FRIDAYS FROM FAIRMONT
August 13, 2021 – Mark 10:35-44
You are not supposed to talk about death at a baptism. It is considered rather gauche, like talking about a divorce at a wedding. Baptism is supposed to be about family and new life. And it is. The problem is that new family and new life mean letting go of old family and old life and letting go hurts. We tend to cling onto the familiar and predictable. We like control. Baptism is the symbolic, and perhaps actual, ritual of drowning all that, drowning who we once were. We are given a new identity, a new name, literally our given name. And we are ushered into a new family, only a tiny few of whom happen to be alive in the same era as us. We come out the other side dripping wet, but changed. We have literally been through a drowning (that is what the word baptism means in Greek) and have emerged alive, but changed. Now we are the already-been-through-death people, albeit a little wet. And as such people, we do not need to be afraid anymore.
The problem is that more often than not, we do not believe our good fortune. We do not trust the promises we have received. Our fears outweigh our faith. So, we try to muddle through on our own terms. We learn to be competent, competitive, and successful. We strive for achievement and success in order to maintain control over our lives and the immediate world around us. We define ourselves in what we do, accomplish, possess, and control, rather than who we actually are. That fundamental misunderstanding of identity gets us in trouble because we start to lose ourselves along the way.
It got James and John in trouble. These two hot-tempered sons of Zebedee ask Jesus to share in his glory. They do not understand what they are asking for. They want to assume and undertake Jesus’ own baptism, which is fulfilled not over a font, but in wood and nails. They did not, perhaps could not, understand that real power has nothing to do with control or dominion, but rather comes from letting go. And nothing says letting go like getting drowned naked (admittedly, we don’t do it naked any more).
Our lives end, or more accurately begin anew, not in the fulfillment of all our wishes and fantasies but God’s. We can make God in our own image like Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island fulfilling our wants, but our wants only tend to get us into more trouble. Or, we can let go of our wants and our endless need for control. We can let go of everything we hold on to and instead simply be held. We can renounce all those things we claim to possess and simply be possessed. Down in the murky depths, where everything else is drowned, there is only one thing you can trust. Strong arms embrace you, pull you up and declare for all time and above every other claim, you child, you belong to God.
August 6, 2021 – Mark 10:17-31
Of all the uncomfortable passages of scripture, none have had more ink spilled over them trying to persuade the reader that Jesus did not actually mean what he said than Sunday’s reading. Simply put, we don’t like it. So, for centuries we try to sneak around it. We try to sneak around Jesus and into the Kingdom of God.
A rich young man, a rich and apparently quite pious young man, asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. He already follows all the commandments, not just the twelve, all 613 of them. So what else is on the to do list? Only one thing, Jesus tells him. No big deal. Sell all that you have and then come and follow me. Ouch.
I do not want to sell all I have. I trust Jesus . . . to a point. That point is probably my retirement savings account balance. So, I rather empathize with the rich man as he walks away grieving, shocked, and maybe a bit ashamed.
I wanted the man to stay. I wanted him to keep talking from Jesus. I wanted him to tell Jesus that he is scared and needs help. And I wanted Jesus to wrap his arms around him and tell him it would be okay. But that did not happen. As Jesus watches the man wander off, the Gospel says something remarkable. It says that Jesus loved this man, the only person in the entire Gospel who Jesus is said to love. And because of that love, I read the rest of the passage not as judgment or condemnation, but as a promise.
There is hope, even for the rich man, even for you and me. Come and find out.
July 30, 2021 – Mark 10:13-16
Jesus blesses the little children. It is one of the most beloved scenes in the New Testament. We love children. We love Jesus. What then better than to bring them all together in a group hug.
Sentimental affection is what we perceive, but probably not what this passage was meant to convey. Children were not really children, at least in the highly valued way we think of them nowadays, in the first century. Childhood, and all that it culturally conveys to us, is a product of the Victorian era. Prior to that, children were not really considered people. Of little economic or social value, with uncertain chances of survival, and no possibility of accomplishment or acquisition, children were for most of history considered to be the epitome of nobodies. They did not earn anything, achieve anything, or even deserve anything. Which makes them the perfect object lesson for citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus embraces the children as those who may enter the Kingdom of God precisely because they are not worthy. The Kingdom of God is not about our worth, our goodness, religiosity, piety, or achievement. Instead, the Kingdom of God is about, as its name suggests, God. And God has a curious way of choosing precisely those whom the world holds to be of no value.
So how do you get your way into the Kingdom of God? You don’t. God simply welcomes with and open embrace. And if that is God’s way, perhaps it should be ours as well.
July 23, 2021 – Mark 9:33-48
It is a horrible text. It makes us cringe at Jesus’ words. Surely, he did not really mean that, did he?
Taken out of context, these words can cause enormous harm.
Taken in context, these words may be far more than they at first appear.
The earliest copyists of the New Testament struggled with this text. We know of at least three different versions of it. One says we are salted with fire. Another says that the sacrifices will be salted with fire. And yet a third tries to split the difference saying we are salted with fire and sacrifices are salted with salt. All three footnotes point us toward the object of Jesus’ lesson in this reading and it was not about self-dismemberment.
Sacrifices offered up in the temple were sprinkled with salt just before they were placed on the giant burning brazier of the altar. Salting the sacrifices was not a priestly custom, it was commanded by God’s law as sign and symbol of the permanence and purity of the relationship between God and humanity expressed in that sacrifice. Salt preserves, purifies, and sometimes stings as it cleans. So does the covenant.
Jesus now redirects our attention away from the temple and towards our own hearts. “Have salt in yourselves,” he tells us. And he is not talking about seasoning. Just as Israel marked the sacrificial offerings with this symbol of God’s promises, now Jesus wants us to internalize God’s promises as a marking of our new identity.
What matters then is neither our moral virtue, whether or not we live without sin, let alone our sacrifices in the temple. What matters is whether we have made God’s promises ours and allowed them to redefine and redirect every aspect of our lives.
Jesus does not want maimed followers terrified of damnation. He wants courageous people living into God’s promises. And if you do that, you need not fear the garbage dump of Gehenna. If you do that you will not merely persevere, you will savor God’s own delight.
July 16, 2021 – Mark 9:30-37
In a bit over a week, the Tokyo Olympic games will commence. We tend to forget that the Olympic Games were originally understood primarily as a religious celebration to honor the pagan gods (Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc). Every four years, contestants, priests, poets, and playwrights from throughout the Hellenistic world would travel to the shrine at Olympia to offer up the very best in human performance as a sacrifice to and a celebration of their gods, who not coincidentally were an awful lot like them. Human excellence, achievement, and power, which they summarized with the term Arete, which simply means “excellence,” was their ambition and aim both for the gods and for humans. And judging by Facebook, it still is.
With that in mind, Jesus’ response to the question of the nature of true greatness is odd, offensive, and confusing. Gods are supposed to manifest their divinity through power, wisdom, and beauty, not self-emptying, sacrifice, and death. And human beings are supposed to manifest their greatness through the same expressions, not mercy, charity, and love. But the way things are “supposed to be” is exactly what Jesus came to overturn and offer us something better.
He takes a child, not as an example, but as a living, breathing, person in need of our care, compassion, and mercy. “You want to know if you are great,” he asks his disciples. “Then tell me what you will do for this little girl?” he asks them as he holds her close. It is not the answer that the disciples, or the Olympians, or anyone else in his world had considered. But it seems to be the answer that God gives when God shows us perfectly what God’s own care, compassion, and mercy towards undeserving nobodies looks like. It looks like Jesus.
July 9, 2021 – Mark 8:27-38
Usually, we read the Bible. Sometimes the Bible reads us. Sunday’s text falls into the latter category and haunts my imagination and conscience.
At the very center of Mark, at the geographic apogee of Jesus’ ministry, he poses a question on which not only the Gospel, but our lives turn. “Who do you say that I am?” He does not ask who the theologians or the church say he is. He does not ask who you think or speculate that he is. He asks who do you say, openly, publicly, as an act of witness, that he is. That question is not directed so much to Peter or the other disciples, but to you and to me.
It can be so hard after 2000 years of accumulated Christian theology, liturgy, music, and culture to set aside all the assumptions we have inherited and be shocked and surprised along with Peter and the others. We glibly refer to Jesus Christ as if Christ were somehow his last name. It is not. It is a title. Properly following rules of English syntax, it should be Christ Jesus or Jesus the Christ. And Christ does not mean God, it literally means the anointed one. Messiah, Christ, and the Anointed One all mean exactly the same thing in Hebrew, Greek, and English respectively. The Anointed One was the one anointed to rule, the one anointed to be King, much as English monarchs are anointed on their coronation. That means that the term is originally all about power, rule, and dominion. And that is the problem.
Jesus has an altogether different notion of what the Anointed One would be like and would do. He relies less on the triumphant prophecies of Isaiah and more on Isaiah’s suffering servant songs and the shadowy images of the Son of Man in Daniel 7-12, all describing someone who is paradoxically much more than a Messiah but who will also suffer for the sake of the people.
Peter does not understand and even if he did, he would no doubt not want that kind of Messiah. Few of us do. We prefer King Jesus and the Hallelujah Chorus to a broken man dying on a cross. No wonder the disciples had a hard time with it and with him.
We still do.
And yet, the question remains and one way or other we all answer it . . .
July 2, 2021 – Mark 7:24-37
We are well familiar with the beautiful healing passages in Gospels when Jesus lovingly heals those who seek his aid, both for themselves and for their children. Our church artwork often portrays Jesus restoring sight, mobility, and even life. We turn to those passages in our own life and prayers when facing adversity as a source of hope and encouragement.
This Sunday’s text is not one of those passages.
Sometimes Jesus says no.
When facing Jesus’ refusal, what is the faithful response? Acquiesce? Argue? And how do we understand Jesus’ refusal anyway? A rather tenacious Lebanese woman reveals the answers and they may surprise you. They may in fact have surprised Jesus, just as she did. Which raises a very interesting question, what does it mean for Jesus to change his mind?
Listen on Sunday and while you may not find all the answers you are seeking, I guarantee your questions will be deepened.
June 25, 2021 – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
We leave the beloved story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand with its loaves and fish, and move to a different story about food. This story is filled with conflict rather than comfort. Jesus is coming to the end of his public ministry before he enters his own passion and finds himself, once again, confronted by the religious leaders. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Jesus cannot even eat a meal with his disciples without words of challenge and conflict.
The religious leaders are hanging their argument on the traditions of their ancestors. Jesus is holding on to the sacred Law. The Torah. God’s Law. And Jesus’ retort is quick and direct:
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;”
The religious leaders are screaming about practices and traditions created by humans and Jesus is teaching about things of the heart. Things from within. Practices of the heart. Both evil and good come from within.
“…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
It is a humbling word to hear from Jesus. We can fixate all we want on our outward practices but true adoration and devotion of God must come from within. The heart tells all.
Out story is made even richer by some sarcastic humor from Jesus about clueless disciples and the simple facts of the digestive system! And we, who initially are taken aback by the abruptness of this passage, find ourselves having to see ourselves as both the arrogant religious leaders and the clueless disciples.
Come join us for worship this Sunday at both 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in-person and also live-streamed at 10:30 a.m. You can find the links for online worship below. All are welcome!
June 18, 2021 – Mark 6:30-44
On the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, about a half hour walk from Capernaum, is a small Benedictine Church, called the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. The church commemorates Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5000. The modern church sits directly on top of an ancient Byzantine church from the fifth century. So, while the church itself is modern, its mosaic floor is around 16 centuries old. As you might expect, the image of a basket filled to the brim with pieces of bread takes pride of central place. But around it, curiously, you find images of all sorts of birds, especially peacocks, and every sort of wild animal, plant and tree.
Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 intentionally points forward and backward in time. Jesus organizes the people into eating groups just like Moses did in the Exodus. He provides food in the wilderness just like God did raining Manna on the people. And he even quotes Moses, taking compassion on the people, “like sheep without a shepherd.” And then the miracle points us forward in time. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks to God for it, breaks it, and gives it to them. In other words, Jesus demonstrates communion before the last supper. Finally, the people are described as filled, but in a very particular sense in the original Greek. The people are not empty voids whose volume has now been filled. Rather they are now complete, whole, and who they were meant to be.
Jesus’s feeding of the 5000 bridges human need with God’s compassion from our ancient past to our ultimate future. That is why the ancient artists of the church filled it with images of birds and beasts and a river. They imagined the miraculous feeding as a foretaste of paradise, Eden 2.0, paradise restored and perfected. The river that runs through it is the river for the healing of the nations as described in Revelation and those peacocks, an ancient symbol for resurrection. The meal and Jesus’ feeding compassion points us towards our destiny and homecoming.
God meets human need with divine compassion. This is not just what God does. This is who God is. In the Exodus, God feeds the people in their need. On the hillsides of Galilee, God feeds the people in their need. And right now, in the various assorted train wrecks of our lives, God feeds us, if only we are willing to acknowledge our hunger and receive. The compassion of God is expressed as God again and again saving us. “God saves,” or in Hebrew, Yeshua, the name we translate: Jesus.
June 11, 2021 – Mark 6:14-29
It is an awful story. Most churches avoid it. Wiser pastors never preach on it. But it also reveals some of the cold hard truth that we would rather avoid. Sometimes people die. And sometimes they do not die heroic deaths. Sometimes there are no heroes, only victims.
John the Baptist is portrayed in all the Gospels as the final prophet, simultaneously calling the people to transform their lives (repentance) and announcing the coming of the Messiah. His message struck a chord in many people’s spiritual and moral imaginations. That made him dangerous to the powers of his world.
Kings and princes rely on fear for their power. If people let go of their fear, there is no telling what they might do. Herod Antipas knew this only too well. He grew up in a homicidally inclined family where his father murdered one his wives and at least two sons. Herod’s position was always precarious. Mockingly, the Romans gave him the title of Quarter King (Tetrarch). He had no legitimate claim to rule, only Roman muscle backing him up. Chronically insecure, he is easily manipulated by his own family into murder.
The story of the death of John the Baptist is a tragedy. Even its antagonist Herod is not so much a tyrannical villain as a weak coward. Lacking any morally edifying content or spiritually uplifting ending, a sensible person would skip over it to the next chapter.
Except . . .
There is one odd thing about this story. Someone is missing. Told as a flashback, this is the only story in the Gospels in which Jesus is completely absent, never appearing, never even mentioned. In other words, this is a story of precisely what this world and our lives are like without Christ. And maybe, that is the whole point.
June 4, 2021 – Mark 6:1-13
You can’t go home again. At least so wrote Thomas Wolfe. The problem is not that home has changed withdrawing welcome. The problem is you have changed. You are a different person. Everyone you knew who stayed behind relates to you now as who you once were, not who you are. Unless people are willing to let go of everything they knew or thought they knew about you from the past, real relationship and trust are almost impossible because they do not actually see you or hear you. They see and hear a well-edited memory.
The only place where Jesus could do no deeds of power was Nazareth, his hometown. After moving away and taking up his vocation as an itinerant healer, teacher, and exorcist, his fame spread throughout the region of Galilee. There was only one place where he could not work miracles, the place where people thought they knew him best, his hometown. You can imagine the small-town gossip. Who does he think he is? We know his people. We knew him when he was a little kid. Now he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Well mister fancy apocalyptic prophet, how about settling down and doing something respectable for a change?
To enter into a deep intimate relationship with God or with another person, the first thing you need to do is let go of every presumption, assumption, prejudice, and judgment we hold about them. You need to release our little models of what that person is supposed to be in order to actually encounter and perceive who they are. And we are very fond of our little presumptions, assumptions, prejudices, and judgments. We let go of them, if at all, reluctantly.
Jesus could do no deeds of power in Nazareth. Why? We glibly answer because they had no faith. But look deeper. What is the foundation of faith? Relationship. And what it the foundation of relationship? A genuine willingness to encounter, see, hear, and perceive another. Openness and curiosity are the shared foundations of faith, love, and friendship. The very first step is the willingness to let go of what we think of another to meet him or her as they truly are.
So, who is Jesus for you? Your image of what Jesus should be? Or the one who is actually reaching out to you in and as this moment?
May 28, 2021 – Mark 5:21-43
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. There are many things we do not know about the Trinity but one thing we do know is that the Trinity is about relationship. In the Trinity we see divine relationship – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – as One.
Our story from Mark for Trinity Sunday is also about relationship. The relationship between a father and his daughter, the relationship between a synagogue leader and Jesus, the relationship between an unnamed woman and Jesus. The story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the flow of blood is woven together so that one healing is sandwiched in between the other healing. We journey with Jesus from the beginning of Jairus’ plea to Jesus to heal his daughter to the healing of the woman with the flow of blood and then on ultimately to the healing of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus and the unnamed woman share in common their desperate need for healing and their genuine faith that Jesus can heal them and the ones they love.
We all experience our faith in relationship and not in isolation. We are created to be in covenant community with one another and with God. We all ache to belong and to be loved. It is the nature of who we are created to be – people in loving relationships with God and with one another.
We invite you to join us in worship this Sunday as we worship in community together both in-person and live-streamed. This is what we long for…relationship and belonging.
May 21, 2021 – Mark 4:35-41
The Gospels contain several miraculous stories about boats and storms. In most of them the plot is simple. Jesus tells the disciples to go somewhere and do something. They set out but are confronted by a storm. They panic. Things get very very wet. And Jesus comes along and rescues them chiding them for their lack of faith.
These stories have always bothered me. Jesus appears to be criticizing them for a natural and perfectly understandable emotion, namely fear, when faced with dire peril. So, I wonder, what if Jesus is annoyed at them not because they were afraid, but rather because they stopped rowing.
Jesus tells us to go somewhere and do something, maybe somewhere we have never been before and maybe something we have never done. We are then faced with a choice. Do we trust Jesus and follow or not? The disciples initially go along with Jesus’ plan, but when faced with adversity they collectively freak out and abandon the plan. No wonder Jesus gets a bit annoyed.
Fear is the problem. Fear is always the problem. Fear robs us of reason, compassion, perception, and personality. Fear reduces the infinite choices of life down to fight or run away. Fear obscures our essential nature and clouds our true identity. Fear defaces the image of God in us and reduces us to feral animals.
It is no surprise then that Jesus’ constant refrain throughout his earthly ministry and after is simply this: “Do not be afraid.” I suspect that is not merely a comforting word of consolation, but actual instruction for how to be authentically human. The problem is that “do not be afraid” is a conclusion without a process. The method to undo fear’s grip is to trust and follow, especially in the face of adversity, especially in the face of the storm. To the disciples, Jesus says row not simply to get them to the other side of the lake but to get them to the other side of their fear. The more they focus on their mission and purpose, the less fear is able to take hold over them.
Following Jesus will never be easy. The world will not like it. The world will try to stop us. And when that happens, Jesus’ advice is simple: keep rowing. The work itself will change you even when you cannot change the circumstances you may encounter.
May 14, 2021 – Mark 4:21-32
The Kingdom of God is as if someone put a seed in the ground and it grew all on its own into a full rich harvest and then voom! harvest is brought in. I am told, by people who know far more about horticulture than I do that this is not how things work. You can’t just throw seeds about and expect a cornucopia. You’ve got to water and weed and fertilize and keep the bugs and the birds away. In short you’ve got to work the garden morning and night and even then there’s no guarantee of what you’ll get. Jesus says the Kingdom of God is not like that. It just happens. It happens despite all the evidence in this world to the contrary. It happens despite the fact that we have forgotten to tend to the seeds sown all around us and those sown in us. On that day the astonishing, mysterious, hidden work of God will be revealed openly for all to see. The Greeks had a word for revealing, uncovering something like that, they called that moment apocalypse.
Growing up I always heard the tamed-down version of Jesus’ teaching, great things come from small and inconspicuous beginnings. And while that may be true, I think it is a rather tepid interpretation. Wild Mustard, Brassica Nigra, is a weed, a prickly scrubby shrub that grows to be about four or five feet high and then slowly takes over all the soil around it. You don’t want it in your fields because it will quickly push out all the other crops. That’s why you would find it growing in abandoned lots and barren hillsides because it is tough and resilient and hard to kill. The Kingdom of God is like a weed, growing fast, spreading out often where least expected or wanted, and nearly impossible to eradicate or control. Scientists call such a weed an invasive exotic, that’s a pretty good description of the Kingdom of God.
Kingdoms were symbolized by mighty trees. The Book of Daniel says that the Babylon is like a mighty tree, and Ezekiel says that Assyria is like a mighty cedar and indeed Ezekiel dreams of day when the restored monarchy of David will join with other nations and it too will be like a mighty cedar of Lebanon. But Jesus says, no, that’s not the way it’s gonna be. The Kingdom of God is not like those proud human Kingdoms. It doesn’t grow up vertically like a proud cedar, it grows horizontally, low to the ground spreading out, close at hand, accessible. Mighty oaks and cedars, those are human symbols for human empires built on pride and power. The Kingdom of God is built on an altogether different principle: power as humility, strength as weakness, and control as self-giving love.
Did you notice in that ever-expanding tangle of true vines there is room for the birds, for all who are weary of this world seeking a place of shelter and rest? The birds that Ezekiel suggests are all the nations of the world. And it all starts out so small, from the tiniest seed, from the least in the world, the overlooked, the ignored: a cup of water, a listening ear, a word preached, a helping hand extended, a hope encouraged, one person standing up against injustice. Small seeds, unnoticed by princes and presidents, small seeds that one day will bloom in spectacular bounty when and where we least expect it just as it started from the smallest of beginnings, a humble seed that looks dead, just like the message of a humble peasant with odd stories from the back hills of Galilee. Brian
May 7, 2021 – Mark 4:2-9, 13-20
Parables are not comforting moral fables. If you are looking for that sort of thing, you may find Aesop more to your liking. Parables are rhetorical time bombs often camouflaged as moral allegory designed to detonate deep inside our spiritual imaginations or consciences. Every parable has its sting.
Teaching, healing, and exorcising the occasional demon among the agrarian folks of the lower galilee, Jesus tells them a simple yarn. A person goes out to sow some seed and throws it all over the place. Some lands on the pathway where it gets gobbled up. Some lands on rocky ground where it sends up shoots but quickly dies for lack of roots. Some lands where the weeds choke it out. So far, the sower is 0-3. But finally, some of the seeds hit the sweet spot of good soil and they produce a crazy abundant yield. With Jesus’ pastoralist listeners we all nod in agreement. Yes, oftentimes our best plans don’t work out, but sometimes there is extraordinary abundance.
But then, Jesus offers up his own explanation of the parable. Did I say that you were sower? I’m sorry, I should have explained myself. You are not the sower. You are the dirt. I am the seed. Hunh? Wait a second, . . . ouch.
Parables are not tidy reassuring fables. They are designed to prick the conscience of the proud and force everyone to confront a choice, in the original Greek a crisis. God’s word is not just abundant, it is profligate. And yet, three-fourths of it falls on either deaf ears or unresponsive lives resulting in absolutely nothing. The transformation that Jesus’ message brings, which can be astounding, only happens to a few, perhaps a fourth of those who receive Jesus’ message. This is what happens when Jesus shows up. For most people, absolutely nothing happens.
The strongest antidote to saccharine-coated Christianity lapsing into license is Jesus himself. Yes, God’s love is abundant. Yes, God’s invitation is for all people. And yes, we have every opportunity to receive God’s revelation into our lives where it can and will transform us from within. But do we?
Looking around at the world, there is a lot of seed falling on unreceptive soils. Jesus would be quick to remind us this is nothing new. Our ability to change others’ responsiveness is severely limited. Dirt is dirt. What matters instead is what I let in and permit to grow within me.
April 30, 2021 – Mark 3:20-35
We tend to avoid these verses in Mark, among the most cutting in the New Testament: Jesus warning about a sin that cannot be forgiven and Jesus refusing to recognize his own mother. Avoidance leads to forgetting that they are even in there safely tucked away on the top shelf. I cannot explain them away or provide a clever exegetical trick to ease their sting. The only thing that I know for certain is that Jesus would not speak and teach this way unless the stakes were incredibly high.
It is an odd image that Jesus uses to describe his ministry and mission. No good shepherd, loving savior, or itinerant teacher is anywhere in sight. Instead, Jesus describes himself as a covert infiltrator sneaking into a strong man’s home and overtaking him by stealth and surprise, binding up the hapless victim, and then ransacking through the strong man’s possessions claiming them as his own. No one makes holiday cards of Jesus burgling Satan’s home. But that is essentially what Jesus is up to and, at least in Mark, how Jesus conceives of his mission. Jesus has entered into this world, a world subject to and under the domination of the strong man who is the power of sin and evil, through stealth. In Jesus, God sneaks into the realm of the powers and the possibilities of this age, in the role of a Palestinian peasant. And then, through his crucifixion and death, God sneaks into the strong man’s stronghold, the austere, proud, splendor of death itself. So certain of his dominion, Satan does not notice this covert operator and one-messiah hostage rescue mission. The rest, as the world says, is history. The rest, we say, is salvation. The one thing death cannot hold is God and so death breaks. The strong man is bound and his possessions, namely this creation and everything and everyone in it passes through Christ to God’s dominion and loving care.
If we are paying attention to Jesus as described in the Gospel and not the domesticated, tamed, and toned-down God of our imaginations and desires, we quickly notice that Jesus’ purpose is literally a matter of eternal life and death. Jesus is playing for keeps. What Jesus wants is everything and everyone, even you and me.
So, the next time a verse pinches our cultured sensibilities, let us give Jesus due consideration for his mission and the pressures he was under. Sometimes he will snap at our polite sensibilities especially involving family and religion, when they get in the way. Jesus did not come to make our lives marginally more pleasant. Jesus came to break this world and invite us into a new one, his. And may God help anything or anyone who hinders him.
April 23, 2021 – Mark 2:23 – 3:6
Rules are helpful. Until they are not.
When you want to learn how to ride a bicycle you start with training wheels that sit just an inch or so above where the tires touch the ground. If properly installed, the training wheels allow you to lean a little to the left or right before they hit the ground and start making an awful grinding sound. Eventually, you learn to ride such that the training wheels never touch the ground at all. Eventually you learn to balance yourself. The limits that had previously been imposed by the training wheels are now integrated into your own internal sense of balance.
The Bible is full of rules, 613 in the first five books. Those rules, collectively called Torah are the training wheels to help us live as human beings. Mature, well-adjusted people internalize them over time such that they do not consciously consider their application. Instead, we simply live our lives within them as a matter of habit and we call that habit, virtue.
Problems arise when the rules take on an undue importance on their own. If we forget the reason for the rules in the first place, unfortunate results can occur. This is the problem that Jesus addresses in the synagogue. The Law is good. Sabbath is good. But if the rules for the sabbath result in someone being excluded, marginalized, and alienated, then we have undermined the reason for the sabbath in the first place. Sabbath is all about liberation from bondage—bondage to Pharaoh, bondage to want, and bondage to death. Whenever a human being is held in such bondage sabbath demands liberation. And if our sabbath rules get in the way of God’s sabbath purposes, then our rules need to bend.
Religions are generally not adept at bending to human need. We much prefer to do it the way we have always done it. We tend to confuse means with ends and the map with the destination. But then an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth comes along and upsets the whole congregation. He still does and refocuses us again and again away from our rules towards God’s purposes.
April 16, 2021 – Mark 2:13-17
Walking along the Sea of Galilee you are bound to get muddy. The shore alternates between rocks and marshes, great for the migrating birds, not so good for people. Following Jesus along that shore is not so very different. If you want to follow Jesus, things are going to get messy.
Jesus chooses a curious assortment of characters for his endeavor including someone that most of the decent people of Galilee were no doubt quite happy left their neighborhood. Levi, alternatively called Matthew elsewhere, was a tax collector, not an IRS auditor sort of tax collector, rather legally sanctioned shake down artist who worked with the hated Roman occupiers. Even the Roman historians, not otherwise known for their sympathy for the Jews, commented that these tax farmers greed knew no bounds. No doubt Peter and the boys viewed Levi as a traitorous, rapacious, blood-sucking, parasite. This is the man Jesus chooses not to condemn, but instead to share dinner.
Jesus again frustrates and confounds. He chooses encounter over condemnation. He is more interested in the man than his crimes. Jesus engages in the personal rather than enacting justice. And in that encounter perceives Levi the person behind all his many well-earned ignominies. Preferring the personal over public perception, Jesus creates a space where there is at least the potential for Levi to transform.
We live in a golden age of ideological puritanism, quick to judge and pulverize any who purportedly deviate from our tribe’s self-defined norms. Especially now, after a year of separation and spending way too much time on social media, our tolerance for difference appears at an all time low. To us Jesus may be offering a far harsher lesson than he did by the lakeside long ago. Which is more important, being right or engaging in that curious pattern of self-restraint, curiosity, and attention to another that we call love?
April 9, 2021 – Mark 2:1-12
It takes a lot of faith to be willing to be dropped through a roof on a cot by four faithful friends all for the desperate hope of being healed. It also takes a lot of compassion to carry a paralyzed friend on a cot for a great distant, lift him up on the rooftop, and dig a hole through the roof in order that he might be healed.
Our story from the the gospel of Mark for this Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, is a story about healing, compassion, faith and the authority to forgive sins. In this healing story Jesus takes a bold step not only to heal a man who was paralyzed but also to proclaim that he has the authority to forgive sins, knowing all the while that this would ruffle the feathers of certain religious leaders. This short passage of scripture calls into question some common misunderstandings about faith, healing, forgiveness, sin, and their relationship to one another.
What is the relationship, if any, between sickness and sin? Between forgiveness and healing? What false narratives do we still embrace today regarding sin and illness? Or illness and goodness? Why were the scribes so upset that Jesus forgave sins?
The story of the healing of the paralytic is a pivotal point in Mark’s short gospel. Jesus goes from healing miracle upon healing miracle in the region of Capernaum to sudden controversy and conflict with the religious rulers. This healing story is really a pronouncement story! Who is this Son of Man who can heal the paralytic and forgive his sins?
Join us for worship this Sunday, live-streamed at www.fairmontchurch.org, as we hear about Jesus, the Son of Man, and how he changed lives and ushered in a new kingdom of God.
April 2, 2021 – Mark 16:1-8
Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter. On Holy Saturday the deeper mysteries of salvation unfolded. On that day Jesus was somewhere or perhaps everywhere somehow both still divine and yet quite dead going where no divine being was supposed to go. On Holy Saturday God enters death itself and in the greatest act of cosmic vandalism breaks death from the inside. The locks on the doors to death no longer work. Those who resided there are now free to leave. Neither I nor any mortal will ever truly understand what happened between Good Friday and Easter morning. Scripture itself stands in respectful mute silence before the awesome mystery of it all. But something did happen. On Easter morning first the women and then his followers discovered this amazing transformation had been completed, but the hard work of it was unfolding on Saturday.
I do not spend much of my life on Good Friday, thanks be to God. As a relatively comfortable, relatively secure American, I am not subjected to the systemic horror of arbitrary arrest, sham trials, public torture, and summary crucifixion. Nor do I spend much of my life on Easter running in exultation tinged with fear having materially seen that everything in my world has changed. I do however spend much of my life on Holy Saturday, knowing that God is doing something beyond my understanding in the deeps as I wait and watch and remember.
One practice of Holy Saturday is remembering, remembering all the promises of God even when we cannot behold their immediate fulfillment on our timetable, remembering the promises of God even when all other lights fail. So, we turn to scripture and His promises. Join us on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. on YouTube as we share together in those promises in our annual proclamation of a Gospel. This year we will be sharing the Gospel according to Mark. Please join us and hear the whole story as it was meant to be heard, orally shared by friends and recited as a whole.
The promises of God are not what gets us through the silence. The promises of God are what remind us that God is in the silence.
March 26, 2021 – Mark 11:1-11; 14:3-9
Faithful and Fickle
The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is the beginning of the most sacred week, Holy Week, for all of Christendom. For Jesus, the journey into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey is the final journey to Jerusalem, to crucifixion on the cross, and ultimately to the empty tomb and resurrection.
From Bethpage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives through the Kidron Valley to the east gate of the Temple, Jesus rides a humble beast while the crowds lay down their cloaks and spread branches before him. It is a heart-warming scene which later in the week will turn to angry shouts of “crucify him!”
Many of those who followed Jesus and faithfully shouted “Hosanna” would soon be fickle and unfaithful to Jesus. But one unnamed follower of Jesus was neither fickle nor unfaithful. We know very little about this woman, at least in Mark’s Gospel, but her act of anointing Jesus with precious oil and lavish love will be remembered for generations.
One seemingly insignificant act from a seemingly insignificant woman becomes a gift that matches all other gifts of service and love for Jesus. What was the meaning of this extravagant act of anointing Jesus? Who was this woman who risked all she had to show her love? What does her act mean in the midst of Holy Week and in contrast to the the triumphal entry and shouts of Hosannas?
Join us this Holy Week as we worship together. Be with Jesus in his journey to the cross and beyond to resurrection. This sacred week begins this Sunday, Palm Sunday, at 10:30 a.m. You can worship live-stream at www.fairmontchurch.org. Peace be with you.
March 19, 2021 – Mark 13:1-8, 32-36
Apocalypse and Revelation are the same word in different languages. Apocalypse is Greek and Revelation is Latin. Both of them simply mean the opening or the unwrapping. When a Greek mother opens up the soup kettle to check on it, that peeking under the lid is apokalypsus. And that term perfectly describes the vision that Jesus describes in the thirteenth chapter of Mark, his longest and final discourse in the Gospel, Jesus’ final teaching during his final week.
That apocalyptic vision, that revelation, is exactly what the first generation of Christians thought they were living into around the year 69. When the Gospel of Mark was being written, the last few men and women who personally knew Jesus and the Apostles were passing away. Imagine yourself as a Greek speaking Christian in a small town in Turkey at that time. You hear that down to the south there is a fierce war waging in Judea, the Roman legions have surrounded the temple and are slowly squeezing it to death. Meanwhile you hear news that that Rome has burned and that the emperor Nero has committed suicide only to be succeeded by a revolving carousel of generals who each rise up to take the throne by force. An empire-wide civil war is brewing. Everything you knew or thought you knew was now up for grabs. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. These are the images that describe a world out of control, your world on a roller coaster ride into chaos. Soon it seems God will vindicate either the temple, or Jesus. You hang on to Jesus’ promises for dear life. The moment is at hand.
And then it passes. The world is not swept away. Rome is doing better than ever under a new emperor. Jerusalem is now a pile of rubble, the temple no more. The final fulfillment of God’s great promises for a complete transformation of this world lay somewhere in the future. Welcome to the time of the Gospel writers, the time of our lives, and the age of the church.
Waiting, watching, prayer and perseverance. It requires patience and discipline, two rare qualities in human beings, especially this year, as God slowly shapes us into the people that God wants. It all is on God’s timetable not ours. Perhaps the patience and the discipline are a necessary part of the process. Perhaps this is our time, our season to help perfect the world and our selves. But we do not do so alone or in vain.
The great medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, wrote a confession of faith called the Ani Ma’Amin, literally “this I believe.” To this day it concludes morning worship in Jewish congregations. It was widely reported that this prayer was sung by Jews as they were led into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. And it is our prayer too, no matter what may come or how long it may take. “I believe with all my heart in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, nonetheless I will wait for him. I will wait every day for him to come. I believe.” Amen.
March 12, 2021 – Mark 12:28-34
No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation 17 (1623)
This year, more than any other in our lives, we have come to face the realities of belonging and separation. Our culture prides itself on our stubborn individualism from Rene Descartes’ declaration that being is the product of self-willed thought (“I think, therefore I am.”) to our culture’s obsession with solitary cowboys on the range living by their wits and strength to bend nature and neighbor to their will. But individualism only gets you so far. We were not created to be alone and this year we learned that lesson only too well.
Many things change with time. Some things never change. The Bible is perfectly consistent from Old Testament to New: humans are made for relationship with God and each other. Jesus does not create a new rule, he simply embodies and then quotes very old ones. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your strength, Deuteronomy 6:5. And, love your neighbor as yourself, Leviticus 19:18. These are not simply summary commandments of what human beings are supposed to do. These instructions are the description of what human life is.
We were made for relationship with God and with one another. Alone, apart, we wither into something less. Together we become more than we could imagine on our own. And this year we have seen the proof of both extremes.
The first five books of the Bible are called in Hebrew, Torah. Christians often translate the term as “law.” But that is not right. Torah simply means “teachings.” God taught us how to live and we failed to learn. Jesus now shows us how to live in a human life, his own, lived in utter and intimate dependence on God and lived entirely for others. Have we learned from his demonstration?
March 5, 2021 – Mark 12:18-27
The question is decidedly weird. If a woman’s husband dies and she marries his brother and that brother dies and she marries the next brother, and so on and so forth through seven rather unlucky brother/grooms, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? It is the kind of question they ask you in a law school class on domestic relations. And there are answers to be found, albeit conflicting ones, in Genesis 38:8, Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21, and Deuteronomy 25:5, in case you might be curious. But that is not really the question at all. Go back to the first line of the passage and it might help make sense of what is going on.
“Some Sadducees*, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question,” about resurrection. A question based on a premise you do not agree with is not a question. It is a trap. They are trying to trip up Jesus by taking his teachings about resurrection and expanding them to the point of absurdity to undermine his claims. They presume there can be no resurrection and now they want to demonstrate why no one else should.
The problem with the Sadducees’ way of thinking is that they were blinded by their own presumptions, a perennial human problem we call confirmation bias. We tend to accept data and arguments that validate our preexisting beliefs and ignore or discount anything that disagrees with our preexisting beliefs. This can lead to all sorts of trouble, especially when something genuinely new happens.
Approximately 1988 years ago in a disused quarry just outside the Joppa gate in Jerusalem something genuinely new happened. A dead man got up and left his tomb. We are still trying to get our imaginations around what that means. But one thing we know for certain, our assumptions about death and life were wrong. Letting go of our assumptions can be hard. The Sadducees could not do it. The question is, can we?
If that sounds too hard, perhaps this will help. Jesus will show you how and the Spirit is always happy to help if asked.
*Sadducees, just in case you are not up on first century Jewish religious politics, the Sadducees were the aristocratic faction of temple priests and wealthy land holders who exercised considerable control over Jerusalem. They were know for their extreme conservatism, like only accepting the Torah as scripture, not the prophets or other writings. Jesus appears to have really annoyed them.
February 26, 2021 – Mark 12:13-17
“Render unto Caesar . . .” It has become a rather trite saying, a slogan that people throw around whenever one needs to fulfill one’s obligations to authority. At least that is what we have made it. And that is a part of the problem.
In the last week of his mortal life, Jesus spends his time teaching and preaching in the Temple, generally annoying every political and religious official in Jerusalem. Chief among those officials are the Herodians, the faction aligned with the resident ruling family and the Pharisees, the reform party within Jewish politics. They pose to him a question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? But the question is not a question. It is a trap. If Jesus says yes, then he is an irreligious, unpatriotic collaborator with Rome. If he says no, then he is advocating a tax revolt against Rome and commits sedition. These are frequently the choices offered by our politics.
So, what are Jesus’ politics and how do they change the options available. That is what Jesus will ultimately be hinting at in this lesson. Not whose policies do we agree with, but rather where do our ultimate loyalties lie.
Jesus gets killed on Good Friday by the two most powerful and deadly forces in human society: religion and politics. There is a way out. Come on Sunday and find out how.
February 19, 2021 – Mark 12:1-11
Jesus loved to teach in parables. The three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are filled with the parables of Jesus. And Jesus was not alone in his use of parables in that day and time. Parables were a common form of storytelling and teaching in the surrounding Greek culture.
Our scripture passage for this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, is a parable… the Parable of the Vineyard. But, unlike some of the other parables of Jesus such as the lost coin or lost sheep or lost son, the Parable of the Vineyard doesn’t end with much hope or joy. In fact, a first reading of this parable leaves us a bit in shock over the violence and vanity of the perpetrators in this parable. What is the meaning of this parable? Why would Jesus tell such a parable to the religious leaders of his time? Mark’s gospel is deep into the passion journey by the twelfth chapter of the gospel. How does this passion narrative help us to understand this parable?
Parables usually have a hidden gem or truth in the heart of them. On this first Sunday in Lent, as we begin our journey with Jesus to the cross, you are invited to dig deeper into this parable about authority, power, death, grace, and redemption as we worship together on live-stream. May we find the hidden gem in this surprising parable.
February 12, 2021 – Mark 9:2-9
Transfiguration is weird. Clothes are not supposed to glow. Dead people are not supposed to converse with the living. And supernatural voices are not supposed to boom out of the clouds. To avoid the weirdness of it, we contain it in religion, hoping no one will ask what is really going on. It is Transfiguration, the last Sunday before Lent, the validation that Jesus was, in fact, God’s Son! But we kind of new that from the opening line of Mark’s Gospel and we probably would not concern ourselves with the story if we did not assume something was up with this Jesus of Nazareth. So, what is going on?
Please do not listen to the sermon Sunday if you want to understand Transfiguration. I do not understand it and that is, I suspect, the point. It is all a bit beyond our paygrade. Understanding is highly overrated. Transfiguration points us in the direction of a mystery that we do not and cannot understand, but in which we can participate. God has so identified with us, with human beings and this creation, that the boundary between humanity and divinity has become a trifle porous. And whenever the divine leaks into the mundane or vice versa, things get weird. For some strange reason it tends to happen on hilltops: Zion, Sinai, Tabor, . . . and Calvary.
So, if you want dabble in the great mystery, join us as we stand alongside Peter and the boys and wonder at the enigmatic beauty of it all with our hearts wide open and our heads modestly hushed.
February 5, 2021 – Mark 1:29-39
After all the excitement in the synagogue, you would think things would settle down in Capernaum, but they are just getting started.
Educated, post-Enlightenment, Western folks distinguish between healings, which is what happens in hospitals, and exorcisms, which is what happens in horror movies. But that distinction is a not so clear in the first century where the problem was human suffering regardless whether caused by natural or supernatural influences. Jesus comes to free people from their suffering and that means that for him, healings and exorcisms are simply different aspects of the same mission.
Jesus sets people free. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is freed from a debilitating fever. Friends and neighbors are freed from all their afflictions and Jesus understands all of it as his mission of preaching and proclamation. For Jesus, healing, exorcising, and preaching are all one thing. And he does not do it alone.
After spending time alone, recentering himself in his own identity and God’s will, Jesus faces the distant horizon and tells his disciples it is time to go and fulfill my mission. It is time for us to engage with the enemy that holds human beings in thrall. So, he tells them, let’s go.
And he tells the exact same thing to every one of us.
January 29, 2021 – Mark 1:21-28
Unlike the other Gospels, Mark begins Jesus’ public ministry with an exorcism. From the very first chapter of this Gospel, Jesus is thrown into eschatological conflict with the forces that confound and corrupt humanity. All of this makes for a very dramatic Gospel that is often inexplicable to polite modern sensibilities.
Demons do not make for polite dinner conversation. We are far more comfortable with other more rational labels that give the impression of understanding and control like mental health issues, conduct disorders, trauma, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and lack of impulse control. We presume that by naming a thing and describing it we have some real understanding what it is and can control it. Slowly over time, the horizon of ignorance recedes as the scope of human agency expands. Or does it?
Was the author of Mark a hopelessly superstitious primitive who misunderstood all these problems as literal demons or are we hopelessly nearsighted in presuming that we now know so much more? If Mark is, as most scholars believe, the oldest Gospel, then its understanding of who Jesus was and the nature of Jesus’ work is closest in time to his life and those of his followers. It is, in a sense, Gospel in the raw.
Join us on Sunday as we examine the beginning of the work of God’s Holy One: redeemer, exorcist, demon slayer, and Messiah.
January 22, 2021 – Mark 1:14-20
Thus far in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been silent. Present and engaged in the call to be baptized by John and obeying the Spirit’s prodding to be tested in the wilderness, yet silent even so. Here by the Sea of Galilee Jesus breaks that silence and begins his public ministry. By the shores of Galilee, where fishermen were mending, preparing, and casting their nets, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew, James and John, and cries out, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
In this inaugural moment of his ministry, Jesus reveals that he is not in this alone. Jesus calls others to be part of proclaiming this new kingdom, this new realm of God. God’s time has come, and Jesus wants these new disciples to fish for more than tilapia.
Mark’s gospel is sparse at best when it comes to the details of the call of the first disciples, leaving us with a multitude of questions about this seaside moment. Did Jesus know these fishermen before he called them to follow? Did Simon, Andrew, James and John know Jesus before they heard his call? Did these hard working fishermen literally drop their nets and leave “immediately” to follow Jesus? What other fish did Jesus intend them to catch? What was this new realm of God?
The call of the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee seems simple enough in the telling of it, yet the reality of truly following Jesus then and now is very daunting and not at all easy. How does this story of casting nets and hauling fish speak to us today in the midst of a long pandemic as we discern our call to follow Jesus? How do we follow this Rabbi from Nazareth?
Join us on Sunday for live-streamed worship at 10:30 a.m. as together we seek to follow Jesus and hear him call to us, “Follow me.”
January 15, 2021 – Mark 1:12-13
Temptation gets a bad rap. For many people it summons up thoughts of ascetic puritanism. Alternatively, it conjures up a caricature of a little person in red spandex on you shoulder urging you to eat the chocolate lava cheesecake. The term is morally loaded, implying a seductive inducement to do something if not downright naughty, at least ill-advised. So, when we encounter a tiny little story in Mark traditionally called, “The Temptation of Jesus,” we bring a lot of our imagination with us to the text.
The Holy Spirit is the real author of this story. It is the Holy Spirit, the one that just descended on Jesus in Baptism, that literally pitches Jesus out into the desert. The Judean desert is rather devoid of everything human, a blank slate unshaped by culture or civilization. Out there Satan, literally the questioner (not yet quite Dante and Milton’s persona of supernatural evil), tests Jesus. That is what the term we so often translate as tempt or temptation literally means, to test, to prove, or to discover. Jesus is tested. How? Mark will not say. All we know is that immediately after this test, Jesus commences his public ministry. Indeed, the whole rest of Jesus’ life and work may be the answer to this test.
Testing certainly sounds better to me than temptation. Testing is the moment when you prove yourself, the place where what you could be emerges to become what you are. Testing is where hope and possibility take on concrete form as a human life. Jesus has just (“immediately” Mark’s favorite word) been baptized in the Jordan. The voice booms over the waters, “you are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” It is great that God believes that and says that, but it would not matter at all if Jesus does not believe it himself and accept God’s pronouncement of his identity as his own. The moment of testing is when that happens, the moment that the son of God, the Messiah, steps into the fullness of his identity, vocation, power, and calling.
Mark will not give us a simple answer to the precise nature of the identity Jesus adopted that day. Instead, Mark seems far more interested in re-directing the question to us. You too have been baptized. You too have been declared a child of the Living God. In you too God is pleased. And you too have been tested, whether you realize it or not. So how do you respond? God gives us extraordinary gifts, but never coerces their acceptance. In those moments of testing when you can live into being one sort of person or another, who do you choose to be? The author of Mark, Jesus, and most of all God await our answer.
January 8, 2021 – Mark 1:4-11
The story tantalizes us with questions just beyond our grasp. Why does Jesus get baptized? What exactly is John doing out there? What is the relationship between sin, redemption, and baptism? And what does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? Mark, in its spare narrative, leaves us wondering and watching.
The practice of ritual immersion in Judaism (Mikvah) is meant to remove ritual impurity, those normal biological functions that would prevent one from being permitted to enter the temple. Most people in first century Palestine would have spent most of their lives in a state of ritual impurity. The exception would be the priests and the Levites who worked in the Temple. So, if Jesus is not going into the temple, what is going on?
The truth is, I do not know. If I needed to understand baptism before I got baptized, it never would have happened. I rather doubt that it is about our understanding at all. John never asks Jesus anything at all about his intentions or his faith. Jesus just shows up. The only voice is the proclamation God declaring that Jesus is not merely some Nazarene peasant. He is now much more. He is God’s son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. God is doing the doing of baptism. And if God is the subject of Baptism for Jesus, then maybe he is also for us.
In our Reformed tradition, we baptize babies. Babies do not understand baptism. Babies cannot confess their faith in Jesus. Quite to the contrary, babies are completely dependent on outside care and love. And that is the point we are trying to emphasize. Baptism is not meant to be a recognition that we have done the right things or believe the right things. Baptism is not about us saying yes, or anything else, to God. Rather the exact opposite is going on. In baptism God is saying yes to us. In baptism God is expressing faith in us. In baptism God is claiming us. If we had to wait around until we understood what was going on, we would need to wait a very long time. If we had to wait until we had sufficient faith to both understand and then affirm God, we would have to wait even longer.
God claims Jesus. God claims us. The formal recognition of that claiming is baptism. And it is all motivated out of God’s boundless, inscrutable love we call grace.
January 1, 2021 – Mark 1:1-4
A time for new beginnings . . .
The Gospel of Mark is not actually titled, “the Gospel of Mark.” Like the other Gospels, those titles are added centuries later. The book itself is anonymous. But it does have a title: “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And that actually says a lot.
Everything that will follow, the whole Gospel, is in a sense merely the beginning. This curious introduction matches Mark’s curious ending, or the lack thereof cutting out midsentence at 16:8. The whole Gospel is open ended. It is the beginning of the good news, without introduction or conclusion. The end of the story has not yet been written. The Gospel of Mark is not so much a book you read to get information about Jesus. It is more a book that reads you and asks the question, now that you know the beginning of the good news, how will you respond, what will you say, what will you do?
For the next few months we will be considering this most curious, intrusive, and blunt of Gospel. We will consider what exactly this “good news” might be and what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. We will answer the Gospel’s intrusive questions not so much with our clever answers as with our lives. To read this book is to be read by it. And no one is left the same.
December 18, 2020 – Isaiah 61:1-6
This Sunday is our special Children’s Christmas Pageant where we worship God through the voices of our children and youth! We will celebrate this Fourth Sunday of Advent through music, readings, and the virtual presence of our children and youth. Our Children’s Director, Loralei Harding has worked with our children, youth, and parents to bring this meaningful worship service to us in this holy season. We are grateful for Loralei and all the families of the church who have helped make this virtual Children’s Christmas Pageant a reality.
We are especially excited to share the story of the birth of Jesus through the children’s book, “B is for Bethlehem” by Isabel Wilner and illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Elisa Kleven has graciously given us permission to share the storybook “B is for Bethlehem” as part of our online worship this Sunday.
We will also have a special Nativity Storytelling time. All families with children please have your nativity set (one or many) ready for worship this Sunday as the children will share virtually in the storytelling time using their nativity sets.
Join us in this most wonderful season of Advent as we wait for the Christ Child whom we adore. O come, let us adore him!
December 11, 2020 – Lessons and Carols
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast live on Christmas Eve from the chapel of King’s College Cambridge. Every year at 3:00 p.m. Cambridge time (10:00 a.m. Eastern time on WDPR 88.1), the service begins with a solo chorister singing Once in Royal David’s City. Carols and anthems are rotated in and out every year and most years features at least one original composition. Before all the busyness of church on Christmas Eve, I close my eyes, put on my headphones, and imagine myself to be sitting beneath the magnificent fan vault hearing some of the finest choral music on Earth.
This year in particular I value the way they have maintained tradition. The concert will go on exactly as planned. But I also value the innovation involved. There will be no audience present. The choristers are their own quarantine pod, living full time at the college for months. There will be new hymns and always new songs to be sung, but they will be sung within a familiar framework that makes sense of it all. New is not bad. New is simply today’s contribution to tradition that in time will be built upon by future generations. I would like to hope that is part of what we have been doing at Fairmont this year, traditioned innovation in which we use today’s tools to meet today’s challenges but always guided by our shared commitments, identity, and values rooted deep in the past.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols began in the immediate aftermath of World War One, in which so many of Cambridge’s young men died. In its second year, it persevered through the last great viral epidemic of 1919. It continued through World War One, when the stained-glass windows were replaced by sandbags. And it will be there tomorrow, a token of endurance, faithfulness, and hope.
On this Sunday we will celebrate our own Service of Lessons and Carols, a time to hold to old familiar songs and perhaps also learn a new tune. We stand on the backs of generations who have gone before us, and seeing further from our vantage, we turn our eyes to the horizon of the future.
December 4, 2020 – Isaiah 40:1-11
Despite what most people think, prophets do not forecast the future. Prophets re-narrate the present in light of the ongoing story of God’s relationship to humanity. Prophets are the folks reinterpreting the world, looking beyond the immediate and the sensational, to what is really going on. They are the ones who remind us where we are going, even when we get stuck.
If you think we are stuck in 2020, things have been far worse before. In 538 BC, things were not going well at all. The Kingdom of Judah had been snuffed out, their religious institutions destroyed, their people scattered across foreign lands, and now, most ominously of all, the people were starting to forget who they were as they began to integrate into Babylonian society. Adding insult to injury, the prophets of the preceding generation were quite clear that they deserved it. But now someone starts sharing a new interpretation of events. Yes, Israel was quite rightly punished, but now it has served its sentence. God’s temporary anger is now reverting to God’s eternal compassion. A new decree has been issued from the divine court. It is time for Israel to go home.
The Prophet Isaiah reminds the people of two things. First, there is always hope. Second, that hope is not based on who we are (in which case it would not be much hope), but rather who God is. This is the hope that would lead the people home and sustain them across the centuries. This is the same hope that drove John the Baptist on his mission and provided the outline for Jesus’ own work. And this is the same hope that sustains us.
Behind the pretty words sung in Handel’s Messiah is a stark claim about the nature of reality and human destiny. No matter how difficult the circumstances, God will come for you and lead you home. Advent is simply our longing for that embrace and Christmas is the celebration of the moment that hope took on flesh.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
November 27, 2020 – Isaiah 64:1-9
Advent begins on Sunday, the formal season of the church year focused on waiting and watching for God. Bowing to secular demands, the church has slowly transformed it into pre-Christmas, a time to reflect on all those characters and their stories leading up to the big night in Bethlehem. The accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke (and those are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth in scripture) begin much earlier with the genealogy of Jesus. Lots of tongue-twisting names of who begat whom torture lectors every year. The odd thing is, after David and the Kings of Judah there are lots of names, about ten generations, about who we know absolutely nothing. When we occasionally preach on the genealogy of Jesus it is usually focused on his relationship to other famous Biblical persons, especially some rather amazing women (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth). But what I am curious about this year especially are all these other unknowns.
Advent is all about waiting and watching. This year will be an Advent like no other—no big Christmas parties, no Cookie Walk, no Messiah, no Nutcracker, and no pageant in the sanctuary. In some ways it is another loss borne of pandemic separations. But in another way, this may be the most authentic Advent we will ever experience. We are all literally waiting right now, for the Messiah and/or a more secular redemption in the form of a vaccine. We are anxious, weary, occasionally grumpy and generally demoralized. We know that there is hope, but it is not yet here. So, we wait and watch and wonder just like those generations of unknowns so long ago.
The problem of course is that God is not showing up as expected. Not then. Not now.
The absence or hiddenness of God is the essence of the problem. From the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians until the birth of Jesus, for over 500 years, God was silent. How did they deal with that? What did they do? And more immediately, what might it say to us in our predicament? The folks assembled in Bethlehem had the distinct advantage of all those angelic choirs yelling, this is important! Pay attention! God is now here! But what do you do when God is silent?
The amazing thing and the only thing I know about all those generations of unknown ancestors of Jesus is that somehow, someway, they held onto the promise and possibility of God when everything in their world encouraged them to give up. They held it and passed it on down the centuries. How? Why? And what can they teach us? What do you do when God steadfastly remains hidden? That is the question for Advent, this Sunday, and our lives.
November 20, 2020 – Ephesians 1:15-23
Most of our popular images of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are all wrong. The first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated not during the first, but during the second autumn after the colony was established. More than half of all the Pilgrims died during the first winter during what they called ‘the starving time,’ when a ration of five kernels of corn was apportioned to each adult for a meal. As they sat down for that first thanksgiving they were surrounded by the graves of their children, wives, and husbands. When they sat down to eat a Thanksgiving feast together their hearts were still broken from the grief and trauma. But still, they celebrated their gratitude. It is still a local custom in Plymouth that on Thanksgiving Day, in the middle of the bountiful tables, five kernels of corn placed on a red maple leaf are set at each place to remind us, we who now enjoy a such bounty, of the “starving time” long ago. Five kernels to remind us, to whom we give thank and what it is we truly give thanks for.
Thanksgiving, not the day, not just the holiday, but a life lived in thanksgiving is an act of insurrection against the powers and death-dealing assumptions of this world. Thanksgiving defies every power that would seek to bind us, even death. Thanksgiving means that we cast our allegiance on God alone as King and no lesser power or prince. Thanksgiving is all the more heart grabbing precisely because it emerges most clearly out of the pits of human pain and need, not the summits of satisfaction. It is there where thanksgiving will change you because it is there where the Kingship and sovereignty of Christ matter most. He descended into Hell. And now there is no place that is not subject to his reign and rule. So while it may not seem like any other Thanksgiving, it is precisely in the depths of anxiety, separation, and loss, that we embrace the magnitude of the gift we have received and the sort of King we thank.
November 13, 2020 – Exodus 33:12-23
Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and God’s people had come a long, exhausting way through their wilderness journey out of Egypt, through the waters of deliverance, through the dry desert, to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and now they have turned their eyes toward the Promised Land. And even though God had always provided a way through the wilderness, God’s people still chose to disobey God and worship false idols, turning away from the one true God.
Moses now stands with the Promised Land on the horizon but also with the uncertainty of knowing who would lead Moses and God’s people into the promised land of milk and honey. “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here,” Moses cries out to God. All Moses wanted to know was that God would go with them into the days ahead. And not just that God would go with Moses but that God would go with God’s people also. Without God, they were nothing. God’s presence was everything to Moses and God’s people Israel. How would they move forward without God present with them?
This is the heart of our Scripture passage for this Sunday. Will God be with God’s people not just for one day but for all of their days? It may seem like a ridiculous question in light of all that God has promised and done for Israel, but the sin of God’s people had broken the trust and the relationship between God and them. Moses was desperate to know that God would indeed go with them.
Moses’ cry of desperation is one that echoes down through the generations! We, too, cry out to God to know if God will be with us in our wilderness journey. In these days of pandemic and monumental change in how we are the church together-yet-apart, we too must know that God is with us and will be with us beyond these days of COVID.
God had a promise for Moses and God has a promise for us, too! Join us in worship this Sunday to hear once again God’s promise of presence and hope.
November 6, 2020 – Exodus 32:1-14
Human beings have a nearly infinite genius for crafting idols, by which I mean a finite object to which we ascribe infinite value. The worship of those idols is the most popular religion in the history of the world. While we may scoff at the primitive superstitions of ancient Mesopotamians worshipping golden bulls or Egyptians worshipping ibis headed deities, idols come in far subtler varieties. Power, wealth, fame, security, family, love, nation, pleasure, control, food, sex, chemicals, risk, reward, beauty, certainty, sports, technology, entertainment, and most of all the self are more common idols to which we ascribe our time, money, and devotion. Often these can be very good things in themselves, which is precisely what makes them so insidious. The problem is that humans confuse these intermediate goods or means with ultimate ends possessing ultimate meaning and value.
Right now, our community is wracked with partisan political conflict. But politics, the winning and losing of elections, is simply a means of organizing decision making in society. And the process of ordering society is simply the means to provide for the best possible social circumstances so that people may live their best lives. But you are not supposed to ask the next question in our secular society. Why do we want to live our best lives? To what end? For what purpose? That question actually points us toward the ends of human existence. To that question, politics has no answer.
But God does. Scripture does. We do.
The way to avoid idolatry in all its forms is to give infinite meaning and value only to things that are truly infinite and one of those things is our relationship with an infinite being we label God. In Exodus, we learn all about the formation of that relationship and the lengths to which God will go to safeguard it and save God’s people. God’s hurt and anger are no surprise when the people turn away from both the promise and the blessings of that relationship to frolic before of a cow effigy. The problem is not the idol. The problem is the people in their feckless commitment.
So, what will God do? God’s past response to this sort of betrayal was to flood the world and destroy almost all life on the planet. Can God change God’s mind, and if so how and why? This is the question we will consider on Sunday morning.
And until then, be gentle with yourself.
October 30, 2020 – Revelations 7:4, 9-17: Who Shall Stand?
This Sunday is All Saints’, a day to remember those who have died, especially those who have died in the past year. The Book of Revelation is very particular about the ultimate state of those who have died trusting God, they dwell in eternal communion with God and each other. They are bonded together, like the seraphs, in common song. It is no surprise that Handel borrows so liberally from them for his oratorio, Messiah. And it is a vast chorus, too many for any mortal to count. This vast assembly is what we call the communion of saints.
Being a saint is not about being especially pious or churchy, it simply comes down to the question whether you want to be close to God. Those who do in this life are, at least according to Revelation, part of that assembly. Those who do not always can opt out. God respects human choice.
Being a saint is also not an individual activity. It is a group project, rather like a choir in which each voice is a unique contribution but all defined by the work the whole, hence “the communion” of saints. Their primary activity is giving witness to the truth. They testify to who God is and participate in the inner work and identity of God. The clear boundary between saints starts to blur as they begin to look a bit less like people and a bit more like God.
What we summarily call heaven, with all its cultural assumptions drawn from everything but scripture (think Dante, Milton, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Good Omens), is not so much about a place as it is about a relationship: human beings belonging to and belonging in God. Into that relationship our blessed dead now belong because that is the relationship for which we were made.
October 23, 2020 – 1 Peter 2:4-10
I do not consider rocks often. They are easy to overlook because they are common and seemingly inert. It takes a particular sort of person to really see a rock. Geologists see their origins in ancient lava flows. Sculptors see beauty that can be released from within. Jewelers see how they could be set in gold. And children may appreciate their hydrodynamic qualities for skipping. You need to see differently to really appreciate a rock.
Peter (ironically named the rock) describes Jesus and the church the same way. For some they will have no significance or value, but with the eyes of faith, you can see that these rocks are living stones of the temple of God, the literal meeting place between God and humanity, all resting on Christ the foundation and cornerstone. What you see all depends on how faith shapes your perception.
75 years ago, in the booming months after the end of World War II, 41 people met together in the old Van Buren Township fire station and saw a thriving congregation where others only saw a cornfield. Fairmont Presbyterian Church is the hope born of their vision built out of lives and relationships. This Reformation Heritage Sunday we celebrate our Reformed tradition focused on faith alone. But this Sunday in particular, we consider how that faith and the vision it provides us not only gave birth to Fairmont, but even now shows us the way forward.
October 16, 2020 – Exodus 20:1-17
“God spoke all these words…”
Ten Words! Ten words spoken by God to God’s people Israel – and just newly named as Israel at this point in the desert – to show God’s people how to live. Ten Words for life and living for God’s people in the wilderness.
The Ten Commandments have taken on a life of their own through the thousands of years of faith interpretation. We may think we are approaching these Ten Words with open eyes and open minds and open hearts but our present day Western Christianity eyes have a definite biased filter on them. We must look at these words of law – part of 613 total laws in the Torah – in a new and honest way if we are to understand how they speak to us today.
This Sunday is Children’s Sabbath, a day we celebrate the gifts and faith of children. You will be deeply moved by the voices of our children and by their pure faith as we worship together via livestream. The Ten Words from Exodus 20 are a gift to us just as the children are a gift to us. These Ten Words teach us how to live and to love. And our children teach us how to live and to love.
The Children of Fairmont, Loralei (our Children’s Director), and I invite you to worship with us this Sunday as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath and as we celebrate God’s law of love for us.
October 9, 2020 – Exodus 17:1-7
It’s hot. I’m hungry. I’m bored. Are we there yet? Complaints are to be expected on a long road trip. They often sound like whining. But sometimes they raise legitimate grievances that must be addressed. The Hebrews, wandering through the amusingly named Desert of Sin, are quickly running out of water. Acute dehydration is a potentially life-threatening problem when you are hiking through the desert. So, they complain first to Moses and then to God. They are not asking for anything too luxurious, just water to continue their journey.
Unlike how we react when confronted by complaints, God responds and God provides. Not only that, this whole episode opens a new chapter in the relationship between God and the Hebrews. Up until now in Exodus, God tests the Hebrews. Here the Hebrews test God and far from being punished for it, they are led to the next big step in their journey and their relationship with God.
I once thought that the Hebrews were whiny and did not trust God. The very real pain and suffering of the past months for so many people has led me to change my mind. Sometimes the most vulnerable and honest sign of trust is acknowledging our pain and grief to someone we love. God is big enough to handle it. That kind of painfully honest sharing may in fact lead to a deeper relationship we call faith.
October 2, 2020 – Exodus 16:2-15
You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, well, you might find
You get what you need.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Freedom can be difficult. The Hebrews learned this the hard way. Liberated from bondage in Egypt they began wandering in the stony desert wastes of Sinai. Nothing grows there. It’s hot during the day and cold at night. They were hungry and there was nothing to eat. This was not what they thought they signed up for. So, they do what we all do when our expectations are not satisfied. They start complaining.
God responds to whining better than most of us. God provides. Every morning God rains down some sort of flaky substance on the ground. They don’t know what it is, so they call it, “what is it?” or in Hebrew man-hu (aka Manna). At night God rains down quails into their camp. It may not be what they expected (no one expects poultry precipitation!) or what they wanted, but was enough. Actually, it was more than enough. It was an abundance.
God provides abundance, but there is always a stipulation. They can only eat the food that day. They cannot store it, dry it, can it, freeze it, or salt it away. They cannot hoard. They cannot control the means of commodity distribution which was the central source of Pharaoh’s power (remember they were previously building granaries in Egypt). Instead, they are going to have to trust that God will provide. They are going to need to learn to trust that God would provide their daily bread.
Trust is hard for human beings. We tend to want to be in control. We like to know where we are going and where our next meal will come from. And when our plans for the future and our systems of control and security get interrupted, we tend to get mad, sad, or scared or all at the same time.
Right now, we are learning a lesson in trust the hard way. Covid-19 has made a cruel mockery of our plans and our assumptions of scientific miracles on demand. We are being forced to relearn the lesson that every generation needs to learn. We are being forced to learn to trust, especially when we are not in control. Life, real life, has nothing to do with survival. We are saved through trust.
September 25, 2020 – Exodus 14:19-31
My imagination of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea is shaped more by Hollywood than by scripture. Cecil B. DeMille portrayed it as a grand, dramatic spectacle Charlton Heston firmly in charge. The Bible describes a rather different scene. The parting of the sea does not happen all at once. It happens gradually over an evening. Second it unfolds at night. The pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews on their journey is now behind them so when they descend into the sea they are walking into darkness. Finally, it is not so much the waves and the waters that stop the Egyptians, that will come later, but the mud.
It is so easy to get caught up in the spectacle of it all that we jump over a small but important detail. The chariots of the Egyptians get stuck in the mud. Chariots do not work so well in mud. But chariots are also the pride of the Egyptian army and the premier weapon system of the late Bronze Age, so the Egyptians push and pry and do everything they can to get their beloved chariots up and running again. They are so focused that they fail to notice that the winds have changed.
Sometimes God intervenes in history in dramatic and decisive ways. Sometimes God obliterates God’s opponents. But sometimes God merely sets up the conditions for people to destroy themselves. The Egyptians could have escaped. They could have walked back to their shore. What prevented them from doing so was their attachment to the means and symbol of their power. And so, they died.
Sometimes the way ahead merely requires us to let go. Letting go can be hard, but sometimes it is a matter of life and death.
September 18, 2020 – Exodus 12:1-14
One of the great comforts of our faith, among many, is the gift of ritual. Rituals to mark significant and meaningful moments in life and faith. Rituals that we come back to again and again and again, and yet we find new and sincere meaning in them each time. Rituals of faith allow us to mark God’s presence and work in our lives in the midst of busy and sometimes meaningless days.
Our Old Testament scripture passage from Exodus 12 gives us an inside view of one of the most important – if not the most important – ritual of faith for God’s people. In this rather detailed and somewhat difficult litany of the first Passover, we see God’s hand of redemption in the lives of the Hebrew people who were suffering under the torturous rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. As slaves, the Hebrew people lived bitter lives of endless, back-bending work and lived through the horror of their beloved children murdered by Pharaoh.
In this litany of redemption, God calls the Hebrew people to be ready for the moment when God would save them from slavery in Egypt through the trembling and unsure voice of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” This moment of redemption, the Exodus, would be a moment to mark all days. It would be THE moment to mark all days for all of time for the Israelites.
Remember this day! In this moment, God saved God’s people from slavery and kept God’s promise to generations upon generations. And to this day, generations of God’s people remember and recite the litany of that night when God passed over the Hebrew people and saved them from death.
This story is our story too! God has marked his redeeming mark upon us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, are called to remember that day. Come, join us as we worship the God of Redemption and remember.
September 11, 2020 – Exodus 3:1-15
Sometimes faith can move mountains and transform our lives.
Sometimes God steps in and changes everything.
And at other times, something altogether different happens.
Moses was a mess. He was on the run from the Egyptians for murder. He had anger control issues that frightened the Hebrews. His life followed a downward spiral eking out an existence as a free-lance shepherd in the scrubby hills of Midian. He married his bosses’ daughter and gets promoted to middle management. That was there he was probably going to remain, minding a flock of sheep on the edge of the desert. And they were not even his sheep!
Then something happened, or more precisely Moses noticed something happening. Moses was not a particularly religious man. His faith is not mentioned up to this point. He was probably more Egyptian than anything else. But he sees something odd, a shrub burning out on the edge of the desert that did not burn up. We have no idea for how long that shrub had been burning, but it catches Moses’ attention. He gets curious and turns aside with his flocks to go and check out this flammable shrubbery. And in that instant salvation history turns.
In the church we so often focus on faith being the necessary and sufficient condition to connect with God, but Moses suggests it is much simpler than that. Moses has no faith, at least not yet. Moses is simply curious. That small measure of curiosity opens him up to this mysterious, wild God of the desert and this God’s plan for an audacious rescue mission.
That wild God of the desert still seeks out the curious and invites us to join in that ongoing rescue mission.
September 4, 2020 – Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
The book of Exodus provides the underlying story of liberation for the rest of the Bible and Western civilization. It is filled with amazing miracles, none more so than an all sovereign God who intervenes in human history on behalf of the powerless. Exodus has inspired everyone who has struggled for human freedom for the past 3000 years and has taught successive generations that oppression is never inevitable. And all of it starts with amazing, stubborn, courageous women who refused to cooperate with the politics of death.
Amram and Yocheved had a baby boy who was born under a death sentence. Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys must be drowned in the Nile. But for this baby, the Nile would become a means of deliverance as would other waters later in his life. His clever sister Miriam guided his floating bassinet into the waiting arms of a most unlikely savior. Pharaoh’s daughter was precisely the person who should have handed this baby over to the authorities. From Pharaoh came death. From Pharaoh’s daughter came life. She sees a child, not an enemy, not an alien, just a child, and she has compassion for this infant. Of course, she quickly figures out who this might be and she devises a plan to hide him in plain sight.
Sometimes the biggest miracle of all is simply when one human being does the utterly unexpected. Sometimes the biggest miracle of all is choosing life in the midst of death.
August 28, 2020 – Romans 12:9-21
It is easy, for the most part, to love those who love us. It is easy – again for the most part – to love our family, to love our close friends, to love our church family. But it is in the loving of strangers and even enemies that we really struggle, and understandably so! It is especially difficult in these days of deep political divide, deep theological divide, deep racial divide, and deep pandemic grief and weariness to love our neighbors and strangers and enemies.
It is hard enough to follow Jesus when he calls us to love our neighbors. Yes, Jesus did tell us even to love our enemies!
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:43-44
But we might be easily tempted to say, “Well, Jesus was God, you know! So, of course, he is able to love his enemies. We, on the other hand, are not God!”
But now the Apostle Paul, who was as human as it comes, joins in with the mandate of Jesus and calls us to “Let love be genuine…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”
At first, this passage from Romans 12 reads like the perfect vision statement for any church or faith community. It is so beautiful and so powerful and we are moved by Paul’s words and mandates. But then we realize that the living out of these words seems almost impossible given our brokenness, sin, and humanity.
This is our challenge for Paul’s words to us for this Sunday! How do we live with genuine love? How do we love our friends and family, let alone our enemies? What does it mean to be “church” today in this time of deep divide?
Join us for worship this Sunday as we seek to be faithful to both Jesus’ and Paul’s calling to love one another. You can find the worship link and bulletin link at Fairmont’s website www.fairmontchurch.org.
August 21, 2020 – Romans 12:1-8
Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome is full of passages like this that at first glance seem to be saying much the same thing, but look closer because Sunday’s reading is actually extraordinary.
What is the purpose of your life? That is the question that Paul is addressing. The purpose of your life is this, to uncouple or unconform yourself from the world and the way that this world tries to define and mold us and instead to be transformed (literally in Greek metamorphisized) by the renewal of our minds (including our intellect, emotion, and will). That is what God wants for you and your life. God does not want a perfect life according to some preexisting set of rules or expectations. Rather what God wants is our openness to change, a willingness to be transformed into something, into someone else. And when we do that, when we are open to that kind transformation, then we are offering up the real work, the real worship that God has been wanting from us all along. Offering up a transforming and transformed life is, according to Paul, what God wants and takes delight in.
So, how does one do this? Paul suggests you first need to think rightly. Specifically you need to give every thought its proper due. This was not a uniquely Christian idea. The Greeks and the Romans included it as one of the cardinal virtues of human life. We normally translate that virtue it as temperance, but it means more that avoiding excessive consumption. It means avoiding excess in all things, like thinking too highly or too critically of yourself. It means letting go of the anxious chatter of our monkey minds and holding onto what is right in front of us. When we do that, the possibility of transformation opens up. And it is important to add that this process of transformation may not end with our deaths. Indeed, once freed of certain physical constraints, that is when transformation gets interesting.
For millennia, human beings had treated God like a vending machine–insert the right sacrifice or offerings (like a goat, candle, worship service, or prayer) and withdraw the blessing you seek. Paul says that was never how God worked, that is just how we operate and in our arrogance assumed that God operated. What God wants is nothing less than you, but not just you as you are now. What God wants most of all is you when you are a little bit more like God. And as Trinity God is change. That work of transformation is what your life is for.
August 14, 2020 – Joshua 1: 1-9
This summer, it seems that strength and courage are harder than ever to find…and more necessary, as even ordinary day to day activities can seem intimidating and daunting. A trip to the store never took such preparation. Drawing strength and courage from our friends and loved ones helps to keep our lives afloat, but we all have bad days. Sometimes, it all just becomes a bit too much. Sometimes, we find it impossible to be strong or courageous, especially when we seem to have been shoved into the deep end of a Coronavirus pool without a life vest.
Joshua’s story is a complicated one, full of questionable choices and difficult stories. At the beginning, though, he is just a man…a man thrown into his own pool, without warning, without preparation, without a mask or a vaccine; thrown into leadership of his people with only four words: “be strong and courageous.” Easy for God to say, but when the time comes to lead the armies into battle, to take the land by force, to step out of Moses’ shadow…when the time comes to stand up for what you believe in, to take a leap of faith, to say goodbye…what then?
Thankfully, the answer for Joshua – and for us – is that God provides all the strength and courage we will ever need.
August 7, 2020 – Romans 11:25-32
God is not transactional. God will not be bargained with or bribed. Similarly, once God’s mind is made up, the world changes and no one and nothing can change it. That seems to be Paul’s point. He is wracking his brain to figure out the absence of his people, the Jews, from the early church. He is struggling to hold together all those ancient promises and the way in which God had used Israel as God’s special agent to introduce monotheism to the world and the very clear absence of Jews from the early church. What was God up to and how could he reconcile ancient promises with a very present predicament?
Paul returns to the basics. God’s promises are unconditional and irrevocable. God’s purpose of blessing all humanity through this curious elect people called Israel cannot be thwarted simply because some of those people rejected God’s purposes. Instead, God now seems to be doing something curious. God has called two people side by side to achieve God’s purposes, Israel and this rag tag bunch of former gentiles called to faith through Jesus whom we now call the church. The church, this new community formed from God’s invitation to faith, are now grafted into the mighty and ancient tree of God’s providence reaching all the way back to Abraham.
As to the question of why this is so, Paul offers no answer. Nor can any human. It is not a mystery to be dissected, analyzed, and understood. It is an invitation to be celebrated. And that invitation is for you.
July 31, 2020 – Romans 10: 5-17
The early church had a problem: Jews–or more precisely the lack of them. God became incarnate in Jewish flesh to a very Jewish family in a Jewish village. Jesus grew up to become a Jewish Messiah fulfilling Jewish prophecy and law. All his followers were Jews and his brother James was known for being particularly devout. And yet, the church did not really catch on among the Jews. Instead, it caught on with the people they least expected, gentiles. So, what was going on? What was God up to? And even more unsettling, what did this mean for God promises to the patriarchs and Moses long ago? Was the covenant done?
Paul, a learned albeit sometimes slightly neurotic rabbi, directly addresses this question in the middle of his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 9-11 Paul lays out the relationship between God’s twin creations: Israel and the Church. Paul explains exactly what is up with Israel, its purpose and its destiny. And those answers are deeply intertwined in the mission and identity of Christ.
More immediately for our current predicament, lots of people are wondering where God is in the midst of this Pandemic. Paul has some concrete answers, promises so concrete, you can build you life on them.
July 24, 2020 – Romans 8: 21-39
Beyond forgiveness lies something even better: belonging. The “Good News” is not that we are forgiven or that the Kingdom of God comes near, or even that Jesus is the Messiah. The good news is more basic, more immediate, and more relational. We belong to God. Period. Full stop. No qualifications. This was the Good News, literally the gospel, that Paul shared two generations before the familiar Gospels were written.
Now belonging to God might not be such great news depending on the sort of god we are talking about. That is why Paul spends much of his letter to the congregation in Rome going over God’s resume and explaining all the wonderful loving things that God has done demonstrating God’s wonderful loving character (e.g. creation, the patriarchs, the Exodus, Israel, and most of Jesus’ self-giving love). This God we belong to keeps going out on a limb for us over and over again and on that basis has more than demonstrated that in this God we can find our home even though we may be alienated, cut-off and afraid.
The lists of threats and dangers are different for us. Few of us are at risk of famine (actually its opposite is a greater danger). Few of us are at risk of sword blows. But we are at risk of corona virus. We are at risk of isolation, depression, despair, and grief. And so, Paul’s message is the same for us as the struggling congregation in Rome. Yes, the pain and grief are real, but so too is your true identity in God. You belong to God. Nothing in this universe can change that. So, do not be afraid.
July 17, 2020 – Romans 8: 1-4; 12-25
“Who will save us from our wretched sinfulness!”
That is as succinct of a summary for the first seven chapters of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome as I can find! Honestly, some days I feel like the answer is “no one!” But grace upon grace is the answer the apostle Paul gives to the early followers of Jesus and gives to us.
Listen to these words again:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul wrote these words toward the end of his long and world-changing ministry. The book of Romans is belovedly known as Paul’s theological “last will and testament” and these words in Romans chapter 8 are the heart of the last words Paul wanted the early church and us to hear. We struggle each day with “life in the flesh” and with our inability to love God, love one another, and even love ourself as we should.
There are very few of us who need to be reminded, as Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What a predicament we are in as humans! We strive so to be who God has created and called us to be yet, daily, we hurt one another and we turn away from God. But “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and we do have hope in the midst of our despair; hope that God is making us a new creation in Jesus Christ. It may be hard to see but God has adopted us as God’s own children and we are loved! What does it mean to be “in Christ?” What does it mean to be children of God? How do we live a life in the Spirit and not in the flesh? Paul presents this struggle we live with as Christians and followers of Jesus, and gives us the hope we need to continue on.
We will gather again for live-cast worship this Sunday and together will hear Paul’s words to us that we are beloved children of God and heirs to all that Christ gives us.
July 10, 2020 – John 6: 56-69
The sermon did not go over well. 5000 people came to hear Jesus and 4988 wandered away confused and confounded. He turns to the twelve who remain and they become his disciples, but Jesus wonders if they too will go away. So ends Jesus’ longest sermon the Gospel of John, his most extensive presentation on who he is and what he is up to. And the people don’t like it.
I have always wondered, did the crowd abandon Jesus because they could not understand what he was talking about, or because they understood precisely what he meant? John, never one to eschew obfuscation, often presents Jesus symbolically like surrealist poet. But here maybe he means what he says. You must take my body, my blood, my life, my being, my substance and essence inside you. You must make me a part of you. Then, and only then, will you be alive truly, perfectly, abundantly, and eternally. That is a bit much for the crowds. It is a bit much for us. We prefer divine consolation with occasional sprinklings of ethics and rituals. But wholesale dispossession of the ego at the center of our lives? That is something up with which the people will not put!
It is hard to move yourself from the center of your world. All our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings eternally center on an intuitively presumed, but rarely examined “I.” Jesus is suggesting that the self is highly overrated. It tends to get clingy. Attachment to anything and everything that is not God leads us to suffering. The one way around this dilemma is to let go, which is far harder than it sounds. Prying loose the ego’s grip on our lives is both unsettling (indeed it would be the ultimate form of unsettling) and at the same time liberating because it creates space for something or someone else not of our making. Jesus demonstrates this metaphysical escape trick most perfectly in the cross. Only in self emptying of everything, even life itself, can one be found, embraced, lifted up, and made anew. When God does this in and through Jesus on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, it ruptures space time. But when we do it, realizing how disorienting it will be, we are not lost. We are found. We are held. We are lifted up.
Lord, to whom else can we go? You alone are the Word of life.
July 3, 2020 – John 6: 51-58
The Gospel of John has no last supper story. Instead, the entire Gospel is about what happens when you take Jesus into yourself. The entire book can be read as an extended meditation on who God is in Jesus and in turn we become when Jesus is in us. Sin and forgiveness are not of much concern to John. Sacrifice and punishment barely mentioned. Jesus dying for our sins is nowhere to be found. Instead, the main focus of John can be summarized by the nutritionists’ axiom: you are what you eat. So, what do you eat?
What do you take inside your body and inside your life? What do you make a part of you and your story? What give you life its vitality, energy, and potential? For many people it is the junk food peddled by our markets and media that define us all as commodities or consumers. Security, fame, power, money, charisma, sex, success, and prestige, are all pleasurable confections offered by the world. But none of them endure. None of them sustain. And none of them will help us grow to become truly human the way we were meant to be. Only one sustains. Only one builds us up. And He offers us nothing less than God life to nourish our lives.
For John, the Lord’s supper is really no different from the Lord’s work. He gives us new life. So, for John, the sacrament of communion is not so much a curious ritual with little shot glasses and bread cubes (or whatever form of the elements you may be using at home). For John communion is instead the continuous vital experience of divine exchange operating at the depths of our being, growing God life inside us. We do not “do” communion. If we really follow what Jesus taught, we actually become the communion of God and humanity. For John there cannot really be a “Last Supper” because Jesus nourishing his disciples in new life is happening right now, inside you and inside the life of every child of God. The communion that matters is the one we embrace right now.
June 26, 2020 – John 6: 35-51
This is a season for getting by. Parties are cancelled. Vacations are postponed. Restaurants are scary. And I am getting sick of my own cooking. My main entertainments are walking my dog and angst laden German Netflix series. It is not necessarily pleasant, but it is enough. You can get by for a long time on enough, but you will never thrive.
Jesus offers the crowd bread, the most ordinary of foods. It is enough to satisfy their hunger. But Jesus is not satisfied. He wants them to want more, look deeper, and become more. So he starts to unwind the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Jesus explains the bread of heaven, how God gave it to the Hebrews in the law at Sinai, how they received it in the wisdom of the Prophets, and now how they are receiving even more. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. If you accept my life as part of you, you will never die. This bread will be a far richer meal than they anticipated.
Some say that God always provides for our needs. That is not quite right. God provides much more. God does not want us to get by. God wants us to thrive. God does not provide us with just enough. God always gives us too much. And we call that curious, irrational generosity, grace.
June 19, 2020 – John 6: 24-35
One of my favorite memories as a young child is the smell of fresh baked bread wafting through my Grandma Kelley’s home. Even better is the memory of the taste of that hot bread smothered with butter. There is nothing quite like homemade bread, especially bread prepared with love.
As we continue hearing from John 6, the Bread Discourse as it is known, we will be “smelling” the wonderful waft of bread as we think about what it means to trust in Jesus, the Bread of Life.
We are hungry. Hungry for peace. Hungry for love. Hungry for answers. Hungry for community. Jesus understands our hunger. We as broken, sometimes desperate, human beings usually fill ourselves with bread that does not satisfy, bread that perishes quickly. Jesus calls us to what sometimes seems impossible: trust in him. What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of coronavirus and social distancing? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of virtual worship and Zoom fellowship? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of social unrest and the systematic scourge of racism? How do we will fill ourselves with bread that is eternal?
As the Body of Christ together, we long to be true disciples of Jesus and we long for the bread that truly satisfies. Come, let us worship together this Sunday as we hear John’s words to us about true bread.
June 12, 2020 – John 6: 1-21
Miracles are complicated. I don’t know how they work. That is sort of the definition of a miracle. For the next few weeks, we will be looking at one of Jesus’ miracles, the feeding of the 5000. We are going to be spending some time with it because Jesus spends some extended time with it. A loaf of bread is more than a loaf of bread. What it means for Jesus, for the crowds, and for us will be our consideration this Sunday.
One of the problems with miracle is that people normally think of them as supernatural events that provide us with the results that we want. Using that definition of miracle, God is essentially a vending machine. The Gospel of John refers to miracles as signs, an event that points us towards a deeper truth. Do not doubt the power of signs. A two-foot red octagon next to the road can cause my car to come to a screeching halt. The signs that Jesus shares point to a greater power.
We will be unpacking Jesus’ cryptic use of signs and to what or to whom they may point. And then we will consider what those signs do. Do they give us rewards for good behavior, or are they signposts pointing us forwards towards a destiny we cannot yet see? So, John poses the hard question. Do we trust God because of the things God can do that we want, or do we trust God because God is God? It is a test that every one of us will answer.
June 5, 2020 – John 15: 1-11
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, presumes an unsettling level of intimacy with us. For John, Jesus is not just the one who saves us out there and now waits at a comfortable distance presumably, “at the right hand of God the Father.” Instead, Jesus is in here, in us. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” may sound poetically comforting, but it is perhaps Jesus most provocative statement in the Gospel. If God is in some sense in us and we are in God, then all our assumptions about what a “self” is, indeed what life is, are wrong. Creator and creation are no longer quite so hermetically sealed off from each other. There is real connection and exchange. The vine gives the branch life, sustenance, and form. And the branch gives the vine its actualized expression and bears its fruit into the world.
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” What would it mean for our lives, for our identities, and right now most of all for our communities, for us to conceive of all our lives both as completely interconnected and as the medium through which God expresses and gives form to infinite love in the world? This is the question that Jesus poses to all who would follow him. He is waiting for our answer.
May 22, 2020 – John 17: 1-11
In his last days with his disciples before his death on the cross, Jesus shares with the disciples all that he desires them to know for the living of their days. These powerful writings in John (chapters 14 through 17) are known as the “farewell discourse” and our passage this morning is the “farewell prayer” which is the benediction, of sorts, of the farewell discourse. Farewell prayers were known in Jewish literature in ancient Mediterranean times and thus were familiar to the intended audience of John’s gospel.
As we approach this beautiful and somewhat baffling scripture passage, it must be noted that John’s gospel is known for its sectarianism and, at times, seemingly exclusive writings. The gospel of John can be difficult to understand, especially as we read it through our “western society eyes” in the year 2020. Even so, God’s Spirit is ever with us, guiding us in our understating and interpretation of the scriptures. May it be so for this passage, too!
In this farewell prayer, Jesus prays to God for his beloved disciples and for all who trust in him, beseeching God to protect them and make them one as Jesus is one with God. These passionate words are for us, also, as we seek to know and love God and to love one another. At this time in history we so desperately need to learn how to be one with God and one with one another. Join us in worship this Sunday (link below) as we worship God and seek to understand how we can know the God of creation who has come to us in Jesus the Christ.
May 15, 2020 – Hebrews 6: 13-20
This week is Youth Sunday. With the last two months a blur of fear and isolation, it certainly does not feel like May. We are all struggling with the time lost, and our students are no exception. Sports seasons, science fairs, spring concerts, school year wrap-ups…activities and milestones that are so important to children and teenagers…all cancelled. The loss is particularly potent for our three seniors, as their last [insert any meaningful school activities here], senior proms, commencement ceremonies, Baccalaureate services, any kind of closure for their thirteen years of hard work in school, and summer plans and parties have all been taken from them. Even fall semesters of their freshman years of college seem to hang in the balance as institutions decide how to move forward.
In light of the grief associated with so much loss (and it is grief, and it is loss; make no mistake about the reality of emotional strain on our youth), it would be easy for these young people to slip into sulky defiance and anger at the unfairness of the world and their circumstances. In fact, that is probably what society expects of them. Instead, our youth have rallied in the face of more disappointment and anxiety than any student their age should have to maneuver. Their resolve is strong and their faith is stronger, and it is that resilient faith that they wish to share with you on this, the most peculiar of Youth Sundays.
At the beginning of the year, the PYC selects a scripture verse to drive Bible study and small group discussions for the program year. In September, the youth chose this verse excerpt from Hebrews chapter 6: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” Throughout the year, we have studied scripture and shared in conversation about what it means to have an “anchor of the soul,” and ways to remain anchored to our faith and to our God, especially in the midst of struggle. How fitting that they should get a chance to put into practice all they have learned…and all they already knew. Let them show you. Look to our youth, and let them teach you what it means to truly be anchored in your faith.
“It’s not the building that defines your relationship with God, it’s your own faith.” -Abby T.
“Though this free will created a whole history of sin and struggle, it allowed for a depth of emotion and love that would prove to be impossible otherwise.” -Cassie S.
“Being anchored means to be grounded. It means you won’t drift away. You stay in whatever you’re anchored in, from being anchored in faith to being anchored in a community.” -Max B.
May 8, 2020 – John 14: 1-17
Question: what is the difference between a fundamentalist Christian and an atheist? Answer: on a true/false exam about Jesus, the fundamentalist marks every question “true” and the atheist marks every question “false.”
The problem is not the questions or the answers. The problem is presuming that faith is a true/false exam.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” (NRSV John 14:1). Sounds pretty simple hunh? Affirm some list of propositions about Jesus and voila you are good to go. For many people that would be their functional definition of the Christian faith, a true/false exam. Unfortunately, it sort of misses the point and that point is faith.
“Believe in God, believe also in me.” It is a problematic translation due to the deficits of the English language. In Greek the word faith has a noun form that we translate as “faith” and a verb form that we translate as what? There is no verb form of the word faith in the English language. You cannot faith something. So, we substitute another word, but in doing so subtly change Jesus’ meaning. We say we “believe.” But belief is not quite the same thing as faith. Belief is more of a head thing. Belief is something I do all by myself. When we say we believe something what we normally mean is that we give our intellectual assent that some proposition is true and correct. I believe that the sun rises in the East simply means that I believe that is true and valid statement. But Jesus is not a statement. God is not a proposition. Any attempt to treat them as such is idolatry. And any attempt to reduce faith to belief ignores most of what Jesus seems to be concerned about, namely trust, relationship, belonging, and life abundant.
So, I would propose a well-merited edit, a better substitute until we can introduce a verb form of faith. Trust. Trust in God, trust also in me. Trust is always relational, always dynamic. Trust always has a past and a future. Trust is not just about ideas, it is about character, caring, and commitment. Trust demands risk, not mere assent. Trust transforms us over time, changing the way we look at other relationships and the world. And best of all, I can trust someone I do not understand. Indeed, the people I trust most in my life I will never completely understand. We call that love.
Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. It is not that hard. It takes a bit of risk, but so do all our important relationships. And if you extend that trust, I promise you it will never be ignored. If you extend that trust, it will change you.
May 1, 2020 – John 10: 1-10
I never much liked gate keepers. College admissions boards, committees on ministry, performance juries, and hiring teams all perform important tasks, maintaining boundaries and standards, but no one finds their work pleasant. Whenever I hear about Jesus as a gatekeeper, I tend to recoil a bit with traumatic flashbacks to being the last one picked for junior high gym class teams.
My surprise came when I realized I had been misreading this passage all along. Jesus does not call himself the gatekeeper, the evaluator, or judge. Jesus says I am the gate. Jesus is the way into the belonging and security of the sheepfold and Jesus is the way out into green pastures and good waters out in the world, not the one excluding us from it. Jesus is not talking about letting some in and keeping others out. He is talking about providing an abundant life for the sheep.
Sometimes we get so obsessed with judging and evaluating both ourselves and others. Something innate in human nature likes to build walls and define who is in and who is out. But not Jesus. Jesus invites all who recognize his voice to follow, not just follow into the sheepfold, but into abundant life now.
Friday, April 26, 2019
One of the great gifts of scripture, among many, are the post-resurrection narratives found in the gospels. Luke gives us one of the most beloved accounts known as the Road to Emmaus. This will be the only post-resurrection story we will look at during our Easter season at Fairmont because beginning in May Pastor Brian will be preaching on the ultimate resurrection story found in the book of Revelation!
This Sunday we will take a long walk with two bewildered and devastated followers of Jesus who had believed so passionately that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah – until he was crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. How quickly and wonderfully their sorrow and disappointment will turn to unbelievable joy as the resurrected Jesus – still unrecognized by the two who are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus – walks along side them and teaches them about all that was to be and to come.
There are so many moments in this endearing story where we can so easily enter in and become part of the narrative. We have all known times when God was ever present in our lives and yet we did not recognize God. Times when we needed to know God’s presence and yet felt so bewildered and alone, and then God comes to us in unexpected and surprising ways.
Friday, April 19, 2019
It all starts in pain and fear. Fear of failure and the sharp pain of grief. There is nothing sentimental about the Bible’s portrayal of resurrection. Instead scripture lifts up the fear and pain of these three days as the epitome of human experience, where all our hopes go to die. We are all intimately familiar with where resurrection begins.
But then the Bible’s account heads off in an altogether unexpected direction. This Jesus, abandoned by his disciples, reviled by the crowds, condemned by the religious officials, and crucified by the Romans would not stay dead. After being really truly dead he was now really truly alive. Resurrection is the most unnatural thing in the universe, indeed it is the refutation of our nature and every human expectation. If the dead can no longer be counted on to stay dead, then we are are living in an altogether surprising universe where what we always expected turns out to be plain wrong.
The women, Mary from Magdala and the rest, are the first to imagine the possibilities of what this might mean. They hear the testimony of the angels and begin to re-imagine everything he taught them and everything they experienced with the aperture of their hope now wide open. The run out to re-narrate the disciples memory that had been so corrupted by fear and shame. The women use the story to re-narrate the disciples’ lives and in doing so set them free. And Jesus’ disciples have been at it ever since.
This weekend, instead of wishing others “happy Easter,” or instead of proclaiming, “he has risen indeed!” consider sharing in the work of Easter. Consider doing precisely what the women did that first morning. Go and tell someone the story and more importantly retell them the story of their lives reframed as a part of Jesus’ story and a part of God’s story. And then get ready for something amazing.
Friday, March 15, 2019
The Gospel of Luke mentions the city of Jerusalem more often than any of the other Gospels. For Luke, Jerusalem is almost like another character in the story. But it is a decidedly conflicted character. Jerusalem is the locus of divine holiness on Earth, the object of pilgrim’s yearnings, and the center of Israel’s religion. It is the city that will one day welcome the Messiah with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And it is ground zero for God’s great transformation of resurrection. But Jerusalem is also the city that kills God’s prophets and turns its back on God’s way. Jerusalem is the city that turns faith into a business and sells the priesthood to the highest bidder. Jerusalem is, in other words, a stand in for us in all our confusion and contradictions.
It comes then as perhaps no surprise that Jesus will not be delayed or distracted from his mission to Jerusalem, even if, especially if, it requires his death. Where we are confused by our mixed motives and ceaseless rationalizations, he will be single-minded in his mission. And in Jesus’ determination we can take comfort that no matter what, he comes for us.
Friday, March 8, 2019
Our culture has a hard time with temptation. Desires, it is presumed by our markets and media, should be satisfied, not repressed. Indeed, suppressing one’s desires is viewed as somehow pathological. And of course, most of what we call temptation is simply a matter of choice between alternatives. But the story of Jesus’ temptation takes us much deeper to the very heart of the matter asking not what do you want, but rather the question that lies behind it: who are you?
Notice how subtly Satan introduces the condition, “If you are the Son of God . . . “ He is not asking about Jesus’ hunger, he is inquiring about Jesus’ identity. Exactly what sort of Messiah will Jesus be? And to make matters worse, Satan offers the opportunity to do good, to end hunger, reform the world political order providing peace and justice, and to enact scripture and publicly demonstrate Jesus’ divine authority. None of those things are inherently bad. Real temptation is never to do bad. Real temptation is to do good for the wrong reasons, reasons that will deny your true identity. Jesus knows who he is and it does not come from the power he wields. Jesus knows whose he is and will not be the Messiah without God. Temptation cannot touch him. Frustrated, Satan will bide his time for a more opportune moment in a Garden called Gethsemane.
Our Lent begins with the hardest question of all that will define your temptations and your response to them. Who, precisely, are you?
Friday, March 1, 2019
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story of Jesus appearing to a select group of disciples not as familiar Jesus of Nazareth, but rather as something, someone else, Jesus the Christ. The Gospel authors reach the end of their vocabularies as they simply describe him as “other.” But that otherness turns out to be interconnected with the deep purposes of God and God’s work in the world. Indeed, Moses and Elijah, the superlative prophets of the Old Testament, show up to discuss his own departure (literally exodus). It is all very impressive and very mysterious.Normally on Transfiguration Sunday we focus on the special effects: Jesus revealing for the first time part of his full majesty. But this Sunday I am less concerned with what the disciples saw (which they apparently had a hard time describing) and more concerned with how they saw it.
You can run right over the clue if you are not paying attention. It is there in the very first line. Peter, James, and John went up to the mountain with Jesus to pray. They did not go up to see a miracle. They went up to share in a time of prayer and everything that follows in this passage is all about what is revealed to them through prayer. Apparently they were up there for quite a while because they were falling asleep in their prayers. Nonetheless, through prayer they catch a glimpse, if only for a fleeting moment, of Jesus in the full glory of his true identity.
So if prayer is a way, perhaps the way, to see Jesus, now comes the uncomfortable question. Do we want to see Jesus?
BESIDE STILL WATERS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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!
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 . . .
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
January 19, 2021
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,
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
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 (email@example.com).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
November 10, 2020
The Healing Power of Creation
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? -Psalm 8:3,4
I took a long walk yesterday. It was surprisingly warm weather for early November and the smells and sounds of autumn were abundantly present. It was a glorious day, especially knowing that the cold of winter will be here sooner than I want! I am always amazed at how much better I feel when I get outside to hike or work in the yard or walk my dog. There is healing in the sights, sounds, and smells of creation. I know this in my head – that being outside in creation is invigorating – but I forget all too soon about the healing power of God’s creation when it comes to days of anxiety, grief, depression, apathy, and fear…when it comes to these monotonous days of pandemic.
My walks and hikes during these days of COVID have been much more meaningful and mindful. I treasure my time alone, in creation, outside of the confinement of work-at-home, walking with more intentional steps as I pray and breathe and relax and feel my body take each step. I am grateful for my health and for a beautiful neighborhood in which to walk, all the while being aware that so many others have neither.
Another small moment of creation peace and healing comes at night – sometimes late at night – when I look up at the vast expanse of the night sky. I find such deep peace and surprising hope these days in the night sky, the stars, the planets (Mars has really put on a show these past few months), and all of the brilliant lights which dot the beautiful darkness. Seeing these planets and stars each night and knowing that they will still be shining far beyond my own existence and life, somehow gives me comfort in the midst of days riddled with anxiety and angst. These brilliant lights of the universe remind me that I belong to the Creator God and that even though my life may seem insignificant compared to the vastness of creation, I am still a beloved child of God.
I know for many of you, COVID has made work and family life more difficult and demanding. And for others, this pandemic has created more isolation and alone time than you desire. Each of us are in unique places and spaces these days. My prayer, as always, for you is that God will meet you where you are and bring you into God’s marvelous light and love. May the healing power of God’s creation find you and speak to you this week and beyond.
Love to you in Christ,
November 3, 2020
Anxiety is the precursor emotion and raw material out of which fear is made. Anxiety is not fear, at least not yet, because it lacks a specific object. I am afraid of wasps, distracted drivers, physical education classes, and my own potential incompetence. All of those fears are specific and directed toward something I dread. Anxiety is different. Anxiety lurks beneath all those fears as a pervasive readiness to be afraid, even though we may not yet know of what. Anxiety heightens our threat response putting us all on general alert. Anxiety awaits like a coiled spring wound tight for the moment it may erupt into fear.
Today, I have had lots of conversations with lots of people about their anxieties. Absence of our normal social rhythms and the regulating effects of social contact have made these anxieties even more acute. You can see it in peoples’ stress responses–listlessness, irritability, binge eating, fatigue, insomnia, and self-medicating to name a few. But you cannot really talk about it because there is no object of thought or fear to discuss. Anxiety is like a dank vapor that permeates everything but cannot ever be grasped.
I have several short-term remedies for anxiety. First, get out of your head and into your body. I go for a several mile walk with my dog every morning that (while it induces fear in local squirrels) subtly shifts my focus from the endless what ifs to the immediacy of the weight on my feet and the air in my lungs. My dog has no time for anxiety and always pulls me back to the givenness of now.
Second, talk to people, even if they are dead. Conversation always reframes our current dilemmas perceived and otherwise within a broader context. Things are rarely as bad as they appear and the problems we confront are rarely novel. Consider this thoughtful reflection on our American presidential elections:
For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.
These words were written not last week or last month, but in 1835 by Alexis De Tocqueville as he observed the American penchant for “factional ardor” and division. Sometimes, we gain the best perspective and context from observers long dead. Few problems are truly new and yet we have a genius in muddling through.
Finally, I turn to hope. Hope is not a fuzzy wishful emotion that things will somehow get better. Hope is form of perception that penetrates appearances to notice the underlying pattern and progress of life. Hope lets you see what the world, media, markets, and politicians tend to hide (like humanity is materially better off in almost every possible way than any generation in human history and the rate of improvement is accelerating). Hope re-centers our vision away from the urgent to the important, away from the presenting problem clamoring for our attention to the enduring, eternal, and steadfast. And at the center of my hope lies not political parties, but an invitation to a dinner party from a steadfast and stubborn host who will not take no for an answer.
So, for this election night and all our anxieties, I would submit to you a short poem from some 3000 years ago by people not so unlike us. Psalm 146 reminds us see beyond all the artificial passions, intrigues, and feverish excitement to what is and what shall be.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The Lord reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.
Do take care and be gentle with yourself and others. This is a tender time. –Brian
October 27, 2020
The First of November is All Saints’ Day, the day when we remember all those who have died in the past year. All Saints seems especially poignant this year because of all those we have lost to Covid-19 and our inability to gather as community to share both our gratitude and our grief. We all need safes spaces to lament in order to heal and there is so much right now to lament—sickness, lockdowns, cancelled everything, stress, exhaustion, frustration, separation, and social conflict. We can all still mourn and rejoice with abandon, but we need to do it on our own. And as a pastor sometimes I feel rather useless, only able to encourage people at a distance.
Facing uncertainties, I have been taking some solace from the journals of another pastor, William Bradford, the sometimes preacher and longtime governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony, the man perhaps most responsible for the survival of the pilgrims in the new world. He wrote with searing honesty about his own uncertainty in those difficult early years of the colony, especially the winters. He took solace in the history of our ancestors who faced much the same. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Hebrews 11: 1-3. What I so desire is that vision to see beyond the mess of the present moment, to see through faith to the real that lies beyond all our and my anxieties and uncertainties.
Two of my spiritual teachers keep nudging me forward. Meister Eckhart, the great medieval Dominican mystic once wrote, “Wisdom consists in doing the next thing you have to do, doing it with your whole heart, and finding delight in doing it.” Serendipity and delight merged when I heard a slightly more contemporary spiritual teacher, Anna from Frozen 2 singing the same sentiment in, Do The Next Right Thing: “This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down. But a tiny voice whispers in my mind, ‘You are lost, hope is gone. But you must go on. And do the next right thing.” Despite all our anxieties and forecasting, the master plan is well beyond our pay grade. Neither I nor any mortal know what is going to happen next. It does not matter. Actually, it will only drive you crazy if you dwell on it–what may happen next week, next month, or next year? All we have, all we have ever or will ever have, is what is right in front of us. All we need to do is be fully present and attentive to the moment we are in and do the next right thing. And then repeat.
I wish I knew what will happen and I so wish I could change the painful circumstances in which so many now find themselves. So did all our ancestors in faith that went before us. Neither they nor we are privy to the patterns of providence or chance. But they did have faith, which helped them to see the truth emerging right before them. They had faith which focused their perception on the only thing requiring their attention, the moment before us right now. They simply did the next right thing. That is the lesson of the saints for us. It is not so hard, but it does require focus. Just do the next right thing. And then repeat.
October 20, 2020
75 years ago, the suburbs of Dayton essentially ended at Stroop Road. Beyond lay cornfields. In those first exciting months and years following the end of World War II, new communities were created out of temporary wartime housing that we now call Kettering, Centerville, Springboro, and others. In the spring and summer of 1945, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began planning a mission church for these soon-to-be-developing communities. Reverend Roland “Rit” Anderson was called to be the founding pastor. On September 18, 1945 the Presbytery of the Miami Valley approved $2400 for the purchase of the site. Originally meeting in the Van Buren Township firehouse, donated caskets from a nearby casket factory served as the initial pews. By October the small meetings started growing and moved the Dorothy Lane School. Later that month, the Presbytery met with 42 families who indicated they wanted to form a new congregation. On October 14, 1945, Fairmont Presbyterian Church was officially authorized to form as a congregation. On November 5 the first officers were elected and on December 3 the new congregation was officially incorporated. In 1948, the “basement church” was constructed (now the lower level beneath the sanctuary, you can still see the old front door inset on the north side of the church office). This was understood to be the foundation for a much larger sanctuary when funds would allow it. Finally, on Christmas Eve, 1952 the Fairmont congregation moved into its present sanctuary.
History can be read as a sterile record of events and dates. But the events and dates are merely the markers of memory for hopes, dreams, risks, sacrifices, commitments, and love. This Sunday we are marking the 75th anniversary of Fairmont and celebrating the tradition we have received. Our tradition demonstrated the energy, intelligence, and creativity of our founders starting a church beyond the edge of town. Our tradition has emphasized both the caring of belonging as well as service to our community. Our tradition has stressed the formation of hearts and minds for our children and adults. Remarkably stable (Fairmont has only had seven Pastors), our tradition has underscored attentive stewardship, collective decision making, dialogue, mutual respect of differences, curiosity, and most of all hope. These qualities, virtues of life lived together in community, are our true tradition and our treasure.
The historian Jaroslav Pelikan once stated, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” At Fairmont our tradition is a living, vital inheritance that is guiding us through the greatest public safety crisis in our 75 year history. We are creating new ways of worshipping, teaching, equipping, and serving our community just as our forebears did in fire stations and school rooms 75 years ago. Our mission field now extends to the horizon of every member’s social network. And in all of this we are aided by connectional technologies that could not have been imagined 75 years ago. We are guided by our past into God’s future sharing together in traditioned innovation.
The world has changed profoundly in the past 75 years. Our mission has not. The church really does not have a mission. We are simply one small part of humanity’s response to God’s mission: inviting belonging, sharing the story, and shaping our lives. That is what Fairmont is for. That is what Fairmont does. That is what Fairmont will do. If we remain faithful to that purpose, I am certain that our future is bright because that future belongs in and to God.
May God bless Fairmont. Far more importantly, may God through Fairmont bless this world.
October 13, 2020
Recently, I was part of a Bible study conversation on Mark 5:25-34, the story of the woman healed after twelve years of bleeding. She was healed by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. There are many powerful gems of truth in this gospel story but the one that spoke to me most deeply was the reminder that we all need the gift of touch.
This woman who Jesus healed had been completely isolated and ostracized because she was “unclean” in the eyes of the religious law. For years and years she was unable to be held or touched by anyone because of the purity laws of her faith. Her emotional and psychological pain must have been horrendous. In just one sacred moment, she found the courage to go to Jesus, in the midst of a great crowd, and touch the hem of his garment. Jesus instantly knew that she had touched him and felt the power of healing go out of him to the bleeding woman. With one touch of Jesus’ garment she was healed.
One of the great griefs of these days of COVID is that we cannot touch each other. We must, for the sake of keeping the virus at bay, keep distance from each other and are not able to hug or shake hands or put our arms around the shoulders of friends and even some of our distant relatives. We are missing such a simple but profound part of our humanity – touch. Even on the rare occasion when we actually have an in-person gathering – social distanced or outside – we must sit far apart from each other and wear masks. The simple gift of touch has been taken away from us for this time of pandemic and we feel the absence of it in our souls.
I do believe when we come through this time of pandemic and “no touch” gatherings that we will find a new appreciation and even joy in some of the most simple parts of being human, namely the gift of touch.
On Sunday, October 25th, at 12:30 p.m. we as a church will gather in the parking lot of the church for a “no touch” gathering to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Fairmont Presbyterian Church. We will be sharing a “tailgate picnic” together from our cars and will be masked and spaced apart in the parking lot. It will be great to be together again even though we cannot hug each other or shake hands! We will have the joy of being in each other’s presence and sharing a boxed lunch (provided by the church) and we will find a new way to be together as God’s people without the gift of touch!
You are all invited to our “tailgate picnic” on October 25th BUT you must RSVP to the church (email or phone) so that we can know how many are coming and be best prepared. You can RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org or (937) 299-3539.
Blessings and love to you!
May the Peace of Christ “touch” your hearts.
October 6, 2020
My morning walk takes me through a stand of enormous trees that always seem to have something to teach me. Other than one stubborn maple, they are all in various stages of changing and letting go of their fall foliage. Every morning, I look forward to their fiery crimsons and dapple pale gold crowns. But I know they are impermanent. Soon they will all let go. Leaves do not just fall as if by random accident or pulled by autumn breezes, they are systematically let go. A tree (at least deciduous trees) lets go of its leaves for a very good reason. By releasing their leaves, a tree can conserve water and energy for the cold, dry winter ahead. It also helps the tree release pollen in the springtime so it can make more trees.
The fancy name for this whole process is abscission (which shares a linguistic root with our word scissors). Abscission goes through several distinct stages. First it starts reabsorbing all the useful nutrients from the leaf back into the tree. Chlorophyll, which makes leaves green, is one of the first nutrients to get recycled back into the tree. That is why leaves change color, because the tree is reclaiming its little harvest of nutrients for the winter ahead. Then the tiny abscission cells get to work snipping the leaf from the branch and pushing it out into the world. Finally, these same cells grow a protective coating over the spot where the former leaf connected to the branch. It is all an amazingly interconnected process of biochemistry and biomechanics expressed in the beauty of a flaming sugar maple.
I have a lot to learn from trees. I too love impermanent things and I have a very hard time letting go of them. Partly it is aging, partly the gentle, enforced ascetism of Covid-19 quarantines and social distancing, that snip away fondly held hopes, plans, habits, ambitions, and pleasures. I cannot do what I want to do. I cannot go on that vacation, dine at that restaurant, see those friends, go to that theater, or hear that concert. Behind those preferences, are dearer and more tightly bound assumptions to which I tightly cling like I am in control, I can make everything right through my competencies, and I know what the future will hold. The tireless abscission of Corona Virus snips these off these dearer commitments as well despite my emotional objections. Shorn of those fondest attachments, I fear not only what will happen, but who I will be.
Trees are not known for their self-pity. They simply get on with the essential business of tree-ness–breathing, growing, and letting go. They do not grieve the autumn, but let it come, gracefully surrendering their crowns knowing that the letting go is the essence of their pattern of life. And so it could be, and so it should be, for us.
Letting go of our fondest presumptions is especially difficult in a world that celebrates possessing, clinging, and achieving. But it is the essence of our way of living. The formal theological name for this is Kenosis, self-emptying. It is the way of the cross. During Lent, I look to the cross to remind me of this eternal truth, but in the fall, the trees testify all on their own.
The forest sings a sermon both beautiful and demanding. The truth is all around us. The way to life begins in letting go.
September 29, 2020
Last week I had a little meltdown one evening. I was sick of my own cooking and I let my frustration show. For a little while I was a bit of a pill—irritated and irritating to everyone around me (sorry Lisa). The problem was solved with a frozen pizza and vegetatively watching Big Bang reruns. An hour or so later, I had regained my composure and was fit again for human society. I still cannot tell you what exactly happened or why. All I knew in that moment was that I was mad and sad.
Scientists once imagined human beings as thinking creatures who occasionally feel. Now we understand that we are much more like feeling creatures who can think. Our emotions are always there shaping our perception and behavior lurking just beneath the surface of language and conscious perception. Hidden though they may be, our emotions color every experience, every preference, every judgment, and every decision. They are the powerful unseen territory of us.
In our midweek Connections class, we have been discussing Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized trauma and the pathway to healing our hearts and bodies. Unlike so many books on race, it is not expressly about politics. Avoiding that stalemate, Menakem takes an entirely different approach. He focuses on what lies beneath race, racism, and our perennial debate: feelings of pain, fear, and shame. He observes that these feelings are the concealed drivers behind rage and avoidance, anxiety and depression, rationalizations and brutalities that we inflict on others and on ourselves. If we limit our discussions to the cognitive realm of policies and justice, we will never address the pain that lies beneath. And if we do not squarely face that pain, then it will return from generation to generation.
Last week I watched the wonderful 2018 documentary on Rev. Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? What struck me was the consistent theme through Rogers’ lifetime of work, trying to help children understand and manage their emotions. In his 1969 Congressional testimony, Rogers said, “I feel that if we can make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” The key for Rogers was neither to avoid nor deny feelings, but rather to recognize them as a part of us that we could then choose to act on or not.
While Mr. Rogers and Resmaa Menakem are infrequent conversation partners, they both speak to the very real need for adults, who may be so gifted in other aspects of their lives, to grow emotionally. With pandemic fears, economic anxieties, low grade depression, partisan rancor, and claustrophobic isolation, it is so easy to either get lost in our feelings and let them overwhelm us. We act out, lash out, or shut down, following scripts we learned as infants. It does not have to be that way. We can identify and own our feelings without being controlled by them. We can choose which we act on and which we can lovingly disregard. We can tag those that do not really belong to us, but others in our lives. We can feel deeply without becoming our feelings.
Last week I was mad and sad. Mad that the world was not working out the way I wanted and sad about not knowing when it will ever end. Any three-year-old would understand those feelings intuitively. But I am not three. I get to choose what controls my life and my behavior. So, I choose to hope despite the sadness and worry. I choose because choice is the gift we all received. We are more than our emotions, or at least we can be if we choose. . . And a frozen pizza sometimes helps. –Brian
September 22, 2020
Our souls are in danger. There are powers and principalities at play that do not seek human welfare, but their own divisive ends. Our endless 24/7 news cycle clamors for ceaseless attention with an infinite variety of fears, anxieties, and offenses tailored to trigger the lesser angels of our being. By all appearances and forecasts, at least for the foreseeable future, it is all going to get worse. Between now and election day and who knows how long after that, the shrill voices instilling discord and fear will only grow louder and more insistent.
The endless media diet of fear and anxiety, outrage and offense, a cacophony of chaos real and imagined, threatens to spill over into our perceptions about other people, our selves, and our world. Our politics, so far from offering constructive solutions to pandemic, recession, discrimination and a thousand other ills, now fans the bonfires of mindless rage and conflict. The problem is that if you consume this diet of discord for long enough, you become it. If you allow it to shape your opinions and habits of mind, it becomes your opinions and habits of mind. You are what you eat, and also what you read, watch, and listen to. So, what kind of life, what kind of person do you want to become?
Our souls are in danger and I would like to propose a temporary, stop-gap remedy: a news fast. Severely limit your consumption of all TV, newspapers, periodicals, radio, and most of all social media to no more than thirty minutes each day. Regardless of which news media outlets you listen to, little in the next 42 days will shape you as deeply and as faithfully as a news fast. At worst, you might be less informed about current events. At best, you may save part of your soul.
Moderation, compassion, forbearance, consideration, restraint, and equipoise, were once distinguishing virtues of a human life, well lived. They provide the grounding habits of thought and action that nurture and sustain our practice of the presence of God as well as a life lived in peace with others and the world. They are practices we can actually do that can change not only the fervor of our hearts, but the quality of our creation. Etty Hillesum, the Dutch mystic who died at Auschwitz, wrote from her concentration camp, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
There is danger around us, but there is hope. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27. For that peace to mean anything we need to claim it and make it our own. Now turn off the TV and go for a walk in nature, show someone you love them, create something beautiful, read a poem, pray, or simply sit in silence. Spiritual healing is no secret, it is merely seldom followed. –Brian
September 15, 2020
The Bridge to Nowhere
The city of Choluteca, in southern Honduras, is located on the Choluteca River. A beautiful silver bridge once crossed the river in that city. This bridge was a gift from the nation of Japan to Honduras. In October of 1998 Hurricane Mitch, a category 5 hurricane, devastated the country of Honduras with rainfall amounts up to 75 inches. Hurricane Mitch left 1.5 million people homeless and almost 7,000 people dead or missing.
The city of Choluteca was heavily damaged, receiving more rainfall than any other place in Honduras. While the bridge withstood this powerful storm, the roads leading to and from the bridge were completely washed out. Due to the massive flooding of the hurricane, the Choluteca River (which is several hundred feet wide) carved itself a new channel and no longer flowed beneath the bridge at all; the bridge now spanned dry ground. This impressive structure quickly became known as The Bridge to Nowhere.
Startling images (easily found online) of this Bridge to Nowhere invoke immediate reflection for us as people of faith about our present day church and the reality of six months of pandemic. Best practices and traditions which have for decades worked for the church, no longer work for this time of “the church has left the building.” The spiritual bridge which once spanned a deep-and-wide river, no longer connect the opposite shores. What worked for our church in February 2020 does not necessarily work today, deep into the isolation and devastation of coronavirus.
We are in the midst of a monumental shift in best practices for church and faith. The church was already beginning, somewhat slowly, to realize that traditions and cultures from the 1950’s were no longer relevant for the church of the 21st century, cling as we may to those 1950’s traditions! But the coronavirus pandemic has flung us fast-forward into a new way of being and doing church. We have always proclaimed that “the church is not the building,” as Loralei shared with the children on Sunday, but we may not have really believed that until now. We are deeply aware in a very visceral way that “we” are the church! We the people of God -wherever we are – are the church. At home, at work, outside, at the grocery store, at school, in front of a computer, or in the sanctuary of Fairmont – wherever we are, we are the church of God. Body and spirit, head and heart, young or old, we are worshiping God and being church in a brand new way in this time of pandemic.
We the church – the Body of Christ – must not lose hope. Instead, we must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and learn a new way to “be church” in this day and time. Culture and society change, but God does not change. We must build a new bridge that spans the physical limitations we are experiencing with this virus and embrace a new way to “be” the church.
Let’s go there together!
Blessings and love,
September 8, 2020
I want to talk about politics. Does that fill you with dread? As it is so often practiced in our nation, it should. What we usually observe are various competing groups talking past each other vying for power to impose their policy preferences on the community. Politics becomes a highly stylized form of violence that separates us and keeps communities divided into mutually hostile groups.
There is a better way. One of the frustrating things about Jesus is how he refuses to be identified with the political factions of his day. In his refusal to play the game, he annoys every faction. Instead, he keeps working on expanding the imaginations of everyone he meets. Through his parables and healings, he nudges his audiences to imagine a world that operates on different foundations. In his teachings and willingness to cross social boundaries, he coaxes, demonstrates, and urges us to expand our imagination of life and living beyond our own circumstances to a vaster frame of reference: empathy for all life. Indeed, it is that empathy—identifying one’s own life with that of another—that is given its perfect and ultimate expression in the incarnation. God’s empathy with humanity is perfected not in an emotion or a thought, but a human life.
Empathy is the sustained practice of incarnation in our lives. Empathy is that set of qualities and practices that allow a human being to connect, identify with, and care for another. As it makes sense to me, empathy consists of three dimensions. Emotional empathy is our capacity and willingness to imagine the feelings, sensations, and experiences of another as our own. Cognitive empathy is our ability to carefully observe the emotional states of others and discern the causes for such emotions. Constructive empathy (which we could also simply call compassion) is the willingness to act on behalf of the welfare of another. All three are necessary and important, but everyone is differently equipped.
My hope is that in this season of isolation we—all of us—could both deepen and expand our sense of empathy. We are all suffering in different ways and to different degrees. Pain hurts, but it is also an invitation to enter into the pain of others. Now we are all vulnerable and, in our vulnerability, we have the choice between opening ourselves to the moment, which is definition of courage, or hiding behind our personal and collective defenses. Because I feel pain, I can imagine better what another person feels, understand what it looks like and feels like, and may (hopefully) be more willing to do something about it.
What if our politics were based not on competition, but on empathy? What if winning and losing mattered less than connecting to, identifying with, and caring for other people? What if the content of our politics consisted of how best to do that? If any of that were to happen, even to the smallest degree, we would transform our hearts, our nation, and then the world. If any of that were to happen, our politics would be a source of renewal and hope rather than dread. None of it will ever happen at the level of parties and factions. It never has. It happens one human life at a time. That was Jesus’ lesson and our invitation. And there is no better time to start than now. –Brian
September 2, 2020
Today is Lisa’s and my twentieth wedding anniversary. Many months ago, we had grand plans for a celebrative trip. Covid-19 thought otherwise. Tonight, we will meet in a park for a long walk and then go home to prepare a favorite dinner together, share a bit of reading, and, as usual, go to bed early. If you would have told me a year ago that these would be our anniversary plans, I would have been rather disappointed. But now, I am wondering if this might be precisely the most fitting way to celebrate two decades of marriage.
Constrained by cancelled trips and postponed celebrations, we all face a temporary suspension of the future. Absent grand plans for the future, some are driven to depression. Admittedly, I do miss trip planning perhaps more than the actual going. The future will of course return some day. There will be other vacations and other anniversaries to celebrate. But today, absent the distractions of possible futures, we have the blessing of now. Today, this bench, this path, this meal, this bottle of wine, all nudge us to look not to the possibility of future delights, but the immediate blessing of this moment in its perfect ordinariness. It is so easy to get caught up in day dreams of future pleasures that we ignore the joys that are right before us. Our minds and hearts are always inclined to live more in the future and the past than in this moment. But right here, right now, there is enough. Right here, right now there is abundance. And if we fail to notice what is right in front of us, our hearts can harden as we become vulnerable to despair over uncertain futures beyond our control and ungrateful for what we already enjoy.
The lessons of pandemic shutdowns seem to align with some of the important lessons of marriage. Our family photo albums document our celebrations and vacations, important high points of life well lived. But the real blessings of marriage lie not in those punctuated moments of revelry. The real blessings lie in the ordinary moments of contentment, adaptation, challenge, comfort, and growth sharing this journey with another soul. Those moments of profound ordinariness–washing dishes, sipping tea, walking the dog, paying bills, making the bed—contain hidden blessings if only we pause and pay attention. We grow together, and sometimes apart, and then back together again each becoming someone we never could have anticipated from who we were on our wedding day. The joy lies in the not in memories of who we once were or expectations of who we may yet become, but rather in the delight of discovery again and again in the ever-surprising now. And the beauty of all these blessings in the ordinary is that they are never contingent on chance and circumstance or even Covid-19. They are always present in and as this very moment.
The experience of our lives is not as much the product of reality as it is the product of our perception of reality. We choose to pay attention or not. We choose to live in the past, present, or future. We choose the things to which we assign value and meaning. It is, in every moment, a choice. Hope and joy are far more durable in the now than anywhere or any-when else. There is an infinite welling up of love giving itself away in and as this very moment. Today I hope you rush out to meet it. –Brian
August 25, 2020
When I first heard that the ancient redwood trees in Big Basin Redwoods State Park were burning in the midst of the raging wildfires in California, I wept. I wept openly. So much lost. So much burned to the ground. So much grief. Grief for the lives and homes and businesses which are being destroyed. Grief for those ancient redwood giants which hold the stories of thousands of years. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. So much grief.
And surely my tears held more than just the devastation of wildfires and the thought of losing those ancient giants, some as old as 2,000 years. Those tears held in them the grief of a worldwide pandemic, the grief of preaching to an empty sanctuary, the grief of trauma held in black bodies, the grief of trauma held in white bodies, the grief of so many young adults struggling with depression and anxiety, the grief of political divides and nasty name-calling.
There is a lot to grieve right now. I know each of you feel it and hold it in your own bodies these days. Somehow the raging fires in California speak to our collective grief.
But the ancient redwood giants have a lesson to teach us. These giant trees have hope to bring to us in the midst of our grief. Reports from inside Big Basin Redwoods State Park show that although the campgrounds and park buildings, sadly, have burned to the ground, most of the redwoods have survived. These amazing giants have lived through fires much worse than the current fires burning through the Big Basin area. Redwood forests have survived centuries of wildfires and stand tall to show it. The thick bark of the redwood tree acts as a fire retardant, giving the tree the coating it needs to survive wildfire after wildfire. These ancient giants have survived through the flames and the devastation of hundreds of forest burns. And from the ashes of the fallen trees, new buds will soon grow as tall and magnificent as before.
Like the ancient redwood trees, we will rise up through our grief and our brokenness and our sin, too. New spring-green buds of hope will grow out of the ashes of this pandemic, and even out of the ashes of our racism and division. Christ calls us to die to ourself and to be reborn in the waters of baptism. We have hope in Jesus Christ who makes all things new.
Look up, my friends. Look up at the mighty branches of the great redwoods, towering above all the dirt and ashes and mess on the ground below. God has given us sure and certain hope in Jesus, the One who died and lives again. Spring-green buds in the midst of ashes! Thanks be to God!
In love and hope,
August 18, 2020
On Reading Slowly,
The irony of all writing is that the most important truths cannot be expressed in words. Metaphor, simile, illustration, and allusion all approach what we are trying to share, but like asymptotes, never quite reach their limit. So instead we use language to point towards something ineffable hoping that the reader or hearer will intuit that to which we point. Communication, at least about life’s most important truths, therefore requires a delicate dance of hope and trust between the speaker and the hearer and between the writer and the reader. Communication is always and necessarily relational.
In our tradition of revelation summarily called Judaism and Christianity, we tend to rely on ancient books to discern the character of God and the quality of our lives. But for such enormities, pale words, whether in Hebrew, Greek, or English seem woefully inadequate. There is a world of difference between the exhilaration and utter terror on the edge of awe that threatens to utterly engulf the self and those limp words on the page, “the fear of the Lord.” “The Love of God,” teases at, but cannot deliver, the utter rhapsodic ecstasy of being lost in the transcendent divine bliss of Trinity. Sometimes, I fear that the church has confused the map with the destination and the words with the Word.
Lately, in this time of disruption and distancing, I have found myself having a hard time praying. Too many anxieties and idle daydreams barge through my intentions squatting on my attention. Perhaps you too have felt some of this spiritual and emotional attention deficit. When lost in the constant busyness of ceaseless thought I either take a nap, and use sleep as a gentle drug to quiet my mind, or I double down on the words hoping that from the outside something or someone might meet me there. I try to read slowly, very slowly, forcing myself to speak the words aloud simply to prevent my mind from racing on. Then sometimes, someone shows up. Not in anything as coarse and language, but in the subtler hues of presence, intuition, and emotion I catch a passing glimpse of Truth in the periphery of perception. I read slowly not to fully consume the words and arrogantly presumed meanings that I import, but rather to hold the author’s hand hoping that Truth may show up. Having been trained by the practice of law to scan pages diagonally at the rate of 120 or so an hour, I can only manage this with poetry and scripture where my eyes do not presume to navigate their unfamiliar topographies of form and genre. So lately, I read the Bible not so much to learn about God as to meet God. And I read poetry not so much to discover its meanings as to encounter the heart of another person. Sometimes, someone shows up.
Disruptions to our daily patterns of living have caused annoyances, hardships, and a mild, all-pervasive depression. But disruptions to our daily habits of mind can open us to something more important than our selves, our desires, or our presumed conclusions. Unmoored from the well-worn ruts of perception in which all we ever find is what our unconscious selves present to our conscious minds, we may yet encounter something or someone else. There is Truth out there looking for us, if only we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and open to it. –Brian
August 11, 2020
I have discovered a new Corona-Virus friendly hobby, genealogy. It permits me to socially distance from the living while I draw closer to the dead. My family, like so many in the United States, had little sense of its own past. While I knew my grandparents from my childhood, and vaguely remember one great grandmother, our family was small so I had little sense of coming from anywhere or anyone. Instead of family stories, we had vague categories of national origins in Europe. There were no elders, no rituals, no traditions, no ancestral artifacts, land, or stories, just our little family trying its best to make it in this uncertain world.
Thanks to the internet, and the fastidious labors of the Latter-Day Saints, genealogy is now a cross between library science and database management. Through public records, I have been able to piece together bits of a story that was inaccessible to me. Beginning with the life markers of births, deaths, and marriages, I am steadily filling in the terra incognita of my own past in the pasts of others. While I would like to tell you about all the famous people I am descended from, the truth is I come from the sort of people that the world usually forgets—farm laborers, servants, stone masons, and home makers. But when I re-remember them, perhaps the first time they have been recollected in years if not centuries, I find both a certain comfort and energy. Simply gazing down on the family tree, some branches of which I can now trace to the sixteenth century, conveys a courage for simply being. I know they overcame obstacles–like emigrating to the United States. And they bore searing hardships–the long toll of early deaths bears silent witness to chasms of grief. But they endured and each in her or his own way experienced this life, all contributing to make me. In a very real genetic and epigenetic sense, I carry them with me.
Ancestry is not the same thing as the communion of saints, but it is a subset that better fits the size of my mind and heart. I cannot conceive of that great cloud of witnesses as anything more than pure abstraction, but these 128 or so ancestors have names and places I can explore, and perhaps even stories. I can even imagine them in the faces of people I love.
This is a hard time. We are all suffering each in our way and each to different degrees. But we will get through this pandemic and all the other calamities and reckonings that swirl around us. Others have gone before us through much the same, if not worse, and if you listen carefully you may just be able to hear them praying for us. None of us is alone. We all come from somewhere and someone. And so did they. Down the great chain of being, we all belong somewhere and to someone because that great tree has one foundation and one living taproot. I close my eyes and imagine them around me and I know, no that’s not quite right, I feel in my body that all will be well. We are held by unseen hands and loved by hidden hearts that perhaps only now in loving us have found healing from their griefs. We depend on each other. And when all the branches of this family finally see and know the vast magnitude of our shared belonging, then the Father’s reunion celebration will begin. –Brian
August 4, 2020
From Lament to Hope . . .
This afternoon I sat on our little front porch with Lisa talking about the Women’s Gathering at Fairmont this fall. The theme is, “From Lament to Hope.” While it was chosen more than a year ago, it seems oddly prescient for our current predicament. The tricky thing is that there is no direct pathway from lament to hope. We all want to go from whatever mess we are in to the outcome that fulfills our desires, which we call hope. Such a wish is understandable, very human, and very misguided. We, of course, want to assert our own solutions, self-help programs, self-control, resilience, and planning, as we deftly navigate time and chance to reach our preferred destination. But that is not the way life or this universe works. We are in charge of far less than we presume.
People who encounter real suffering and loss know the vanity of our assumptions far too well. Some losses cannot be overcome or gotten over. Some losses become a part of us. And one such loss that comes for each of us in time is the hard lesson that none of us is really in control. It can be a painful and certainly a humbling lesson, but it need not destroy us or our future. The lesson is simply one more fact that makes us human. The lesson helps teach us how to live.
There is a river in time and circumstance that carries us to places we would not choose to go on our own. There is a pattern in events woven into the warp and woof of this creation that shapes us, not the other way around. We can and do of course deny it, curse it, cajole it, and occasionally attempt to bribe it, but the river carries us despite our tantrums and entreaties. And the interesting thing about a river is that it has its own curious course and currents quite independent of anything or anyone floating along in it. You cannot directly cross over a river in a straight line. You hit eddies and tidepools that detour our progress. When you finally do get to the other bank in the shortest line possible it is never where you intended to land on firm ground. It is always someplace new, unexpected, and unchosen.
I want to get out from lament and move directly to hope. I particularly wanted this yesterday as I found myself flooded with anxious static emotion, a restlessness that comes from trying too hard to rest after working too long. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, I found my home and my life oppressively small. I wanted to get out. I wanted to get all this Coronavirus induced grief behind. I wanted to get to the other side as quickly as possible. But what the benevolent one was trying to teach me once again was the value of surrender. Instead of kicking and pushing against the current, all I needed to do was let go and surrender to it. If you float along, it may carry you quite some distance, but you will in due time but not in your preferred time, reach the other side.
The strange land called hope is out there. There is a future and it is marvelous. But the way to it cannot be navigated by human desire or agency. Jesus taught us that the way into that future was not found in resisting, striving, or dominating, but only in surrendering and letting go, knowing that the current will carry us to a new home and a new life. So, stop paddling so hard. I know it is hard and I know it is sad. Let yourself be sad. Let yourself be lonely. Let yourself be scared. These are not afflictions to be overcome; they are part of being human. If you do that, if you just let yourself be, the other side will find you, who you become will become more true, more steady, more hope-filled that you can imagine from here. –Brian
July 28, 2020
with apologies to Saint Augustine and Marcel Proust
Lately, I find myself reaching for my calendar more than ever before. I rely upon it both to help me orient myself—exactly what day is it? —and to help remember and in remembering construct some sort of narrative of memory. In this season of canceled . . . everything, I find that one day blurs into the next without much distinction or difference. Work, sleep, eating, chores follow a constant rhythm forming a pattern that extends not just from day to day, but now from month to month. Memory has flattened and without the familiar topography of change and circumstance, I begin to lose those distinct moments upon which to attach perceptions. So, while time passing goes on much the same as before with its varied moments of idleness and industry, recent time passed has become a blurry absence in memory. Like a long drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we know we have travelled, but cannot really say for how long or where we have been in the mile after mile sameness of it all.
I think that some of us are suffering from minor (or in a few cases major) depression caused by short time memory failure. The problem is not forgetting. The problem is that in this season of shutdowns, lockdowns, isolation, cancellations, and aloneness, new memories are not being created. Many of us have only the most fleetingly tenuous grasp on the present and none whatsoever on the future, so we tend to rely on the past as our reservoir of meaning, purpose, and feeling. Our past is never really past because every experience, perception, and emotion is shaped by our memory of the past. Memory is the mind’s unreliable narrator that makes sense of the present. And while memory is a notorious deceiver, at least it is comfortingly accessible. Without its orienting navigational overlay onto the present, we begin to lose track of not just where we have been, but where we are, indeed perhaps even who we are.
Since March, many of us have been experiencing essentially the same day over and over again. Without my calendar I could not tell you when it started (March 13). And no one knows when it will end. So, we are confronted with the tyranny and the invitation of the now. One can of course numb oneself to the now (Netflix and daiquiris anyone?) or pretend that nothing has changed by trying to replace memory with endless doing. Or one can face it directly. The fleetingly insubstantial moment of now is normally squeezed almost out of perceivable existence between the tectonic pressures of our nostalgia/trauma of the past and desire/fear of the future. But absent the defining compression of future and past, the extensive moment of now reveals its true nature. Now, without future and past, is what we call eternity. The eternal moment of now is always inviting us into not just a new way of perceiving, but a new way of being, one that we usually discard as ephemeral in our headlong rush into a future that we never seem to reach. Before considering your “next” thing, consider that for God, or indeed anyone living into eternity, perception of time would coalesce into an ever-present moment of now.
I am haunted by the some of the most enigmatic verses of scripture, the part of Ecclesiastes that follows immediately after they Byrds’ lyrics. “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. . . I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” Ecclesiastes 3: 11, 14-15. In this ground state of Now, Now as eternity, past and future are not irrevocably lost, they are perfectly present.
Why are we so unwilling to go there, or then? Why do we run away to our plans and reminiscences? I suspect because it is so vulnerable. Being in the Now deprives us of all controlling and defining narratives of memory and desire. Now makes us shed both defining traumas and nostalgias and the unspoken wants that drive our lives. Now may contain all truth, all belonging, every memory and hope, indeed may be the holy ground where we meet God, but it leaves us naked, stripped of defining identity and reassuring agency. All you can do is behold, which is distinctly underwhelming to most of our egos. But in that beholding of the Now is not just the invitation into, but an actual experience of eternity.
Put your calendar down. Actually, you are going to need to set down quite a bit more. This is hard, really hard for so many of us. Stop worrying so much about doing . . . anything. Breathe. Feel yourself planted on the Earth. Feel your heart beating. Do not try to think. Do not try to do. Instead, simply feel. Not in this moment, but this moment of now itself is nothing less that God giving God’s own self away in love for you and me and this pattern we call creation. Now is God-love given away for us and for our being in and as this moment. And it only took me a pandemic and a global shut down to notice. -Brian
July 21, 2020
I heard on the radio over the weekend about a new endeavor by lemonade company Country Time. The mega corporation has decided to provide one hundred dollars to anyone under the age of twelve whose parent applies on their website, the premise being that children are unable to have their usual lemonade stands in this summer of pandemic. Country Time intends for the little bit of money given to each of these families to help stimulate the economy, stating on their website their hope that the money will “help kids preserve the values of lemonade stands, honest work, and entrepreneurship, while putting a little juice back into the economy.” Presenting their case that even the littlest entrepreneurs should get the same treatment as the “big guys,” they are calling this new endeavor “The Littlest Bailout.” More information about the program can be found here: https://www.
While at first glance the idea may seem silly and unnecessary, the message it presents is much deeper. What might this pandemic society look like if we all took it upon ourselves to “bail” one another out? How might things look different? I have a hard time keeping my critical eyes, ears, and mind out of the way when I interact with fellow humans these days. Everyone seems annoyed with everyone else, and no one seems to be meeting others’ expectations of how they think we should all behave. I find myself frustrated when I go out, frustrated when I stay home, and frustrated when I participate in any conversation surrounding current events. I do my best to keep my judgement of others’ behavior reigned in under the premise that we are all struggling, lonely, frustrated, angry, annoyed, and the list goes on…but I am far from perfect. There are days I absolutely wish someone would come along and bail us out, and not just with lemonade stand cash. We need help.
But here’s the thing: when I step out of my frustration and criticism and judgement, just for a moment, I remember that we have been bailed out, long ago, by one who loves and cares for us more than anything in creation. Long ago, on a cross, we were more than just bailed out. We were given new life. And when I remember that, I can remember to show a little more patience, a little more forgiveness, and a little more gratitude in my day to day living right now. How are you showing this kind of sacrificial love to those with whom you disagree, especially right now? How are you living this kind of grace-giving life even when you are angry with your church, your grocery store, your neighbors?
I cannot bail out all of creation, all of the world, or even a few hundred children with lemonade money. But I can bail out one person at a time – my neighbor, my Target cashier, the Winans barista – with kindness, grace, and understanding that are universally understood and appreciated. And so can you. Country Time may be on to something here. There is something to be said, I think, for making lemonade out of…well. You know. ~Rachel
July 14, 2020
But now thus says the Lord, who created you…do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. Isaiah 43:1-2
As these long, hot, and somewhat undefined days of COVID summer creep along I find myself in need of some simple spiritual practices in order to keep my mind and spirit in the right place. Especially when I go to the grocery store or any of the few essential trips that I must take these days and I see someone not wearing a mask or not social distancing or not washing their hands, I am grateful for a simple prayer mantra which allows me to pray rather than “preach at” some poor soul! Silently, I begin to chant and pray Kyrie Eleison which means “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, have mercy on me” as I judge another human being, “Lord, have mercy on them” as they risk their health and that of others, “Lord, have mercy on us all” as we walk through these hard days together.
Emotions are raw and edgy these days, as we all know. In our world, in our country, in our own homes, we are in need of God’s presence to go with us throughout our days so that we might “pass through the waters” and not be overwhelmed as the prophet Isaiah promises us. God is with us. We belong to God. Do not fear.
Any simple prayer mantra can be a safety net for us when we are feeling vulnerable or angry or impatient or without hope. Just muttering the word Shalom under our breath when we are anxious or tired invites God’s peace to be with us and with our neighbors. Maybe the simple words My God and My All prayed continually by St. Francis of Assisi speak to your heart and bring calm to your spirit. Or the prayer Maranatha, “Come, Lord.”
In the Gospel of John which we have been studying and preaching since the beginning of the pandemic, we hear Jesus’ invitation to his followers and to us to drink more deeply of the living water, Jesus the Living Water. How do we do that? How are we drinking more deeply of the living water of Jesus during this time of drought and depression and isolation? I know there is no easy answer to this question as each of us are struggling with our own grief, fatigue, loneliness, and angst during this time apart but Jesus promises us that if we drink of this living water, we will live.
My prayer for each of you is that you will drink more deeply of the living waters of Jesus, and my prayer is that even the simple prayer mantras of Kyrie Eleison, Shalom, My God and My All, or Maranatha might allow you to take even just a sip of that living water in this time of thirst.
Peace and love,
July 7, 2020
Everywhere I seem to turn, whether it be at Kroger’s, watching TV, at the gas station, the General Assembly of the PCUSA, or even at church, I encounter our present golden age of grumpiness. Allow me to define my terms. By grumpiness I mean the interconnected behaviors and assumptions of a general dissatisfaction that the world is not the way we wish it to be combined with assumption that this unfortunate state of affairs is the fault of others, others whom we assume to be either negligent or bearing malign purpose. It is not simply sadness about how things are. It is sadness redirected outward into prickly madness.
Everyone seems grumpy now. Since early March we have been living under the shadow of fear which cannot be contained, mitigated, or predicted. Moreover, our sense of control over our “normal” lives has been pulled from under our feet with social distancing and all the normal pleasures of life cancelled. Compounding all of this is our collective incomprehension decoding the emotional cues behind our masks. Is that person smiling or smirking at us? Without our near constant flow of non-verbal emotional cues, we revert to our feral instincts assuming ill will behind every face mask. And what is the result? Lack of trust, the break down of relationships, institutions, and cooperation, and, of course, ever increasing grumpiness feeding its own growth.
Grumpiness is not all bad. As I mentioned, it is comprised of two components. First, we are disappointed, unsettled, anxious, and saddened by the way things are. That sadness is an honest and authentic response to pain. Normally, all by itself, we call that form of sadness, grief. Grief is the necessary experience of every mortal creature who loves life, beauty, and other creatures. Grief always arises because this world is touched by a pall of darkness from the very beginning that tinges every joy with the melancholy of inevitable loss. That is what this life and this world are like. Things do not always work out. We lose those we love. Everything mortal ends.
Given this reality of loss, the ancient answer of the church is not to deny or ignore the pain, but to sit with it and ultimately step through it. The pain is the embodied experience of letting go, letting go of our dreams, letting go of our loves, and even letting go of life. The curious thing is that in letting go, we finally find ourselves held. In letting go (a great metaphysical maneuver to bypass mortality that Jesus demonstrated on the cross) we finally liberate ourselves from all those attachments that kept us bound for so long. In letting go we finally find ourselves to be not only free, but in a reality more beautiful, loving, and rooted than anything our frustrated desires could dream of.
The problem is that this process of letting go or self-emptying can get misdirected. Grief is the greatest teacher of wisdom, but only if it does not get distracted towards others and transform into grumpiness and anger. We are afraid of looking inward and asking the hard questions, so we start hurling our grief outward onto others hoping that it will somehow stick. The shortest and most dangerous separation in the human heart is between grief and anger. Grief always wants to conceal itself as anger so it can go unnoticed, unprocessed, and unhealed. So, we ascribe fault to others. We push them away. We blame, accuse, and judge. And then we find ourselves ever sadder and more alone.
I look around our nation and often into my own heart to see the vast seas of unprocessed grief in which we paddle our lives. Time does not heal all wounds, it only conceals them as they sink down and become a part of us and for too many, become us. This danger befalls not just individuals, but entire nations.
There is another way, but it is hard. Job posed this same challenge and Jesus supplied the answer. We can face our pain. We can befriend it. We can walk through it. My pain is my pain and belongs to no one else. Blame will not remove it. Accusation will not lessen it. The pain is simply a part of being mortal. But if I listen to it and loosen my need for control and predictability, I find myself upheld from somewhere else, from someone else.
The present crisis is not fundamentally a question of virology, public health, cancelled vacation plans, deferred gatherings, personal freedoms, collective responsibilities, civil rights legislation, family expectations, or even national character. The present crisis is simply asking us whether we can face our own feelings and grow up. -Brian
June 30, 2020
With the need to find more outdoor and socially-distant hobbies this summer, one that I have become particularly fond of is river kayaking. Feeling the burn in my biceps and on my sunbaked skin, the cool water sprinkled on my legs with each lift of the paddle, trusting the gentle current to carry me to my destination, all against a backdrop of bent and ancient sycamore and birch trees (whose low-hanging branches I admittedly try to avoid for fear of spiders in my hair). It is a lovely new outdoor recreational activity, and typically a somewhat leisurely one.
A few weeks ago, I was kayaking with my friend Alli on the Great Miami River. It was a wonderfully pleasant afternoon; we could not have asked for better weather or friendlier water. Twenty minutes from the pull-out point at the end of our three-hour trip, the fluffy clouds were replaced completely and without warning by a menacing sky and driving rain. Alli and I pulled onto a beach on the riverbank as we debated what to do. With no way to view the radar and no perceivable break in the unannounced monsoon, we decided that our most beneficial and logical (albeit perhaps not safest) course of action would be to keep paddling toward the pull-out point. Back on the water, the lenses of my glasses became immediately covered in gigantic rain droplets, like windshields without wiper blades. Unable to make out anything but blurry water molecules, I took off my glasses and shoved them into my bag. Though I am legally blind without them, I concluded that fuzzy vision was better than no vision at all. I pulled my boat up alongside Alli’s and informed her that she should take the lead as I could not see more than a few inches in front of my kayak, and I would follow right behind her. And so we made our way slowly down the last mile of the river, Alli confidently navigating around every rock and eddy as I (quite literally) blindly followed, trusting her judgement and the water’s flow.
Much like learning to walk in the dark, navigating a river blind requires a great deal of awareness and trust. You must learn how to read the water not visually but physically. You need to feel the current beneath you and hear the bubbling of white water around the sharpest hidden rocks. And when those senses inevitably fail, you need someone who can guide you around the hazards that you cannot see.
These waters – the waters now in particular of Montgomery County and the waters of our world – are anything but still. The good news is, we have a guide who doesn’t just show us the way. Our guide IS the way, and the truth, and the life. And so we paddle. ~Rachel
June 23, 2020
This is getting harder. People are still getting sick. People are frustrated. People are angry. You can see it in the news from the streets and the mood of the nation. We are moving towards a partial church reopening that, while it is the least bad option available, really makes no one happy. Everything now seems to be making do. Amid all the frustrations, compromises, and indefinitely deferred futures, I just get tired. Maybe, you do too.
So, I went for a walk in the woods.
Amid ash and oak, elm and walnut, I am surrounded by icons of truths far below words and beyond my endless spinning thoughts. A giant maple, with a trunk more than a yard in diameter, has silently stood watch on that lawn for a century. Her canopy nearly touches the earth forming a shelter from innumerable storms and changes. From the eternal twilight beneath her boughs, I watch as branches mighty and minuscule bend and wave in the rolling wind. She has stood there far longer than I have been alive, and by the grace of God, will likely stand long after I return to dust. And her key to majesty and beauty is not strength but resilience. She bends before the wind, but always returns to her true form following a pattern locked deep inside her genes. I lean against her trunk gazing up into the verdure in wonder, gratitude, and awe.
On Sunday morning I had a related moment of wonder, gratitude, and awe listening to Judy Bede’s prelude on the old Shaker hymn, Tis the Gift to be Simple. Normally, the tune is played in A Major with bright consonant tones. But that is not where Judy started. After a brief introduction, she introduced the main theme in clashing dissonant chords that hinted at the form, but none of the content of the ultimate conclusion. In her musical offering, Judy enacted and demonstrated the lyrics without uttering a single word:
‘Til by turning, turning, I come ’round right.
Always returning to the same simple form, Judy allowed the dissonances to follow round and round in their own unhurried pace as the melody bent and bowed to intruding flats. But the pattern held steady and strong finding at last rest and resolution in the tonic conclusion, there resolving into precisely what it was meant to be from the first note.
Bent, bowed, but unbroken, we trudge on through chance and circumstance. The world does not care a wit about our preferences or bend to our wills. Instead, it is we who learn from the book of creation, beauty, and grace. In its pages lie the deep wisdom of the trees and mystery behind the music. True strength lies in gently yielding while always knowing your true form. True beauty lies not in the absence of pain and discord, but in their tender interweaving into deeper harmonies we could never have imagined without them.
So, I make do, not as failure and compromise, but rather as the essence of being a creature growing in and being shaped by this creation. The Creator’s themes are long and winding and we have only our few measures to play. But the great theme is not merely beautiful, it is beauty itself and it is Truth. And we, even we, even now at this moment amid our fear and frustrations, are an absolutely essential part of it. Because we know who we are in the vast intention we call God, we bow and we bend, but we will not break. –Brian
June 16, 2020
Learning How to Walk in the Dark
Like a lot of people right now, I am not sure of where I am going or what I am doing. There are so many uncertainties swirling around us right now—is it safe to go out in public, is corona virus growing or receding, how should I respond to racial injustices and civic protests around me? Last February the way forward seemed so clear. Now, not so much.
I remember as a child learning how to walk in the dark. You open your eyes wide, but they provide no useful information. So, you reach out your hands to feel your way along. You cannot tense up your fingers, lest you jam them on a wall. You need to reach out ever so gently trying to sense presences before actually running into them. You need to move slowly, paying attention to subtle body sensations–a change in the patterns of air movement, or the creak of a floor board near the center of the hall. You strive brush against the world, not smash into it, and you can only do so at the speed of careful perception.
The second thing you need to do is have a very clear sense of your own body, your own kinesthetic sense of up and down, left and right. Normal visual cues will not aid you in the dark. If you want to remain upright walking down a dark hallway, you need to be tuned into and trust your own sense of balance.
Finally, you need to have some sense of your own motion through space without actually watching yourself move. You need to be aware of where you have been–how many steps, how have you drifted or staggered, and how far have you come?
If you do all these things with gentle, attentive perception, you can walk in the dark. You will never walk quickly, but you will get to where you are going. What matters is not speed, but careful, observant attention to the signals from around you and to the signals arising within you.
I do not know where I am going right now or precisely where I am doing. What I do know is how to get there. I need to remember to relax my anxious responses and my tendency to reactively clench as if to receive a blow and instead reach out with gentle hands, a gentle mind, and a gentle heart. I need to spend less time worrying about what ifs and more time attending to what is, here and now. Perceptions, rather than anxious imaginings, provide the useful clues. I need to know myself, especially my perennial habits of wandering off into self-doubt, projections, and attachments. I need to be exquisitely attentive to my own sense of value, meaning and purpose. Finally, I need to know where I have been, the commitments, consequences, and follies of a lifetime that trail off into the wake of memory.
The odd thing is that I have never really known my destination. It has usually been a projection of my desires. What has changed me and shaped my life are those moments when I have attentively walked in the dark. In those moments, and not when I presumed to know where I was going, have I been found.
Maybe it takes walking in the dark to make us pay attention and realize that we are not alone.
Maybe it takes walking in the dark to get anywhere at all.
June 2, 2020
In this season of Easter now drawing to its close, my imagination has been haunted by bodies–bodies tortured and resurrected, bodies recognized from their wounds, bodies transformed by grace, bodies empowered through the breath of God, and bodies embraced in ascension as part of God’s own identity. And then I think about other bodies–brown bodies, white bodies, police officers’ bodies, bodies frightened and in pain. Seeking to follow a curious God incarnate in a first century Palestinian peasant, one cannot ignore God’s clear focus on the human body as both an expression of divine creativity and grace and the medium through which both divine truth and judgment are revealed. The Gospel of John in particular focuses our attention on bodies because for John it is through and in bodies that the truth is revealed and humanity is presented with a choice, literally a crisis. Do we see in one Jesus of Nazareth a mangled insurrectionist dying on a cross or in him do we see both truest humanity and truest God?
I do not know what I do not know. But I know my body knows more. I know my body seems to retain the hurts, shames, and anxieties of not just my life, but my ancestors as well, even when I cannot articulate them. And I know that my body grants me access, privilege, deference, and respect in so many environments, even if I cannot tell you how, why, or when. If this is true for me, I assume it is true for others. Conversely, I suspect that the traumas of generations reside in the flesh of many of us. Maybe you too have had hints at this sort of knowledge that is literally in our flesh and bones.
Something has shifted in our world. Maybe it was the pent-up anxiety of pandemic restrictions. Maybe it was the unprecedented economic carnage experience so disproportionately by communities of color. Maybe it was simply the pent-up rage of a people who have been forced to endure too much. The constant parade of African Americans killed by the agents of the state in our country—Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephen Clark, Botham Jean, and Breonna Taylor, to name but a few—threatens to numb our sensibilities and reduce tragedy to mere statistics. But then the shocking film of George Floyd brought something new to our collective conscience—horror and compassion. George Floyd should not have died. He was handcuffed lying prone on the street. And you could hear him beg, begging for a breath of air from the officer kneeling on his throat, and begging for his mother, “Momma, I’m through.” What I did not know was that Floyd’s mother died two years ago. Seconds before his own death, he cried out beyond his own anguish for his mother, a primal plea that comes up deep from within our bodies moments before their destruction pleading for rescue, release, and mercy. You cannot hear Floyd’s anguished plea and not hear its echoes across time and mortality all the way back to the cross. You cannot hear Floyd’s pleas and not be haunted by them.
The Gospels’ vision lesson works in two dimensions. Vertically, it challenges us to see God in Jesus. Horizontally, it challenges us to see that same God present in every person, every neighbor, just as in our selves. The failure to see in either direction is the essence of Sin. John in particular goes further claiming that the failure to see constitutes eternal judgment upon ourselves. The unfortunate truth however is that it is far too easy to fail to see that which we do not wish to see, far too easy to justify, rationalize, ignore, or obscure. As a white man in America–ridiculously overeducated, protected and content, safe behind all my clever words and connections–it is far too easy for me to not see the pain and suffering in my neighbors, my literal neighbors here in this community, one of the most economically segregated in the nation. But a dying man calling out for his mother, that even I cannot ignore. Nor should I.
So, what should we do? Pray for peace? Certainly, but prayer all by itself is a lousy substitute for action. Peacefully protest? Always a good thing, but history suggests it not terribly effective method for producing lasting societal change. The truth is that our current predicament is the consequence of millions of discrete choices, choosing against black bodies, for many centuries. No action, no reform, no prosecution, or policy could undo centuries of harm, even if we knew what we should do and we do not. Moreover, the deepest hurt is not in our law codes, or even our culture (although it is abundant there), but in human bodies testifying to centuries of trauma.
Or perhaps we should issue a statement, a proclamation decrying racism, oppression, and brutality. My inbox is littered with institutional censures of structural racism and prejudice, some curiously from institutions that at one time actually owned slaves. But if our commitment to our common humanity, justice, and human compassion must be proclaimed in a press release rather than simply demonstrated in our collective and individual character, then such words are obscene lies. So yes, racism is evil. White supremacy is a corrosive lie rooted in sin. Extra-judicial killings of unarmed, handcuffed men are atrocities. And there is something deeply malignant in our society that continually metastasizes our national original sin of violence towards people of color. But what should we do?
I do not know what I do not know. And my knowledge of the life experiences, hopes, and pains of people of color is minuscule. Perhaps, right now it is best to avoid declarative sentences altogether and simply listen. That is how Fairmont responded in the past, hosting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1968. Those panels expressed discomforting truths to more than 400 in the audience, convicting testimony that has never disappeared, only waited for verdict. Before I was born, a few hundred white people at Fairmont were simply willing to lean into the discomfort and listen. Maybe right now I should just listen, with all my anxiety and all my discomfort when I would rather turn away (recognizing we are all anxious and uncomfortable). But then we cannot merely listen, we need to bear witness. We need to listen compassionately to the truth of others and then point the world to that testimony. As good news bringers (aka evangelists) this should be an old habit for us. We are not particularly good at saving the world, but we can point to the truth. And the truth, if we are brave enough to bear and share it, may yet set us free.
The hard work of changing the world lies not in changing our laws but in changing ourselves. That can only happen when we let the truth of others break open ours. This requires us to look inside us to places we prefer not to go. It requires us to look outside ourselves in compassion (which literally means to suffer with) to perceive and testify to others’ truths. But I suspect that if we learn to see God in a man dying on a cross, we will also be able to see our neighbor in man calling out to his mother with his last breath. And when we can hold our witness to both in truth, loving our God and our neighbor, then I suspect we will be getting closer to the answer we seek. –Brian
May 26, 2020
I heard a prayer this morning that stopped me in my tracks. In his deep southern, South Carolina accent, beloved professor and theologian, William Willimon prayed these words, “God, I praise you for your great, glorious turning toward us.” God’s great and glorious turning toward us…
I am so drawn to these words. In all my fumbling and fickle attempts to really know and love God, I always come back to the painful awareness that I am lacking and unworthy. Which in the end takes me back to focusing on me and my actions, and all that I have or have not done to know or love God.
God’s great and glorious turning toward us is God’s action of love and redemption, initiated by God, completed by God in Jesus, and sustained by God through the Holy Spirit. There is no “me” in the ultimate work of salvation. God turns toward me. God turns toward us. Even when we are fumbling and fickle and failing. It is God who turns toward us to redeem us and love us and call us.
Hold that image in your mind, that image of God turning toward you, toward us. In the presence of the great and glorious God, all of who we are melts away, even our failures and fumbling. Of course, we are unworthy and lacking. We all are. God knows that yet turns in love toward us to redeem us and heal us and call us. This is the nature of God. Love.
I have many fragile and false markers I use to define who I am:
-the mistakes and the successes in my life
When my great and glorious God turns toward me, I can only see God and God’s love for me, and not those false markers I create for myself and others.
As I pray for each of you during these days of being together-but-apart, I imagine you at home alone or with your family, in your yard pulling weeds or planting flowers, in your makeshift office at home juggling work and children, or venturing out for the weekly grocery shopping adventure. I also imagine you tired, frustrated, short-tempered, and anxious, and at other times joyful hopeful, grateful, and content.
My prayer for you during these long and uncertain days of this pandemic is that you will see God turning toward you with love and redemption, and that you will simply and wonderfully receive God’s turning.
May 19, 2020
One of the hardest lessons of faith is that we are not in control. The universe does not revolve around us, nor does it care about our intelligence, industry, cunning, or craft. We camouflage over this hard truth with our strategic plans, risk assessments, and long-range forecasts. In “normal” times we are able to maintain the charade. But not now. Now we simply respond to what happens according to our best knowledge and values, knowing full well that our best knowledge is woefully inadequate. It is profoundly, sometimes embarrassingly humbling.
But curiously, it is precisely in the humbling that we find a solid truth to stand upon. Humble and humiliation both derive from the Latin word humus: the earth. To be humbled is to be brought down to earth, which is of course our home, from what we are made, and where we live and love. To be humbled is to learn who we truly are, creatures made by a Creator around whom this world unfolds. Once humbled, our lives can at last learn to bend with all creation to the Creator’s love and care in the great cosmic dance. We were not made to be autonomous, self-defined, or in control. Indeed, that was the essence of the problem in the garden long ago. We were made for a relationship defined not by us, but by our Maker. And in that embrace, is peace, bliss, and belonging beyond anything we could every dream or do.
I am just a little person in a big world and so are you. But we belong to someone who loves us and weaves time out of love for us simply as a place for belonging together. Today may not be a good day, nor even tomorrow. But God makes time for us, and on that day we will dance.
May 12, 2020
This is going on a long time, much longer than I expected. I do not mind the closed shops or even the closed restaurants. For me the hardest thing is the disappearance of the future. Beyond a few days out, everything is now indeterminate. Plans, events, celebrations, even deadlines have blurred. The presumed certainties of the calendar have collapsed into mere functions of probability. We simply do not know what will happen or when, and so we are forced by circumstance to content ourselves with an endless repetition of now.
For those of us who derive much of our self-worth and identity from future oriented industry, this can be a devastating loss. Goals, deadlines, and plans have all become fuzzy and porous as waves of pandemic wash in and out eroding all our assumptions. The once presumed road ahead is now more like trackless grassland extending out in all directions. You can see a long way, but the prairie covers your track and everything to the horizon rolls in motion before unseen winds. You know you are still standing, but cannot see your feet, let alone the trail.
One of the few genuine gifts of this moment in our history is precisely this moment. Social isolation, the slowing of doing, and the clouding of every moment except this moment forces us to look down and pay attention to this and only this moment. A quick inventory reveals that we are in fact stably grounded, breathing, reasonably healthy, and reasonably sane. So why are we all so afraid of living into the eternal now of this moment, which is of course the only point in time which we will ever occupy? Why do we endlessly yearn for the faraway horizons of the future that are, of course, mere projections of our desires?
I am here now. Where else could I ever be? I feel the air moving in my lungs. I feel the weight of my body pressing though my feet into the good earth. There is only one moment in time in which God can reach any of us and it is now. And there is only one place in all creation where God can reach any of us and it is here. The whole mystery of the incarnation made the here and now sacred as the sacramental vessel where the divine and the mortal meet, mingle, and dance. The past is utterly inaccessible to me. My memory is already hard at work re-editing it. The future is beyond my grasp. It will come as it will regardless of my plan and anxieties. But right here, right now God is giving away God’s own self to me in creative love in and as this very moment. Not soon, but now. Not close, but here. Welcome to the sacred crucible of now.
May 5, 2020
People ask me lots of questions for which I do not have answers. When are we going to open the church? Will older adults return to worship? What is going to happen? My problem is not that I have neglected to consider these questions. My problem is that the answers to these and many others are unknowable at the present time. Lack of knowledge and lack of control make me feel alternatively anxious or incompetent. I try to bury those feelings through busyness and talking to people, but I know they will come back. Perhaps you too have felt some of these critical, worried voices popping up inside your head and heart.
The most common human response to these darker feelings is avoidance. The nightly news recites an account of daily infection statistics and then ends the newscast with some human-interest story about a puppy. If we really are in control and we really do define our own identities and outcomes, then that is the best we can do. Science, politics, and culture will provide the only answers we can cling to, even it they don’t provide much. In such a world, the only rational response is despair or avoidance, hence all those puppy stories.
In an odd way this whole pandemic mess is strengthening my faith by weakening everything else that I might depend on. I am daily confronted by my own ignorance and anxiety and I can hear it behind all the talking heads on television as well. Daily I am reminded how little agency I exercise over my life and my community. And even more personally, I am reminded how I cannot generate my own feelings on demand. I do not have the freedom to create myself, let alone my world. The beautiful thing is that I do not have to.
The first and greatest freedom of a Christian is the freedom not to have to create yourself or your world. We are instead created. The second freedom is closely related. Who we are and what we do is not the product of our skills, knowledge, or achievements. Rather, who we are is the result of an encounter. Our lives are defined by a relationship, not by ourselves. I am defined by a relationship with one who loves me despite myself, a relationship with one who adopted me despite my running away, despite my anxieties, and despite my incompetencies. None of my stuff really matters, only the relationship. Only God.
If all your hopes lie with humankind and our skills and knowledge, then today is a day to despair because all those hopes eventually end in the grave. But if you believe in a God who is meeting us as us in the middle of this and every mess, then you are now free to teach the world how to live . . . and how to die . . . and how to live. The first commandment—you shall have no other gods before me–is the greatest commandment not because it forbids idolatry, but rather because it points our way beyond ourselves to freedom and to life itself. B.