decreasing civic engagement, economic productivity, educational performance, and cultural expression. When we are disconnected from each other, we are far more prone to make harsh judgments of others, lack compassion and empathy, and work for the betterment of the community. Dr. Murthy concludes, “the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart.”

The problem of loneliness has been greatly exacerbated in recent decades by profound social, technological, and cultural changes. Our society is premised on portability and mutability. Fewer and fewer people remain in the communities of their birth. Economics separates us from the actual act of production. Job security and its corollary loyalty have been sacrificed for efficiency. Family breakdowns have separated generations. And our technologies have fueled ever more alluring media delights, but always private ones. At the most expansive level we no longer appear to be sharing the same narrative or playing the same game with commonly agreed upon goals. We are wealthier and at least theoretically healthier than any human generation, but ironically growing steadily less happy.

Using purely secular language, the Surgeon General eloquently and warningly describes this condition well known to the Christian tradition. We have a name for that human condition of separation, isolation, and alienation. We call it sin. Not sins (plural) which are the manifestations of the underlying problem, but sin (singular) the essential problem itself: alienation from our selves, alienation from nature, alienation from other people, and alienation from God. We cannot ultimately “cure” sin. Sin is not a developmental problem that can be overcome through education and effort. However, some of sin’s worst effects can be ameliorated through our attentive effort and care. That is in fact what Jesus set out to do during his lifetime and the purpose for which he now sends us, understand that in seeking to heal the world we heal ourselves.

Reducing loneliness is not difficult. It can be literally child’s play. It begins whenever and wherever you take a tiny step to establish, re-establish, or expand connection. Answer the call. Send the congratulations note. Do not stop with the polite “how are you?” but really ask. Compliment someone. Imagine what you could do for both others and yourself with just a few minutes each day of striving for connection. We should of course do everything we can do strengthen the social infrastructure that connects us. Churches, civic societies, interest groups, volunteer associations, and even sports leagues all help us to do this better within structured communities. All these external connectors have struggled, especially because of the pandemic. And we need to carefully reconsider our use, dare I say our addiction, to technology that distracts and disconnects us from one another.

It does not take so very much effort and no money at all to let someone know that they are truly seen and appreciated. Neglect of relationships can be reversed in an instant of attention. It is not that hard to do. Often the only things holding us back are our sloth and our shame, neither of which has done us much good anyways.

So here is what I propose during this Easter Season. If we really are called to go out ahead of Jesus spreading his life and his hope, maybe a good place to start is simply to share the warmth of his welcome, hospitality, and companionship with everyone, okay let us start small, with someone you meet. A warm conversation of genuine care and curiosity, rather than an instrumental exchange aimed at getting something, may not change the world, but it may change somebody’s day. It will certainly change yours.

The social fabric of America may have frayed, but it can always be rewoven by those of generous hearts. Listening, service, attention, and curiosity will be the media through which we can regenerate community and in doing so participate in regenerating ourselves.

We were made for connection, with each other, nature, self, and God. It is only in those connections that we find our real value and life. We have everything we need to participate in the healing. We have today.

–Brian

April 25, 2023

I returned on Friday from a vacation. Lisa and I took our first non-family-visit vacation since the onset of Covid and went on a cruise. While there were many pleasant aspects of the trip, my favorite thing was simply walking on the top deck at night when almost no one else was there. Sailing somewhere north of the Bahamas (technically in the “Bermuda Triangle”) there was no light pollution, so the stars were beyond counting. I would try to find the darkest corner of the deck and slowly let my eyes adjust. As my pupils slowly dilated to take in the darkness more and more stars came into view. The longer and more intently I looked, the more I saw. Soon, my peripheral vision could see things I could not perceive in the center of my sight (thanks to the arrangement of rods and cones in our retinas). To see the really deep, faint objects, stars I could never see in Ohio, I needed to actively look. I needed to shift my gaze a few degrees left or right to perceive these faint stars just on the edge of my perception.

The more way pay attention, the more carefully and deeply we look, the more we perceive.

The problem for me is that it is hard to pay attention and look deeply. My life is filled with constant distractions all clamoring for my attention. I receive on average about 35 emails each day and about as many text messages. My news feeds are constantly offering up things to be anxious about. My church news mailing lists are constantly telling me all the things I am supposed to be doing as pastor but usually am not. And Facebook tends to just make me feel like my life is decidedly more boring than everyone else’s. Nobody wants to hear about the incredible nap I took yesterday.

In August 1986 I received my personal account name for my college’s mainframe computer. It was about 36 characters long. The only thing I used it for was for sending messages to my friends at other colleges and universities. We called it Vax mail (short for Virtual Address Extension) that allowed mainframe computers to connect with other mainframe computers. Once or twice each day I would stop by the computer lab to find out if I had any messages from far away friends. Later on, they started calling this network of connected computers the internet. And today, my access terminal rests in my pocket.

Things were far more manageable when I had to actually go into the computer lab after Calculus II class to log on and read my messages (I always needed something fun after Calculus). Now my messages come looking for me, asking and sometimes demanding my attention.

My problem is that with all those messages and texts and newsfeeds and alerts, I cannot seem to see the stars.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points us towards the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as teachers. Compared to us, their lives are simple. They are not so intelligent by our standards. They are instead much more focused. They really only know one thing; they are living creatures of God. And in that clarity of knowledge, they possess a wisdom that all too often escapes us, escapes me.

There are more stars than we will ever be able to count, and they are right in front of us in the sky. We do not see them because we are distracted by all the other little lights we create (or admittedly the big light of our sun during the day). But just because we cannot always see them does not mean they are not there. It is our perception that is flawed, not their radiance.

For me the most important part of my vacation was watching my cell phone connection bars slowly drop away as we pulled out of Miami. Disconnected from the very long leash of the internet, my mind quieted down. As the distractions disappeared, I was able to see the stars once again.

There are yet deeper mysteries out there waiting to meet us in this very moment, if only we pay attention.

–Brian

April 18, 2023

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for the will be filled. – Matthew 5:6

It is ironic that often when our lives are most full – work, family, bills, taxes, cleaning, meetings, cooking – we often feel the most empty. We are almost zombie-like as we move from one commitment to another, one deadline to another.

We understand “being empty.” At least we understand our human way of “being empty.” Empty of energy, empty of compassion, empty of joy for life, empty of purpose. At times we live in a state of emptiness, devoid of physical rest, emotional health, spiritual fulfillment. We create our own kind of human emptiness and then try to fill it up with the wrong sustenance.

We fill our emptiness with fast food and material possessions and false identities. And soon we find that our empty place inside is still empty.

As we have been journeying through the Sermon on the Mount and hearing these challenging words of Jesus, it is clear that we feel empty because we hunger and thirst for the wrong things. Even when we know that material possessions or earthly powers are fleeting, we still try and fill up our spiritual vacuum with earthly things. And so we come away empty, having fed ourselves on that which is fleeting and fragile.

Before resurrection, there must be death. We can only experience resurrection life when we empty ourselves of all that is not life-giving, when we die to our sin. Jesus lived out this emptiness, this “kenosis” in his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Jesus emptied himself of his divine power in order to become human, to become one of us. We must empty ourselves of spiritual clutter, spiritual sin, the signs of death within us, in order to become that which God created us to be.

The tomb was empty! Jesus emptied himself so that we might die and be raised again to new life. It is an upside-down, radical kingdom that Jesus is teaching about in the Sermon on the Mount. We must hunger and thirst for righteousness, for the heavenly treasures, for that which fills us eternally.

We have come through Lent, the season of death, into new life in the Risen Christ. May we hunger and thirst only for God.

Pastor Kelley

April 11, 2023

I have been thinking about death more than usual this Lent-into-Easter season. My husband’s beloved mother died the Wednesday before Holy Week, and the grief has been more palpable for our family in the midst of remembering the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

I find comfort in Holy Week and in the Lenten journey. To know that we are not alone in our suffering or grief is life-sustaining. It is everything to our faith to know that God in Christ entered death and dwelt in the depths of Sheol for us, for all of humankind, for all of creation.

A clergy friend whose mother died a few years ago during Lent shared passionately that in the midst of her grief she needed to know not only that Jesus had risen from the dead but also that Jesus had entered first into death to open the way to life again – for her, for her beloved mother, for all.

Easter Sunday – resurrection morning – is the glorious reminder that God in Christ entered into death and destroyed it for all of time. Our death, our loved one’s death, all of death, is defeated by God incarnate, Jesus the Christ.

Presbyterian poet, Ann Weems, was a beloved writer, speaker, liturgist, and worship leader. My thirty-five, almost thirty-six, years of ordained ministry have been interwoven with the poems and prayers and writings of Ann Weems.

Weem’s son, Todd, died tragically at the age of twenty-one, and she carried her grief through the years of her writing as she penned of the mysteries of life and death, of God and God’s people, of hope in the midst of despair.

In her unpublished poem, “When You Hear of My Demise,” Weems wrote:

I left this earth in Alleluias
Dancing with the angels of life
Among the stars of God

We are Resurrection People and “Alleluia” is our song! All of our suffering, our sin, and our broken humanity, find their shalom in the empty tomb of Easter morning. Without the hope of resurrection, death would have no meaning.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Pastor Kelley

April 4, 2023

At the center of it all . . . silence.

My earliest memories of Easter involve uncomfortable polyester. Every year we would get a new outfit for Easter that was invariably less comfortable than my normal Lee blue jeans. Everybody had to dress up, so I did too. The church always seemed decidedly busy on Easter Sunday, lots of choristers running around, and everyone seeming rather stressed, happy but anxious as if they had a lot of things to tend to. Then there was the matter of Easter Brunch which was my favorite part of the day, the only meal of the year when I could get both lasagna and caramel pecan rolls on the same plate. I remember how tired everyone seemed that night as The Ten Commandments played on ABC.

Christians have a funny notion of sabbath. Contrary to scripture, we tend to exert ourselves on the holiest of days with ceaseless busyness. Perhaps that is why our holy days no longer seem quite so holy.

I like Easter. The bodily resurrection of Jesus stands at the very center of my faith. Insofar as Easter is the remembrance and celebration of that event it provides the axis around which my hope and vocation revolve. The curious thing is that Easter is not exactly the precise remembrance and celebration of Easter. Easter is instead the remembrance and celebration of the women’s discovery of Jesus resurrection. It had already happened. They simply found out about it on Easter morning. And that discovery changed their world and mine. But the actual change happened sometime earlier.

While I like Easter, I love Holy Saturday. Easter gets all the attention because scripture focuses on the events of the next morning. Of Holy Saturday, scripture is utterly silent. Yet the deep changes in time and the cosmos that God wrought through the resurrection of Jesus were first unfolding, recreating, and resurrecting on Holy Saturday. The silence of sabbath preserves the veil of mystery and awe from our crass celebrations as well as the babbling idolatries of our speech. Not even the angels dare say a word about Holy Saturday. I suspect they held their breath. Holy Saturday is complete and total mystery.

In our earliest creeds we affirm that Jesus, “descended into hell.” This outwardly discomforting notion is known as the Harrowing of Hell. It means that Jesus did not go to Hell to be punished, wounded, or scorned. Rather, Jesus went to that place precisely furthest and most God, the uttermost antipodes of heaven, on a rescue mission—broke the security system, shattered the prisoners’ chains, dragged out anyone willing to go, and left the front gate busted off its front hinges on his way out. Perhaps he even sarcastically vandalized the place with his eternally ironic signature symbol, the cross. Jesus was not just dead and then later not dead. Jesus broke death from the inside. It does not work the same way anymore. So, we no longer need be afraid of it. And all this happened on Holy Saturday.

There are no hymns for Holy Saturday. No, “he is almost risen, he is almost risen indeed!” We are left with the silence echoing in our ears. Celebrations, triumphant stanzas, resplendent lilies, tables overflowing with hams, and even brand-new polyester pants can all wait a day. The only mortal response to Holy Saturday is awe.

I do not understand resurrection, but I do feel it. Something happened in that cramped little hole just outside the Joppa gate over a long sabbath in the spring of 33 AD. That something still resounds, echoes, and impacts life in ways both obvious and subtle. Creation changed and so did we.

Happy Easter! But before that, pause for a moment on Saturday and just feel the wonder of it all.

–Brian

March 28, 2023

Palm Sunday always unsettles me. Beneath the greenery and triumphal songs lies profound irony. That irony is perhaps because of the triumphal songs, both then and now. A man comes riding a donkey down the hill from the poor shanty town on the edge of the capitol. What do you see? A righteous holy man coming to worship in the national shrine? A political revolutionary stirring up an insurrection? A prophet fulfilling ancient expectations? Jesus riding down the Mount of Olives presents us with a Rorschach Test for our spiritual imagination. What do you see? You answer will tell you as much about yourself as it will about Jesus.

Matthew is the most explicit of the Gospel writers. He even appears to have Jesus riding two animals in order to fulfill his mistranslation of Zechariah. The crowd welcomes Jesus as King. Not King of their hearts. Not King of Heaven. The crowd lauds him as the rightful King of the Jews, a title no one has held since Herod the Great died, a title that could only be granted by the Roman Senate. A politically astute observer watching this rag tag procession and all the commotion it caused that Sunday could not have helped but shake their head thinking, “this is certainly not going to turn out well.”

The crowds who greet him with shouts of Hosanna on Sunday are soon disappointed. He will not confront the Romans. He will not overthrow the High Priest. His followers will not seize the city. He seems content to teach in the porticoes of the temple by day and each night depart the city for the ghettoes over the hill (Bethany literally means the house of the poor). He will not even reach out to sympathetic Pharisees on the Sanhedrin with whom he could reform the Temple establishment. Jesus of Nazareth is many things, but he is not a political operator, community organizer, or slick publicist.

One of the many problems with crowds is that when you disappoint them, they can turn on you in an instant. Those adulating acclaims of Hosanna will soon become angry condemnations of Crucify Him! All it took was four days of disappointing the mob and frustrating their expectations. We want what we want and we will not be denied. With Sunday’s now-trampled palm branches still billowing down the empty sidewalks, they turn and walk away.

Whenever I sing All Glory Laud and Honor or some other triumphal Palm Sunday hymn, something in the back of my mind sings a counter melody, “Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.” It is an awkward thing to hold two diametrically opposite ideas in your mind at the same time with equal conviction, but that is precisely where Holy Week leads us into the antinomies of religion and politics, faith and doubt, hope and fear, and ultimately life and death. Holy Week confounds all rational efforts to reduce its drama to a single monolithic “meaning.” It is not an event to be observed, analyzed, cataloged, and described. It is an event to be experienced, an encounter that examines, challenges, questions, and confronts us.

Even most Christians tend to gloss over Holy Week. We jump from All Glory Laud and Honor to Christ the Lord is Risen Today without considering everything in between. What unfolds in between is frustration, confusion, anger, wrath, fear, conspiracy, lies, torture, and murder. What unfolds in between is God’s own judgment and condemnation of every system of knowledge and power based on human desire, ego, will, fear and attachment. Jesus is not the only one to die on the cross that Friday. A big part of us—fear, anxiety, rage, shame, wrath, desire, despair, and self-control—die with him. Pilate renders judgment on yet another foolish failed Messiah on that cross. Meanwhile on that same cross, God renders judgment on the world.

If you want to begin to explore the deep mysteries of the cross, you will need to delay the satisfactions of lilies and Easter baskets for a moment. You will need to relax our natural tendencies towards dualistic thinking. You will need to imagine yourself shouting both Hosanna and Crucify! You will need to fix in your imagination triumph and tragedy, life and death. Poetry and art sustain these creative contradictions far better than prose.

Up ahead lies Holy Saturday. The holiest day of the year. Remember that on Easter the women simply discovered the tomb was empty. They discovered a past event that had already been completed. On Holy Saturday, the day of mystery and awe of which no Disciple dares to speak, something happens.

The consequences of that something define our lives and our world. Welcome to Holy Week.

–Brian

March 21, 2023

Three years ago this week the world changed. And while the memories of those uncertain and frightening times now recede and we rush to assure ourselves of the return to “normalcy,” I am still haunted by the perception that something is amiss. You need not look too hard for confirmation. Our communities feel more divided than ever. Anxiety and depression, especially among our youth, are rampant. Social media serves as an echo chamber for the lesser angels of our being. And churches, and every other institutional expression of communal values and purposes, have seen a drop in participation and interest. There is persistent sense of malaise that lingers like a damp stain, not dramatic so much as dreary. Somewhere just beyond tangible perception I feel an absence.

The world changed. Of that I am certain. But I do not yet know exactly how. For many of us, life became smaller. By all social measures, we eat out, travel, attend movies and concerts, visit friends, and participate in religion less than before. Meanwhile, you can now purchase an 85-inch television to fill your living room wall for less than a thousand dollars. Staying home has never before been so appealing. And so we do, lulled into unblinking unthinking stupor by endless binge watching on endless streaming services. It is not a bad life, in some ways materialistic bliss, but neither is it abundant, vibrant, and fruitful.

Last week while driving with Lisa, we listened to part of Katherine May’s new book, Enchantment, awakening wonder in an anxious age. It gave me a name and a description for what I feel is missing: a sense of enchantment. May defines enchantment as “small wonder magnified through meaning.” Enchantment comes to us in small doses of awe woven together through memory and story that binds us one to another, to this earth and all things in it, and to the creator of it all. Enchantment binds fleeting moments of attention with meaning, purpose, and truth. And when taken together, all those moments of enchantment lead somewhere far more real than my “real life.”

While I quite like May’s prose, we differ on the story that binds us. She follows the path of spiritualized nature deism, while I cannot shake the claim of a deity who takes on incarnate expression and acts in history and transforms it. I tend to notice those moments in silence, nature, and fleeting instances of connection with another person that, while perhaps not flashes of communion, echo as chords of resonance. They connect in the calendar of deep time and the unfathomed purposes of God. But they still provide a pattern and direction. Those moments even join the so-called living with the so-called dead. Theologian Karl Barth once observed that what we call the present itself is constituted by grace as encounter with God in time. And that means that there is no such thing as waiting. There is only anticipation. We live in anticipation of God’s restoration of all things, a hope first hinted at in Easter.

Anticipation extends the moment of the present through both desire and our own formation to shape our lives towards it. Our lives are sailed on an invisible river hiding in plain sight, rather like the mid-Atlantic Gulf Stream. If you set your life in the same direction and just give a little push, it will take you further than can possibly imagine. And along the way you just might notice the albatross overhead soaring upon those same currents, moments of enchantment, signposts for the way home.

–Brian

March 14, 2023

In This Season of Lent

I am having trouble marking my days of Lent. One day seems to blur into the next day, the critical voices in my head are particularly loud these days, and even those things in my life that are intrinsically “good” are robbing me of the “mindful marking” of Lent. So, I find myself already half-way through this penitential season of Lent and longing to be marked with ashes again.

On Ash Wednesday we marked our foreheads with the ashes of “remembering our death” and began a season of remembering that:

We are dust.
To dust we shall return.
From dust we shall be raised.

Lent is a season which runs counter to our culture. Every bone in our body and every ounce of our soul must roar against the voices of society that will deceptively tell us:

-we don’t have time to be still
-we have too much to do
-we must be productive
-we must avoid silence
-we cannot speak of death or sorrow
-we are not worth saving

Lent calls us to look at the cross. Lent calls us to see death. Lent calls us to see our brokenness, our sin. And Lent calls us back to the one who has conquered death.

My Epiphany Prayer Star Word for this year is the word mindful. In the midst of the noise and chaos of our world, I am seeking to be mindful of God’s presence, mindful of God’s love, mindful of God’s Spirit, mindful of my own sin, and mindful of my words and actions which have the power to heal or to hurt.

The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount which we are studying this Lenten season are all about being mindful, mindful of God’s way of living. I am deeply challenged by these words of Jesus found in Matthew’s gospel. They have a way of marking me unworthy and yet also marking me as Christ’s own.

These words of Jesus invite me to be mindful of my days and to mark them with a love like no other love.

I am moved by the words of Rev. Donna E. Schaper, a United Church of Christ minister, in her Lenten reflections, Calmly Plotting the Resurrection:

We enter Lent to begin a journey. A journey to a place called resurrection.
We are on our way to a different room in our house.
The room is called Life-After-Death. Life-Instead-of-Death.

May we be mindful as we journey together to the cross. May we be marked by the love of God in our journeying.

Peace.

Pastor Kelley

March 7, 2023

The Sermon on the Mount is a detailed diagnosis of the human condition. Like most diagnoses, it is something we often do not want to hear. Like most clinical reports, it details our problem and it also describes the way things should be. Functionally, it is intended to help us heal and grow.

A big problem arises when The Sermon on the Mount is used as a weapon. Jesus’ sermon, that warns us not to judge, is often used by people to judge others. Jesus’ careful exposition and application is used as a cudgel to beat the conscience of the unwary. Of course, in doing so the moralizing critic is violating its core tenets and opening himself or herself to judgment.

The topic of the Sermon on the Mount is humanity, its problem, and its solution. The problem with humanity is sin. Not sins. Sin, in the singular. Sin is not the naughty things you may have done or the probably much longer list of good things you have failed to do. Those things are the consequences of sin, but not sin itself. Sin is simply separation. We are alienated from each other, ourselves, and our God. That alienation is the essence of sin and it is simply a part of being human.

Sin is not something you choose, not a bad habit, a moral failing, a defect of character, nor a developmental issue. You cannot overcome it by changing your behavior, growing up, or making better choices. It sticks to you like gum on your shoe. We are all tainted by it. It is everywhere in our world. I can observe this to be so for the simple reason that the most prominent sign of sin’s presence—death—seems to be everywhere.

During the Middle Ages, the church graded sin on a curve. The problem with that is twofold. First the church just made it up that distinction that is nowhere found in scripture to support their own penitential system. Second, it ignored the problem that all sin, all separation, all alienation is potentially fatal.

Next week we will examine the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that addresses divorce and adultery. It is a small section. Jesus seems much more concerned with anger, violence, forgiveness, and prayer. And yet it has provided a perennially popular club that some people have used to flog others for purported failings, somehow ignoring that in doing so they run afoul of the rest of the sermon. Nevertheless, I know that this topic causes pain and hurt for so many people.

Jesus is clear about God’s intention for us. A human being fully alive and thriving is one living in covenantal relationships with God and other people and at peace with themselves. Whenever we do not live like that we are, by definition, living in sin. Consequently, almost every human being has lived and is living almost every moment of their lives in sin. That is not because we have failed. That is because we are human.

Because Jesus is clear about God’s intention for us, anything less is necessarily a consequence of sin. Divorce is a consequence of sin contrary to God’s intention. So too are loneliness, despair, rage, anger, jealousy, betrayal, addiction, pride, envy, sloth, gluttony, avarice, arrogance, apostasy, cheating, fraud, detraction, lying, insecurity, profanity, aggression, scandal, ghost lighting, abuse, domination, narcissism, neglect, callousness, unfeeling, prejudice, disregard, disrespect, ruthlessness, indifference, apathy, disdain, rancor, resentment, gloom, despondency, spite, dissemblance, scorn, disdain, haughtiness, dispassion, petulance, ridicule, caliginosity, and odium to name a small representative sample. All these things keep us separated from God and other people. All these things, and millions more, are the consequences of sin contrary to God’s intention. They are not rated, graded, or weighted on a curve. Sin is sin and all of it keeps us apart and alienated from God, ourselves, and other people.

The Good News of the Gospel is that sin and its consequences, which we cannot remove, are removed by God. Separation can, will be, and is being overcome, not simply forgiven but removed. But not by us. Separation is overcome by the one who overcomes all separation, even that between heaven and earth, even that between life and death. Jesus lived, and died, and lived to remove that separation once and for all time. That means that though we are all sinners by birth, we are all forgiven through Him. And may God have mercy on any human who presumes to wield divine judgment over another to whom God has already rendered pardon.

The message of the Sermon on the Mount is clear. Do not worry about judging others. Do not worry about judging yourself. Love God. Love other people. That is more than enough. God will take care of the rest.

–Brian

February 28, 2023

One of the most lessons I have finally learned in middle age is the importance of forgetting. Memory is not a simplistic recording of sensations and experiences. Memory is the complex redaction of our own self-constructed narratives of our lives illustrated with carefully chosen sensations and recollections. Memory is the mind’s greatest creative achievement carefully editing sights, sounds, and smells through the filters of emotion, perception, and experience. For some, this produces a lifetime of beautiful treasures, precious moment captured in memory’s amber for eternity. For others, this produces tearing wounds of traumas reexperienced again and again.

All our memories have subtle emotional tags attached to them. Fundamentally every experience is either good or bad. That simplistic reductionism is helpful when, for example, you are trying discern your favorite flavor of ice cream or when trying on shoes in a department store. It is less helpful when those reductionist judgments are applied to other people or ourselves. Very few people are wholly and completely good or bad. We tend to be complex combinations of virtue and vice. That complexity is precisely what makes judging other people, or ourselves, so tricky.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes the Sixth Commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill,” (Exodus 20:13) and consider the full breadth of its implications. If we truly hold each other in relationship, then how we consider, how we evaluate, how we judge another person, is who they really are to us. Violence may be able to destroy the body, but words, resentments, prejudices, rumors, and presumptions can kill the connecting relationship. I think that is why Jesus extends the prohibition on killing to a general prohibition on anger and judgment (Matthew 5:22) because such anger and judgment destroys relationships and connection. And without relationships and connection, the Kingdom of God is impossible.

Over time lots of people wrong us in a variety of ways. We can carefully archive and catalog our growing list of offenses and grievances. Or, we can forget. Memories all have emotional values assigned to them. You know what they are. You can choose to simply not bring to mind the angry, bad, hurt, offended ones. Whenever your mind reaches for a memory to recall, you can consider its emotional charge and choose whether to bring it fully to conscious consideration. The more often you leave the bad memories and harsh judgments tucked safely away the less hold they have over you. Anger, offense, and grievance all fade with lack of use.

In Jesus’ prayer contained within the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, we are asked to petition God to forgive our debts as we have been forgiven. That tiny contraction “as” denotes identity in method. We are called to forgive in the same manner as and to the same extent as God forgives us. The Hebrew for forgive (Kaphar) literally means to cover something over so you cannot see it anymore. Forgive does not mean to forget or somehow be completely reconciled. It simply means to obscure something so you no longer notice it.

I have a hard time with Jesus demands for radical reconciliation. I am neither that nice nor that courageous. But forgetting, I can do that. I can learn to not pick up that sharp memory that will only hurt me and other people. I can learn how to forget and in forgetting learn to forgive or at least not judge.

We live with people who hurt us all the time, especially the people we love. One part of learning to love is learning to forget. God forgets our sin. Perhaps we should forget each other’s and perhaps even our own.

–Brian

February 21, 2023

For the past two weeks I have been travelling around Israel with a very special group of people. I shared with them what I have learned about the land, its history, archeology, and importance. They shared with me their stories, experiences, hopes, and challenges. I think I got the better end of the exchange.

When I was first asked several months ago to help lead this group of 27 United States Army Chaplains on a renewal and educational trip, I was not sure exactly what to expect. I have escorted groups of seminary students and pastors, in addition to some of you, but military chaplains were a bit outside my experience. What I discovered was a group of curious, caring, dedicated, and compassionate women and men who, although from a diverse spectrum of theological traditions, were utterly united in their commitment to service. While they all hold deep faith commitments, sometimes from rather exclusivist versions of Christianity, they shared their ministries with everyone within their respective units regardless of theology, faith, or the lack thereof. And their field of ministry is vastly more diverse than any congregation in the United States. One chaplain told me that the fastest growing faith declaration in the army was “Norse Pagan” (perhaps because of the beard exemption). They do ministry with and for everyone.

And their ministry is a difficult one. For the past two decades, the United States military has been in constant oversees combat deployments. The chaplain corps has deployed alongside them sometimes for years at a time. The exhausting burdens of such duty, along with disrupted relationships, endless hours of wearying struggle against often invisible enemies, homesickness, the ambiguities of government policies, and the very real burdens of post-traumatic stress provide the chaplains’ corps with never ending needs. In particular, the real stigmas associated with psychological care in the military, make the chaplains not merely the spiritual, but also emotional and psychological care givers for the units they serve.

Who cares for the care givers? Frontline chaplains who give and give also need to be replenished not only with rest but also renewal. That was the purpose for our trip, to reconnect chaplains with original source of our spiritual hope and truth. Walking the streets and hillsides where Jesus walked, where David played his harp, where Peter prayed, and the prophets preached, connects us tangibly, bodily to the Great Story.

My goals were simple. I wanted every chaplain to walk away from the experience with a renewed foundational sense that it was all real. Faith is not rooted in sentiment or opinion, but in God’s mighty acts in the particularity of place and time. Second, it is also complicated. The morally ambiguous, politically conflicted, intellectually confusing times in which we live are the rule not the exception. God’s revelation in human history first through Israel and then through the incarnation make things more complicated not less. The complexities of ministry today are not so different than those of nineteen centuries ago. Nonetheless we are called to minister amid the complexities. And finally, the story is for them, or more precisely they are a part of it. Military chaplaincy predates the institutional church. Next to the barren Tel of Megiddo in the Jezreel valley stands the remains of an ancient church built some 90 years before Christianity became legal. It was built inside a Roman legionary fortress by and for soldiers. The mosaics within it remember the soldiers’ families from the far corners of the empire. The story of the soldiers who built and worshipped at that church was also the chaplains’ story. We belong to a story greater, deeper, and more enduring than our lives.

Based on our conversations, I think the chaplains returned with something of lasting and sustaining value. So did I.

In many congregations in the United States there is anxiety about declines in religious participation, congregational membership, attendance, and giving. The chaplains reminded me that while all of that matters institutionally, what matters to Jesus is simply to meet people precisely where they are as they are and offer them compassion and hope. We are given access to the infinite well of that compassion and hope through the Holy Spirit. And that well of living water still flows. In order to live into the Great Story and be a part of Christ’s Church all we need do is share it.

–Brian

February 14, 2023

“An Invitation to Be Shriven”

This Sunday, February 19 (Transfiguration Sunday) we are going to observe the tradition of Shrove Tuesday Pancake Meal which is usually the evening before Ash Wednesday which is the beginning of Lent! But instead, we are going to observe Transfiguration Sunday by sharing a Shrove Sunday Breakfast and reading the Sermon on the Mount in worship!

Have I thoroughly confused you?

Here is all you need to know:

Join us for worship this Sunday at either the Early Service or Later Service and be served a Lenten Breakfast in-between the services from 9:30 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Pancakes, Quiche, Sausage, Orange Juice, and Coffee will be served by the Deacons as we prepare ourselves for Lent.

Shrove Tuesday Pancake dinner comes from a long tradition observed by Christians across the world of preparing oneself through confession for the observance of Lent. This tradition of shriving goes back as far as 1000 AD:

“In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do in the way of penance.” – from Ælfric of Eynsham’s Ecclesiastical Institutes, 1000 AD.

The word shrove is a form of the English word shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of confession and doing penance. Shrove Tuesday was named after the custom of Christians to be “shriven” before the beginning of Lent.

What a wonderful way to prepare ourselves for being shriven! Pancakes, quiche, sausage, orange juice, and coffee!  Come, let us prepare for Lent together.

February 7, 2023

Baptismal Promises
A Word from Pastor Kelley

In the Sacrament of Baptism, when we baptize an infant or child, the parents and the congregation make promises to that child. We promise to tell that child the stories of our faith and to teach them about the One who loves them more than they will ever know.

Of the parents we ask:
Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith and teach this faith to your child?

Of the congregation we ask:
Do you, as members of the Body of Christ, promise to guide and nurture this child by word and deed, with love and prayer? Do you promise to teach them the good news of the gospel, that they may know all that Christ commands, and in doing so strengthen their family ties with the household of God?

In that moment of baptismal waters and covenantal promises, we remember who we are:

A child of God.

And in that moment we remember that in this alone we find our identity. We remember who we are in Christ.

The last week of January, I spent a week of renewal, prayer, and study with a dear clergy friend. For an entire week we read and reflected, wrote and discussed, rested and prayed, and shared simple meals which we prepared in-house. My time of prayer, reading, and reflection was centered on my call to youth ministry here at Fairmont. I read a book by Andrew Root entitled “The End of Youth Ministry.” Andrew Root is the Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary and has written a series of books on Church and Secular Society.

The heart of the book affirms that which I already knew deeply but needed the discipline of reading and reflecting to confirm:

Many wonderful and good secular activities create community and give purpose in the life of children, youth, and their families but the community of faith alone is the one space for them to find their only true identity:

A child of God.

The lives of our children and youth are filled with many good and meaningful activities that create community, teach compassion, build character, and provide happiness. These activities are good. My children spent their growing up days learning music and dance at Interlochen Center for the Arts, earned their Black Belts at ATA Martial Arts, lifeguarded at Johnsonburg Camp, danced with the Princeton Ballet summer program, spent a summer at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and played classical guitar at McCutcheon’s Music. I am grateful for these deeply enriching experiences for our children.

But these activities, as enriching as they were, do not answer the question, “Who is your child?” Our children and youth are not defined by what they do or do not do. They find their identity as children of God. We find our identity as children of God. In relationship with God and with one another, we can answer the question, “Who Am I?”

Who are we? We are God’s beloved, baptized in the waters of forgiveness and new life. We are children of God. We belong to God and to one another as God’s family. And in the promises of our baptism we remember who we are – God’s own.

I have known all along – in youth ministry in the 1990s and now in youth ministry in the 2020s – that the church and its ministries cannot and should not compete with society and secular activities. The church uniquely has this to offer to our children and youth – an encounter with God!

Together as God’s people, in relationship with God and one another, we are the Body of Christ called to worship, serve, study, pray, and be in covenant community. God calls us to claim our waters of baptism and keep those baptismal promises to nurture, teach, and guide our children and youth to study Christ, to know Christ, to love Christ, and to serve Christ.

And so we invite you once again, “Come, friends, and be the Body of Christ.”

January 31, 2023

Two of the holiest sculptures on earth for me are really the absence of sculpture and were never intended to be art at all. And yet these two voids convey testaments of human longing for the eternal.

As you step into the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem you must kneel to pass through the four-foot-high doorway of humility. Many people trip because the marble threshold stone has a three or four inch depression in it. That smooth depression was made solely by millions and millions of pilgrims’ feet. Similarly, the marble steps leading up to Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are unevenly concave, worn out by millions of pilgrims’ steps. The indelible erosion of stone is the collective work of millions of pairs of feet, not the work of an individual. If you ask, who then did this, the answer is all of them.

Next week I will be returning to those stairs with a group of 25 United States Army Chaplains. What I want to share with them is threefold: the great story of the Bible is real, it is complicated, and it is for you, or more precisely you are a part of it. As I have already written, what God has done, is doing, and will do does not exist inside our ideas or sentiments about God, it all unfolds in space and time. That ongoing process of revelation and restoration is complicated because it intermingles with all the intricacies of human thought, emotion, memory, politics, economics, and history. But finally, and foundationally, that story of what God is up to in the world is our story. Or, to put things in a more proper scale, the stories of our lives, the narrative from which we draw our individual senses of identity, purpose, and meaning, are all little parts of a vast narrative in which God creates, laments, restores, and ultimately reconciles. Your life is a part of the story of God’s life.

When you travel to the Holy Land, you can easily be overcome by the strangeness of it all. Priests, Rabbis, and Imams from dozens of traditions (you can distinguish them by their hats) jostle each other in the crowded medieval streets and the claustrophobic corners of worship. The strange smells of frankincense and the summons to prayer, whether they be bells, muezzin, or clapping boards, assault the sense. Clearly, you ain’t in Kansas anymore. But if you care to feel your way beneath all the cultured expressions and aesthetic differences, if you have sufficient curiosity to peek behind all the pluralism, what you find is a story that still throbs and invites you. Moreover, if you let go of our own cultural presuppositions, you just might find something more, welcome, belonging, and home.

The prophet Isaiah and John of Patmos were clear and unambiguous about our destination and true home. We all are bound for Jerusalem, not Jerusalem as it exists today, but Jerusalem transformed, a home for all people, Jews and gentiles. In that transformed city there will be no temple because there will be no need for it. God will simply dwell with God’s people. Separation will be overcome. Belonging will be restored.  And in the center of it all will be a garden, a new garden, just as there was at the beginning.

As a Christian, I believe in the incarnation of God by, in, and through Jesus of Nazareth. Because God has walked this earth, that means that the Holy Land is not ancient Palestine. The Holy Land is this planet and we all walk upon it. It is no coincidence that Jesus began the work of reconciliation and restoration by simply telling his stories and asking people to share their own. The lived experience of our lives, the stories of who we are and who we are becoming, are the crucibles in which reconciliation, restoration, and ultimately salvation happen as we smelt, refine, and alloy one life to another and ultimately to God’s. Weaving our stories together, one to another and to God’s, is the central task of our shared work of recreation.

Roughly 78 generations separate us from Jesus–78 generations of striving, seeking, building, loving, suffering, and sinning. It is a large, but not unimaginable number. Modernism would say we are all progressing. I am not so sure. What I am sure of is that each of those 78 generations matter. The stories they tell matter. The way they connect to the generations that have gone before and those that go after matter. If any had simply failed to share their story and connect their lives to God’s life to the next generation, I would not be writing this today. 78 generations have not merely carved stone with their bare feet, they have sculpted lives and one of them is mine. And if you ask who did this, the answer is all of them.

We all have a part to play even though we may only be familiar with a single scene in a single act of this vast divine drama. The Holy Spirit provides stage direction, if only we permit her and participate. You and I were made for this story, we belong to it, and to the extent we participate in it, it becomes our lives. And if you want to discover who you really are, if you want to experience your life the way it was intended to be, give yourself over to it. Add your story to the great story and belong.

–Brian

January 24, 2023

One of the primary learning goals for all of the trips I have led to the Holy Land is simple. When students return, I want them to say, “it is more complicated than we know.” The humble confession of complexity and lack of complete understanding is the beginning of true wisdom. This is all the more true whenever and wherever our lives intersect with the action of a infinite God who is utterly beyond all understanding. In the Holy Land, that intersection is everywhere and consequently it is a land that confounds, confuses, complicates, and humbles me every time.

Our problem is not fundamentally with politics, history, or archeology. Complexity begins with our theology. We believe in a God who is both utterly transcendent, beyond space time, matter, and energy, and at the same time utterly immanent, acting in and through space and matter and taking on flesh as one of us. That paradox guarantees complexity. Add to that the mysteries of God as a relational being (i.e. Trinity) and real human understanding of God and what God is up to seems right out of bounds. If it is understanding you seek, I would suggest a simpler religion.

The paradox of the incarnation gets expressed in the Holy Land in landscape edited through the lens of history and devotion. Something happened here. What exactly and where exactly are often subject to debate. We can trace centuries of veneration of particular places, collect hundreds of pilgrim accounts, map the topographical contours of the land, and even dig up related bits of archeological evidence. But it is all circumstantial evidence. You cannot “prove” by the standards of modern evidence that anything happened anywhere in the ancient world. Nonetheless, circumstantial evidence in sufficient quantity can be persuasive. I do believe that we have identified the location of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection with sufficient precision that you can actually touch those places where a transcendent God and an very mundane world touch. And in touching those places, we are invited to connect with and participate in objective holiness, not in my heart, but in the world.

One of my favorite teaching venues in the Holy Land is the so-called Garden Tomb. A rather cranky retired British General, Charles Gordon (later played by Charlton Heston in Khartoum) visited Jerusalem in 1883.  As a Western Protestant, all the exotic smells and bless of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher offended his aesthetic sensibilities. Near his guest house, he noticed an ancient tomb adjacent to a hill that looked kind-of, sort-of like a skeletal face. He concluded immediately that must be the place. It was quiet and watered and looked like the kind of place he imagined for Jesus’ death and burial. Unfortunately for Gordon, that tomb actually came from the First Temple period, about 800 years too early. And that hill has been constantly eroding and collapsing. The nose fell off a few years ago. The face Gordon saw would not have been there in Jesus’ day, indeed it is not there now. It is a beautiful place for worship though, and I use it as an example of how we import our own ideas about the Bible and impress them onto the land conforming landscape to our expectations.

In order to receive what the Holy Land teaches you need to be open to both surprise and complexity, things we generally avoid. We prefer our answers to be certain and complete. But such certainty is a sure symptom of idolatry. If you ever firmly grab hold of the wild, unpredictable God of the desert, understand that you are grasping an idol. Complexity is the boundary that contains and confounds human pride.

The Holy Land is no less complex in all its modern problems. The land is contested and conflicted. Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes by Israelis struggle again Jewish refugees expelled from their homes by Muslims. The Ottomans, British, United Nations, and Americans have all tried to resolve the conflict and failed. And this is nothing new. There is no point in the history of the Holy Land when the land was not the subject of conflict. The reason it seems so complicated is because it is.

Complexity does not challenge faith. Complexity is the sign of mature faith that takes the paradoxical nature of our God and God’s relationship with the world seriously. If you “keep it simple,” know that you may be comforted but you are also twisting God’s own revelation to satisfy our agendas and preferences. God who works through human history and particularity of place, let alone God who becomes one of us, will always get very complicated very quickly.

Understanding is highly overrated. There is a far more accessible and potentially life-giving alternative. You can let go of what you know and what you think you know and simply be. Unlearning is harder than learning. But according to Jesus, letting go may be the very essence of the way into belonging and being.

Jesus let go. We call that resurrection.

— Brian

January 17, 2023

Last week I returned from leading a ten-day study trip to Israel with a group of seminary students. I do this rather often. You might wonder why I use my vacation time to guide students rather than lounging on a beach in Mexico. Sometimes I wonder myself. But as soon as I get off the plane at Ben Gurion airport, the answer always returns to me. And that answer is relatively simple, although it has three parts. It is real. It is complicated. And it is for me.

It is real. It sounds simple to say, but it entails a cognitive and emotional leap unlearning centuries of Enlightenment habits of mind. For most Protestants, faith is an internal, subjective experience concerned with our thoughts and emotions related to the divine. We say things like, “I’ve got Jesus in my heart.” We talk about a journey of faith as if it were a process of persuading ourselves with ever greater levels of surety of ever more unlikely things. We read Paul through the lens of Luther to perceive that God’s primary concern is with my individual salvation and well being and I experience that concern (i.e., grace) through my own subtle internal experiences and feelings.

Since the nineteenth century, polite mainline Protestants have moved the essence of our encounter with the divine from the world into the interior of our experience, specifically a feeling of absolute dependence (thank you Schleiermacher). By moving Christian faith from the contested world of objective claims to the internal world of feeling, religion can be safeguarded from intrusive evolutionary biologists, archeologists, sociologists, linguists, interpreters, scientists of every variety, and the diverse array of other religions and their contesting claims. By retreating from the world and moving into feeling, Christian faith can avoid all the messy conflicting claims of modernity. And so, our churches have cooperated obligingly. For example, consider worship. What makes worship good or bad? The truth of the claims of worth asserted about God (which is what “worship” actually means) or the way we are made to feel in worship? Is it about God or us? The answer of modernity is unequivocal. It is all about us. Even God is about us.

But what if modernity is wrong?

What if God is on the move, breaking things and remaking things, in the real world of objective, tangible, history, matter, and space time? What if faith is not so much a subjective feeling reflecting back only our own longings and hopes, but rather the affective response in memory and expectation of experiences, real experiences, both our own and those of other people? What if faith is not an emotion but a conclusion that organizes and gives meaning to all our memories and feelings? What if it were all real?

As a Protestant I affirm that God can be anywhere and anywhen. As someone who holds dear the tradition preserved by Jews and Christians in the Bible, I affirm that God seems uniquely interested and active in this particular patch of land about the size of New Jersey on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. God did something here. Regardless of how anyone feels or believes, God actually did something not in the abstract, but in the messy particulars of mortal lives, politics, stone, water, wood, iron, and blood.

I return to this sacred landscape again and again to listen to the wind, feel the rocks under my feet, lose myself in the jostling labyrinth of the Old City of Jerusalem, smell deeply the musky aromas of Bethlehem tinged with car exhaust, frankincense, and sewage, and gaze from my balcony as the moon rises over the sea of Galilee. I return to stand in a synagogue where Jesus preached and wander around the elevated remains of the disused quarry where he died and rose. I return to remind myself that my faith is not built upon feeling so much as experience, both mine and hundreds of generations that have preceded me. I return to touch as an embodied creature and know that it is real.

My cure for the cultured cynicism of modernity in all its anxiety and despair is simply to walk by a lakeshore in Galilee and remember. The answers are not inside of me. The answers are out there looking for me and for you. It is all real.

And . . . it is also complicated. But we will leave that for next week.

–Brian

January 10, 2023

Covenant Community.
Belonging.
Church & Society.
Our Youth.

These things have been on my mind and weighing heavily upon my heart recently.

I served as a youth minister at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, CA from 1987-1990 and then again at La Grange Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL from 1990-1993. I was young, new to ministry, and full of energy. In the remaining thirty years of my ordained ministry, I have served as a solo pastor or an associate pastor in varied areas of ministry but not youth ministry…until 2020. The pandemic and changes in staffing required us to rethink our gifts and needs at Fairmont.

And so, with much joy, fear, and trembling, I found myself once again working hands-on in youth ministry. I would never have imagined myself – a 63 year-old pastor – back in the vulnerability, liveliness, and richness of youth ministry but it has been pure joy!

These are difficult days for our youth. Our societal voices tell youth that their value comes only through individual success, power, popularity, and wealth. The lies of individualism spew out daily in a constant barrage of media and commercialism. All the while, our youth simply long to belong and to be loved; to be part of a covenant community that is safe and welcoming.

The relationship between church and culture – church and society – has changed drastically and was already changing years before the pandemic flung that relationship even farther apart. In the days of my youth, church was the social thing to do; church was highly valued in society.

Church and faith are no longer of value in our society. The relationship between church and society has completely changed, and our youth are living in the midst a myriad of choices that are vying for their time and commitment.

In the midst of these critical changes in our society regarding faith, community, belonging, and purpose, Fairmont has stayed faithful to the call to create a place of welcome, love, and spiritual growth for our youth. The numbers don’t matter. The youth matter. Our faithful remnant of youth at Fairmont Presbyterian Church are intelligent, humorous, compassionate, creative, and committed.

For me, the youth are the imago dei – the “image of God.”

I see, feel, and know God when I am with our youth. The light of the incarnate God in Christ shines brightly in them. They are a gift to me and to this congregation. I invite you to get to know the youth of our church as they worship, fellowship, and share in mission with our family of faith. Our youth meet weekly on Sundays following worship (except for a multi-youth gathering of other Presbyterian churches once-a-month) for a meal, faith discussion, service projects, and games. You are always welcome.

I will be spending a week of study leave at the end of January reading a series of books by Andrew Root (Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary) – Faith Formation in a Secular Age and The End of Youth Ministry? – that I may more fully understand what is happening with our youth in today’s society and how we, the covenant community of faith, can create a space that is welcoming to our youth and their families.

Thank you for your generous support of our youth at Fairmont. Thank you for keeping your baptismal promises to teach them to know and love Christ.

Blessings,
Pastor Kelley

January 3, 2023

Epiphany Prayer Star Words

This Friday, January 6th, is the Day of Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany comes from a Koine Greek word “epiphaneia” meaning manifestation or appearance. It is a celebration of the manifestation or revealing of the Christ Child to the Magi (Wisemen) who travelled from the East to worship the Babe born in Bethlehem. It is also the celebration of God’s appearance to us in the Christ Child.

Although, for most of us, Christmas is over, Christmas does not really end for most of Christendom until the celebration of the Coming of the Magi or Three Kings Day or Epiphany.

The tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas is marked from the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day to the Visitation of the Magi or Wisemen twelve days later on Epiphany.

The Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany, for many Christians outside of western Christianity is a time of festive celebration. As late as the 4th century, Jesus’ birth was celebrated by the church on Epiphany, January 6th. In 325 A.D. Emperor Constantine moved the celebration of Jesus’ birth to December 25th which was the day of the “Sol Invictus” – the “unconquered Sun” – celebration.

As we observe Epiphany and celebrate the coming of a new year, we will be sharing again in a year-long spiritual practice as a faith family. Each of you are invited to take an Epiphany Prayer Star Word with a “prayer word” on it. This word is your “prayer word” for the year 2023. Through the year, each of us are to use this word in prayer, in bible study, in faith conversations, in study, and in times of reflection and meditation to see how God will speak to us through this one “prayer word.”

Epiphany Prayer Star Words are a simple spiritual practice tool to help us grow closer to God and to one another. Keep your word close to heart and in your mind. How might God speak to you through your Prayer Star Word? What might you learn in scripture about your Prayer Star Word?

Join us again this Epiphany Sunday as we remember the story of the Magi and their journey of faith following the star. Epiphany Prayer Star Words are available in baskets in the Fellowship Hall and the Sanctuary.

December 27, 2022

Starting last Sunday, we have begun our year-long walk with the Gospel of Matthew. The Christian tradition is the only religion that I know of that self-consciously embraces four distinct portraits of its founder written from four different perspectives. While this can be confusing at times, it adds to the richness and reality of the Gospels, recognizing that every one of us would have experienced this curious God-man Jesus differently.

Matthew is the earthiest of the Gospels. There is no time in Matthew’s account for hanging out in Bethlehem after Christmas. The Holy Family immediately flees to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents. From the second chapter of the Gospel, we know that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry will collide directly with the kingdoms of this world.

Matthew is also the Gospel most concerned to demonstrate how Jesus comes in fulfillment of Jewish expectations. Baby Jesus miraculously escapes a homicidal king’s wrath, just like Moses did in Pharaoh’s Egypt. And after being tested and ordained to his pubic ministry, Jesus like Moses will immediately pronounce the law, a guide for how human beings can live into right relationships with God and with each other. Finally, this Jesus will center his teaching on the promise of citizenship and belonging in the Kingdom of Heaven, just as Moses led his people into the Promised Land.

The Gospel of Matthew was written by someone who was born, raised, and wrote this Gospel as a Jew about a Jewish Messiah. That does not mean that this Gospel belongs to some other community. Quite to the contrary, Matthew begins his story not in the birth of Jesus, but rather in Abraham. Abraham was the progenitor of many many nations. All modern Christians, Jews, and Muslims look to him as their human origin. And God’s promise to Abraham was not only to bless him and his descendants, but through him to bless the world and all people in it. Matthew takes this promise to Abraham seriously and shows how through Jesus God finally fulfills it. For Matthew, the life, death, and life of Jesus of Nazareth are not the replacement of Judaism but rather its fulfillment, finally demonstrating the full love and transformative power of the Creator to all people.

Matthew also includes some of the harshest words in scripture against Jews. But we must always remember that these hard words were spoken in anger within an essentially family argument. They were spoken by people who all considered themselves Jews who valued the traditions of Moses and Torah so passionately that they would and did lay down their lives for it. The great tragedy of the second century was the parting of the ways between factions of the family as Christianity looked increasingly beyond Palestine and its Jewish population for its future, but that great divorce happened decades after Matthew’s Gospel was written. We need to be very careful in reading Matthew’s cutting remarks from our modern perspective. 2000 years of anti-Jewish violence and anti-Semitism separate us from the author.

Matthew’s earthy particularity and his fascination with the ways in which Jesus fulfills prophecy are two of his themes that lead me to my work in Israel. Next week I will be leading a group of about 17 seminary students to Israel with my friend Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. While there, we try to share and show how the land in all its maddening, messy, complexity, and the relationship between Christians, Muslims, and Jews is intertwined not just in the story of modern Israel, but ancient as well. People who go to the Holy Land seeking simple answers often return frustrated. My teaching intention is simply for participants to return concluding that it is more complicated than they realized. That complexity, tearing away all our fond mental images of the Holy Land often fabricated in Sunday School, is the unsettling but necessary beginning of wisdom.

Matthew offers us insight into Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching, healing, and working in this world in all of its frustrations and filth. It is not a Gospel for angels but rather one for women and men looking for within this world for its redemption. Matthew offers us drama, surprise, and challenge on every page because his plot is nothing less than the breaking of sin and death and the triumph of God’s redemption for all people.

So, it’s only 28 short chapters. Let us begin.

–Brian

December 20, 2022

“Christmastime is here. Happiness and cheer. Fun for all that children call their favorite time of year.”
So goes the song from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Like countless other classics it conjures up an image and an experience of time, but not any old ordinary time, not time you can simply identify and circle on the calendar around December 25. Christmastime is a particular time set apart and made special by personal relations and connections. Christmastime is time consecrated by connection.

Even a purely secular Christmas (e.g., The Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas Special) that has no outward religious content still seems to resonate with at least the aspiration for and hopefully the experience of deep personal connection between people. Christmastime is a time when we reach out to connect and act for and with each other in love. It is a season to bridge our isolated and often alienated sense of self with other selves out there in the world.

Ebeneezer Scrooge realizes his grave error in detaching himself from everyone and dashes around town in a generous Christmas frenzy not only sharing abundance, but real connection, compassion, and gratitude. George Bailey realizes that his true worth and value lie not in his financial management skills nor in the market valuation of his business, but the deep web of interpersonal compassion, sacrifice, and care that he has tended across of lifetime. Sometimes this connection is frustrated by distance or circumstance as can be plaintively heard in Bing Crosby’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas as it gave public witness to a generation of young American men headed overseas into an uncertain future. And you can even overhear it in The Pogues altogether more recent classic Fairy Tale of New York, which in its final verse reaches beyond all the failures, passive aggressive putdowns, addictions, and betrayals to embrace another in compassion and communion.

Deep resonant connections between persons, that is what Christmastime is all about. Seeking or celebrating that kind of intimate, honest connection is what defines this time, not a calendar.

You can remove all the outward symbols of religious tradition, but you cannot so easily change human nature. Religion’s cultured despisers can pack away every creche and silence every Christmas carol, but they cannot reprogram the yearnings of the human heart. The sacred is not written so much in our symbols as in our deepest desires, the ones we are not supposed to admit publicly. What we want is precisely the deep intimate connection that Christmastime teases but that Christmas fulfills.

Our search for belonging and connection is usually a fool’s errand. We do not even know what we are seeking most of the time. If we do happen to find real connection and relationship with another, it is always marked by its bittersweet impermanence. That grief is the price paid for loving impermanent beings.

But what if it was the other way around? What if instead of us seeking belonging and connection that we never seem to find (e.g., Charlie Brown, Seinfeld, and all of existential philosophy), that belonging and connection was out looking for us? What if we did not have to find anything, make anything, or do anything and just simply receive?

The Gospel of Christmas is simply this, the One who is connection and belonging from the very beginning, that which is the Creator’s action, affection, and intention comes to us, for us, and with us. What Scrooge, George Bailey, and The Pogues go looking for has already arrived on a cold winter night in the sleepy village of Bethlehem some two thousand years ago and has remained alongside us faithfully ever since. He comes looking for you. And if you will receive him, you will not enter Christmastime. If you receive him, you will enter into belonging and communion itself, not a time consecrated and made holy, but a life, your life inside his.

–Brian

December 13, 2022

I was annoyed. On Monday morning I created my “to-do” list with 13 small (ish) tasks to be completed. Number 11, tantalizingly close to the end of the list and the promise of leisure, purchase sour cream that I had forgotten on the previous day’s grocery fun. Every task on my list had a built-in time allocation. Purchasing sour cream at Kroger’s=12 minutes. But now my plan was being ruined. A certain person ahead of me in line had entered into an extended conversation about family Christmas gatherings with the cashier. Thirteen minutes and counting. As a former Target cashier myself (Yay T-8!), I valued efficiency and frictionless commercial transactions. Here there was plenty of friction. I was terrified they might start sharing photos. Fourteen minutes and counting. Finally, the customer stopped sharing but then to my horror started writing a personal check. Fifteen minutes! I felt panicked. I felt defeated. I felt Zeitkrankheit!

Zeitkrankheit (one of my newest favorite words) is a marvelously descriptive German term literally meaning “time sickness.” It is the sense of unease, anxiety, and uncertainty whether you are actually keeping up to speed with the world. Time may be measured objectively with clocks, but it is experienced subjectively embedded in our experience and expectations. That sort of time, time actually lived and experienced, has been and is accelerating constantly at the speed of technological and social change. Sometimes I just cannot keep up and that feeling produces first anxiety, then frenetic activity, then sober realization, and finally despair.

Zeitkrankheit becomes particularly acute every December. We have some sense of what we are supposed to be doing and the kind of life we are supposed to be living. Normally this is informed by Hallmark holiday movies and lifestyle magazines selling us commodities to simplify our lives. December can be a constant sprint of family gatherings, parties, important get togethers, and thoughtful gift getting and giving. Remember even Charlie Brown is ordered by his therapist to get more active and participate. We perform our frenetic pace on social media and are positively reinforced for it with a shower of likes. Church usually just adds to the busyness. And at the end of all our strivings and labors, come December 26, it all somehow seems rather empty. We have been moving faster than our souls can go. We are suffering from Zeitkrankheit.

The ironic thing is that Advent was never intended to be a sprint towards Christmas. Advent is slow. Advent moves at the speed of a donkey’s plodding pace picking its way among the river stones of the Jordan Valley. Nothing about Advent and Christmas happens quickly. Walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem takes about five days and all of it is rocky and hilly. If your ambitions move faster than your feet, you break your ankle. Similarly, moving large flocks of sheep is not a particularly efficient way to cross open country. And those Magi had to traverse the whole length of the fertile crescent from what is nowadays central Iraq, up and over Kurdistan and the Al Jazeera plains, crossing not just one but two giant river, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and then needed to navigate the mountains of Lebanon. Advent forces all of its participants to slow down and pay attention.

I fear that the pace of my life is set by technology and culture constantly urging ever faster innovation as we seek to “hack” our own lives. “Move Fast and Break Things,” is the internal motto of Facebook, but could be the motto for our age. Accelerating change in a community, an organization, or an individual life is seen as the outward measure of success and value. But I fear it is making us, our families, our relationship, and our communities sick.

I do not seek change for the sake of change. I seek transformation and that requires time, attention, sacrifice, and participation from someone or something beyond myself. It can only start when we honestly observe and question our cultural obsession with acceleration. It can be nurtured in silence and stillness when, perhaps only for a moment, we are open and vulnerable to be touched. Then and only then can our own souls catch up with our lives.

Sometimes I fear that we move so fast that we leap right past our goal and heart’s desire failing to recognize our destination in the rear-view window. The salvation and transformation of all humanity proceeded nicely towards its fulfillment at the not-so-breathtaking speed of two and half miles per hour, the speed of a plodding donkey.

If you want get to Bethlehem, I suggest observing the speed limit.

–Brian

December 6, 2022

Thoughts Upon Watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special

for the Fifty Second Time

For the modern world, Christmas is all about desire and its satisfaction. Think of the modern carol, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” every Hallmark Christmas rom-com movie ever made, or innumerable car commercials with bow-wrapped automobiles on Christmas morning. The meaning of Christmas is quite clear. Christmas is about the fulfillment of our desires, whether they be for toys, a new Lexus, or a romantic partner. Joy is fulfilled by acquisition and possession.

This is the first year since 1965 in which the Charlie Brown Christmas Special will not be shown on network TV (Apple having acquired the rights in 2020). I have watched it every year for as long as I can remember. Unlike almost every other made for TV offering, the Charlie Brown Special does not purport to offer the meaning of Christmas as possession or fulfillment. And that makes it interesting.

Growing up with this 1965 TV special, I forgot how radical it was–the first children’s TV special with actual children’s voice acting, a cutting-edge jazz soundtrack, no laugh track to tell you when to be amused, a dry sense of irony appealing to adults and children, and at its center the Gospel of Luke as the climax of the story, so central no editor could remove it.

The show begins with the unstated presumptions of all network TV specials—Christmas is all about desire and its fulfillment. Lucy wants real estate and celebrity, wryly sharing with the audience that Christmas is actually the work of an East Coast syndicate. Sally, who would feel at home in any Hallmark Christmas movie, wants money and a boyfriend. Schroeder wants artistic recognition. And even Snoopy wants “money, money, money!” Bill Melendez’s “artistic blandishments” makes it all look so innocent, but the Charlie Brown Special is a radical critique of consumerist individualism and materialistic nihilism. The vacuum of meaning results in a genuine existential crisis for Charlie Brown who knows he is depressed because he cannot surrender to self-deception and cannot make sense of any of it. His depression is amplified by his general anxiety disorder. He is “afraid of everything” by his own acknowledgement. Finally, all of this is made vastly worse by the honestly depicted cruelty of other children who will not invite him to their parties reinforcing alienation and loneliness. They shame him by publicly denying him even polite Christmas greetings. Confusion, shame, anxiety, social isolation, and bullying beat him down. Unsupported and alone, it is no surprise that Charlie Brown is oppressed by this holiday that is supposed to bring joy, but instead perpetuates only dread.

Charlie Brown’s answer is the solution of the modern world—endless productivity. If only he can get involved, if only his industry can remain one step ahead of his pondering melancholy, then perhaps he can escape his questions and reside happily ever after in self-important busyness and achievement that is readily rewarded by his peers in the Christmas pageant. But it does not work. First, he cannot achieve enough. The rehearsal crashes down in a managerial disaster. Second, he cannot let go and give himself over to decadent pleasure seeking as the sum total of meaning with the rest of the cast. The other children are lost in a musical reverie, courtesy of Vince Guaraldi’s classic soundtrack, but their exuberant joy only sharpens the contrast with his own plaintive longing and despair. Exiled from the theater company and its unstated but powerful social norms, he heads out alone in exile into the wilderness.

One of the ironies of the children’s quest to fulfill their desires is of course it does not work. Lucy receives no real estate. Sally obtains neither cash nor a boyfriend. Schroeder is reduced to playing showtunes. With no small measure of irony, the only one who fulfills his desire is a dog. Snoopy receives the first-place cash prize for Christmas decorations.

Trudging into the empty auditorium, Charlie Brown asks the universe, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” To which the ever-faithful Linus responds, “sure Charlie Brown,” and proceeds to quote the Gospel of Luke 2: 8-14. The interesting thing about Linus’ choice of scripture is that it is not the account of the birth of Jesus. Rather it is about the shepherd’s reaction to the announcement of the birth of Jesus. The meaning Linus shares is not the dogmatic fact of Jesus birth but rather alienated humanity’s response to Jesus’ birth. And that reaction is one of overwhelming gratitude, joy, and curiosity about the scope and nature of what God has done, a curiosity that will lead them up into Bethlehem. The meaning is not a fact, not something that can be reduced to a declarative sentence. The meaning is a movement of the heart, a quickening of the pulse, a sense of wonder, joy, gratitude, and utter surprise. Indeed, only upon restating this good news that Linus finally lets go of his own anxiety and outgrows his need for totemic protection as he drops his blanket on stage.

Finally, with all the children, Charlie Brown goes out into the snow and does not answer the meaning of Christmas because he finally realizes it has no declarative meaning, which would be just another fact we can control. Instead, Charlie Brown along with all the children give the only honest answer possible. They live it. They enact and participate in the shepherds’ response. They let go of their desires, wants, and attachments and instead give themselves over to the witness of praise, gratitude, and exuberant joy. It is no coincidence that they sing Hark the Herald Angels’ Sing, because in the final frame, they join and become one with the angels in a chorus of praise.

The most humble, downright shabby of organic Christmas trees was dwarfed by the towering artificial aluminum monstrosities. But in the end, that humblest of scrubby trees is revealed for what it truly is, the most perfect of all. It is perfect not simply in its form and appearance. It is perfect in its genuine authenticity as opposed to our shallow artificiality. It is perfect in its authentic completeness and the relationship that it shares with the children. And it all gets expressed in the world in the most outwardly humble of forms. Through the joy, gratitude, and exuberant love expressed by the children, the tree is perfected. And so is Charlie Brown. The children together become a community bound not by shared desire, but shared gratitude. And so, if we are willing to join the chorus, can we.

The truth of Christmas is not a meaning or a fact, let alone an event. The truth of Christmas is a poignant feeling perched between already and not yet. It is the sensation of a dull ache of something missing inside, but that could be. It is the desire for something deeper than our wants that we cannot quite imagine or name. We are born with this sense of longing. It is an innate part of what makes us human.

I hope you have a merry Christmas. But more importantly I hope you touch and feel that longing that lies somewhere beneath all our desires because that longing leads not to pleasurable satisfaction but to God. Charlie Brown, in his anxious seeking and dissatisfaction with all the world’s empty answers, was on the right path to what he sought all along. Perhaps we should follow.

November 29, 2022

Advent always confuses me. I never know which way to face. Most of the hymns and symbols of the church look backwards to the curious events around the village of Bethlehem during the last days of the reign of Herod the Great. We sing our carols as if we were somehow those people back then look forward with plaintive anticipation for the coming of the baby Jesus. But of course, nobody back then was looking forward to the coming of the baby Jesus except perhaps his immediate family and even they were anxious. Nobody was looking forward to his birth because a baby born into a feed trough was the exact opposite of the sort of messiah that they hoped for.

To make matters more complicated, their potential anticipation was already fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. He was born, lived, died, and lived. It is not something I can look forward to because it is already completed.

Advent can also look forward in time. The alternative that I have held onto throughout most of my adult life is that Advent is the season of the church that looks for Jesus’ second coming in power and majesty to bring all creation to its restoration and perfection. Advent then becomes the season of apocalyptic expectation for the return of the King. We wait and watch and stay awake for the big return when all will be put right knowing not the time or the hour of his coming. This is the hope that sustains me when the world seems overwhelmed with despair. God’s Kingdom is coming, and soon. But of course, it tends not to happen today. Resurrection and Revelation seem to take an awfully long time, much longer than the early Christians anticipated. So while I affirm the need to wait and watch and prepare, I also recognize that I may never live to see the coming of that glorious day.

There is an alternative understanding of Advent that falls squarely between the birth of Jesus and his dramatic return. You can choose to look neither to the past nor to the future, but to the present. You can choose to look neither backwards nor forwards but inwards.

The arrival of God in the flesh takes multiple forms, as a peasant child born in Bethlehem and as a liberating sovereign. And it happens in one other manner as well. In you. We believe that at Pentecost, the God of Creation and the God-Man Jesus came to us by one other way—through Spirit. The Holy Spirit is as much God as is Jesus and that Spirit now abides in us as close as our breath. Indeed, the word Spirit in both Hebrew and Greek also means breath. Every moment you inhale and exhale and in that moment are invited into participation with Spirit. God is as close as your next breath, but only if you pay attention.

It is no surprise that every major prayer and meditation in every world religion focuses on breath because when we focus on our own breath we force our minds to slow down and pay attention to the here and the now. The Advent of the Spirit is always Advent in the present tense, available to you now in this moment every bit as much as it was for ancient shepherds or future witnesses to Christ’s return. Practicing Advent of the Spirit simply means paying attention to the miracle all around you and the miracle that is you. We celebrate it simply by waking up from our distractions, numbing, and endless internal chatter. Waking up we begin participating in God with us, Emmanuel, not simply God with first century Galileans. Waking up we begin to breathe more fully into Spirit, trust more deeply in it, and open our very selves to ever greater vulnerability and hope. In doing so we slowly move from waking up to growing up, growing up to become the new kind of humanity that Jesus both described and demonstrated.

At Fairmont our mission is help each other become inspired in its original and fullest sense of Spirit-breathed. That way and that way alone is the way to becoming fully alive such that death cannot contain us. We believe as followers of Jesus in the possibility of life before death and it is all made possible by the Advent of the Spirit.

The Spirit gets short shrift at this time of year. You will find no cards about it. It is so much easier to focus instead on events long ago and far away. But maybe the greatest gifts of all lie right in front of us, here, now—life abundant and eternal and participation in the community of Trinity.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly. Pay attention. Slowly wake up from your slumbers. Slowly grow up from our anxious adolescence. We are star stuff breathed into life by our creator who is always as close as our next breath. God may have come to us and God may be coming, but far more important, God is already here.

–Brian

November 22, 2022

Blessings

As part of our Epiphany Prayer Star Word practice this past January, I drew the word “Blessings” for the 2022 year. Epiphany Prayer Star Words are meant to be simple tools for meditation, study, and prayer for the year; a word to bring spiritual inspiration and focus in the midst of our busy lives.

Blessings. Honestly, I wanted to put the word back and pick another word for the year. I don’t like the words Blessings or Blessed. They have lost meaning for me. Too common. Too overused. Too simple. Too privileged. Too trite.

Have a blessed day.
Count your blessings.
Too blessed to be stressed.
A blessing in disguise.
Be grateful for small blessings.
Give thanks for your blessings.

I have struggled this year to find meaning in the word Blessings. What does it mean to have gratitude? To be blessed? To give thanks? To be a blessing? As we approach this Thanksgiving holiday, where is God in the midst of this season of Thanksgiving?

I struggle because I am ever and always aware that I have everything I need or want, and more. I am ever and always aware that I am privileged, that I have family, friends, meaningful work, a beautiful home, food, clothes, and all the extras of life. I am ever and always aware that I am “blessed.” While all along, I am ever and always aware that millions of people do not have everything they need, let alone what they want. I live in the comfort of never being in want for anything material or earthly. Yet, children of God across the world live without food, housing, and medicine on a daily basis.

When I was a student in seminary in Southern California, I traveled often across the border into Mexico with a seminary mission program that ministered with and for poorer families. I remember clearly the genuine joy that radiated from these families as they shared their food and drink with us, scarce as it was.

I do not mean to glorifying poverty. Poverty is horrible. Those precious families suffered greatly and worked hard to feed their families. But they understood “blessing” in a very different way than I ever could. The children giggled with delight when they were given a fresh lemon off of the lemon tree. Each day and each meal was a gift to them. A gift from God. And they knew it. They felt it. They lived it.

All good gifts, indeed, come from God alone. We are deceived if we think we have earned that goodness that God gives. In humility we receive the gift of God’s blessings and grace, even and especially when we do not deserve it.

When Jesus was gathered with those he loved around the meal of Passover, he took the bread and after giving thanks to God, he broke the bread. Jesus understood that every gift, earthly and spiritual, was given by God alone, and therefore was life-sustaining.

May we approach this Thanksgiving with deep gratitude in our hearts for God’s abundant goodness and grace. And may we in turn be a blessing to others.

With gratitude,

Kelley

November 15, 2022

Over the past year in worship, we have been reading through the Old Testament and lifting up the themes and major events of what we are calling THE GREAT STORY PART ONE: ISRAEL. We call it the Great Story because it is a story that makes sense of every other story including our own. There are two more parts that we will be exploring in 2023 and 2024 respectively, THE GREAT STORY PART TWO: JESUS and THE GREAT STORY PART THREE: THE CHURCH.

One of the great missions of the church is to help each individual and each generation come to see their lives in a vast context that provides a foundation, meaning, purpose, and hope. That foundation is the Great Story. That story begins with creation as an extroverted eruption of God’s own superabundant love and creativity. But to create something separate and apart from God admits the possibility of true freedom. Separation from God (what we call sin) is the logically dependent corollary of that freedom. But God has plan. Creation will be redeemed. So, God calls a people to do precisely that: Israel. Israel is summoned to be a faithful people to bring the world back to loving order. But Israel has its own problems. Israel is very very human, which means they make a mess of it. So, God creates a faithful human being, a new prototype for what we can become. His name was Jesus. This God-Man Jesus enters our world and our lives and in doing so, makes a mess of the brokenness of the world. He teaches and preaches a better way. And when he dies, he does not fit inside death. So, death broke. And after that his followers, the church, went out filled with his same spirit and changed and change the world.

There is a GREAT STORY PART FOUR. It is called THE KINGDOM. We do not know how to preach or teach about it. We do, however, know how to hope for it and, however provisionally, try to emulate its ways in our living. We call that hope and the intentional process of living that way faith.

The culture we live in does not have a story to shape our lives. The only story that matters is your own. There is no purpose other than the fulfillment of personal desires. There is no duty except to seek the freedom and the power to fulfill those desires. There is no destiny other than pleasure in all its forms. Beauty is purely a matter of taste. Truth is personal choice. Goodness is merely a lifestyle decision. What matters is authenticity, but authentic to what? And if you fail at fulfilling all your desires, that is your own fault. It is also a very lonely world we have created where there is only us. We have disenchanted creation and disconnected from each other. We have successfully alienated ourselves from God, creation, our communities, our friends, family, and ultimately our very selves. And then, all alone with our self-fulfillment and our stuff we wonder why we are so anxious, depressed, and miserable.

One great overarching value of the modern age is authenticity. But authentic to what? What I am, who I am, arises from the thick web of relationships, commitments, communities, cultures, and institutions in which I live and grow. We are made to be relational beings. Moreover, we are always changing and growing. There is no such thing as a static self. We are emergent beings, never defined, always becoming.

To make sense of my life, my world, and my destiny, I need a story to hang all my hope and meaning on. My life is not my own ultimately, I am merely a player in a vast drama that began long before I was born and will go on long after I die. I only need play my part today with conviction. Some days I will not even do that so well, but there is always tomorrow. So, I imitate those who went before me. I try to emulate the patterns of lived behavior taught, which we call virtues. And I look to the East in the same direction from which they were sure their hope would come because come it surely will.

The Great Story is your story and our story because it weaves together all our stories and gives them meaning and purpose. How will you write your next chapter? Who will you emulate? How will you advance the plot? This is a vast unscripted drama in which we live.

And the director is curiously waiting to see what you will do next.

–Brian

November 8, 2022

Today is election day. You should vote. Then go home. Maybe, go for a walk. Tell your family you love them. Make something nice for dinner. Read a good book. And under no conditions whatsoever should you turn on the television. It will be good for your soul.

It does not matter who is winning or losing. The problem lies deeper. The problem is that all our news stations do not really sell information. They sell advertising. They make money by keeping you watching. And the way day do that is by hooking your emotions. Human beings are wonderfully unique in our geniuses and delights. We all tend to be the same in our baser feelings. Fear, anger, and anxiety sell. Our media trades in these base impulses along with the occasional dabble of sexuality. Television news stations use image and rhetoric to trigger those feelings and keep us watching. It does not matter which station you watch, whether Fox or MSNBC, they all play the same game. And we are all the losers for it.

I do not suggest willful ignorance. Tomorrow, or better yet the day after tomorrow, either go online or pick up a paper. Actually, pick up lots of them. Somewhere between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times you will get a clearer sense of what happened, but without the raw trigger of images. We probably will not know what happened tonight for a few days anyway, but the babbling classes still need to fill all that on air time.

Jesus seemed remarkably unconcerned about politics, even when it killed him. Jesus never appears to have engaged in any direct political action (the whole money changers in the temple thing appears to have been a purity issue). He could have. No doubt some of Jesus’ disciples wanted him to take a clear political stance. But he did not.

Paul taught the earliest church to be good Roman citizens and subjects. Pay your taxes. Obey the law. But never ever forget that the Empire is not your true home, Caesar is not your true Lord, and the ethnic and class labels the Empire assigns to you are not your true identity. Instead of endlessly fighting the world of politics, create a new one. Create small cells, little beloved communities of genuine sharing, compassion, and hope as an alternative to a world of greed and violence. Then use the Empires magnificent communication and transportation networks to spread the invitation to those new communities regenerating them throughout the Empire. The early Christian church spread rather like cancer through the lymphatic system, reprogramming people and parts of the Empire to become something, someone profoundly different than the Empire intended. Except this metastasis (literally the movement of change) did not spread disease. It spread life.

For its first three centuries the Christian Church was a small and persecuted minority. The Bible and the early church fathers and mothers were profoundly ambivalent and skeptical about all political power. During the Middle Ages, Popes and Bishops dabbled in power politics. It did not end well. And even at the height of Papal investiture crises, people seemed to know that something was profoundly out of order. Since the Seventeenth Century, things have settled down, at least in Europe and the West.

The church has flourished and spread its message under democracies, republics, autocracies, oligarchies, aristocracies, monarchies, dictatorships, tribal chieftains, nomadic hunter gatherer family groups, and the occasional bout of utter chaos. There is no preferred or natural political home for the Christian movement. And that is sort of the point. The Good News of Jesus offers us a home, an identity, and a hope from the declarations and projections of politics.

The affairs of public life are worthy of your attention, intelligence, and resources. Jesus calls us to fully engage in and with the world, not retreat from it. So, please do seek the common good. Seek after policies that best serve the needs of the people and support candidates that you believe will do so. But then let it go. Turn off the TV. It will only tend to make you upset (regardless of your opinions).

Politics does not define our world for the simple reason that humans created politics and nothing human made is of permanent or ultimate significance. So, take a night off. I promise your favorite news channel will be there when your return.

And if you want to simply catch a glimpse of something permanent and of infinite significance, go out under the night sky beneath the blanket of stars. And behold.

–Brian

November 1, 2022

Today, November 1, has special significance for me for two very distinct but connected reasons. First, today is the Solemnity of All Saints, aka All Hallows, aka the Day of the Dead. It is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember and celebrate all those who have died in Christ who now await in him the resurrection of the body. It is also the day my wife Lisa and I adopted our dog Nala. The events have more in common than you might think.

Nala was a stray running loose in Fairborn. Her original owners had abandoned and perhaps abused her and she ended up in the care of Greene County Animal Control, from which we adopted her. We do not know the circumstances of her early life. But please know her story took a positive turn a few All Saints Days ago when she entered our family. Today, on her “forever home” day she will dine on a tiny filet mignon with a cocktail of beef consommé. We named her Nala because it is the Swahili word for “gift” for that is what she has been to us.

Today is also All Saints, a day to remember, celebrate, and give thanks for those who have gone before us. Originally in the Roman Catholic tradition, All Saints was reserved only for those who achieved spiritual maturity for which they were canonized. Tomorrow, November 2, was All Souls Day for everybody else. While I am all for aspiring to spiritual maturity in this life and celebrate that rare and wonderful quality in the lives of others, I recognize that all our strivings are incomplete in this life. But I do recognize that they are made complete in union with Christ, a state of being that can only happen upon letting go of everything that is not God. In other words, a state of being that can only be realized upon death. One may or may not be a saint in this life, but all are saints in death for the simple reason that all who die in Christ now know and are truly known. They stand upon a distant shore and in a brighter light. Now they know.

All Saints is not intended as day for grief. It is a celebration of the ultimate destination of all grief in gratitude and the daily practice of incubating that gratitude in joy. Our creaturely hearts are fearfully and wonderfully made to love impermanent beings, and that means letting them go. Both that overwhelming sense of joy at the sheer gift of it all and the truth of letting go applies as much to my own life, as to those I love. As the poet Mary Oliver observed, “Of course I wake up finally thinking, how wonderful to be who I am, made out of earth and water, my own thoughts, my own fingerprints —all that glorious, temporary stuff.”

Dogs (generally) have much shorter lifespans than people. You cannot fail to notice their relative impermanence. Perhaps that brevity gives our relationships with animals a certain license to love with abandon. And should you ever wish to see incarnate holiness, by which I simply mean God coming to live God’s life in us, all you need do is watch a dog fly off its leash across a meadow.

Sometimes I feel we do not love each other, our family, our friends, let alone strangers, and even less ourselves with that same kind of delight and abandon. We conform to socialized expectations and maintain the illusion that there will always be tomorrow. But it is not so.

All Saints is not ultimately for the dead, who now reside quite contentedly in the love of Christ, but for the living. You and I and everyone you will ever know will die. Death is not a problem to be overcome. Death is the reminder that our role is not to grasp and cling to that which cannot be held let alone possessed, but instead to simply pay attention and live and love completely today.

No one and no thing belongs to us. It is all a gift.

–Brian

October 25, 2022

I love the Sixteenth Century. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Galileo, Michelangelo, Catherine De Medici, Cortez, Shakespeare, Magellan, and John Donne, are just some of the fascinating characters of that most vibrant century. It was also a time of intense social, political, and economic conflict both between and among nations. It was an age of competing faiths and rival fundamentalisms. And it was an age of anxiety when wars, epidemics, and economic ruin waited around every turn. In short, it was rather like this age, albeit with less attention paid to personal hygiene.

On Sunday we celebrate our Reformation heritage. Our particular little branch of the Christian faith got started when a group of stubborn Scots threw their imperious bishop out a window (please remember that I am not a bishop lest you get any ideas). Their resistance was both theological—opposing the Roman church’s corruption and additions to scripturally founded practices—and political—opposing the overweening power of the aristocratic prince bishops in favor of a crude but effective representative democracy. They opposed the authority of both the Pope and King to rule over peoples’ consciences. And all of this unfolded as unprecedented economic and technological changes unsettled communities as never before making the world both smaller and more anxious.

The Scottish Reformation in turn looked to a former lawyer, John Calvin, who laid out the foundations of a reformed church on three foundations. First, everything we can or ever will know can be reduced to two topics: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. And you cannot have one kind of knowledge without the other. The more you want to really understand God, the more you need to know yourself. Second, people when left to their own devices generally mess up. We are an anxious, greedy, nearsighted lot. We mess up our own lives, the lives of others, and our world. This is perhaps the only theological doctrine that can be empirically demonstrated. Finally, the only way that anything really good happens is through God making it happen according to God’s own sovereign and sometimes utterly inexplicable grace. On our own, we tend to create a world in which what really matters is what we do, but that is an arrogant illusion. What actually matters is not what we do nor do not do, but what God does.

Taken together, these new foundations provided the sure footing for the Reformers and their descendants to first challenge and then overthrow the drowsy dogmas of the past and open up new realms of discovery in the Enlightenment. While their world came crashing down around them, they now had a new fixed point of certainty from which to observe one world disappearing and another emerging all around them.

And so can we.

Our world is changing socially, economically, politically, culturally, and technologically and the rate of that change is accelerating. That constant acceleration of change lies beneath every conflict and tension we observe. The constant acceleration of change infects everyone with anxiety. There is an alternative. We can, like Luther, Calvin, and Knox before us, leave the outcomes of all our predicament to the all-powerful God who is also the God of love. We can let go of our need to maintain illusory control and instead fall with an open heart into God’s receiving arms of grace. And we can engage in every challenge to create a more loving, more beautiful, more just world, knowing that in body and soul, no matter the outcome, we belong to God.

We are creation brought to sentience and gifted with soul by the Creator not for our ends, but for God’s. So, do not be afraid. Instead, participate, celebrate, and in all things, belong.

Happy Reformation Heritage Sunday!

October 18, 2022

I am sorry I could not be with you for Children’s Sabbath this past Sunday. I was preaching with our friends at Hilliard United Methodist. While there I encountered a teenage woman wearing a button that said, “Smart and Sassy Theologian.” I complimented her on her commitments and public witness. In conversation with her I quickly realized that the button was truthful, she did indeed have her own clear and articulate ideas about God and the church. I do however wonder whether she would ever wear such a button outside of church. The secular dogma of expressive individualism looks down on anything or anyone who points to some foundation of truth and identity beyond individual choice.

If you were born in the 1960’s or earlier, you grew up in a different universe than the one that exists today. You grew up, whether you knew it or not, within a giant shared narrative about the way the world works, where it is heading, and what it means to be a good person. That narrative was shaped, at least in the United States, by the ancient faith stories of the Bible and the institutions of the church and synagogue. That culture could be autocratic, patriarchal, and racist, but it provided a shared grammar with which to discuss meaning, purpose, value, and identity. Such a world is populated by “givens,” the assumptions of thought and behavior that passed by unnoticed and unconsidered. One of those givens was at least some generic acquiescence to a supernatural entity that was both creator and concerned with our lives and well-being. Due to a variety of social changes (including but not limited to distrust in institutions, rise of expressive individualism, economic commodification, breakdown of families, breakup of communities, the rise of mass communications, failures of religious institutions, social mobility, social media, and a normative culture of secularism) that shared narrative first wobbled in the late 1960’s and has progressively disappeared ever since.

If you were born in the 1960’s or earlier, that shared narrative and the social expectations that went along with it guaranteed that most people belonged to a religious community. No individual was necessarily more spiritual or devout, it was simply the social expectation to belong and participate. Social rewards in terms of group belonging and status went along with that. This explains the meteoric rise in church participation from 1945-65, which have never been as high before or since.

The ”Smart and Sassy Theologian” I met on Sunday was probably not aware of the social and ideological history that led to her cultural predicament. But I guarantee that she knows only too well that committing your life, meaning, value, and purpose on something beyond individual choice and fulfillment, let alone on something as unfashionable as a supernatural ground of all being we summarily call God, no longer grants you access to the popular “in” crowd. For secular society, religion is a hobby, not all that different than stamp collecting, needlepoint, or fantasy football—something you choose to do privately that gives you pleasure. The thing about hobbies, as opposed to say vocations, is that they are purely private pursuits shared by and meaningful to only their fellow devotees.

The problem with secular society’s accordance with religion as a private choice is that faith cannot be a private choice. If the foundation of faith is simply private option, then what we call religion is at best an aesthetic preference. All the Abrahamic faiths rail against this notion of choice and flip it on its head. It begins with choice, but not us choosing God, rather God choosing us. That foundation threatens all of secular modernity because it acknowledges an authority independent of and superior to personal choice. And while secular modernity may not consign its heretics to the auto da fé, there are far more insidious punishments and banishments.

Sometimes I hear people lament why there are not more young people in church. I hear that as an expression of grief for a lost world that I never knew. When I see young people engaged at church, I reach a different conclusion. There surely must be a God because it is astonishing that any young person in our age and culture so hostile to faith would choose to explore a spiritual community at all absent actual divine intervention. And so, I celebrate and congratulate our youth not for their polite piety but for their ferocious courage.

The church that will first nurture and then be led by these young people will look different and act different than what has gone before. We have already seen in young people’s passions for justice, authenticity, intimacy, and truth telling the outlines of a movement very different from the denominational corporations of the past. The “Smart and Sassy Theologian” and her colleagues seem to have little patience with polite, socialized religion and seem far more concerned about the messy, unsettling, Spirit driven work of transformation, both individual and social. They want to know the truth, not the right answers. They want to know themselves, and their peers, and you. In learning each other’s honest stories, they slowly collect data on the activities and purposes of this subtle but persistent supernatural entity at work in our lives.

I thank God for the children of Fairmont, for their patience with some of our fussy ways, for their bold questions, for their smarts and sass, for their intolerance of tired social dogmas, for their courage to pursue a difficult path through this age, and for their passionate integrity to seek God’s ways for them and this world today.

The world has changed. Christendom has ended. Now the church emerges again. And the children will lead us forward.

–Brian

October 11, 2022

Last week I travelled with 23 other pastors to Alabama on a civil rights pilgrimage. We visited many of the sites of the civil rights movement, museums and memorials, and we visited the churches that were directly involved in the civil rights struggle and heard from participants in the actual events. It was moving, exhausting, and unsettling.

I have visited over 30 countries, but have always avoided the deep south. The pain seemed too raw and the evils perpetrated there seemed too fresh. Now I realize that in avoiding that land, I also averted my eyes from the many of the saints of God who, under threats I cannot imagine, bravely gave witness to the equality and worth of all God’s children whether white or black. In turning away from them and their stories, I was turning away from the Spirit’s work in America.

In Birmingham I was confronted by the ultimate price of not seeing clearly. You can walk the city and see the churches that were bombed, the little plaques where people were beaten or murdered, and the now understated but persistent presence of Confederate “heritage.” You can also see the aching vulnerability in the searching eyes of the racism’s victims as displayed so powerfully at the National Civil Rights Museum. These places and the people’s stories pose an uncomfortable question. How can one person treat another this way? The answer is of course that one person cannot treat another so. To murder, torture, isolate, impoverish, or simply denigrate another you first must stop viewing them as fully, equally human. You must view them as a thing and that distortion in perspective is the original sin that underlies everything that happened in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, as well as Auschwitz, Armenia, Nanking, Wounded Knee, Sichuan, Kigali, Srebrenica, and hundred thousand other places lost to memory where human beings forgot who we are and committed atrocities beyond description and tears.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was a reluctant participant in the civil rights struggle. Its professional, middle-class congregation tried to stay out of all the unrest. But the unrest came for them. One month after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, terrorists planted dynamite outside the women’s washroom on Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The timer was set to detonate seven minutes before worship began. The day the terrorists chose was Youth Sunday. Four young girls, preparing to lead in worship were killed that day. Although there were many witnesses, the police made no arrests. Indeed, no convictions would occur for over thirty years.

What struck me most about Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the stained-glass window that stood along the south wall where the blast occurred. It depicts Jesus patiently knocking at a door: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” Rev. 3:20. The stained-glass window amazingly remained intact except for two partial panels. The image of Jesus’ face and his heart were blown out by the blast. It was as if the face of God turned away from us in grief and shame while the heart of God itself was broken.

The image of the faceless, heartless Jesus will forever haunt me along with its associated verse. Jesus’ question was directed to the people of Laodicea who ran neither hot nor cold. They were moderates. They avoided conflict. They avoided taking stands. They paid attention to their own lives and their own concerns and failed to notice the pain and injustice all around them let alone do anything about it. In doing so they locked Jesus out of their lives and the humanity of their neighbors.

I do not pretend to have answers, but I cannot unsee what I have seen or unlearn what I have learned, most of all from my African American ministry colleagues. But from now on, I can pay attention.

–Brian

October 4, 2022

Healing

It has been a long month away from you, my beloved Fairmont family! I am grateful for your prayers, cards, calls, texts, flowers, visits, and love as I have been recovering from surgery (second Hiatal Hernia surgery in two years). I am doing well and feeling stronger and more whole each day. It was wonderful to be with you again this past weekend as the speaker for the Women of Fairmont Gathering on Saturday, leading worship Sunday morning, and blessing furry animals on Sunday afternoon (St. Francis of Assisi Blessing of the Animals).

Healing has come in many forms and through many agents of healing for me. Physical healing came through the gifts of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals, and through IV drips, robotic laparoscopic surgical tools, and modern day medicines. Physical healing also came through long naps and quality sleep. And physical healing came most definitely through the ability to eat and drink once again after months of an esophageal blockage and a liquid diet.

But there are other kinds of healing that must happen in order to be whole and “human” again. There is the emotional healing that comes through the love and support of family, friends, church, and the faithful visits and pastoral care of Pastor Brian.

And there is the spiritual healing, maybe the most important healing of all. I was blanketed in your prayers and I felt those prayers. I was reminded each day of the grace given to me as Pastor Brian, Loralei, Jennifer, and many faithful volunteers covered for me in my absence. It is hard to receive such grace but I am grateful.

And the physical, emotional, and spiritual healing were woven together for me when I was finally able to take long neighborhood walks on these beautiful autumn days.

Thank you for being the Body of Christ for me in a time of absence and healing – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Love,

Pastor Kelley

September 27, 2022

One of the problems that I struggle with is anxiety. By anxiety I mean the undefined, inchoate fear that something is wrong or about to go wrong and I have somehow failed or am unable to fix it. It is sort of like an ambient precursor to fear that has not yet found a specific threat to attach itself to become a particular fear. It is the vigilant, hyper attention that keeps the prairie dog perched on her mound alert to danger. It is the over reactivity to every loud noise and the assumption that every phone call will bring bad news. It is also quality that keeps a single line of “what if . . . .” spiraling in your mind at 3:00 a.m. Based on what many of you have told me, a lot of you struggle with it too. Based on what young people are telling researchers it is epidemic accelerated with all the persuasive power of social media.

There are lots of causes for anxiety—e.g., childhood trauma, environmentally stressors, chemical imbalances, physical insecurity—but they all arise from two underlying assumptions that are so basic that we tend not to notice them. First, we assume that the world in general and our lives within it are unsafe. That is the “something is wrong even when I am not quite sure what it is” part. The second assumption that again goes without mention let alone proof is that as individuals we possess some specific agency, control, authority, or responsibility to address that problem, which we have failed to exercise. That is the “and I have somehow failed” part.

As adults we learn to conceal anxiety well behind our various masks (bravado, ultra-competence, and perennial incompetence all work), numb it (alcohol and food are always popular), hide from it (binge watching Netflix at home), hide it from others (expressive confidence unto arrogance), or (confusingly) amplify it through unhealthy risk-taking, aggression, violence, and self-harm. None of these behaviors leads to helpful or healthy outcomes.

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor. Various therapies and interventions can be enormously helpful for people struggling with anxiety and if you struggle with anxiety, I encourage you to seek them out. But I am a pastor and as a pastor my interest is theological. Anxiety is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of fact. It is a misunderstanding so fundamental that we do not even notice it because it is part of our internal and social realities in which we live unreflectively. To notice these faulty premises requires us to pay exquisite attention because they are so easily assumed. First, this world is not at its essence a dangerous place out to get you. Creation is created good and beautiful and while it has been defaced by sin, the signs of the Creator’s providential care and concern are all around us. We have a perceptive negative bias that amplifies the bad to the exclusion of the good. Moreover, the threats we feel and the dangers from which we recoil, pale in comparison to the promises, possibilities, and destinies we have received. The world is not as bad as we fear. The world is fundamentally good even when certain bad events occur within it.

 

The second faulty assumption is that we dramatically overestimate our own competency and agency to change it. The great humanistic move of the Enlightenment was to locate the center of all meaning, purpose, and truth inside the individual. That results in the hyper-expressive and expansive individualism that defines our culture, but the individual is simply not big enough to carry ultimate meaning. Our lives are contingent, given meaning by and part of a much grander narrative that began long before we were born in which we play meaningful but not necessarily starring roles. We are characters in that story, not its author. You do not “create a life,” you simply live it. And compared to the vast sweep of history, human or divine, all our lives are small precious moments in the great unfolding of truth that we cannot yet perceive. That means that the purpose, the optimal strategy of our lives, is honest faithfulness not perfect fulfillment that will never happen. And sometimes, despite that faithfulness, things simply happen to us because we are not in charge.

 

When I talk to our students who have not yet been taught adulthood’s lesson to hide it all away, I can see the burden of anxiety on them. I can see the crushing weight of expectation if we in our lives are expected to bear the weight of all meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and value. What I so want to say to them is just what Jesus says to me and to you,

 

You are not in charge

Do not be afraid

My burden is light

God has a plan

And do not worry, you are loved.

–Brian

September 20, 2022

With a few hundred million other people, I woke early on Monday to watch the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The pomp and pageantry were extraordinary to behold as the longest reign in British history concluded. One moment that struck me was almost the final one. Just before the coffin was interred at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, the Lord High Chamberlain took the rod of office, symbolizing the Queen’s power at court, and snapped it in two. The broken fragments of the wand were then interred with the Queen. It was a simple and at the same time profound public act symbolizing that this too has now come to a conclusion.

One thing that the Crown understands well is the power and potential of ritual. In a national shared ritual of mourning and transition, emotions were poured out, gratitude expressed, change recognized, and ultimate hope affirmed. A funeral is not for the dead. The dead do not need our prayers or ceremonies. The dead now dwell in God’s care. A funeral is for the living in helping us get to where we need to go: the future. When a community shares in that together it taps into an unseen power in the course of human life, the power of human hearts and bodies feeling, yearning, grieving, and hoping as one. You could almost feel the United Kingdom straining forward just like the 146 Royal Navy sailors pulling the gun carriage. The British remember and hold on to something that most of us have long forgotten. Our identities are bundled together—family, community, nation, and faith. A shared sense of grief or loss is simply the flip side of a shared sense of community and belonging. The power of the ritual comes from the down-to-the-marrow sense that we are all together, and not just those privileged to be living, but also the living and the dead.

In the era of expressive and expansive individualism in which we live our lives, the notion of shared grieving with the living and the dead has been supplanted by the, “celebration of life.” Thanksgiving and gratitude are always important. But all by themselves offer little comfort and even less of a foundation for moving forward. We lift up the deceased’s resume and achievements politely ignoring that their chief current attribute, namely being dead, is held in common by all, princes and paupers alike. I worry sometimes that the notion of “celebration of life” looks for ultimate meaning, purpose, and salvation in the wrong place, namely inside our lives. Death is the great equalizer that forces us to consider the hard truth that if our life and all its many blessings is indeed the crucible of ultimate meaning and purpose, then it all ends rather abruptly upon our expiration. If all we celebrate is a life now ended, then every human joy is necessarily abbreviated and contingent, ending far too soon. If something as fleeting as human life is the sole bearer of meaning and purpose, then there is no such thing as meaning and purpose at all.

Ritual reorients us away from this trap and shows us a way out of existential despair. A funeral is fundamentally about truth telling. First, our beloved has died. Second, our beloved shall be raised. And third, we will be with them again and until that time we try to be inspired by them. The part we often fail to mention is that by inspired we do not simply mean motivated to emulate their virtues. By inspired I mean that they pray for us urging us onward by and through the Spirit. The dead literally breathe spirit through us in prayer, in Latin In-Spire. Words help, the Word points us in the right direction, but the embodied ritual conveys these truths in sighs of the Spirit deeper than our words.

We shall never again hear the proclamation, “God Save the Queen,” of Elizabeth Regina. There is no point to such an intercession because God already has done so. Instead, the intercessions are for us, the living who need all the help we can get. The foundation for that help is the simple acknowledgement that our salvation and purpose, whether mighty or modest, do not come from us and are not contained by us. They are from God and carried by God. So, we do not need to be afraid anymore. And the whole purpose of our shared enterprise called church is to simply remember and live into that hope.

We live and we die . . . and we live. Thanks be to God who saves us all.

–Brian

September 13, 2022

What does being faithfully fit mean to you? Brian is right now taking a deep sigh at these words, because I’ve gotten fascinated with the “sport of fitness,” i.e. CrossFit, which is not his calling. But it’s never too far a lunge (or sit-up or barbel lift…) for me to wonder about how my worlds ‘talk’ to one another, or how they fit together. Particularly when last year I heard a senior CrossFit Level 1 trainer tell his own vocational story of surprise and delight. The parallels for a seminary professor were too uncanny to not invite y’all into these wonderings…

At the weekend training, Joe told us of his early love of athletics, which naturally led him to pursue it in college. He dove into kinesiology as a major, then trained for his certificate as a personal trainer. Setting about creating his own small business in the personal training industry, he encountered a bit of a conundrum that none of his formal training really crafted for him. What IS fitness? What does it even mean to be fit? He realized he couldn’t actually say!

He could give detailed schematics on the healthiest movement patterns for the human body. He could advise on nutrition, shaped by the nutrition professionals of the day. He could develop a marketing plan for his business, with catchy phrases and eye-catching images. But he realized he did not have any concise or holistic definition of the word fitness. Toward what end would he be training clients, as diverse in age and ability as human beings come? Are marathoners exemplars of fitness? Weight-lifters? Buff men or women at the gym, making a lot of noise? Then he landed into the sport of fitness, or CrossFit, which actually has an articulate, empirical and evolving-with-data definition of fitness. (It’s jargony, so just ask me sometime).

Sitting there in that training, I felt the aha! in my body as a number of jumbled puzzle pieces dropped into place. The history that my body had lived—constantly shifting sands of becoming slender or attractively feminine in our market-driven media—opened into a stunning beautiful vista of fitness that could be adapted to my own body. Just get better, however I might define better, for now? I had heard an expert in the fitness industry fess up that all his training did not prepare him for the integrative work of training for fitness, though he had all the specialized pieces. This was/is particularly germane, as much of our managed-care medicine is organized around disease, not health. Medical experts are trained to treat symptoms, sometimes to the detriment of seeing the whole person. (Channeling my med-school-prof. father here…).

As a seminary professor, I cannot help but feel the resonance and challenges in our faith world(s) today. What does it mean to be faithfully fit? I can tell you that most faculty are exquisitely trained in their specialized disciplines AND would be hard pressed to give a concise, articulate definition of being fit in faith. Each of us would encourage deepening in our own disciplines of interest—scripture, theology, history. And we train faithful leaders in the traditions we’ve inherited. But knowing more bible, more theology, more history…does that make one faithfully fit? How often are congregations today trying to diagnose and react to symptoms because we have no confidence in our understanding of faith?

So…noodle on this with me for a while… How do you recognize fitness in Christian faith? So many of us have been reared in the idea that fitness is having nothing but certainty in what one believes. I’ll show my cards now: that’s not it. Certainty is arguably a lack of faith. It is reason toward what one desires, sure, but not faith. I’m surrounded by certain-ized folks who cannot love, forgive, or walk into any unknown (to them) future. Others might suggest fitness is demonstrated in the most rigorous piety or discipline (holiness, we might say). Or demonstrating one’s greatest alignment with the historic tradition, so to belong within already accepted norms. Or perhaps it’s speaking in tongues. Or mystical experiences. What do you think? (Feel free to email me too, if ye like: lmhess@united.edu).

I’m most interested in listening into a co-emergent future with interesting people of faith, bumbling along. I don’t really have an answer, but I’ll offer what I’m noodling with, these last two decades. Being fit in faith is risking doubt-uncertainty-curiosity into God’s abundant mercies, accompanied by scripture, leading into an expressive delight and unearned belonging that companions the suffering of self and others. Whatcha think? Better, whatcha feel?

— Parish Associate, Rev. Dr. Lisa M. Hess

September 6, 2022

How many times a year—or a week?—do you get that breath of fresh air, that sense of starting something new? Do you wander in a retail establishment and feel an urge to buy school supplies? Perhaps you felt an autumn crispness to the air for the first time in a while? Most of us are well-socialized to lean into the autumn with a sense of beginnings, even though our calendar year begins January 1st. Myself? I reorganized our home a bit, cleaned off new spaces for work and writing, and prepared healthy foods for us to eat this week. Starting anew… What might give you a bit of a jumpstart in this new season?

Curiosity sent me exploring a bit, wondering why we celebrate New Year’s Day in January instead of September anyway. Calendars are quite fascinating collective endeavors, though we always take ‘ours’ for granted as how time has always been organized. Sun dials and water clocks used to be the only ways to keep track of the passing of seasons, believe it or not. Not surprisingly, leaders of political factions in ancient civilizations used to argue for changing the calendar days to postpone elections or favor their particular candidates.

January 1st wasn’t celebrated as New Year’s Day for the first time until 45 B.C.E. The Roman Emperor of the time (Julius Caesar, of course, therefore Julian) decided to reform—i.e. systematize—the calendar beyond its traditional solar or lunar origins. He and his astronomers didn’t get the rhythms quite right in calculations, however, so sometimes ‘harvest season’ would move into winter or spring. Not good. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted the calendar we have today, keeping autumn in autumn and spring (i.e. Easter) in spring. Better.

And do you know what year it is, really? You could argue it’s 5782. Or 1443! The first is the Jewish calendar, second, the Islamic calendar. When I began to teach interreligious and intercultural learning at United, I learned in much more detail the diverse calendars operative around the world. The Jewish calendar remains on a solely lunar pattern, adding an additional month seven times over nineteen years, so to keep the harvest in alignment with the seasons. The Islamic calendar remains in the lunar pattern, but does not have any ‘leap months’ to correct the lunar-solar patterns aligning with seasons. This is why the month-long fast of Ramadan can move from spring to summer to fall to winter.

The world is always much more mysterious and wonderful than we might imagine on any given day. The Jewish New Year is upon us, beginning sundown September 25th. Our big church kick-off begins this Sunday, September 11th. I’m feeling the anticipation of a new season, with some new invitations into prayer and contemplation. I may dust off my Centering Prayer app, tending to my contemplative heart once a day for 20 minutes. Perhaps your heart’s desire is to learn more deeply in community? There are weekly Zoom sessions with interesting topics that await. Perhaps your heart needs more social connection, even though we’ve gotten accustomed to the physical distancing. Try Family Night or Theology on Tap. You won’t regret it.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning… (Lamentations 3:22-23). No matter what year it is, or even what day!

— Parish Associate, Rev. Dr. Lisa M. Hess

August 30, 2022

Certitude scares me. The more I learn, the less I know. Moreover, the more I learn, the more I know how little so many others know. What masquerades as knowledge is more often than not merely rhetoric, artificial communications intended to persuade. Aristotle warned the people of Athens about this deception 24 centuries ago. A few centuries earlier, the prophet Samuel, and then later on Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Jeremiah and Ezekiel would make the same point. The Bible includes a whole book (Ecclesiastes) on the limits of human reason and the consequences of those limits experienced as folly. Human beings only know so much and can only analyze what they think they know so much. Beyond those limits lies the vast unpredictable and often unknowable future. Those hard limits of knowledge place a fence around human agency. We can only know and do so much.

Last weekend I sat in a waiting room where I was a captive audience for daytime television news. It was not actually news in the sense of new information. It was instead a group of people each expressing their opinions quite loudly and vehemently. The issue does not really matter, nor do their opposing perspectives. While claiming to be advocating for radically different positions they were actually doing the exact same thing. They were simply loudly expressing opinions about what might happen. The conversation became heated and then rude as they spoke over each other. In the end nothing was resolved, no one convinced, and nothing “new” revealed. And that is not merely the state of our politics right now. That is the state of our relationships and our own inner worlds.

I fear that our world is rather lacking in modesty right now. Acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge is tantamount to surrender in the marketplace of ideas we have created. We pick our leaders based on the certainty they demonstrate even when we all know their performances are at best vanity and at worst intentional deception. That is a not a new problem. It bedeviled ancient Israel and Judah with Kings who thought they knew better than God. They were deluded from the truth by their pride. Such presumptions need not be of power and knowledge. False presumptions of failure and ignorance are what we call shame and are just as misleading. Both deceptions poison our communities and the human heart.

What the Bible nudges us towards is the virtue of humility, neither thinking too much nor too little of oneself. Humility is simply seeing the world and our place in it for what it is. We have some knowledge of and some influence over a very narrow span of actions and relationships in this world. The vast majority of creation is utterly beyond our understanding let alone control. The only thing we can have direct knowledge of and control over are ourselves and for most of us we do not even understand half the things we do. Humility is the habitual practice of returning to ourselves to honestly consider what do we really know and what can we realistically do. That requires the us to distinguish between what is, what we fear, and what we want. The latter two are helpful in understanding ourselves, but not our world let alone other people. It requires careful attentive practice to gently set them aside in order to both focus and then act upon the truth. In the ancient church they called this examen, picking up each though in turn to consider whether it is knowledge, fear, or desire. This is also, coincidentally, the central practice of cognitive behavioral therapy.

I know some things and not others. I can do a few things well and most not at all. I can touch a few lives and make a positive impact on some, but I cannot change the world. Sometimes I do good and selfless things. At other times I can be selfish in my wants and reactive in my fears. None of that makes me bad or good. It makes me human. I am certain of little. But I am certain that I am profoundly human. And as a human, I am not God and will never have God’s knowledge or control. That certainty is the foundation of true wisdom.

–Brian

August 23, 2022

Last week Frederick Buechner died in his sleep at age 96. Buechner was, among other things, a teacher, novelist of some renown, a chaplain, and a Presbyterian minister. Like that other modern Saint Fred among Presbyterian pastors (Fred Rogers) he has always been a presumed part of my theological world without ever receiving the attention he deserved. I often found his writings a bit too literary, a bit too fussy for my simpler tastes, but that too deserves some reevaluation. Instead, it has been in reading his obituaries that I have found a teacher I never knew.

 

A eulogy is literally “a good word” and that is oddly what I have found in the tributes to this curious, sensitive, and open-hearted man. He was a Presbyterian minister who never served a church and yet ministered to more pastors than anyone else in the past century. Living on the frontier between the literary chattering classes and the church, Buechner had the courage and open-hearted honesty to admit that doubt and faith are both necessary parts of the human journey. The mere titles of his novels—The Longing for Home, Eyes of the Heart, The Sacred Journey, and Telling Secrets—disclose the orientation of his heart and its yearnings.

 

Frederick Buechner taught me, and generations of seminarians, the destructive power of secrets, how they separate us from others, from God and ultimately from our selves. His own father’s suicide was kept as shameful family secret disrupting and corrupting lives down the decades. Buechner speaks for so many of us when he shares that his family’s unspoken motto was, “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.” Such disconnection from pain slowly metastasizes into a sclerotic heart permanently closed to the suffering of others and to the darkest corners of our own. Secrets are the contagion of that alienation that we call sin.

 

Growing up among Swedish Lutherans in Minnesota I understood this condition all too well. We never talked about or even acknowledged the pains and the shames. We never admitted those we lost like a grandfather lost to an overdose or suicide (a distinction with hardly a difference). What mattered was simply getting by and getting on. Better to dwell on the positive and put forward a good face. But building a wall around your heart comes at a steep price. As Buechner observed, “steeling yourself off from the pain is to simultaneously close oneself off to the transforming power of life itself.”

 

The alternative explored by Buechner is radical heroic vulnerability. It requires careful attention to your life. In perhaps his most famous dictum Buechner advises, ““Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it now less than the excitement and the gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” For Buechner, revelation is always right in front of us. All you need to do is pay attention. “If indeed there is a God, which most of the time I believe there is, and if he indeed is concerned with the world, which the Christian faith I saying . . . one of the ways he speaks to us, and maybe one of the most powerful ways, is through what happens to us.” The problem, of course, is that the world excels at distracting, numbing, and otherwise avoiding the deeps that rise up to meet us in every moment. Curiosity, openness, and attentiveness are the virtues that lead us into this revelation, not certainty, correctness, coherence, or consistency.

 

Faith, for Buechner, was not the assent to some long list of highly improbable propositions. Instead, it was more like sensing something than buying into an argument. “Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward.” Buechner is not suggesting faith is a subjective emotion but rather the necessarily subjective experience of an objective reality. We experience the simultaneous sensation of belonging and separation, possibility and present problematic, now and not yet. Most of all the human spiritual experience is simply summarized as homesickness for a home we somehow know and yet have never known. I know of no more accurate description of what faith actually is as opposed to what theologians mutter it should be.

 

Buechner, like us all, was a child of this age. He accepted modernity in all its criticisms and doubts. He studied the historicity of scripture and shared the many legitimate criticisms of organized religion. But yet he found himself inexorably drawn to something he could not name or explain. “In the midst of our freedom,” he wrote, “we hear whispers from beyond time” and “sense something hiddenly at work in all our workings.” For Buechner those whispers took on coherence into something like faith. “Something in me recoils from such language,” he said, “but here in the end, I am left with no other way of saying it than that which finally found me was Christ. Or was found. It hardly seems to matter which.”

 

May he, may we all in due time, rest in that grace that pursed him so long. But before that rest, may we also recognize who it is that has been following us all along.

August 16, 2022

Summer is supposed to be a time of rest and relaxation. For most, summer months carry promises of pool parties and barbecues, juicy watermelon and fresh corn, family vacations and lazy, sunny afternoons in the hammock.

My summer looked just a little bit different.

I spent my summer at Grandview Medical Center in downtown Dayton completing an internship with the Kettering Health Network, training to be a hospital chaplain should God call me into such a vocation. My summer consisted of deep theological conversations, spiritual encouragement of the downtrodden, prayers with families saying goodbye to loved ones, holding hands and speaking words of encouragement through gunshot wounds and miscarriages, gowns and gloves and masks in rooms with Covid patients on ventilators (yes, still), and even a baptism of a tiny, stillborn baby. Not exactly the beach vacation, campfire s’mores summer I had envisioned. And yet I found the experience of this summer’s work to be one of the most enriching and beautiful of my life.

Our first, last, and deepest lesson? “You never know the whole story.”

Every time you interact with someone, you are entering into the middle of their story with only the data they choose to provide. During my months as a chaplain intern I worked with, visited with, and prayed for human beings of every background, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political party, economic status, and religious affiliation. Criminals, moms, drug dealers, abuse victims, a 7-year-old and a 97-year-old. But I soon learned that such demarcators belong only to us. There are no such labels in God’s kingdom, and so there are no such labels for a chaplain. In fact, I took to deleting some of the information columns on patient lists. It just didn’t matter. A child of God is a child of God, and you never know the whole story.

Our world is hurting. Our world is sick. And not with any illness that can be cured in any hospital, by even the most skilled doctor or nurse. As the planet continues to suffer a barrage of both human-made and natural disasters; as her people continue to argue over who is right, who is better, who should be in charge, who has a say; as the eldest generations fight for a past and a patriarchal society that no longer exists, while the youngest generations raise their entitled yells instead of their pens; as the Church preaches that God loves all while at the same time barring from their pulpit anyone who does not look or love or worship like them…the care our world needs comes in this simple knowledge: you never know the whole story.

I truly hope your summers were spent in delighting in the joys that CAN be found – because even in the midst of illness, they can – and I hope, too, that as the air crisps again and the leaves begin to change, that we can begin to change, as well. What wounds can you heal? What illnesses can you remedy? What relationships can you mend? Whose story can you choose to enter – or reenter – this week, this month, this year…ever present in the knowledge that you never know the whole thing?

I look forward to being part of all of your stories as together we work to be chaplains to our world.

Peace,

Rachel

August 9, 2022

“Home”

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Psalm 90:1

I just returned home from two weeks of vacation visiting beloved family in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Family, as in my father, mother, brothers, and sisters-in-law. Heart family. Beloved family. Close family. My family.

I also spent a few days with ten dear female friends with whom I went to middle school and high school. We marched together in the “Hale Marching Hundred” band and have known each other for over fifty years.

We did not go anywhere fancy or make big plans. We just spent precious time together laughing, crying, talking, eating, and relaxing. Life really doesn’t get much better than that! Time spent with beloved family and cherished friends. Time spent at home with people who know me and love me. Home in the truest sense of the word.

Most of my days were spent in Oklahoma in the home I grew up in as a youth and in the neighborhood I lived in since I was a child. Every one of my senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – were flooded with memories.

The sound of the cicadas singing in the trees at night, the smell of the Oklahoma heat rising off the sidewalks, the taste of my mom’s iced tea, the feel of the mulberry tree in our backyard, the sight of the purple lilacs planted upon the birth of my first child – all these things and so much more are home to me.

I walked the streets of my childhood neighborhood each morning (when it was ONLY 90 degrees instead of 100 degrees), sometimes with my mom, sometimes with my dad, and most times with my dogs. I loved every step of those walks as I remembered childhood friends, sleepovers, birthday parties, school days, and bicycle rides.

You know the meaning of home, too! For most of us, it is a place of deep peace and unmatched joy. A dwelling place like none other, where we are known and loved.

Upon my return from my childhood home, I came back to another kind of home, the home and family of my own making. And once again my senses are flooded with the familiar feel of a beloved place called home.

You, Fairmont family, are “home” to me also. A place where I am known and loved by God and by you, my family of faith. There is deep belonging we share as a community of God’s people, as family. And we need that belonging, especially in these post-pandemic days of finding our way again.

In God, we find our home, our dwelling place. And there is deep peace and unmatched joy in our family of faith. God is our home and we belong to one another.

As these lazy, hot days of summer begin to wind down and we prepare for a new church year together, my prayer is that we will find our way back to each other in our place called “home” where we truly are family.

Peace and love to you,

Kelley

August 2, 2022

Let the wise, too, hear and gain in learning. Proverbs 1:5

One of the important skills that has atrophied for lack of use over the past two years for me and many people is the art of attentive listening. Listening, attentively listening, is hard. The lack of real listening is all too apparent. Too often we talk past each other. At best we seek validation for preexisting opinions. At worst, we use our questions as a rhetorical technique to criticize.

Real listening requires both careful attention and intention. Attention must of course focus on not just the words, but the nuances, body language, inflections, and assumptions of the person you are listening too. Attention must be paid not only to the words spoken but also the deep wells of feeling from church those words arise. To listen deeply requires one to listen empathetically. You need to imagine the emotions that underlie the words. And that empathic imagination and perception needs to be directed not only to the speaker, but also to yourself. Attentive listening requires the listener to keenly aware of your own mental and emotional state. Are you getting triggered by what is said? Are you getting defensive or angry? Are you focusing more on what you are going to say next instead of what the other person is saying now? Attention is key, but it focuses in two directions. You must be attentive to both the speaker’s emotions and your own. If while listening you are planning what to say next, you are doing it wrong.

The other necessary quality for listening is having the right intention. Why are you even asking the question? Do you genuinely want to learn something about the other person? Questions can become a cunning rhetorical technique to belittle, criticize, undermine, and mock (just watch some Congressional hearings to observe this). If you are asking a question, do you genuinely want to learn something about another person or are you simply making small talk? I do not particularly enjoy chit chat. But I always am blessed to discover something honest about another person.

I fear that our Covid isolation has impaired our ability to listen to each other and as a consequence has weakened the social bonds between us. We see this all too vividly in our politics where questions are merely weapons. But we also see it all too well within families, neighborhoods, and the church where our lives seem more disconnected.

If you want to connect with someone, ask them a genuine question for which there is no presupposed answer. For example instead of asking about the weather you could ask: what brings you the greatest joy, what has been your most important learning over the past year, if you wanted to change something about yourself what would it be, what is the most important memory of your childhood, who do you try to emulate, what is something you cannot live without, for what or who would you sacrifice, what is your biggest fear, how would you like to be different in ten years, when you make decisions what motivates you, where and when do you experience mystery, where does you mind go when you are silent, how do you forgive others and yourself, what burdens would you like to set down, where have you beheld beauty, what would you like people to know about you that they do not know, how do you rest, what are the most important things in organizing a life or a community, what are you hopeful about for the future, what do you need that you do not currently receive, and for what would you like to receive a standing ovation?

Asking and answering questions requires trust and vulnerability. But people can instinctively tell if you are genuinely interested or merely posing. Listen attentively and you will at the very least discover something new about a unique person. Listen attentively and you just might change your own life.

Jesus’ public ministry was simple. He wandered around and talked to people. The Gospels record the dramatic moments of supernatural healing. I wonder how much more healing arose from simply listening to people. Listening is not dramatic or showy. But it just might help heal a life and that life might be your own.

This is how we help to heal the world, one story at a time.

–Brian

July 26, 2022

Sometime this summer, I have preached or will preach my thousandth sermon. My records are not quite precise so I do not know exactly when this will happen. But it is a personal milestone that causes me to reflect.

Preaching has become my primary spiritual discipline. The regular practice of digging into the text, imagining it, dreaming it, studying its language and context, and learning from scholars (both living and dead) about it has grounded my life of faith for nearly two decades. Every week I am privileged to travel to some undiscovered country and bring back amazing things to share. Unlike some more contemplative disciplines, preaching has a very particular and necessary public outcome. Every week I need to say something, more or less comprehensible, about the unsayable. Every week I get the opportunity to give witness to what God may be up to.

Preaching of course is a conceit. No one speaks for God, but God. The best one can do is point: “God seems to be up to (fill in the blank).” When done well, this iconic practice of giving witness invites others into a God-filled world of possibility. In this sense, preaching is simply narrating a story that God has already composed in which all our lives are chapters. Good preaching helps people perceive the meaning and purpose of their lives as a part of God’s own meaning and purpose. But, when done poorly, it is simply arrogant drivel. Most often it is something in between. Preaching is also arrogant in that there may well be those to whom I am speaking who have a far more intimate connection with whatever may be revealed that week. My primary calling is teaching and I hope, if nothing else, I may share may something new. I do however worry about the hierarchical nature of what I do. I literally stand in box above the congregation and talk at you. I rather doubt that is the best way to discover God’s truth.

The single most important thing that I do in preaching happens about two minutes before I preach. I pray. While you are listening to a beautiful anthem, I am having a rather frantic conversation with God. It usually goes something like this. Brian: “So, O Lord King of the Universe and Ground of All Being, I have these words. They are not particularly good words. I should have done better, more eloquent, more evocative, and definitely shorter. But they are what I have on hand.” God: silence. Brian: “Please come, please come down and intercede somewhere between my rambling and their ears. Please come and whisper some truth that they need to hear. Do not let them hear me. Let them hear you, for their sake.” God: silence. Brian: “Okay, take me out of the equation altogether, I know you need a prophet and a sage, but they are in rather short supply right now and you’ve just got me. So how about this, I am going to start saying something and you take over. Piggyback on my words. Most of all say something to them.” God: silent. Brian: “Bless them with your love, your presence, your truth, your life, because they really are trying to find you and live the life you want.” Then you may notice me looking around at your faces in a furtive glance. Actually, what I am doing is trying to lift you up by name and face to God. And finally, Brian: “And if I say something downright foolish or daft, please do not hold it against them. It is all my fault, put it on my (admittedly rather large) account. So, here goes nothing. Your call.” It is not a great prayer, probably blasphemous, but it is an honest one. It is a shabby invocation aspiring and reaching unto something utterly beyond us, encounter.

God does not actually remain silent. God subtly answers in ways that I cannot clearly articulate or describe. Sometimes it may be a certain energy otherwise lacking. Sometimes a certain inspiration to improvise. And, more often than not, I find a curious phenomenon that people come up to me afterwards and comment on the significance of things I never said, yet they clearly heard.

I believe with all my heart as Thomas Merton prayed, “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” I have tried to follow that dictum in every sermon. Some are good. Some are bad. Most are somewhere in between. But all of them, at least all that memories’ subtle edits allow me to remember, were sincere.

So, on the declarative landmark of my thousandth sermon, to some of you, I am sorry. For a few of you, you are welcome. To all of you, thank you for politely listening through the good and the bad. Thank you for reaching and aspiring with me. And to God, thank you for the privilege of sharing in the miracle that happens every time you show up.

–Brian

July 19, 2022

Just around the corner from the famed Western Wall in Jerusalem lie the southern steps to the Temple Mount. Unlike the Western Wall Plaza, the southern steps are usually empty of people. They lead up to what was once the main entrance for pilgrims into the Temple. A double and a triple archway blocked up for centuries by the Muslims but still quite visible led to long internal passageways that opened into the middle of the vast Temple courtyard. These broad entrance and exit passageways were the primary way that ordinary people, as opposed to the priests and the elites, would approach and then enter the temple. And the steps to those entrances are still there.

After 2000 years of weather, wars, and wear those steps have eroded a bit. The Israeli Ministry of Antiquities has conveniently resurfaced most of them to provide a safer approach for tourists. But I am always attracted to the old, worn, original steps. These were the steps that Jesus and his followers would have walked up. These are the steps that James, Peter, Paul, and the early leaders of the church would have used to gather in the Temple. These were the steps that saw the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, centuries of forgotten neglect, and tides of Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, the British, and the Jordanians come and go each in their turn. The stone steps bear silent witness to it all.

Walking up to those steps a few weeks ago I felt an odd urge to take off my shoes. Like Moses before the burning bush something sacred radiated from the place. Long since worn smooth, the steps felt so solid under my feet. But you cannot lose yourself in spiritual reverie on those steps. The architect made a brilliant theological statement. The steps are not uniform. Some are low and broad, others high and narrow, some come in matching pairs, others in triplets. Unlike our stairways, there is no regular uniformity to the steps. This means that as you face the Temple and ascend to the holiest place on earth, you cannot fix your eyes on the horizon and simply be guided by muscle memory or the paced rhythm of stepping. You need to actually look down, pay attention, and put your feet in the right place at the right time or else you will trip. Faced with the overwhelming spiritual attraction of the Temple, the architect forces you to pay attention to precisely where you are and what you are doing in the moment.

The anonymous architect of those stairs was a psychological and theological genius. So often we fix our gaze on the distant objects of our life, both great hopes and great fears, that we simply shuffle along not paying the slightest attention to where we are and what we are actually doing in the moment. We do not pay attention. Guided by our desires or our fears we imagine ourselves already there not noticing the present unfolding now. It is far too easy to let one’s life slip away always pursuing that endless horizon. But the Temple steps will not let you get away with that. They will trip you up and give you a good bruise on your knee to remind you to pay attention.

This summer we seem transfixed on what comes next. Our attentions are pulled to life after COVID or a recession yet to come. Our passions and our fears are yanked by elections yet to be held or some potential calamity yet to unfold. We set nameless hopes and fears on the horizon of our imagination and shuffle aimlessly towards them.

But there is now. There is here. And in this moment and in this place is all the holiness and hope you will ever need. If, you pay attention.

I wonder if the architect of those Temple steps was making an ironic statement about the Temple itself, “stop looking up for God, look instead right where you are.” This ground, directly under your feet, this instant of pause could the place where God touches this world and your life. Of course, you will never know if you do not pay attention.

Take a moment today to take off your shoes and step onto the green grass. Breathe deeply. Look around you. Listen. Smell. Feel the grass between your toes. Do not hope or fear or imagine. Tomorrow will come all on its own, no need to rush it. Simply pay attention.

And you are home.

–Brian

July 12, 2022

Late last Thursday night I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport to fly back from Israel to the United States. As I entered the arrival hall, I had to rub my eyes to confirm what I saw in front of me. A crowd of at least 10,000 people stretching from the front doors all the way beyond check in desks. And I do mean a crowd, not lines per se, more of a giant mob. You could smell the anxiety and frustration. Everyone was generally polite albeit frustrated. Slowly we snaked our way through preliminary security and check in. But then came the interesting part.

After checking in you entered a different part of the airport thinking you were now home free. But then you rounded a wall and were confronted with another line of about 8,000 people stretching from one end of the airport to the other. They were sneaky in concealing this second line. As people rounded the corner and realized their predicament, you could see in their faces despair. After three hours of waiting in various lines, I finally entered the airport proper and arrived at my gate 20 minutes before boarding.

As many of you know, flying is no fun this summer. Flying internationally is even less so. Everything is hot, crowded, slow, and unpredictable. Slowly shuffling my feet in line for three hours gave me some opportunity to reflect on the experience and my own emotions. The delay itself was not so problematic. The frustration that bordered on despair was instead the sense of having no understanding of what was going on and no ability to control it. Watching flights on the departure board randomly switch from green on-time to yellow delayed to red cancelled, created a creeping sense of dread.

Delays in international travel are of course a very privileged problem compared to the wars, famines, natural disasters, and economic meltdowns this summer. But the underlying emotional dynamics and pitfalls are the same. Utter bewilderment over what is really going on compounded by a complete lack of agency let alone control seems to be the order of the day.

But somewhere in the middle of my three-hour shuffle of feet I found something oddly comforting in the companionship of others. Yes, we were all tired, stressed, and generally miserable, but we were together. Now that togetherness comes at the cost of COVID exposure, but the hardships were not personal, but rather systemic and communal. Even more importantly, although the lines were long and snaked from one end of the airport to the other, they did move however slowly. There was nothing to do, no decisions to make, just keep moving along. In the end I found it oddly comforting.

We face another summer of discontents. None of us caused this. We are all shuffling forward together. If we keep some measure of perspective, our baser instincts may be kept in check. I really do not know what is going on, but understanding is always highly overrated. I do not control what is going on, but when I am honest with myself the only thing I ever had any chance of controlling is myself. So just keep walking.

Christians are a people conditioned by waiting. We live in anticipation of a tardy Messiah. In the interim between resurrection and return, we have the opportunity to remake the only thing we have ever had any control over: our own hearts. Maybe as we wait for Jesus, Jesus is also waiting for us to do our work.

Looking out over that vast mob of God’s children in Ben Gurion—Christians, Muslims, Jews, and those of no confession—was like looking over humanity, stressed, confused, but somehow stumbling forward on hope. They were . . . beautiful.

I know its hard right now. Just keep walking.

–Brian

July 5, 2022

Summertime

There is a sacred gift of sabbath in the summertime. Schools are closed, families take vacation, the sun lingers longer in the sky, and our busy schedules slow down, if only for a brief time.

Even for those for whom summer brings extra work – planting seeds and plowing fields – there is the hint or promise of Sabbath time, a reminder of seasons.

I am one who loves warm weather, even hot weather! Summer is my favorite season of the year. I have vivid childhood memories of playing outside in the sweltering heat of Oklahoma summers with the smell of hot concrete rising up below my feet. To this day, I prefer the heat of summer to the bitter cold of winter. I will be visiting my parents in Oklahoma again this summer and look forward to daily walks around the neighborhood of my childhood, relishing the warmth, the sounds, and the smells of those summer days as a child.

God calls us to slow down and seek sabbath rest. The cycle of the earth and the coming of spring, summer, winter, and fall reminds us of the words of Qoheleth, or the Preacher, from Ecclesiastes:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”

This season, summer, is a sabbath season. A time for rest and renewal. Yet even with the cessation of fall-to-spring activities, we find it hard to change our patterns of busy days and hard work. And for some, a slower pace is not even possible due to job commitments and family responsibilities.

God calls us not only to slow down for sabbath rest but also to create sacred space and time for Sabbath worship. As creatures of the great Creator, we need the healing that Sabbath worship brings.

As the summer days are quickly rushing by, may we find a change of pace just enough to stir our hearts and spirits, just enough to slow down to listen to God’s voice speaking to us. And may we find our sacred space for Sabbath worship no matter where we find ourselves in these fleeting summer days.

Sabbath rest and peace to you,

Kelley

June 28, 2022

50 Days of Embodiment:
Living the Great Story in Daily Life

For 50 days following Pentecost, Fairmont Presbyterian Church and Hilliard United Methodist Church are sharing in daily somatic spiritual practices as we seek to live out our faith in our daily lives. You can find a digital copy of the “50 Days of Embodiment” attached to recent Fridays from Fairmont emails or you may pick up a paper copy in the church office.

Here are the opening words from the “50 Days of Embodiment” booklet:

“Embodiment” simply means a tangible or visible form of an idea,
quality, or feeling: the representation or expression of something
in a tangible or visible form. Living into our faith as Christians
has always been a full body experience.

How is your Embodiment spiritual journey going? Which practices are you drawn to most naturally? Which practices are most difficult for you? How did you carve out time for these daily practices? What did you notice or feel in your body as you experienced a practice? What have you noticed about your spiritual awareness since beginning this post-Pentecost journey?

I knew I would be immediately drawn to the kinesthetic practice of Walking Meditation since “praying while hiking” has been my regular spiritual practice. Praying while walking the Camino de Santiago brought a completely new dimension to this spiritual practice as I become acutely aware of my physical pain and my struggle to complete the 15-18 miles per day of walking the hills of northwest Spain. True pilgrimage always involves pain, and it was harder to hear God’s voice when I was solely focused on the painful blisters on my feet and muscles that were cramping.

I was also immediately drawn to the spiritual practice of “Walking a Prayer Labyrinth” and am grateful for many such experiences over my 35 years of ordained ministry. Both the Bergamo Retreat Center in Beavercreek and the Kirkmont Center in Zanesville have beautiful outdoor Labyrinths or you can find a Labyrinth near you at https://labyrinthlocator.com.

I was also drawn to the spiritual practice of Mindful Eating. I have sought to practice Mindful Eating for many years but it is so easy when we are hungry or in a hurry to forget that our body, and specifically our stomach, is a vessel for God’s goodness and pleasure. Embodying the practice of Mindful Eating also humbly reminds us that a warm meal is a privilege that too many people live without on a daily basis.

I was more challenged by spiritual practices that required of me to be still and quiet in a place of solitude. My mind became easily distracted and surrounding noises sounded louder than they actually were in real life. One of the opening questions in our booklet asks:

Silence, solitude, and/or stillness: Which of these three best helps facilitate your awareness of your own body?

My answer to this question is “all three!” I become all too aware of my own body in times and spaces of silence, solitude, and stillness. Therein is my challenge, to find a place of acceptance and peace within my body, even when I am not walking outdoors or following the rhythmic steps of a labyrinth.

What are your stories from these “50 Days of Embodiment?” How are you living the Great Story in your daily life?

I am grateful we are on this journey together – body, mind, and spirit.

Pastor Kelley

June 22, 2022

For the past two years and four months, I have only travelled a few times to visit family. I rarely eat indoors at restaurants. I have not been to the cinema. I have attended one orchestra concert. We have however refurbished our home making it a more comfortable nest. My world has become smaller.

Next Sunday afternoon I will be departing with some dear Rabbi friends to lead a study trip to Israel with 25 pastors. I love Jerusalem. I love teaching in Israel. I even enjoy the super Glatt Kosher meals on El Al. But this year I feel a certain reticence. It is not fear about Covid (I just got my second booster). It is not even anxiety about cancelled flights (I have learned to do the trip with carry-ons). It is more like a gentle persistent pull towards home. I genuinely like to be at home.

Every Sunday I look out over the congregation assembled in worship. I know that there are many more who are watching online but I cannot see them. The numbers are smaller than they were just a few years ago, about a third smaller. Sometimes I wonder where everyone went. Sometimes I wonder if we are doing something wrong. Sometimes I just wonder what changed. And every pastor I know is asking themselves the same questions. But then I think about my own domestic instincts that may not be so different. I too understand the allure of coffee in bed on a Sunday morning or any morning.

Rather than trying to swim against the tide of culture and our changed social circumstances, maybe the solution is to simply acknowledge right where we are as a community right now. We are all a bit weary, anxious, and longing for the security of the certain. We all like to stay close to home right now. So instead of asking ourselves, “What can Fairmont do to attract people back to more active engagement?” maybe the better question is how to meet people precisely where they are. Maybe the better question to ask is how do we make Fairmont more like home?

Fairmont is like a large, diverse, sprawling, and sometimes frustrating family. We accept people as they are. And folks genuinely want to help each other. We are not the flashiest congregation, but we are sincere. We are not the biggest, but we are big enough to do all sorts of wonderful things. We are curious, open minded, generous, and welcoming. Bring your coffee to worship. Wear your fuzzy slippers (sometimes I wear cowboy boots and Hawaiian shirts). It’s okay. What is important to us is what is important to God, not the outer display but the inner truth. And the inner truth is that we are all wounded sinners looking for healing and forgiveness trying to help each other along the way. It is true that sometimes, Jesus’ followers can be uniquely annoying, but not all of them and none of them all the time. We live together in this family with profoundly compromised people so we can learn the delicate art of loving our neighbor. Loving your neighbor, the one you are otherwise under no obligation to love, is the chief lesson of living together as Christ’s church. Like all families, we love each other most when we do not deserve it.

Your work loves you for what you do. Family loves you because of who you are. At our best, we are that family already. And at our worst, well we are learning together. We aspire to love as God loves us and we cannot do that without you. Similarly, you cannot do that without community.

For the next two weeks I will miss my home and my family, including you. But visiting the holy city always reminds me that we all already belong. Our world is not smaller. Our world is one. And if you choose to participate in it, you can live your whole life in that unity of belonging, purpose, and love.
–Brian

June 14, 2022

Rock Walls, Eucalyptus Trees, and a Long Way to Go

I am still processing my time in Spain after walking a portion of the Camino de Santiago with three beloved friends. As I told a clergy friend recently, my Camino pilgrimage was “…wonderful, difficult, and complicated,” to which he replied, “As all pilgrimages should be!”

I have heard often regarding the Camino that it is “life changing,” and I know that it is for many pilgrims or peregrinos. It was not “life changing” for me but it was “life sustaining.” I needed to walk the Camino for me. I needed to honor the dream I had of walking step after step on this ancient way of pilgrims. I needed to leave home for a short while to remember, once again, that my family (and my dogs) can survive without me. I needed to put to test the miles and miles of hikes that had prepared me for this pilgrimage. And I needed to celebrate and participate in my own spiritual practice of walking the journey which thousands of pilgrims have walked since the ninth century.

One of our spiritual practices as we walked each day was to answer these two questions:

  1. What will you leave behind on the Camino today?
  2. What will you take with you from the Camino today?

The answers varied each day depending upon the pilgrims we met, the elevation of the hills we climbed, and the number of blisters on our feet.

My answer to these questions today, almost a month after departing for Spain, would be:

  1. I left behind deep grief and anxiety that had permeated my days at home due to the suffering of loved ones.
  2. I brought home with me the physical, spiritual, and emotional healing that walking brings me, and the joy of knowing that my body was strong enough to walk the miles that needed to be walked each day.

I also brought back with me the fragrance of the eucalyptus trees which covered the Spanish countryside, the wisdom of the ancient rock walls which lined every meadow and village through which we walked, the gentleness of the local villagers along the Camino whose faces carried the wisdom of their years, the gift of farm fresh meals prepared for us with true hospitality, and the knowledge that I have a long way to go on this journey.

A few fun facts to know about our pilgrimage:

  1. We walked 76 miles (122 kilometers) in five days.
  2. We walked from Sarria to Santiago.
  3. It rained three of the five days but the rain was gentle.
  4. I only got two blisters and they healed each night enough to walk again the next day.
  5. The northwest part of Spain, Galicia, is known for its hilly landscape.

I will be sharing more about my Camino de Santiago trip on Sunday, July 24, following worship where you will be treated to a few tasty Spanish snacks and a visual presentation of the journey. July 25th is the Feast of St. James for whom the Camino de Santiago is named, so it is an appropriate time to celebrate together. I will also be sharing about my Camino trip at the Women of Fairmont Fall gathering.

On Pentecost Sunday, June 5th, we shared with the congregation a book of guided spiritual practices called “50 Days of Embodiment: Living the Great Story in Daily Life.” We are sharing this journey of somatic spiritual practices with our friends at Hilliard United Methodist Church in Columbus with whom we have been studying the Great Story of the Old Testament this year.

In that book of “50 Days of Embodiment” there are multiple ways to practice our spirituality in body, mind, and spirit including the practice of prayer walking. I invite you to join in this journey with me as we embody our faith in this season of Pentecost and walk in the steps of the pilgrims who have gone before us.

Buen Camino!

Kelley

June 1, 2022

Reading through the Old Testament this year keeps reminding me of one central impression. The Bible is weird.

I spent a few hours today trying to wrap my head around the symbolic or allegorical significance of removing certain choice bits of fat from internal organs of sacrificial animals prior to burning them as a sacrifice to God. Elsewhere, we have curious tribes with more curious customs ranging from unique dietary habits to a rather excessive interest in skin diseases and bodily discharges. The Book of Leviticus is the only book of the Bible that, as my former teacher Ellen Davis once quipped, “Christians ignore as a matter of principle.”

But it is not just Leviticus (which admittedly could be exhibit one). The whole Old Testament centered first on its wandering nomads embedded in a world of patriarchy, blood feud, and the almost magical power of words, and then on Iron Age Israel with its palace intrigues, blood sacrifices, and xenophobic fear of otherness is so alien, that I understand why the church tends not to go there. In particular, I have an extraordinarily difficult time getting past the violence: toward women, towards animals, towards anyone who violates the slightest infraction of the law in the smallest way, and towards anyone who tends to get in the way, and sometimes towards people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

My problem is that I cannot read the Bible as somebody other than me. I can imagine how a scribe from the ninth century BC might read it, but that is really just my imagination. I cannot get out of the assumptions, culture, methods of reading and thinking, life experiences, and learning processes in which all my perceptions are embedded. So, when I say the Bible is weird, what I really mean is that it does not tidily fit into my assumptions, culture, methods of reading and thinking, life experiences, and learning processes.

Professor Ellen Davis once told our class that the best interpreters of the Old Testament she ever met were a group of pastoralists from the South Sudan that attended one of her Bible Study classes in that war torn nation(s). They understood its stories because they lived them. They knew intimately how violent life could be and they understood the importance of sacrifice because sacrifice was life. For them, the world of the Old Testament was all too familiar, which made its promise all the more powerful.

Christians tend to love the prophetic books of the Bible with their profound ethical reflections. We also like the narrative bits with dramatic stories fit for television miniseries. What we avoid are all the technical bits on how this faith really operates. We prefer our deity a bit more domesticated. We like buddy Jesus a bit more on our terms. We create a God in our own minds who operates as a sort of cosmic concierge, whose primary aim is our own contentment. We presume a God who does not ask or expect too much and only intervenes to solve our problems. And we assume that this is precisely the same God behind most of the major world religions urging people to be nice to each other and willing this contentment for everyone.

The thing I cannot shake from my mind as I read the superlatively weird (by my standards) books of the Bible is how absolutely honest they were about how utterly, incomprehensibly, and to our experience terrifyingly other, different, and overwhelming God really is. The Book of Leviticus reads vaguely like the operating manual for a nuclear power station. They took their service in the temple with the disciplined seriousness that only comes from knowing that their lives and the lives of their community were at stake. They treated the Holy of the Holies like a reactor chamber, carefully maintaining its rituals. The priests understood intimately that they worked alongside the unfathomable mysterious power of creation itself always on the edge of our understand and always a bit beyond our control. Can I, can we appreciate the infinite, and totally unhuman, mystery we point to every time we utter the word, “God?” Although they would not have had language for it, I think those ancient Israelite priests might have been a lot better at it than we are.

One of the dangers of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is that we might become a bit too comfortably familiar with the divine and forget that this is God we are talking about (and of course the opposite danger is just as true). That danger is addressed by the Ascension, which we celebrate next week. The Ascension is the metaphorical embodied upload to Bethlehem’s metaphorical incarnational download. Whatever is truly human, of, by, and in Jesus of Nazareth, is now a part of God. Jesus is with God, in God, and is God.

Orthodox Christian faith is in essence to think to hold with complete conviction two irreconcilable things at the same time. God is that utterly terrifying, totally alien, terrifyingly powerful otherness that is the intentfulness, origin, and destiny of all creation. AND part of all that strangeness is the strangeness of us.

Yes, the Bible is weird. And God is weirder still. Thanks be to God.

–Brian

May 25, 2022

I am sad.

I tried to write something yesterday afternoon, but I could not. My heart kept sinking as the full extent of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas became apparent. At least nineteen elementary students and two teachers were murdered by an eighteen-year-old. I cannot fathom the loss. I do not understand why and I do not care to try.

Two weeks ago, ten grocery shoppers were murdered and two more severely injured in Buffalo. The shooter was another eighteen-year-old man apparently motivated by racist hatred.

Two weeks ago, a lone gunmen stormed into an after-worship luncheon at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California. One worshipper was killed and five others wounded, four critically. The shooter was purportedly motivated by hatred of people of Taiwanese descent.

My rational mind reminds me that the rate of murder in the United States has declined through most of my lifetime. I also know that the absolute number of murders is at an all-time record. But most of all I know that those statistics are not what I feel right now. Underneath the sadness is not a feeling of hopelessness. Underneath the sadness is anger. It does not need to be this way. It is not supposed to be this way.

“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13). In Hebrew the commandment is only two words long. The unlawful killing of human beings is absolutely forbidden as the primeval breach of community and covenant. The consequences of that breach injure not just the victims and their families, but all of us.

And God weeps.

What we are witnessing is the opposite of God’s intention and hope for our lives and our world. We have a word for the opposite of God, opposed to God’s intention for life and God’s healing work. We call that evil.

My problem is that anger is not the antidote to evil. Jesus knew that. Jesus lived that. It is outrageous, confusing, frustrating, annoying, offensive, and I really do not like it, but it is also true. The only way to drive out great evil is even greater love. I do not love that deeply, vastly preferring retributive justice. But God does. And if we are willing to take risks and practice it and if we ask for it, maybe Jesus will replace our meager love with his.

For today, we practice that love simply by weeping with those who weep.

–Brian

May 17, 2022

In 63 BC, the Roman General Pompey intervened in a Jewish civil war. After a brief siege of Jerusalem, Pompey installed a client King amenable to Rome and then decided to take in the sights. He barged into the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred precinct of the Temple where only the High Priest was permitted and then on only one day each year. As Pompey departed, he remarked to his aides (and this is my paraphrase of the Latin), “Hunh, it’s just an empty room.”

Last week a global team of scientists revealed an extraordinary image of the supermassive black hole that lies at the very center of our Galaxy (posted above). Named Sagittarius A* it lies concealed by the massive dust and plasma clouds surrounding the very heart of the Milky Way. Its mass is more than four million times that of our sun. It is so massive and its gravitational field so strong that it structures the motion of every star in our galaxy. In other words, everything you have ever seen in the night sky with the naked eye (except Andromeda if you know where that is) essentially revolves around it. The earth revolves around the sun, but our sun revolves around this black hole. Sagittarius A* is the central organizing structure of our galaxy without which we would not be a galaxy at all.

The extraordinary thing about black holes is that despite being some of the most massive objects in the universe they are not, properly speaking, a place or even thing at all. Black holes occur when a supermassive star collapses in on itself. If they are big enough, and four million sun masses is way more than enough, they just keep on collapsing. As all the matter swirls around it like a toilet bowl vortex getting faster and faster the matter gets hotter and hotter. That is what we can see in the image, the accretion disk of matter flowing into the black hole glowing X-ray hot. There is no force in the universe that can stop the collapse. Stars, asteroids, gas clouds, brown dwarfs, nebula, all smoosh into a rather mysterious something that we vaguely call a singularity that is both enormously massive and not really a thing at all. A singularity is cosmically massive nothing; but a nothing that shapes space and time for everything.

Sometimes nothing is the most important thing (non-thing?) of all.

An icon is an image perceptible by human senses that provides a lens through which we can perceive an aspect of God. An icon is not an object of prayer or devotion, but an aid to prayer and devotion. One does not pray to an icon. One prays through an icon. That means that an icon is a kind of visual metaphor that helps us perceive God or something about God. For me, that ghostly image of Sagittarius A* provided just such a metaphor. The most massive thing in our whole galaxy, indeed one of the most massive things in the entire universe, is quite literally not a thing. It is nothing. Yet our solar system follows its bends of space time, orbiting around every 230 million years. Everything we have ever known or experienced bends to its sway swept along at a staggering 490,000 miles per hour.

And God is kind of like that.

On Sunday I will be preaching on the most popular religion in the history of humanity, namely the worship of us we call idolatry. The ancient Hebrews supremely annoyed Moses after all his efforts and instructions by constructing a Golden Calf, something they could see and touch as their focus of the divine. Moses, who always had some anger control issues, loses it. There is no human construction, artifact, experience, idea, belief, or feeling that can represent God. They are all, at best, metaphors. Behind them all lies the vast mystery that is no thing, no place, not something we can measure, predict, or even describe. God is beyond all that. Every thought we have ever considered about God is wrong because to think about God is like trying to model the CGI special effects of a superhero movie on a hand calculator. It is not simply that we lack data or our analytical abilities are not sufficiently developed. God is not an object that we can consider. God is not a thing. And you cannot think on nothing. You can think on your idea of nothingness, but not nothing itself.

Physicists have made tremendous progress in understanding the universe. General and Special Relativity make sense of the very large structures of the universe while Quantum Mechanics, counterintuitive as it may be, can at least probabilistically predict the very small. But what no one understands is the precise relationship between those two very different systems. In a black hole, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics unite and what happens then we have no idea.

There is a word for the nexus where the cosmic dynamics of the divine meet the petty, pedestrian, microcosm of human life. We call that meeting event the incarnation and everything and everyone revolves around it. It radiates backwards and forwards in time bending space and time, life and loves. Incarnation is not a thing or even a person. It is an event that changes everything yet itself is nothing. Indeed, it is precisely the letting go of everything, letting go of life and existence itself, cosmic kenosis that no force in the universe can stop. But in that meeting unto nothingness that the irreconcilable is overcome, opposition is resolved, separation is reconciled, and a new pattern emerges in which difference is replaced by unity. In such unity, there is no separate observer to observe or report. There is just us. Just us and God. Together.

We have a word in the church for that new emergent pattern arising from the divine and human collapsing into each other through the incarnation. We call that new pattern resurrection.
–Brian

May 10, 2022

Unfinished

Tucked away in a box of memorabilia from my childhood and youth is a poem by Lona M. Fowler entitled The Middle Time. It is printed on the front cover of an old newsletter from First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, the church of my growing up, the church where I first heard my call to ministry, and the church where I was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament on May 17, 1987, almost thirty-five years ago!

This poem spoke to me as an awkward, struggling teenager unsure of my purpose in life, and speaks to me now so many years later. I read this poem when I preached for my Youth Sunday as a high school senior in the youth group of my home church. I read this poem the first time I preached as an Associate Pastor of my first call in Long Beach, CA. And my daughter read this poem for my installation service here at Fairmont in September of 2018.

One verse of the The Middle Time speaks especially to me:

And we in our middle times
of wondering and waiting,
hurrying and hesitating,
regretting and revising –
We who have begun many things,
and seen but few completed…

This week feels very “middle time” to me. I have important work to be done for church and home but seem only to be “hurrying and hesitating” and “regretting and revising.” I am leaving for Spain next week to walk a portion of the Camino de Santiago with three other women of faith. I leave on May 17th, the 35th anniversary of my ordination to ministry. I have “begun many things but seen but few completed” or so it seems.

But it isn’t my “to do” list that is creating this “middle time” feeling. I have been preparing for this trip for a very long time and I will finish all that I need to do before I leave. It is, rather, a feeling that I am unfinished, I am incomplete, I am in-between.

As I leave for Spain:

-a beloved family member is not well mentally or emotionally
-my husband is still grieving the death of his father
-my mother-in-law who just moved here is adjusting to life in a new home

People I love are grieving, hurting, struggling, and so am I.
We are all incomplete, unfinished, in-between.

As people of faith, we live in the “middle time” of the “here and the not yet.”
We live in the realized presence of God with us here and now, and the “not yet” of what we will be one day. We understand “middle time” because we who are made new by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are still ever aware of our sin and brokenness and how unfinished we are.

Fowler ends the poem with the eschatological promise that we will not always be unfinished.

Jesus Christ is the completer
of unfinished people
with unfinished work
in unfinished times.

May we know such hope and live in the fulfillment of what is now and the promise of what will be.

Peace,

Kelley

May 3, 2022

Next Sunday morning we will gather together for a special service of worship focused on music as not merely the best way to praise God, but the ways in which worship both informs our understanding of who God is and perhaps more important, who we are in God.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament extol the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as uniquely important and powerful means of praising God. The Psalms of course are themselves a hymn book, for which we possess the lyrics but sadly no longer the score. The oldest texts in the Bible, Miriam’s Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah, proclaim the power and majesty of God. Jesus and the disciples were formed by these songs from childhood and according to Matthew, Jesus ends his life with these songs on his lips.

Music provides the master metaphor for God. Unseen without visible form, it moves, breathes, takes one life, sweeps up the listener, incorporates discordance into deeper harmony, and ultimately reveals itself beyond form as pure beauty. Unlike other art forms, it is always ephemeral. Music makes a lousy idol. It is instead a relational experience involving the musician and the hearer, but always more than the sum of playing and listening. Symphonic music incorporates dozens of disparate voices in their own unique identity and melds them together into something no single voice could ever produce or even imagine. When you sing in a choir is it both the sum of all the individual contributions and at the same time emerges as something more. That something more that is both manifestation and catalyst of beauty is what we call Spirit.

One of the most important qualities of the very best music is the way that it can incorporate the dissonant themes along the way. Ugliness, awkwardness, tears and tragedy introduce new notes into the score that sound distinctly out of place. A good composer avoids them. A master composer weaves them into ever deeper and more complex harmonies in which all the pain is remembered, but now reset in a consonance that could not have been imagined from only the initial melody.

Music unfolds and finds its true expression in time, just like mortals. The relationship between pitch and time is what we call melody just as the relationship between love and time is what we call life. Nothing can be rushed because time is the dimension of expression. For music, time is neither an arrow nor fleeting. It is the canvas giving depth to beauty.
At its best, music takes us outside of ourselves. We release, if only for a moment, our death grip on anxieties, desires, and endless to-do lists and for a moment find ourselves not so much transported but transmuted into a different state of existence. Music is an invitation to Ecstasy, which literally means to step out of yourself. Music is an aesthetic means to step outside of self and giving yourself over to something or someone else.

Music is not God. Music is not even like God. But music is sometimes like my experience of God. I try to learn the score. I try to play my little part in a work of art that is bigger, deeper, and older than anything my mortal mind can conceive. What matters is simply my participation as a master creator somehow manages to incorporate even my wrong notes into something beautiful. The melodies pass beyond all hearing giving structure and meaning to the void as I wander amid mansions of sound.

I remember hearing a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, The Resurrection, in 1987. I had a cheap, student rush ticket and a shabby coat looking rather out of place among the well to do orchestra patrons. But in the final movement, I felt myself enter the music and follow it along the path that Mahler had laid for me. In the final bars with tears running down my face, I did not just hear Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Resurrection. It was the only time in my life I was the first on my feet in the hall for a standing ovation as I beat my hands until they bled.

I love music because music pulls back the curtain for just a moment so that we may catch a glimpse, or hear whispers of the Real. On Sunday do not just listen to the music. Listen through the music to hear the still soft voice who still speaks and sings.
–Brian

April 27, 2022

There was one moment during Holy Week that I keep thinking about. Seeing so many friendly faces in worship on Easter Sunday was a special blessing that filled me with joy after two years apart. But the moment that stays with me was far more intimate.

On Maundy Thursday we shared together in the rite of foot washing. Most respectable church goers are resistant to foot washing. It is too intimate, vulnerable, embarrassing, and shameful, not to mention ticklish. That is precisely the point Jesus was trying to make. In the Gospel of John, on the last night of his earthly ministry, Jesus takes a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. And I guarantee that in an arid world without stockings their feet were nastier than any of ours. Jesus then tells them, “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” John 13: 13-15. This is not a suggestion. It is a commandment, in Latin a mandatum, hence Maundy Thursday.

There are two sacraments in our Reformed Tradition: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are communal rituals in which we believe that we are brought into the presence of God by the Holy Spirit. And they are communal actions in which Jesus himself participated and commanded his disciples to enact in their own ministries. By those two criteria, foot washing should also be a sacrament. For a variety of historical and rather pedantic theological reasons it is not. I suspect that it never became a sacrament simply because it made people too uncomfortable as we tend to want God close, but not too close.

We prefer to present an edited version of ourselves to each other and to God. The warty, stinky, calloused bits we hide away. Yet, it is precisely those shameful bits of our lives that most need to be touched, healed, and redeemed. Hiding away our shame only makes it more powerful and difficult to heal. Worse yet, we our shames away from ourselves, denying their existence and thereby give them insidious power over our hearts.

For me foot washing is symbolic foreshadowing of what Jesus is about to do the next day on that Friday we call Good. He is going to wash away all the pain and shame and separation through humbling himself even unto the cross even unto death. But foot washing is something more, it is a communal act of both remembering and ritually sharing in Christ’s own redeeming work. We humble ourselves as servants on our knees washing each other’s feet as our most embarrassing, concealed parts get washed in mutual love and honor. When we do that together, we collectively participate in what God is doing in the world. We simultaneously humble ourselves and honor our neighbor in love. Unlike Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, foot washing is vulnerable for both the one doing it and the one receiving. And it not reserved for some specialized clergy but is open to everyone. Foot washing together marks us as Christ’s people.

This year we invited you to not merely receive, but to wash each other’s feet. I know that this was a stretch. I know it makes us uncomfortable. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable because that is how we feel when our normal ways of life bump into Jesus’ ways. And yet an intrepid few took up our invitation. I remember as one of you tapped me on the shoulder to trade places. In that instant, for just a moment, with my bone spurs, bad toenails, and embarrassment, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the Kingdom.

There are signs and moments of the Kingdom popping up all around us in sacraments and the sacramental ordinary. Most of all there are mundane revelations every day when we share together as Jesus taught and showed us. I know that Easter happened because I see, and sometimes ticklishly feel, its aftereffects all around us. The work of healing and redeeming continues and now we are invited to participate.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Romans 10:15.

–Brian

April 19, 2022

Solvitur Ambulando

In the way of all things spiritual, I am not one who is drawn more closely to God in the solitude of a silent, dark room. I am much more kinesthetic in my approach to meditation and prayer. I pray most naturally with my eyes open and looking up at a clear, blue sky. I feel God’s presence more acutely when I am moving my body and using my senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste! I am drawn to God when I walk and hike. Walking is my place of peace and quiet with God. I find God in the journey of life and walking helps me embody that journey.

Solvitur Ambulando is a beloved Latin phrase meaning “it is solved by walking.” Many faithful pilgrims over the years have understood these words deeply within them. And many have been the times that walking has allowed me to find clarity and peace in the midst of chaotic and painful times.

One month from today I will be walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with three other women of faith. I have dreamt of doing this for a very long time. We will be walking a portion of the Camino de Santiago (110 miles) because the full Camino takes at least a month to complete. I hope to walk the full Camino one day when I am retired.

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage of Medieval origin to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, in the northwest region of Spain. Legend has it that the remains of the Apostle, Saint James the Great, were buried there and discovered by a shepherd in the 9th century. The city, Santiago de Compostela, is named after the apostle and means “St. James of the Field of Stars.”

Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims have walked this sacred journey over the years. It is a journey of community and fellowship. It is a journey of the saints who have walked before us.

The symbol of the Camino is a scallop shell. Tradition tells the story that early pilgrims used seashells to drink water from the springs as they walked. The clergy would also give shells to pilgrims upon their arrival at the Cathedral and completion of the Camino. Today, all pilgrims who walk the Camino carry a scallop shell with them as they walk.

The shell is also a symbol of baptism in Christ; a symbol shared by Christians across the centuries who have been baptized in the waters of forgiveness and new life. It is a powerful symbol for the pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago.

I will be holding you in prayer as I walk. As those who have been washed clean in the waters of baptism, we are bound together in Christ. So, you will journey with me as I walk. And I would covet your prayers, too!

Almighty God, who called your servants Abram and Sarai
out of the Chaldean city of Ur and watched over them
during all their travels; you who were the guide of the Hebrew
people in the desert; we ask you to take care of these your children,
who, for the love your name, start their pilgrimage to Santiago
de Compostela. Be for them a companion on the way,
guide at the crossroads, strength in weariness,
shelter on the way, shade in the heat, light in the darkness,
and comfort in despair. Amen.

I will be sharing my Camino de Santiago journey with you when I return through an all church gathering in the summer or early fall.

Go in the peace of the Lord who is the Way.

Kelley

April 12, 2022

On a spring morning in the year 30 or 33 AD, in an abandoned quarry, just beyond the north wall of Jerusalem, something happened. Precisely what happened and its implications resonate not only to our day, but unto eternity.

Critics, skeptics, and scoffers will say that a recently executed, failed messiah’s body was stolen by his followers and dumped unceremoniously in an unmarked grave. Those same followers then proceeded to proclaim that this purported messiah was in fact now raised from the dead. The fundamental problem with that view is that no one in first century Judaism or first century Palestine would have anticipated a resurrection as a sign of messiah-hood. While the ultimate resurrection of all the dead at the end of time was widely anticipated within Judaism, and still is among Orthodox Jews, the one-off out-of-sequence resurrection of a purported messiah would not have won friends or followers. It is simply not the kind of story one would have made up to advance such a messiah’s movement.

More recent critics, skeptics, and scoffers will say that powerful emotions and trauma can profoundly influence one’s perception. The purported messiah’s followers, according to their view, had some sort of extraordinary emotional or spiritual experience that led them to believe that their teacher was no longer dead. The problem with this view is that it would have been perfectly acceptable and anticipated in the first century to claim that the spirit, ghost, or genius of a dead person was now somehow still with and influencing his followers. The Romans believed in the spirits of dead. So did the Greeks. Such “ghost” stories were commonplace throughout the Empire. But that is not what this messiah’s followers claimed. They did not claim to see the “spirit” of their teacher. They claimed to have seen his actual, physical, fleshly, body, walking and talking to them. Their account of the resurrection is not a ghost story. It is instead an assertion of something far more radical and challenging: this Jesus of Nazareth was really truly dead and then was not dead.

I fear that we lose the revolutionary quality of the resurrection beneath the crush of Easter lilies. “He is risen, he is risen indeed!” can easily become rote. I much prefer the recommended Easter proclamation of one of the youths at my old church—someone should sprint into the sanctuary and after a few situationally appropriate expletives declare, “he was dead and now he’s not dead!” and then run off in confusion and terror.

Both parts of that declaration are important. First, he was dead. Jesus really truly actually died. He did not fake it. Resurrection is not the denial of death. Rather it is its vindication that never repudiates the very real pain, loss and grief. Jesus shares the fullness of our humanity to its ultimate limits, even unto pain, abandonment, despair, trauma, bleeding, suffocation, loss of consciousness, cessation of metabolic functions, and cellular decay. That means that there is now no place, no experience of humanness that has not been shared by God. Morally and metaphysically, we expand that in our creed with the affirmation, “and he descended into Hell,” to affirm that there is now no place and no possible place beyond God’s reach. Death is real and never denied, not even for Jesus. The difference is that death is no longer final.

“Now he’s not dead!” I have heard far too many vague sermons about how the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope for the future and how Jesus is now alive in our hearts. Jesus does indeed give us hope and does indeed influence our hearts and minds, but the whole point of Easter is that Jesus is not in the ground. And that absence means that everything we thought about the world, all our certain assumptions about the finality and certainty of death, all our cynicisms about how might makes right and the futility of hope are all categorically wrong. The world is not the way we thought it to be. There is a higher reality of possibility, promise, and spirit interpenetrating our entire universe that occasionally pokes out into our space time revealing, however provisionally, a deeper more mysterious, “real” than we ever imagined.

Resurrection is not merely the declaration that Jesus somehow recovered from his wounds and stumbled out looking for a snack. He was transformed. And this is where we reach the limits of the disciples’ vocabulary. Like all good observers beyond their depth, they switch over to metaphor. It was clearly him, in the flesh. They could touch him and talk to him. And he was also different. He could somehow pass through matter and space. Others would not be able to recognize him until they connected with him relationally and then they not only recognized him, they recognized the Truth.

Resurrection is not one idea among many within Christianity. It is the axis around which our faith turns. Either Jesus rose from the dead by the power of God, or we are at best a bunch of non-practicing, heretical Jewish God-fearers. Either Jesus rose from the dead, or his message and teachings were a lovely albeit overly idealistic set of aspirations. Either Jesus rose, or our only hope lies in the general, often inscrutable, and vaguely stated providence of God. As Saint Paul wrote after he was gobsmacked by the power of resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Cor. 15:17-19.

I believe in the resurrection. I believe in it because it makes sense of all available evidence. But far more importantly I trust in it because I keep bumping into its promise and power. I feel its echoes in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I am lifted up by its affective promise in moments of grief. I have witnessed its transformative effect in the lives of those who get swept up into its motion. The history of the church only makes sense through its propelling energies. And I have caught glimpses of it on the horizons between death and life. Jesus has risen, and by that divine intrusion reality has changed forever. Fear and death no longer get the last word. A moment of our distant future has erupted into our ancient past. Everything is different. Everything is possible. And so, we begin anew.
–Brian

April 6, 2022

Last November our dishwasher broke. For the past five months my wife Lisa and I have been washing dishes by hand at the kitchen sink. Tomorrow, after lengthy delays due to supply chain issues, we are getting a new dishwasher installed. Tonight, will be our last time scraping, scrubbing, rinsing, and drying together.

I do not particularly like washing dishes. I do however like working alongside Lisa. And while I do not want to romanticize it, part of me will miss this simple shared labor. One of the consequences of disruptions in global supply chains over the past two years as well as the difficulty of travel is that it has made us find satisfaction in the ordinary things of life. If you cannot buy more and more, you learn to find delights elsewhere. I have given up on my quest for a PlayStation 5 and find myself surprisingly content in replaying old games. Once we thought about moving, now we realize that our old home just needs some new paint and floors to make it quite cozy. Although I still long for a driving trip through Quebec, visiting family is more than enough for now. It is all enough, more than enough. And while there are many that lack the necessary resources for a safe, healthy, and wholesome life, many of us have more than we need.

Part of growing up is learning to let go of ambitions that are not your own. Our economy is based on a collective addiction to more. Seeking out new stuff, better stuff, and more pleasurable experiences is presented as the way to happiness. But it does not work beyond the initial euphoria of novelty. The Hedonic treadmill keeps us working harder and harder to obtain what we are supposed to want leaving us poorer, less satisfied, and exhausted. There is no absolute measure of wealth. Wealth is simply having more than you need. You can become wealthy by increasing your income or simply moderating your wants and needs.

I am far from an ascetic. I will be quite happy to finally have a new dishwasher. But I am more happy to have a partner to share with. And when I think about the moments in my life when I have been most happy and felt fully alive, they all involved either loving relationships with people or mysterious, awe-filled moments with God. Not one of them involved “stuff.” Saint Augustine once quipped that human beings were put in this world with other people to love and things to use. The problem, he observed, is that we get that backwards and love stuff and use people.

This Sunday we will begin talking about the Exodus, not just the book, but the event. Exodus was a migration by giant mixed crowd stepping off into the unknown on the basis of a promise. Along the way they would be provided with what they needed, but only what they actually needed, to survive to another day. They had to learn to trust and follow into a crash course in national identity formation as God hammered them into a people on the hot forge of Sinai. Some of them remembered longingly what they had back in Egypt, namely meat. And when they finally got their destination, they had to fight for the promise. None of it was what they wanted. But it was enough. And it was precisely what they needed in order to grow up from being a defeated mob of assorted forced laborers into a new people and a new identity called Israel. Along the way they had no material resources to rely on except each other and their curious and sometimes cranky God who followed them just outside of camp.

I am not Hebrew and we are not journeying by stages through the deserts of Sinai. But we are all on a journey of discovery and exploration that leads us home. We all will learn the importance of traveling light, letting go of old burdens that weigh us down and no longer help us, and relying in deep and intimate trust on each other. More stuff does not help us along the way. Only relationships do, with God and one another. It is a simple lesson that our culture will never teach except by accident. Sometimes it may require a supply chain disruption to remind us who we are and who we can become.

I am grateful to have the resources to afford a new dishwasher. I am far more grateful for my friends and family and meaningful work. The true gift from God is neither the resources nor the relationships, but the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other and value them according to their true value.

You never know what you might learn while washing dishes if only one pays attention.
–Brian

March 29, 2022

Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. Romans 5:20

My life has been punctuated by moments of grace. Such moments are of necessity pure gift, unexpected and unearned. The moment that I knew I became a Christian of the Protestant variety happened in the back corner aisle of my college bookstore on a Tuesday afternoon in March of 1988. My college was known for being liberal unto hostile towards organized religion and the bookstore’s meager theology selection was limited to a dozen or so titles. I pulled out a slim green volume, The Collected Paul Tillich. I had heard the name Paul Tillich before, but had no idea what he thought or why it might be worth publishing. The volume was a collection of short essays and sermons. I flipped to one simply entitled, “You Are Accepted.”* My life has not been the same since.

I remember standing there in the aisle with tears running down my cheeks, mercifully no one saw. This German theologian who died four years before I was born was speaking across the veil directly to me. More precisely, he preached the word I needed to hear. Religion is filled with antiquated words that seem out of place in the modern world, words like sin and grace. But there is no adequate substitute because they speak to the universal human experiences of alienation from self, other, and God and the universal invitation to reconciliation. Using the language of existential philosophy and psychotherapy, these clunky old words suddenly made sense. More importantly, I recognized both the separation and the yearning for belonging inside myself. In a phrase, Tillich summarized the Good News, the central theme of Paul’s writings and the essence of the Protestant movement: You are accepted.

I have always felt a separation between myself and other people. No matter how close we may love someone, they always remain apart. We all know what it feels like to be lonely in a crowd. I regularly experience separation within myself as I simultaneously observe and am observed doing precisely those things that I want not to do. And finally, God almost always feels a long way off. These lived experiences of separation and anxiety are the phenomena of sin erupting into my life. Sin is not naughty things that I have done, rather those naughty things and a good deal else (e.g. shame, anxiety, pride, and desire) are the consequences of sin. Sin, rightly understood, should always be singular as it is one underlying tear in reality that rips through every moment and every human life.

Our responses to this estrangement tend to fall into two categories. First, we can numb it and deny it through avoidance, pleasure seeking, or chemicals. Second, we can try to bridge it through our energy, effort, and enterprise by building and nurturing relationships, organizations, knowledge, skill, craft, understanding, art, achievement, and excellence. The problem is that neither approach works. The clear realization of our failure is the essence of despair. And despair is oddly enough the beginning of grace.

The cross is the ultimate symbol of despair in which Jesus is abandoned not only by his friends and followers, but even by God. This is the image that came to Paul in his moment of ultimate separation when he was actively hunting and persecuting Jesus’ followers. Despite his despair, despite his separation, despite his rejection, Paul simply experienced that he was accepted. He was accepted by one who already knew the ultimate and infinite estrangement of death itself. The curious thing is that the moment you simply accept that you are accepted, you also discover that you can accept yourself and other people. The moment we accept that we are accepted is the moment that the gaping chasm of sin begins to heal.

The problem for me was that accepting that I was accepted is far easier said than done. I had been trained, educated, encouraged, and rewarded to achieve. Accepting acceptance has nothing to do with achievement and even less to do with understanding. Our perennial desire to become “self-made” women and men leads us astray. Moreover, I thought that such a moment of acceptance would have more immediate and obvious consequences in my life. Despite feeling an enormous wave of energy followed by a rush of emotion manifesting as tears, my life went on much as before. I did not necessarily become a better person. I was still subject to anxiety, pride, jealousy, and misguided desire. But one thing did change. I knew that I was accepted. And that made all the difference.

Theology is often the art of attaching labels to the unnamable and then presuming to call it knowledge. Theology, doctrine, and morality, can all get in the way of simple acceptance of acceptance. The moment we lay claim to this acceptance with our claims, it ceases to be grace and becomes mere doctrine. Instead, it is pure gift, unearned, unrequested, and unmerited. It can only be experienced, not deduced. For many of us, nothing is more uncomfortable than receiving a gift we have not earned.

Sometimes trying gets in the way. That is why it is easiest to accept that you are accepted in precisely those moments of despair when all our trying comes tumbling down. If you want to find the foundations of faith, do not look to Sunday morning worship. Look instead to those moments of pain, abandonment, shame, meaninglessness, and disgust. Those are the moments when grace can bypass our egos’ exquisite defenses to extend an invitation. You are accepted. And all you need to do is simply accept that you are accepted.

Accept that you are accepted. Its utter simplicity would be comical if it were not so powerful because from that moment of acceptance springs every form of healing, reconciliation, restoration, and life. Indeed, what Jesus taught Nicodemus was that to accept that you are accepted is to be reborn.

* To fulfill all righteousness under copyright law, I cannot share with you the text of the sermon, however, if you simply search Tillich You Are Accepted, you will find it quickly enough.
–Brian

March 22, 2022

Sacred Voices

Thirty faithful Fairmont women gathered together this past weekend in the beauty of Hueston Woods State Park for a time of rest, renewal, and relationships. Our twice canceled (due to COVID) Women’s Retreat was a welcome respite from our weary lives after two years of this pandemic.

We listened, talked, laughed, and reflected on our theme of Sacred Voices:
-the sacred voice of Eve from the Creation story
-the sacred voice of Mary the mother of Jesus
-the sacred voice of Hildegard of Bingen a beloved writer, mystic,
composer, and visionary from the 12th century
-and our own sacred voices

In between gathering sessions and meal times there were 11 prayer stations for silent reflection and prayer. The heavens poured steady rain throughout our time together except for a moment of grace during our Friday night bonfire.

As we reflected on hearing God’s voice through these sacred voices, we were reminded once again that if we are to hear such voices we must be still and listen. We only grow closer to God and to one another when we create intentional time together. In our final session of the retreat we shared together in the ancient practice of Lectio Divina which we have been practicing as part of our Lenten School on Zoom at Fairmont. Psalm 42 was our scripture focus for this meditative practice of hearing scripture.

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you,
O God. Psalm 42:1

These short days of retreat and rest allowed us the gift of time to seek after the God for whom we so long. My prayer for each of you as we move back into safer COVID days and busier schedules is that we may set aside sacred time to listen, learn, and be loved by God.

One of our resources for our retreat was a list of reflection questions to take home with us for the days following our time together. One of those questions I also ask my youth group when we meet weekly for spiritual growth and fellowship:

Where did I see God today?

Maybe this one reflection question will help us hear God’s voice through the sacred voices around us.

How good and pleasant it is to dwell together as family in Christ!

Blessings,

Kelley

March 15, 2022

Apology appears to be dying art in our culture. After, please note never before, a media personality is reported to have done something awful, the formula is always identical: “I am sorry if you feel (bad, neglected, cheated, injured, offended, betrayed, insulted, belittled, or belittled take your pick).” Please note that technically that is no apology at all. It is an expression of regret that somebody feels something. An actual apology is not conditional on how the aggrieved feels, but instead takes responsibility for the apologizer’s action and subjects that action to critique. So, for example: I am sorry I shaved off your eyebrows rather than I am sorry if you feel disfigured; I am sorry I forgot your birthday rather than I am sorry if you feel sad that no one attended your birthday; and, I am sorry that I published your second-grade tap dance recital on Facebook rather than I am sorry if you feel embarrassed. A real apology requires ownership and responsibility for an offense, not a vague and likely false expression of empathy.

The problem goes deeper. Apologies are of only limited utility. An apology is technically an explanation. Originally an apologia was a speech given in defense of one’s conduct against accusations. The focus is less on restoring the offended than it is on protecting the offender’s reputation.
Apologies are a form of culturally conditioned performance art. They are intended to mitigate harm to one’s reputation, not to heal the party offended or seek reconciliation. So, instead of apologies we might need to seek something bigger.

The Bible rarely talks about apologies. The Bible is interested in forgiveness. And forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness never comes from the offender; it always comes from the aggrieved. That means that forgiveness usually requires the power dynamics of most relationships to be flipped. Forgiveness is a power play by the weak against the strong. The most offensive thing Jesus ever said to the Romans was I forgive you.
Forgiveness also gets muddled with justice as we lose ourselves in endless debates about forgiving but not forgetting. Justice, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed, is an imperfect substitute for love, but better than nothing. The problem is that justice often requires virtue (chiefly wisdom) and discernment that is in short supply among humans. While seeking justice we tend to achieve neither justice or forgiveness.

The Bible seems far less concerned with abstractions and far more concerned with relationships. Forgiveness in the Bible is always about restoration of a relationship after a breach. The focus then is on removing anything and everything that gives that breach persistent form including but not limited to: anger, shame, revenge, jealousy, justice, morality, and righteousness. Can you forgive without forgetting? It depends on the relationship and the forgiver. If the nature of the breach between you and another person is constructed out of memories of old hurts, then forgetting will be a necessary condition for forgiving. Forgiving in such a relationship may therefore require truth telling, restoration, and apology a necessary prerequisite for the forgiver, but not forgiveness itself.

Forgiveness is the choice to remove whatever it may be that gives form to the rupture in the relationship. That means that forgiveness is always available, albeit never easy. Forgiveness is an act of will, a choice to discard something for the sake of something else. It may be a difficult choice, but it is always a choice to opt for a relationship instead of a wound.

Later this week we will be looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers. Years of suffering in prison (somewhere between two and twelve) have humbled and sensitized Joseph. He is not the man we met at the beginning of his story. He has learned wisdom the hard way from the stern teacher of suffering. He has learned the folly of aggrandizing his own ego. He is no longer seeking revenge or even justice. Indeed, in the chancelleries of New Kingdom Egypt, he was justice. He has learned through hardship who he is and what is important to him. He no longer needs others’ guilt or innocence, apologies or contrition. Joseph seeks one thing only: relationship. With genuine tears of joy, he embraces his brothers because he has learned the hard way that in the end relationship is the only thing that matters.

When we say that God forgives us it is not because our contrition, penance, apologies, shame, guilt, or absolution are sufficient. Maybe they are; maybe they are not. When we say God forgives us, it simply means that God is choosing relationship with us as more important than anything else about us.
–Brian

March 8, 2022

Every pastoral prayer is, of necessity, a conceit. There is simply no way that impoverished prose can give voice to the honest yearning, joy, and very real pains of a single human heart, let alone all our hearts. There are too many thanksgivings and far too much suffering to remember let alone record let alone express.

My heart is admittedly sorrowful this day, doomscrolling the news from the Ukraine. I see the pictures of terrified people fleeing collapsing apartment buildings, grandmothers squeezing into refugee trains bound for the West, and young volunteers stoically sealing Molotov cocktails. Ukraine is of course not unique in human suffering. Scenes like these are played out every day in Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The invasion of the Ukraine just happens to be much better publicized and also has disturbing similarities to footage from nearly a century ago involving other tyrants and their irredentist demands. The eternal constant is the image of ordinary frightened people fleeing with only what they can carry not knowing if they will ever return.

Prayers of lamentation have a long and distinguished pedigree in scripture. Rather than being comprehensive catalogs of human suffering, they are particular, embodied, and earthy. To paraphrase Elie Weisel: the danger is not that we will forget the millions; the danger is that we will forget the one. The language of prayer is neither manifesto nor political rhetoric. Prayer is simply attentive witness.

A Prayer of Lament for the People of Ukraine

God of the suffering and the forgotten, God of fearful and fleeing,
God of the Cross
You never employed empires and armies but make yourself known
in the most humble moments of gentle care.
You know that history is not drawn on maps, but in the interwoven
tapestry of peoples’ hearts.
We go about our daily lives and complain about the price of fuel.
And a little girl hurriedly packs a single suitcase for a lifetime.
An old man gets lost in the panicked crowds of the train station.
A dog sniffs at the bowl in its yard to which its owners will never
return.
Fear begins to creep over the city like a cold damp stain blotting
out life as hatred vies with terror for supremacy.
Let loose your better angels O Lord. Shield and guide your people
who pray more fervently than we can imagine in our secure
rest.
Show yourself now in word and deed. In miracles and the
mundane.
Rouse up your heroes and stir the hearts of the multitude so your
Kingdom may be manifest amid the wrack and ruin of our
vanities.
Remind leaders everywhere that they stand under your judgment
for eternity.
And most of all, remember the one we forget,
the one of no account,
the one without money, fame, or followers,
who runs into the night alone and afraid.

You know your child by name even when we do not.

Save your child O God from the scourge of war let loose by evil
men.
All our hopes and all our ends lie in you,
your light shines still, even in the darkness. Amen

March 1, 2022

Sometimes spirituality can be like acne. What is important is maintaining healthy open pores. Clog up your pores with gunk which is to be honest you, and what you end up with are nasty pimples and inflammation. Yuck. Clean up with a proper skin care regime, get your oil and debris out of those pores and voila. Healthy skin is restored!

But healthy spirituality? Blasphemous! Perhaps, but not heretical. Consider that skin is the organ of the human body that provides our interface with the outside world. It needs to be impermeable enough to keep our delicate insides intact despite all the nicks and bruises that the world offers yet porous enough to breathe and sweat as well as delicately sense our environment. So does our spirituality. We need to maintain some sort of bounded sense of “I” to live and work as an organism in this creation. But if we have an overabundance of “I”, if our sense of “I” begins to clog our spiritual pores, then we find ourself cut off, plugged up, inflamed, and sick. The biggest problem for our spirituality is not God’s absence, but our own overbearing presence.

In the Old Testament Jacob is a rather scandalous spiritual hero. He is, among other things, a cheat, trickster, con-man, occasionally a cad, a coward, and when opportunity permits a thief, but he is not a hypocrite. When God finally and unmistakably shows up, which non coincidentally requires an extended divine introduction as Jacob has never shown much interest in the God of his father and grandfather, Jacob acknowledges his gross misperception. He smacks himself upside the head and acknowledges, “Indeed THE LORD is in this place, and I did not know.” Genesis 28:17. God was already there, but Jacob never before noticed because Jacob was too busy advancing the interests of Jacob.

There is a grammatical curiosity in the Hebrew text. Jacob repeats the “I” unnecessarily. Our English translations smooth this out, but what Jacob literally says is: “and I, I did not know.” Jacob’s confession is about more than perception. Jacob appears to acknowledge that what has obscured his vision, understanding, and ultimately relationship with God is himself.

There are lots of ways we clog our spiritual pores and keep God far away. Pride and ambition are obvious in the case of Jacob. But there are subtler barriers: fear, shame, anxiety, and desire. Actually, anything can get in the way of connecting with and to God if we give it ultimate meaning, purpose, and value in our lives. The Old Testament name for those things is an idol. The modern therapeutic name is an attachment. They keep us separate from God, a separation that both tends to make us miserable and prevents us from becoming what we were meant to be. The Bible simply calls that separation sin.

One way to consider prayer is that it has nothing to do with adding the right words or sentiments no matter how heartfelt. One way to consider prayer is that it is all about taking things away. First gently set aside our endless to-do lists, the distractions of our bodies, the unfocused meanderings of the mind. Do not worry they will be waiting for you when you are done with prayer. Next, set aside using language inside your head and trying to understand things and wanting things. Your will and wants will be okay on their own for a few minutes. Finally, and ever so gently in this newly quieted internal landscape, gently relax your grip on “I.” Hold your own sense of self loosely so that it is no longer the central focus of all thought and experience. Your ego can safely handle this for a time. And now, with infinite attentiveness just be. That is the purest form of prayer. To offer yourself to God in perfect vulnerability offering to God the path of least resistance and obstruction. It is not easy, nothing important ever is. But with intentional practice you can clean up your spiritual pores and offer God a ready way inside. The nearly universal experience of such practice is to discover that you are not alone, not lost, but found, held, and loved from a place beyond language or reason.

It is no coincidence that Jacob finally learned his lesson in spiritual perception when he was on the run, beyond the borders of everything familiar, where all his tricks and schemes failed him, in a liminal space beyond his control. And while being chased across the Negev desert by 400 homicidal Bedouin appears to do the trick, I much prefer simply finding a quiet place in my own home.

We cannot find our way to God. But we do not need to. God is constantly trying to find a way to us. All we need do is clear the path a little bit.

And a regular practice of washing with non-comedogenic cleanser and a little salicylic acid does wonders for my pores.
–Brian

February 22, 2021

“Now I know.” Genesis 22:12

In Sunday School we teach that God knows everything. At one level that is axiomatically correct if one assumes that God is that being who is omniscient and omnipotent. I do not question God’s all-knowing faculties (omniscience to use the fancy term). Instead, I have begun to wonder about the orders of things that can be known and those that cannot.

Genesis is all about messy relationships. Most of the book of Genesis is specifically about God’s relationship with a dysfunctional family of desert Bedouin whose personal scandals would fit nicely into the Jerry Springer Show. The patriarchs and matriarchs are jealous, dishonest, unfaithful, cowardly, greedy, conniving, and occasionally blasphemous. They are also hopeful, courageous, creative, trusting, resilient, and loving. In other words, they are a lot like us. And their similarity to us makes God’s knowledge of them and their lives important for understanding God’s knowledge of us and our lives.

“God tested Abraham.” Genesis 22:1. Scripture does not describe precisely what God was curious about. The test unfolds as one of the most scandalous passages in the Old Testament: the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac, painfully described as Abraham’s son, his only son, the one he loved. The standard Christian answer down through the centuries has been that God was testing Abraham’s faith. But God could have just as easily been testing whether Abraham might object and haggle for the boy’s life as he did for the residents of Sodom. Even more disturbingly it is not completely clear whether the test is for Abraham or for God.

Genesis describes in excruciating detail all of Abraham’s preparations for the sacrifice—he builds an altar, assembles the fuel, binds his son, lays him on the wood, reaches out his hand, and takes the sacrificial knife. Then an Angel yells STOP! The Angel then explains, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (22:12).

If the Angel and presumably God now know, that means that before they did not know what Abraham might do. A test is not really a test if you know the result beforehand. Taking the text at face value, the test is God’s effort to honestly find out something about Abraham that God did not know.

God can know all things and still not know what cannot be known. If creation really is a free, autonomous system then that very freedom may limit what can be known. In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the more one knows about the position of a particle, the less one knows about its momentum and vice versa. In mathematics, Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem demonstrated that in any formal proof, there are factually true statements that cannot be proven. And if particle physics and formal logic are not your preferred disciplines, consider human relationships and the universal experience in which you can know everything that can be known about another person and still never know them let alone predict her or his behavior with perfect accuracy.

Relationships are messier than set theory and quantum wave functions. Relationships have far more interrelated moving parts. If, in this creation, an electron’s spin and position cannot simultaneously be known, how much more inscrutable is the human heart that knows not even itself. Indeed, the human mind and heart seem perfectly designed to deceive their owners.

Genesis cuts through all this theological chatter with a simple assumption: relationship. What God wants is relationship. What connects us to God is relationship. And what the Bible is about is the exploration and evolution of that relationship. This relationship is not a metaphor, but an actual connectional bond between human beings and the supernatural entity we rather presumptively call “God.” As in any relationship there will be questions of commitment and fidelity, boundaries and trust, expectations and even mutual growth. How far can God trust Abraham? How far can Abraham trust God? Do remember that this is the beginning of the story, the first book of the Bible. You cannot honestly insert later answers. Genesis is not the final answer. Genesis presents us instead with the first question.

How far will Abraham go? How far will God? If God’s post-flood plans to repair creation hinge on this one man and his messed-up family, you can understand the gravity of the questions. The answers are dramatic and disturbing where morality and faith collide. The answers from this encounter are for God and any human presumption to possess such knowledge is likely to end in blood. God gets an answer, but I am not sure whether Abraham, let alone Isaac ever do. Instead, consider the questions. How far can God trust you? How far can you trust God? These questions are not a test. These questions and their embodied answers are the definition of your life.

–Brian

February 15, 2021

I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. -Psalm 69:3

Grief is exhausting.

All who live with the deep grief of the death of a loved one know the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional exhaustion of grief. And grief does not just dwell with those who have lost a loved one. Grief can be found wherever there is loss.

The loss of health.
The loss of vocation.
The loss of friendship.
The loss of dreams.
The loss of community.
The loss of life as it once was.

I have held my own grief tightly these past few years as I have continued on with the single focus of taking care of my family and being faithful to my calling as your pastor. I have not given grief much time to speak its voice, let alone find healing. The denial of grief is also exhausting.

The companion Psalm for our Genesis scripture this Sunday is Psalm 69. It is a deeply personal psalm about grief and suffering. It is painful to read. The psalmist cries out to God, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.”

For thirty-six long verses the psalmist writes about grief…but sprinkled throughout the psalm are glimpses of hope such as this one in verse 13:

“At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your
steadfast love, answer me.”

In God’s time and in God’s love the psalmist will find an answer to his grief.

We have all been living in the rising waters of grief and anxiety for the past two pandemic-laden years and we are exhausted. The waters have come up to our necks and we, too, cry out to God.

Our Fairmont family of faith has grown in miraculous ways during this difficult and draining time. We have learned new ways to worship and we have grown together but we still have not completely grieved what has been lost.

Naming that grief is a good first step to healing. It may be hard to envision God’s answer to us in these uncertain days but in God’s time and in the abundance of God’s love, we will find an answer to our grief.

In God’s time and in God’s love we will find an answer to our grief.

I am grateful that we are not alone in our grief nor in our healing and hope. God is ever present with us, always. And we have each other in this journey too.

Thanks be to God!

Kelley

February 8, 2021

One of the keys to contentment in life is to understand the difference between the things that one can control and the things that one cannot. Our attention needs to be focused on the former over the latter. However, we often get that backwards. We often stress about precisely those things over which we have no control making us both miserable and exhausted in the process. It is an irrational and self-destructive habit that I try hard to avoid. So, as a practical matter, if I cannot control it, I may try to be aware of it, but do not waste too much time or attention on the matter.

Despite my best efforts, this neat and tidy division of creation has not been as comforting as I wish. There lies a vast frontier zone between these poles of human agency. There is a third category of things over which I have some influence, but not control. The world is complicated and messy. My choices influence all sorts of things I do not fully understand that are in turn influenced by the decisions, often completely unknown to me, of countless others. Most events in this world are not the result of single variable functions of my choices. My actions are often only one of a vast multivariable mix. Complexity obscures the individual’s role as it equally conceals or highlights one’s assumed agency. That leaves me with a creeping sense of expansive uncertainty. If I have influence but not control, how do I know whether I have done what I should, let alone all I can. The result is a pervasive sense of anxiety born of the complexity of the world we have made.

Right now, the world seems to be a profoundly anxious place. No one is sure exactly what is going on, let alone what will happen in the future (insert here whatever it is you may be worrying about). Lacking clear information, we make decisions on the basis of the past that may no longer be a reliable guide to the future. We do not even know how our choices may or may not influence outcomes at all. This perpetual unfocused fear that paralyzes is what we call anxiety. And running a million “what if” scenarios through your sleepless hours will not cure it.

I learned one of my character defects honestly in early childhood. One way to contain anxiety is to nurture competence, to know what to do in a given situation. If you generally knew what to do and tried to do your best, then most situations would turn out on balance favorably. Competence worked well for me throughout most of my life. The problem is that competence as a strategy only works for problems over which one has control. If all one has is influence, without causal agency, competence is a trap that leads only to anxiety not solutions.

There is a way out. Actually, there are two interrelated exits. The first is Biblical. Trust. Trust that despite the mess our world or our lives might seem, God has a plan and wills good for us. This is Abraham’s solution and up to a point Job’s. It is no coincidence that the word the Bible uses for faith could just as easily be translated as trust. The problem for us nowadays is that we have been fed five centuries of humanism presuming that although God may in control in the heavens, we are very much in control on earth. Our honest confession of operative faith is, “God helps those who help themselves.”

There is a second way out of the trap. It works on its own, but works even better alongside trust. One needs to let go of all our cultured assumptions of our own agency, power, intelligence, control, and dare I say it, competency. Humility provides an escape from anxiety, albeit at the cost of a downgraded ego. Humility, being humble, does not mean of little or no worth. Humility derives from the old Latin word humus, literally of the earth. Humility is neither the lack of self esteem nor meekness, but simple honesty about who and what we are, created material beings within this creation. Humility is simply knowing yourself as you truly are.

Going on two years of Covid, my attempts at competency are now spent. My bag of tricks is empty and sometimes the boundless enthusiasm may ring a bit hollow. Perhaps you face some of the same challenges. If all I have to depend on is myself, I will never be enough. But I do not have to and neither do you.
Know who you are. Ignore what you are “supposed” to be. Simply, honestly, gently, charitably, know yourself. That is the essence of humility that sets us free from the crushing weight of infinite oughts. And then as you, not your persona or Facebook profile but simply as you, trust. Trust that the Creator is not a liar. Trust that the Creator really does love you and wills for you good.

The only thing I really need to do is to be me and as me be in relationship with that which made me and with other people. All the rest is simply the illusions of anxiety, shame, and pride.

Learning how to be and how to trust is not so different from learning how to float in deep water. All you need to do is let go and relax. The deep waters will hold you.
–Brian

February 1, 2021

Fluency in Hebrew is not one of my gifts. I find it to be an annoyingly imprecise language. Unlike the mathematical exactness of Greek, one is often left interpreting meaning on the basis of context alone. Hebrew suffers in particular from a dearth of prepositions. Without those little words in between nouns, it is difficult to establish the precise relationship between things. You can perfectly translate a Hebrew verse and end up with, “A man, a tent, and a camel.” It is then up to the reader to decipher the relationship between them.

One of the most important verses in scripture, the turning point of the Genesis story, the birth of the Jewish people, and the origin of all three Abrahamic faiths is Genesis 11: 1: “YHWH said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” That command, “Go forth” (Lekh Lekha, לֶךְ-לְךָ‎ ) provides the divine impetus to the entire story of God and humanity that follows throughout scripture. The problem is that phrase in Hebrew is famously multifaceted and slippery. Any translation into English necessarily flattens what God is saying into a single dimension and loses most of the meaning.

At one level it is simply the divine command to go. Leave your family and community behind and trust in me as I bring you to a new place. Abram goes solely on the basis of his trust in the divine promise.

It also means go for yourself. Do not go for God or for family or community or any other reason except to explore exactly what this creation and this life have in store for you. Let go of the past in order to acquire a new and vibrant future.

It also means go with yourself. Bring with you all the beliefs, values, and ways of life and living that are important to you. Bring along your culture and habits of mind so that wherever you go, you will spread and share your way of living with the world.

It also means go by yourself. You are unique, and individual, perhaps the first in history. No matter how many people in your household you may take along on the journey of discovery, we all make the journey alone because the journey touches us each differently and takes us to a unique destination of identity.

And it also means, go to yourself. There is a you out there waiting to be discovered and embraced. Go to your identity, your true identity, not the person your family, community, clan, and culture say you are. Go and find your true name that is both birthright and destiny. Go knowing that any other life, any other identity will be tragically too small for you.
Go, Lekh Lekha, means all of this simultaneously. It calls us to both do something and become something all on the basis of a little trust and a little curiosity. No wonder that it is the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because it is fundamentally an invitation to finally and fully be human.

What we call “religion” is not found in our rites, rituals, sacred texts, or even communities. According to Genesis “religion” is grounded in trust and the courage to change recognizing that such change may take us away from all our fondest attachments. Abram is not particularly pious, as the rest of his story will describe in scandalous detail. The only quality that seems to differentiate Abram from the mass of Mesopotamians is his dual sense of trust and curiosity that leads him down the long road south to Canaan and there find not so much who God is but rather who he is.

The command and the invitation are not just for Abram, but for each of us. The invitation is neither to escape this world or become a saint, but rather simply to become you, the glory of God, a human being fully and gloriously alive. “The kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:21.

So, go!

–Brian

January 25, 2021

An editorial note from Pastor Brian:
Over the course of this year, we are collaborating with our friends at the Hilliard United Methodist Church in our reflections upon God’s Word for us. Together we are examining the major themes of the Old Testament. From time to time we will be sharing reflection pieces from each other’s congregation. Last week I had the opportunity to share a reflection with the Hilliard congregation. Today, I am so pleased to share with you a reflection from my dear friend, Rev. April Blaine.
_____________________________________________________________

I remember the first time I ever saw an iPhone – this was early when they came out nearly 15 years ago.

I, like many of you, was in awe.

There was such a wow factor. Many of the technologies that they were using, weren’t entirely new, but they had put them together in such a beautiful, sleek, accessible way that was also practical and functional. It was an engineering marvel and it would forever change the rhythms of our daily life. Because now, smartphones were able to do much more than just communicate with other people. They became our gateway to the web, our cameras, our GPS, our exercise and sleep trackers, and even our personal assistants.

Now, most of us cannot imagine our lives without them. For many of us, our phones are with us at all times and they are the first things we look at in the morning and the last things we see before we go to BED.

And everything in between.

This innovative technology can do extraordinary things that we never thought possible – and in itself – it is neither good nor bad.

It’s also new. In the scope of human history, it’s very new. We as human beings are still very early in the process of understanding all the implications and ways to properly integrate this technology into our lives.

Interestingly, the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, that we will encounter this week, also finds humanity wrestling with a new technology. It’s written less as a historical record and more as a cautionary tale.

We were told in Genesis Chapter 1, that all of humankind was made in the image of God and said to be good. That one of the great purposes for which humans were made is to continue the creative work of God. To go forth and multiply. To use our creative drive to continue God’s purposes in the world.

Last week, in our shared journey through the Great Story, we arrived at the story of Noah’s Ark, a kind of Creation 2.0 story. We see the introduction of a basic sense of morality for all humankind… one that honors the sacredness of life and invites us to see the world from another’s perspective. Once again, God prioritizes the relationship with humanity and makes the first covenant with us. This first universal covenant is God’s commitment to remain with us and to continue showing us a better to live… a way that will preserve life and invite us to do the same.

By Chapter 11, humanity has increased again and now, human ingenuity and creativity have come together to create a new marvel in technology – one that would greatly improve human capacity and efficiency.

And the new technology is BRICKS.

The old way of building things would have been to take various shaped stones that were either carved or cut or gathered and to put them together to build various structures. You don’t have to be an architect to understand that this isn’t a very efficient way to build and there is a limit to how large and how high such structures can become.

But bricks – in their uniformity and capacity to create large volumes – this made all kinds of things possible that had never been possible before.

The people are enamored with what they will be able to now do…

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

To give you more background on how the early Hebrew people might have heard this story. In the chapter before, we read of a ruthless dictator named Nimrod, who is organizing and creating an empire, constructing cities, consolidating power, subjugating others, starting in Babel.

If you read ahead, the next time bricks are mentioned is in the first chapter of Exodus 1, when the Hebrew people are enslaved in Egypt. They know where this inclination to build bigger, higher, and taller is headed.

I appreciate the many biblical scholars who write from a marginalized point of view and remind us how often language has been used to subjugate and oppress people. Forcing groups of people to assimilate to the dominant language has been a common practice throughout history, including the history of our own country. This is part of how empires were built. When they read this chapter in Genesis, they see the dangers that can come with “all the world speaking the same language.” In this case, the coming together and the building that these bricks facilitate isn’t the kind of unity that is about the sanctity and preservation of life.

God chooses to disrupt the efforts of the people. First, the tower is disrupted, and the people are scattered. The second, and perhaps more significant disruption comes in the chapter we will read in the first week of February. God chooses to disrupt the efforts by creating a tribe of people who will live in a new way. A way that honors the sanctity of life and becomes a blessing to the whole world. But… we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The stories in Genesis continue to ask us questions about the kind of world we want to build. How will we do this in ways that honor and preserve life? When new technologies arrive, how will we use them? Will they create further isolation and violence between ourselves and God? Can we continue to listen, learn, and create in ways that prioritize relationship over power? Can our creative drive be used in ways that further the purposes of God in the world?

I’m grateful to be on this journey together across two churches exploring and listening to one another as we ask these challenging questions. God doesn’t give us simple answers but invites us to use our agency, creativity, and capacity to engage the complexity of these moments… with one another and with the movement of the Spirit.

And so we keep listening and learning… together.

With gratitude,

Pastor April.

January 18, 2021

The story of Noah forms the basis for innumerable Sunday school lessons, children’s books, and nursery decorations. Like many of the most familiar stories of the Bible, I fear that very few people have actually read it. If people took the time to consider what it says and what it means, I wonder whether we would still tell the story to children.

The story of Noah begins full of expectation and promise. “Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (6:19). Nobody else receives such accolades, not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or even Moses. Noah as a paragon of obedient faith and righteousness is the image that sticks for most people and how we portray him to our children. But that is not exactly how he is portrayed at the end of the story. The children’s story Bibles all end with Noah and his family waving goodbye to all the animals. But the actual Bible story continues. “Noah was a man of the soil and was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk and exposed himself within his tent as he passed out.” (9:21-22). Noah, the great hero of faith in chapter 6 ends our story as a debased and broken man, lost in alcohol, cursing his grandsons. It is a quite a dramatic fall and it begs the question, why?

We often fail to consider the psychological and emotional trauma of this story. Noah was directly implicated in the greatest act of genocide in human history, the wholesale destruction of humanity and the terrestrial natural order. Noah participated in all of it. That alone would be ample cause for post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. No wonder he tried self-medicating. But we cannot really know about Noah’s internal motivations or his inner demons because Noah never speaks. Across three chapters, Noah never says a single word. Instead, he silently obeys God’s every command. Without questioning, he constructs a vast ark 300 by 50 by 30 cubits (I presume he knew what a cubit was). Without questioning, he collected pairs or seven pairs of all the animals. Without questioning, he sealed up the ark and waited for the rains to fall and the waters of the deeps to open. Without questioning, he listened as the rains fell and his neighbors pounded on the hatches begging to be rescued until all went silent. Through all this, not a single word, but he did everything that the Lord had commanded, to the letter.

Sometimes, I hear people talk about obedience to God as the very essence of faith and the highest virtue. Some religions elevate obedience to God to be the purpose of human life. In Christianity and in Judaism, it is not. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Covenant and Conversations, pointed out that one of the curiosities about the Old Testament is that despite containing 613 commandments, there is no word in ancient Hebrew for “obey.” The Torah urges people to hear, listen, understand, respond, and attend, but never obey. When the King James Bible tried to render it into English they had to invent a new word to cover its absences, so they used “hearken.” We don’t “hearken” much anymore. When they started writing the Israeli legal code in Modern Hebrew, they had to invent a whole new word for obey.

I don’t think that God wants us simply to obey. If God did, I would think that the Bible would say so plainly and celebrate such obedience. It is not that obedience to God is wrong. I just think that obedience, all by itself, is insufficient. Over and over again in Genesis we are confronted by God challenging us not so much to be obedient, but rather to be responsible, to use our freedom, choice, and judgment, to be mature and deliberative in participating in God’s work. God seems to want us to internalize God’s own values, methods, goals, and objectives because we trust God, not because we are merely creatures who obey. God could have worked exclusively through mindless robots, but instead chose to work through us as partners and in doing so seeks something greater than obedience. God seeks responsibility.

Noah is an obedient man, the most obedient of his generation. But I am not sure he is a hero. He does what God commands, but nothing more. Contrast Noah to Abraham, who we will start hearing about in a few weeks, who is quick to argue, bargain, persuade, and harangue God whenever human lives were at stake. When God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham starts haggling with God to mitigate the scope of the destruction. Noah faced with the destruction of all flesh, says nothing. Always obedient, Noah was the first human in history to offer up the cowards’ excuse, I was only following orders.

Noah saves only his own skin and his own family. The story ends with Noah passed out, naked, drunk, a shameful embarrassment to himself and his children. So, I wonder, if you save only your own skin while doing nothing to save your neighbor or the world, maybe you lose yourself in the process as well.

Faith requires obedience to God, but it is never only obedience to God. It requires more of us. It requires our creativity, our morality, our courage, our hope, and love. Noah has obedience, but never displays any of these other dimensions of faith. Perhaps that is why when the ark finally lands, he does not open the door until commanded to do so by God. Noah may be obedient, but he cannot comprehend what God is up to. He cannot envision a new world with new possibilities. He cannot leap at the chance to restore creation and heal a broken humanity. When it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission to start, you roll up your sleeves and get to work to creatively make hope a new reality. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all could and did. The question for us faced with the example of Noah is whether we can do any better?
–Brian

January 12, 2021

What the Snake told me . . .

The story that we often call “the Fall” begins with a snake. Not the devil, not Satan, just a snake. The snake is not evil, it is however gifted. The snake is the first theologian, the first being who asks questions about God. “Eve, did God really say that you shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The snake is of course wrong in its premise, God had given them all the trees to eat with a single exception. But the snake’s question places Eve into an awkward response defending God. No, we can eat from all the trees except one and if we touch that one, we will die. Eve got her information from Adam and she gets it wrong. For the first time, but far from the last, God’s people mess up by making God’s commands stricter than they actually are.

The serpent’s response is factually accurate, but also contradicts God. You won’t die if you eat it, but your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and bad. Notice how the serpent has changed the topic. They are no longer talking about God. They are talking about the tree and its fruit. Specifically, they are talking about what the tree can do for us if we consume it. The garden starts in Genesis as an expression of God’s love for human beings and ends as a commodity feeding human power and pleasure. Humanity begins with a focus on relationship with God and ends in acquisition and control.

Eve determines that the fruit is good. For the very first time in all creation, something is pronounced as good separate and apart from God’s verdict, but instead rooted in its appeal to the human senses and utility for human will. The allure of the forbidden is as irresistible to Eve as to any twelve-year-old. She sees that the fruit is good and enticing to the eye. For the first time a human being aches for something it does not possess. Taming our desires is not chief among humanity’s strengths, not then, not now. So, she eats. And . . . nothing happens. They did not die, but something had changed forever. Adam and Eve are alienated from themselves or at least who they thought themselves to be. For the very first time they felt shame and guilt, the pain that separates who we think we are from who we want to be. Shame is the original wound.

God addresses humanity, both of them, for the very first time. The Creator’s first words to us will echo to the last page of the Bible, indeed to the last moment of time. “Where are you?” says the creator like a worried parent looking for his children. “Where are you?” seems a rather curious thing for the all-powerful creator to be asking. But apparently God can no longer see them. Something has shifted in the universe. God cannot see them as they are, and they cannot see God. Adam does not confess. He does not explain. He starts making excuses. He blames Eve. Eve, no doubt looking rather peeved at Adam for throwing her under the bus, turns and blames the snake who prudently is nowhere to be found. And we are left with God’s haunting question, “what have you done?”

This is not a story about how evil started. It is a story about how human beings started. And human beings are marked from the beginning not so much by wickedness as anxiety.

The serpent asks a question and Eve starts to doubt God’s loving providence. That’s where it all starts, not in desire or lust or any of those other things. It starts in an unnamable, undirected, inchoate fear we know so well as anxiety. Maybe God does not care? Maybe I am missing out on something? Maybe I am not the person I could be? Maybe my whole life is based on false assumptions? The anxieties begin to whirl around like giant flock of crows croaking in ceaseless thought inside our minds as Eve’s whole way of relating to God and herself begins to change. She starts asking “what if” questions. These unanswerable anxieties begin to push her apart from God. No longer does she talk to or with God. She starts to talk about God. God becomes third person. God becomes an object.

Anxiety kills. Anxiety begins in the assumption that we are separate and apart, apart from God and from each other. So, we revert to seeking control, asserting God is at best an object far away, a paper tiger, an idle threat, a literary or theological hypothesis. We start to pursue our own identity and wants to regulate our anxieties rather than relationship. We were created by God with freedom to enjoy and a vocation to steward, but through our anxiety we pervert that into license to consume and pleasure ourselves any way we want. We want what we want when we want it, and we call that good. But it never satisfies.

We seek mastery over self, other, and nature, never understanding that such mastery always comes at the price of isolation. So, we find ourselves with neither control nor belonging. Sitting crying among our broken toys all alone, we have the temerity to ask where is God in all this, having asked the Creator to go away long, long ago.

It is a Promethean (or perhaps Faustian) bargain. Defiance of God’s embrace constitutes the indispensable precondition for full human freedom and autonomy. I am just not sure it is worth it. As aptly sung by the latter-day prophet Don Henley of the Eagles, “Freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talking. Your prison is walking in the world all alone.”

This sorry state is where today’s reading ends, and our existential angst begins, in a permanent condition of anxiety and alienation. And that is where most of our lives tend to get stuck. It is simply a part of being human. But that is not where the story ends.

Keep reading the story. This is only Genesis 3 after all! Trust. Open your embrace. While we may walk away from this God in our stubborn, proud, anxious, autonomy over and over again, this God will never ever let us go.
–Brian

January 5, 2021

“Beginning Again”

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. -Isaiah 43:19

More than ever this year we have a deep, deep longing for something new. Something better. Something nostalgic. Something hopeful. Two years of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst wrought by a global pandemic and subsequent viral variants have worn us down and carved us out like centuries of rivers flowing over ancient rocks. We are tired and impatient and want to “move on” with living. And yet the normalcy evades us and we struggle to find the new normal in this ever shifting landscape. Who would have believed in March 2020 that in January 2022 we would still be finding our way through a virulent virus and its variants?

Isaiah the prophet spoke words of hope to God’s people in a time when they too longed for something new, something better, something hopeful. “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” We are not the first of God’s people longing for relief from suffering and we will not be the last.

As anxious and angry and fearful as we are in this new year we can still hear God’s steady and faithful voice through the prophet Isaiah promising us that God is doing a new thing in us and in spite of us. Just like the beautiful carvings of ancient rocks pummeled by thousands of years of rivers and streams, we too are becoming something beautiful through God’s grace. The one consistency throughout these days of uncertainty is God. God is faithful, ever present, and full of grace.

With the new year comes a new beginning: a chance to start over, to begin again. The old is gone and the new is springing forth! All our failures and regrets and lost dreams find new hope in the new year. And like the ancient rocks carved by the ever flowing rivers of time, God is doing a new thing in us as God’s people. God is making a way in the wilderness even when we cannot see it.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing! Do you perceive it?”

Blessings and love to you Fairmont Family in this new year. May we journey together and see what new thing God is doing in us!

Peace,

Kelley

December 30, 2021

Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the Earth. And God created the human in his image, in the image of God, male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27

Throughout 2022 we will be reflecting with our friends from Hilliard United Methodist Church on the great story arc of the Hebrew Bible beginning with the creation account in Genesis and ending with the vision of that creation restored and reconciled in Daniel. Instead of preaching and teaching on discrete narrative episodes we will be focusing on the great themes of the Old Testament. In 2023 we will then examine how those same themes are extended and expanded in the revelation of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

The very first theme of scripture is also its most important running from Old Testament to New like a golden thread of hope. The very first theme of God’s revelation recorded as Holy Scripture is God’s faith in us. We often think about the Bible as the story of human faith or the lack thereof. And there will be time enough to consider the life and commitments of patriarchs, prophets, priests, and apostles. But all of that pales in comparison to the overriding emphasis on the faith of God.

The story of creation in Genesis describes effortless creative activity by God, separating the chaos into ever more interconnected and complex realities. God wills and it is so. “Let there be . . . and there was . . . and God saw that it was good . . .” There is no hesitation, no deliberation just pure unbounded creativity. Until we come to the creation of humanity when everything changes. For the first time, God pauses, God hesitates, God ponders. There is no predetermined outcome. God, and God is always plural in Genesis 1, so properly “They” consider what to do next. Incidentally, the “They” for most Christians would be the Trinity and for Jews the heavenly court of angels.

The problem is that if God creates human beings in God’s own image and likeness, they too will have autonomy, will, self-consciousness, and at least some creative agency. That makes human beings potentially very dangerous for the rest of creation. Setting something like that loose in creation could result in disaster, or at least some measure of chaos and unpredictable vandalism. Alternatively, if God did not create such a being, then creation is simply a beautiful garden filled with wonderful pets. There would be no possibility of genuine relationship, no friendship, no community, no family. For the first time in creating God now faces an irreducible risk and an irreversible choice. No wonder God pauses to mull it over.

God takes the risk. God takes a leap of faith. God privileges relationship over perfection and predictability. God creates the human being. And God’s faith in this often wayward, cantankerous, ungrateful, self-centered, easily distracted, occasionally inspiring, always searching, too-clever-for-their-own-good, sporadically homicidal, never satisfied, and yet always reaching out to God bunch of hybrid dirt/Spirit creatures (“Adam” in Hebrew literally means a lump of dirt) will propel the plot and promise of the Bible and our lives. Despite it all, God has faith in us.

My faith does not amount to much. I have even less in the saving potential of politics, art, media, money, pleasure, accomplishment, beauty, celebrity, or even religion. Sometimes I despair and lose faith in myself altogether. What sustains me, what sustains all God’s people, is nothing within me or within creation. What sustains me, what sustains all God’s people, is God’s faith in us. The great story, recorded as scripture as well as in the experiences of your and my life, is simply the narrative of how that stubborn divine faith unfolds over time changing everything.

The faith of God in us is what human beings simply call hope.

–Brian

December 22, 2021

The challenge of Christmas is its imperative to pay attention. Attention is not a normal human quality. We spend most of our waking lives tied up inside our endless internal chatter of wants, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames, and plans. We do not live in the world so much as live inside our constant internal commentary on and interpretation of the world. It gets much worse each December as we burden ourselves with all our culture’s presumptions about how this holiday should look, feel, smell, taste, and most importantly feel. And then because our internal reality does not match what we see on Facebook, the Hallmark, Channel, Norman Rockwell paintings, or Martha Stewart’s well styled kitchen, we feel like utter failures. This year the unwelcome Grinch of Omicron further widens the gap between our wants and our world.

The unsettling reality behind this holiday is that it is no holiday at all. It is not meant to be a party. It is instead a provocation, a transgressive historical invasion of all our wants, plans, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames and plans. But you will not notice any of this if you fail to pay attention.

The world pays attention to the powerful and the pretty, the people and events that feature prominently in the media of any generation. The Gospel of Luke is well aware of this. Luke begins the account of Jesus’ birth with a nod to glitterati. People are supposed to know and indeed presumed to know all about Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius two of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential men of the first century. Luke’s readers certainly would have known them well and Augustus’ ironic self-styled title, divi filius, “the Son of God” (specifically the adopted son of the Senate deified Julius Caesar). Although they should and in their time did occupy center stage, Luke shifts our gaze and uses them not as the subject of his story, but merely the fixed reigns upon which to pin his drama to concrete human history.

What matters is not the powerful and the pretty. What matters is paying attention. Mary pays attention to the voice in the silence. Elizabeth pays attention to the Spirits murmurings. Joseph pays attention to his own decency that overcomes his sense of honor and shame. But then Luke focuses our attention on the shepherds, those rascally, unhygienic, fringe dwellers. For Luke, the shepherds stand in for us, at least if we are honest about ourselves, how we fit in, and how well we belong.

Shepherds do not belong. They still do not belong. They were only allowed into town on market days. The rest of the time they wandered the hills with their flocks eking out an existence beyond polite society. They still do. I have seen their little nomad encampments on the arid, scrubby hills of Israel and Jordan. In order to survive in such a harsh environment, they learned to pay attention. Those hills north of Bethlehem grow more rocks than grass. One wrong step at night and you have a broken ankle. One wrong move to a poorly watered pasture and you lose your flock. One wrong interaction with the city folks and you might lose your life. The shepherds were the precise and polar opposite of Augustus and Quirinius. They counted for nothing and so had to pay attention to everything.

These outsiders of no distinction were the only ones who noticed what was happening. The pious and the powerful slept soundly in Jerusalem that night. They already knew they knew all the answers. Instead, it is precisely those who claimed to know nothing who are invited to behold everything. And all because they simply paid attention. Attention spurs their curiosity. Curiosity leads to wonder and amazement resolving into celebration, praise, worship, and gratitude as these shabbiest of choristers join their hearts and voices with legions of angels.
God has entered space and time and nothing can or will be the same again. But you will only notice, and consequently participate in it, if you pay attention.

I hope and pray that you have a merry and joy filled Christmas. Between the satisfaction of our wants, and nostalgia for Christmas past, between the ache for something we cannot name and the griefs for who is not at our table, among the endless “shoulds” we impose upon ourselves, tucked behind our worries for the future and the vicarious joy of beholding children’s exultations, I hope you also pay attention to the quiet mystery and unheralded wonder that lies behind all our cultural and sentimental encrustations of not this holiday, but this simple fact that the world would rather ignore. God is here.
–Brian

December 14, 2021

The challenge of Christmas is its imperative to pay attention. Attention is not a normal human quality. We spend most of our waking lives tied up inside our endless internal chatter of wants, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames, and plans. We do not live in the world so much as live inside our constant internal commentary on and interpretation of the world. It gets much worse each December as we burden ourselves with all our culture’s presumptions about how this holiday should look, feel, smell, taste, and most importantly feel. And then because our internal reality does not match what we see on Facebook, the Hallmark, Channel, Norman Rockwell paintings, or Martha Stewart’s well styled kitchen, we feel like utter failures. This year the unwelcome Grinch of Omicron further widens the gap between our wants and our world.

The unsettling reality behind this holiday is that it is no holiday at all. It is not meant to be a party. It is instead a provocation, a transgressive historical invasion of all our wants, plans, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames and plans. But you will not notice any of this if you fail to pay attention.

The world pays attention to the powerful and the pretty, the people and events that feature prominently in the media of any generation. The Gospel of Luke is well aware of this. Luke begins the account of Jesus’ birth with a nod to glitterati. People are supposed to know and indeed presumed to know all about Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius two of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential men of the first century. Luke’s readers certainly would have known them well and Augustus’ ironic self-styled title, divi filius, “the Son of God” (specifically the adopted son of the Senate deified Julius Caesar). Although they should and in their time did occupy center stage, Luke shifts our gaze and uses them not as the subject of his story, but merely the fixed reigns upon which to pin his drama to concrete human history.

What matters is not the powerful and the pretty. What matters is paying attention. Mary pays attention to the voice in the silence. Elizabeth pays attention to the Spirits murmurings. Joseph pays attention to his own decency that overcomes his sense of honor and shame. But then Luke focuses our attention on the shepherds, those rascally, unhygienic, fringe dwellers. For Luke, the shepherds stand in for us, at least if we are honest about ourselves, how we fit in, and how well we belong.

Shepherds do not belong. They still do not belong. They were only allowed into town on market days. The rest of the time they wandered the hills with their flocks eking out an existence beyond polite society. They still do. I have seen their little nomad encampments on the arid, scrubby hills of Israel and Jordan. In order to survive in such a harsh environment, they learned to pay attention. Those hills north of Bethlehem grow more rocks than grass. One wrong step at night and you have a broken ankle. One wrong move to a poorly watered pasture and you lose your flock. One wrong interaction with the city folks and you might lose your life. The shepherds were the precise and polar opposite of Augustus and Quirinius. They counted for nothing and so had to pay attention to everything.

These outsiders of no distinction were the only ones who noticed what was happening. The pious and the powerful slept soundly in Jerusalem that night. They already knew they knew all the answers. Instead, it is precisely those who claimed to know nothing who are invited to behold everything. And all because they simply paid attention. Attention spurs their curiosity. Curiosity leads to wonder and amazement resolving into celebration, praise, worship, and gratitude as these shabbiest of choristers join their hearts and voices with legions of angels.
God has entered space and time and nothing can or will be the same again. But you will only notice, and consequently participate in it, if you pay attention.

I hope and pray that you have a merry and joy filled Christmas. Between the satisfaction of our wants, and nostalgia for Christmas past, between the ache for something we cannot name and the griefs for who is not at our table, among the endless “shoulds” we impose upon ourselves, tucked behind our worries for the future and the vicarious joy of beholding children’s exultations, I hope you also pay attention to the quiet mystery and unheralded wonder that lies behind all our cultural and sentimental encrustations of not this holiday, but this simple fact that the world would rather ignore. God is here.
–Brian

December 14, 2021

One of the professional hazards of ministry is being asked to provide meaning where there is none. Modern folks prefer neat and tidy answers. Sometimes the answer is not so much an explanation but an experience, feeling, or sensation. Nowhere is this more obvious than Christmas. What is the meaning of Christmas? If you are looking for a tidy solution, no mortal can answer that question until Christ comes again and we learn what the incarnation is all about. Until that time, if we are honest with ourselves, we are left with not so much a meaning that can be reduced to a declarative sentence as a feeling and that feeling is one of wistful longing, of promised but not yet, of what could be and what is not.

For the modern world, Christmas is all about desire and its fulfillment. Think of the modern carol, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” every Hallmark Christmas movie ever made, or innumerable car commercials with bow-wrapped automobiles on Christmas morning. The meaning of Christmas is quite clear. Christmas is about the fulfillment of our desires, whether they be for toys, a new Lexus, or a romantic partner. Joy is fulfilled by acquisition and possession.

This is the first year since 1965 in which the Charlie Brown Christmas Special will not be shown on network TV (Apple having acquired the rights in 2020). It will however be broadcast on PBS on Sunday night at 7:30 on Sunday night. Unlike almost every other made for TV offering, the Charlie Brown Special does not purport to offer the meaning of Christmas as possession or fulfillment. And that makes it interesting.

Growing up with this 1965 TV special, I forgot how radical it was: the first children’s TV special with actual children’s voice acting, a cutting-edge jazz soundtrack, no laugh track to tell you when to be amused, a dry sense of irony appealing to adults and children, and at its center the Gospel of Luke as the climax of the story, so central no editor could remove it.

The show begins with the unstated presumptions of all network TV specials—Christmas is all about desire and its fulfillment. Lucy wants real estate and celebrity, wryly sharing with the audience that Christmas is actually the work of an East Coast syndicate. Sally, who would feel at home in a Hallmark Christmas movie, wants money and a boyfriend. Schroeder wants artistic recognition. And even Snoopy wants “money, money, money!” Bill Melendez’s “artistic blandishments” makes it all look so innocent, but the Charlie Brown Special is a radical critique of consumerist individualism and materialistic nihilism. The vacuum of meaning results in a genuine existential crisis for Charlie Brown who knows he is depressed because he cannot surrender to self-deception and cannot make sense of any of it. His depression is amplified by his general anxiety. He is “afraid of everything” by his own acknowledgement. Finally, all of this is made vastly worse by the honestly depicted cruelty of other children who will not invite him to their parties and do not share their Christmas greeting with him. Confusion, shame, anxiety, social isolation, and bullying beat him down.

Charlie Brown’s answer is the solution of the modern world—endless productivity. If only he can get involved, if only his industry can remain one step ahead of his pondering melancholy, then perhaps he can escape his questions and reside happily ever after in self-important busyness and achievement that is readily rewarded by his peers in the Christmas pageant. But it does not work. First, he cannot achieve enough. The rehearsal crashes down in a managerial disaster. Second, he cannot let go and give himself over to pleasure seeking as the sum total of meaning. The rest of the children are lost in a musical reverie, courtesy of Vince Guaraldi’s perfect soundtrack, but their exuberant joy only sharpens the contrast with his own plaintive longing. Exiled from the theater company and its unstated but powerful norms, he heads out alone in exile into the wilderness.

One of the ironies of the children’s quest to fulfill their desires is of course it does not work. Lucy receives no real estate. Sally obtains neither cash nor a boyfriend. Schroeder is reduced to playing showtunes. With no small measure of irony, the only one who fulfills his desire is a dog. Snoopy receives the first-place cash prize for Christmas decorations.

Trudging into the empty auditorium, Charlie Brown asks the universe, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” To which the ever-faithful Linus responds, “sure Charlie Brown,” and proceeds to quote the Gospel of Luke 2: 8-14. The interesting thing about Linus’ choice of scripture is that it is not the account of the birth of Jesus. Rather it is about the shepherd’s reaction to the announcement of the birth of Jesus. The meaning Linus shares is not the dogmatic fact of Jesus birth but rather humanity’s response to Jesus’ birth. And that reaction is one of overwhelming gratitude, joy, and curiosity about the scope and nature of what God has done, a curiosity that will lead them up into Bethlehem. The meaning is not a fact, not something that can be reduced to a declarative sentence. The meaning is a movement of the heart, a quickening of the pulse, a sense of wonder, joy, gratitude, and utter surprise.

Finally, with all the children, Charlie Brown goes out into the snow and does not answer the meaning of Christmas because he finally realizes it has no declarative meaning, which would be just another fact we can control. Instead, Charlie Brown along with all the children give the only honest answer possible. They live it. They enact and participate in the shepherds’ response. They let go of their desires, wants, and attachments and instead give themselves over to the witness of praise, gratitude, and exuberant joy. It is no coincidence that the sing Hark the Herald Angels’ Sing, because in the final frame, they join with the angels in a chorus of praise.

The most humble, downright shabby of real Christmas trees was dwarfed by the towering artificial aluminum monstrosities. But in the end that humblest of trees is revealed for what it truly is, the most perfect of all. It is perfect not simply in its form and appearance. It is perfect in its genuine authenticity as opposed to our shallow artificiality. It is perfect in its authentic completeness. And it all gets expressed in the world in the most outwardly humble of forms. Through the joy, gratitude, and exuberant love expressed by the children, the tree is perfected. And so is Charlie Brown. The children together become a community bound not by shared desire, but shared gratitude. And so, if we are willing to join the chorus, can we.

The truth of Christmas is not a meaning or a fact, let alone an event. The truth of Christmas is a poignant feeling perched between already and not yet. It is the sensation of a dull ache of something missing inside, but that could be. It is the desire for something deeper than our wants that we cannot quite imagine or name. We are born with this sense of longing. It is part of what makes us human.

I hope you have a merry Christmas. But more importantly I hope you touch and feel that longing that lies somewhere beneath all our desires because that longing leads not to the satisfaction of our desires but to God. Charlie Brown, in his anxious seeking and dissatisfaction with all the world’s answers, was on the right path to what he sought all along.

Perhaps we should follow.

December 7, 2021

Like many Western people, I tend to forget that I am a body. I experience life more as the adventures of a disembodied mind transported around by a very useful vehicle. But sometimes, my body reminds me of its importance.

Yesterday I received my Covid booster shot. Things were fine for several hours, but then in the middle of the night I found myself shivering uncontrollably. I heaped several comforters over me, which simply resulted in me sweating while shivering uncontrollably. It is a curious experience, having no control over your temperature or even involuntary muscle movements. Moments like that remind one how truly embodied, physical, visceral, even animal we truly are. Since I was obviously not going to sleep it seemed a perfect moment to reflect on the incarnation.

If you are rarely sick, it is so easy to forget the body as it fulfills every wish without protest. Those who suffer from sickness, disability, and infirmity, know better human weakness and fragility. Among the animals we are far from the most impressive in form. We are slightly less hairy hominids, good with our hands, quick to solve problems, and able to form lasting patterns of behavior as culture. But we are all quite fragile and finite.

Around this time of year, we talk about the gift of Christmas as the incarnation of God in Jesus. And it certainly is a gift for us. A divinity that knows us from the inside is far more likely to be a bit compassionate with our failings. But I wonder if the incarnation is deeper than that. Some kinds of knowledge can only be obtained from the inside. There is a profound difference between knowing about something and knowing as something. It is the difference between subject and object.

I presume as an article of faith that God could know all about human beings, but could not know as a human being without being one. And so, the creator accommodates us in our mundane form, condescending to a fleshy bag of meat and bone. It seems a bit preposterous, perhaps a bit unseemly, the ground of all being slumming with the bipedal primates, even in night sweats and tremors. But how else could God know us?

We tend to focus all our attention in Advent and Christmas on infant Jesus, but have you considered that the person of Jesus is God’s own intrepid exploration into embodied, material, and mortal flesh? This event, this life we call Jesus, is a moment of discovery for God of what it means to be not God. And if as we confess Jesus’ incarnation does not end with his resurrection (which is the whole point of Ascension) then that enfleshed, exposed, fragile, corporeality is now and is forever a part of who God is and what God does.

The boundary between up there and down here gets blurred. The line between God as subject and our world as objects gets all jumbled. God is as much down here and in us as out there, wherever there might be. We are now and will always be together.

Lying in bed shivering at three in the morning is as good a place as any to imagine the incarnation because God too did that at some point in Jesus’ 33 years. Wherever we go, whatever becomes of us, despite the ravages of time and illness and even death, we are all literally icons of the incarnate God made so by the one who refused to be God without us.
–Brian

November 30, 2021

Last week I spent a few days on the North Shore of Lake Superior far away from the city lights. Ever since I was a child, I have felt a special draw to its shores of solid rock and the endless icy cold waters. Without light pollution, I could see hundreds, perhaps thousands more stars than are visible to me here in Dayton. So, I stood out in the cold (it was 7 degrees) and simply beheld.

The Earth and all the other planets revolve around the sun in a fixed plane called the ecliptic. The constellations follow around it and the zodiac marks its circumference as seen from earth. The ecliptic crosses the Earth at a funny angle of 23 ½ degrees, which is how crooked the Earth is from solar up and down. From my perch I could make out Polaris, the North Star, to orient myself at least with regard to the solar system and visualize myself on this blue marble revolving around the sun while it rotates around its axis heading up towards Polaris. But then I noticed something far more dramatic. A shimmering band of light arched over my left shoulder. The Milky Way is simply the plane of our galaxy as seen from out here in the relative suburbs of the Orion arm. I tried to orient my mind to the galaxy as a whole, standing on a rock rotating at about 1000 miles and hour while revolving (crookedly) around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour about two thirds of the way down the Orion galactic arm slowly pinwheeling around some supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy at about 500,000 miles an hour as we all wander off in the general direction of Andromeda. Andromeda is the only galaxy we can see in the Northern Hemisphere without a telescope, and there it was before me just to the left of Pegasus’s diamond and just beneath Cassiopeia’s seat rising over the black waters of the big lake.

Spending any time in nature has a way of reorienting our perception. Spending any time in astronomy with its vast distances and deep time has a way of shredding those perceptions altogether. We are a little people on a small rocky planet revolving around an ordinary main sequence star in the outer precincts of a rather average spiral galaxy. There is nothing about us or our world that merits much attention at all from the cosmic perspective.

Except one thing.

We have been visited.

Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the most humbling. Here? For Us? Surely not. Certainly, the Almighty had better things to do and better places to do it. The ancients asked why Bethlehem, a shabby little camel stop on the edge of the desert? Why Mary an unmarried teenage peasant? We could just as well ask why this planet? Why this solar system? The question, in all of its contexts, is formally called the scandal of the incarnation. And I do not have an answer for it. God is under no obligation to disclose divine rationale to me even if creation’s mechanics are on beautiful display across the night sky. I do not quite let go of my questions, but I content myself with something better. I may still wonder as I wander out under the sky. There will always be mysteries abounding, but I know that I am home. I belong the visited people on the visited planet. God with us.

If you want to experience Advent, you won’t find it around a Christmas tree. Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the one that is best experienced in darkness. Go on a long drive out in the countryside away from all the city lights. Look up, wonder, imagine, and remember you are not alone.
–Brian

November 23, 2021

Winter is Coming!

I am not fond of cold weather. I do love the beauty of the changing seasons and the blanketed comfort of newly fallen snow but I definitely do not like the cold! Winter has been hinting of its coming the last few days. The birdbath in our yard is frozen, my car windows were frosted over with intricate star-like patterns, and the wind chill is nippy.

Winter is coming! Cold is coming! The season of shortened daylight and longer nights is coming. The bleak winter is coming.

One of the most beloved Christmas carols is the beautiful “In the Bleak Midwinter” with the haunting lyrics written in 1872 by Christina Rossetti. The tune composed by Gustav Theodore Holst in the early 1900’s is steady and somber in its flow. One can feel the cold, dark of winter as the carol moves from despair to hope:

Snow had fallen,
snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
long ago

But the cold of winter cannot stop the glorious incarnation of God, as Rossetti’s words proclaim:

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate
Jesus Christ

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. We enter into this winter season with a call to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. God is coming to dwell with us in the cold, the dark, the bleak winter. Incarnate in the form of a babe born in Bethlehem, God is with us. Not cold, nor snow, nor darkness can hold back the God of love born to us this season.

May you feel the warmth of the One to come this cold winter.

Kelley

November 16, 2021

I am tired of politics. Merely saying that will be construed by some to be a partisan statement. The rancor and division in our society corrode every relationship and infect every community that seek to build bridges across human differences. And now we approach Thanksgiving with its compulsory small talk with Aunt Vivian and Cousin Edgar. May mutual forbearing dwell upon your Thanksgiving Feast.

Over the past week, I have had two conversations with two very different friends who both suggested essentially the same solution to our problem of political polarization. When you get the same advice from one of your most conservative and one of your most liberal friends, pay attention. God is trying to tell you something. Their advice, although expressed differently, came down to this. Instead of using up all your energy arguing with a system, practice, or policy with which you disagree, perhaps vehemently, stop. Stop fighting against. Instead, redirect your energy, imagination, intelligence, and love towards making a better alternative. Instead of banging your head on the gates of that community that will not listen, just start creating a new one, a different one, a better one.

Creativity, even when it fails to create the outcome we desire, is vastly healthier for our hearts and our souls than endless opposition. How we use language has a habit of becoming how we relate to people. Do we use our words to argue, criticize, or belittle, or do we use them to discover, support, encourage and build? When I was still in private legal practice, I loved the precision of words and argument, but I recognized the trap that I was slowly using all language as a means to get what I wanted. It is an insidious trap. We presume that our hearts define our behaviors, but often it is the other way round. So, if you have to choose tearing down or building up, understand that even if they are otherwise equally valid strategies for change, you will pay a price for choosing opposition.

At Thanksgiving this was ultimately the pilgrim’s option. Other puritans in England were embroiled in endless conflict with the crown that would only end in chaos and destruction of the English Civil War. The pilgrims followed an altogether different strategy seeking only to withdraw and create a new community first in the Netherlands and then in Massachusetts.

One of my friends pointed out that creating a new social reality rather than opposition to the old reality was the characteristic that defined the early church. In Jesus’ and Paul’s time, there were lots of angry people trying to change the system. And in the Roman Empire there was a lot that needed changing. But neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor anyone in the early church sought direct confrontation with Rome or any of its minions. Certainly, they had ample grounds to criticize. But outside of Revelation, that is not where they invested their energy. They ignored the dominant system and instead invested their time, labor, and love in creating new systems, new communities, that we would eventually call the church. And people came flocking to them.

If Jesus could persuade Matthew the former tax farmer for the Romans and Simon the former Zealot to work together, then maybe we can persuade liberals and conservatives, not to agree, but to help build a better community. So, instead of asking people their opinions at Thanksgiving, what might happen if we asked people how they might be willing to make a better world?
–Brian

November 9, 2021

I am a hypocrite. It is a common human condition. I practice deep breathing, centering prayer, and the Jesus prayer. I get to bed early, eat my fiber, and floss. I urge everyone to follow the 46th Psalm, “Be Still and Know that I am God.” I try to follow it and live by its comforting assurance, except when I don’t.

Unbeknownst to me, our dishwasher broke sometime on Friday. Specifically, the water line started leaking where it connected to the unit. Because our dishwasher sits an inch below tile of our kitchen, gravity carried the water elsewhere. There was no telling puddle in the kitchen. Instead, a few days later, there was an ambiguous puddle in the basement and our main closet carpet developed a unique bouquet. We now share our home with nine industrial air handler units and two gargantuan dehumidifiers with probe tubes inserted into every joist and cranny. Parts of our home look like they have been assimilated by the Borg. But that is not the real problem. The entire home now sounds in both frequency and volume like the inside of a jetliner’s turbofan. They assure me that everything will be dry in four or five days of continuous operation.

Some distractions in life are impossible to ignore. Some stressors, like wondering if your floor will collapse, should not be disregarded. We are material creatures living in a material world, not idealized spirits traversing an ethereal realm. That means matter matters. This discomforting, intrusive, and annoyingly humbling lesson has been repeated over and over again for us in the past 21 months.

Sometimes the world just happens to us. Trying to maintain quiet calm in a silent room is easy. Trying to maintain equanimity inside cacophony is impossible. There is enormous benefit to be gained by learning how to hold stress at a distance from your inner self. But sometimes, what you really need is physical distance.

I have always been impressed at the times and ways Jesus separates himself from all the conflicting demands and expectations projected onto him—at the beginning of his ministry, before turning towards Jerusalem, and of course during that final night in the garden. Mary and Joseph, politically astute observers of Israelite politics, knew when to hightail it down to Egypt avoiding the wave of violence that swept over Egypt upon the death of Herod the Great. Jeremiah, David, Moses, Amos, and the entire host of the Exodus among others, all had the good sense to get out of where they were when things got too hairy. Sometimes, when facing duress, the best thing we can do is go somewhere else.

I pause. I breathe. I recite the 46th Psalm. It does not work. The blank white WORD page stares back eagerly expectant, but disappointed. There is too much noise. What is that smell? Too many worries and way too much sensation demand may attention. And I suspect that is where many of us have been for far too long.

Just remember, God is with us wherever we go. Maybe we flee to another country. Maybe like me you flee to Dairy Queen. God is there too. The test of faith is not one’s ability to endure stress. Sometimes the real test of faith is whether you are willing to move and change. God does not want us to be miserable. God wants us to flourish. Sometimes, in order to do that you need to be willing to leave the familiar and strike out for a new place or maybe just a different place.

There are still quiet places out there where you can hear yourself think and perhaps a still soft voice still whispering. You may need hiking boots, GPS, and a water bottle to find them, but they still exist. You will always need the courage to value yourself highly enough to go at all. That is all self-care is: the courage to honor God’s creation and God’s creature.
–Brian

November 2, 2021

Monday, November 1, was All Saints’ Day. We often treat it as a time to remember those who have died in the past year sort of like a communal Christian Yahrzeit. And every family that has experienced loss this year will remember, give thanks, and grieve in their own way. For me, it is a day to remember the body of Christ expressed in millions of messed up, ordinary women and men down through the past twenty centuries. They are not all saints because they were especially holy or virtuous, let alone sinless. They were saints because of the hope they held in common that oriented their lives in ways big and small. They were saints because God was at work in them, even when others, even when they themselves could not perceive it.

Saints are too often imagined as impossibly good women and men who did amazingly selfless things all the time. That caricature has done far more harm than good by separating them from us. All Saints’ Day is not limited to ascetic virtuosos and spiritual prodigies. Instead, it is about us. All of us. All Saints’ is the one day in the Christian calendar that is not about the life of Jesus. It is about all the days of all of us who try–often failingly, provisionally, and reluctantly–to follow Jesus. All Saints’ is a celebration of the beautiful, confusing messiness of being human and the quiet steady urge to become something more.

The saints were not saints. They were up to their halos in moral contradictions, oppressive systems, abuses of power, gross inequalities, and sometimes astonishing evil. My beloved posse of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, John Cassian, Origen, Dionysius the Areopagite, Teresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Gregory of Palamas, Symeon the New Theologian, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil, were all highly opinionated, occasionally misanthropic, often misogynistic, prejudiced, and proud. But they all taught me across the centuries. I could feel their hearts’ yearnings align with mine. They are a sharp-tongued, argumentative lot, but I love them because I felt their love for me through the little notes they left behind for all who might follow after.

The often shabby parade of saints is all around us. Consider who has changed your life and your faith? Who has given you hope? Who has given you courage? Who brought you a pizza on that darkest night? Who offered to stay late and hear you out that time you just needed someone to listen? Who saw in you a possibility that you could never have seen yourself? That person is a saint. I hope you can name lots of them. They were not perfect. Nothing in this creation is perfect. But everything and everyone in this creation can become a part of God’s perfection of all things. Everything and everyone can participate in the healing of creation, one life at a time.

Martin Luther coined a phrase, “simul justus et peccator,” which means “simultaneously a sinner and a saint.” It captures the profoundly odd paradox of simultaneously being of God and the world at the same time. We are the redeemed and those in need of redemption. We are the patients and the healers. We are the living crucibles of sin and grace in which Spirit encounters flesh. There are no prizes for perfection that we will never attain, only the compassion that comes from empathy and mutual understanding of how much we try and how badly we often fail.

God meets us as us and in us not in some perfected angelic world, but in this messed up one. The whole creation thing suggests that God got rather bored with the angelic world and decided instead to go slumming with us. So, we struggle, slouch, and strive together on the pilgrim’s way, saints with slightly dented halos and robes stained with the blood and mud of creaturely life. We do not celebrate our perfection that is so obviously lacking. We celebrate the shared impulse that calls us out, calls us together, and nudges us forward. We do not celebrate saintliness. We celebrate grace.
–Brian

October 26, 2021

Since the beginning of Covid in March, 2020, I have spent a lot of time in my home office. If you have participated in any of our online classes or meetings over the past 20 months you have seen it. The walls around my desk, just outside of the camera angle, are covered with swords. Admittedly, it is not the most common collector’s item. When I write Beside Still Waters, as I am doing now, just above the computer monitor hang a shamshir, arming sword, hand and half sword, and a Victorian saber. To my right hang a spatha, spadroon, and mortuary sword. To my left hang a rapier, basket hilted broadsword, Hungarian saber, gladius, and a shirasaya. The only sword I have ever actually used on human beings, my old fencing epee, lies on a shelf behind me. I keep them around not as weapons, but as symbols. Starting in late antiquity, the sword became identified in Christendom with the protection of the community, justice, as well as both clarity and purity of purpose.

While I share all those chivalrous associations, swords’ symbolic meaning is a bit more utilitarian for me. My swords are all made out of high carbon steel. High carbon steel will bend without breaking. If it is spring tempered, by repeatedly heating and hammering it, the steel becomes elastic—always resuming its original shape after bending. Some can literally be bent 45 degrees and snap right back into shape. Most knives in your home are made out of stainless steel. It is very practical requiring no special care. And since most kitchen knives rarely encounter anything harder than a spaghetti squash, their elasticity does not really matter. But if a high carbon blade ever made full contact with a stainless steel blade, the stainless one would shatter. Stainless steel is very pretty, very low maintenance, but very brittle. High carbon blades on the other hand require care and attention. They are prone to rust without proper care. You need to oil or wax them regularly. With proper care, they will last for centuries.

After 20 months of pandemic, epidemic, endemic, or whatever you call this, we all expected things would be easier. We all wanted and anticipated a return to normalcy to our lives and our world that never seems to come. It is so easy to get lost in the anxiety and the grief. It is so easy to despair. Then I look around at my swords. They were created for conflict and adversity. They were made to bend, but not break. Flexibility is their greatest strength always returning to their original form no matter the duress. They remind me that is how we all were made, not for a perfect world but this adverse one, built to bend but not break. And then I remember that this rare quality is hard won. Spring tempered carbon steel is made by pounding, pounding, pounding. It is the adversity over time that makes us flexible. No one is simply born with it. After all that, it still requires attentive care. You need to scour away the rusty bits before they spread and regularly apply protective coatings just like I need to keep an eye on my anxieties and grief and prevent its spread through those things that protect my spirit: rest, prayer, learning, friends, good food, and most of all love. It may not look all that impressive on Facebook, not shiny like stainless steel or silver, but such a life is strong.

The days grow shorter. The leaves fall. We approach the second winter of our discontent unbowed, unbent, and unbroken. Take care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself and other people. The world will take care of the pounding on its own. You are already stronger than you realize. You will bend back.
–Brian

October 26, 2021

Since the beginning of Covid in March, 2020, I have spent a lot of time in my home office. If you have participated in any of our online classes or meetings over the past 20 months you have seen it. The walls around my desk, just outside of the camera angle, are covered with swords. Admittedly, it is not the most common collector’s item. When I write Beside Still Waters, as I am doing now, just above the computer monitor hang a shamshir, arming sword, hand and half sword, and a Victorian saber. To my right hang a spatha, spadroon, and mortuary sword. To my left hang a rapier, basket hilted broadsword, Hungarian saber, gladius, and a shirasaya. The only sword I have ever actually used on human beings, my old fencing epee, lies on a shelf behind me. I keep them around not as weapons, but as symbols. Starting in late antiquity, the sword became identified in Christendom with the protection of the community, justice, as well as both clarity and purity of purpose.

While I share all those chivalrous associations, swords’ symbolic meaning is a bit more utilitarian for me. My swords are all made out of high carbon steel. High carbon steel will bend without breaking. If it is spring tempered, by repeatedly heating and hammering it, the steel becomes elastic—always resuming its original shape after bending. Some can literally be bent 45 degrees and snap right back into shape. Most knives in your home are made out of stainless steel. It is very practical requiring no special care. And since most kitchen knives rarely encounter anything harder than a spaghetti squash, their elasticity does not really matter. But if a high carbon blade ever made full contact with a stainless steel blade, the stainless one would shatter. Stainless steel is very pretty, very low maintenance, but very brittle. High carbon blades on the other hand require care and attention. They are prone to rust without proper care. You need to oil or wax them regularly. With proper care, they will last for centuries.

After 20 months of pandemic, epidemic, endemic, or whatever you call this, we all expected things would be easier. We all wanted and anticipated a return to normalcy to our lives and our world that never seems to come. It is so easy to get lost in the anxiety and the grief. It is so easy to despair. Then I look around at my swords. They were created for conflict and adversity. They were made to bend, but not break. Flexibility is their greatest strength always returning to their original form no matter the duress. They remind me that is how we all were made, not for a perfect world but this adverse one, built to bend but not break. And then I remember that this rare quality is hard won. Spring tempered carbon steel is made by pounding, pounding, pounding. It is the adversity over time that makes us flexible. No one is simply born with it. After all that, it still requires attentive care. You need to scour away the rusty bits before they spread and regularly apply protective coatings just like I need to keep an eye on my anxieties and grief and prevent its spread through those things that protect my spirit: rest, prayer, learning, friends, good food, and most of all love. It may not look all that impressive on Facebook, not shiny like stainless steel or silver, but such a life is strong.

The days grow shorter. The leaves fall. We approach the second winter of our discontent unbowed, unbent, and unbroken. Take care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself and other people. The world will take care of the pounding on its own. You are already stronger than you realize. You will bend back.
–Brian

October 19, 2021

Many human beings are not at their very best right now. People are tired, frustrated, and anxious. Many are grieving the loss of important moments over the past year and hopes for the next. Many are grieving the loss of important people in their lives. Lurking among all the griefs is the ever-present companion of anxiety, the inchoate fear that something, anything could go wrong. Another virus outbreak is always just a single virus mutation away. So, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Anxiety and grief rarely make us better people. Sometimes they cripple us. At other times they deform us into something less than we could be. Far too often, we utterly fail to recognize or address these powerful, insidious feelings welling deep within us. Unaddressed, unconsidered, and unprocessed they fester somewhere beneath conscious thought slowly metastasizing into paralyzing fear and anger. It does not take a gifted sociologist to notice the anxiety and anger swirling all around us right now. Unsolicited criticism, impatience, passive aggressive digs, less than charitable judgments, shame, and occasional outbursts of rage all abound. Today I saw it at a checkout line. The absence of a single order of French fries is a disappointment that can be easily rectified. It does not justify an explosion of anger, invective, and cruelty. French fries are simply not that significant. Only deep unaddressed hurt can propel that kind of fury.

For most otherwise mentally stable people, anger is always a symptom of hurt. And anxiety is a symptom of our own fears. We rarely go down to the subbasements of our hearts to consider those hurts and fears. They are too tender. We do not like to share them with others, afraid of further pain or shame. And we often fail to consider them in ourselves. That kind of self-examination takes too much courage. So, we prefer denial, rationalizations, and blame, anything except dealing with our own pain. But pain that is not transformed will be transmitted and anxiety that is not transmuted will be transferred. So instead of doing something about their cause, we take these darker feelings and throw them at others hoping that somehow something will stick and bring us relief. But have you noticed that getting angry at others rarely takes away one’s own pain? Spreading anxiety with friends and family rarely makes us feel safer although it can make us lonelier. At best, we now suffer in the company of others.

So how do you deal with pain? As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “Knowing where the trap is—that’s the first step in evading it.” Ask yourself, where is it, what is it connected to, who is it connected to, when did it begin, how does it feel, and what does it lead me to do or not do? Tenderly probing its shape and dimension, our pain takes concrete form in our minds. And once pain becomes a clear idea, then it both loses some of its insidious power over us and permits us to begin little healing mind experiments. What brings some relief? What do we need to do to avoid provoking it? And most importantly, what actual events (not thoughts) ease the pain? This requires careful attention to notice as pain goes up and down during the day, but observation will show you what works for you.

Similarly, the key to transmuting fear is attention. What is it precisely that I am afraid of? Is that fear rational or just an illusion? Do I know this to be a threat for certain? What triggers my fear? Did someone else infect me with it? Does this fear belong to someone else? What is the worst that can happen and what is this fear preventing me from doing or not doing? Again, through attention, fear takes on form that can be acted upon, moderated, and eventually brought back to its proper dimensions of a health sense of self preservation. Again, I quote from Herbert (can you tell I am excited about the new Dune movie?): “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

What we call sin is simply alienation from God, others, and our selves. Sin is a problem of separation and denial of our true selves more than an issue of morality. Sin gets expressed most commonly in the human experiences of pain and fear. Fear and pain are universal human experiences because that underlying separation is a universal human condition. Sin is an alien force that corrupts us in our most hidden and vulnerable depths. Naughty things we may have done and good things we fail to do are not sin, they may however be the consequences or symptoms of sin. The tool that the church has provided us for dealing with sin, at least from the human side of things, is the practice of confession that simply unearths it all and brings what longs to remain hidden out into the light.

When we say we confess our sin, we do not mean that we recite a long list of naughty things we have done (although depending on your industry you may want to do that as well). When we say we confess sin to God, what we really mean is paying this careful, particular attention to the pain and fear that keep us separate and apart. Confession literally means speaking your truth, not contrition or regret. When we acknowledge and address our pain, it is a sort of creed, an assertion of who we really are in our messed-up lives, and a declaration of hope that in speaking or perhaps whispering our truth someone is listening and will begin the process of healing. Confession robs sin of its pernicious power. Confession is simply attention and often the first step to healing. And all it requires, indeed the essence of all prayer, is simply sincere attention.

The cure for sin, pain, and fear from our end of creation is simply honest, unblinking truth. Confession only hurts sin, not you. So speak your truth. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32.
–Brian

October 12, 2021

One thing I miss about Fall in Minnesota are Birch forests. Along the North Shore of Lake Superior, whole forests of Paper Birch carpet the stony basalt hillsides jutting down to the icy clear water. In the Autumn, the leaves turn a pale golden color. Midway through the seasonal change, the ground is completely covered by a pale golden canopy above held up by great white tree trunks and a golden canopy beneath. For a few days every Fall, the light in a northern birch forest takes on an ethereal quality of pure gold. Everything shimmers with golden iridescence. It is what I imagine the light of heaven looks like.

Nature does two important things for our spirits that may at first seem contradictory, but if you can hold them together at the same time, you are well on your way to true perception and wisdom. First, nature reminds us that we are not so very important. Before a mountain, an ocean, or even an old growth forest, we are nothing. Our plans, ambitions, hopes, fears, pains, and memories, fade before their vastness, complexity, gravity, and depth. In the power of weather, wind, rock, and wave, our own agency disappears into the limit of nothingness. The ocean pulses to its own tidal rhythms regardless of all out intentions. Nature is the ultimate reminder that in the vast scheme of things, our precious egos around which we construct lives, cultures, and civilizations count for precisely nothing.

Downgrading our fondest ambitions is never comfortable but is of the essence for spiritual growth. The central tenet of all monotheism is that there is a God, and He/She/It is not me or you. Sadly, too many people get this confused, which leads to all sorts of pain. Nature is the ready antidote always willing to remind and reframe that you are nothing. Curiously, this lesson is not painful or insulting, but somehow comforting because of nature’s second lesson.

You and I are nothing. And we belong to everything. The spirituality of nature offers a deeper lesson beyond our egos and their constant obsession with control. If you let go of control, if you simply behold, you will discover a curious perception that while we may be nothing, we belong to everything. Most people experience this as a pronounced emotional feeling of awe, a need to drop to one’s knees, and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and joy. You look to your own hands and cannot quite tell where they end and the mountains or the waves begin. You begin to empathically perceive the interconnectedness of all things. The clear lines of definition and separation begin to blur as the boundary between me and the world gets fuzzy and all suffused by an ethereal golden light.

I do not believe that nature offers us definitive answers to our spiritual seeking, but it can provide a doorway into deeper mysteries. Nature can realign our perception away from all our attachments towards the tendrils of belonging that provide the ground of our being and becoming. Holding these twin revelations—I am nothing and I belong to everything—not as logical deductions, but simply lived experiences of embodied truth, we are offered an entry point into the deeps where even the nonreligious may encounter God.

I am not a nature mystic. I do not think that nature is a church or can reveal all we need to know. Nature is profoundly amoral. But it can teach us the first and perhaps most important lesson that on our own we do not count for so very much, but in our belonging and connection, we are a part of everything.

When I walk among the ghostly white birch trees and their golden tresses and flaxen carpets, I am reminded that I too will let go one day. I too will die. But I am not afraid. I belong. When the leaf realizes it is actually the forest, it loses all fear.

–Brian

October 5, 2021

Psalms: Prayers of the Heart

This autumn we will fall into the comfort and familiarity of the songs of God’s people – the Psalms. For the months of October and November we will be preaching from the Psalms. Our canon – our Bible – contains 150 psalms but there were other songs and prayers of the Hebrew people in the form of the psalms.

We know the beloved psalms such as Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) and Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise to the Lord) but do we know the “heart of the sea” in Psalm 46 or the “hope of the ends of the earth” in Psalm 65 or God our “hiding place” in Psalm 32 or the great “Leviathan” in Psalm 104?

Through the sung prayers and poetry of the Psalms, we find our deepest yearnings voiced and our silent sufferings healed. The Psalms give us permission to be angry, to be sorrowful, to be joyful, to be humble, and to be thankful.

Together with these ancient writings of poetry and praise, we will see how the Psalms of God’s people speak truth to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

What is your favorite psalm? Why does it speak to your heart? How does that psalm inform your daily life? Do you sing the psalms or read them silently?

As a young adult I was drawn to Psalm 51, a psalm we usually read as part of our Lenten practice. I found comfort in the confessional nature of Psalm 51, a psalm attributed to King David when Nathan the Prophet called out David’s sin when he stole Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed in battle.

I promise I have not stolen anyone’s spouse nor had anyone killed but I do find Psalm 51 to be a healing and cleansing psalm for me when I am in need of a new beginning or a second chance. Psalm 51 speaks magnificently to me of God’s grace and redemption.

Join us in embracing the words and the prayers of the Psalms as we hear the laments and joys of God’s people.

Peace,
Pastor Kelley

September 28, 2021

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

An uncomfortable truth that we prefer to ignore is that very little we do in this life remains very long. Our friends and families will remember us for a generation or two. If you make some extraordinary contribution people will remember you for a few centuries. If you hurt a lot of people, you may be remembered for a few centuries more. If you really want to be remembered, giant monuments help (King Zoser still has his pyramid). The most ancient known individual we can name is a Mesopotamian from Uruk named Kushim who appears to have been involved in barley distribution around 3400 BC, but an accounting ledger is not exactly a rich biography. For the vast majority of all the human beings who have ever lived, we are forgotten by history.

One of the hardest lessons that time teaches us is the vanity of our pride and ambitions. Ecclesiastes asks us, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” 1 Peter answers the question, “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man is the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away.” Or as Shakespeare put it at the end of Cymbeline, “The scepter, learning, physic, must all follow this, and come to dust.”

What we do matters a great deal proximately to our selves and those closest to us. But as we recede in time and space, all our deeds matter less and less. And all our anxieties and shames, especially that we have not done enough, worked enough, loved enough, and achieved enough disappear in the scale of eternity.

Existentialists have grappled with these cold facts for a century. Indeed, if you gaze too deeply it will drive one to despair (witness the lifestyles of existentialists if you do not believe me). But there is an alternative foundation for our identity and destiny. Instead of centering ourselves on doing we can center ourselves on being.

Being is not the opposite of doing. Being is the firm foundation for all right action. Being is rooted not in desire and will (that usually get us into trouble), but rather in belonging. We are who are in connection with others, and we experience and develop a sense of self in relationship with others. We are who we are in the thick web of belonging, both with other people, the world around us, and other far more durable foundations.

Blaise Pascal once observed that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” By that he meant that human beings have a hard time centering ourselves on being rather than doing. But being seems to be exactly what God had in mind in a garden a very long time ago. God seems at best mildly amused with all our doings (consider Babel).
One would think that being would be a far more attractive option for human identity. The problem is that our egos get in the way. Being is a gift, not an accomplishment. We derive no egoic satisfaction from being. So, we go off looking for things to control and achieve.

Being is so much simpler. Genesis describes us as being made in the image and likeness of God, not accomplishing tasks similar to God’s. Our true identity is not something we earn, achieve, or build. It is a gift. It is all a gift. And a gift does not require accomplishment, it simply requires acceptance.

Sitting quietly, knowing in your deepest essence who you are and whose you are and accepting that as the greatest gift is the foundation from which all right action, all right doing emerges. What we do must be the expression of who we are, not the other way around or we are all in deep trouble. The gift of being, infinite love giving itself away in and as this moment is both the ultimate expression of reality and the only durable foundation for our identities. We are who we truly are only in God not in our accomplishments.

As I have gotten older, I have discarded many desires and let go of many ambitions that did not belong to me. Each one was a beautiful trap for the unwary and the proud. Life disabused me of my pride, but then something else from somewhere else invited me into something so much better. Beyond all our proud strivings is a still point of being that cannot be moved. It is the strong fortress that the psalmist spoke of, the warm place where being emerges from belonging sheltered beneath the mother eagle’s wing. We do not need to worry about eternity because we rest in one who is eternity.

It is all so simple.

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
Be

–Brian

September 21, 2021

Last week I shared a bit about how participation seems to be the central idea holding most Christian doctrine and spirituality together. The early Christians called this Methexis, borrowing the term from Greek theater for when the audience participated in the action on stage or the music. That can all sound rather abstract. A reasonable question is how exactly does one participate in or with God. The answer is simple: imitation.

In order to explain the shape of Christian life, the early church borrowed another idea from Greek art: mimesis. Mimesis literally means imitation (actually it is the root of our word imitation and mimic). More specifically it refers to the inner beauty, pattern, and order of something that human beings try to imitate in our artistic representations. So, a marble statue of a discus thrower tries to imitate (mimesis) something of the original athlete’s balance, strength, and striving. The early church fathers borrowed this idea to explain the nature of Christian life. We are all called to participate in and through God by imitation, specifically imitating the expression of God in human life we call Jesus the Christ.

It is hard to think about, let alone understand, God in God’s own self, but we do not have to. We know God in and through God in the flesh as one of us. Imitating Jesus is imitating God as much as any human being can. This suggests’ that Jesus whole life, not just his oral teachings, was meant as a lesson for humanity on how to be a human being. Some in the church focus on what Jesus said. Others focus on what Jesus did. The ancient church taught they were inseparable and the whole of Jesus’ life, everything he did and said, is a guide for us in how to be what we are meant to be.

Imitation of course is not duplication. In music, imitation is one way a musician learns to play. But she or he will never play exactly the saw way as the original performer. Instead, tiny little differences creep in. These differences are why all imitation is a form of improvisation. We make the imitation our own. Imitation without improvisation is called a recording.

Think of Jesus like a jazz band leader. He lays out his rhythm for us to follow and a few key phrases for the melody. Then it is up to us to develop the themes on our own instruments in our own time. A piano, a saxophone, and a trumpet will all imitate in different ways, each contributing something to the whole. We are all imitating the bandleader, but we are all necessarily doing so in our own way. When it works, improvisational music is richer and deeper than it could have been in the beginning. Even when mistakes are made and dissonant notes played, they can all be skillfully worked into the theme with even deeper harmonies.

There are lots of discordant notes in our lives and in our world. Pain, suffering, cruelty, and death seem to get the last word. But what if all those dissonances were merely the material out of which a deeper harmony is woven? What if our calling is simply to imitate the band leader and make something beautiful out of all the notes, even those we never wanted? No one can tell until the end of the song.

I do not know what God wants of me. But I can try to imitate Jesus (with the emphasis on try not can). And that imitation may not only be the key to a good life, it may actually be the objective way to encounter God. When Jesus said in John 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me,” maybe he was not talking about how we should be thinking about him. Maybe Jesus was telling us to imitate him.

–Brian

September 14, 2021

Concerning Participation

The one idea that holds my faith and spirituality together is participation in, by, through, and with God and others. Participation makes sense of everything else in my theology. Creation, in the image of God, is the original stamp of and invitation to that participation. Love and grace are our experiences of the bond that fuses us into that participation. Sin is the separation that rejects participation. Redemption is the loosening of other bonds as we lose ourselves in that participation. Atonement is God’s sweeping invitation pulling us into the vast dance of participation in Trinity through Christ. Election is our standing invitation and nudging instinct that we were made for participation. Salvation is losing oneself in that ecstatic (literally being beyond yourself) participation through Christ. The church is the social expression of that shared participation in community. And Trinity is simply the title we give to God to acknowledge that God in God’s own self is participation, belonging, and communion.

In spirituality, participation makes sense of prayer where prayer rightly understood is direct communion with God’s love giving itself away in and as this moment. Participation in God is what gives us that uncanny sense of wonder and awe because it is always and necessarily beyond every human understanding. Participation is always experienced as losing oneself in bigger and bigger realms of wonder and being. Participation is what grounds human life in hope knowing that our life in and through God cannot be shaken or undone by anything in this creation because its foundations are far deeper than creation itself. Participation explains why we have such an affinity for creativity, beauty, and the arts striving to participate in our own way in God’s creative work as subcreators. Finally, participation suggests that human life and growth do not end at death, but continue into an eternal progression of greater intimacy, connection, awareness, and sharing with God. What we do today to participate in God, no matter how mundane, resounds unto eternity.

Participation is not some flaky notion that we become God. Humans are creatures (created beings) and some days, I do not even do that so well. Creatures do not become God. Instead, we are invited to participate in divinity. This is how Paul and the very earliest Christians understood Christ’s work in our lives and in our world. Growing up I was told that what mattered was having “faith in Jesus” citing Galatians 2:16 and other texts. It was only when I started reading the Greek text that I realized that same phrase could be better translated as “faith of Jesus.” In other words, what matters are not the assertions and assumptions that I make about who Jesus is, but rather Jesus’ own trust and intimacy with God. We are justified and we are ultimately saved not because of what we believe (which is probably wrong anyway), but rather because of how Jesus trusts and who he is as son. So, when we participate in him, we are of necessity participating in God. This also explains all the convoluted transitive grammar about Jesus being in God and us being in Jesus. Jesus both came to show us how to do this in his teaching and then made it possible through his death and resurrection for even gentiles like us to now belong and participate.

Through participation, faith is not assenting to a bunch of assertions. Faith is trusting relationship and giving oneself over to the divine dance. One of my favorite ancient thinkers, Gregory of Nyssa introduced the notion of methexis into Christian life. Methexis is a term from ancient Greek theater for when the entire audience would join in with the players on stage and improvise a scene or a song together. We are like that audience invited to join in with what God is doing. Jesus taught us the themes of how to be truly human. Now God is inviting us to join in the cosmic participatory jam session. Centuries later, another of my favorite thinkers Owen Barfield (J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s longtime friend and drinking buddy, Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was written for Barfield’s daughter Lucy), picked up this notion in describing human life as the wilderness between original and final participation. For Barfield, as for Gregory and for Paul, the destiny of human life is full, final, conscious, participative belonging in God.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27). “[Y]ou belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:23). “[A]ll things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. (John 17:10). “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1). “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20). Too often we treat these and other verses like them as metaphors. But what if they are actual descriptions of who we are, and who we may yet be in Christ?

All we have to lose is our bondage. All we have to gain is . . . everything.

—Brian

September 7, 2021

I returned late last night from a wonderful family visit to Oregon with every intention of writing about participation as the organizing theme of Christian spirituality.

And then I came into the office this morning.

In the past fortnight, four beloved members of our congregation died. It made all too real the ubiquitous sense of grief that seems to hang like a dank pall over our world right now. So tonight, I think of them and their smiles. I think on my own memories of conversations with them and their kindnesses, humor, wisdom, and curiosities. And then I hold up all those who loved them in their pain and grief hoping that somehow, in holding them before the light of God’s radiant love, their pain would be diminished and grief lessened. But I know too well that grief will not be ignored or denied. Our God has an annoying habit of not relieving us from pain, but rather companioning us through it. Saint Teresa of Avila is attributed to have quipped in prayer, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, perhaps it explains why you have so few.”

Grief is everywhere and infecting everyone. For some, like the family members of those who have died, grief takes on the sharp, tearing sensation of trauma. For others, it is like a chronic ache. Time does not heal all wounds. Some we just learn to live with. For still others, grief is diffused, not anchored to one particular loss, rather omnipresent as it slowly saps life of its color and flavor. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis observed, “Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” (A Grief Observed)

Grief manifests itself in the infinite diversity of human beings and forms of loss. Unfortunately, too often we tend to evaluate, measure, or judge grief, both our own and others’. There is no “right” measure of grief. It is at best futile and more likely hurtful to even compare. No good has ever come from trying to comfort another person with any sentence beginning, “Well, at least . . . “

Our society’s preferred response to grief is denial. Get over it. Get on with it. Buck up. The problem is that grief is not a personal emotion to be controlled so much as an outside force that refuses our bidding. It can overtake us in an instant like a tsunami that thrusts aside every other sensation, thought, or feeling, sometimes literally taking our breath away. At the least convenient of times, it intrudes unbidden making a mess of our well laid plans. And more ominously, grief denied tends to metastasize into boundless anger at others and ourselves. We can see symptoms of this anger/rage all too clearly in our society.

I would like to offer a simple panacea for our pains. I cannot. Loss comes for the just and the unjust. God does not relieve, rescue, or extract us from the pain. Lewis remarked, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” A cursory reading of scripture reveals that the most devoted of God’s servants avoided none of the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune. Instead, they went through it. The only thing to do with suffering is suffer through it. But we do not do so alone.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I know you are hurting right now. Our community, nation, and world are hurting. The causes may seem petty to others or titanic. It does not matter. You are not imagining it. There is no deserving or undeserving. Your pain is your pain. And it is all too real, but not really a thing that can be measured and mapped, let alone quantified or controlled. It is more of a process or a journey that must be undergone not according to a calendar or preordained route, but simply followed.

Of all the world’s religions, none save Christianity equate the full revelation of God with pain, humiliation, suffering, and death. The honest truth is I have not even begun to penetrate the depths of that mystery. But one thing I do know for certain. In the depths of loss and grief, we are not alone. When we lose everything, we are found. Sometimes in grief it feels like we are walking in circles, and perhaps we are. But we may also be walking up or down a great spiral that leads to somewhere, something, someone I could not find on my own.

I do not close with a blessing to be delivered from all pain, which I know would be not merely a lie, but quite likely blasphemy. Instead, I can only offer this which may be far more. May Jesus companion you along your way until you find your rest in him.
–Brian

August 31, 2021

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur Ambulando is a Latin phrase that in its simplest form means “It is solved by walking.” On a practical level this phrase refers to anything that is solved by a practical demonstration or experiment. On a deeper level the phrase has taken on a more spiritual meaning, referring to the practice of walking as prayer or spiritual discipline in order to clear one’s mind or spirit.

In my early years of ordained ministry, I struggled to identify a practice of spiritual discipline that felt like “home” to me. The common practices of journaling or writing or fasting or meditative prayer were more difficult for me.
Of course, all spiritual practices are difficult and require a commitment of heart, mind, and soul; and even more importantly, a commitment of time.

But the desire and the time were not the stumbling block for me. It was the form of the spiritual practice that was a struggle. Silent, meditative prayer in a dark space does not speak “peace” to me! I do not like to close my eyes when I pray. I am much more deeply drawn to open-eyed prayer than closed-eye prayer. And, “silent” and “still” are not words with which any of my closest friends would describe me. I am a verbal processor and not very “silent.” And I rarely hold my hands or feet still even when I am sitting. I prefer all things visual and verbal and tangible and kinetic!

And so, even in my younger years, I began to be drawn to movement as spiritual practice, and specifically the practice of walking. I vastly preferred walking to biking or walking to driving if time and distance allowed. And on those long neighborhood walks to school or back home or just for the joy of taking a walk, I began to find my voice in prayer. I found something deeply grounding in the practice of walking. I felt a wholeness of body, mind, and spirit that I rarely found anywhere else.

My spiritual practice of walking and hiking continues today. Visually, the unmatched beauty of creation centers me for prayer and draws me to my Creator. Kinetically, I feel God’s presence in the miracle of my body; muscles, bones, skin, and organs all moving together to remind me that I am human. Verbally, I find a freedom outdoors to lift my voice in prayer or song, even with the occasional glance of a passerby. And tangibly, I can touch the leaves and trees and ground with my hands and feet, and feel the wind and sun upon my skin. Prayer has become for me an act of place and movement. With all of my senses, I am in prayer with God.

I recently applied to a hiking challenge called Over 50 Outdoors for women fifty years old and over that is sponsored by an outdoor program called the 52 Hike Challenge (www.52hikechallenge.com). I was delighted to be chosen as one of 150 women from across the United States who have covenanted to hike once a week for a year and stay connected with each other through monthly meetings and online apps and social media. There is such a spiritual bond already among the women despite our distance apart and our different life stories.

Will you join me this year in hiking as a spiritual practice or a community act? Maybe you already walk in your neighborhood or in a local indoor mall. Maybe you walk alone or with friends or family. Maybe you hike in some of the amazing metro parks in the Dayton area. Or maybe you take a short stroll around your yard or up and down your driveway. All of these are wonderful ways to “solvitur ambulando.”

I will be leading quarterly church hikes this year – autumn, winter, spring, and summer – for all ages and paces of our church family. I hope you will consider joining me in walking as a spiritual practice as we grow together as God’s people. Watch the newsletter, bulletin, and weekly emails for upcoming details on our church hikes.

Peace to you,

Kelley

August 24, 2021

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity…
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133:1-2

Kindred. A beautiful word. A soul word.

I just returned from a trip to Oklahoma visiting my beloved kindred – my mom, my dad, and my brothers – for the first time since the pandemic! I had not seen my family in-person for a very long time. Many tears of joy were shed!

It was so comforting and natural to be “home” again. Mom fixed our favorite meals, dad and I walked each morning, and my brothers and I laughed to the point of tears. There is healing in being with our kindred, our beloved people. No matter the distance or the passage of time, kindred connect in deeper, unspoken ways. Our belonging almost feels eternal. As the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”

We are kindred, dear Fairmont folk! We are family and we belong to one another. It is easy to forget in the midst of a still unknown and unfamiliar “post pandemic” way of being the Body of Christ that we are kindred. It may be more difficult to feel our deeper connections when we are divided among three different worship venues – 8:30 a.m. service, 10:30 a.m. service, and live-streaming – but we are kindred! We belong to God and we belong to one another. Our belonging is eternal and neither pandemic nor social distancing nor online programming can keep us from being beloved kindred of God!

Our summer days are soon coming to a close and we will celebrate the beginning of a new church year. Many of us have been scattered across the country this summer reconnecting with beloved kindred and finding a much needed sabbath break from work and responsibilities at home. And yet as summer moves into fall, we find a natural gravitation once again to be with those who are kindred, who are our beloved family. The family of God.

How very good and pleasant it is indeed when kindred dwell together in unity! I am grateful for you, beloved kindred, for the community and covenant we share as God’s people. Our time together – in worship, in bible study, in fellowship, in mission – is healing for me. May it be so for you.

Love and peace,

Kelley

August 17, 2021

My Last Word (at least for a while) on Spirituality and Religion

We often get confused about what we are talking about whenever we talk about God. Much of the time, when we think we are talking about God, we are merely talking or thinking about ourselves. In the church much of what passes for “religion” is simply the sum total of propositions to which one is supposed to assent. Throughout this summer I have been trying to draw some distinctions and point our attention away from ourselves and away from all the assertions of religion towards spirituality.

“Spirituality” is one of our most overused and underconsidered words. While “religion” refers collectively to all the content of our belief systems as well as the practices and institutions associated with those beliefs. In other words, religion is all about content. Spirituality refers to process or method, the process or method of encountering God. Specifically, spirituality is simply the way we seek God, the experience of encounter with God, and how we reflect upon that experience. In other words, spirituality is all about verbs and we are often the object and not the subject of those verbs. While religion is anchored in assertions that are external to our lives, like the events outside of Jerusalem around 33 AD, spirituality is anchored in our own subjective, personal experience how we seek God and how God encounters us.

For me, spirituality necessarily precedes religion. My encounters with this supernatural other I summarily label “God” led me to explore the content of how generations came to make sense of their encounters. For me, religion is simply the content making sense of my spirituality. Experience, not faith, provides my bedrock and starting point. Christianity is the explanatory model that best fit those experiences and made compelling sense and so I am a Christian, at least as the community defines that term. As Jesus seems to define that term as one who picks up their cross and follows him, I am at best a catechumen.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing that we can do to get to God. What we can do is make ourselves as accessible as possible to God who is always and everywhere seeking connection and relationship. We can provide God the path of least resistance simply by lowering our egos’ resistances to anything and anyone other than our own control. This is the way of detachment or self-emptying that Jesus demonstrated in his own life, most completely in the cross, that the Bible calls Kenosis. My own method of spirituality is simply applied Kenotics, learning to let go little by little of all the attachments and desires to which my ego so likes to cling. The easiest way for me to do this is silence, not merely acoustical, but mental, and emotional silence, gently letting go of everything that my mind throws up knowing that in letting go of everything else what will necessarily be left is God. To be honest I am not that good at it, and I can only intentionally practice it for about 20 minutes each day, but whenever I am attentive to the practice, I experience an uncanny feeling of being found and held. Suffering can accomplish the same thing, but I am a bit of a wimp and do not like to suffer.

God is everywhere and everywhen accessible to everyone. But we spend our lifetimes filling our lives with every imaginable distraction so that God can rarely get a word in edgewise. Spirituality is simply what we do to remove all our barriers and fortifications designed to keep God out. And the fancy theological name for all those barriers and obstructions that keep us apart from God is sin. When we say that Jesus came to take away our sin, we do not simply mean that Jesus offers us a pardon for naughty things we may have done. We are making the far grander claim that Jesus is God coming to us in and as a human being and in and as a human being removes all barriers between us. We now have full access to God and God has full access to us. That is the true work of Christ’s atonement, not merely forgiveness, but transformation unto connection. So, when Jesus says” I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he was not speaking symbolically or allegorically. He was simply stating the fact that he is the connection between us and God.

In this final installment and summary of my vague ramblings about spirituality and religion I simply want you to know this. God is closer to you than your breath, closer than your thoughts, closer that we can imagine. God is not somewhere other than right where you are. And all you need to do to encounter God’s presence is the intention to seek God combined with a little careful attention, attention that focuses not on ourselves like we usually do but on what is coming into being at precisely this moment precisely where and when you are. In my experience, and that of thousands of other people across the centuries, that moment of encounter is the taproot of life, joy, belonging, hope, and love. It is, insofar as we creatures can ever experience the transcendent through our finite and flawed faculties, God.

Religion is my day job. My true vocation is God seeking. My true identity is God haunted. I hope that at my journey’s end, my true destiny is God belonging. And I hope the same for you.

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Augustine of Hippo

August 10, 2021

Throughout the summer I have been sharing some of my musings about spirituality. By way of review, spirituality is simply that dimension of human life that connects us to the presence of God. Specifically, spirituality is: (1.) the quest to encounter the presence of God; (2.) the actual lived experience of that presence; and (3.) reflections on that experience. While I am convinced that God is accessible everywhere and at every moment, we are not. We tend to get caught up inside our own thoughts.

One well established way around our constant mental chatter is the way of silence. This is the contemplative path taught by the church for centuries and practiced by millions of Christians as a discipline that makes us as accessible to God as possible by letting go of the ego’s attachments. You let go of everything that is not God and what you are left with is necessarily, God. The path of spiritual calculatus eliminatus (to steal from The Cat in the Hat) is the gradual process of unclenching our ego’s grasp on idea, experience, feeling, and perception. Silence slowly slides the “I” from the center of our own personal universes leaving only boundless perception in which we discover presence.

There is another way, just as ancient and perhaps more commonly practiced, albeit never as popular.

You are not going to like it.

I don’t like it.

Suffering is the other well-worn path that leads to God. Very few intentionally choose it but suffering forces us to let go of all our ego’s attachments, desires, and identifications. Suffering lowers the barriers of resistance that keep God at bay from our lives. Sickness, whether mental or physical, infirmity, disability, grief, loss, all have the capacity to teach us as they deprive us of things we hold dear. Suffering exposes us to vulnerability and our own limitations, which can open us to a greater, deeper intimacy with God. Suffering is the vastly capable teacher of human truth and access to the divine that no one seeks after.

The problem of course is that suffering can also simply destroy. For suffering to be transformative, it must open our lives to a world of meaning, purposes, identity, and belonging. The suffering itself has no intrinsic meaning. Our reflection and response to it is what generates meaning and purpose. But there are pains too deep to survive. There are losses that simply crush us utterly. Suffering is therefore a fickle teacher whose lessons offer wisdom with one hand and destruction in the other. No wonder then we seek to avoid its lessons.

We have gotten very good at avoiding suffering and hiding it away. But in our avoidance, we sometimes forget to see through to suffering’s transformative effects. We deny or disguise our wounds or more often seek to transmit them to others rather than embracing them as sacred wounds that teach and transform. God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, and even death itself, not to simply wound or punish, but to bring us to a larger Identity and belonging. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” (John 12:24). Sometimes what brings new and abundant life is precisely the cracking open of one’s shell. And that can hurt.

We worship a God who walked this earth and suffered, was tortured, crucified, and died. God redeems and transforms suffering as disclosive of who God is and who we can be in God. God does not observe suffering at a distance. God is in it. If we are in it, we may encounter God.

Jesus never asked us to worship him. He asked us to follow him. And his path heads straight through the pain of this world. But the great mystery of Easter is that this same path comes out somewhere else leading us to grow to become someone else.

Resurrection is not relief from suffering. Resurrection is the infinite becoming that is reached only through the suffering.

August 3, 2021

One of the most overused concerns in contemporary pseudo-spirituality is the quest to be an authentic self. How one could fail to be an authentic self? Can a human being be counterfeit? Even if one lies, prevaricates, pretends, feigns, fakes, dissembles, bluffs, poses, postures, or dissimulates, it is still you doing it. Admittedly, the self we encounter may not be our ideal, but it is still very much us.

To push a bit deeper, I am not certain there really is a static entity called a self. Who I am seems to be the meeting place where a rather unreliably edited library of memories collides with the variable circumstances of the present moment. This protean me changes in not only its outer expression, but in my internal experience, perception, and cognition in each new moment and in each new encounter. We are social creatures that adapt who and how we are depending on those around us and the demands of the current environment. Moreover, those external circumstances can change my mood, temperament, values, hopes, dreams, behaviors, and preferences in an instant. Eight hours after meal time without food, I can be a very unpleasant person to be with, but it is still me.

So many of the things that we presume constitute who we are (relationships, work, achievements, talents, education, and status) as well as the things that we pretend we are not but really are (dependencies, shame, addictions, jealousy, envy, anxiety, and fear) are simply ego attachments and identifications. Ego attachments are any self-definition that is not us. Our misdirected desires point us outward looking for something, anything to provide a sense of self and relieve the existential pressure to look inward. We go, in the words of Johnny Lee’s classic country western song, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places. It is no surprise then that we tend to end up alienated, lonely, ashamed, uncertain, frustrated, cynical, anxious, and despairing.

There is another way. There is a better foundation upon which to ground a self, an identity, and a life. And it does not involve prolonged naval gazing. Actually, you are going to have to gaze a lot deeper than that.

You can root yourself in presence.

Underneath the subcellar of prayer, below the places where the ego wanders and well below the cavorting flocks of random thoughts, lies something else. The way is always open, but it requires us to set aside the tempting distractions of our ego assumptions. It requires careful attention, a special kind of focused attention that Christians call prayer. Beneath everything we know or think we know, beneath desires and fears, beneath all the little lies we tell ourselves and even our nagging suspicion that we are lying to ourselves, beneath the polarities of thought, in the pure unbounded perception of gracious attention one can experience an odd updraft coming from even deeper. When you get rid of everything else, you are not nothing and you are not alone. When you get rid of everything else you find yourself in the realm of gracious presence, the true foundation of the true you. The world will try to tell you who you are at every moment. But who you really are is who you are being given away as into becoming. This process of being itself giving itself away in and as this moment, in and as us, is what we colloquially call the Love of God. This is the ground of our true being. We are, underneath all the encrusted illusions and distortions we collectively call sin, not static sovereign entities but the relational expression of God loving us and all creation into being. And were God not to do so, for even a moment, our lives, this world, and this creation, would cease to be and collapse into nothingness.

Creation and everything in it, including you and me, is the eruption of the outpouring of God’s overabundant love in Trinity taking form and expression overflowing God’s own self. Like the frozen mists from an outdoor fountain on a cold winter day, our lives take concrete form for a season, only to wait the thaw and the return to the overflowing fountain that is both our source and destiny. This is the secret of presence. Who you are is a manifestation of who God is and what God does and that foundation of self cannot be defaced, vandalized, or corrupted, let alone destroyed by anything within this creation. And that means you do not need to be afraid. Of anything. A wave loses all fear the moment it realizes it is the ocean.

I believe that Jesus came to both teach and demonstrate this new way of being rooted in presence. It explains how he effortlessly passed through such strong systems of ego attachments as power, wealth, purity, revenge, despair, and grief. It explains why he renewed his strength for the journey by escaping to quiet places by himself where he could recenter himself in God’s presence despite all the distractions. And lastly, it explains how he could walk straight through death into life, or at least a kind of life perfected and transformed we now glimpse as though through a mirror darkly.

Jesus did not come to share with us an escape route out of the world. Jesus came to show us how we could finally be who we truly are and where we are. And that way, his way, is open to every human being if only we care to try.

When Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he was not making a religious claim about his identity. He was stopping to give us directions to our destination.

July 27, 2021

Christian spirituality is quite mundane. By that I mean that it gets lived out in the daily, ordinary, decidedly undramatic practices of prayer, awareness, study, and service. It is also mundane in the original sense of that word. Mundane, from the Latin mundi, literally means from or of the Earth. Our spirituality is grounded in our creaturely life here and now. There are of course those extraordinary moments when the veil is lifted for a moment and we catch a glimpse beyond our being and time, but those moments are exceedingly rare, exceptions that prove the rule. For the vast majority of human beings for the vast majority of our lives, spirituality is an ordinary, daily routine.

God will come and go as God pleases, interceding through theophanies, dreams, angelic interruptions, natural events, providence, or whatever other means God so chooses to utilize. That is God’s concern, not mine. My concern is simply trying over the course of my life to offer up the path of least resistance to God. I have no control over God. At my best, I have some marginal control over me. So I work where I can. I work on me.

Christian spirituality has two central components: intention and attention. Intention is simply desire. What do you want? It is a surprisingly difficult question for many people. Often we deceive ourselves as to our true desires and intentions. Our society, media, and markets do not help us here. To know what you want, what you really want, requires a level of self awareness and perception that most people avoid. Sometimes we claim to want generic conclusions like I want to be happy, healthy, and live a meaningful life. Those sorts of answer just beg the question, why? What do you mean by health or happiness and what do you want to do with it? What is meaning and what difference would its presence make in your life? Self examination and honesty are hard earned but important. Honest answers can make us reconsider our paths in ways that may challenge those who are dear to us. But honesty about what our true desires are is the only way to truth.

Saint Augustine first recognized that faith begins with desire, the feeling or experience of a lack that we want to fill. That absence or void will be satisfied or filled by nothing less than God, though most of try all sorts of inadequate substitutes. We of course cannot fill the hole on our own, but we can be honest about it. Thomas Merton prayed that he believed that the desire to please God does in fact please God even when we fail again and again in the actual accomplishment. Instead, it is the honesty and clarity of the desire that matters, what the mystics called “purity of heart.” And it all begins by the careful process of examination and consideration of our own desire.

The other central component of Christian spirituality is attention. Most of us spend most of our waking hours bombarded by a cacophony of thoughts, feelings, impression, and anxieties, over which we have little control, agency, or interest that we collectively call our life. We tend to ground our sense of meaning, worth, and purpose in lots of things outside us like the estimation of others, work, family, markets, and society which produces a constant anxious feedback loop of often erroneous data. We experience feelings that are often complex and subtle forms of self deception that have no basis in reality. We get sidetracked into distractions that purport to offer pleasure or security, when in fact they tend to be traps for our own egos. And we lose ourselves in an infinite variety of ego attachments that seduce us away from our true selves.

Attention is the cure for all those things, a cure to the maddening anxiety that plagues modern life. There is no mystical magic here. It is quite mundane (in both senses), humble, and profoundly undramatic. All it requires is to take time and focus. Really focus. There are no magic words. As a matter of fact, words will just get in the way. Start to gently dismiss and release the thousand thoughts that demand attention. When they rear up gently let them go. Bit by bit, thought by thought, feeling by feeling, you will be graciously setting aside all the distractions that demand our attention and will be there waiting for you when you are done. Do not worry about failing and being distracted a thousand or a million times. And then, bit by bit, moment by moment, you will start entering the spacious emptiness of real attention, where the Real begins to make itself obvious and apparent. Because underneath all our thoughts and feelings, when you push everything else away, I know what you will find. I know who you will find. Beneath all being itself is the core experience of belonging, presence, and connection, that is our true home and destiny rising up to meet us.

Attention and intention may not look like much. It all unfolds in your own heart, mind, and body. Christian spirituality is decidedly lacking in special effects. But it changes us from within along a slow steady pathway of transformation that Jesus simply called, “The Way.” It brings us into every closer connection, communion, and mutual indwelling with God, and not coincidentally with each other. When Jesus commissioned his disciples to go forth and teach everyone everything he commanded, I think that this is what he had in mind, a new kind of humanity that he came to both demonstrate and then form. This new life is what Jesus was trying to explain to old Nicodemus, life that is now finally and truly free from all fear and even free from death itself.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? So goes the old joke. Practice, practice, practice! The same can be said of how to get to God, at least from the human side of things. Practice intention and attention every day and then you will start to lose track of the boundary between the mundane and the divine. After all, if the incarnation means anything, it means that boundary is far more porous than we ever imagined.

Pax Vobiscum, Brian

July 20, 2021

The words mystical and mysticism have gotten a bum rap. Somewhere between the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment they have been slandered as some sort of esoteric mumbo jumbo practiced by either charlatans or the gullible to no appreciable end and for no worldly good. I would like to suggest a modest project of reclamation.

The Greek root mystikos simply means hidden or concealed, that which is not patently obvious. Mystics are simply those religious believers who seek to uncover that which is not obvious, specifically the presence of God. Every major world religious tradition (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, etc.) has a mystical impulse just as every major religious tradition has an ethical impulse. The yearning for mystical connection is not a religious thing, let alone a uniquely Christian thing. Mystical longing is a human thing.
Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “our hearts are restless, until they find rest in thee.” Human life is tinged with the perception of an absence, like a void we cannot fill, an itch we cannot scratch. Many have tried to fill that void with things that do not fit: fame, money, power, knowledge, success, celebrity, beauty, art, sex, drugs, duty, and even religion, love, and family. None quite fit the hole. The hole is shaped like God and nothing else can fill it. So, we ache, we yearn, and we seek.

Faith begins with desire, the desire for God. Religion can then coopt that desire and direct it towards human institutions, answers, and cultures. Those habitations of heart and mind, that Christians collectively call church, can be quite satisfying and many are content with them. But there is a clear danger. The church can become an end in itself. We call proximate, contingent human creations to which we attribute infinite value and importance, idols. The church is instead called to be iconic, that is that it is meant to be a human construct that helps us enter into encounter with God. The church is not God any more than the Bible is. They are instead like lenses to help us see or auditory aids to help us hear God. If church does not point beyond itself, and indeed beyond this world and every human experience, it is has ceased to be the church.

A mystical church is simply a church that points beyond itself towards encounter with God. It would be more like a school or a training facility, helping people reach out beyond their own lives towards moments or even states of encounter with the divine. Such a church does not depend so much on faith as trust, let alone dogma. Such a church relies on the experience of its members, living and dead, in encounter and participation with God. And the amazing thing is those experiences appear to be remarkably consistent over the centuries as attested to in countless generations of spiritual writers who have gone before us. A mystical church gives witness to a living God actually seeking encounter, relationship, and participation with human beings. A mystical church is therefore necessarily an incarnational church in which God is not an idea to be explored, but a person with who we grow in relationship and through that relationship develop into a rather new sort of human being, no longer rooted to fear.

Have you ever considered that “forgiveness of sin” and “salvation,” whatever we might mean by those things, may not be the end of God’s agency or interest in our lives, but simply a necessary prologue, a beginning and not and end? Mystical Christianity is simply the quest to experience, and hopefully, eventually inhabit, the actual presence of God, even beyond the bookends of this mortal existence. But that quest does not need to wait until after you are dead. God is closer than we can possibly imagine, inside the beingness of this moment, inside the youness of your thought, inside the yearning that you feel.

I look forward to life after life after death not for its pleasures, but for its participation in and with the one I have been seeking all along. But for today, as a creature (i.e., one who is created), I will content myself with the quest and such moments of stepping outside myself as I may be granted. It is perhaps no coincidence then that Jesus never called the approach to God that he shared with the disciples a religion, school, method, lifestyle, philosophy, or sect. He simply called it, “the way.” All it really requires of us is the desire to depart from the familiar and seek out a new place, that and the steady perseverance to simply follow. Religion will tell you all about the road, its dimensions, and various stops on the way. Mysticism is the experience of actually walking the path.

The very first paving stone, the first step on that road is right under your feet this very moment. . . Brian

July 13, 2021

Thinking and Not Thinking About God

A quirk of human psychology is that we tend to think in terms of opposites. Up/down, left/right, good/bad, love/hate, God/Satan, male/female, light/dark, Republican/Democrat, inside/outside, subject/object, life/death our lists of polar dualities go on and on. The problem is that while our minds like to organize perception and memory into this tidy dualistic filing system, our actual lived experience as embodied creatures is rarely so simple. In our rush towards “critical thinking” we tend to put things into categories not so much because they necessarily belong there, but rather because of the needs of our own cognition. And when things do not fit, we tend to experience stress or anxiety. Human beings generally do not do so well with ambiguity and paradox.

At the heart of the Christian revelation lies paradox and ambiguity. Jesus is both divine and human, which is a paradox. In the Nicene Creed we confess that Jesus is, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same being as the Father.” The Creed does not exactly clarify things at all, it simply rules out any attempt to separate Jesus from God. In the end we are left holding on to a paradox, Jesus is God and human at the same time. And since God and human beings are categorically different sorts of things, that is like saying that Jesus is both X and not X at the same time. Good luck with that logical riddle. And if the dual natures of Christ does not keep you up at night, then try on the dynamic paradox of the Holy Trinity.

The problem lies less with God and more with our way of thinking. Critical dualistic thinking can do wonderful things, like orchestrating a symphony, solving differential equations, and unfolding proteins to cure a disease. Dualistic thinking is a beautiful tool for translating the world into symbolic models that permit us to experiment and solve problems. But it has limits. Dualistic thinking runs into trouble at the quantum scale. It also fails to comprehend the subtle mysterious experience of the ineffable. Dualistic thinking does not handle awe so very well, or ecstasy, or love.

Christianity, by the fifth century, rejected strict dualistic thinking as heresy. Manicheanism, the idea that God and Satan were essentially fighting it out for human souls on a more or less level playing ground of earth, was excluded as an acceptable Christian view of the world starting with Augustine. Instead, a much bigger view of God, in which God transcends all dualities, even the duality of subject and object, and even the duality of existence and non-existence, became the dominant view of Christian theology and spirituality starting in the Middle Ages with spiritual thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. Unfortunately, we rarely mention it in church, nervous that some folks could not handle the paradox.

Nondual thinking is not a so much a way of thinking as it is a way of perceiving, taking in the undifferentiated whole of experience without the need to reduce it to a series of evaluative judgments and classifications. Nondual thinking then is a form of objectless awareness that is sensitive to everything, but gets snagged on nothing. It is a circle of attention whose focal center is everywhere and whose bounding circumference is nowhere. It is all about clarity of attention, which is so hard for us because we immediately jump to all our evaluations. What if we just attended with open, alert, but unthinking perception, like a quivering drop of quicksilver responding to everything in its environment but caught by nothing?

If you want to think about God, think again. Every thought we could ever possibly have is grossly inadequate at best, and likely idolatrous. God is not an object that can be considered like other objects of human thought. God can only be experienced through nondual perception, quiet, attentive perception unpolluted by human reason or will.

Do you want to perceive God? Or, differently asked, do you want to pray? The first step is to let go of every judgment, thought, consideration, analogy, memory, classification, analysis, opinion, and conclusion. Then, and only then, from a quiet and attentive mind, Truth may come looking for you.

Brian

July 6, 2021

 

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Thessalonians 5: 16-18

Prayer has always confused me. For a very long time, I thought it was simply dignified speech towards God. I presumed there must be a certain code to it. If you used the right words in the right order something would happen. Then I concluded that the words did not matter, what mattered was the ardor or intensity of the one praying. Honesty, integrity, and most of all passion were essential.

Later on, I served as a hospital chaplain intern for a summer. I gravitated towards the ICU and the emergency room at a Level One Trauma Center. Human pain and loss are on stark display in such places. I observed, shared in, and led prayers of searing intensity. Sometimes ardently desired results happened. Sometimes not. I have seen felons make full recoveries and saints pass from this life, and vice versa. If prayer is defined as our willful petition to supernaturally change material circumstances, I have little faith in it. I do believe that prayer can evoke supernatural changes. But those changes are simply too random and unpredictable for me to have much faith in them. Pray for a miracle and sometimes you get a miracle, but often you do not.

Later still I found a more dependable expression of prayer. Instead of trying to persuade God to make exceptions to the laws of physics or biochemistry on my behalf, I started to view prayer less as something I do at all and instead something that God does in, or perhaps more accurately through, me. I began to realize that in all my confessions, petitions, intercessions, and supplications, God could not squeeze in a single word let alone do more substantial work. My prayers were essentially anxiety-fueled soliloquies. What I needed to do was stop. Just stop. All my words, my desires, and my guilt, were the product of my own ego and its endless wants and insecurities. Somehow, I needed to get my ego out of the conversation and that is more easily said than done.

It is hard for me to get away from the myself, or at least that restless, grasping, attaching aspect of myself that neurotically seeks to alternatively assert itself or hide away that is the human ego. Ego is of course developmentally necessary. Without it one could not function in the world. But seeking after God is not another function in the world. Seeking after God reaches quite beyond it requiring a rather different approach.

The earliest Christian prayer, or maybe it is a hymn, that we know of is the famous Christ Hymn in Philippians. Paul quotes it at length, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Philippians 2: 5-8. At the very earliest stage of Christianity, the community held onto this notion of self-emptying as the way towards God, not just for Jesus, but for us. The fancy theological name for this kind of self-emptying is kenosis, which literally means to empty oneself or pour oneself out. So, if self-emptying was identified by the earliest Christians as essential to Jesus’ own work and purpose and commended to their community as the mindset of authentic prayer, perhaps self-emptying may provide the model for our prayer as well.

Self-emptying is hard. The inside of my mind is normally a bit like a convention of drunken monkeys jumping from one thought or feeling to another without much pattern or purpose. I am sure that some saints and spiritual teachers can just sit down and quiet their minds without much fuss, but I am not one of them. I need help.

One of the most ancient expressions of Christian prayer is called Hesychasm, which simply means stillness or quiet. It was described first by Evagrius Ponticus in the Fourth Century and then by Maximus the Confessor in the Seventh and provides the centerpiece of the spiritual writings of Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory Palamas. All these saints and teachers tried to provide a simple technique to quiet the mind and let go of ego. The process goes through three stages. First, purification disentangles us from all our mental and emotional distractions striving for a state of quiet but watchful attention. Second, illumination is the process of moving that purification inward discarding attachments and constructions so that we can enter prayer freed from images. Finally, deification or theosis is the final stage when, having been freed of everything that is not God, we can enter into the actual presence of God rising up to meet us. There and then, we catch a glimpse of the uncreated light. This final stage is more accurately a transitory state. It is a gift from God through the Spirit that we messed up mortals can glimpse but never fully move into, at least in this life.

As an aid to the process, they proposed a simple prayer, the Jesus Prayer. While it has many variations, the original version is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.” The actual words are of secondary importance. What matters is the way that they focus the mind through their repeated use slowly beginning to shape the patterns of breath. Then slowly, you repeat.

And repeat.

And repeat.

In the spiritual classic, The Way of the Pilgrim, a seeker is told by a wise old teacher to go off and pray the Jesus prayer 5,000 times. He comes back and says he had not found God. He is told to go and pray the Jesus prayer 50,000 times. He comes back and says he had not found God. He is told to go and pray the Jesus prayer 500,000 times. Finally, after many days he returns to his teacher. He tells his teacher that although he did not find God, he noticed that at some point in the 500,000 prayers he stopped praying the prayer and the prayer started praying him. The teacher observed, perhaps you have not found God, but maybe now God has found you.

Prayer, rightly understood, is not us doing anything. Prayer, rightly understood, is God being God in and through us.

Brian

June 29, 2021

Knowledge of Stuff and Knowledge of God
. . . and why we cannot see God . . . and what we can do about it

There is more than one way to know something. By far the most common is to know about something, to observe, analyze, catalog, and contextualize. We know all about things we can see and touch and feel (like apples, viruses, and the wind). We can also know about otherwise invisible things we can learn about through how they interact with other things (like extra solar planets or someone’s emotions). And we know things because they make necessary logical sense (like the circumference of a circle is equal to twice its radius multiplied by a funny number that falls between our normal numbers 3.1 and 3.2 that we call pi). Using this kind of knowing, we assemble our lives, build civilizations, cure diseases, and generally function in the world. And all of it depends on us, the observer(s), making observations or deductions about the object of our observation (whatever that may be).

The central claim of all the monotheistic religions is that there is a divine, supernatural reality to all things transcending all our categories and consciousness that we summarily call God. God, who is the creator and sustainer of all, is by definition not an object, not something we can observe, analyze, catalog, and contextualize. God is not just another “thing” in creation. Instead, God is always and everywhere the subject, never the object. As the subject, it is actually God who is the ground of being giving itself away as the quality of being enjoyed by everything that is. In other words, God is not just another thing that is, God makes being. Anything less than this does not really deserve the title God.

If God is not an object, literally not a thing, no-thing, then God necessarily transcends all our language and attributions. We can be moved by the beauty of creation, but that is merely God’s arts and crafts, not God. Direct observation and attribution are impossible. All our speech about God is at best metaphorical, never indicative. You cannot state facts about God because God necessarily goes far beyond any fact our or any mind could ever imagine. For example, God is not powerful, because whatever we may think of God’s power is insufficient and we cannot observe the scope of God’s power. God is more than that. The problem is not merely one of our insufficient knowledge or language. The problem is our insufficient ways of knowing. Anything that we can know as an object of our thought is necessarily not God.

There is another kind of knowing. You can know from the inside. You can slip beneath the separation of the observer and the observed object to a deeper kind of knowing. Generally, the only form of this sort of knowing most people experience is the knowledge of ourselves. You cannot really step out of yourself to observe yourself because no matter how hard you try, you are always you. The self cannot observe the self because there is no difference from the one doing the observing and the one observed. Even if I carefully reflect on my own behaviors, motives, thoughts, and feelings, it is always me who is doing it and in doing so participating in the behaviors, motive, thoughts, and feelings. At best we can observe images of ourselves, like the image in a mirror, but the image is never really us. Most people try to avoid reflecting too deeply on themselves and run back to the realm of objects.

You can however go deeper. There is a hidden way of knowing (if you prefer the Greek, mystical knowing). We call it hidden not because it is camouflaged, but because so few try it. If God is being itself, giving itself away in and as this moment not as an object but as the subject, then the one place we can reliably find God is in us. The only kind of knowing we can share that breaks the barrier of subject and object is our knowledge of ourselves, but beneath any awareness of ourselves is something far deeper and older. Beneath our knowledge of “I” is the foundation of that “I”, the foundation of uncreated being giving itself away to us in what we perceive as our own quality of being. That uncreated being giving itself away in self emptying love in and as this moment is what we rather banally call God.

The problem is that we tend to resist the deeps. We get stuck on ourselves, our egos, and all their passing attachments. The process of learning to let go of ego and its attachments is what we call prayer or meditation. I simply think of it as sinking down and letting go knowing that when I let go of everything, even the self, I will always be met by the eternal subject which is God. Prayer is simply the technique we use to enter into communion with God inside our own experience of being.

This can all sound rather confusing because we are so accustomed to our patterns of thought separating the subject from object, separating the observer from the observed. True knowledge of God is much simpler than all that. The differences fall away and there is no longer any difference between the observer and the observed. There is stillness and a solitude to this kind of knowing because there is no longer an observer there to make observations or take notes. This point of zero variance and zero separation is precisely the communion that Jesus points and pushes us towards: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” John 17:21-23.

One of my spiritual teachers, James Finley, observed that knowing God is really the process of overcoming otherness. And in overcoming otherness we necessarily disappear to the world and its separations collapsing into communion. There is no “outside” anymore from which to make an observation. There is only trans-subjective communion in which we and God and we and others and we and the world start disappearing from observation as otherness is overcome and true union entered.

Finley’s mentor, the great spiritual teacher Thomas Merton wrote, “Where do candles go when they go out? If the question fills me with an alien chill, it gives witness to my heart that I have not begun to understand the resurrection.” I am slowly learning to trust the compass of my heart’s desire more than the unreliable GPS of my own understanding and knowledge.

I am not all that interested in heaven with all its pleasures.

What I really desire is to be lost in God.

Brian

June 22, 2021

The Foundations of Spirituality, at least mine

All our experiences of God, faith, religion, and spirituality are grounded in three sources: experience, tradition, and scripture/revelation. Learning how to pedal this tricycle is the life of faith.

Protestants, going back to Martin Luther, like to boast that they follow scripture alone, but I do not believe that is how people work. Every impression, every thought, every sensation, every decision we ever seek or make is filtered through our own unique lens of experience. How I perceive the world, other people, and God is fundamentally shaped by, among other things, my culture, family, values, education, health (both mental and physical), life circumstances, relationships, and age. I cannot get around or behind this experience because my experience is, to a large extent, me. The only place where I could ever encounter God is therefore through me, my life, and my experience.

Other people’s experiences, collected, preserved, and validated over time, are what we call tradition. Not the way we have always done things, but rather what has been worth preserving from the past, constitutes tradition. That means that tradition is always dynamic. Tradition is constantly evolving as the point where the past and the present collaborate. Specifically for Christian spirituality, tradition is the accumulated wisdom, ideas, hopes, yearnings, methods, rituals, and frustrations of generations long past. In other words, tradition is simply the preserved experience of the dead, tested and refined by all the interceding generations. Tradition is the antidote to the arrogance of the living, thinking that we alone must be the measure of all things. Tradition is instead a gift of a map, our inheritance from our ancestors that points us forward.

Finally, scripture is not merely the record of divine revelation in ages past, although it surely is that as well. Scripture is the written record of God acting in history with human beings and the texts in and through which generations have encountered the presence of God. That means that scripture is more than history. Scripture is a lens through which we can see God and, far more uncomfortably, God can be felt peering into us. The careful, open hearted, vulnerable reading of scripture is therefore not primarily about learning information about God, but rather entering into encounter with God. This sort of attentive, prayerful reading is called lectio divina and leads us not to information about God, but encounter with God.

Religion has traditionally leaned more heavily on scripture and tradition. Protestants purport to rely exclusively on the authority of scripture, but tend to get apprehensive when you point out that those interpretations are themselves a form of tradition. Conversely, Roman Catholics tend to lean more heavily on tradition, but grow upset when you point out that their tradition seems to change every century or so. Religion often presents both these sources, scripture and tradition, as objective and external to our lives. How or what we may in fact experience is beside the point.

Spirituality tries to restore balance by bringing experience into the mix. We necessarily encounter God either in the infinitely fleeting moment of now, or in the realm of memory of past experiences. And in memory, we make sense of that experience through all the raw material, images, metaphors, constructs, and criteria of scripture and tradition. Or not. Sometimes, our experience is so alien not only to every prior moment of life, but everything we know from scripture and tradition. When that happens, things get interesting. We need a bigger map.

When I was in High School, I felt like I no longer fit into the church where I grew up. It was a lovely church, with well organized programs, but everything had a simple rational answer. The sermons were all three points and poem with a tidy moral takeaway. There was no room for mystery. And mystery was all I was experiencing. So, I went looking to broaden my tradition to find someone, anyone who seemed to speak to my experience. At first the Tao Te Ching seemed promising, which led me to the Dhammapada, which in turn took me back to the Upanishads. They sang of the vast whirl of God inviting us all into the grand dance and the emergence of God both in and around me. They spoke of those experiences that I never had words for, those moments when the “I” seemed to drop away. And most of all they told me that I was not alone in those experiences, but in the deep currents of humanity’s ongoing encounter with God. But the problem was that I was still a nominal Swedish Lutheran in Minnesota, and I would never be a Taoist monk, Buddhist sage, or Hindu sadhu. Thankfully, I never had to.

There is a sub-basement to the Christian tradition to which few people are ever introduced, a vast treasure trove of poets, thinkers, dreamers, and painfully honest memoirists who have shared their experiences of encounter with the presence of God. Collectively, they provide a repository and resources of spiritual knowledge, methods, and yearnings at least as deep as any Eastern tradition. They too rely on scripture and tradition, but they boldly insist on incorporating their own powerful experiences of and with the divine. They testify to a living God of the present who still reaches out and embraces human beings. They share a roadmap of how to know through experience and how to put one’s mind into the heart. These spiritual writers participate in a shared conversation across the centuries less concerned with information about God, what we would call theology, and far more concerned with the kind of knowledge of God that comes from direct encounter even though such experience may be hidden from direct observation, which is precisely what you would expect from a God of incarnation. They called this special theology “hidden theology,” except they used the Greek word for “hidden.” They called this golden thread running through Christian history, Mystical Theology.

I am called into ministry for a simple reason. I want to share that treasure with you. Brian

June 14, 2021

I want to continue sharing a bit more with you about spirituality and religion, their importance to me, and how they dance together within a human life. Since the only life I know well is my own, they are necessarily personal reflections, but I hope that you too may find something familiar within them.

Every major religious tradition in the world addresses certain fundamental questions: who am I, what is the nature of this life and reality, how should I live my life, what is the purpose or intention of life or this world, and what is our destiny. These are not questions that can be answered with empirical observation or deduction. They are instead questions of value, meaning, and purpose. Religion, functionally understood, are the ways we approach, address, and then organize our myriad partial and incomplete answers. Spirituality is the experience of first desiring, then seeking, then discovering, and finally integrating those answers as a dynamic process that unfolds inside our lives.

Because experience and consciousness precede memory and thought, spirituality precedes religion and provides its wellspring. But religion gives spirituality an outward expression that can be shared, transmitted, and even relied upon. Religion allows one to share in the spiritual experiences of others and flattens time and space so that we can share the wisdom of other across the globe and across centuries. In sacred writings and rituals, we convey the deepest spiritual truth with each other and with generations yet unborn. Religion gives spirituality persistent and transmissible form.

This whole understanding and process mirrors who God is for us and in turn who we are for God. God is the summary name for that wellspring of creativity and love that pours itself out in and as this and every moment. God’s self-giving love is the motive and impulse that drives creation and every moment into being. That means that creation and everything in it (including you and me) is an expression of that same love. That love takes tangible form reaching out first to create and then connect with us. Imagine a giant volcano in the middle of the ocean spitting off clouds and flows of lava. Creation is the island that it forms and we are like little tiny bits of white-hot magma now blown some distance away, cooled, hardened, but still very much connected to the volcano. And one day, as the great volcano rumbles and grows, we will return to it.

Our understanding of God is based in the foundational mystery of the Trinity which means that for Christians, God is more of a verb than a noun. Some people grow frustrated because they cannot observe God like we observe other things in creation. But God is not another thing in creation. By definition, God is not a thing, not an object that can be observed or measured. If God is not simply another object in creation but rather the ground of all being itself, then one cannot remove oneself from any moment to make an independent observation of God. Wherever you go, God is there, not merely with but in and through you. And the moment you fully step into that reality (which I can glibly restate but spend a lifetime seeking) is the moment you fully enter into a new realm, experience, and form of being and consciousness that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Spirituality, as a tangible theological tradition, tends to take form as the shared momentary glimpses of that vast realm in which we mortals can catch glimpses of this life. Some may even begin to stabilize the experience of that perception in their lives, but this is far rarer.

Trinity can be thought of as God’s dance steps towards us in this process. First God creates, like that volcano flinging us off into creation, into God’s beingness. But the process of creation is necessarily also the process of separation. For God to create is necessarily for God to create something differentially other than God. Paradoxically, that means we are of God and not God at the same time. We experience that paradox throughout our lives in alternating moments of deepest communion and connection and painful moments of alienation and separation. But God does not leave us where we are. God comes to us to connect, or more precisely reconnect. And finally, God provides both the means and the method of return, drawing us back into communion with and in God’s own self. The persons of the Holy Trinity correspond not so much to three actions of God, but rather the three relational moves by God towards us. Trinity, which is the language of religion, provides the map to describe not so much who God is but rather our experience of who God is for us in our separation, embrace, and return, which is the essence of spirituality.

I realize this is all too abstract. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, of course I don’t really know what I am talking about. If I really knew what I was talking about it wouldn’t be God I was talking about! But I know from my own experience, scripture, and conversations with hundreds of people (both living and long dead thanks to their writings) that separation, embrace, and return are hard coded into human experience and this creation. We were made to long to return. And our longings will only be satisfied when we rest in the love and embrace of the one who made us so.
Brian

June 8, 2021

This past year, for the first time in American history, a majority of Americans (53%) reported not belonging to a religious community according to Gallup. While in person attendance is rebounding as Covid-19 restrictions lift, the church faces the more chronic challenge of the “spiritual but not religious.” Atheism remains steady at only 3-5%. What has changed are the increasing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” or “spiritual but unaffiliated” people who, while not atheists, do not identify with any particularly religious tradition. This trend cuts across generations and political affiliations.
I would like to spend a little time over the next few weeks reflecting on this shift and what it means.

“Religion” and “spirituality” are terms we use that we rarely consider. Often, we use them synonymously, and sometimes as antonyms, which can be confusing. By “religion” I mean the sum total of human responses to and understandings of the supernatural divine, which in my tradition I label “God.” By “spirituality” I mean my actual first-hand experiences of that divine, the ways I experience it, and its various consequences in my life. Religion is shared and trans-historical. Spirituality is rooted in individual experience and practice. Religion tells you all about what God is like and various well-established methods of encountering God. Spirituality is the experience itself and how it impacts one’s life. Religion provides structure and a container for experience. Spirituality is the content of the experience.

I like to think of the relationship between spirituality and religion as akin to the rigging of a sailboat. Sailing ships have two kinds of ropes: standing rigging and running rigging. Standing rigging are all the ropes that don’t move (hopefully). Standing rigging keeps the mast upright and rigid balancing other forces and keeping the whole system taut so that it can move. The running ropes raise and lower sails to capture the wind, maneuver the boat, and hopefully keep it on course. Both are necessary. Without standing rigging the mast would rip off with the first gust of wind and you would be left motionless. Without the running rigging sails would just flap in the wind and you would be left motionless. What you need is both the structure of the standing rigging, which is like religion, and the running rigging, which is like spirituality. Together they can take us places we never dreamt of.

Religion has gotten a bad name in recent years becoming synonymous with dogmatism, judgment, wearing uncomfortable clothes to church, and moralizing prudishness. Spirituality on the other hand is ascendant suggesting one has depth, but without religion’s judgmentalism or institutions. The problem is that you really cannot have either religion or spirituality without the other. Without spirituality, religion is simply desiccated dogmatics. Without religion, spirituality is simply a self-indulgent mind trip. We need them both, but perhaps not as they are often presented to us.
I remember feeling vaguely cheated by the church sometime in High School when I began to discover the great contemplative and wisdom traditions that run through Christian history like a golden thread. There has always been an experientially based form of Christianity populated by mystics, seers, visionaries, prophets, and sages, operating within the established forms of religion we call church. The problem was nobody ever told me about them in church. I needed to go outside the church to discover my most important guides and companions (like Meister Eckhart, Maximus the Confessor, John Cassian, Gregory of Palamas, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Bonaventure, Pseudo Dionysius, Jacob Boehme, Madame Guyon, Julian of Norwich, Edith Stein, John Ruysbreock, Thomas Merton, Eriugena, Simeon the New Theologian, Simone Weil, Blaise Pascal, and Simone Weil). A big part of my calling in ministry is to help you, if you are willing, to find your guides too.

The alternative danger is the potential for spirituality to collapse into narcissistic idolatry in which we simply worship ourselves. We are not the first people to experience spiritual hunger or inexplicable pain. Nor will we be the last. Hundreds of generations may have something useful to offer us about prayer. And some answers about God lead to very bad consequences. These resources are all the domain of religion that always transcends the personal subjective experiences and puts us in correspondences with other generations long past. For example, we use the ancient Nicene Creed not out of dogmatic devotion to the past, but because in the past they explored all the other formulations of the relationship between the divine and human in the person of Jesus and uncovered potentially dangerous consequences. They settled on this understanding that has been tested by a hundred generations. It would be the height of arrogance to throw away such field-tested wisdom simply for novelty or “authenticity” whatever that might be.

Fundamentally, I am spiritual and religious because I am human. I am spiritual because I keep having these odd moments of encounter with a mysterious something. I am also spiritual because the longing ache that I feel inside my being does not seem to be able to be filled by anything or anyone other than God. I am religious because I cannot trust myself to avoid self-deception, aggrandizement, misperception, and confusion. I need the accumulated treasure of wisdom to make sense of my experience. And I am religious because the story of the God and humanity shared in the Jewish and Christian holy books, especially the story of God becoming one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, helps me make sense of my experience, my life, and those odd moments of encounter. I also live in a culture that, however far it may have drifted and may be drifting, emerges from a distinctly Christian culture, theology, anthropology, and worldview. I cannot remove myself from Christian religious imagination any more than a fish can remove itself from the water. It shapes and has shaped not only who I am, but how I perceive and think.

My goals are simple. I want to know who I am and who I am supposed to be. I want to participate in the meaningfulness of creation itself and through that participation find meaning in my life. And finally, I want to find belonging in something more secure than anything in this world. I want to get lost in God. These are my hungers, my desires that drive my quest. Spirituality and religion are my tools that help me along the way.

Whether you know it or not, you are hungry too. Shall we go explore?
Brian

June 1, 2021

On Memorial Day, Americans remember the sacrifices of fallen members of the armed services by grilling assorted meats outdoors. It is a strange custom, and its strangeness reflected my own confusions. It is not Veterans’ Day, remembering those who have served. It is not Armed Forces Day, remembering those who are currently serving. It is not Independence Day, celebrating our nation. Originally known as Decoration Day, a day to clean and ornament the graves of those who died in the Civil War, it only became a national holiday and moved to the final Monday in May in 1971. But as fewer and fewer Americans serve in the armed forces and conflicts around the globe claim fewer and fewer service people, the day and its origins have seemed oddly removed from the experiences of so many. Memorial Day now functionally celebrates the unofficial beginning of summer, not the sacrifices of the dead.

On Memorial Day I tend to think about the dead. Not those who died after long life, but those whose lives and possibilities were cut short, those who never had time to become who they might have been haunt my imagination. Nothing interrupts God’s plans for human growth and transformation quite like war, humanity’s occasional tantrums of violence and destruction concealed under a veneer of policy, systematic violence to compel another to submit to our will. My curiosity lies less with war’s politics and its self-justification and more with the humanity of its victims.

My Great Great Great Grandfather John Maguire emigrated from Ireland during the Great Famine. Like many Irish immigrants, he labored on the Erie Canal. During the Civil War, he was drafted as the oldest member of the 65th New York Infantry Regiment. Eight months into his service, he died on the first day of the Battle of Chancellorsville, a battle that the United States Army lost. He left a widow and five young children. Beyond this, I know nothing about him. But I keep thinking about him. I wondered if he understood what the war was about. Did he give his “last full measure of devotion”? Or was he simply a statistic, another private remembered only in the casualty lists? After more than a century and a half, heroics, cowardice, and simple accident all fade out of view. I am left with merely a name and unanswerable questions.

My grandfather Earl did not storm the beaches of Okinawa during World War Two. He did not help raise the flag on Iwo Jima. A week or so before shipping out to the South Pacific, he fell from a repelling wall during exercises and broke his back. The medical science at the time could not heal him, only dull the pain. So, they gave him a lifetime supply of Demerol and a discharge. But the pain never went away. He was haunted by dreams of his friends who went and did not come back. He felt the weight of guilt that he did not join them as the pain of shame and the broken vertebrae fused together in his heart. He was a gentle man, harsh only towards himself. But the pain wore him down despite his efforts to numb it. At age 44 he succumbed to opiates and Bourbon, but he really died of a broken heart. I never met him, but on Memorial Day I think about Earl. He did not die fighting for his country, but he too lost something irretrievable in that war. He too paid a price beyond measure. He died long before I was born, but something in me so wants to tell him, its not your fault.

There are countless stories and countless people just like John and Earl. The vast majority have long been forgotten and even more never known at all. National cemeteries bear solemn but silent witness testifying only to names and dates. And even the grandest memorial will one day reduce to dust. My worry is not that those countless legions shall be forgotten, but (to steal a notion from Ellie Weisel) that the one will be forgotten in all his or her unique particularity, possibility, promise, and pain.

My hope in the resurrection is my hope for John and Earl and countless others, not that their sacrifice may be made meaningful, but rather be unmade, unnecessary, healed, and restored. We can honor and remember the dead, and that is good. But only God can make them live again, and that is better. On that day we will remember and grow beyond our memories, made all the more beautiful by our wounds. And perhaps on that day, I will finally embrace my grandfather for the first time. Brian

And God shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4

May 25, 2021

Church on Fire

I served as a transitional pastor in Northern Virginia in a vibrant, faithful congregation in a suburb of Washington D.C. The church was set in a heavily wooded area and the architecture of the church reflected the earthy, woodsy feeling surrounding the church. The interior of the church was designed with massive windows and skylights to allow the beauty of nature to flood into the church, especially the sanctuary. Beautifully sculptured rock walls, wooden beams, circular seating, and high ceilings created an open – almost retreat like – atmosphere as we worshiped together.

At the center of this inviting sanctuary was the communion table; a massive, round, handcrafted wooden table. Beautiful beyond description. Worshipers sat in half circles around the communion table and the pastors preached from the center of the worship space. It was a stunning place of worship.

Even more stunning were the paraments and banners which draped the sanctuary. Liturgically appropriate textures and colors and symbols were woven together by gifted artists from the community of faith, bringing splashes of color and textured art to the woodsy, earth tone sanctuary.

Pentecost, in particular, was one of the more visually stunning Sundays. The entire sanctuary was draped in flowing cloths of red, orange and yellow. And the communion table was covered with bright red silk cloths with red, orange, and yellow candles covering the entire wooden communion table. That sacred table looked like Pentecost morning with flames alight and the Holy Spirit rushing in like a roaring wind.

It was breathtaking…until it was not!

Halfway through the sermon on that Pentecost Sunday, one of the candles on the silk covering of the communion table flickered just a little too much and the silk material caught on fire! Few people noticed initially but soon the smell of smoke from the burning silk and the sight of tongues of fire quickly spreading on the communion table caught everyone’s attention.

In a matter of seconds, the Associate Pastor (who was not preaching) jumped up from her seat, ran to the back entrance of the sanctuary where the baptismal font stood filled with water, picked up the large, glass baptismal bowl, ran back to the flaming communion table, and dumped the water on the now glowing table, easily dousing the growing flames!

It was a Pentecost moment indeed! We were all so thankful that the beautiful wooden communion table did not catch on fire, and grateful for a quick thinking Associate Pastor! I wish I could say that there is a spiritual message behind this shocking moment in worship but the idea of the waters of baptism extinguishing the flames of the Holy Spirit doesn’t really preach!

We just celebrated a meaningful Pentecost Sunday together both in-person and live-streamed. I believe that the Holy Spirit is working in powerful and sometimes surprising ways in and through our Fairmont family as we navigate this new world of hybrid worship. We are grateful to each of you who are participating in such joyful and faithful ways as we greet each Sunday with anticipation and greet each other from afar!

I feel God’s Spirit with us in these days of trial and error. It is not easy to understand the mystery of the Holy Spirit but when I look back on the last fourteen months I have a clear and humbling sense of God’s Spirit that led us through one of the hardest years in the life of our church.

The Holy Spirit is often the least understood personality of the Trinity. We forget to listen for and be attentive to the voice of the Spirit. And yet, like our very own breathing, God’s Spirit is near us and within us and surrounding us. We have life and breath because of God’s Spirit. As we continue our faith journey together in these slowly changing days of pandemic, may we hear and see God’s Spirit with us, individually and especially as a church. May we be a church on fire.

Peace,

Pastor Kelley

May 18, 2021

What holds a people together—culture, politics, fear, hope, law, love? Phrased differently, what makes a crowd a community? What is its special sauce? In the past two hundred years or so, at least since 1848, the most common answers have been some combination of shared national origin, common history, language, and culture that we call nationalism. But there are other older answers.

The ancient Hebrews were special in that they knew they were not special. Their self-understanding was that they descended not from demigods, but slaves in bondage in Egypt. What made them “special” was nothing in their pedigree or resume, but simply being chosen by a rather curious deity that one of them bumped into in the deserts of Midian. In time, that quality of “chosenness” took theological form in the covenant and social form in the law, the Torah, that informed their relationship with their God and with each other. To this day, Jews celebrate that relationship fifty days after Passover with the festival of Shavuot, celebrating Moses receiving the law on Sinai.

Focusing on whose you are as opposed to who you are was a novel turn in human history. But there were still more surprises. Sometimes I think God must be a jazz musician, taking old themes and reworking them in endless new variations, improvising them into something altogether new and surprising. Fifty days after one particular Passover in they year 30 or 33 something very odd happened. The pilgrimage crowds gathered together in Jerusalem for Shavuot like they did every year, but something had changed. God had taken that notion of chosenness and bumped it up to a whole new level. God had moved in and spent several years showing us, not just telling us, how to be human and be alive in ways we could not have imagined. Humans really have a hard time with that kind of intimacy with the divine, so we killed him. But he would not stay dead. And after that quantum fluctuation in creation things started changing. The crowd in Jerusalem perhaps had heard the rumors, but they now found themselves as full participants. You can tell that Luke is at the limits of his vocabulary as he describes something like a powerful wind followed by energy sort of like fire dancing among the people. This crowd drawn from the far corners of the ancient world, speaking a dozen or so languages, all began to understand each other as they experienced the gift of mutual comprehension. God was making a new community all over again.

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which sounds awfully churchy until you consider it functionally. The Holy Spirit is that power, potentiality, and potency that connects, relates, translates, informs, and binds together. The Spirit is not just the connector, but the connection itself between you and me and all of us and God. And right now, we are in rather urgent need of that mutual comprehension and connection. Emerging from our Covid lairs we are a rather prickly people right now. Feelings are raw and opinions abound with fury. Such an environment is not conducive to participating in the Spirit. So, I would like to make a modest proposal that may both heal some of our connections and be the means through which the Holy Spirit may come into our lives.

First, listen. Always listen first with ears directed outward in compassion rather than judgment or even thinking of what we want to say next. Let us set aside the complexities of politics and public health policy for the time. Instead, when you talk to someone ask them about something that brought them joy this week, what was something beautiful they beheld, what is one dream that they have, ask about their family, what is one question that they would so want answered, what is one thing that they would like to be known for, how do they show love to other people, how do they want to be loved, and that is just the warm up. Where have they felt pain in the past year? What have they lost? How, if at all, have they been able to honor their grief? What are they afraid of? How does that fear impact their life? What wounds do they carry that have never healed, just become a part of them? And then, what do they hope for the future? What might fulfill them? What would give them a sense of purpose, meaning, and value? These are just some of the questions that actually permit us to connect, to understand, to hold each other in mutual compassion, and, according to Jesus, begin to heal our wounds.

The Holy Spirit is not a neutral mindless force to be channeled. It/He/She is a person (technically speaking a hypostasis, don’t worry about it) who comes like all persons when invited, sneaking in where least resisted. And it settles whenever and wherever people connect, relate, and bond together just as it did in Jerusalem long ago. Invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit is not an esoteric mystery; it is the disciplined practice of love. And love is special sauce that God uses to hold us together with God and each other

May 11, 2021

The least recognized, most forgotten annual celebration in the church calendar is Ascension. In case you were not paying attention, it falls on this Thursday. On Easter Jesus rose from the dead and on Ascension he left. It comes as something of an anticlimax. Objectively, the only thing that Ascension tells us is that Jesus is not here. But we knew that already. So, let’s move on to Pentecost next week.

Except the thing that keeps niggling at me is what if Ascension, while it may not seem very important to us, might be important to God? We always assume that Jesus’ life and work is about us, but maybe we’re not the center of it all. What if Ascension is not about us, but about God? What if Ascension points to a deep change that we tend to ignore: a change in God.

Scripture and our creeds make a scandalous claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and then ascended bodily to God. We have a nasty habit of forgetting about bodies, both Jesus’ and ours. We much prefer a purely and conveniently divine Jesus. We like to imagine Jesus as radiant spirit emanating love. We tend to forget about his dandruff, wrinkles, BO, receding hairline, bad breath, and probably a fair number of parasites (which gives life in Christ a whole new meaning). No First Century Palestinian peasant reaching the then advanced age of 33 or so would have avoided those things. We tend to leave those things in the tomb like a forgotten husk of Jesus’ rather embarrassing humanity, something to be disposed of in the resurrection.

As Protestants we also tend to forget that we don’t merely have bodies, we are bodies. Even worse, we begin to eagerly anticipate disposing of our bodies, hoping for a day to come when God will free us from all their inconvenient messiness. We forget that God created us as embodied creatures not just disembodied spirits living inside of sophisticated bio-mechanical suits. We forget that God promises to resurrect us as, not merely in, new and improved bodies, a new humanity in a new creation. A human being without a body is simply not a human being, not now, not ever.

Every week we recite the ancient words: “He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the father almighty.” That’s not just pretty language, it is making a central claim about God. Whatever was human about Jesus, his messy, complex, conflicted, humanness, warts and neuroses, corns on his toe, a funny laugh, wrinkled hands, a love of wood-working and words, stubbed toes, a wee bit of impatience, bad breath, BO, and a fondness for wandering off by himself from time to time, all of that, the whole untidy package of really truly being a embodied human being not as an abstraction but in the flesh with all its faults and problems is now lifted up, embraced, and made an integrated part of the very life and character of God. The Ascension shouts down the centuries that Jesus’ incarnation does not end in the resurrection nor does it end in the Ascension. Jesus’ humanity does not end, period. It is who Jesus is today and for all eternity. From Ascension and for eternity being human is now a part of God’s own life in Trinity.

We affirm that God is all knowing, omniscient. That means that God knows all the facts of creation, God’s handiwork. God knows space and time and dimension and what you may be thinking at this very moment, but that is all God’s knowledge of facts and things and events like a divinely upgraded Wikipedia. I have no doubt that God knows the precise location of every electron in an upper atmospheric electromagnetic disturbance, God sees the quantum fluctuations giving rise to a plasma cascade as currents of positive and negative electrons reach out and dance with each other, a stunning phenomenon of subtle complexity we call lightning. But what God did not know, indeed what God the all-powerful and all-knowing could not know is what it feels like to be a little boy at home pulling his security blanket over his ears because he does not understand any of this and the thunder and the lightning terrify him. Knowing what that feels like is an altogether different kind of knowing, you can only get from the inside. You can only get that kind of knowing in the flesh.

Our flesh and our bones, our muscles and tendons have memory and understanding deeper than words. If it were not so anyone could simply read a book and become a major league pitcher. Our whole lives are experienced in and through bodies so in order to really understand what it is like for a human to be a human the only way to do it is in the flesh. The incarnation in Bethlehem means that God now knows us as we truly are. The Ascension means that knowledge is now forever a part of who God is.

In Ascension God knows us as one of us, not who we say we are, not who we wish we could be, but the messy and hopeful reality we truly are. The Good news of Ascension is that not despite, but because of this, God loves you in the flesh, and perhaps loves us all the more.
Brian

May 4, 2021

You know that your day is too busy when what you most look forward to is the opportunity for a bathroom break. Busyness, the relentless density of attention, lacks any moment for consideration, evaluation, or context. And yet the responsibilities of duty and performance require that one somehow undertake or at least simulate all those functions for prudent decision making. Right now, we live in a dual minded fuzz where we are endlessly active, but never fully and completely engaged. This static state of anxious attention is often celebrated as the fugue state of multitasking, attending to somehow everything and nothing at the same moment. At least the long-delayed bathroom break provided a moment of focused attention.

What struck me today was what happens when the busyness ends. As I drove home, mission critical tasks completed, I wanted to feel relaxation, satisfaction, perhaps a certain relief. Instead, I felt nothing. Not nothing like I cannot tell what I am feeling, rather nothing as the affirmative absence of all emotion, interest, and intention. A few months ago, I wrote about acedia that missing deadly sin, the noonday demon, the dreary lack of interest in life and everything in it. Medieval monks knew that it was perhaps the most insidious of all the spiritual dangers. French existentialists coined the marvelous term ennui to capture its essence: a weary feeling of listlessness and vague dissatisfaction lacking any particular absence. Today I heard a far less exotic term to describe the same notion: languishing. Languishing is not depression. Depression incapacitates. Languishing permits one to splendidly perform all our necessary daily functions, albeit without much flourish, but deprives one of meaning, satisfaction, or delight in them. Languishing is neither a mental illness nor characteristic of mental health. It is instead an all-to-common stagnation lying along the frontier between flourishing and failure where we simply get by.

I have a vague sense that I should not feel this way. “Should” and “feel” are two words best widely distanced from each other. We feel what we feel and right now a lot of people are feeling languishing. I somehow expected that receiving a vaccine would transform my emotional landscape from “meh” to “whee”, but it did not (the onion rings helped). After my arm reverted from crimson to its normal pinkish pale, I felt nothing. And so report many of you. The initial panic of the pandemic crisis is over and most of us avoided the poignant pangs of grief. I finally threw away the frozen ground beef I hoarded in March 2020. But things still do not feel quite right, or at least I do not feel quite right.

Languishing is one spiritual condition for which the contemplative practices of prayer seem ill suited. What I need is not more time rummaging around inside my consciousness, but a way out of it. When it strikes, my first response is to reset my brain. I sleep, perchance to dream. But when that does not work, which is often, then I seek out direct sensory stimulation. I go somewhere. I do something. Whether walking around the forest or the home furnishings at Target, any new stimulus helps to get me out of my head. The hard part is motivating myself to seek it. The best solution of all is to simply lose oneself in pleasure, where time begins to get lost. Many extol the joys of creating art in all its forms. Being rather more banal, I sing the praises of Netflix binge watching or marathon PS4 sessions where I emotionally bond with the characters (I particularly recommend the Queen’s Gambit and Mass Effect Legendary Edition respectively). They are not themselves joy, but they feel like an indulgent retaliation against the malaise.

I know that we were not made for languishing, but for flow. At the very center of our faith is the notion that God is flow that we call Trinity. And the trick to participate in flow is to get unstuck from our attachments, attachments that this pandemic has made very sticky indeed. Just remember, it is not you. It is the moment we are in. This too will pass. “Whee” is still out there and will take you out onto the dance floor again.

Brian

April 27, 2021

Failure. The mere utterance of the term causes one to instinctively assume a defensive emotional crouch. Failure is often deceptively subjective. As the absence or lack of success, it requires us to clearly understand success. But sometimes failure is clear, convincing, and decidedly public. On Sunday we had a failure in worship. Our internet upload speed started gyrating wildly and then began sinking from 1000 megabytes per second to 100 and then to ten as Lorelai watched helplessly and I watched Lorelai while trying to focus on my sermon, which in that moment may or may not have been livestreamed. And then it hit zero. We were off the internet and for a livestreamed worship service, off the internet is sort of the definition of failure.

Failure goes through a progression of moods much like grief. First there is curiosity about what is, or more precisely is not, happening. Then comes denial–certainly this cannot be correct, the speed test must be wrong. Then comes anger—what the &%*#G@$%! But eventually, and this the least pleasant part, that anger turns inward as a clammy cold feeling begins to creep across your awareness that this is indeed happening and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to stop it. Failure is usually served with a chaser of shame that tastes vaguely of cold iron and vomit.

Of course, failure can be the great teacher. In the past 48 hours we have learned more about network topology than we ever wanted to know. We have locked down, metered, restricted, and unencumbered devices and IP addresses like never before and all before May 16 and a live congregation in the sanctuary. Failure does not merely provoke us to learn, it can teach us the right questions to ask.

But what interests me is not so much the adaptive problem-solving benefits of failure but its subjective feelings and what they say about us. And the first thing they say is that I would desperately prefer any other instructor to failure. I nod along with Otto Von Bismarck, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” That view presumes an encyclopedic knowledge of analogous circumstances and solutions. Moreover, it presumes that I understand the precise nature of the problem or predicament when usually my awareness is limited to, hunh this is not working.

Humility then is failure’s first gift. If it keeps on giving it can become shame, but humility itself is just the regular reminder of our limitations, which is no bad thing. Humility and shame diverge at the emotional fork separating “this thing just happened and went really wrong,” from, “this thing just happened and I am wrong.” Failure then forces us to decide if we want to descend into self-recrimination and despair or simply acknowledge our humanness. The ultimate failure in failing is to misidentify or mischaracterize our selves.

Failure’s second gift is to force us to examine ourselves and our worth. The ancient Greeks, as well as Facebook, Linked In, and every ferociously meritocratic society that has ever existed, grounds human value, worth, and identity in excellence. The Greeks called it Areté/excellence and expounded upon it in their literature, illustrated it in their art, incarnated it in their athletics, and personified it in their Gods. Failure is the opposite of excellence. But it can lead us to seek out other foundations of human identity and worth. The ancient Israelites and then the early church, who themselves were often misfit drop-outs from Greek culture, grounded their identity not in achievement, but in relationships with God and one another. Prepositions matter a great deal to theology because they define relationships. Christianity is all about belonging in, to, and through, never over, against, or above. Failure scours away all our proud pretenses to excellence and forces us to confront the simple but often destabilizing truth that my ego, my identity, and my worth are really nothing apart from how, with, and in whom I belong.

Failure then can be like the little bottle that Alice found labelled, “drink me.” She was concerned that it might be poison, but it did not say poison or smell like poison. Instead, it tasted of “cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,” at least so described by Lewis Carrol. Drinking it did not hurt her, it allowed her to discover a whole new world, Wonderland, and in doing so discover her own hidden strengths and the depths of her own character.

Failure, if we do not hide from it or corrupt it into shame can not only teach us new things about the world, it can teach us new things about ourselves. And if along the way it justifies an upgrade to your internet router, all to the better.
Brian

April 20, 2021

Endings are messy. It is hard to say precisely when something ends, doubly so if the endings involve human beings. Many are asking when, if ever the Covid-19 pandemic will end. The answer of course is, it depends. It depends on what you mean by “end.”

Very few epidemics have ever ended in the biological sense. The 1919 influenza epidemic simply mutated, partly through chance and partly through natural selection, into a virus much less likely to kill its host. The descendants of those viruses are still contentedly residing in our sinus cavities us every flu season still infecting and sometimes killing thousands of people every year. Yersinia Pestis, the bacterium that causes Bubonic Plague (aka the Black Death) is still endemic among prairie dogs in the American Southwest (please do not pet prairie dogs) and kills a few people every year. Indeed, the only pandemic that ever really ended in the biological sense is smallpox, which is believed to be extinct in human beings. But that feat took a concerted worldwide vaccination effort that started in 1796 and is still ongoing. Polio is getting close to extinction, but still shows disturbing flareups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The other way epidemics end is socially. We simply reach some critical number of people who agree that the crisis is over and any risks or threats are now sustainable. This is the far more usual way epidemics end. How that gets decided, who bears the risks, and who incurs the costs is all left rather fuzzy. But at some point, people’s desires to live without restrictions exceed some combination of concerns for their own health and that of others. Often some politician wishing to sound victorious will declare victory. Unfortunately, society growing bored with a disease does not mean that a disease has grown bored with human beings. So, we slowly accumulate problems we are simply resigned to endure.

Human beings are not known for our diligence. We much prefer quick fixes and fulfilling our short-term desires over long-term needs, especially those of future generations. So, our problems tend to stick around. Influenza is still contentedly with us, and so too are a far vaster scope of social maladies—racism, patriarchy, anti-Semitism, classicism, violence, environmental degradation, poverty, et cetera. They slowly devolve from being problems to be solved into the annoying background buzz of life together. It is simply presumed that they have always been with us and will always be with us as we shrug and mumble something about human nature.

But what if getting “back to normal” was not the goal? What if fulfilling our desires as much as we can as quickly as we can was not the measure of human life, societal progress, and ultimate value? What if there was a more excellent way?

It all rather depends on what you mean by “end.” If your frame of reference is only the solitary, material, individual human life, perhaps your own, then muddling through while maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain may be the optimal strategy, but try zooming out. What if what matters is not so much me, but we and not simply those of us privileged to be alive at this moment, but everyone who has ever or will ever live? Over the vast scale of centuries, small incremental improvements make a huge difference. Over the widest of scopes, what matters is the overall pattern of adaptation, growth, and transformation.

One thing that proper religion does for human beings is reset the focal length of our perception. We are all little people in a big world, incurably overestimating our own importance and agency. We have very little opportunity to change the world, let alone the cosmos. In a few years or a few centuries, we are forgotten and our works turn to dust. The only thing we have any real agency over are ourselves and our relationships. If we are ever going to do anything of lasting utility or merit it will happen there and there alone. And curiously, if the old hope is true, then our work on and through ourselves endures in ways that our craft and cunning cannot. If the “I” does not end, but somehow becomes interwoven into “Thou,” then the transformation of the human heart and mind is the most enduring, efficacious, and productive work of all.

I really do not want to “get back to normal” if that means simply returning to the pattern of life circa February 2020. We have all been given the rare gift of immediately feeling our mutual vulnerability and the silent time to fully consider it. That gift is the necessary precursor to an epidemic of empathy that could change the world and humanity forever. I suspect we will opt for the easy social solution, shrug our shoulders, mutter something about the way the world is, and simply declare it all over as a matter of convenience.

But if time and this world do have an end and a purpose, flying like an arrow towards a destination and not simply revolving in a repetitive circle, then what we do next matters. What we say matters. How we care for each other matters. How we love matters. How we grow matters. And I rather suspect that God, disappointed a million times over, is still watching expectantly with the most irrational of hopes to see what we do next.
Brian

April 13, 2021

It was the most ordinary of epiphanies: a stack of onion rings. After 12 months, three weeks and four days of eating our own cooking, I found myself oddly moved and perhaps a bit uneasy, as if engaged in something slightly illicit or unfamiliar, eating dinner inside a restaurant on Easter night with Lisa beginning with a glorious tower of onion rings. Having recently received my second vaccination shot, I knew that that dining inside a restaurant was safe, but I had not done it in a long time. What I felt was not so much fear as it was uncertainty borne of novelty. They were, without doubt, the finest onion rings I have ever or probably will ever taste. Spiritual signs of renewal and hope seldom come with more calories of saturated fat. They tasted new.

What was once instinctive and familiar in February 2020 has now sunk deep into the realm of fading memory. As once forbidden places and experiences are opening to larger numbers, I am a newcomer again. How exactly does one act in a restaurant and how do we handle salt shakers? As we move back together as a community in various ways over the coming weeks, we need to recognize that we will all be newcomers again. How did we pray together here? How do we communicate? How do we work together? This realization that we are all newcomers again sparked my curiosity about how the next weeks and months will unfold. What will it mean if “our pew” is roped off to maintain separation between worshippers? How will I feel receiving the body of Christ in a tidy, individually sealed wrapper resembling a eucharistic Oscar Myer Lunchable? Some old patterns and habits of sharing space together will quickly return. Some will not be possible, advisable, or prudent. Some will be modified. And as we navigate being newcomers together, we will collectively redefine who we are as a community.

Over the course of a year there have been a million joys, griefs, stories, and questions that went unspoken and unshared. We are all, to varying degrees, partial strangers again. While this is a challenge and will be the source of awkward moments (if ever there was a time to wear nametags it is now!) it is also a source for potential renewal and transformation. Newcomers are the ones who cross-pollinate congregations bringing life sustaining energies of possibility, vision, and leadership unchained from the drowsy dogmas of, “we’ve never done it that way before.” Newcomers are the ones who ask the important questions that no one else is brave enough to ask. Newcomers somehow sense our foundations in faith, mutual love, service, and openness, which is what attracted them in the first place, but seek to be seen and appreciated for their own unique identities and contributions to the whole. And when we return, we will all be newcomers.

So, to the new congregation of Fairmont, because although your names may not have changed your lives have, please ponder with me, your newly called pastor, some of the novel questions given to us in this season of rebirth. What have we done in response to the pandemic that is powerfully impactful in people’s lives and why? How can we do that and maybe more of it? What were we doing in February 2020 that we have not done in the past year that has not been missed? What may be required to let those things lie fallow? What new strengths have we discovered this year? What new joys have we discovered? How can we sustain those things? Finally, what new opportunities and challenges have we recognized that we need to address? All these questions are important to every congregation, business, organization, family, and individual right now. And please notice what I am not asking. Do not ask what is next because the short term abounds in more uncertainty than ever before. A wise person does not have answers to the unknowable.

Somewhere out there, some of you have been pondering these things too. The answers will unfold in a thousand casual and formal ways over the coming weeks and months. Collectively they will provide the pattern for our ministry and our lives for years to come. What I need for you to do most of all is share. Share with me. Share with others. Ponder together who we are becoming and how we are changing because this work is rarely done well alone. And if the Spirit plants a truly outrageous, disruptive, beautiful idea in your imagination, please give me a call and let’s meet to talk about it. I will buy the onion rings. Brian

April 6, 2021

“And when the all shall cease to be,
in dread lone splendor He shall reign.
He was, He is, He shall remain in glorious eternity.”

I come often to this beautiful verse from the Jewish Union Prayer Book. Wars and rumors of wars, death and darkness, the pandemic, evil embodied in hateful acts and speech, the slow corroding of our precious earth – all these things weigh heavily upon us, and we understand our deep longing for Easter in a very visceral way.

Easter morning felt especially joyful this past Sunday as we gathered for our outdoor, in-person sunrise service in the church parking lot. Almost seventy people attended our sunrise service and I do believe that over half of them were in tears, so happy were they to finally worship together in-person after this long pandemic year. Joy has a way of surprising us and seeping into our world-weary bodies, often through unexpected tears. It truly was a “sunrise” service even at the late hour of 8:30 a.m. as the sun slowly rose over the eastern side of the church building and flooded the eyes of those gathered in the church parking lot. It was a glorious morning in so many ways, and the glimpse of hope that we needed as we slowly and mindfully prepare to reopen our indoor, in-person worship services in the coming weeks.

Together we proclaim that “Christ is risen” and we are no longer without hope. The One who “was and is and shall remain in glorious eternity” is here with us, always. Easter has come just when we thought we could endure death no more. Hope has come just when we thought we could endure despair no more.

In one of the churches I served in Virginia, church members greeted the Easter morning with two things in hand: flowers for decorating the large wooden cross in the church courtyard and bells for worship. During Easter morning worship, parishioners would ring their bells whenever the pastor or worship leaders proclaimed the words, “Christ is risen!” It was a glorious morning of smells and bells!

As we make our way through this rather convoluted fog of how we reopen, all the while keeping everyone safe and not contributing to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, I wonder if we could find an Easter tradition or a simple Easter practice like ringing a bell or picking a flower or singing a song or saying a prayer that will help us keep our focus on resurrection hope? Even with the increased number of vaccinations and fewer cases of COVID-19, anxiety seems to be getting the best of us!

We are Easter People! We must hold on to the hope we have in the resurrected Christ, especially during difficult times such as these. May this season of Easter bring a renewed sense of joy and patience and strength as we journey on through these strange days.

Peace,

Pastor Kelley

March 30, 2021

It was fear that killed Him.

Fear is the problem. Fear is always the problem. That is why Jesus’ most common instruction is, “Don’t be afraid.” Fear is not an emotion so much as it is an alien force that seeks admittance into our emotions, will, and reason and, when implanted, begins to replicate itself like a virus displacing values, wisdom, logic, and love. Fear is ubiquitous touching every human life with its insidious intrusion corrupting our egos, relationships, politics, religion, and culture. Frustratingly, it evades all our direct efforts to contain it. All we seem able to do, and then only sometimes, is face it and pass through it.

The crowd in Jerusalem was afraid that He had betrayed them. He was not the Messiah they expected or wanted. They were afraid of having their hopes denied and their yearning for liberation mocked by anyone who claimed to be Messiah who would not throw out the Romans and restore Judah to its once, imagined, glorious past. So they abandoned Him and sided with the zealots who, if not promising freedom, at least honored their grief and grievances.

The scribes and the priests were afraid that He either might be right or someone might believe He was right. He turned on the Temple and its officials, calling them a brood of vipers. He made a ruckus in the court of the gentiles and disturbed their lucrative business operations calling them something worse than robbers. He compared them to bandits who plundered the pilgrims on their sacred journey. And to make matters worse, He himself seemed to have no interest in the work of the temple. He seemed to have something altogether different in mind to reconcile the people with their God.

The High Priest was afraid of politics and who might get killed by it. Caiaphas feared the potential disintegration of law and order and the respect for institutions that He insinuated. Caiaphas’ position was never particularly secure, always one wrongly priced bribe away from exile, or worse. More charitably, he feared from what might happen if this carpenter and his message caught on. Those crowds on Sunday holding up palm branches knew exactly what He was doing. And so did the Romans. Kings of the Jews, claimed, feigned, or otherwise tended to get a lot of people killed. Perhaps it is best to take care of the problem sooner rather than later.

Pilate was afraid because of the inherent weakness in his position. A mid-level colonial bureaucrat, he kept one eye on his patrons and their dangerous game of thrones in Rome and another on his boss, the demanding and avaricious Governor of Syria. In theory, he had almost unlimited power over Judea. In practice it rarely extended far beyond his court. With only about 3000 half-trained auxiliary troops of dubious loyalty to govern the entire nation, he did what he could to keep order. But if things got out of hand, inquiries from the Senate would soon follow and shortly thereafter a new Prefect. So every year he dutifully marched up to Jerusalem with reinforcements during the Passover hoping things would not get out of hand. Messiahs were the last thing he wanted.

I should not judge any of them too harshly. They were all just being very . . . human. We want what we can see and touch and control. Even if it is not very much, letting go of control is even scarier. So we create all our systems, rituals, and habits of thought to maintain that predictability and control. Among those systems is religion to regulate divine/human relations on our terms. But what if some day God actually did show up, in person? Would I be able to let go of everything, absolutely everything I ever knew or thought I knew?

The hard, unsettling question of Holy Week for me is not how could those people back then do what they did. The hard, unsettling question of Holy Week is facing my own fear and in its bitter reflection asking myself whether I too would to seek to escape it or walk through it to find Him on the other side?

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

Johann Heerman, Ah Holy Jesus

March 23, 2021

In the spring of 1993, a seminary friend and I hiked the San Juan Mountains out of Durango, Colorado to the Continental Divide, an elevation of 14,000 feet. I had hiked many mountain trails in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northern New Mexico and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California but had never hiked a backpacking trip of this degree before. It was both challenging and rewarding to hike this beautiful trail with the spring rains, muddy paths, and the steady elevation gain, so I felt most proud when we finally reached the Wolf Creek Pass of the Continental Divide.

There were many wonderful surprises on this backpacking trip – the sheer beauty of the mountains, the aspen trees, the clear water of the mountain streams and lakes – but one of the biggest surprises was the return trip back down the mountain. I naively thought that the climb up the mountain was the most difficult part of the trip and that the hike back down the mountain would be easy as pie. I clearly was wrong! It takes an entirely different set of muscles and immense physical strength to carry a weighted backpack down many curvy, steep miles of rocky paths strewn with tree roots and mud puddles. By the time we reached the bottom of the trail we were exhausted! But there was one more surprise in store for us before we reached the end.

The small mountain stream we had easily crossed on our way up the mountain had become a raging river with the spring rains that had accompanied our trip. As exhausted as we were, we now had to safely cross a swiftly moving river with water up to our waists and backpacks on our back. It was one of the most exhilarating and frightening moments of my life!

The majority of injuries and deaths which occur during climbing expeditions and backpacking trips happen the second half of the trip during the descent of the mountain when hikers and climbers are most tired and believe that the hardest part is over. Even the most experienced hikers and climbers get caught off guard by the sheer strength and concentration it takes to descend a mountain.

We, by the grace of God, are on the return trip – the descent – of the mountain; a mountain called Pandemic. Our ascent up this Pandemic Mountain this past year was very difficult but we, hopefully, have reached the top now with the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccinations and we are finally on our descent back down the mountain to home.

But we must remember that the descent is just as difficult as the ascent, only a different kind of difficult. In order to safely reach the end of this pandemic we must use the muscles of patience, persistence, and compassion even when we think we are almost to the bottom of the mountain. We must be wise in our steps and intentional in our journey as we come to the stream at the bottom of the mountain which now looks very different than it did when we went up the mountain.

As the Fairmont session and staff are mindfully making plans for when we will be together again in-person for worship and ministry, my prayer is that we will stay strong for this last part of this journey and safely cross that river.

Blessings and love,

Pastor Kelley

March 16, 2021

Human beings do not like complexity. We prefer to keep things simple: yes-no, up-down, right-left. We tend to reduce questions to binary decisions because most of us can effectively evaluate only two things at once and then only in relation to each other. This simplification allows us to make decisions very quickly. Unfortunately, it also allows us to make decisions very wrongly.

The morning news reported that up to 36 people in Europe had died of blood clots after receiving the Astra Zeneca vaccine. So, various national governments decided blood clots bad, no blood clots good, and suspended the use of the vaccine. It was only later in the day that some public health experts pointed out that out that if you picked 17 million random older Europeans, like the number vaccinated, a similar number would have developed blood clots regardless. We confuse correlations with causations and simplify causation to one cause and one effect. And that habit can get us into messes. Today millions of people in Europe are not going to be vaccinated because of knee jerk reactions of fear that fail to consider all the facts.

Closing down our church last March was dramatic, but simple. On March 12, 2020 people came to church. On March 13, 2020 people stopped physically coming to church. We went from open to closed, a simple binary decision. Now however, we are dealing every day with a multivariable, interconnected, complex process in which each decision is linked to other decisions and we never have enough information to validate them all.

The question is not whether we reopen. Of course, we are reopening! The question is how are we reopening in what ways and under what conditions and how do those decisions in turn impact other decisions? That is a wee bit more complicated. Everyone has different values, preferences, opinions, and sources of information that inform their views. That makes consensus building challenging. For example, many of our older adults are vaccinated and want to get back to worship. But none of our younger families or staff are fully vaccinated yet. How do we balance those preferences and different conditions? There is no obvious answer. And “return to worship” means different things to different people: which service, with music or without, with fellowship or without, and at the same time or different? And hovering above all these questions is the matter of our online worship that now draws in more than a hundred or so more people than we had in person before the pandemic. How do we include those worshippers meaningfully into the life of Fairmont?

I am better with questions than answers, especially right now when hard data is in short supply and opinions abound. These sorts of challenges are ripe for potential conflict as we talk past each other while advancing our own preferences. The next month or two will be bumpy for us as community, as families, and as a church as we sort all this out.

I have a couple of reminders that may help with this. First, humility is always a good place to start. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 11:2. None of us has all the answers and a willingness to be open and learn from others will not only strengthen our own decision making, it might just cement some friendships along the way. Listening before speaking, and then asking clarifying questions to understand better where someone is coming from is always advised.

Second, flexibility is a sign of wisdom. When facts change our opinions should change to reflect them. There is no manual on how to emerge from a pandemic. Everyone is making this up as best they can. And most decisions are reversible if they later prove wrong, so the stakes are lower. We can actually make wiser decisions when we share what we know. “Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Proverbs 13:10.

Third, always assume good will. Most people, most of the time, absent undue stressors, try to do the right thing for the right reason. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:5-6.

Fourth, do not ever assume that things will be like they have always been before because we do not live in the past. The circumstance of our world and the context of the ministry to which Jesus calls us have changed. Those changed circumstances may require changes in our approach. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” Ecclesiastes 7:10. To ignore change is simply obstinate pride that is neither right nor safe.

Last March we shut down and quickly innovated to provide a new sort of ministry at Fairmont. Now we are building something new, the outline of which is not yet quite in focus. This process will be sometimes complicated and sometimes confusing. But we will do it together. God is nudging us towards participating in the next chapter of the Gospel in our world. It may sometimes be difficult, but the next few months and years will be an exciting time to be a part of Christ’s church. Hold on for the ride!
Brian

March 9, 2021

One year later.

One year ago, Ohio announced its first case of the then novel Covid-19 infection. One year ago, Fairmont migrated all our worship, programs, and ministries on line, an environment where we had never operated before. One year ago, we huddled around public health news conferences (thank you Dr. Acton!) nervous, uncertain, and trying the best we could to improvise while seeking out toilet paper.

One year. It seemed like such a long time passing, yet such a short time passed. Absent the familiar seasonal rituals, we lost track of too many things, milestones, memories, and the people who departed from us along the way. It is hard for us to wrap our mind around a half million deaths, harder still for our hearts to touch that mountain of pain. So, we assumed a slightly numbed shuffle through our days. Initial panic-empowered heroics gave way steadily into stoic resolve slowly eroded by boredom into a numb sense of powerlessness and general annoyance at fate, others, and ourselves. We have seen the very best in humanity give way to the banality of selfishness as the calendar flipped through the three hundred days of March.

At the church, we learned more and changed more in the decade of 2020 than any in our now seventy-five-year history. We now reach more people and connect more people than we have in decades using new tools for ministry, but it often feels a bit flat. A camera lens offers little emotional recognition. And along the way we started sharing with you directly, here in these little Tuesday tidings. You can probably trace my own ups and downs in the highly variable quality of the work. While esteemed or execrable, they have all been honest and have provided us an opportunity to share our experiences in this time directly with you. Thank you for being such gracious readers. We do plan on keeping this up. Now, more than ever, is a time to be honest in our sharing, especially those things that we prefer to hide away. What matters is connection, whether that be in the closest embrace or the furthest exchange of IP packets through countless miles of gossamer glass filament.

So, what happens next? I don’t know exactly.

As more people are vaccinated, we will gradually, step-by-step, resume many of our familiar patterns of gathering together. It will be confusing and we will no doubt make mistakes and correct them along the way. No church has ever done this before so there is no plan. Instead, we improvise like jazz musicians to ancient tunes that establish the foundations of everything we do: hospitality, hope, faith, and love, most of all love. Humbled, but unbroken, we do not return so much as adapt our task to the world as we now find it. The world has changed; we have changed; but God has not. How and where and when we do church have changed. That we do church, why we do church, and for whom we do church, are eternal. The next few months and years will be critical as we turn to the world to which God has sent us today using the tools of ministry for our age. It is an exciting time to be the church together.

And so, we begin . . .

Brian

P.S. And of course . . . there will be puppets!

March 2, 2021

For once there is good news to report. Rates of Covid-19 positive tests, deaths, and hospital admissions are plummeting. And there is even better news that an ever-growing population have now been vaccinated against infection. The speed with which the vaccine has been developed has been nothing short of astonishing and demonstrates some of the very best that people can do when we cooperate towards a common goal.

But there is a problem or problems. They are not with the vaccine or even its distribution (bureaucratically encumbered as that may be). The problems unfold in our relationships and our feelings and may take longer to recover than our immune systems.
For the past year we have been largely separated and apart from each other. It is hard to read body language and emotional nuance over Zoom and FaceTime. Our bonds of shared amity, left unattended, have frayed. Lacking those subtle cues, we are left with our own assumptions, presumptions, and deductions, which are always dangerous in any relationship.

Humans struggle with cognitive flaw called confirmation bias. It simply means that we judge the validity of new ideas, observations, and perceptions on the ease with which they fit in and confirm our old ideas, observations, and perceptions. Confirmation bias creates cognitive blind spots where we can fail to notice something genuinely new when it does not fit with what we expect.

Confirmation bias is a particular problem for our relationships. We respond to what we think people are saying rather than what they have actually said. We project motives, intentions, and feelings onto people without confirming whether they are valid. This misperception can create vast misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and ruptured relationships.

Slowly emerging from quarantine, we have been inside our own heads for a long time. It is going to take a lot of time, patience, and keen attention to others in order to actually hear one another again. Some simple methods to make this easier will be to let go of our compulsive need to be formulating our responses while someone is still speaking, asking curious clarifying questions of others, and completely focused listening attending not merely to what someone is saying, but how she or he is saying it. Most of all we need to be wary of answering the imponderable “why” questions without asking others directly about their concerns. Most people are happy to tell you why they think a certain thing or behave a certain way if only asked.

I bumped into a pastor acquaintance today who was recently vaccinated for Covid-19. She explained that several members of her church were heard grumbling that she “jumped the line.” What I knew, but they did not, was that this pastor had recently undergone cancer treatments but kept her condition private. I could see her genuine anguish knowing that she was being judged for alleged misconduct that she did not commit. Her parishioners presumed their worst assumptions and projected them onto her and it undermined their relationship. Relatedly, I grew rather annoyed waiting in line at the post office. An older man in front of me in line was not wearing a mask. In my moral indignation I composed several unflattering portraits of this narcistic oaf. Only when he rounded the waiting line post did I notice the small back bag hanging from his shoulder, a small but recognizable oxygen concentrator. My moral indignation dissolved into embarrassment tinged with guilt.

Confirmation bias presents a deeper problem because it grounds our perception of reality in the foundation of our own egos. One of the catchiest mottos of medieval theology and certainly the most fun to say was, “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.” It literally means “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” We do not see the world or others as they really are. We see them as we are. This misperception always keeps us separated from others no matter how much we may love them. You can know all sorts of things about a person, but still never really know them.

God can get around all these potential issues with the miraculous expedient of the incarnation. But for us it takes more work. It requires curiosity and the attentive emotional imagination we call empathy. I cannot feel what you feel or walk in your shoes, but I can learn from you about your experience by asking and then imagining. Right now, our whole society needs an empathy stimulus program perhaps more than a financial one. Our relationships, both individual and communal, need us to be sharing, showing, and even showering compassion and empathy on each other as never before.

The work of redemption that unfolds through Lent can take dramatic forms like Jesus’ passion. And it can be utterly mundane, paying attention to another person and then imagining what she or he must feel. Given all we have been through in the past months, all the separation, and all the misguided assumptions, paying attention may be the most precious Lenten discipline of all. Now is the time to be curious. Now is the time to care.

Brian

February 23, 2021

Sometime in the past week or so, in some unknown hospital, an anonymous Covid-19 patient struggled for one last breath and failed. Her lungs had been scarred by infection and filled with fluid. Her immune system overreacted targeting life sustaining organs. Her doctors and nurses struggled valiantly, but ultimately vainly. We will never know her name, but her suffering was real as was her loss to her family and friends. She was the 500,000th American to die of Covid-19.

500,000 deaths is a staggering, monumental loss that we have a hard time comprehending, let alone grieving. There are 525,600 minutes in a year. Imagine one person dying almost every single minute without relent for a year. The loss of American lives from Corona-virus now exceeds all the American fatalities from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, combined. This calamity is the single greatest causally connected loss of life in our nation in my lifetime. But looking out at this ocean of human loss, precisely when you would expect a rising tide of human compassion and shared grief, I find myself feeling oddly numb. I wonder about myself and my country whether our shared sense of loss and compassion, our collective empathy, has somehow faded away.

Part of my problem is that human beings are not really wired to process this magnitude of loss. Josef Stalin, who knew more about how to get away with mass murder than anyone, keenly observed, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” As a result, human sympathy seems to decline proportionately to the scale of the loss. We affirm one life as deserving of infinite value and will move literal mountains to save a single trapped miner or avalanche victim. But the net difference in collective compassion for 500,000 victims versus 500,001 is nil.

Another part of my problem is that human beings tend to empathize with people we know or at least those whose stories we think we know. As I write, the news is filled with stories about Tiger Woods auto collision. I hope and just prayed that Mr. Woods will recover fully from his injuries, but then in the imagination of prayer I allowed my mind to wander down the halls of the UCLA Medical Center and pause by the bedside of ventilator patient alone and confused with a look of panic in his eyes and alongside a family in the intensive care waiting room with that vacant, numb stare of raw loss. I know that such imaginings are not the same thing as actual empathy for an actual human being. But I also know that out of 500,000 deaths, what I imagined is true of someone. Celebrity certainly amplifies our attention, but maybe that simply means we need to do a better job of learning each other’s stories if for no other reason than to mutually hold each other’s losses.

Most painfully, we tend to feel compassion most poignantly for people who are like us. Most of those who have died this past year have been significantly older than me, a different color than me, and a different educational, cultural, and economic class than me. Ageism, racism, and classicism all separate us from each other and from the better angels of our being. Curiously, social psychologists report that the only groups who consistently value the elderly as much as the young are African Americans and Native Americans, groups well experienced with adversity and loss.

My meditation tonight is both lament and confession. I lament those who have died, for those who have lost loved ones, and for all the moments of love, connection, humor, and hope that will not happen because of their passing. And I lament the absence of that shared love for each other in our common humanity, that capacity we call empathy, that seems in short supply in our society and my heart.

We have all been taught from birth how to acquire and achieve. We are not so good at losing, especially our family, neighbors, and friends.

May God bless all those who have died in the resurrection of the dead and those who loved them with the consolations of the Spirit. And in the meantime, may God soften my/our hearts to reach across the anonymous voids of pain and learn more fully to simply love.

February 16, 2021

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. -Psalm 51:7

The snow is so beautiful! As much as I might complain about the cold weather, I must admit that today’s view from my back deck was stunning. It looked as if the world had been created anew. Snow has a wonderful way of covering up that which is not so beautiful!

My beloved husband, Kent, aerated the lawn much later this past fall than usual, creating the unintended consequence of a yard full of mud! Between dog paws and human feet, we tracked in more mud than a pig in a pigsty. It was a muddy mess! It was not until our first snow this winter that the mud in our yard was finally blanketed by dazzling white snow and our pigpen of a backyard became beautiful again. Snow has that redeeming quality!

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…

I had occasion recently to be humbly reminded of my own brokenness, my fragility, my sin. Sin is a messy thing; as muddy as it gets. It tracks its way through all kinds of rooms in our lives, leaving a lot to be cleaned up…a muddy mess in need of a pure white snow.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow…

I share this rather vulnerable confession because if you are anything like I am, you know what it is like to come to the end of a very muddy day and the only prayer you can mutter is “God, wash me and make me new again.” And unlike the snow in my own yard which will soon melt with the warmer days of spring, revealing those mud pellets still beneath the white snow, God’s redeeming snow washes us clean of all that muddy, messy sin in ways
most underserving but so faithfully given.

Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins our season of Lent. For forty days (not counting Sundays) we will walk with Jesus through a messy, muddy, journey to the cross. A cross of our own making. A cross that is not so beautiful but held the One who is more beautiful than pure white snow.

This will be our second Lenten season in the midst of the pandemic. A muddy, messy, pandemic which has brought out some of the worst in us and some of the best in us. May we journey together this Lent knowing that God’s redeeming love washes us whiter than snow.

There is a basket outside the church office door filled with sachet bags full of ashes for our live-streamed Ash Wednesday service at 7:00 p.m. You are welcome to come by the church anytime to pick up a bag of ashes so that you may participate in our Ash Wednesday ritual of marking the ashes on our foreheads and hearing those humbling words:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

See you at the cross.

Much love,

Pastor Kelley

February 9, 2021

I am a Protestant raised among stoic, sensible Swedish Lutherans in Minnesota. Growing up in Minnesota you are taught at an early age not to complain about how cold the winters get because everybody is cold and everybody hurts (my perch in Grand Marais did hit -27˚ F. this week!). Actually, you are taught not to talk about your problems at all. Everything is always fine. Anything less would be considered self-pitying. Anything more would be pretentious. So, you learn to be fine.

Next week we begin the season of Lent. Lent is a season for self-examination and repentance, which are fine things. Lent is perfect for dour Minnesotans. Lent grants collective social permission for obsessive individual guilt. And in a state where the lakes do not thaw until May and it occasionally snows on Memorial Day (trust me I have been camping in it), Easter’s promise of spring and new life seems infinitely far off.

Despite all my developmental adaptations and affinities with Lent, I find myself oddly out of step this year. This year, I find myself yearning for Lent’s raucous, slightly hedonistic twin: Carnival. Carnival aka Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday if you prefer English) is the celebration of life in all its glorious excesses just before the beginning of the Lent. Culminating in Fat Tuesday, Carnival (which itself literally means a celebration of meat) is Southern Europe’s counter argument to the austerities of Lent. This year, following eleven months of isolation, frustration, loss, conflict, and grief, perhaps Lent’s penitential asceticism needs a little help. Maybe we need a little Carnival in our lives to effectively kickstart the transformational work of Lent. Maybe we need to be reminded a bit of life’s savor, promise, and potential more than we need to be reminded of how sinful we all are. Depression is not a promising starting point for penitence. There will be plenty of time to confess later.

The truth is we are not fine. Our nation is not fine. Our world is not fine. Stoic self-control is a coping strategy, not a comprehensive world view let alone the way to lead a life. Most of us are getting by, and that is no mean feat, but getting by is not the same thing as thriving. The fact that others are struggling makes your own struggles no less.

It is cold out and it hurts sometimes and it probably will for some time to come. It feels like we have been doing Lent for eleven months. So be gentle with yourself so you can be gentle with others. It’s okay not to be fine. It’s okay not to have answers. And maybe this year a little dash of Carnival is precisely what we need most of all in spite of the surrounding gloom. After all, we do follow after a Messiah who organized a dinner party three days after his own funeral. Life will find a way. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Brian

 

February 2, 2021

So, that happened.

At 7:14 p.m. I remembered. I forgot to write Beside Still Waters today. There were lots of other things demanding my attention today–leading worship at an assisted living facility, preparing taxes with my accountant, staff meetings, and preparing a Presbytery training I will be leading on Thursday. Then tonight I was reviewing film clips about Thomas Merton for tomorrow night’s Connections Class. In all that time, writing Beside Still Waters never once came up in my consciousness until now. Faced with this oversight I essentially have three options: (1.) kick myself repeatedly for my negligence; (2.) try desperately to write something thoughtful even though I have not been thinking about it at all; or, (3.) try to ascertain what the experience of this moment itself might be saying. Options one and two are my usual go-to’s. But tonight, I want to try something different.

Perhaps because I have been reviewing old interviews with Thomas Merton, the mystic and contemplative teacher, I find myself asking what exactly is the lesson in this or any moment? And the lesson that has seems to be welling up in this precise moment is the reassurance that everything will be okay. Actually, everything will be better than okay if only I loosen my ego’s grip on trying to maintain control and acknowledge my own fallibility, which is just another way of saying my own humanity. Acknowledging our humanity and the fact that we make mistakes is simply telling the truth, but a truth we desperately try to conceal from others and most of all from ourselves. My ego works very hard to avoid that truth. I normally implement strategies to create an impression of competence, chiefly detailed to-do lists. The problem is that sometimes I can get rather lost in those strategies and lists. Sometimes, it feels like the tasks are all I am. Sometimes the “I” gets lost in all the doing. And I know from talking to some of you that you feel the same way too sometimes. When that happens, you may perchance notice something deep down inside us seeking to be recognized and valued manifests itself in procrastination or petty neglect because it cannot get our attention any other way.

A human being does many things but is not, in its essence, doing. A human being is being and neglect of that being sends us down all sorts of dangerous trails in life ranging from crushing shame to willful pride. The theological language we use for this is works righteousness (I am valued because of what I do) versus grace (I am loved because of who I am). But behind all the theological language is a far simpler and more immediate question we all know. Am I worthy because of what I do or am I simply worthy? If it is the former, our identity is on the line every single day measured according to an unknowable and unachievable scale. If it is the latter, then we can begin to let go of our constant anxiety and simply be . . . right . . . here . . . now.

There is only one place and one time where I will ever truly live and know and be known: here and now. It is just so hard to get there when all our endless to-do lists clamor for attention. So maybe the next time you forget to do something, possibly it is a gentle reminder to pause, breathe, let go, and practice the most difficult art of discipleship embracing both attention to the moment and compassion for our humanity.

It can happen.
Pay attention.
And be gentle with yourself. Brian

January 26, 2021

This morning I took my dog for our daily walk in the forest. Trudging along the slurried path, there were no shadows cast in those dreary woods. It was as if a pall of sameness had been spread over the hills under a gunmetal sky. The trees and the ground and the sky blended together in complimentary shades of gray. Absent evidence of racoons or squirrels, my dog gently pulled me on the paths towards home wanting to return to her slumbers.

The difficult thing for me about this season, this year, of quarantine is not so much the separation as it is the way in which life seems to have lost some of its flavor. Like a gray, muddy Ohio winter, it goes on and on in its unvaried sameness. The horizons of memory and hope flatten into a perpetual gray moment of now where there is no clear way forward and none back and not even the sun or stars to guide us.

And yet, this moment, this next step is where it begins.

Dante begins his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, with these words: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the true way was lost.” His metaphorical journey begins not in some heroic commencement, but in confusion, disorientation, and darkness. There and only there, where the way we knew is lost and the way will go is not yet found, we finally come to ourselves. In being lost we are forced to let go of our assumptions, certainly our assumption that we know the way and exercise control. And perhaps that is the beginning of truth. Humility and humiliation both come from the Latin root, hummus, meaning the earth. To be humbled is to be returned to the very ground of our being, our shared foundation.

This pandemic is hard. The suffering is real. But it is also an invitation to begin again on the firmer foundation of truth rather than the sweet lies we tell ourselves both in memory and desire. Right now, we are being offered an invitation to return to our true selves. And from that place of reunion, all things are possible.

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Luke 14:11
Brian

January 19, 2021

“Midwinter”

One of the most beloved hymns is the beautiful yet haunting “In the Bleak Midwinter” with lyrics from the poem written by the English poet, Christina Rossetti. The tune which was composed by Gustav Theodore Holst in the early 1900’s is steady and somber in its flow. One can feel the cold, dark of winter as the carol moves from despair to hope:

Snow had fallen,
snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
long ago.

But the cold and dark of winter cannot stop the glorious incarnation of God, as Rossetti’s words proclaim:

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
nor earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate
Jesus Christ

This beautiful hymn, of course, is most often sung in Christmastide but it has been playing in my head off and on for days now as we have entered a new year and begun the colder, more serious days of winter. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am not very fond of winter. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I am not very fond of cold weather! We have had a very mild winter thus far with more sunshine than I anticipated on this darker side of the earth’s tilt but even so I yearn for longer days of sunshine and warmer temperatures.

But it is not just the shorter days and colder temperatures which create this “bleak midwinter.” Even for those who love the seasons and the coming of winter, we find ourselves in the midst of a very bleak midwinter as we are ten months into this joyless pandemic and many months yet to go before all are vaccinated and we are free to “be” together once again, even embrace one another again.

The new year has brought much hope with the welcomed news of the coronavirus vaccines, so all is not bleak, but we have experienced much grief and loss this past year and we must stay strong and safe for just a little longer. As painful and lonely as these days have been, it is often here in our bleak midwinter that we are most able to recognize and receive God’s love and light incarnate in Christ. There is something about the dead of winter that strips us bare, like the naked trees of winter, and forces us to let go of all that keeps us from seeing God.

Our midwinter will soon turn to resurrection spring and we will know that God has carried us through painfully cold days into the warmer days of light. Remember that we are still the Body of Christ – together yet apart – even when the winter seems so bleak.

Last week I mailed out an Epiphany letter and Epiphany Star Word to all our Fairmont members and active non-members. If you did not yet receive your Star Word, give the mail a few more days to get to you and then text, call, or email me and I will make sure you receive one (kshin@fairmontchurch.org).

Our Epiphany Star Word is a simple spiritual practice to keep our hearts, minds, and spirits on the Christ Child from Bethlehem during this bleak midwinter and all through this new year. My hope is that you will use this Star Word in prayer, bible study, faith conversations, meditation, and reflection. My prayer is that we will continue to seek Jesus as did the Magi who followed the star.

In the bleak midwinter, God came to us incarnate in Jesus. We are not alone. Hope is ahead and shining forth even now. Stay strong, dear family of God, stay strong.

Love and light to you!

Pastor Kelley

January 12, 2021

Every January I fill out an annual statistical report for the denomination. It is the sort of form that gets filed away somewhere in an unmarked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory in the basement of the denominational headquarters in Louisville. One of the questions caught my imagination this year. What is the value of assets acquired in 2020? I added up the cost of the domestic water line replacement, new carpeting, a new computer, and new live streaming technology and I came up with a rough figure of $190,000. But I knew that the true answer was so much more.

What is your most valuable asset? Your home? Your 401(K)? Your career, reputation, family, skills, relationships, dreams, abilities, or faith? For the church, some things that we thought were really valuable and important to us, like our building, are not so important right now. So, it made me wonder, what is Fairmont’s most valuable asset.

At one level, the answer is obvious: God. But I am too much of a Reformed Christian to ever claim God as an asset. So, the next obvious answer is each other in all our diverse unique, wonderful, and wacky giftedness. Then again, human beings may comprise a congregation, but are never its possession. People are always free. What allows them to work in concert, what nurtures cooperation towards shared goals, what models better human relationships is the real asset of our congregation, our culture—the stable, yet always evolving, collective pattern of our behaviors toward one another. Culture, how we treat each other as we seek to navigate this world together, is our most important asset and it has been on full display this year.

I have seen remarkable acts of caring and kindness this year at Fairmont, with older adults constantly checking in on each other, 102-year-olds gently encouraging their juniors to get on line, and children reaching out to each other on screens in worship. Our congregation has demonstrated trust in each other, confidence in our shared goals, resilience in the face of frustrations, enormous patience with separation, and hope for the future. All these qualities emerge from the links that bind each of us to one other. They are not the possession of any individual. Instead, they are the emergent quality of our community as a whole.

Not everyone likes everybody else with equal intensity. Sometimes we can annoy one another. But when that happens, our habits of relating to each other take over. Those patterns we have practiced for so long we no longer think about them silence tongues before they say something we might regret and trigger a smile when we might prefer confrontation. It is not “fake.” Reticence for the sake of belonging together is no bad thing. Relationships are always worth a moment’s pause. Together, we practice the gentle habits of the heart that provide the crucible for community.

In our workplaces, in our families, and most vividly in our nation’s politics, those gentle habits, the culture of community, is being tested right now. Everything that we do together, like finding a cure for Corona Virus or going to the Moon, is built upon the shared assumption of trust. Without that trust, community disappears. And trust does not just magically happen. People need to work at it. People need to build a culture around it.

Sometimes our most important witness to Jesus Christ is simply how we treat each other.

January 5, 2021

Starting this past Sunday, we began preaching on the Gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings. I like Mark. It has short sentences. We tend to pretty it all up in our English translations. The King James translation makes it sound all fancy. But the Gospel is written more like, “See Jesus. See Jesus Run. Run Jesus run!” It lacks fancy vocabulary and transitions. It does not even have a decent introduction or conclusion. For me, it is the perfect Gospel for 2021.

Things are far from perfect right now. Our thoughts are as scattered and ill-considered as our world. Beauty and eloquence have yielded to survival and endurance. And none of us are our best selves right now. We all see some hope far off coming for us, but there will probably never be a tidy, comprehensive conclusion. Everyone seems increasingly irritated and irritable. Instead, we each are asked to become authors of our own little hopes each day, often delivered in considerate silence as much as speech. As in Mark, we all have a sense of expectation, but precisely for what we cannot say.

Mark’s account of the resurrection is not so much an account as a question. Mark ends his story mid-sentence with the women running away from the tomb into the early morning gloom. It is then up to us, the reader, to supply what happens next. Does the good news get out? Does hope escape the gloom? Is the way of the Lord prepared, or not? There is no conclusion, only invitation and perhaps a bit of curiosity.

Covid-19, isolation, exhaustion, anxiety, discord, distrust, and fear have all taken their toll. We are not as clever, resilient, organized, strong, self-reliant, kind, or courageous as we thought we were. We wander around in the gloom as confused curators of hope. But still, we hold on to that hope. And in our wandering, perhaps we bring some light to dark places.

The Gospel is good news: we are not alone; the universe is not as messed up as we appear to have made it; and, despite our best intentions, there is a genuinely caring supernatural entity who holds it all, including our lives, in the intimate belonging of love. People who are clever, resilient, organized, strong, self-reliant, kind, and courageous really do not need it and might not even notice it. Good news stands out in sharp contrast only when you are expecting bad news. The people who are accustomed to bad news make the very best good-news-sharers because they can see it clearly. So that is what we call them, except we make it fancy and do it in Greek. We call them evangelists. And right now, in the middle of this mess, that is precisely the role to which God is calling you.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it because you will be carrying it with you wherever you go.

Brian

December 29, 2020

Sometimes, the most important lessons are taught by an ache.

On Christmas Eve about 65 of us stood there in the cold and the dark. The wind kept blowing out our little candles, which is not a good sign if you are trying to proclaim the light that shines in the darkness. It was so cold that iPad batteries just stopped working and my fingers lost the ability to turn pages in the Bible. Nevertheless, we came together.

The 19-degree temperature was not the problem. The wind was the problem. We kept having to top up luminaries with more sand to keep them weighed down and upright. The sensible people stayed at home by their Christmas Trees. Nevertheless, we came together.

In the darkness, behind masks and parkas I could hear your voices, familiar voices, but between all our thermal and viral armor and my fogged-up glasses I could not really see you so well. It was frustrating to be so close and yet so far away. We wanted to hug, but could not. And the joy of reunion was tainted by the melancholy of separation. Nevertheless, we came together.

Despite all the frustrations, we gathered together in the cold and the dark just to be with each other for a moment, a passing sign that we are family and we still stand together. The mixture of joy and sadness merely reminded us what is most important and what we hold on to so tightly. Beneath all the frustrations, anxieties, petty bickering, grumpiness, and despair of this season is something beautiful: the deep longing for connection and belonging.

In the incarnation, God comes to us and for. In Christ’s incarnation we find connection and belonging. And we find it as well in Christ’s family, the church. We will muddle through this as the family always has, together. The ache for connection and belonging points the way forward. The ache points to each other and through each other towards God. This Christmas, rude though it may be, may prove to be the most important one of our lives. This Christmas may finally show us the way home.

Brian

December 22, 2020

It is not what most people expect. It is not little and it is decidedly not still. Bethlehem quickly confounds preconceptions with constant chorus of car horns. The Middle East has very different notions of personal and vehicular “personal space.” Next, one is assaulted by the smells—unfiltered exhaust fumes, grilling kebabs, zaatar, and a hint of raw sewage. As you wind your way up the aptly named “Manger Street,” you pass by a KFC and the always photographed “Stars and Bucks” café. Hunched over the brim of the hill stands the Church of the Nativity, perhaps the oldest church in continuous use, now obscured by the masonry barnacles of added buttresses, monasteries, and chapels. But underneath all its encrustations, Justinian’s basilica still stands, a relic of the Roman Empire alive and well and very much fulfilling its original purpose after 15 centuries.

I have been visiting Bethlehem every year or so since 2009, long enough to be featured in a local chamber of commerce commercial. You can watch the stages of anticipation, disorientation, disappointment and utter bewilderment in the faces of every new group that visits. The pilgrims queue up reverently to enter the grotto under the high altar, but sooner or later someone starts singing a Christmas carol before being shushed by the attendant Orthodox (flat hats) or Armenian (pointy hats) monks. Eventually, the pilgrims are funneled down the ever-tightening stairs beneath the high altar to the grotto for which the church was built. Squeezed into a single file doorway, and pressed on by the crowd behind you, it really does remind one of a birth canal.

Most Westerners come expecting something rather like a barn and are surprised to find a cave. The Bible provides scant few details beyond the famous feed trough. Justin Martyr and Origen both explained that the animal stall was actually an artificial cave which makes eminent sense given the soft tufa rock. Competing denominations now jealously guard their prerogatives in this most holy subbasement where Jesus was born. Walls of oil lamps compete with pilgrims for oxygen in the rather dank, rather oily cavern where not a single natural surface lies unadorned by gilt, satin, or lace. At the center of it all lies a small indentation looking something like a fireplace under which lies a silver star. In the middle of the star is an indentation like a petri dish marking the exact spot where by tradition, at least the tradition of the resident monks, Jesus was born. Pilgrims kneel down to enter the crawl space and reverence that tiny spot as they have for generations.

I love the Holy Land and ancient history, but I cannot say that I love the grotto of the church of the nativity. Its greasy, faded appointments are a perfect example of religious excess set off by oil lamps now bearing cheap LED bulbs. The pressing throng of pilgrims behind you essentially expels you out the other end of the cave into the relative calm, and certainly better ventilated, chapel of St. Catherine. From there the pilgrims usually head back out to their buses, left to their own devices as to what to make of this most curious place.

After my initial disappointment I have become rather fond of Bethlehem (and not only because it has my favorite kunefe shop). It is not so bad after all. Bad taste in decorating is far from the worst possible thing this world. In its faded tackiness, it points to something embarrassingly real. God did not come to some perfect place, but to this messed up place. God did not come to some perfect people, but to messed up people like us. And from God’s point of view, every place in this world no matter how perfect to our sensibilities, is necessarily a bit of a dump. But God came anyway. And still does.

Bethlehem nowadays gives me hope. Yes, it is a little shabby around the edges, but then again so is my faith and my life. And if God can be okay with that decidedly less than perfect place and there take up residence, then maybe God can be okay with me and make a home in me.

Merry Christmas,
Brian

December 15, 2020

The most popular and quietly contemplative Christmas Carol began with the loudest sound ever recorded by human beings. In 1816 on the other opposite of the world from the Tyrolean hillsides of Austria, a mountain in what is now Indonesia vaporized. The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815-16 threw up so much dust into the atmosphere that for the next four years people around the world complained about the persistent “dry fog” and the “year without a summer.” Frost was recorded across the United States and Europe as late as the end of June. Several harvests in a row failed across the entire Northern Hemisphere leading to the last great subsistence crisis in the West. This hardship fell mostly on those least able to shoulder it, the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Famine stalked the land. Typhoid epidemics soon followed that killed thousands.

In the small, struggling Austrian village of Mariapfaff, people did the best they could. They were still rebuilding after the devastation of the recent Napoleonic Wars. Their local salt industry, the largest employer, had been decimated by border and tariff changes following the wars. And now, the summer never came. The crops never grew. The cellars were empty. As the snow began piling up deeper and earlier than ever before, cut off from the outside world, they turned to their young assistant priest (they only had an assistant priest) to help them understand what was going on and whether God still cared for them. That December, the assistant priest, Joseph Mohr, wrote a little poem for his struggling, demoralized, and now snowbound congregation. That poem of hope in the middle of loss, anxiety, and isolation, was Stille Nacht, Silent Night. A year later, Mohr would be reassigned to the village of Oberndorf that also struggled with crop failures and devastating floods. There he became close friends with the village teacher and occasional church organist Franz Gruber, who had no organ to play because the church could not afford its repair. On Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr shared his poem with Gruber and together (they were both accomplished musicians) set it to music. That night, after the mass ended, these two friends both from humble beginnings sang Silent Night for the first time. Mohr strummed the simple three chord arrangement on the guitar, the folk instrument of the Tyrolean peasants, while Gruber led the singing. And then the modest little congregation quietly walked home in the snow.

I have heard from so many people that are disappointed, sad, and anxious this season. Most of all I hear the sense of loss that we are cut off from traditions and family. I too will miss gathering together in the warm glow of candle light on Christmas Eve. But the curious thing is that the more you dig into almost any of our Christmas traditions like our well-beloved carols, you find they did not emerge from happy communities celebrating holiday abundance. They emerged, like Silent Night, precisely when and where they were needed usually in the harshest of circumstances. This simple little carol somehow crystalizes hope in word and music for people who need to receive it. That is the cause for its enduring appeal and why we conclude every Christmas Eve service with it. Hope is coming, precisely where it is needed most. Hope is coming for you. Silent Night does not merely tell you about the incarnation of hope. Silent Night is an incarnation, or more accurately invocalization, of hope.

Perhaps you may be alone on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you may be with just your immediate family. It may not look like the vast celebrations that all our Christmas TV movies teach us to expect. But know well, that when we share together in this hope, wherever we may be and under whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in, we are participating in the foundation and origin of Christmas itself: the incarnation of hope into the world. So please join us on Christmas Eve to sing Mohr and Gruber’s little song, lift a candle in defiance against the surrounding dark, and, as children who have received the hope of God, breathe a little healing hope into our world. Brian

December 8, 2020

Last Sunday was Saint Nicholas day, a day to honor Saint Nicholas of Myra. Despite burying Christmas beneath our consumerist urges and materialism, Nicholas’ story and example still inspire us. Nicholas was born around the year 270 at a particularly hard time to be a Christian. The late third century was a time of troubles for the Roman Empire facing nearly constant civil wars, economic collapse, a parade of emperors, and a break down in civil society. In this chaotic and increasingly dangerous world, pagans turned their frustrations on Christians who now faced empire-wide persecutions. Nicholas grew up in Arsinoe, near the modern city of Antalya on the south coast of Turkey (then Asia Minor). This was the same area that had been evangelized by Paul and the other early disciples two centuries earlier and Nicholas appears to have grown up in a Christian family with some financial means.

The economic crisis of the late third century resulted in hyperinflation that impoverished countless families in the Empire. One result was that many families were unable to provide dowries for their daughters making them ineligible for marriage in a patriarchal society that had no room for single women. Nicholas wanted to use his wealth to help these families and the women avoid what we would now call human trafficking, but could not do so directly without obligating them to him as their benefactor. So, he turned to chimneys. If he threw bags of gold down the chimney anonymously, the girls’ futures could be secured and the families’ honor remain intact without obligation to him. Nicholas’ anonymous gift giving was intended to secure the dignity of the recipient without concern for recognition. This was an important innovation in a tightly wound honor shame/culture in which families were expected to care for their own.

After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Nicholas became Bishop of Myra, a small town now called Demre on the southern shore of Turkey. As Bishop at the height of Imperial persecutions of the church, Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured during the reign of Diocletian. But he never renounced his faith. Nicholas was later freed by the Emperor Constantine and some lists of the participants include him among the bishops at the Council of Nicaea at which the Nicene Creed was first drafted as a universal statement of Christian faith.

Nicholas became known as the patron of sailors and seafarers and, of course, the protector of children everywhere. Indeed, it is through those Dutch sailors of the sixteenth century that the English-speaking world first learned and then modified his name, Saint Nicholas=Sinterklaas=Santa Claus.

While many saints’ biographies differ on the details of Nicholas’ early life, they all emphasize both his compassion for the economically disadvantaged and the importance he placed on honoring the individual dignity of every person. Dropping gifts down chimneys was simply the means by which he fulfilled this ministry and at the same time honored each recipient.

I wonder how Christmas might be different if we focused less on the methods of how Nicholas shared his gifts and more on why and to whom? Charity without dignity is not compassion, but only condescension and control. Charity with dignity for all is a sure sign of love. And that I think is what Santa Claus wants most of all, not adoring fans but imitators. Brian

December 1, 2020

In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Isaiah 40: 3-4

When I was a little boy, some of my favorite toys were Tonka Trucks. My backhoe loader, dump truck, bulldozer, and grader worked for years on miniature road construction projects in my back-yard sandbox and occasionally my mother’s vegetable garden. Even better, I once had the opportunity to visit the Tonka Toys factory (located next to Lake Minnetonka) to see how they were made. Unlike so many other toys, they were constructed out of steel, not plastic. You could almost imagine that if they had tiny little powertrains, they could tear down hills and fill in valleys.

Heavy duty excavating equipment is the ideal symbol for Advent, especially this year. And yes, I do hang a little front-end loader on my Christmas Tree. From the Old Testament into the New, the refrain of the prophets Isaiah and John is clear: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Isaiah 40: 3-4, Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3: 4-5. When the Bible repeats something four times in four books, we should probably pay attention.

When Isaiah first penned those instructions, he had in mind all the thousands of steep wadi valleys and rocky hills east of Jerusalem that stretched far beyond into the Syrian desert all the way to Babylon. The Judean wilderness is a labyrinth of stone and sand. The modern highway across it used vast quantities of explosives and a legion of bulldozers to make something resembling a straight road through the wilderness. Now you can zip up from Jericho to Jerusalem in a mere 35 minutes, depending on the traffic. What remains unchanged are the sharp contours of the human soul.

You can dynamite the hills and backfill the riverbeds, but we all know there are still lots of things that keep us apart from God. Some of them are obstructions, things that we have set up in our lives that should not be there, barriers we have put in God’s way like pride, shame, anger, guilt, indulgence, anger, chemicals, destructive relationships, and worst of all simply not caring. Some of them are voids, things in our lives that should be there that are missing, chasms like loneliness, fear, hunger, abuse, poverty, illness, disability, isolation, and grief. According to Isaiah and the Gospel writers, our task is symbolically simple. We need to take away the things that get in the way between God and us and we need to fill in those empty places so God can cross over them to get to us. It is a road construction project worthy of our lives, but far easier said than done.

Our culture’s materialistic interpretation of Advent is that this is a time for purchasing and consumption. The Bible suggests the exact opposite. It is time for taking things away. What in our lives separates us from God? What inside our selves separates us from God? Many of those things fall under the category of unhealthy or unhelpful attachments, all those things in our lives to which we grant undue importance. The problem with such attachments is two-fold. First, we tend to ascribe to them too much importance which is a perennial human problem we call sin. Second, those attachments cause us suffering when they go away or when we fail to obtain them in the first place. The most common forms these obstructions center on pride (the ego worshipping itself), greed/lust/gluttony (insatiable wanting for the sake of wanting), despair (the assumption that nothing can improve), and shame (the assumption that we are not worthy). The problem is that those attachments can often masquerade as the wonderful things like family, achievement, security, prosperity, recognition, religion, humility, and even love. The litmus test is always functional, does this get in the way of God coming into my life?

The second big category of construction work is building up what is absent. For some this may be a sense of self-worth and value denied by circumstance, which is very different from willful pride. For others it may require help in overcoming infirmities, physical and mental illnesses, poverty, exhaustion, hunger, or absent relationships and connections. In order to scour one’s ego, one first needs an ego. For far too many people, the world has simply bludgeoned them into submission as shadows of what they could be.

This 2020 season of Advent, absent all the parties and normal festivities, gives us an opportunity to face its raw question without distraction, the ancient sobering question posed by the prophets and apostles: what separates me from God? Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and God patiently wait for our answer. The careful examination of one’s life and the selective removal of the bits that do not fit may very well be the necessary prerequisite for receiving the true gift of Christmas. Brian

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.
Brian

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,

Pastor Kelley

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 jmason@fairmontchurch.org or (937) 299-3539.

Blessings and love to you!

May the Peace of Christ “touch” your hearts.

Pastor Kelley

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,

Pastor Kelley

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,

Pastor Kelley

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

Hiding from Now

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.countrytimebailout.com/

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,

Pastor Kelley

July 7, 2020

Consider Grumpiness

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:

Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free
‘Tis a gift to come down where I ought to be
And when I am in the place just right
I will be in the valley of love and delight
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend I will not be ashamed
To turn, to turn will be my delight

‘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.

Brian

June 2, 2020

Concerning Bodies,

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:

-people’s perceptions of me
-my own expectations
-how hard I work
-the words and actions I speak

-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.