Weekly Devotionals and Reflections


Weekly Scriptural Blog

March 31, 2023 – Matthew 6: 19-21

It was a rag tag group that wandered in from the shantytown on the back side of the Mount of Olives. His disciples “borrowed” a donkey for him. It was not a sign of humility. Quite the opposite. It was a sign that the final king of the Jews had arrived (check out 1 Kings 1:33-48 and Zechariah 9:9). His more fervent followers cut down branches from the trees to waive overhead and carpet his pathway just like they did centuries earlier for Simon Maccabee (1 Macc. 13:51). And the crowds cried out Hosanna, which literally means, “save us,” which seems oddly fitting since Jesus real name, Yeshua literally means, “God saves.”

It is a beautiful inspiring sight watching the parade wind its way down the Mount of Olives and across the Kidron Valley. But any politically astute observer that day would have concluded that there was only one way this enthusiastic street theater would end. There was only one way that anyone advanced by his supporter as an alternative to Caesar would end.

Palm Sunday is about many things, most of them bad. The ironies of politics and human religion are on full display. But most of all, Palm Sunday is a question for us. What kind of Messiah are you looking for and what kind do you find? What kind of Kingdom do you really want?

On Thursday night, the crowds expressed their dissatisfaction with the answer as they changed their shouts from Hosanna to Crucify Him.

The question for us this week is the same they faced. What sort of kingdom and what sort of kind do we seek?

March 24, 2023 – Matthew 6: 1-15

The normal human response to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is despair. We are simply not up to it. If this is what Jesus has in mind for human life, we’ve got a big problem. The Sermon on the Mount is much more popular as an aspirational ideal rather than a blueprint for our lives and world. Indeed, the world has nasty habit of murdering people (like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Oscar Romero) who suggest that we should actually do what Jesus said.

I do think we should do what Jesus said. But I also recognize that we cannot do it alone. After deconstructing and reconstructing Torah and all the ways in which our wants and desires get us into trouble, Jesus changes the subject. He starts talking about worship. He starts talking about prayer. And for Jesus that is always something we do together.

The problem is that for many people, worship is what pushes them away from God. More specifically, other worshippers push them away from God. That is a problem. Jesus suggests remedies that are designed not so much to inform our liturgical practices as to improve our relationships in the pews.

Then he moves on to the solution for all the moral, spiritual, ethical, and economic challenges he has already saddled us with and that solution is prayer. His prayer. The Lord’s Prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is the hinge of the Sermon on the Mount connecting its ethical imperatives with God’s gracious embrace of precisely those who are going to mess up again and again. He teaches us to ask for and to extend forgiveness precisely because we are going to fail to live up to the standards he already described. That is alright. There is a solution. Instead of impossibly strict moral perfectionism, we are slowly being perfected through belonging and participating in family. For that is what we are. With God as our loving and patient parent we are all siblings sharing in the family business which is the salvation of the world. And we participate in that great work every time we forgive just as we ourselves are forgiven.

There is something better than perfection. Belonging.

March 17, 2023 – Matthew 5:38-48

As God’s people, we live in the profound tension of living in the here-and-now and the not-yet. We live with the awareness of God’s kingdom realized here on earth through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and God’s perfect kingdom that is yet to come. And as God’s people who are broken and sinful, we are painfully aware that we are incomplete and not yet whole, strive though we may to faithfully live into that kingdom.

As we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, we are continually reminded that Jesus calls us to live in a new way – a radical new way set apart from the selfishness and fear of our world. But living this radical kingdom of love seems truly impossible at times.

How do we do what Jesus has called us to do? How do we love our enemies? How do we turn the other cheek? And how do we live into the command “to be perfect as God is perfect?” It is an honest struggle.

There are no easy answers to these questions. Only the gift of knowing that God’s Spirit changes our hearts and empowers us do what seems impossible – live into this glorious kingdom here and now. And we need one another to live into this kingdom of love, this radical kingdom of love.

Come join us for worship, fellowship, and connection as we seek to be faithful to who God calls us to be.

March 10, 2023 – Matthew 5:27-37

Divorce is hard. I do not know anyone who has ever celebrated it. But I do know those for whom it came as a relief. Sometimes, the best one can choose is the least bad.

I wish we lived in a perfected world, a kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more truthful world. I suspect Jesus did too. But we do not. Our lives and our relationships are touched by the stain of separation and alienation that we summarily call sin. So, we do the best we can as we are–fearful flawed followers of a crucified Messiah.

The Sermon on the Mount is not a new statute book according to Jesus. It is a vision of life restored and perfected according to God. An important part of such life is togetherness. We are made for life together, with God and with other people. Jesus believed in this so strongly he would not let death separate us. But we are not Jesus. Sometimes, the pains and struggles of this life keep us separated indeed. But we do not need to add to those pains. The church does not need to heap shame and guilt on top of human suffering. That is not our role. People, left to their own devices, do that all on their own.

The role of the church is two-fold. First, we are a school reminding people of both what could be and how to make that possibility a reality. We share Jesus’ aspirations and his curriculum for transforming human identity. Second, we are a first aid station, tending to the soul-sick walking wounded with compassion, empathy, and love. We are a hospital for sinners staffed by sinners trying to share and show the love we have received. We do not do the actual work of healing, that is a bit beyond our paygrade. Instead, we try to help each other limp along until we are embraced and healed by the only one who can and will.

On Sunday we will consider some of Jesus’ teachings on desire, divorce, and telling the truth. Jesus did not share them with us to wound each other. He shared them with us to point the way forward to healing, wholeness, and hope.

March 3, 2023 – Matthew 5:21-26

Throughout the first few centuries of the Common Era, a vast conversation unfolded within Judaism about Torah, God’s commandments to human beings on how we should live our lives in relationship with God and each other. People talked, reasoned, and argued about how we could best keep the 613 commandments (sorry the first ten are just the tip of the iceberg). What they tried to develop was an applied understanding of how we could systematically live according to God’s commands. Sometimes this meant creating rules around the original rule to make sure that one never ever violates it. They called this process, “putting a fence around the Torah.” The fence was composed of the daily practices and prohibitions that if followed would keep you in the clear.

One of the early rabbis participating in this conversation was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ ideas about building a fence around Torah can be found in longest teaching on Torah, the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sixth Commandment prohibits unlawful killing, Thou Shall Not Murder. It seems straightforward. But Jesus now begins to build a fence around it. To make sure you should not murder, you should also not do any of those things that are precursors to or preconditions for murder. So, Jesus extends the commandment to include a prohibition on hateful anger, no name-calling, labeling, or slandering, no revenge or vendettas, no condemnation of another, because all of these things can lead to murder. So, in order to not kill, do not do any of those things.

Jesus’ unpacking of the commandment has another deeper purpose. He considers the meaning, purpose, and rationale for the commandment. Rather than rote compliance he asks to consider pursuing the goal or purpose for which God made the commandment in the first place. God made us for relationships with God and with other people. In order to live into that life, we need to reconcile with others who have wronged us, or we have wronged. So, Jesus extends the prohibition on murder into a positive mandate to reconcile.

Far from suspending or replacing the law of God, Jesus lives it and shows us how to live it as well, not as some checklist of rules to avoid punishment, but as a guide for a thriving life.

February 24, 2023 – Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is an actual sermon. That means it has a structure and pattern. It begins with a statement of its intended goal, the kind of life and world that God intends for all people. That end goal is a condition of shalom, God’s blessedness, rest, completeness, and satisfaction precisely for those who experience none of those things in this life. Jesus begins his sermon with his goal, blessed are those who experience no blessings today. By beginning his sermon with the beatitudes describing the end goal of the sermon and indeed of human life, Jesus shapes our interpretation of everything that will follow. Specifically, you must keep in mind that the beatitudes describe what Jesus is trying to achieve and the rest of the sermon details how it will be achieved.

The second introductory part of the sermon establishes Jesus’ sources and responds to an immediate objection. Jesus is going to rely completely on the teachings of God that have come before him. Jesus is going to creatively use and apply God’s teachings, the Torah, in new ways for new people. He is not going to invent a new Torah or replace the old one. Instead, he is going to do precisely what the Pharisees were also doing. He is going to articulate oral instructions on how to live into Torah as a guide for how to live and how to relate to God and other people. Of course, his oral instructions would be written down a generation later as the Gospels.

The great insight of Torah is that if you modify people’s patterns of behavior, over time you modify their hearts and minds. Jesus understands this and uses his sermon as an opportunity to begin to reprogram people’s lives and consequently their hearts through concrete actions and commitments. The Sermon on the Mount can therefore be understood to be the application and explanation of Torah, not its replacement.

What Jesus seeks is not changed ethics or even a changed society, but a transformed you and me. And the way Jesus is going to do that is one life at a time.

February 17, 2023 – Matthew 5, 6, & 7

The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 – set the gospel of Matthew apart from all the other gospels. Matthew gives us the precious gift of these sayings, commandments, and teachings of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important collection of scriptures in our gospels, taking us back to the feet of Jesus as he teaches us how we live out this great new Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus takes us from the great ushering in of the Kingdom of Heaven drawn near, the eschatological rule that the prophets spoke of in the ancient scriptures, to the intimate interior of our faith reminding us of God’s nearness.

Beginning with the Beatitudes which remind us that God’s way of living is completely upside down from the way of society, to the Lord’s Prayer – that sacred prayer binding us to saints across the generations, to the gentle words of God’s provision when we are anxious and worried, to the deeply challenging words about possessions and vows of marriage, to the interpretation of the law of God, the Sermon on the Mount is the heart of the teachings of Jesus and how we live into this great new Kingdom of Heaven.

We will be journeying together through Lent with these challenging, comforting, and beautiful words of Jesus. This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, we will hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety and we will share a Lenten Breakfast in between the worship services.

Come prepare your hearts and minds as we enter Lent this next week, as we share ashes on Ash Wednesday, and as we hear these sacred words of Jesus from the mountain.

February 10, 2023 – Matthew 4:12-25

Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, proclaimed as “Beloved” by the Spirit of God, led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil, resisted the temptations thrown before him, and – after forty days – cared for by angels.

Baptized, called, tested, and cleansed, now Jesus is ready to begin with the Great Beginning, the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. The beginning of something completely new yet prophesied about for thousands of years. The beginning of something not just for this small community of faithful Jews but a new beginning for everyone – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, young and old.

But Jesus cannot begin his proclamation of the good news of God’s new Kingdom alone. Jesus needs people to build this new Kingdom of God. And so Jesus goes fishing for fishers of people.

Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people” Jesus cries out to Simon and Andrew, James and John on the Capernaum shore of the Sea of Galilee. And to our amazement, these first disciples leave immediately to follow Jesus.

The story of the Fishers of People is often preached as an individual call story – Jesus is calling you and me to follow him, to leave everything behind and follow this Rabbi from Nazareth. And it is a call story for each of us, but it is so much more than just that. This Great Beginning of the public ministry of Jesus is the beginning of that which was created and set in motion before creation – God’s redemption of all humankind, God’s new way of living as a community of God’s people. God’s covenant keeping for all.

And we are called to follow Jesus who has brought near the final arrival of God’s great eschatological rule. And it all begins here by the seashore at Capernaum.

Come, let us join together in worship this Sunday, to worship the God who has called us to be part of that Great Beginning!

February 3, 2023 – Matthew 4:1-11

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 Matthew 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 drags 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. 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 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.

Matthew will not give us a simple answer to the precise nature of the identity Jesus adopted that day. Instead, Matthew 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 Matthew, Jesus, and most of all God await our answer.

January 27, 2023 – Matthew 3:1-12

We tend to dislike John the Baptist for the same reasons as Herod Antipas and his other critics. John calls us out, tells us the truth, and demands that we change our lives. We would much rather live our lives on our terms pursuing our own private pleasures. So, we tend to imagine John as a sort of cranky prophet out there in the desert proclaiming gloom and doom. Maybe it was eating all those bugs that put him in a bad mood?

John’s insistence results from a sense of urgency not grumpiness. He understands that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming soon. He desperately wants people to understand that much of our lives do not and will not fit into that Kingdom. So he implores us to change. Turn around, return, repent, before it is too late!

Contrary to the way he is often portrayed, John’s message and ministry are motivated by his compassion for the people, not judgment of them. He genuinely wants people to avail themselves of the gift and opportunity presented as Heaven condescends to earth. So he tries to warn them, tries to teach them, that in order to enter that approaching Kingdom, they will need to change their lives. Later in Matthew, Jesus will explain precisely what that changed kind of life looks like and lives like. We call Jesus’ unpacking of the sort of change John proclaimed, “The Sermon on the Mount.”

Beyond instruction, John offers us one final hope. No matter how badly we mess up, no matter how we confuse God’s life and our own desires, God will sift them apart. We call that judgment. It is not punishment. It is purification. Like any person attached to bad habits that do not lead to life, letting go may be painful at times. But letting go of what is not God is necessary for life.

January 20, 2023 – Matthew 2:19-23

Nazareth. It was not exactly a household name in the first century. You probably would not have found it on any maps. It had no claim to fame. It had no history we can discern. It is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. A small village of perhaps 200-300 souls, it had no earthly reason to make it famous. And maybe that is precisely the point.

A proper Jewish messiah should come from a proper Jewish town. Jerusalem would be most fitting, but Bethlehem, Bethel, Hebron, and Modi’in would have been better choices. But not Nazareth. It was not even particularly Jewish. It was a ramshackle collection of cave huts perched on the hills outside of Sepphoris. Sepphoris got all the attention, “the jewel of the Galilee.” No one ever came from Nazareth, and no one ever paid attention to it.

Nazareth was on the frontier set between the Roman world and the Jewish one. Amid the Galilee of the Gentiles, its Jewish traditions would have rubbed uncomfortably up against their pagan neighbors.

Nazareth makes a horrible choice for messiah’s home . . . unless God had a very different sort of Messiah in mind. Not a Davidic King restored like Isaiah envisioned. Not the mysterious Son of Man as Daniel foresaw. But something, someone altogether different with a different aim and purpose, a Messiah not just for Israel but all humanity including the gentiles, a Messiah with a different purpose not merely liberating the people politically but freeing everyone from every bondage to which we are held in thrall.

A Nazareth Messiah does not merely restore Israel.

A Nazareth Messiah redeems the world.

January 13, 2023 – Matthew 2:13-18

In our journey through the gospel of Matthew this year, we move from the heart-warming, mystical story of the Magi bearing gifts for the Christ child, to a disturbing story that often does not make it into the common lectionary nor into our Sunday pulpits.

Matthew’s gospel uniquely brings us the story of the flight to Egypt by Joseph, Mary, and young Jesus in order to escape the terror of Herod the Great, and the horrific story of the massacre of the innocents by a paranoid and power-hungry Herod.

In this parallel story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt, we see the infant Jesus as the new Moses who is called out of Egypt and will save God’s people. And tragically, we see the parallel of innocent children slaughtered in both the Exodus and the flight to Egypt, a heavy reminder that innocent children suffer everyday and evil is still rampant in our world.

Where do we journey in our faith with this difficult passage? How do we understand the coexistence of both God’s sovereignty and human choice? Why is Rachel weeping for her children? In this season after Epiphany, where is our hope of God’s presence and revelation to us in the midst of evil and suffering, especially the suffering of the innocents? And how do the waters of baptism tie us to this Christ child fleeing to Egypt?

Come join us as we worship and hear God’s word to us. Come be the covenant community of God together as we seek truth and God’s presence.

January 6, 2023 – Matthew 2:1-12

Have you put away your Christmas decorations yet? My mother used to always wait until after Epiphany to take her tree down and put her decorations away, but I enjoy the fresh start that comes with the turning over of a new year. I love to put the decorations away, clean the house, find homes for all of my new gifts and donate things that no longer serve me. I love to make New Years’ resolutions (and then promptly break them after three days). There is just something refreshing about getting back to a normal routine after the hustle and bustle of the holidays has come and gone.

And yet, I don’t see the Magi in Matthew hustling to get back to their own day-to-day schedules. They’d waited their entire lives to see the star that marked the birth of the Christ child and traveled for months (through some pretty treacherous territory) in order to reach him, and yet it feels like we are in more of a hurry to have it over with than they were. Why is that?

The Magi were not in a hurry to start fresh or get back to the way things had always been because they couldn’t. They understood that the arrival of God in the world meant that nothing in it, including themselves, could remain the same. What might our lives look like this New Year if we took our cue from these Zoroastrian priests, and chose another road by which to travel after Christmas? Let’s explore together.


December 30, 2022 – Matthew 1: 1-17

The Gospel according to Matthew does not begin with the birth of Jesus. It begins centuries before with Abraham. Abraham was the first person who embraced a relationship with this curious God of the desert who urged him to leave behind his settled life in Mesopotamia and go off to the undiscovered country and there start something genuinely new in human history, a community created and centered on its relationship with God. That community was first a family, albeit a rather dysfunctional one, and then a nation, and then many nations, and finally the three monotheistic faiths to whom belong the majority of human beings alive today.

Matthew begins his story of Jesus with Abraham because Abraham is the foundation of the story of the relationship between God and humankind. Matthew is therefore telling us that his story of Jesus will be in continuity with the Great Story of the Old Testament. The differences are that Jesus will both fulfill that relationship both from the human and divine sides in his person and will simultaneously expand that relationship to explicitly include all human beings and not just on the final day but today. The Hebrew Bible anticipates all people coming in the final days to Jerusalem to worship God in truth. Matthew moves up the timeline and says that day is today and the point of connection between God and the world is no longer a building, but a person, Jesus.

Along the way, Matthew will go into great detail to emphasize the earthy particularity of Jesus, his life, and his teaching. Matthew shares a rather scandalous family genealogy for Jesus. This is precisely the kind of genealogy that the proud priestly families of Jerusalem would have tried to hide. We know nothing about most of the people in Jesus’ family tree. But it includes four women, who should not be in a genealogy at all, who were not even Jews!

From the opening tongue-twisting family tree of Jesus, to the final commissioning 28 chapters later, Matthew is going to challenge and confound how we think of this God and the Messiah. The world would never be the same.

December 23, 2022 – Luke 2

Incarnation is the theological term that describes God assuming human flesh and taking residence among mortals within creation in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christmas is formally known as the Celebration of the Incarnation because the birth of Jesus (or arguably conception if you want to quibble) marks the beginning of a new phase of the relationship between God and humankind. The life of the God-man Jesus proves that humanity and divinity can operate as one in perfect union despite all the potential breakdowns in the relationship (e.g., almost all of the Old Testament). This possibility of intimate and harmonious relationship means that humanity’s potential destiny is now beyond anything we had ever imagined. Our future, our destiny, and our ultimate perfection lie in and with God.

Incarnation means the salvation of human beings and creation does not begin at Easter, but rather at Christmas. God becomes one of us entering into creation and now so identifies with creation and human life that our future is changed forever. God will not be God without us. By merely entering creation, God changes it. We literally live in a God-touched, God-haunted world. That connection cannot be undone. Creation has changed and is now inextricably linked to God’s own life and love. And it all begins in Bethlehem.

There is however an opposite movement, not from God, but from us. Excarnation is the opposite of Incarnation. Excarnation is the process exhibited in late modern societies of systematically removing all sense of a living God who takes on flesh and lives deeply into the world. Excarnation is not the same thing as atheism. It does not for example deny the existence of an abstract divinity, just one concerned with and directly involved in our lives and world. Excarnation can be found in many Christian communities. It is the alienated form of disembodied and flattened Christian faith. In such communities, people will readily confess that God exists, but no one suspects that God may actually show up or actually do anything in our lives. Excarnation can quickly collapse into self-justification, which is just a stylized form of idolatry, or ethics.

The challenge of the Incarnation, the challenge of Christmas is that it actually calls us into deeper engagement and participation with other people and the world because that is precisely where an Incarnate God may be found and encountered. The Word, truth, hope, and love do not come from outside the world but emerge within it.

Behind every Christmas carol we sing, within every candle we light, in every prayer that we pray in this season we are simply trying to point this world away from Excarnation towards Incarnation. We are trying to do precisely what those angels did for the shepherds did long ago. We are trying to point to where God can be found. Here. Now.

December 16, 2022 – Isaiah 35

It is not a new story. It is a very old story actually. You can read it in Luke and Matthew as the children will do on Sunday. But that is not the only place you can find it. The story is all over what we call the Old Testament in Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Ruth, Zechariah, Jonah, Malachi, and elsewhere. The story is simple as it repeats over and over again. This bad old world is not left abandoned to its bad old habits and their consequences. Something changes. Something, someone intervenes. First there is restoration and then return. The people are saved, most of all from themselves. The joy of what we call Christmas is not old, it is now and it is always. God is just like that. God intervenes when and where least expected and changes everything. God saves. Indeed that is precisely what his name literally means–Jesus.

December 9, 2022

On Christmas Eve 1918, the world was weary with the trauma of the First World War that had ended only a few weeks before. Millions would die that winter of the Spanish Flu, the first great influenza outbreak. The world felt shattered with countless lives broken. Old hope and countless dreams had been destroyed. It was from this collective experience of trauma, loss, and grief, that the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was born.

Lessons and Carols was a unique and uniquely simple service of worship that debuted that Christmas Eve at King’s College of Cambridge University. Professors, students, and townspeople were all invited to participate in a simple but profound retelling of the Great Story, from the first days of our disobedience to the salvation of all people in the life and love of Jesus the Christ.

Since 1918, the service or worship has been shared every year and since 1928 has been broadcast live throughout the world on BBC and in the United States on Public Radio. In Dayton you can listen to it starting at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday December 24 on WDPR.

The music changes every year except for the introduction that is always Once in Royal David’s City and is always led by a solo male chorister who is not informed of his internationally broadcast solo until moments before the service begins. The service of worship features Christmas carols that had previously been considered secular music unfit for Christian worship. The embrace of these carols effectively marked the church’s adoption of what most people today consider Christmas music.

On this Sunday morning at Fairmont it will be “our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels, in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and with the shepherds and the wise men adore the child lying in his mother’s arms.” Join us as we participate in a century old and globe spanning tradition of worship of the child of Bethlehem in music and Word. May we be ever mindful that the hope and love of that good news emerges not from some perfect idealized world, but rather precisely this fallen creation which so needs it.

December 2, 2022 – Micah 5:1-6

According to the Gospel of Matthew, when the Magi were searching for the newborn Messiah, they brought a guidebook with them. They brought the book of the Prophet Micah.

Micah wrote centuries before to the people of Judah besieged by the armies of Assyria and uncertain of their future. He wrote to people who were not certain if they had a future at all. Instead of hope, fear ruled their hearts as it does for most people most of the time. The citizens of Judah had put their hope and trust in their generally competent King Hezekiah and his wise policy of strengthening Jerusalem’s defenses. They trusted his foreign policy and its mutual defense treaties with neighboring nations. And they trusted in the priests and the Temple of Solomon that stood proudly on Mount Zion overlooking the city. Micah tells them, in no uncertain terms, that they were all trusting in the wrong things.

Your hope will not come from Jerusalem he tells them—not its armies, walls, monarchs, temple, or priesthood. Nothing that humans have made will save us. Instead, look somewhere else. Look to one of the least propitious places imaginable. Look to a tiny little hilltop hamlet six miles to the south, a little sheepherding and barley farming village perched on the edge of the Judean Desert. The name of that place was The House of Bread. You may be more familiar with that name in Hebrew: Bethlehem.

Advent challenges us to look beyond the bright lights and big productions. Advent challenges us to see through all the illusions of power, security, and control that we fabricate to keep our anxieties in check. Advent challenges us to look beyond our own hopes to God’s. And that hope comes looking for us in the least likely place imaginable for a people who need to learn how to imagine anew.

November 25, 2022 – Isaiah 9:1-7

This Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church liturgical year, and the beginning of the time we set aside to prepare our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits for the coming of God in the Christ Child. Contrary to the hectic, harried hustle of holiday preparation around us, the season of Advent is an invitation to stop, breathe, listen, reflect, and receive.

In our scripture passage for this First Sunday of Advent, God’s people were living in a chaotic, fearful time. Isaiah, the 8th century prophet of the southern kingdom Judah, spoke to God’s people with words of both challenge and hope. The days were dark for God’s people. They were walking in darkness, unable to see any light before them. Their life as God’s people was being destroyed by enemies who surrounded them and hope was gone.

With the powerful images of light and dark, Isaiah speaks hope to their despair, and light to their darkness. Joy is coming in the birth of a child who will bring peace for God’s people. Thousands of years later, we see and know this child as our Savior, Jesus the Christ. But God’s people in the southern kingdom of Judah knew not who that child would be. They only knew that there was hope for the future. And that hope was enough to keep them going through the deep darkness. Out of darkness would come new life and light. The zeal of the Lord of hosts would do it!

Come join us for worship as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Babe born in Bethlehem. In the Sabbath space of worship, all the noise around us will be silenced and God’s voice will ring clear.

November 18, 2022 – Daniel 7: 9-14

It may seem an odd choice to use an Old Testament reading for Christ the King Sunday. But Jesus himself never goes around calling himself King. Jesus never tells people to worship him as the Son of God. He actually gets upset whenever anyone suggests he is the messiah. The title that he does accept, embrace, and apply to himself over and over again is the Son of Man. Jesus directly quotes from Daniel 7 to describe himself, his mission and his purpose. So, while the church considers Jesus through 2000 years of theological encrustations, Jesus considers himself squarely through the lens of this most curious book of the Old Testament and its mysterious figure, the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is a notoriously slippery phrase. It could just as easily be translated from Aramaic as a human being. But Daniel does not use it quite that generically. Daniel uses the term to refer to a kind of human, kind of divine person who will be given sovereign rule over the nations and the world. That same Son of Man will then render final judgment on the nations.

On Sunday we will consider this most ancient and distinctive of Jesus’ own titles. Along the way we will ask what kind of Kingdom are we celebrating anyway and why it is good news for all.

November 11, 2022 – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah rank among the least considered in scripture. They do not include any dramatic plot shifts, no burning bushes or giant floods, no big battles, and no salacious palace plots. Instead, they are about the rather undramatic but important work of community development. Ezra rebuilt the temple. Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls.

Ezra and Nehemiah are set after all the dramatic events of the Hebrew Bible. About 75 years after Jerusalem and Judah were destroyed by the Babylonians, the Babylonians were in turn destroyed by the Persians (there’s always a bigger fish out there). Under more permissive Persian management, the Jews were permitted to return home and begin to rebuild their homes.

The Book of Ezra the priest is all about the restoration and reforms of Judaism as it transformed itself from the national cult of Judah into a world religion. Nehemiah was however an administrator and Persian civil servant. As cup bearer to the Shah, he had special access and authority. He used that authority to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

One of the first problems that the people returning from exile confronted was a lack of physical security. Bedouin nomads would regularly raid the rag tag construction site that was Jerusalem carting off treasures and sometimes people. Faced with acute underpopulation and a labor shortage, Nehemiah’s first problem was to establish physical security for the people. Walls and civic defenses may not seem like the work of ministry, but they were the necessary precondition for all further reform and worship.

Today is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember and express gratitude for those who given so much for our lives and welfare. Their contribution is so fundamental that it sometimes goes unnoticed or unmentioned. But it is their sacrifice, labor, and achievement that provides the necessary precondition for God’s people to thrive.

The work of the people of God is not advanced solely by prophets and priests. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things build the foundations of the beloved community.  They have sacrificed so that we can worship, work, and grow.

To all those who have helped make and keep us safe, Thank You.

November 4, 2022 – Ezekiel 37:1-14

Prophecy is not about predicting the future. Prophecy is all about reinterpreting the present. The prophet sees beyond the passing illusions that cloud our perception to what is real and what is really going on. Prophets are truth tellers who refuse to submit to the lies we like to tell ourselves. This is why they are often so unpopular. A prophet’s job is to re-narrate the present in light of God’s purposes so that the people can better understand the context, cause, and meaning of their current conditions. Like a slowly turning focus dial on binoculars, the prophet uses words to paint a picture with ever greater clarity of the truth.

The Prophet Ezekiel peers beyond the extreme edge of human experience and witnesses the end. He is one of original deportees exiled from Judah following its conquest by the Babylonians. In some dusty village along the Tigris, he stares with unblinking attention where no one in Israel ever dared to look. He gazes into the uttermost void of the end of all things, the end of life, the end of Israel, the end of history, the end of the people’s relationship with God. And there he perceives what neither he nor any mortal ever expected: a new beginning.

The destruction of Judah and the Babylonian exile mark both a catastrophic end to the national cult of the House of David and a revolutionary turn in the history of God’s relationship with humanity. And Ezekiel is the first to notice. The new beginning will not be grounded in restored political institutions or national sovereignty. The new beginning will be grounded in human flesh. All of it. And we call that new beginning resurrection.

October 28, 2022 – Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

What should you do when your world is coming to an end? That is the question and predicament facing the supremely contrarian prophet Jeremiah during the long hot summer of 587 BC. His homeland, the Kingdom of Judah, was occupied by the rampaging armies of Babylon. All that was left was the final holdout, the capital city of Jerusalem. Rather unhelpfully, the prophet wandered the streets telling anyone who would listen that they were all going to die, and they might as well surrender now. Understandably, they locked him away.

From custody Jeremiah does something both astonishing and outwardly profoundly stupid. He buys real estate. Real estate in a nation on the eve of annihilation has a market value of exactly zero. It is a crazy transaction. Nevertheless, Jeremiah records the most detailed Biblical account of any legal transaction in scripture explaining all the precise legal steps he takes to obtain title in fee simple absolute.

Jeremiah is not a real estate speculator. He is a prophet and his symbolic action points us not to future appreciation, but rather the ultimate nature of hope. Even in the face of the greatest lost imaginable, there is hope and it is right in front of us, although we may not see it in the moment. Hope has an identifiable location and shape guaranteed not by circumstance or our feeble efforts to control, but rather by the identify and character of God. God is our redeemer.

In ancient Israelite law, property could never ultimately and finally be lost as long as some older member of the family was willing to pay off the debts. This benefactor who guaranteed the integrity of the family’s future was called the redeemer.

What Jeremiah understood and what none of his contemporaries could perceive was that Israel’s hope did not ultimately rest on the Covenant or its fulfillment, let alone its political fortunes. Israel’s hope rested on the simple fact that its redeemer lived and cared.

And so does ours.

October 21, 2022 – Isaiah 49: 1-7

The middle part of the Book of Isaiah contains three famous poems or songs that are known as the Servant Songs. Each of these songs paints a picture of a servant of God who is both subject to all sorts of failures and sufferings but who will be both protected and ultimately vindicated by God. The question is, who is this servant?

Ancient Israel and modern Jews said it was a poetic reference to the people of Israel. Since the time the Gospels were written, Christians have cherished these songs as prophecies of the coming of the Messiah Jesus. Alternatively, the servant could simply be the author of the songs or even the reader. One of the qualities of great poetry is that it sustains more than one reading with more than one meaning. So, for me, I see no need to decide. Instead, I just read it again and get lost in the images.

I love the image that we are God’s knife, sharpened to a razor’s edge or a finely honest arrowhead. Those are martial images suggesting conflict, but they are simply tools wielded by the will of God. And notice they remain hidden, concealed in the deep shadows of God’s hand or down in the deeps of God’s quiver. That is where I want to be. Hidden in God. Hidden alongside all the other arrows. Just waiting for the right moment to be used.

The servant songs will end in Isaiah 52-53 with the image of the servant suffering vicariously for the people and through those wounds healing the people. The burden is unimaginable. Such a burden could not be borne but for the constant reassurance the we first belong to the hidden places of God from which we find our strength.

October 14, 2022 – Isaiah 6:1-11a

The call story of Isaiah the prophet was a full sensory experience: Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell! And it was a “whole being” experience, too! Physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

Envision this:
-Almighty God seated on the throne, high and lofty
-the skirt of the robe of God filling the Temple
-six-winged seraphim hovering over God and singing “Holy, holy, holy”
-smoke from the altar filling the room
-pillars of the Temple swaying from the sound of the seraphim’s voices

The holy sight of God, the sound of the seraphim singing, the smell of the smoke from the coals of the altar, the taste of the burning coals on Isaiah’s lips, and the touch of the tongs bringing cleansing and forgiveness.

Isaiah knew without a doubt that God was calling him to speak God’s truth to God’s people, Israel. And this God would give Isaiah all he needed to heed this call and respond humbly, “Here Am I. Send me.”

Being a prophet was a tough job. Isaiah knew from the very beginning that God’s people would fail and would follow their own way. Isaiah lived with the reality of the failure and fear and unfaithfulness of God’s people, and yet he said, “Send me.”

Come join us this Sunday for a very special Children’s Sabbath Sunday which will be led by the children of the church, as we hear again our call to be God’s voice and presence in this world.

October 7, 2022 – Jonah 4:6-11

Jonah is an easy character to despise or, at the least, to point a finger at as one we would never emulate.

In the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah, Jonah the prophet:

-disobeys God’s command to go to Nineveh and call them to repent
-flees to Tarshish which is the complete opposite direction of Nineveh
-boards a ship, causing God’s wrath to bring about a mighty storm
-gets thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish
-gets vomited up on dry land
-finally obeys God and goes to Nineveh
-screams at God when the Ninevites actually repent
-pouts under a shade bush and asks God to take his life

Jonah is having a rough time!

It is not until we realize who the Ninevites were that we begin to have some compassion for Jonah. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the savagely cruel military power of the Bronze Age. In 721 B.C. Assyria captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took the ten tribes into captivity. Twenty years later Assyria attempted to besiege Jerusalem, bringing devastation to towns and villages throughout the Judean countryside.

God is asking Jonah to preach repentance to one of Israel’s greatest enemies and when the Ninevites actually repent, God shows them mercy and forgives them. That is a tough pill for Jonah to swallow!

You see, God is a god of justice but God is also a god of mercy. And even people as cruel as the Ninevites and as broken as Jonah are under the grace and salvation of God.

Come join us this Sunday as we revisit an old, old story in a beautiful, new way.

September 30, 2022 – Leviticus 16 (Selected Verses)

The story of the Exodus recounted across the books of the Torah is filled with the Hebrews protests, complaints, repudiations, and abandonments of God. Time and again, Moses steps forward on behalf of the people. The troublemakers are punished. The people repent. And Israel is saved. But what happens when you no longer have Moses around?

Moses was a unique charismatic prophet. Aaron and the priests who followed him were not. They provided the ongoing means by which the people’s relationship to God could be maintained. Not every generation has a Moses and life would be unbearable if we never knew what we needed to do in order to be forgiven. So, God provides a way, a ritual, a habit of repentance, a ritual method for forgiveness.

The oddest part of this practice (still remembered on Yom Kippur, which falls this coming Monday) is the ritual of the two identical goats, chosen to be as similar as possible. Lots are drawn, one bearing the words “to the Lord,” the other “To Azazel.” The one selected to the Lord was offered as a sacrifice. The other set free to wander the hills, perhaps to an untimely end, perhaps not.

No one really knows who or what Azazel really was or is. Maybe it means a steep cliff or an abandoned wilderness place (Rashi). Maybe it means a fallen angel or demon as mentioned in Genesis 6:2 (Ibn Ezra). Maybe it was Satan (Nahmanides). Or maybe, it is simply the compound noun combining the word for goat (ez) and “go away” (azal). When the first English Bibles were translated William Tyndale rendered it as the “scapegoat” (i.e., the goat that escapes).

The curious thing about Yom Kippur is that it is the goat that is not sacrificed that receives the people’s sins. The goat, the scapegoat, receives our collective sin and goes far away never to be heard from again. It is not sacrificed as an atoning act of expiation; it is distantly removed as an act of purification. Forgiveness can always be granted by the one we have wronged. But shame sticks. God can forgive us of our guilt, those ways we have wronged God, but forgiveness alone cannot remove our sense of shame. Shame cannot be forgiven. It must be removed. And so goes the scapegoat carrying away our defilement that is the mark of shame. And it can only happen when the entire community as a community collectively shares in the process of confession, repentance, atonement, and purification. When we do this together, whole societies can be redeemed.

In the Christian tradition, we understand that this process of atonement was transferred to Jesus in his passion, death, and resurrection. Does Jesus combine the roles? There is certainly no more distant barren wilderness than hell. What if Jesus is not merely sacrifice for sin, but the one who removes it both collectively and individually away from our lives and this creation? What if Jesus does not merely forgive our sin, but so transforms it such that it no longer binds us?

September 23, 2022 – 2 Kings 5: 1-14

I have never really understood justice. A judge I once clerked for told me in a candid moment that law is the business of providing predictability and justice is just an occasional an incidental byproduct. Every time I think that I have a handle on justice it seems to vanish into the ether of personal interests and preferences. Nonetheless, the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular focus on God’s passionate concern for justice in human affairs. The question is, what does that look like?

King Ahab of Israel has a very bad reputation in the Books of Kings. His wife Jezebel is portrayed as even worse. They arrange the murder of Naboth the vineyard owner whose sole offense was trying to comply with Torah and maintain his family’s land holdings. Naboth is wrongfully stoned on false charges of apostasy and sedition. Ahab and Jezebel’s crimes were murder, and therefore a violation of the Noahide covenant with all humanity, and the wrongful taking of real property forbidden under Torah, Ahab and Jezebel deserve death. Death is what the prophet Elijah promises them, and not just their death but the death of their whole family. Elijah gets a bit worked up in his rather salacious descriptions of just how that will happen. But then Ahab repents, and God appears to say, okay I won’t kill you. I will kill your children later on instead. And with this foreshadowing of the purges of Jehu, our story ends.

I know that God wants justice. I am just not so clear that is the outcome of this text. Naboth is not vindicated. He is just dead. It is not altogether clear who gets the land. Ahab appears to get off scot-free. Jezebel, the mastermind behind the operation, is threatened with some ambiguous end at some future date. Instead, horrible punishment is meted out to Ahab’s children who had nothing to do with the crime. So, we are left with the curious feeling that if this is what God’s justice looks like, it is a curious form of justice indeed.

Justice requires relationship and accountability and that seems to be what is sorely lacking. Kings have a nasty habit of pursing their own wants regardless of the people’s needs. Ahab is shamed into being more king-like, but in doing so becomes less human. Maybe that is where justice begins, the shared recognition that we are all together.

September 16, 2022 – 2 Kings 5: 1-14

He was not the sort of hero who was supposed to be saved. He was no hero at all, at least to Israel. His name was Namaan, and he was the conquering general of the arch enemy of ancient Israel, the Kingdom of Aram Haddad. Based on the archeological evidence we have found, it excelled at destroying Israelite cities. He was precisely the type of person that Israel’s covenant and its God were to protect against.

And look who comes seeking healing! Namaan and his entourage pull up before the prophet Elisha’s hut craving a dermatological consult. Elisha sends one of his assistants. Apparently, this is no big deal. Tell him to take a bath. After overcoming his initial resistance Namaan does so and is healed. The outsider with no claim upon God’s saving mercy comes looking for a miracle and is healed.

There are two grand traditions of testimony in the Hebrew Bible. One is the tradition of the Deuteronomist that what matters is Israel and Israel’s fidelity to the covenant. When Israel scrupulously obeys that covenant, Israel is rewarded and when it disobeys it is punished. The other arc of testimony is a bit fuzzier about the scope and conditions for God’s healing and mercy. Sometimes the outsiders are invited in. Sometimes God just bestows salvation on precisely those who least deserve it. And so Namaan is healed joining a long line of assorted outcasts and interlopers: Rahab and Ruth, Melchizedek and Cyrus, the Ninevites and Namaan, and later on a Roman Centurion’s servant, a Canaanite woman’s daughter, a repentant tax collector named Levi, and Ethiopian Queen’s eunuch, a gentile boy named Timothy, and in due time, you and me.

The mercy of God is far stranger than anything we have been led to expect.

September 9, 2022 – I Kings 8:22-30

The Temple stands at the very heart of Jerusalem. Thousands of years ago, the Jebusites worshipped their moon god on this windy ridge at the summit of the Judean Hills. Later Abraham would bring his son Isaac here, and more importantly they both went home again. Later David’s city would grow along the southern shoulder of the hill. Later Solomon would finally build a temple to the God of Israel, centralizing worship in this one location. And it would all be swept away a few centuries later by the Babylonians and rebuilt (admittedly rather shabbily) under Nehemiah. In the decades before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great (whose Jewish credentials were a wee bit questionable) expanded and transformed it into the wonders of the Roman world. Jesus however was not terribly impressed. The entire magnificent structure was finally completed sometime around 55 AD, only to be torn down by the Romans in 70. The massive ashlar blocks of its proud walls still lie in a jumbled pile.

You cannot read the Bible or walk across Jerusalem without running into the Temple. It occupies an artificial mountain equal in size to 25 football fields. It occupies a far larger space in the history and hope of Judaism and Christianity. And yet, the Temple is an ambiguous place. Up until its construction, God had seemed to avoid settling down. The God of Israel was by definition not a god of place like so many other ancient deities. This God seemed most content prowling around the deserts or tagging alongside the people in a pup tent set up just outside their camp.

I suspect, like so many other holy things touched by human beings, that the Temple was both a symbol of God’s sovereign presence with God’s people and a monument to the authority and vanity of the kings who built it. It is both a locus of holiness where God’s presence could be uniquely experienced and the center of national authority and prestige. No wonder Jesus was so ambivalent about the Temple.

King Solomon had a clear agenda of centralizing the nation in his throne on that day when he consecrated the temple. But amid his speech he said more than he realized. “Will God dwell upon the Earth?” It is a good question. It fundamentally asks about relationship. What and where is God for us and with us? Is God in a marble chamber or in the highest heaven or closer than we can possibly imagine? How we answer that question defines both the nature of our faith and the God we follow.

September 2, 2022 – I Samuel 15:35-16:13

The old prophet Samuel is sent off to find the new King for Israel. He interviews several outwardly suitable candidates, but there is something wrong with each of them. He asks if they have any other brothers. They tell him, just their youngest brother. They did not even bother to invite him to the lineup. He is out watching the sheep. Samuel tells them to summon him. Immediately the prophet recognizes what the brothers never could. This diamond in the rough is the future King. He has an inner quality that only God could see and, on that basis alone, is worthy of the crown. Samuel anoints David as the King of Israel, and the rest is history.

That is how we normally tell Sunday’s scripture lesson. The problem is that is the basic plot of Cinderella, not the Book of Samuel. While Cinderella provides a morally comforting fable, the Bible is a bit more disturbing. There is nothing wrong with David’s brothers, hidden or apparent. No fault or defect is mentioned. There is nothing particularly right about David. No hidden virtue or talent is even mentioned. And the text never actually says that God sees something hidden in the brothers’ hearts, it says that God sees with God’s own heart. We like to make this story all about the hidden prince who does not know his own power (think Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, and Harry Potter). But what this story is really about is God.

God chooses David as King. There is absolutely no explanation for God’s choice. It is that choice and that choice alone that makes him King. No hidden royal attributes are ever mentioned. Instead, what lies concealed in David’s character will only emerge when as King he is unshackled from moral restrictions and almost none of it is good.

God chooses as God chooses. That is tremendously frustrating and confounding. But that inscrutable unmerited choice is precisely what we call grace.

August 26, 2022 – 1 Samuel 8: 4-22

God has one continuous plan for the redemption of humanity and the name of that plan is covenant. The covenant works like this. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be our God and will be God’s people. There are lots of details and expectations along the way like from God’s perspective resistance to idols and from our perspective a desire to saved when we mess up. But at its essence Covenant is all about commitment to a relationship. It is that commitment, that Covenant that gets forged at Sinai and carries the people into the promised land and sustains them even though they mess up over and over again (which is the essential plot of the Book of Judges).

But then things go wrong.

The people no longer want to be a nation defined and sustained by a relationship with God. They want to be like all the other nations. They want a king. And so they go to Samuel, the senior prophet and ask him to ask God for a king so they can just be like everybody else. This request is a rejection of both God as their sovereign Lord, sustainer, and protector and implicitly Samuel as God’s spokesperson. Nevertheless, Samuel brings their request to God. And God says okay, if that’s what you really want then you shall have your wish. Samuel then proceeds to explain to them exactly what this will mean, who kings really are, what they do, and what you will become. And then in a chilling conclusion, Samuel reminds them that at some point in the future they will cry out to God for help and God will ignore them because they have chosen to go their own way.

After all the warnings, the people still demand a king. So, they get a king. And the rest of the Old Testament is all downhill from here.

So, what is the problem with wanting a king? The problem is not with kings per se. A few are good. Many are awful. Most are indifferent. Samuel has not yet even found a candidate for king (who will later be selected chiefly for his height). The problem is the people. The problem is us. Human beings like to associate our identity with the powerful. We derive vicarious value and esteem from the victories of our “side.” This is how both our politics and team sports work. And that is a problem. We were not made for power, especially not vicarious power. We were made to love. And the desire for power is love’s antithesis.

It would take Israel one thousand years to figure that out. And humanity still has not learned the lesson.

August 19, 2022 – Judges 4: 1-24

The book of Judges is an endless cycle of repeated mistakes. The Israelite people are going through some serious growing pains. They sin, God gets angry, the people ask for help, God sends a judge to help them, and each time the reader hopes that the Israelite people will learn and do better. It is a pattern that repeats throughout the book. Except in chapter four. In chapter four, much of the intrigue of the story is the mystery of who the true judge is. It is easy to claim that it might be Deborah, the respected legal counsel, or Jael, the fearless political genius with a hammer. Two powerful women in a society otherwise dominated by the leadership of men. And yet the military leader in the story, a man, also plays a role. So who is the real liberator of the Israelite people? It’s a difficult question with no real answer.

The story of the Israelites is our story, too. We as a church, a nation, and a human race continue over and over again to return to our old ways, and it will take God working through each of us, all of us, to make a difference. It is not about having one singular hero or heroine, one individual to act as “God’s chosen.” If we want to see change happen, it is about allowing God to work through each of us and using our gifts for the betterment of all people.

So how might God work through you? Join us this week as we explore the mystery of the judges of Israel…and become part of their story.

August 12, 2022 – I Samuel 3:1-21

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.”

The days of pillars of fire, columns of smoke, and parting of the seas were quickly fading with God’s people, Israel. God’s visions were rare and God’s people were a mess. They were disobedient, violent, and sinful. The days of the Judges of Israel were coming to an end and God’s people needed someone to lead them out of their self-destruction. Who knew that God would choose a young boy named Samuel?

I Samuel 3 is the call story of Samuel, the young boy dedicated to God by his grateful mother Hannah who had been barren, without child. It is the story of a very old priest, Eli, and a very young boy, Samuel, and God’s voice in the Temple in the middle of the night.

Samuel, though young and inexperienced in things of faith, is chosen by God to share the difficult news that God was going to punish Eli, his sons, and all of his household because of their great iniquity. This is not the happy ending of which Eli had dreamed. And this is not the word Samuel wanted as his first prophecy. But both Eli and Samuel listen to God and hear God’s call.

The lamp of God was still shining in the temple in the night; it had not gone out. And neither had God’s call to Samuel, the young prophet. Samuel needed only to listen to God, no matter how difficult the words, and obey.

This story of Samuel marks a new beginning for God’s people Israel. Samuel would be the one to anoint Israel’s first kings – Solomon and David – a new day for Israel. We, too, are invited to see what new things God will do in us. Join us for worship this Sunday as we listen for God’s word to us.

August 5, 2022 – Joshua 6: 1-5, 15-21

The most terrifying book in scripture is Joshua. It is terrifying in what it depicts—wars of absolute genocidal destruction. And it is even more terrifying about what it reveals about God—that at least on one occasion, God commanded such absolute violence. I simply do not see any way to reconcile who I understand God to be an what the rest of scripture reveals God to be, and the deity described in the Book of Joshua. Nor would I care to try.

Joshua presents us with a big problem. How do we deal with the word of God when that word is a command to commit genocide?
Sometimes things in the past only seem simple because we have projected our stories and conclusions onto them. Context matters for meaning. Not everything may be quite as simple as it first appears in Joshua. All literature has context and layers of meaning. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is about none of those things. Animal Farm is not about domesticated animals. And the Crucible is not about the Salem witch trials.

Something interesting is going on in Joshua. It is the conclusion of a long conversation to which we no longer have direct access. But we can deduce how and why it came to be on the basis of scripture, history, and archeology. Joshua may not be as it first appears, and it may be trying to do something that we no longer understand.

How we read a text matters. How a text reads us matters even more. I do not believe that God commands genocide. I do not even believe that Joshua commands it. Come listen in on Sunday and find out why.

July 29, 2022 – Deuteronomy 30: 11-30

The Torah, the original five books of our Old Testament end in a most curious fashion. It does not end with the triumph of the people finally entering into the Promised Land. It does not end with a fairy tale, “and they all lived happily ever after.” It does not end with the creation of the Kingdom of Israel. It ends instead on a question. Whom will you serve? Whom will you follow? This is no ending at all. Instead, it is left to us, the reader, to decide how this story will end.

The fundamental purpose of Torah (literally “teachings”) is not to tell us information about God, but to change our identity, lives, purpose, and destiny. The teachings are all about how to live. Because these teachings are about real life, they are particular and concrete, going into exquisite detail on how we should worship, raise our food, provide for each other, steward the natural world, and provide justice. These are not instructions on how to reach the highest heavens. They are instructions on how to be a human being on Earth.

Judaism, and by extension Christianity, are not fundamentally religions. They are fundamentally a choice of who or what we place at the very center of our lives. Later religions with all their trappings will grow from that choice, but at essence to follow our God is simply a choice, a leap of faith, which will redefine and redirect every other choice.

Moses understood all of this as he looked out from Mount Nebo across the breadth of the Jordan Valley to the Judean Hills beyond. He knew he did not have much time left. He needed to leave his people with the most important thing to cling to in the years and centuries ahead. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.

July 22, 2022 -Numbers 22: 16-34

Look a talking Donkey!

There are two stories about talking animals in scripture. The first concerns a certain serpent at the beginning of Genesis. The second recounts the testimony of a clear sighted and perceptive donkey who tries to lead a rather pompous and myopic prophet to the truth. When faced with a talking donkey, I highly recommend that you pay attention.

One of the main reasons pay attention is that we often think we already know all the answers. We presume that we understand the circumstances and solutions for our lives. We fail to pay attention the signs around us, even the fantastic sign of a talking donkey. The wizard Balaam believed his own hype. The thought he could curse Israel even when it was contrary to God’s intention. He sets off to join a conspiracy against Israel and fails to appreciate that the real threat is against him. But his loyal donkey sees everything and desperately tries to save both Balaam and her own hide. Balaam will not listen and just beats the donkey. Finally, she turns to him and clearly tells him what is going on and what he risks. Then, and only then do his eyes open. Then and only then does Balaam pay attention.

God can make a prophet out of donkey and a donkey (or another synonym) out of a prophet. The choice is always before us. The question is whether are paying attention.

July 15, 2022 – Numbers 13: 1, 17-20, 25-33

It did not take the Hebrews 40 years to walk across the deserts of Sinai to the Promised Land. It only took one year. But there was a problem. They lost faith. They gave into their fears. Trusting their fears more than their God, they were not ready. So, they wandered the trackless wastes for forty more years, just long enough for every person who began the journey in Egypt to die off. Their generation had faltered and would not enter the Promised Land. It seems so harsh. But sometimes quarantines are necessary to limit the spread of the most dangerous diseases.

The problem was and is fear. Fear corrupts. Fear confuses. Fear leads us astray. The spies sent into Canaan to report on the land bring it back to the people. The Canaanites are giants they report. They see us only as little bugs. The rumors spread. The blame game starts. It’s all Moses’ fault. Or God’s. Through fear they cannot see the truth. In fear they forget who they are and who goes with them. They follow their fear rather than God.

The story of Caleb and the spies unpacks the dangers of fear and the potential for a better way. It is no surprise that Jesus, after his resurrection, repeats the command, “Do not be afraid,” more than anything else. Fear leads to death. But courage leads us into the promise, the Promised Land, and the promised life.

July 8, 2022 – Numbers 6:22-27

Bewilderments and Blessings

Welcome into the bewilderments and wilderness journeying we call the Book of Numbers. Think of it as the pearl we get to ooh-and-ahh about when it really began as a grain of sand in a mollusk’s belly. It’s a dry read of genealogies, troop placements, the enrollment of clans into the Twelve Tribes, guidance on Nazirite vows (and how to break them faithfully, when completed). It is also the source of the most ancient blessing in this stream of the Sacred—the Aaronic blessing Pastor Brian offers as benediction after most services of worship.

Some scholars have called Numbers the “junk room of the bible,” suggesting it has no structure or legible purpose. My mother used to say that about my room when I was young, though I knew where everything was in its illegible piles. Other scholars suggest a structure that seems particularly apt today: generational transition. Numbers could be detailing how faith is transferred from one generation to another, Hebrew slaves becoming the people of Israel in the wilderness.

Numbers refers literally to the numbers in the Twelve Tribes that left slavery in Egypt for freedom in Canaan, and the numbers and names of those in the tribes at the end of the book. The stark reality is that all those at the start are not there at the end. All those at the end of the book were not there at the start. “Old generation of rebellion; new generation of hope and promise,” says biblical scholar Dennis Olson.

Blessing sits here, then, at the thresholds of all to come—wilderness journeying into promised land, slavery into freedom, chaos into sacred chaos. “It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” says John O’Donahue. “A blessing evokes a privileged intimacy. It touches that tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground.”

Come this Sunday into the bewilderment of faithful journeying today, as we learn together to trust the blessings at every threshold.

Rev. Lisa M. Hess

July 1, 2022 – Leviticus 25:1-24

The God of Israel was a God not only of Sabbath worship but a God of Sabbath rest. From the origin stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 where God breathes into life all of creation and then rests on the seventh day, to the formative stories of God’s people becoming who God meant them to be, to the commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai calling God’s people to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,” Sabbath is central to the life and faith of Israel.

In Leviticus chapter 25, our scripture passage for this Sunday, sabbath rest, sabbath renewal, and sabbath release are at the heart of how God will create a covenant community for God’s people. Echoing the seven days of creation with the seventh day of sabbath rest, God calls God’s people to observe a life of sabbath rest for the land, for the slaves, for the people. And this sabbath rest will be called Jubilee.

There were practical reasons to let the land rest every seventh year, to forgive long standing debt, as well as giving liberty to those who were enslaved, but the sabbath Jubilee was deeper than just practicality. It was a way of being God’s people.

As we come together on this communion Sunday, the weekend of our nation’s birthday, we are so desperately in need of sabbath rest, in need of Jubilee. A time of healing and forgiveness, rest and renewal, new beginnings and a new way of living. Come worship in-person or online as we remember the Sabbath day.

June 24, 2022 – Deuteronomy 6: 1-10 & Leviticus 19: 18

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it but he did not come up with the idea. He took it from Leviticus. The moral imperative to love is the foundation of both Christian and Jewish ethical thought and runs through both Testaments as a challenge and an inspiration. But what if my neighbor is unlovable? And just who is my neighbor? For that matter what about fairness and justice? Do I need to love somebody who hurts me? These are some of the hard questions that God’s law and also Jesus’ command confronts us with.

Human beings tend to ground our ethical systems on notions of fairness. “It’s not fair!” was my first moral objection, by which I meant that I did not like it. God seems less concerned with procedural fairness and far more concerned with relationship, belonging, and love. The challenge is how do you maintain relationship, belonging and love when someone wrongs you? That is the question that both God and we need to address.

June 17, 2022 – Leviticus 8:1-21, 30

Right Rituals

In a subtle and surprising turn of scripture, Leviticus chapter 8 moves from the rich detail of the regulated rules of life and living for God’s people Israel that we have been reading about in the early chapters of Leviticus to a welcome and inviting narrative story. This narrative, beginning in Leviticus 8, draws us into the story of the consecration and anointing of the Tabernacle and the consecration and anointing of the High Priest Aaron and his sons.

With the rich detail of vestments, tunics, robes, sashes, ephods, breastplates, oil, blood, bulls, rams, unleavened bread, water, and some rather mysterious jewels called Urim and Thummim, we enter into the holy ritual of consecration and anointing that God has commanded God’s people to observe. These rituals are holy. They are sacred and serious and they seal God’s people together in relationship with God and one another. In these sacred rituals, God is present.

As we are taken back in time to these sacred moments of God’s people, we remember our sacred rituals of worship and God’s presence with us always. As we see Moses and Aaron faithfully do as the Lord has commanded, we get a glimpse of the relationship between rituals and righteousness, between rituals and rightness.

As we continue to journey through our post-Pentecost “50 Days of Embodiment: Living the Great Story in our Daily Life” may we will find our rituals for life and God’s anointing in these words and story in Leviticus. Join us for worship in-person and online this Sunday as we remember what it means to be God’s people.

June 10, 2022 – Leviticus 6: 1-13

Human, being humans, make mistakes. There are things we do which we should not. There are things we do not do that we should. Our actions, regardless of intentions, often hurt others and our world. When you mess up, how do you make it right?

Leviticus answers this question directly, practically, and constructively. It provides a guide for human behavior and how we can repair the injuries we cause to relationships and community. We can even participate in repairing our relationship with God.

Leviticus provides the basic plan that first the prophets and then later Jesus will follow to restore community. It requires our active participation, confession, and repair of injuries. It also requires us to pay a price beyond damages to the injured party for our guilt itself. It requires sacrifice. Then and only then, God simply overlooks our wrong. Our guilt is simply forgotten and overlooked. Instead, we are publicly and openly declared forgiven. And as the forgiven we are invited back into loving relationship with our community, with our friends, and with God.

The Book of Leviticus sometimes seems alien to us, filled with strange rituals. But there are so many people who are trapped in guilt and shame that would benefit from precisely such rituals. The beautiful truth of scripture is that same freedom is available to us, albeit in a slightly modified process, right now.

June 3, 2022 – Leviticus 1: 1-9

When people decide they want to read the whole Bible, they often skip over Leviticus. It is not a fun book. It contains almost no stories. It is a statute book explaining how to run the ancient priesthood and in particular how to perform sacrifices. It does not make for fun reading. It is the least preached on book of the Bible among Christians. But it stands at the very center of Torah because its practices stand at the center of ancient Israel’s faith.

Animal sacrifice seems alien to us. Please consider that our industrial animal husbandry operations would no doubt seem that way to ancient Israelites for whom all animals were organic and free range. When the people of God were all farmers and herders, they simply offered up what was most important and valuable to them, their crops and livestock. Sacrifice is simply the act of surrendering in love that which is most important to us for the sake of love. Every parent does it. Every married person does it. Every citizen does it. The question then is not the particulars on the method of sacrifice. The question is what do we sacrifice to show our love and devotion?

May 27, 2022 – Exodus 40: 16-19; 34-38

The Book of Exodus ends with a new beginning. God now has a home alongside the wandering Hebrews. Wherever they go, God will now companion them. The final sentence emphasizes that God is not waiting for them at their destination, God is with them along their journey.

Gods in the ancient world tended to be gods of a particular location where the people would build a temple in their honor. But not this God. The God of Israel does not want a temple at all. Instead God requests a tent. And even the tent will be a temporary abode for God’s unique presence. Sometimes God would be in residence and the tent of meeting would burn with a supernatural glow. At other times, God would simply be absent. The tabernacle was not so much God’s home as God’s guest room among the Hebrews.

Over time the people would learn the rhythm of God drawing close and then pulling away. It gave the people time to practice what God had taught them. It gave them room to learn to apply God’s teachings, the Torah. Most of all it gave them space to grow up a bit. We honor God by drawing close to the Almighty. In return, God honors us by giving us room to be fully and completely human.

Exodus is a journey not so much towards a destination, but ever deeper into a relationship. That same journey is available to us.

May 20, 2022 – 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. How 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.

May 13, 2022 – Exodus 20:1-21

Ten Words

The Ten Words God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) were ten of six hundred and thirteen laws given to God’s people in the wilderness so that Israel might become the nation God intended them to be.

They were relationship rules, rules for life, rules to show what love looked like. Love from God to people, love from people to God, and love between people. They were not punitive if unkept. They were not salvific. They were not the only laws that God gave to Israel. They were God words to God’s people teaching them how to live together in covenant with God and one another.

I would imagine that many of us who grew up in the church have had some childhood experience involving the Ten Commandments, good or bad, accurate or inaccurate. At the very least we have heard of the Ten Commandments if only because of Charlton Heston and Cecile B. DeMille!

Exodus 20 is one of those scripture passages that we know too well and may need to look at again with new eyes. The Ten Words were an important part of the journey of God’s people on their way to the Promised Land and on their way to a new life as people of the covenant.

We invite you to come rediscover the Ten Words of God to Israel, and God’s words to us. The Youth of Fairmont will be leading worship at the 10:30 a.m. service this Sunday, and all are invited (8:30 a.m. or 10:30 a.m.) to “keep the Sabbath holy” and worship God.

May 6, 2022 – Psalm 150

At the bottom of every finished composition manuscript Johann Sebastian Back wrote “SDG” which stood for Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. In addition to be being a helpful indicator of which one of his countless manuscripts was final, it gives us a glimpse into Bach’s mind and faith. He viewed his vocation as a composer in theological terms, giving expression to human praise and thanksgiving to God. For Bach, music was not about us, not even about beauty, it was about God.

This Sunday we will be sharing in music in praise and worship of God. It is not a performance. It is not for us. It is a sung address to God and perhaps the purest form of such address. Music has an uncanny ability to circumvent our ceaselessly churning thoughts and connect with the essence of feeling somewhere underneath our critical minds. Music is one of the only forms of prayer that allows us to bypass the petty idolatries of the mind.

Together we will sing. In our shared song we are all individual and unique and we are all together in a shared harmony that is always the product of relationship. Singing together allows us to participate in the master metaphor for our lives in God, each ourselves and all together. And we will do it all for the glory of God alone.

April 29, 2022 – Exodus 25: 1-9

Human beings seem to be attuned to a sense of place. Every major religion in the world has had its holy places, locations where the divine and the natural realms seem to touch. Ancient Greeks had their holy springs and groves, the Egyptians had their massive temples, and the ancient Sumerians had their giant stepped Ziggurats. Ancient Israel was the odd one out. The God of the Israelites preferred a pup tent.

The God of Israel does not seem overly interested in fixed temples, however magnificent. Instead, this God wants something a bit more portable. This God will not be confined the back room of a stuffy temple. This God will go with and alongside the people wherever they go. But to help the people understand who this God is and their relationship, there will be a symbolic focus for God’s presence on earth. God will be uniquely present in the Tent of Meeting, sitting on a chest containing the terms of the treaty between God and humanity. We call that chest the Ark of the Covenant, but God is not in the Ark. Rather, God sits on top the Ark resting literally on the terms of our relationship. We call those terms of the treaty the Covenant and they have defined the relationship between God and us from the days of Moses.

God of course is not constrained to a particular location and time. But we, in our need to pay attention and intentionally enter into relationship may need some visual cues and object lessons. The Tent of the Meeting symbolizes the relationship and how we participate with this God who travels with us wherever we go.

On Sunday, my dear friend and colleague, Rev. April Blaine will be preaching at both services on the function and importance of sacred space and how the Tabernacle was not made for God so much as given to us by God for our sake.

April 22, 2022 – Exodus 16:2-15


“It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

As I reflect on this “manna from heaven” scripture passage in Exodus 16, I come back again and again to this last verse of our passage. Here I find comfort and even correction from God. This is a story about our deep hunger and ongoing need for sustenance that lasts longer than a morning meal. This is a story about God’s provision verses our frantic efforts to store up food that does not satisfy nor bring life.

It did not take long after the miraculous parting of the Red Sea and the Exodus of God’s people out of slavery for the Israelites to begin to whine about being hungry and thirsty. And I get it! I do not do well if I do not eat or drink! The Israelites were hungry and needed sustenance. And God would provide for them, as always.

It is easy to ask the “how, when, where, why” questions about the origin of the manna and even the quail which God provided the people of Israel in the wilderness. We are naturally curious about how nature might provide such a rich supply of morning manna in the desert. And there are several native plants which could easily supply an answer to this miraculous manna from heaven but maybe that is just another way for us to control and manipulate God’s provision in our lives. Sometimes we just need to trust God.

God is faithful to provide for us. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Let us come together in this Eastertide for a morning of worship and sustenance as we seek out God’s manna for us. We will be fed the true bread from heaven.

April 15, 2022 – Matthew 28:1-10

After all the shouts and cries of pain, after all the barked orders and hurled insults, after the crack of whips and the clang of hammers on nails, after a long-pained sigh comes the silence. At the center of the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection stands an immovable and absolute silence. The crowds hurried home for the beginning of the sabbath. The Romans too were in a hurry to get this over with because they needed to be at the Temple in case trouble broke out over the Passover. A quicky burial in a gifted tomb is hastily arranged. And then the world went silent.

Around the central turning point of our faith, surrounding whatever Jesus is doing while dead, scripture stands utterly silent protecting the mystery.

For me the most important day of the Christian year is not Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or Good Friday. It is Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday, the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is the day when the deep work of re-creation occurs. It was shabbat, the day on which Jews recognized that God rested from God’s labors of creation. But now it is no longer a day of rest for God. Now it is a day for new creation.

Behind all the lilies and hats, beautiful music, and white linens, the church conceals an unsettling truth. The world is no longer the way we thought it to be. God has gone to meddling and reordered our surest assumptions. Sometimes the dead no longer stay dead. Sometimes matter is more porous than we thought. And sometimes space and time are purely relative projections of our need for certainty. Resurrection confounds not just our knowledge, but our imagination. Holy Saturday teaches us that the only fitting human response to this profound reordering of the deeps is silence, reverence, and awe.

“He is risen” is our Sunday proclamation, but his rising is simply the first evidence that something has changed in the abyssal deeps of time. Resurrection has begun. Holy Saturday reminds me that I have not yet begun to understand what that means. All I know is that by the grace of God, should I someday stand and behold with my tear-filled eyes the depth and breadth of God’s re-creating genius, I will simply whisper, “I had no idea.”

April 8, 2022 – Exodus 5: 1-9, 19-23

Palm Sunday is the most poignantly ironic day in the church year. It uncomfortably points out the paradoxes of life and faith. Jesus rides into Jerusalem as Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9. He enters the city surrounded by throngs of followers holding up palm branches in a not-so-subtle mockery of the Roman rite of Adventus, welcoming an emperor or conquering general. The crowds love it. The disciples are dizzy with excitement and anticipation. Jesus goes straight to the temple to the beating heart of Judaism and government. He gets into a scuffle with the money changers. Everyone expects the revolution to break out any moment. And then the moment passes
Jesus will not be the kind of messiah that Zechariah predicted or the Romans feared. His revolution is not of a political nature. As a political revolutionary, he failed. The crowds first scratched their heads in incomprehension that gradually grew into annoyance, frustration, and resentment. If he does not intend to become king then what good is he? Their antipathy grows into accusation and eventually violence as cries of “Hosanna” fade into shouts of “crucify him.”

This was of course not the first political failure of one of God’s agents. Moses made a mess of his attempted negotiations with Pharaoh. In thanks for his efforts, the Hebrews burdens were doubled and the people began using Moses’ name as a curse.

It is ironic indeed that God would use those moments of greatest political failure as precisely the moments for the most extraordinary displays of God’s saving power. Perhaps all human efforts needed to fail before God could show them what real power was like in the plagues of Egypt and through an empty tomb.

Failure is real and it hurts. But our failures appear to be precisely the launching point for God’s great work of redemption. The solution does not come from us. The solution comes looking for us from the outside.

April 1, 2022 – Exodus 3:1-15

More ink has been spilled on this passage than any other in scripture. Moses’ initial encounter with God lead us into a mystery that confounds translation and clear conception. This should not surprise us as this is God we are talking about. If it were easy to describe and explain, it would necessarily not be God.

Moses asks, so let’s say I go down to Egypt, whom shall I say sent me? God responds: אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה. I cannot translate it. No one can. I can tell you what it is, but not what it means. It is the first person singular causative imperfect form of the verb of being. No such word exists in English. So the best I can do is offer a metaphor. It is like “I will be what I will be” or “I will be that which will be.” But even those crude interpretations do not convey its true sense. What the name means, beyond God identifies as somehow related to “becomingness,” no mortal has ever known. In truth it is possible that the name may be a refusal to answer Moses’ question, God refusing any objectifying label.

Contemplation of the divine name, which in my own practice I do not utter, is an eternal well of spiritual renewal and imagination. It does not however make for a very good sermon. So, please do not expect us to “explain” what the divine name “means” because no one knows. The mere question of “meaning” would suggest attributes of God’s own being separate from God and comprehensible to humans, which would be an oxymoron. The purpose of the divine name for Moses and for us is not definition or understanding, which are way beyond our paygrade, but rather relationship and belonging.

God and Moses become friends and partners and it is all built upon this chance encounter in the wastes of Midian. No one has been the same ever since, not even God.

Who is God? Any answer that would assert an attribute, quality, or characteristic is necessarily idolatrous. For Moses and for Jesus the answer is not an assertion, it is instead a prepositional phrase because prepositions are the part of our language that define relationships.

Who is God? With me.


March 25, 2022 – Exodus 1:1, 1:9-22

The Book of Exodus presents the most dramatic and universal story in the Old Testament. A small, persecuted, oppressed minority rises up against tyranny and eventually steps boldly into freedom. This is the story of the great hero of the Old Testament, Moses. This is the dramatic account of burning bushes, catastrophic plagues, genocide, war, parting seas, and a new covenant etched by God’s own hand. It is also the story of ordinary people who placed their hope before their fear. And finally, it is a story about what comes after, how you actually live in freedom without lapsing back into bondage.

But there is a story before the story.

A generation before Moses and all the Cecille B. DeMille’s special effects, there is a story of two rather nondescript middle-aged midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. They do not encounter any flammable shrubbery. They are not guided by curious meteorological phenomena. And they are not assisted by a deity who conveniently separates straits into an isthmus. All they have to rely on is themselves, and a stubborn, single-minded conviction that they would not participate in death.

Shiphrah and Puah simply refuse to participate in Pharaoh’s covert program of genocide. They engage in the first recorded act of non-violent resistance against oppression. In time Moses, with admittedly a lot more divine assistance, will take up their work. In time Jesus, would expand it further than they could have imagined it. But they started it. Shiphrah and Puah, two head strong bronze age Golden Girls that teach us both how to be human and how as humans to participate in God’s Kingdom. It all begins by choosing life.

“Choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19

March 18, 2022 – Genesis 45

Forgiveness is not easy. It requires something from both the one who is forgiving and from the one seeking forgiveness. It requires honesty, moral clarity, and ultimately a changed heart. That is what makes true forgiveness exceedingly rare. To be honest, it is often not possible.

The story of Joseph and his brothers presents us with the first account of forgiveness in the Bible and possibly in history. Appeasement, offering somebody something so they do not punish or retaliate, is a far more common event. Jacob, for example, appeases his angry brother Esau with herds of cattle. But a bribe to avoid revenge is not really the same thing as forgiveness at all. True forgiveness involves not just restoration of a relationship but its transformation into a deeper level of trust. True forgiveness changes both parties and brings them closer together than they were before.

The story of Joseph and his brothers unfolds over decades during which all of them are slowly worn down by suffering. What they lose in pride and ambition is replaced with wisdom. After some twenty years of separation, they cannot recognize each other, both because of their divergent life stories and because they themselves became different men. Mere restoration is no longer possible because they are not the same people than they were and could not enjoy the same relationship. The only way forward is to go deeper.

The story of Joseph and his brothers both shows us the necessary steps of forgiveness and it points to its ultimate promise. Through our vulnerability and willingness to transform, we can use forgiveness to lead us into a deeper belonging that we could have possibly imagined, both with other people and with God.

March 11, 2022 – Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The Book of Genesis both ends its account of the patriarchs and builds a bridge to the story of the Exodus with the story of Joseph and his family. What tends to be remembered is something about Joseph’s fashionable outerwear (thank you Andrew Lloyd Webber). What we ignore is the very human tragedy of Joseph’s family—love denied, jealousies, sibling rivalries, trauma, and revenge. Jacob’s sons are the first generation of this foundational family to all belong to God’s covenant. The problem was that they did not really belong together.

Unprocessed, unconsidered, unhealed grief in an individual’s life becomes anger. Unprocessed, unconsidered, unhealed grief in a community’s life becomes rage. And there was so much pain in Jacob’s family. Jacob was a man of deep passion and emotion. Wisdom was not his gift. He showered affection on some and scorned others. His folly and favoritism took form in that silly coat or tunic (ornamented, colored, or whatever, we really do not know what פסים means). Despite the old man’s foolish hopes, the pain he set in motion would have dire consequences.

Sometimes the problem is not with our understanding, but with our loving. That lesson will unfold across the Jacob cycle leading us down into New Kingdom Egypt as the story of God’s people takes an unexpected detour. And while the tensions among Joseph’s brothers will temporarily be relieved amid the flesh pots of Egypt, they will not go away. That cure require a new way of living loving together that their descendants will learn on Sinai.

March 4, 2022 – Genesis 28: 10-22

Question: Where is God?
Answer: Here
Question: Then why can’t I see God?
Answer: Because you are looking at yourself

The Book of Genesis is all about relationships, between God and the world, brothers, fathers and sons, and with God. God has offered, invited, and promised belonging to Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth, Noah and about 287 other named characters. But none of them ever saw what was clearly going on. None of them ever directly perceived the connection, until Jacob.

Jacob is a scoundrel. He is a liar and a cheat. When opportunity permits, he is also a bit of philanderer. He does not know God. He does not pray. He shows no interest in the religious sensibilities of his father or grandfather. All of these qualities make him perfectly suited to be our spiritual ancestor, a messed up, too-clever-for-his-own-good, spoiled, overprotected, slightly neurotic, morally ambiguous, narcissist. In other words, perfect raw material for a saint.

Jacob is the first human to see the truth. Jacob directly perceives what Abraham intuited. Heaven and Earth are connected. God is not far away, but closer than we can imagine. They do not connect at one point or place, but at every point and place, in every time, in everyone. Using the religious iconography of the Middle Bronze Age, Jacob’s mind structures this perception as a stairway or ramp, the kind of stairway or ramp that connects a lofty temple with the people. Except here the stairway is not in the middle of the city and is not only for the high priest. This stairway is in the middle of nowhere and is presumably accessible everywhere. This stairway is where it always has been and where it always will be, right in front of him.

In order to see this, Jacob needed to look at the world differently. Specifically, he needed to remove the obscuring lens of his own ego. He needed to make himself vulnerable and there is nothing more vulnerable than falling asleep on a rock on a barren hillside wilderness while being chased by your enraged brother and a few hundred homicidal Bedouin. The key to seeing the truth was not to look harder. The key was to let go of self. Intense vulnerability can do that as can suffering. More pleasantly, silence can do that too. For just a moment, in his sleeping dreams, totally outside of his control, for the very first time, Jacob sees what is really going on, what has sustained his life, and true extent of his belonging to God. That moment changed him forever. That moment changes us forever.

The first and most important step in seeing God is to see beyond yourself. And there, right in front of you, is a step . . .

February 18, 2022 – Genesis 21: 1-20

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a painful story to hear. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, and her son, Ishmael, are treated horribly by Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael is not even called by name in our pericope of Scripture. He is simply the slave woman’s son. And it seems initially at least that God’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael is no better.

This oft forgotten story of a slave woman and her son, tucked in between the story of God’s call to Abraham and Sarah and the miraculous birth of their son Isaac, could have easily been left out of our scriptures, so insignificant it might seem. But it is not forgotten nor left out because it is most significant to our understanding of who God is and who we are.

Hagar and Ishmael are a painful reminder that even thousands of years later humans still treat one another unjustly. Hagar and Ishmael remind us that there are women and children everywhere who are forgotten, abused, unnamed, and cast out.

And Hagar and Ishmael remind us that God does care for those who are oppressed and violated and forgotten. Ishmael is as much a son to Abraham as is Isaac. Because of God’s redemption of Hagar and Ishmael, there is a genealogy in our scriptures that begins…

“These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of
their birth…”

For God blessed Ishmael and made him great among the nations. God made Ishmael’s name known to all because God heard the cries of the son of a slave woman. Join us this Sunday in-person or online as we worship the God who has redeemed us all.

February 11, 2022 – Genesis 18:1-15

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. Bengals fans would quickly add so is thirty-three years! In our weekly readings of scripture, it can seem like the story jumps to its next turning point every seven days. We tend to forget the real human cost of waiting . . . and waiting. Some twenty-five years or so separates God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah from its fulfillment. Humans are not a patient people. We want what we want now. And when our wants are frustrated, we tend not to be our best. We have all seen this first hand in ourselves over the past two years.

I would like to think that waiting builds anticipation. That may work over short time periods, but undefined waiting tends to result in cynicism and despair. What is needed then to snap us out of our dour doldrums is surprise.
The three mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah’s tent leave us with an unanswered question. What they want is a child. What they get, at least initially, is the immediate presence of God in their home and in their lives. But Abraham and Sarah only seem to recognize the gift when it clearly comes on their terms. So maybe, the gift had been right in front of them all along and they just failed to perceive it because they were so attached to the fulfillment of their desire. Maybe God had been there all along.

Faith that is contingent on God providing what we want when we want it is not faith. It is a transaction. As far as we can tell, all the ancient pagan religions were essentially transactional: provide your resident deity with the appropriate sacrifice and receive the appropriate blessing. But this curious God of the desert stubbornly refuses to operate that way. This wandering God with a mysterious name does not seem to be so interested in settling down, being fed in temples, and providing gifts on demand. This One instead seems to value freedom and relationship more than anything and seems to want it for human beings as well. Which all makes perfect sense if this One is not one at all, but three.

Trinity is not what God does. Trinity is who God is from the beginning. And the moment Abraham embraces not just obedience, but real belonging, new life and new hope is born. God is already there at the door. All it takes is a little hospitality.

February 4, 2022 – Genesis 12:1-9

There are many key moments in the Bible, but only one is shared by the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The call of Abraham (Abram) starts a decisive new chapter in the relationship between God and humanity centered on a new type of trusting relationship that we call faith. This new relationship leads Abraham away from everything he relied upon for his life, identity, and security and follow the lead of this curious and curiously inviting God. Nothing will be the same.

There had been lots of religions in the world for centuries before Abraham. But they were all systems of maintaining the divine-human exchange namely sacrifices for blessings. Now Abraham is about to explore something new, radical trust. This trust, and all the ways it will be tested, confirmed, violated, and restored will provide the central plot and message for the remainder of scripture across both Testaments.

Abraham was not a particularly pious man, engaging in several morally dubious activities. He was not a noble hero. He was not a powerful king, just a nomadic pastoralist. He was not known for his wisdom. He is remembered for one thing only. When God called, he paid attention and had the courage to trust. And that makes all the difference.

January 28, 2022 – Genesis 11:1-9

Sometimes the more closely I study a text, the less convinced I become that I understand what it means. The story of Babel is just such a text. In the church we tend to only mention it as a sort of anti-Pentecost, a warning fable on the dangers of human pride. But what exactly was the people’s sin? It does not say pride. It simply says they wanted a name, that is an identity, and not be scattered. Similarly, God’s purported punishment is just to send that people along on their journeys as God had been doing all along for the past two chapters. Nowhere does it say that the tower or the city were destroyed. So what is going on?

Sometimes the point of the text may simply be to disorient us enough to realize that we do not understand everything. In the case of Babel/Babylon the problem is precisely that they were creating identity, understanding, and culture, but on their own terms. They were producing culture without difference, diversity or encounter with others, least of all God. That does not make them inherently bad people. I empathize with their impulses and admire their ingenuity. But it is misdirected.

What if Babel is not about sin and punishment, but rather adolescent experimentation and gentle parental correction? Maybe in order to be close to God what we really need is to be honestly, authentically, and fully human in all our vulnerable, mortal, creatureliness?

The Bible is not big on empires or even cities. God does not seem impressed by pyramids, ziggurats, or vast temples. Maybe what God wants is simple honesty in our relationship? That will require something altogether different than bricks. That will require the openness of heart we call courage.

January 21, 2022 – Genesis 9:1-17

So, what can get so upset that God decides to flush all of creation down the drain? That is an important question for human morality and survival. Chapter 6 of Genesis is more than a bit elusive. Certainly, there is something suspect going on between divine beings and humans (Gen. 6:2), but more pervasively evil crept into the human heart (Gen. 6:5). This evil was sufficiently bad to lead God to have second thoughts about this whole creation project (Gen. 6:6). What was it?

In God’s first speech after the Flood, God affirms that the world will never again be destroyed by a flood. God creates the rainbow as a reminder of this promise. But the promise, technically the first covenant, also addresses human behavior. “He who sheds human blood, by humans his blood shall be shed. For in the image of God He made humankind.” (Gen. 9:6). Dam is blood in Hebrew and Adam is human, so you can hear the play on words. For God to be so concerned to lift up this primordial prohibition of murder and bloodshed suggests that they were the endemic vice that God sought to wash away.

The original foundation of justice is simply this, thou shall not kill another human being. And the original foundation of a justice system is that if you do, there will be a reckoning and very serious consequences. In the original creation story, God proclaims everything to be good. Now, God appears to have learned from experience that perhaps human beings are not as good as God hoped. These humans, created in the image and likeness of God, sometimes kill. So, it becomes necessary to introduce something new into the divine human relationship, boundaries. Those boundaries limit both what humans and what God will do in this relationship. Humans will not kill. God will not destroy the world. It seems a fair trade.

Retributive justice will become the foundation for all human justice. But while foundational it can never be sufficient on its own. It needs that twin pillar of community and relationship: mercy. God demands justice, but then shows mercy. Perhaps we still have something to learn from Noah?

January 14, 2022 – Genesis 3

Genesis 3 is a faith story about the first Man (Adam) and the first Woman (Eve) and their Creator God. It is a faith story about the relationship between the divine and the human. It is a faith story about the relationship between humans and creation. And like all relationships there are times of wholeness and there are times of brokenness.

Most of us carry a lot of theological baggage when we remember or re-read the story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and God. From this single chapter in the Book of Genesis have come theological treatises (some good and some not so good) on free will, original sin, salvation, the Fall, predestination, total depravity, forbidden fruit, Life in Paradise, salvation, and sin.

Our challenge this Sunday will be to find the substantive word from God for us in this faith story. As we move from the beautiful “new order” stories of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we get a glimpse in Genesis 3 that if there is no choice in a relationship then there is no true relationship. Because God loved the first Man and the first Woman, God gave them the freedom of choice but with choice comes the possibility of wrong choices. Such is the nature of being human!

Thank God, though, for the nature of the Divine!

Join us this Sunday as we think about our relationship with God and with one another, and as we continue our journey in Genesis to see God’s Story in our own story.

January 7, 2022 – Genesis 2:4b-17

There are two creation stories in Genesis. The first, in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a tells of the creation of the universe from God’s point of view. The second, in Genesis 2:4b-20 describes creation from a human perspective. The two stories are different in vocabulary, syntax, sequence, and actions. These differences have led some to conclude that they are separate stories written by different authors who never intended them to be read side by side.

I see things better with binoculars than with a telescope. Binoculars allow me to engage all my vision and perceive depth. I also prefer to listen to music on my stereo. The two speakers produce slightly different sounds that allows me to perceive greater depth in the music. Sometimes the same story told twice does the same for a reader. Some stories need to be told twice in order to gain perspective as things are considered from multiple perspectives. I believe that the creation accounts in Genesis are such stories.

The story of every relationship is necessarily two stories. Genesis is no different. It is less about explaining the how of creation and more concerned with understanding who. You cannot understand this relationship without considering both the divine and human point of view. By sharing them together, scripture introduces in its very first pages the sweeping theme that will run all the way to Revelation and end where it began in a garden: God and humanity are meant to be together.

December 31, 2021 – Genesis 1

God does not create out of nothing. The opening lines of Genesis are quite clear on this. God starts with the vast raw material of the chaotic, primordial, goo. In Hebrew it receives the most mysterious sounding of names, Tohu Va Vohu. It seems to relate imagistically to the trackless wastes of the deep desert. Creation then is not so much about God making something out of nothing. The process of creation, as described in Genesis, is instead about God creating boundaries, separation, complexity and order out of an entropic, undifferentiated, chaotic, potentiality.

Although I find the poetic reflections on creation in Genesis as deeply resonant with cosmological, geophysical, and even biological explanations of the emergence of complex systems, I do not read primarily read Genesis as a science book. I instead read it as a love story. God creates but cannot love and be loved unless God lets go. So, God takes the risk for the sake of love and lets go. Autonomous, willful, independent beings arise, beings a little bit like God in those qualities. They are not God. Rather, they are literally hybrid dirt and Spirit creatures, formed from the mud and breathed into sentience and self-consciousness through God’s breath. Genesis literally calls them “lump of dirt” which in Hebrew is Adam. Now God has someone, something, that is not God to talk to, to relate to, to befriend, to love, and perhaps to be loved by.

It is all a risk. But God takes that risk over and over again. God has unyielding faith in “lump of dirt” and all the lumps that will follow, down to you and me. The stories of that faith and how it is tested, violated, and restored over and over again are collected into an anthology we call the Bible. But more importantly, you already know the ways we live into that faith and the relationship it offers or run away from it as the story of our lives.

December 24, 2021 – Luke 2

There is only one Christmas message that matters. It bears repeating because we and our world are so well defended against it. It is amazing news of extraordinary possibility, hope, and promise. But the powerful dismiss it because it dramatically relativizes all human authority and presumption. The claim is simple and audacious. God has entered creation and commenced the process of reunion.

Christmas is not about sentiment or vague hope. Christmas is about a particular fact, God entering into creation as a human being, and the consequence of that fact, the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world are becoming one. That union is not merely exemplified but literally embodied in this baby lying in an animal’s feed trough. He is the first. He is the beginning of the process of reconciliation and union. And he is by no means the last. The whole purpose of the incarnation is not merely to marvel at it (which is a perfectly understandable response) but to participate in it.

In the child of Bethlehem God took the first and necessary step to undo humanity’s separation from its creator. That invitation took the only form we could fully understand as one of us. The question of Christmas is how will we respond?

December 17, 2021 – Luke 2:1-14

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
-Isaiah 11:6

“…and a little child shall lead them.” This is the heart of Advent. God incarnate in a little child born in Bethlehem. Whether we feel ready or not, God is coming. God is coming into the dusty, dirty, broken roads of our lives to bring hope and healing and wholeness. All through the birth of a child.

This Sunday we will celebrate the innocence of children as we hear the Word of God proclaimed through the voices of the children of Fairmont Presbyterian Church. The Children’s Christmas Pageant will be held at the 10:30 a.m. service of worship with costumes, carols, and children galore!

We will also be worshiping at 8:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall with our Praise Band and worship leaders. You are invited to both!

There will be a Hot Chocolate Sundae Bar for the children, youth, and parents following the 10:30 a.m. service and the Women of Fairmont will be selling their homemade cookies, too!

O come let us adore, him! Christ the Lord!



December 10, 2021

Christmas is not one story it is many. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each share their own perspective. Luke focuses on the experience of Mary while Matthew on Joseph. Luke shares the news of the annunciation and Mary’s beautiful song magnifying God. Matthew describes the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. Luke ushers in the shepherds to give witness to the blessed birth while Matthew introduces us to the Magi coming to pay homage. The narratives swirl around in our memory with stray bits of prophecy from Isaiah, Malachi, and Zechariah to provide the implicit narrative of Christmas. And if you look very closely, you may even detect a few subtle details courtesy of the mostly forgotten infancy Gospel of James.

Nobody comes to Church at Christmas time to hear something new. We all come to hear instead something very old, the story of God stooping to enter this world in the vulnerability of human flesh. Have pity on preachers, especially those who strive to explain the “meaning” of Christmas. The incarnation of God is less a phenomenon to be interpreted and more an intrusive historical fact that itself interprets history. So, we gather to remember the story both in prose and song this Sunday in our annual service of Lessons and Carols. While modelled on the original from King’s College, Cambridge, our worship is a bit less formal incorporating the breadth of the story and the full diversity of musical witness.

Join us on Sunday at 10:30 to sing, to hear, to wonder, and to remember that we are all now a part of the fullness of God’s embrace.

December 3, 2021 – Luke 1:57-59

We tend to celebrate Advent with a lot of noise—jingling bells, carols, a hearty ho ho ho—there is nothing quiet or subtle about our Advent. The Bible presents a much more subdued alternative punctuated by silence.

The old priest Zechariah had lived too long, seen too much, and known too many disappointments to accept everything at face value. Even when an angel shows up, Zechariah has a few questions. I cannot say I blame him. Flammable celestial beings do not usually show up in one’s workplace promising geriatric fertility. But arch angels are not accustomed to be questioned. So, ZAP! Poor old Zechariah is left mute and possibly deaf for the next nine months.

I always used to assume that silence was Zechariah’s punishment for doubt. Now I am not so sure. It is hard to take in new things, harder still for those of us who have been around a bit. Maybe God needed a few months of silence just to get a word in.

Over the next nine months Zechariah had plenty of time to consider what was worth saying and when that time came, nothing on earth would stop him. He shares the Benedictus, the final psalm of scripture praising God and proclaiming God’s fulfillment of the covenant’s promises.

Maybe in order to discover the true hope of Advent it requires a little silence.

November 26, 2021 – Phillippians 1:3-11

Philippians may seem like a strange book to jump to on the first Sunday of Advent. A letter written from prison to a fighting church while Christians are persecuted does not exactly seem like an appropriate message to begin our transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The church in Philippi is divided over leadership in Paul’s absence and best practices to protect themselves. They have lost sight of their purpose and the message of Jesus’ love that they have worked to share. Paul’s letter serves as their reminder to be of one mind and one spirit, putting aside earthly concerns and working together to share the hope of the gospel.

More than encouragement, however, Paul invites the congregation in Philippi to find love and joy in their work, even in their current circumstances. Paul is praying with thanksgiving and with joy for the Philippians, even as he writes from his dark prison cell. Confident in God’s presence and continual work in the world, Paul’s joy is a product not of his own situation, but of the promise that God is not finished.

Even as our own churches fracture and divide over vaccination and mask decisions, we can take Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians as an invitation extended across the centuries. As we enter this season of darkness and waiting, how might we find joy in the promise of God’s work through the coming of Jesus Christ?


Rachel Boden

November 19, 2021 – Daniel 7:9-14

It may seem an odd choice to use an Old Testament reading for Christ the King Sunday. But Jesus himself never goes around calling himself King. Jesus never tells people to worship him as the Son of God. He actually gets upset whenever anyone suggests he is the messiah. The title that he does accept, embrace, and apply to himself over and over again is the Son of Man. Jesus directly quotes from Daniel 7 to describe himself, his mission and his purpose. So, while the church considers Jesus through 2000 years of theological encrustations, Jesus considers himself squarely through the lens of this most curious book of the Old Testament and its mysterious figure, the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is a notoriously slippery phrase. It could just as easily be translated from Aramaic as a human being. But Daniel does not use it quite that generically. Daniel uses the term to refer to a kind of human, kind of divine person who will be given sovereign rule over the nations and the world. That same Son of Man will then render final judgment on the nations.

On Sunday we will consider this most ancient and distinctive of Jesus’ own titles. Along the way we will ask what kind of Kingdom are we celebrating anyway and why it is good news for all.

November 12, 2021 – Daniel 12:1-3

Resurrection is a very old hope. It is not so much a hope of life after death as it is a hope for vindication in God’s redemption beyond life and death. Resurrection is God’s solution to all the problems of evil, pain, and suffering to which mortal flesh is subject.

Jesus did not introduce resurrection, although he was the first to demonstrate it. The hope, the idea is far older. Mary and Martha seemed to know all about it. The Pharisees believed in it. The Sadducees denied it. Isaiah and Ezekiel appear to imply it. Resurrection was frequently discussed in Jewish literature composed between the testaments in works like 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and Joseph and Aseneth. But Daniel 12 is the first explicit mention of resurrection in the Old Testament. As far as we can tell, Daniel 12 is the first explicit mention of resurrection anywhere.

The hope that holds both Christianity and Judaism together is resurrection, the hope that God’s redemptive purposes go beyond this world and unto eternity. Of course, Christians and Jews disagree about its sequence. And while Daniel does not address all the detailed mechanics of the process, his vision shines down the ages and would be adopted by John of Patmos in his own apocalypse. After a sleep down in the dust, we will rise. Those who yearn to be a part of God’s plan will shine like the stars. And those who intentionally and stubbornly oppose God’s plan will realize their shame. It is not heaven and hell as depicted in Dante and illustrated by Michelangelo. It instead appears to be the loving, saving work of a creator who both respects the autonomy and freedom of creatures and seeks their benevolent perfection.

We do not need to be afraid anymore. No matter what happens, we shall rise.

November 5, 2021 – Daniel 3:14, 15-26

I have never preached on the Book of Daniel. Ever. It is one of those books you avoid like that abandoned house that was rumored to be haunted a few blocks from where you grew up. Daniel is weird. It is the last book written to be included in the Old Testament. Most of it is written in a different language, Aramaic instead of Hebrew. It describes mysterious visions, cosmic struggles, the end of the world, and the beginning of a new one. Daniel belongs to that curious genre of literature that reveal the hidden workings of the world. We use the fancy Greek word for revealing something hidden to describe these sorts of books. We call it an apocalypse.

You can read through Daniel and tie your mind in knots looking for hidden symbols and hermetic codes. Or you can just read the book and accept the hidden truth it offers. The world can be a mighty rough place sometimes. Good does not always triumph over evil. But in the end, despite all current appearances to the contrary, God wins. That is the hidden secret of Daniel. God wins.

Knowing God’s ultimate triumph permits God’s people to behave in extraordinary ways. Knowing God’s ultimate triumph means God’s people do not need to be afraid anymore. Kings and countries may threaten, indeed may kill, but cannot triumph. Only God can. And only God will.
Three young Jewish men try to integrate into the Babylonian Empire. They serve in high up administrative positions. They wear the latest in court fashion, pointy slippers and all. But while their dominant culture can change their appearance, it cannot change their hearts. They are dedicated to the God of Israel. They are not dedicated to the God who will rescue them. They will not put God to the test. They are simply unyielding in their commitment to the truth.

The Book of Daniel introduces us to a new type of character in the Bible, not prophets, priests, or kings. These three men are simply witnesses to the truth, no matter what the world may say or do to silence them. The Bible uses the Greek word for witnesses to describe these sorts of people. They are called martyrs.

October 29, 2021 – Psalm 46

This Sunday we recognize our theological heritage arising out of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps the most famous piece of music associated with the Reformation is Martin Luther’s Hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Harmonized by Bach, symphonically scored by Mendelssohn, and sung in countless Lutheran church services, this song has served as something like the Protestant anthem. The problem is that it was never really intended to be a triumphal anthem and most people nowadays do not even know what all the fuss we call the Reformation was about.

Luther wrote Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott, as a paraphrase of Psalm 46. It is a song of confident hope that God is with us in every trouble. The Mighty Fortress of which we sing is not a place. It is a person. It is God. And that refuge is not from this world. The refuge of God is in this world, amid all the troubles and chaos of our lives. The song is not a triumph for the victorious, but consolation for the frightened and downtrodden.

What the Psalmist proposes and Luther endorses is not some escapist fantasy, but the simple recognition that God is immediately available and accessible to every person, right now. All it requires of us is the intention to seek God and the attention to let go of everything that is not God. The Psalm offers clear instruction: be still. That stillness is the attention to the quiet voice waiting to be heard inside of each of us.

The Protestant Reformation arose out of simple idea, every person has direct access to God without the mediation of church, clergy, or any human intervention. We cannot create that connection. God does all the work. Nothing we do or do not do connects us to God. It is all a gift. This is the hope that Luther and the psalmist sing. This is the hope that sustains us still.

October 22, 2021 – Psalm 139

It is perhaps the most personal expression of faith in all of scripture. Psalm 139 portrays human experience in all its dimensions as an expression of God’s knowledge, care, presence, creativity, and power. The Psalm radically relativizes human beings. We spend our whole lives presuming that we are the subjects, the authors of our stories. The Psalmist flips our presumptions on their head. We are actually objects in God’s drama, creatures within God’s sandbox, the artifacts of God’s infinite creativity, artistry, and craft. Divine reality and divine life enclose every human thought and experience, not merely our thoughts and experiences but every possibility. In poetry that would be unsettling for its demotion of human agency but for its reassurance of divine companionship, God-with-us/Emmanuel steps forward into our narrow awareness of not only who God is, but the reality of our lives and world.

Psalm 139 describes a God whose knowledge of us is complete, knowing our every thought not because we are so dominated or controlled, but simply because we are so transparently known. This intimacy of knowledge extends to our innermost parts (the Hebrew literally refers to our kidneys which were considered the source of human conscience). But that knowledge is not like our knowledge. God’s knowledge is not detached. God’s knowledge is always relational. Every line of the Psalm is addressed directly to God as thou in relationship with the author in what she does, what she knows, and where she goes. This is no passive God of metaphysics; this is a persistent God of steadfast companionship. We are never free of this God. Rather we are free for and to this God. Before God, we are real persons in our uniqueness all somehow participating in a divine plan whose motives lie far beyond our pay grade.

In the famous passage of 1 Corinthians 13, Saint Paul reflects that, “Now I know only in part; then I will be fully know even as I have been fully known.” Psalm 139 responds yes, but the most important part you know right now is simply knowing that you are already fully known.

October 15, 2021 – Psalm 104

Songs of nature abound in art, but we rarely consider them from the Bible. Extolling the beauty of nature and the intricate ecological web that sustains us is not a topic we expect to find there. We expect the Bible to be all about . . . well, religious things. But sometimes the most religious thing of all is simply the truth right in front of us if (and this is a big if) we can perceive it.

Modern folks like us tend to distinguish nature from the human order. The ancients did not. They understood how utterly interconnected and dependent they were on environment. They understood that they were a part of nature not something separate from it. The 104th Psalm celebrates the natural world and our place in, specifically right in the middle of it. The Psalm does lead up to human beings as the culmination of the natural order. We simply fit into the middle of it somewhere between lions and rock hyraxes. The real spectacular representation of nature is Leviathan, the ancient sea monster personification of chaos, a monster we all know too well.

Modern, Western, post-Enlightenment folks like us tend to presume that we know more than we do and control far more than we can. The 104th Psalm provides a necessary adjustment to our perception. We are not much of anything on our own. But we belong to everything. And that makes all the difference. With that kind of change in our perception we can finally behold the truth, not understand, but simply stand beneath it all in awe and wonder. The only appropriate response to that kind of wonder is worship. It is for that kind of worship that we are made. It is not in its essence religious. It is simply recognizes the truth that is all around us.

October 8, 2021 – Psalm 90

At some point in our life, we realize that life is fragile and our days are numbered. Somewhere in the transition between childhood and adulthood we become acutely aware that we will not live forever on this earth.

At that moment, our faith comes crashing in and we remember that our days are like the fading grass but God is from everlasting to everlasting.

We continue our study of the poetry of the psalms with the powerful and humbling words of Psalm 90. Together let’s follow the words of the psalmist as he/she proclaims the finiteness of humans and the “forever” of our God.

Join is for worship this Sunday as we remember to whom we belong!

October 1, 2021 – Psalm 31:1-21

The psalms are the great poetry book of the Bible. Like so many poems and song lyrics, we often do not know the precise circumstances of their composition. Originally, they were probably sung by choirs of Levites in the temple in Jerusalem. But they have grown beyond their original setting and have sunk deep into our collective consciousness.

The 150 (or 151) psalms give expression to every human emotion and feeling from exaltation to despair. They speak honestly in the language of the heart about the joy and sorrow of being human. Christians and Jews down through the centuries have turned to their ancient words to give expression to our hopes and griefs down through the centuries and they have provided the foundational grammar of prayer for the synagogue and the church.

The 31st Psalm occupies a special place in Christian worship. According to Luke, a line from this psalm were the last words Jesus uttered: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.” It is not purely a plea, a prayer asking for something. It is instead a statement of confidence in God as the speaker hands her life over into the hands of God. Deliver me, is not so much a request as a sure and certain statement of what God does and who God is.

Our culture tends to emphasize our agency, ability, and control. The psalmist recognizes that those things are a trap for the unwary. Instead of our power, the psalmist focuses on our dependence. We do not rescue ourselves. We are rescued by God. And ultimately, we find our place and our identity not in our accomplishments or preferences, but inside a tiny little space inside of God made just for us.

We are human beings not human doings and our being is always in God. So, we do not need to be afraid. Not on the cross. Not before the grave. Not ever. We belong to God.

September 24, 2021 – Psalm 30

A Psalm of Thanksgiving

Somewhere in ancient Israel, an unknown writer of this psalm/song penned these powerful and hopeful words of praise and thanksgiving in the midst of deep suffering.

With the psalmist we fall deep into the pits of death and rise high into life restored. We feel the depth of the psalmists pain and we feel the absolute joy of life-instead-of-death. God had healed the psalmist and brought him/her back from sure death.

Years later, this compelling song of thanksgiving for God’s saving acts was sung at the Feast of the Dedication commemorating the cleansing of the Second Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BCE following the desecration of the Temple by the King of Syria. It was healing of sorts for the Temple after the death of desecration in this sacred place.

This ancient psalm/song was carried through generations of God’s people bringing hope and healing for all. And it comes to us today to bring hope and healing for us in the midst of the suffering of this pandemic and endemic.

We are delighted to welcome Rev. Dr. Joni Sancken to our pulpit and worship leadership this Sunday as she shares God’s Word to us from Psalm 30. We invite you to join us for worship either in-person or via livestream. Information and links for worship are below. Peace to you.

September 17, 2021 – Numbers 6:22-27

A blessing is a special thing. A wish is simply an expression of a desired outcome and a blessing certainly contains that, but it is something more. A blessing evokes the sense of new possibility beyond our contemporary horizon of perception. Blessing taps into some hidden imagination of what may be possible if only we relax our tired and often cynical assumptions. But a blessing does something even more than evoke. A blessing invokes the power to make that possibility a reality. A blessing casts the blesser as full participant in the invocation of divine providence in the life of the blessed. As such, a blessing is an active word-act that helps to make the possibility it describes real. A blessing does not merely hope for something. A blessing actually does something.

Sadly, blessing is a lost art among Christians. We much prefer the dry topography of the indicative where we can map, order, and control. Alternatively, we prefer the language of critique with its passive violence to self and others to any healing language. But words have a power all their own, or more precisely words can channel a power from somewhere else.

The ancient Jews understood this well. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the power of blessings and none were more powerful than the great priestly blessing from Numbers. God told Moses to teach Aaron and all who would follow Aaron to bless the people using a precise formula, a rising crescendo of divine beneficence and belonging that would ultimately provide the people’s self-definition, the same words (albeit in Hebrew) uttered at the end of every sacrifice in the Temple and every Shabbat service in the synagogue to this day, the same words with which I end ever service of worship, and, should I attend you upon your deathbed, the final words I will whisper in your ear. These are our words that have the power to change us.

And as chance and providence would have it, these words are also the oldest words we possess from scripture, a testament to hope and faith, and a testament to our endless desire to participate in hope and faith.
What might be different if reclaimed these words and their power with the full sincerity and desire of our hearts? How might God be different in our lives and in our world if fully invited not merely through wistful evocation, but the holistic invitation of invocation that comes from deep inside?

September 10, 2021 – Haggai 1:15-2:9

The people were frustrated and a bit depressed. 73 years earlier, their beautiful temple had been destroyed by the rampaging armies of Babylon. The temple and their city, Jerusalem, were left as a rubble heap. There were no answers. They simply got by. Now, two generations later, they have returned to the city and started to rebuild. But something was missing. The new temple failed to meet their expectations. Memory, edited by two generations of nostalgia, conflicted with their present humbled circumstances. So, they did what God’s people have always done. They grumbled.

The people are frustrated and a bit depressed. 20 years earlier, our beautiful city and its gleaming white towers were destroyed by other rampaging Middle Eastern men, coming from not so very far from Babylon. Our temples to progress, modernity, prosperity, and national strength, were left a rubble heap. There were no answers, only victims. We got by. For a while we pulled together. Then we started pulling apart. Wars came and went. Courageous sacrifices were made. New towers, even taller, rose up in their place. We were not exiled from our nation, but somehow disconnected from our selves. Something went missing. Perhaps it was our sense of security, perhaps a sense of innocence, perhaps a sense that hope and progress must necessarily prevail. Now we find ourselves stuck between grief and uncertainty. For too many of us, unwilling or unable to process that grief and anxiety, we simply transmit our feelings as anger.

Anxiety and loss swirl around us, our nation, and our world. Anniversaries and wars bring no finality. Pandemics never end. Time has flattened. And all the while we are bothered by a vague, nagging sense of how it once was. But we can never fully trust our memories, lovingly edited by nostalgia. All we know for certain is this is not the way we are supposed to be.

There is a promise and a solution to our malaise. You probably will not like it. The people of Jerusalem certainly did not like it. It took four prophets (Haggai, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zechariah) to get the message across even for God. First, the promise. I am with you so do not be afraid, says the Lord. It is the same promise God offered Abraham and Moses. It is the same promise that Jesus offered to us. God does not promise to relieve our suffering. God promises to companion us through our suffering. Always. Second, the solution. Get to work. Get to work, together, with God. When we participate together with what God is doing in the world, we are changed. Participating in what God is doing is the active means through which God nurtures us into new life. When we do it together with other people we are pulled out of our grief as we create community knit together by the Spirit.

The temple would be rebuilt but not in the way the people wanted or expected. The temple is never built out of stone and wood. It is built out of our lives, trusting God and working together.

We trust and we build. We build together with God and with each other. It will not conform to our expectations. It is not a memorial to the past. What we are building is our new home.


September 3, 2021 – Isaiah 61:1-11

Home again! Now what?

After almost 200 years in captivity under Assyria and Babylon, God’s people of Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom) were exhausted, discouraged, and spent. They had completely lost a sense of who they were and to whom they belonged. They longed for home, for Jerusalem, for their land.

Then Cyrus II, the king of Persia and conqueror of Babylon, issued an order in 538 BCE allowing exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. God’s people were finally going home.

But, now what? How would they rebuild Jerusalem? How would they rebuild the Temple? Who would lead them in rebuilding their beloved city? And mostly importantly, would God be with them?

Isaiah 61 is written by an unnamed and unknown prophet known as Third Isaiah who followed in the traditions and prophesies of First Isaiah. The beautiful and hopeful words of Isaiah 61 are written to the remnant Jews who had finally returned to Jerusalem following captivity. It is was a joyful time but also a difficult time of rebuilding and finding community with the Jews who had been left behind in Judah after so many generations.

God indeed would be with them as they rebuilt their lives. But God had a new plan for what that rebuilt city would be like. God’s ways were indeed better than Israel’s ways!

Starting over is difficult no matter where or when we live. We are rebuilding and starting over in so many ways as God’s people in this time of post pandemic confusion.

Let us join together this Sunday as we worship God, share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and hear Isaiah’s words on how God’s people rebuilt a beautiful city!

August 27, 2021 – Isaiah 55:1-13

For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.
Isaiah 55:12

Joy that follows great suffering is a deep joy! God’s people had been wallowing in the mud of suffering and sin for a long time. They had lost their way and lost their sense of identity as God’s chosen people. As a divided kingdom – the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah – they were already broken as a community of God’s people. And now powers much greater than Israel and Judah had taken siege of what once belonged to God’s people, and scattered the people and their possessions to wind. Generations passed as God’s people lived in captivity under Assyria and eventually Babylon.

By the waters of their captors, God’s people wept for the days of their beloved country and God. Where was God? Who where they? When would they go home?

Through these exiled years of suffering and sin, God spoke to God’s people through the prophets and specifically through the beloved prophet Isaiah (and through unnamed and unknown prophets who followed in the steps of Isaiah). The joyful words of Isaiah 55 are the long awaited words of hope for which God’s people had longed.

“Joy is coming! Peace is coming! Home is coming!”

In the coming Sundays we will be hearing the words of the prophets and remembering that we too are God’s chosen people, often lost and often longing for home. Join us as we worship together both in-person and live-streamed as we find joy in the midst of suffering.

August 20, 2021 – Mark 10:46-52

“Son of David, have mercy on me!” He won’t stop yelling despite all the people telling him to be quiet. He has perceived too much, which is rather ironic considering he is blind. His name was Bartimaeus which was a rather cruel joke as it meant “son of the blessed one.” There was nothing blessed about him or his hard life. Yet when Jesus passed by, he took his chance. Jesus offers him precisely what he had offered all his disciples in the preceding chapters. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus. The answers Jesus had received so far included: my own personal messiah, power and prestige, eternal life, and status. Now this blind man Jesus had never met asks for something far more precious and in his answering demonstrates that he already possessed what he sought. “Rabbouni, let me see again.” Interestingly, Jesus does not tell him that his sight is restored. Jesus offers him much more. “Go, your faith has saved you.” And so Bartimaeus goes, but does not go home. He follows Jesus and all the others off to Jerusalem. The final disciple goes off on the way.

What do you see and what do you perceive? What do you seek and what do you want? Are you willing to let those things redirect your life? If you beheld the truth, would you follow?

Long ago in the Exodus, the people of God paused for a moment in their incursion into the kingdoms of this world to pause for a moment in Jericho before entering the Holy Land. And now, just before Jesus heads up the hill towards Jerusalem he does so again, acquiring one final disciple on the way.

The way is still open for those who may wish to follow.

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.

In Christ,

Pastor Kelley

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?


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

April 4, 2023

At the center of it all . . . silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 28, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


March 21, 2023

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

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

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

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

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


March 14, 2023

In This Season of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pastor Kelley

March 7, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 28, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 21, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 14, 2023

“An Invitation to Be Shriven”

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

Have I thoroughly confused you?

Here is all you need to know:

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

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

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

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

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

February 7, 2023

Baptismal Promises
A Word from Pastor Kelley

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

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

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

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

A child of God.

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

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

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

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

A child of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 31, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 24, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus let go. We call that resurrection.

— Brian

January 17, 2023

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

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

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

But what if modernity is wrong?

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

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

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

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

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


January 10, 2023

Covenant Community.
Church & Society.
Our Youth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Kelley

January 3, 2023

Epiphany Prayer Star Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 27, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 20, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 13, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 6, 2022

Thoughts Upon Watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special

for the Fifty Second Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 29, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 22, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With gratitude,


November 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 8, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 1, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 25, 2022

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

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

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

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

And so can we.

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

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

Happy Reformation Heritage Sunday!

October 18, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 11, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 4, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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


Pastor Kelley

September 27, 2022

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

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

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

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


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


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


You are not in charge

Do not be afraid

My burden is light

God has a plan

And do not worry, you are loved.


September 20, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 13, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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


August 23, 2022

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

August 16, 2022

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

My summer looked just a little bit different.

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

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

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

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

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

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



August 9, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and love to you,


August 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 26, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 19, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you are home.


July 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know its hard right now. Just keep walking.


July 5, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabbath rest and peace to you,


June 28, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Kelley

June 22, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 14, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few fun facts to know about our pilgrimage:

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

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

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

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

Buen Camino!


June 1, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 25, 2022

I am sad.

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

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

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

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

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

And God weeps.

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

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

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


May 17, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

And God is kind of like that.

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2022


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

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

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

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

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

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

As I leave for Spain:

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

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

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

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

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

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



May 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 27, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 19, 2022

Solvitur Ambulando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 22, 2022

Sacred Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did I see God today?

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

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



March 15, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 8, 2022

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

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

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

A Prayer of Lament for the People of Ukraine

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

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

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

March 1, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2021

“Now I know.” Genesis 22:12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


February 15, 2021

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

Grief is exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!


February 8, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going on two years of Covid, my attempts at competency are now spent. My bag of tricks is empty and sometimes the boundless enthusiasm may ring a bit hollow. Perhaps you face some of the same challenges. If all I have to depend on is myself, I will never be enough. But I do not have to and neither do you.
Know who you are. Ignore what you are “supposed” to be. Simply, honestly, gently, charitably, know yourself. That is the essence of humility that sets us free from the crushing weight of infinite oughts. And then as you, not your persona or Facebook profile but simply as you, trust. Trust that the Creator is not a liar. Trust that the Creator really does love you and wills for you good.

The only thing I really need to do is to be me and as me be in relationship with that which made me and with other people. All the rest is simply the illusions of anxiety, shame, and pride.

Learning how to be and how to trust is not so different from learning how to float in deep water. All you need to do is let go and relax. The deep waters will hold you.

February 1, 2021

Fluency in Hebrew is not one of my gifts. I find it to be an annoyingly imprecise language. Unlike the mathematical exactness of Greek, one is often left interpreting meaning on the basis of context alone. Hebrew suffers in particular from a dearth of prepositions. Without those little words in between nouns, it is difficult to establish the precise relationship between things. You can perfectly translate a Hebrew verse and end up with, “A man, a tent, and a camel.” It is then up to the reader to decipher the relationship between them.

One of the most important verses in scripture, the turning point of the Genesis story, the birth of the Jewish people, and the origin of all three Abrahamic faiths is Genesis 11: 1: “YHWH said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” That command, “Go forth” (Lekh Lekha, לֶךְ-לְךָ‎ ) provides the divine impetus to the entire story of God and humanity that follows throughout scripture. The problem is that phrase in Hebrew is famously multifaceted and slippery. Any translation into English necessarily flattens what God is saying into a single dimension and loses most of the meaning.

At one level it is simply the divine command to go. Leave your family and community behind and trust in me as I bring you to a new place. Abram goes solely on the basis of his trust in the divine promise.

It also means go for yourself. Do not go for God or for family or community or any other reason except to explore exactly what this creation and this life have in store for you. Let go of the past in order to acquire a new and vibrant future.

It also means go with yourself. Bring with you all the beliefs, values, and ways of life and living that are important to you. Bring along your culture and habits of mind so that wherever you go, you will spread and share your way of living with the world.

It also means go by yourself. You are unique, and individual, perhaps the first in history. No matter how many people in your household you may take along on the journey of discovery, we all make the journey alone because the journey touches us each differently and takes us to a unique destination of identity.

And it also means, go to yourself. There is a you out there waiting to be discovered and embraced. Go to your identity, your true identity, not the person your family, community, clan, and culture say you are. Go and find your true name that is both birthright and destiny. Go knowing that any other life, any other identity will be tragically too small for you.
Go, Lekh Lekha, means all of this simultaneously. It calls us to both do something and become something all on the basis of a little trust and a little curiosity. No wonder that it is the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because it is fundamentally an invitation to finally and fully be human.

What we call “religion” is not found in our rites, rituals, sacred texts, or even communities. According to Genesis “religion” is grounded in trust and the courage to change recognizing that such change may take us away from all our fondest attachments. Abram is not particularly pious, as the rest of his story will describe in scandalous detail. The only quality that seems to differentiate Abram from the mass of Mesopotamians is his dual sense of trust and curiosity that leads him down the long road south to Canaan and there find not so much who God is but rather who he is.

The command and the invitation are not just for Abram, but for each of us. The invitation is neither to escape this world or become a saint, but rather simply to become you, the glory of God, a human being fully and gloriously alive. “The kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:21.

So, go!


January 25, 2021

An editorial note from Pastor Brian:
Over the course of this year, we are collaborating with our friends at the Hilliard United Methodist Church in our reflections upon God’s Word for us. Together we are examining the major themes of the Old Testament. From time to time we will be sharing reflection pieces from each other’s congregation. Last week I had the opportunity to share a reflection with the Hilliard congregation. Today, I am so pleased to share with you a reflection from my dear friend, Rev. April Blaine.

I remember the first time I ever saw an iPhone – this was early when they came out nearly 15 years ago.

I, like many of you, was in awe.

There was such a wow factor. Many of the technologies that they were using, weren’t entirely new, but they had put them together in such a beautiful, sleek, accessible way that was also practical and functional. It was an engineering marvel and it would forever change the rhythms of our daily life. Because now, smartphones were able to do much more than just communicate with other people. They became our gateway to the web, our cameras, our GPS, our exercise and sleep trackers, and even our personal assistants.

Now, most of us cannot imagine our lives without them. For many of us, our phones are with us at all times and they are the first things we look at in the morning and the last things we see before we go to BED.

And everything in between.

This innovative technology can do extraordinary things that we never thought possible – and in itself – it is neither good nor bad.

It’s also new. In the scope of human history, it’s very new. We as human beings are still very early in the process of understanding all the implications and ways to properly integrate this technology into our lives.

Interestingly, the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, that we will encounter this week, also finds humanity wrestling with a new technology. It’s written less as a historical record and more as a cautionary tale.

We were told in Genesis Chapter 1, that all of humankind was made in the image of God and said to be good. That one of the great purposes for which humans were made is to continue the creative work of God. To go forth and multiply. To use our creative drive to continue God’s purposes in the world.

Last week, in our shared journey through the Great Story, we arrived at the story of Noah’s Ark, a kind of Creation 2.0 story. We see the introduction of a basic sense of morality for all humankind… one that honors the sacredness of life and invites us to see the world from another’s perspective. Once again, God prioritizes the relationship with humanity and makes the first covenant with us. This first universal covenant is God’s commitment to remain with us and to continue showing us a better to live… a way that will preserve life and invite us to do the same.

By Chapter 11, humanity has increased again and now, human ingenuity and creativity have come together to create a new marvel in technology – one that would greatly improve human capacity and efficiency.

And the new technology is BRICKS.

The old way of building things would have been to take various shaped stones that were either carved or cut or gathered and to put them together to build various structures. You don’t have to be an architect to understand that this isn’t a very efficient way to build and there is a limit to how large and how high such structures can become.

But bricks – in their uniformity and capacity to create large volumes – this made all kinds of things possible that had never been possible before.

The people are enamored with what they will be able to now do…

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

To give you more background on how the early Hebrew people might have heard this story. In the chapter before, we read of a ruthless dictator named Nimrod, who is organizing and creating an empire, constructing cities, consolidating power, subjugating others, starting in Babel.

If you read ahead, the next time bricks are mentioned is in the first chapter of Exodus 1, when the Hebrew people are enslaved in Egypt. They know where this inclination to build bigger, higher, and taller is headed.

I appreciate the many biblical scholars who write from a marginalized point of view and remind us how often language has been used to subjugate and oppress people. Forcing groups of people to assimilate to the dominant language has been a common practice throughout history, including the history of our own country. This is part of how empires were built. When they read this chapter in Genesis, they see the dangers that can come with “all the world speaking the same language.” In this case, the coming together and the building that these bricks facilitate isn’t the kind of unity that is about the sanctity and preservation of life.

God chooses to disrupt the efforts of the people. First, the tower is disrupted, and the people are scattered. The second, and perhaps more significant disruption comes in the chapter we will read in the first week of February. God chooses to disrupt the efforts by creating a tribe of people who will live in a new way. A way that honors the sanctity of life and becomes a blessing to the whole world. But… we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The stories in Genesis continue to ask us questions about the kind of world we want to build. How will we do this in ways that honor and preserve life? When new technologies arrive, how will we use them? Will they create further isolation and violence between ourselves and God? Can we continue to listen, learn, and create in ways that prioritize relationship over power? Can our creative drive be used in ways that further the purposes of God in the world?

I’m grateful to be on this journey together across two churches exploring and listening to one another as we ask these challenging questions. God doesn’t give us simple answers but invites us to use our agency, creativity, and capacity to engage the complexity of these moments… with one another and with the movement of the Spirit.

And so we keep listening and learning… together.

With gratitude,

Pastor April.

January 18, 2021

The story of Noah forms the basis for innumerable Sunday school lessons, children’s books, and nursery decorations. Like many of the most familiar stories of the Bible, I fear that very few people have actually read it. If people took the time to consider what it says and what it means, I wonder whether we would still tell the story to children.

The story of Noah begins full of expectation and promise. “Noah was a righteous man, faultless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (6:19). Nobody else receives such accolades, not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or even Moses. Noah as a paragon of obedient faith and righteousness is the image that sticks for most people and how we portray him to our children. But that is not exactly how he is portrayed at the end of the story. The children’s story Bibles all end with Noah and his family waving goodbye to all the animals. But the actual Bible story continues. “Noah was a man of the soil and was the first to plant a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk and exposed himself within his tent as he passed out.” (9:21-22). Noah, the great hero of faith in chapter 6 ends our story as a debased and broken man, lost in alcohol, cursing his grandsons. It is a quite a dramatic fall and it begs the question, why?

We often fail to consider the psychological and emotional trauma of this story. Noah was directly implicated in the greatest act of genocide in human history, the wholesale destruction of humanity and the terrestrial natural order. Noah participated in all of it. That alone would be ample cause for post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. No wonder he tried self-medicating. But we cannot really know about Noah’s internal motivations or his inner demons because Noah never speaks. Across three chapters, Noah never says a single word. Instead, he silently obeys God’s every command. Without questioning, he constructs a vast ark 300 by 50 by 30 cubits (I presume he knew what a cubit was). Without questioning, he collected pairs or seven pairs of all the animals. Without questioning, he sealed up the ark and waited for the rains to fall and the waters of the deeps to open. Without questioning, he listened as the rains fell and his neighbors pounded on the hatches begging to be rescued until all went silent. Through all this, not a single word, but he did everything that the Lord had commanded, to the letter.

Sometimes, I hear people talk about obedience to God as the very essence of faith and the highest virtue. Some religions elevate obedience to God to be the purpose of human life. In Christianity and in Judaism, it is not. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Covenant and Conversations, pointed out that one of the curiosities about the Old Testament is that despite containing 613 commandments, there is no word in ancient Hebrew for “obey.” The Torah urges people to hear, listen, understand, respond, and attend, but never obey. When the King James Bible tried to render it into English they had to invent a new word to cover its absences, so they used “hearken.” We don’t “hearken” much anymore. When they started writing the Israeli legal code in Modern Hebrew, they had to invent a whole new word for obey.

I don’t think that God wants us simply to obey. If God did, I would think that the Bible would say so plainly and celebrate such obedience. It is not that obedience to God is wrong. I just think that obedience, all by itself, is insufficient. Over and over again in Genesis we are confronted by God challenging us not so much to be obedient, but rather to be responsible, to use our freedom, choice, and judgment, to be mature and deliberative in participating in God’s work. God seems to want us to internalize God’s own values, methods, goals, and objectives because we trust God, not because we are merely creatures who obey. God could have worked exclusively through mindless robots, but instead chose to work through us as partners and in doing so seeks something greater than obedience. God seeks responsibility.

Noah is an obedient man, the most obedient of his generation. But I am not sure he is a hero. He does what God commands, but nothing more. Contrast Noah to Abraham, who we will start hearing about in a few weeks, who is quick to argue, bargain, persuade, and harangue God whenever human lives were at stake. When God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham starts haggling with God to mitigate the scope of the destruction. Noah faced with the destruction of all flesh, says nothing. Always obedient, Noah was the first human in history to offer up the cowards’ excuse, I was only following orders.

Noah saves only his own skin and his own family. The story ends with Noah passed out, naked, drunk, a shameful embarrassment to himself and his children. So, I wonder, if you save only your own skin while doing nothing to save your neighbor or the world, maybe you lose yourself in the process as well.

Faith requires obedience to God, but it is never only obedience to God. It requires more of us. It requires our creativity, our morality, our courage, our hope, and love. Noah has obedience, but never displays any of these other dimensions of faith. Perhaps that is why when the ark finally lands, he does not open the door until commanded to do so by God. Noah may be obedient, but he cannot comprehend what God is up to. He cannot envision a new world with new possibilities. He cannot leap at the chance to restore creation and heal a broken humanity. When it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission to start, you roll up your sleeves and get to work to creatively make hope a new reality. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all could and did. The question for us faced with the example of Noah is whether we can do any better?

January 12, 2021

What the Snake told me . . .

The story that we often call “the Fall” begins with a snake. Not the devil, not Satan, just a snake. The snake is not evil, it is however gifted. The snake is the first theologian, the first being who asks questions about God. “Eve, did God really say that you shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The snake is of course wrong in its premise, God had given them all the trees to eat with a single exception. But the snake’s question places Eve into an awkward response defending God. No, we can eat from all the trees except one and if we touch that one, we will die. Eve got her information from Adam and she gets it wrong. For the first time, but far from the last, God’s people mess up by making God’s commands stricter than they actually are.

The serpent’s response is factually accurate, but also contradicts God. You won’t die if you eat it, but your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and bad. Notice how the serpent has changed the topic. They are no longer talking about God. They are talking about the tree and its fruit. Specifically, they are talking about what the tree can do for us if we consume it. The garden starts in Genesis as an expression of God’s love for human beings and ends as a commodity feeding human power and pleasure. Humanity begins with a focus on relationship with God and ends in acquisition and control.

Eve determines that the fruit is good. For the very first time in all creation, something is pronounced as good separate and apart from God’s verdict, but instead rooted in its appeal to the human senses and utility for human will. The allure of the forbidden is as irresistible to Eve as to any twelve-year-old. She sees that the fruit is good and enticing to the eye. For the first time a human being aches for something it does not possess. Taming our desires is not chief among humanity’s strengths, not then, not now. So, she eats. And . . . nothing happens. They did not die, but something had changed forever. Adam and Eve are alienated from themselves or at least who they thought themselves to be. For the very first time they felt shame and guilt, the pain that separates who we think we are from who we want to be. Shame is the original wound.

God addresses humanity, both of them, for the very first time. The Creator’s first words to us will echo to the last page of the Bible, indeed to the last moment of time. “Where are you?” says the creator like a worried parent looking for his children. “Where are you?” seems a rather curious thing for the all-powerful creator to be asking. But apparently God can no longer see them. Something has shifted in the universe. God cannot see them as they are, and they cannot see God. Adam does not confess. He does not explain. He starts making excuses. He blames Eve. Eve, no doubt looking rather peeved at Adam for throwing her under the bus, turns and blames the snake who prudently is nowhere to be found. And we are left with God’s haunting question, “what have you done?”

This is not a story about how evil started. It is a story about how human beings started. And human beings are marked from the beginning not so much by wickedness as anxiety.

The serpent asks a question and Eve starts to doubt God’s loving providence. That’s where it all starts, not in desire or lust or any of those other things. It starts in an unnamable, undirected, inchoate fear we know so well as anxiety. Maybe God does not care? Maybe I am missing out on something? Maybe I am not the person I could be? Maybe my whole life is based on false assumptions? The anxieties begin to whirl around like giant flock of crows croaking in ceaseless thought inside our minds as Eve’s whole way of relating to God and herself begins to change. She starts asking “what if” questions. These unanswerable anxieties begin to push her apart from God. No longer does she talk to or with God. She starts to talk about God. God becomes third person. God becomes an object.

Anxiety kills. Anxiety begins in the assumption that we are separate and apart, apart from God and from each other. So, we revert to seeking control, asserting God is at best an object far away, a paper tiger, an idle threat, a literary or theological hypothesis. We start to pursue our own identity and wants to regulate our anxieties rather than relationship. We were created by God with freedom to enjoy and a vocation to steward, but through our anxiety we pervert that into license to consume and pleasure ourselves any way we want. We want what we want when we want it, and we call that good. But it never satisfies.

We seek mastery over self, other, and nature, never understanding that such mastery always comes at the price of isolation. So, we find ourselves with neither control nor belonging. Sitting crying among our broken toys all alone, we have the temerity to ask where is God in all this, having asked the Creator to go away long, long ago.

It is a Promethean (or perhaps Faustian) bargain. Defiance of God’s embrace constitutes the indispensable precondition for full human freedom and autonomy. I am just not sure it is worth it. As aptly sung by the latter-day prophet Don Henley of the Eagles, “Freedom, oh freedom, well that’s just some people talking. Your prison is walking in the world all alone.”

This sorry state is where today’s reading ends, and our existential angst begins, in a permanent condition of anxiety and alienation. And that is where most of our lives tend to get stuck. It is simply a part of being human. But that is not where the story ends.

Keep reading the story. This is only Genesis 3 after all! Trust. Open your embrace. While we may walk away from this God in our stubborn, proud, anxious, autonomy over and over again, this God will never ever let us go.

January 5, 2021

“Beginning Again”

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. -Isaiah 43:19

More than ever this year we have a deep, deep longing for something new. Something better. Something nostalgic. Something hopeful. Two years of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst wrought by a global pandemic and subsequent viral variants have worn us down and carved us out like centuries of rivers flowing over ancient rocks. We are tired and impatient and want to “move on” with living. And yet the normalcy evades us and we struggle to find the new normal in this ever shifting landscape. Who would have believed in March 2020 that in January 2022 we would still be finding our way through a virulent virus and its variants?

Isaiah the prophet spoke words of hope to God’s people in a time when they too longed for something new, something better, something hopeful. “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” We are not the first of God’s people longing for relief from suffering and we will not be the last.

As anxious and angry and fearful as we are in this new year we can still hear God’s steady and faithful voice through the prophet Isaiah promising us that God is doing a new thing in us and in spite of us. Just like the beautiful carvings of ancient rocks pummeled by thousands of years of rivers and streams, we too are becoming something beautiful through God’s grace. The one consistency throughout these days of uncertainty is God. God is faithful, ever present, and full of grace.

With the new year comes a new beginning: a chance to start over, to begin again. The old is gone and the new is springing forth! All our failures and regrets and lost dreams find new hope in the new year. And like the ancient rocks carved by the ever flowing rivers of time, God is doing a new thing in us as God’s people. God is making a way in the wilderness even when we cannot see it.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing! Do you perceive it?”

Blessings and love to you Fairmont Family in this new year. May we journey together and see what new thing God is doing in us!



December 30, 2021

Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the Earth. And God created the human in his image, in the image of God, male and female he created them. Genesis 1:26-27

Throughout 2022 we will be reflecting with our friends from Hilliard United Methodist Church on the great story arc of the Hebrew Bible beginning with the creation account in Genesis and ending with the vision of that creation restored and reconciled in Daniel. Instead of preaching and teaching on discrete narrative episodes we will be focusing on the great themes of the Old Testament. In 2023 we will then examine how those same themes are extended and expanded in the revelation of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.

The very first theme of scripture is also its most important running from Old Testament to New like a golden thread of hope. The very first theme of God’s revelation recorded as Holy Scripture is God’s faith in us. We often think about the Bible as the story of human faith or the lack thereof. And there will be time enough to consider the life and commitments of patriarchs, prophets, priests, and apostles. But all of that pales in comparison to the overriding emphasis on the faith of God.

The story of creation in Genesis describes effortless creative activity by God, separating the chaos into ever more interconnected and complex realities. God wills and it is so. “Let there be . . . and there was . . . and God saw that it was good . . .” There is no hesitation, no deliberation just pure unbounded creativity. Until we come to the creation of humanity when everything changes. For the first time, God pauses, God hesitates, God ponders. There is no predetermined outcome. God, and God is always plural in Genesis 1, so properly “They” consider what to do next. Incidentally, the “They” for most Christians would be the Trinity and for Jews the heavenly court of angels.

The problem is that if God creates human beings in God’s own image and likeness, they too will have autonomy, will, self-consciousness, and at least some creative agency. That makes human beings potentially very dangerous for the rest of creation. Setting something like that loose in creation could result in disaster, or at least some measure of chaos and unpredictable vandalism. Alternatively, if God did not create such a being, then creation is simply a beautiful garden filled with wonderful pets. There would be no possibility of genuine relationship, no friendship, no community, no family. For the first time in creating God now faces an irreducible risk and an irreversible choice. No wonder God pauses to mull it over.

God takes the risk. God takes a leap of faith. God privileges relationship over perfection and predictability. God creates the human being. And God’s faith in this often wayward, cantankerous, ungrateful, self-centered, easily distracted, occasionally inspiring, always searching, too-clever-for-their-own-good, sporadically homicidal, never satisfied, and yet always reaching out to God bunch of hybrid dirt/Spirit creatures (“Adam” in Hebrew literally means a lump of dirt) will propel the plot and promise of the Bible and our lives. Despite it all, God has faith in us.

My faith does not amount to much. I have even less in the saving potential of politics, art, media, money, pleasure, accomplishment, beauty, celebrity, or even religion. Sometimes I despair and lose faith in myself altogether. What sustains me, what sustains all God’s people, is nothing within me or within creation. What sustains me, what sustains all God’s people, is God’s faith in us. The great story, recorded as scripture as well as in the experiences of your and my life, is simply the narrative of how that stubborn divine faith unfolds over time changing everything.

The faith of God in us is what human beings simply call hope.


December 22, 2021

The challenge of Christmas is its imperative to pay attention. Attention is not a normal human quality. We spend most of our waking lives tied up inside our endless internal chatter of wants, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames, and plans. We do not live in the world so much as live inside our constant internal commentary on and interpretation of the world. It gets much worse each December as we burden ourselves with all our culture’s presumptions about how this holiday should look, feel, smell, taste, and most importantly feel. And then because our internal reality does not match what we see on Facebook, the Hallmark, Channel, Norman Rockwell paintings, or Martha Stewart’s well styled kitchen, we feel like utter failures. This year the unwelcome Grinch of Omicron further widens the gap between our wants and our world.

The unsettling reality behind this holiday is that it is no holiday at all. It is not meant to be a party. It is instead a provocation, a transgressive historical invasion of all our wants, plans, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames and plans. But you will not notice any of this if you fail to pay attention.

The world pays attention to the powerful and the pretty, the people and events that feature prominently in the media of any generation. The Gospel of Luke is well aware of this. Luke begins the account of Jesus’ birth with a nod to glitterati. People are supposed to know and indeed presumed to know all about Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius two of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential men of the first century. Luke’s readers certainly would have known them well and Augustus’ ironic self-styled title, divi filius, “the Son of God” (specifically the adopted son of the Senate deified Julius Caesar). Although they should and in their time did occupy center stage, Luke shifts our gaze and uses them not as the subject of his story, but merely the fixed reigns upon which to pin his drama to concrete human history.

What matters is not the powerful and the pretty. What matters is paying attention. Mary pays attention to the voice in the silence. Elizabeth pays attention to the Spirits murmurings. Joseph pays attention to his own decency that overcomes his sense of honor and shame. But then Luke focuses our attention on the shepherds, those rascally, unhygienic, fringe dwellers. For Luke, the shepherds stand in for us, at least if we are honest about ourselves, how we fit in, and how well we belong.

Shepherds do not belong. They still do not belong. They were only allowed into town on market days. The rest of the time they wandered the hills with their flocks eking out an existence beyond polite society. They still do. I have seen their little nomad encampments on the arid, scrubby hills of Israel and Jordan. In order to survive in such a harsh environment, they learned to pay attention. Those hills north of Bethlehem grow more rocks than grass. One wrong step at night and you have a broken ankle. One wrong move to a poorly watered pasture and you lose your flock. One wrong interaction with the city folks and you might lose your life. The shepherds were the precise and polar opposite of Augustus and Quirinius. They counted for nothing and so had to pay attention to everything.

These outsiders of no distinction were the only ones who noticed what was happening. The pious and the powerful slept soundly in Jerusalem that night. They already knew they knew all the answers. Instead, it is precisely those who claimed to know nothing who are invited to behold everything. And all because they simply paid attention. Attention spurs their curiosity. Curiosity leads to wonder and amazement resolving into celebration, praise, worship, and gratitude as these shabbiest of choristers join their hearts and voices with legions of angels.
God has entered space and time and nothing can or will be the same again. But you will only notice, and consequently participate in it, if you pay attention.

I hope and pray that you have a merry and joy filled Christmas. Between the satisfaction of our wants, and nostalgia for Christmas past, between the ache for something we cannot name and the griefs for who is not at our table, among the endless “shoulds” we impose upon ourselves, tucked behind our worries for the future and the vicarious joy of beholding children’s exultations, I hope you also pay attention to the quiet mystery and unheralded wonder that lies behind all our cultural and sentimental encrustations of not this holiday, but this simple fact that the world would rather ignore. God is here.

December 14, 2021

The challenge of Christmas is its imperative to pay attention. Attention is not a normal human quality. We spend most of our waking lives tied up inside our endless internal chatter of wants, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames, and plans. We do not live in the world so much as live inside our constant internal commentary on and interpretation of the world. It gets much worse each December as we burden ourselves with all our culture’s presumptions about how this holiday should look, feel, smell, taste, and most importantly feel. And then because our internal reality does not match what we see on Facebook, the Hallmark, Channel, Norman Rockwell paintings, or Martha Stewart’s well styled kitchen, we feel like utter failures. This year the unwelcome Grinch of Omicron further widens the gap between our wants and our world.

The unsettling reality behind this holiday is that it is no holiday at all. It is not meant to be a party. It is instead a provocation, a transgressive historical invasion of all our wants, plans, hurts, hopes, daydreams, fears, shames and plans. But you will not notice any of this if you fail to pay attention.

The world pays attention to the powerful and the pretty, the people and events that feature prominently in the media of any generation. The Gospel of Luke is well aware of this. Luke begins the account of Jesus’ birth with a nod to glitterati. People are supposed to know and indeed presumed to know all about Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius two of the most powerful, wealthy, and influential men of the first century. Luke’s readers certainly would have known them well and Augustus’ ironic self-styled title, divi filius, “the Son of God” (specifically the adopted son of the Senate deified Julius Caesar). Although they should and in their time did occupy center stage, Luke shifts our gaze and uses them not as the subject of his story, but merely the fixed reigns upon which to pin his drama to concrete human history.

What matters is not the powerful and the pretty. What matters is paying attention. Mary pays attention to the voice in the silence. Elizabeth pays attention to the Spirits murmurings. Joseph pays attention to his own decency that overcomes his sense of honor and shame. But then Luke focuses our attention on the shepherds, those rascally, unhygienic, fringe dwellers. For Luke, the shepherds stand in for us, at least if we are honest about ourselves, how we fit in, and how well we belong.

Shepherds do not belong. They still do not belong. They were only allowed into town on market days. The rest of the time they wandered the hills with their flocks eking out an existence beyond polite society. They still do. I have seen their little nomad encampments on the arid, scrubby hills of Israel and Jordan. In order to survive in such a harsh environment, they learned to pay attention. Those hills north of Bethlehem grow more rocks than grass. One wrong step at night and you have a broken ankle. One wrong move to a poorly watered pasture and you lose your flock. One wrong interaction with the city folks and you might lose your life. The shepherds were the precise and polar opposite of Augustus and Quirinius. They counted for nothing and so had to pay attention to everything.

These outsiders of no distinction were the only ones who noticed what was happening. The pious and the powerful slept soundly in Jerusalem that night. They already knew they knew all the answers. Instead, it is precisely those who claimed to know nothing who are invited to behold everything. And all because they simply paid attention. Attention spurs their curiosity. Curiosity leads to wonder and amazement resolving into celebration, praise, worship, and gratitude as these shabbiest of choristers join their hearts and voices with legions of angels.
God has entered space and time and nothing can or will be the same again. But you will only notice, and consequently participate in it, if you pay attention.

I hope and pray that you have a merry and joy filled Christmas. Between the satisfaction of our wants, and nostalgia for Christmas past, between the ache for something we cannot name and the griefs for who is not at our table, among the endless “shoulds” we impose upon ourselves, tucked behind our worries for the future and the vicarious joy of beholding children’s exultations, I hope you also pay attention to the quiet mystery and unheralded wonder that lies behind all our cultural and sentimental encrustations of not this holiday, but this simple fact that the world would rather ignore. God is here.

December 14, 2021

One of the professional hazards of ministry is being asked to provide meaning where there is none. Modern folks prefer neat and tidy answers. Sometimes the answer is not so much an explanation but an experience, feeling, or sensation. Nowhere is this more obvious than Christmas. What is the meaning of Christmas? If you are looking for a tidy solution, no mortal can answer that question until Christ comes again and we learn what the incarnation is all about. Until that time, if we are honest with ourselves, we are left with not so much a meaning that can be reduced to a declarative sentence as a feeling and that feeling is one of wistful longing, of promised but not yet, of what could be and what is not.

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

This is the first year since 1965 in which the Charlie Brown Christmas Special will not be shown on network TV (Apple having acquired the rights in 2020). It will however be broadcast on PBS on Sunday night at 7:30 on Sunday night. Unlike almost every other made for TV offering, the Charlie Brown Special does not purport to offer the meaning of Christmas as possession or fulfillment. And that makes it interesting.

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

The show begins with the unstated presumptions of all network TV specials—Christmas is all about desire and its fulfillment. Lucy wants real estate and celebrity, wryly sharing with the audience that Christmas is actually the work of an East Coast syndicate. Sally, who would feel at home in a Hallmark Christmas movie, wants money and a boyfriend. Schroeder wants artistic recognition. And even Snoopy wants “money, money, money!” Bill Melendez’s “artistic blandishments” makes it all look so innocent, but the Charlie Brown Special is a radical critique of consumerist individualism and materialistic nihilism. The vacuum of meaning results in a genuine existential crisis for Charlie Brown who knows he is depressed because he cannot surrender to self-deception and cannot make sense of any of it. His depression is amplified by his general anxiety. He is “afraid of everything” by his own acknowledgement. Finally, all of this is made vastly worse by the honestly depicted cruelty of other children who will not invite him to their parties and do not share their Christmas greeting with him. Confusion, shame, anxiety, social isolation, and bullying beat him down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps we should follow.

December 7, 2021

Like many Western people, I tend to forget that I am a body. I experience life more as the adventures of a disembodied mind transported around by a very useful vehicle. But sometimes, my body reminds me of its importance.

Yesterday I received my Covid booster shot. Things were fine for several hours, but then in the middle of the night I found myself shivering uncontrollably. I heaped several comforters over me, which simply resulted in me sweating while shivering uncontrollably. It is a curious experience, having no control over your temperature or even involuntary muscle movements. Moments like that remind one how truly embodied, physical, visceral, even animal we truly are. Since I was obviously not going to sleep it seemed a perfect moment to reflect on the incarnation.

If you are rarely sick, it is so easy to forget the body as it fulfills every wish without protest. Those who suffer from sickness, disability, and infirmity, know better human weakness and fragility. Among the animals we are far from the most impressive in form. We are slightly less hairy hominids, good with our hands, quick to solve problems, and able to form lasting patterns of behavior as culture. But we are all quite fragile and finite.

Around this time of year, we talk about the gift of Christmas as the incarnation of God in Jesus. And it certainly is a gift for us. A divinity that knows us from the inside is far more likely to be a bit compassionate with our failings. But I wonder if the incarnation is deeper than that. Some kinds of knowledge can only be obtained from the inside. There is a profound difference between knowing about something and knowing as something. It is the difference between subject and object.

I presume as an article of faith that God could know all about human beings, but could not know as a human being without being one. And so, the creator accommodates us in our mundane form, condescending to a fleshy bag of meat and bone. It seems a bit preposterous, perhaps a bit unseemly, the ground of all being slumming with the bipedal primates, even in night sweats and tremors. But how else could God know us?

We tend to focus all our attention in Advent and Christmas on infant Jesus, but have you considered that the person of Jesus is God’s own intrepid exploration into embodied, material, and mortal flesh? This event, this life we call Jesus, is a moment of discovery for God of what it means to be not God. And if as we confess Jesus’ incarnation does not end with his resurrection (which is the whole point of Ascension) then that enfleshed, exposed, fragile, corporeality is now and is forever a part of who God is and what God does.

The boundary between up there and down here gets blurred. The line between God as subject and our world as objects gets all jumbled. God is as much down here and in us as out there, wherever there might be. We are now and will always be together.

Lying in bed shivering at three in the morning is as good a place as any to imagine the incarnation because God too did that at some point in Jesus’ 33 years. Wherever we go, whatever becomes of us, despite the ravages of time and illness and even death, we are all literally icons of the incarnate God made so by the one who refused to be God without us.

November 30, 2021

Last week I spent a few days on the North Shore of Lake Superior far away from the city lights. Ever since I was a child, I have felt a special draw to its shores of solid rock and the endless icy cold waters. Without light pollution, I could see hundreds, perhaps thousands more stars than are visible to me here in Dayton. So, I stood out in the cold (it was 7 degrees) and simply beheld.

The Earth and all the other planets revolve around the sun in a fixed plane called the ecliptic. The constellations follow around it and the zodiac marks its circumference as seen from earth. The ecliptic crosses the Earth at a funny angle of 23 ½ degrees, which is how crooked the Earth is from solar up and down. From my perch I could make out Polaris, the North Star, to orient myself at least with regard to the solar system and visualize myself on this blue marble revolving around the sun while it rotates around its axis heading up towards Polaris. But then I noticed something far more dramatic. A shimmering band of light arched over my left shoulder. The Milky Way is simply the plane of our galaxy as seen from out here in the relative suburbs of the Orion arm. I tried to orient my mind to the galaxy as a whole, standing on a rock rotating at about 1000 miles and hour while revolving (crookedly) around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour about two thirds of the way down the Orion galactic arm slowly pinwheeling around some supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy at about 500,000 miles an hour as we all wander off in the general direction of Andromeda. Andromeda is the only galaxy we can see in the Northern Hemisphere without a telescope, and there it was before me just to the left of Pegasus’s diamond and just beneath Cassiopeia’s seat rising over the black waters of the big lake.

Spending any time in nature has a way of reorienting our perception. Spending any time in astronomy with its vast distances and deep time has a way of shredding those perceptions altogether. We are a little people on a small rocky planet revolving around an ordinary main sequence star in the outer precincts of a rather average spiral galaxy. There is nothing about us or our world that merits much attention at all from the cosmic perspective.

Except one thing.

We have been visited.

Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the most humbling. Here? For Us? Surely not. Certainly, the Almighty had better things to do and better places to do it. The ancients asked why Bethlehem, a shabby little camel stop on the edge of the desert? Why Mary an unmarried teenage peasant? We could just as well ask why this planet? Why this solar system? The question, in all of its contexts, is formally called the scandal of the incarnation. And I do not have an answer for it. God is under no obligation to disclose divine rationale to me even if creation’s mechanics are on beautiful display across the night sky. I do not quite let go of my questions, but I content myself with something better. I may still wonder as I wander out under the sky. There will always be mysteries abounding, but I know that I am home. I belong the visited people on the visited planet. God with us.

If you want to experience Advent, you won’t find it around a Christmas tree. Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is the one that is best experienced in darkness. Go on a long drive out in the countryside away from all the city lights. Look up, wonder, imagine, and remember you are not alone.

November 23, 2021

Winter is Coming!

I am not fond of cold weather. I do love the beauty of the changing seasons and the blanketed comfort of newly fallen snow but I definitely do not like the cold! Winter has been hinting of its coming the last few days. The birdbath in our yard is frozen, my car windows were frosted over with intricate star-like patterns, and the wind chill is nippy.

Winter is coming! Cold is coming! The season of shortened daylight and longer nights is coming. The bleak winter is coming.

One of the most beloved Christmas carols is the beautiful “In the Bleak Midwinter” with the haunting lyrics written in 1872 by Christina Rossetti. The tune composed by Gustav Theodore Holst in the early 1900’s is steady and somber in its flow. One can feel the cold, dark of winter as the carol moves from despair to hope:

Snow had fallen,
snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
long ago

But the cold of winter cannot stop the glorious incarnation of God, as Rossetti’s words proclaim:

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate
Jesus Christ

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. We enter into this winter season with a call to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. God is coming to dwell with us in the cold, the dark, the bleak winter. Incarnate in the form of a babe born in Bethlehem, God is with us. Not cold, nor snow, nor darkness can hold back the God of love born to us this season.

May you feel the warmth of the One to come this cold winter.


November 16, 2021

I am tired of politics. Merely saying that will be construed by some to be a partisan statement. The rancor and division in our society corrode every relationship and infect every community that seek to build bridges across human differences. And now we approach Thanksgiving with its compulsory small talk with Aunt Vivian and Cousin Edgar. May mutual forbearing dwell upon your Thanksgiving Feast.

Over the past week, I have had two conversations with two very different friends who both suggested essentially the same solution to our problem of political polarization. When you get the same advice from one of your most conservative and one of your most liberal friends, pay attention. God is trying to tell you something. Their advice, although expressed differently, came down to this. Instead of using up all your energy arguing with a system, practice, or policy with which you disagree, perhaps vehemently, stop. Stop fighting against. Instead, redirect your energy, imagination, intelligence, and love towards making a better alternative. Instead of banging your head on the gates of that community that will not listen, just start creating a new one, a different one, a better one.

Creativity, even when it fails to create the outcome we desire, is vastly healthier for our hearts and our souls than endless opposition. How we use language has a habit of becoming how we relate to people. Do we use our words to argue, criticize, or belittle, or do we use them to discover, support, encourage and build? When I was still in private legal practice, I loved the precision of words and argument, but I recognized the trap that I was slowly using all language as a means to get what I wanted. It is an insidious trap. We presume that our hearts define our behaviors, but often it is the other way round. So, if you have to choose tearing down or building up, understand that even if they are otherwise equally valid strategies for change, you will pay a price for choosing opposition.

At Thanksgiving this was ultimately the pilgrim’s option. Other puritans in England were embroiled in endless conflict with the crown that would only end in chaos and destruction of the English Civil War. The pilgrims followed an altogether different strategy seeking only to withdraw and create a new community first in the Netherlands and then in Massachusetts.

One of my friends pointed out that creating a new social reality rather than opposition to the old reality was the characteristic that defined the early church. In Jesus’ and Paul’s time, there were lots of angry people trying to change the system. And in the Roman Empire there was a lot that needed changing. But neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor anyone in the early church sought direct confrontation with Rome or any of its minions. Certainly, they had ample grounds to criticize. But outside of Revelation, that is not where they invested their energy. They ignored the dominant system and instead invested their time, labor, and love in creating new systems, new communities, that we would eventually call the church. And people came flocking to them.

If Jesus could persuade Matthew the former tax farmer for the Romans and Simon the former Zealot to work together, then maybe we can persuade liberals and conservatives, not to agree, but to help build a better community. So, instead of asking people their opinions at Thanksgiving, what might happen if we asked people how they might be willing to make a better world?

November 9, 2021

I am a hypocrite. It is a common human condition. I practice deep breathing, centering prayer, and the Jesus prayer. I get to bed early, eat my fiber, and floss. I urge everyone to follow the 46th Psalm, “Be Still and Know that I am God.” I try to follow it and live by its comforting assurance, except when I don’t.

Unbeknownst to me, our dishwasher broke sometime on Friday. Specifically, the water line started leaking where it connected to the unit. Because our dishwasher sits an inch below tile of our kitchen, gravity carried the water elsewhere. There was no telling puddle in the kitchen. Instead, a few days later, there was an ambiguous puddle in the basement and our main closet carpet developed a unique bouquet. We now share our home with nine industrial air handler units and two gargantuan dehumidifiers with probe tubes inserted into every joist and cranny. Parts of our home look like they have been assimilated by the Borg. But that is not the real problem. The entire home now sounds in both frequency and volume like the inside of a jetliner’s turbofan. They assure me that everything will be dry in four or five days of continuous operation.

Some distractions in life are impossible to ignore. Some stressors, like wondering if your floor will collapse, should not be disregarded. We are material creatures living in a material world, not idealized spirits traversing an ethereal realm. That means matter matters. This discomforting, intrusive, and annoyingly humbling lesson has been repeated over and over again for us in the past 21 months.

Sometimes the world just happens to us. Trying to maintain quiet calm in a silent room is easy. Trying to maintain equanimity inside cacophony is impossible. There is enormous benefit to be gained by learning how to hold stress at a distance from your inner self. But sometimes, what you really need is physical distance.

I have always been impressed at the times and ways Jesus separates himself from all the conflicting demands and expectations projected onto him—at the beginning of his ministry, before turning towards Jerusalem, and of course during that final night in the garden. Mary and Joseph, politically astute observers of Israelite politics, knew when to hightail it down to Egypt avoiding the wave of violence that swept over Egypt upon the death of Herod the Great. Jeremiah, David, Moses, Amos, and the entire host of the Exodus among others, all had the good sense to get out of where they were when things got too hairy. Sometimes, when facing duress, the best thing we can do is go somewhere else.

I pause. I breathe. I recite the 46th Psalm. It does not work. The blank white WORD page stares back eagerly expectant, but disappointed. There is too much noise. What is that smell? Too many worries and way too much sensation demand may attention. And I suspect that is where many of us have been for far too long.

Just remember, God is with us wherever we go. Maybe we flee to another country. Maybe like me you flee to Dairy Queen. God is there too. The test of faith is not one’s ability to endure stress. Sometimes the real test of faith is whether you are willing to move and change. God does not want us to be miserable. God wants us to flourish. Sometimes, in order to do that you need to be willing to leave the familiar and strike out for a new place or maybe just a different place.

There are still quiet places out there where you can hear yourself think and perhaps a still soft voice still whispering. You may need hiking boots, GPS, and a water bottle to find them, but they still exist. You will always need the courage to value yourself highly enough to go at all. That is all self-care is: the courage to honor God’s creation and God’s creature.

November 2, 2021

Monday, November 1, was All Saints’ Day. We often treat it as a time to remember those who have died in the past year sort of like a communal Christian Yahrzeit. And every family that has experienced loss this year will remember, give thanks, and grieve in their own way. For me, it is a day to remember the body of Christ expressed in millions of messed up, ordinary women and men down through the past twenty centuries. They are not all saints because they were especially holy or virtuous, let alone sinless. They were saints because of the hope they held in common that oriented their lives in ways big and small. They were saints because God was at work in them, even when others, even when they themselves could not perceive it.

Saints are too often imagined as impossibly good women and men who did amazingly selfless things all the time. That caricature has done far more harm than good by separating them from us. All Saints’ Day is not limited to ascetic virtuosos and spiritual prodigies. Instead, it is about us. All of us. All Saints’ is the one day in the Christian calendar that is not about the life of Jesus. It is about all the days of all of us who try–often failingly, provisionally, and reluctantly–to follow Jesus. All Saints’ is a celebration of the beautiful, confusing messiness of being human and the quiet steady urge to become something more.

The saints were not saints. They were up to their halos in moral contradictions, oppressive systems, abuses of power, gross inequalities, and sometimes astonishing evil. My beloved posse of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, John Cassian, Origen, Dionysius the Areopagite, Teresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Gregory of Palamas, Symeon the New Theologian, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, Edith Stein, and Simone Weil, were all highly opinionated, occasionally misanthropic, often misogynistic, prejudiced, and proud. But they all taught me across the centuries. I could feel their hearts’ yearnings align with mine. They are a sharp-tongued, argumentative lot, but I love them because I felt their love for me through the little notes they left behind for all who might follow after.

The often shabby parade of saints is all around us. Consider who has changed your life and your faith? Who has given you hope? Who has given you courage? Who brought you a pizza on that darkest night? Who offered to stay late and hear you out that time you just needed someone to listen? Who saw in you a possibility that you could never have seen yourself? That person is a saint. I hope you can name lots of them. They were not perfect. Nothing in this creation is perfect. But everything and everyone in this creation can become a part of God’s perfection of all things. Everything and everyone can participate in the healing of creation, one life at a time.

Martin Luther coined a phrase, “simul justus et peccator,” which means “simultaneously a sinner and a saint.” It captures the profoundly odd paradox of simultaneously being of God and the world at the same time. We are the redeemed and those in need of redemption. We are the patients and the healers. We are the living crucibles of sin and grace in which Spirit encounters flesh. There are no prizes for perfection that we will never attain, only the compassion that comes from empathy and mutual understanding of how much we try and how badly we often fail.

God meets us as us and in us not in some perfected angelic world, but in this messed up one. The whole creation thing suggests that God got rather bored with the angelic world and decided instead to go slumming with us. So, we struggle, slouch, and strive together on the pilgrim’s way, saints with slightly dented halos and robes stained with the blood and mud of creaturely life. We do not celebrate our perfection that is so obviously lacking. We celebrate the shared impulse that calls us out, calls us together, and nudges us forward. We do not celebrate saintliness. We celebrate grace.

October 26, 2021

Since the beginning of Covid in March, 2020, I have spent a lot of time in my home office. If you have participated in any of our online classes or meetings over the past 20 months you have seen it. The walls around my desk, just outside of the camera angle, are covered with swords. Admittedly, it is not the most common collector’s item. When I write Beside Still Waters, as I am doing now, just above the computer monitor hang a shamshir, arming sword, hand and half sword, and a Victorian saber. To my right hang a spatha, spadroon, and mortuary sword. To my left hang a rapier, basket hilted broadsword, Hungarian saber, gladius, and a shirasaya. The only sword I have ever actually used on human beings, my old fencing epee, lies on a shelf behind me. I keep them around not as weapons, but as symbols. Starting in late antiquity, the sword became identified in Christendom with the protection of the community, justice, as well as both clarity and purity of purpose.

While I share all those chivalrous associations, swords’ symbolic meaning is a bit more utilitarian for me. My swords are all made out of high carbon steel. High carbon steel will bend without breaking. If it is spring tempered, by repeatedly heating and hammering it, the steel becomes elastic—always resuming its original shape after bending. Some can literally be bent 45 degrees and snap right back into shape. Most knives in your home are made out of stainless steel. It is very practical requiring no special care. And since most kitchen knives rarely encounter anything harder than a spaghetti squash, their elasticity does not really matter. But if a high carbon blade ever made full contact with a stainless steel blade, the stainless one would shatter. Stainless steel is very pretty, very low maintenance, but very brittle. High carbon blades on the other hand require care and attention. They are prone to rust without proper care. You need to oil or wax them regularly. With proper care, they will last for centuries.

After 20 months of pandemic, epidemic, endemic, or whatever you call this, we all expected things would be easier. We all wanted and anticipated a return to normalcy to our lives and our world that never seems to come. It is so easy to get lost in the anxiety and the grief. It is so easy to despair. Then I look around at my swords. They were created for conflict and adversity. They were made to bend, but not break. Flexibility is their greatest strength always returning to their original form no matter the duress. They remind me that is how we all were made, not for a perfect world but this adverse one, built to bend but not break. And then I remember that this rare quality is hard won. Spring tempered carbon steel is made by pounding, pounding, pounding. It is the adversity over time that makes us flexible. No one is simply born with it. After all that, it still requires attentive care. You need to scour away the rusty bits before they spread and regularly apply protective coatings just like I need to keep an eye on my anxieties and grief and prevent its spread through those things that protect my spirit: rest, prayer, learning, friends, good food, and most of all love. It may not look all that impressive on Facebook, not shiny like stainless steel or silver, but such a life is strong.

The days grow shorter. The leaves fall. We approach the second winter of our discontent unbowed, unbent, and unbroken. Take care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself and other people. The world will take care of the pounding on its own. You are already stronger than you realize. You will bend back.

October 26, 2021

Since the beginning of Covid in March, 2020, I have spent a lot of time in my home office. If you have participated in any of our online classes or meetings over the past 20 months you have seen it. The walls around my desk, just outside of the camera angle, are covered with swords. Admittedly, it is not the most common collector’s item. When I write Beside Still Waters, as I am doing now, just above the computer monitor hang a shamshir, arming sword, hand and half sword, and a Victorian saber. To my right hang a spatha, spadroon, and mortuary sword. To my left hang a rapier, basket hilted broadsword, Hungarian saber, gladius, and a shirasaya. The only sword I have ever actually used on human beings, my old fencing epee, lies on a shelf behind me. I keep them around not as weapons, but as symbols. Starting in late antiquity, the sword became identified in Christendom with the protection of the community, justice, as well as both clarity and purity of purpose.

While I share all those chivalrous associations, swords’ symbolic meaning is a bit more utilitarian for me. My swords are all made out of high carbon steel. High carbon steel will bend without breaking. If it is spring tempered, by repeatedly heating and hammering it, the steel becomes elastic—always resuming its original shape after bending. Some can literally be bent 45 degrees and snap right back into shape. Most knives in your home are made out of stainless steel. It is very practical requiring no special care. And since most kitchen knives rarely encounter anything harder than a spaghetti squash, their elasticity does not really matter. But if a high carbon blade ever made full contact with a stainless steel blade, the stainless one would shatter. Stainless steel is very pretty, very low maintenance, but very brittle. High carbon blades on the other hand require care and attention. They are prone to rust without proper care. You need to oil or wax them regularly. With proper care, they will last for centuries.

After 20 months of pandemic, epidemic, endemic, or whatever you call this, we all expected things would be easier. We all wanted and anticipated a return to normalcy to our lives and our world that never seems to come. It is so easy to get lost in the anxiety and the grief. It is so easy to despair. Then I look around at my swords. They were created for conflict and adversity. They were made to bend, but not break. Flexibility is their greatest strength always returning to their original form no matter the duress. They remind me that is how we all were made, not for a perfect world but this adverse one, built to bend but not break. And then I remember that this rare quality is hard won. Spring tempered carbon steel is made by pounding, pounding, pounding. It is the adversity over time that makes us flexible. No one is simply born with it. After all that, it still requires attentive care. You need to scour away the rusty bits before they spread and regularly apply protective coatings just like I need to keep an eye on my anxieties and grief and prevent its spread through those things that protect my spirit: rest, prayer, learning, friends, good food, and most of all love. It may not look all that impressive on Facebook, not shiny like stainless steel or silver, but such a life is strong.

The days grow shorter. The leaves fall. We approach the second winter of our discontent unbowed, unbent, and unbroken. Take care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself and other people. The world will take care of the pounding on its own. You are already stronger than you realize. You will bend back.

October 19, 2021

Many human beings are not at their very best right now. People are tired, frustrated, and anxious. Many are grieving the loss of important moments over the past year and hopes for the next. Many are grieving the loss of important people in their lives. Lurking among all the griefs is the ever-present companion of anxiety, the inchoate fear that something, anything could go wrong. Another virus outbreak is always just a single virus mutation away. So, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Anxiety and grief rarely make us better people. Sometimes they cripple us. At other times they deform us into something less than we could be. Far too often, we utterly fail to recognize or address these powerful, insidious feelings welling deep within us. Unaddressed, unconsidered, and unprocessed they fester somewhere beneath conscious thought slowly metastasizing into paralyzing fear and anger. It does not take a gifted sociologist to notice the anxiety and anger swirling all around us right now. Unsolicited criticism, impatience, passive aggressive digs, less than charitable judgments, shame, and occasional outbursts of rage all abound. Today I saw it at a checkout line. The absence of a single order of French fries is a disappointment that can be easily rectified. It does not justify an explosion of anger, invective, and cruelty. French fries are simply not that significant. Only deep unaddressed hurt can propel that kind of fury.

For most otherwise mentally stable people, anger is always a symptom of hurt. And anxiety is a symptom of our own fears. We rarely go down to the subbasements of our hearts to consider those hurts and fears. They are too tender. We do not like to share them with others, afraid of further pain or shame. And we often fail to consider them in ourselves. That kind of self-examination takes too much courage. So, we prefer denial, rationalizations, and blame, anything except dealing with our own pain. But pain that is not transformed will be transmitted and anxiety that is not transmuted will be transferred. So instead of doing something about their cause, we take these darker feelings and throw them at others hoping that somehow something will stick and bring us relief. But have you noticed that getting angry at others rarely takes away one’s own pain? Spreading anxiety with friends and family rarely makes us feel safer although it can make us lonelier. At best, we now suffer in the company of others.

So how do you deal with pain? As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “Knowing where the trap is—that’s the first step in evading it.” Ask yourself, where is it, what is it connected to, who is it connected to, when did it begin, how does it feel, and what does it lead me to do or not do? Tenderly probing its shape and dimension, our pain takes concrete form in our minds. And once pain becomes a clear idea, then it both loses some of its insidious power over us and permits us to begin little healing mind experiments. What brings some relief? What do we need to do to avoid provoking it? And most importantly, what actual events (not thoughts) ease the pain? This requires careful attention to notice as pain goes up and down during the day, but observation will show you what works for you.

Similarly, the key to transmuting fear is attention. What is it precisely that I am afraid of? Is that fear rational or just an illusion? Do I know this to be a threat for certain? What triggers my fear? Did someone else infect me with it? Does this fear belong to someone else? What is the worst that can happen and what is this fear preventing me from doing or not doing? Again, through attention, fear takes on form that can be acted upon, moderated, and eventually brought back to its proper dimensions of a health sense of self preservation. Again, I quote from Herbert (can you tell I am excited about the new Dune movie?): “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

What we call sin is simply alienation from God, others, and our selves. Sin is a problem of separation and denial of our true selves more than an issue of morality. Sin gets expressed most commonly in the human experiences of pain and fear. Fear and pain are universal human experiences because that underlying separation is a universal human condition. Sin is an alien force that corrupts us in our most hidden and vulnerable depths. Naughty things we may have done and good things we fail to do are not sin, they may however be the consequences or symptoms of sin. The tool that the church has provided us for dealing with sin, at least from the human side of things, is the practice of confession that simply unearths it all and brings what longs to remain hidden out into the light.

When we say we confess our sin, we do not mean that we recite a long list of naughty things we have done (although depending on your industry you may want to do that as well). When we say we confess sin to God, what we really mean is paying this careful, particular attention to the pain and fear that keep us separate and apart. Confession literally means speaking your truth, not contrition or regret. When we acknowledge and address our pain, it is a sort of creed, an assertion of who we really are in our messed-up lives, and a declaration of hope that in speaking or perhaps whispering our truth someone is listening and will begin the process of healing. Confession robs sin of its pernicious power. Confession is simply attention and often the first step to healing. And all it requires, indeed the essence of all prayer, is simply sincere attention.

The cure for sin, pain, and fear from our end of creation is simply honest, unblinking truth. Confession only hurts sin, not you. So speak your truth. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32.

October 12, 2021

One thing I miss about Fall in Minnesota are Birch forests. Along the North Shore of Lake Superior, whole forests of Paper Birch carpet the stony basalt hillsides jutting down to the icy clear water. In the Autumn, the leaves turn a pale golden color. Midway through the seasonal change, the ground is completely covered by a pale golden canopy above held up by great white tree trunks and a golden canopy beneath. For a few days every Fall, the light in a northern birch forest takes on an ethereal quality of pure gold. Everything shimmers with golden iridescence. It is what I imagine the light of heaven looks like.

Nature does two important things for our spirits that may at first seem contradictory, but if you can hold them together at the same time, you are well on your way to true perception and wisdom. First, nature reminds us that we are not so very important. Before a mountain, an ocean, or even an old growth forest, we are nothing. Our plans, ambitions, hopes, fears, pains, and memories, fade before their vastness, complexity, gravity, and depth. In the power of weather, wind, rock, and wave, our own agency disappears into the limit of nothingness. The ocean pulses to its own tidal rhythms regardless of all out intentions. Nature is the ultimate reminder that in the vast scheme of things, our precious egos around which we construct lives, cultures, and civilizations count for precisely nothing.

Downgrading our fondest ambitions is never comfortable but is of the essence for spiritual growth. The central tenet of all monotheism is that there is a God, and He/She/It is not me or you. Sadly, too many people get this confused, which leads to all sorts of pain. Nature is the ready antidote always willing to remind and reframe that you are nothing. Curiously, this lesson is not painful or insulting, but somehow comforting because of nature’s second lesson.

You and I are nothing. And we belong to everything. The spirituality of nature offers a deeper lesson beyond our egos and their constant obsession with control. If you let go of control, if you simply behold, you will discover a curious perception that while we may be nothing, we belong to everything. Most people experience this as a pronounced emotional feeling of awe, a need to drop to one’s knees, and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and joy. You look to your own hands and cannot quite tell where they end and the mountains or the waves begin. You begin to empathically perceive the interconnectedness of all things. The clear lines of definition and separation begin to blur as the boundary between me and the world gets fuzzy and all suffused by an ethereal golden light.

I do not believe that nature offers us definitive answers to our spiritual seeking, but it can provide a doorway into deeper mysteries. Nature can realign our perception away from all our attachments towards the tendrils of belonging that provide the ground of our being and becoming. Holding these twin revelations—I am nothing and I belong to everything—not as logical deductions, but simply lived experiences of embodied truth, we are offered an entry point into the deeps where even the nonreligious may encounter God.

I am not a nature mystic. I do not think that nature is a church or can reveal all we need to know. Nature is profoundly amoral. But it can teach us the first and perhaps most important lesson that on our own we do not count for so very much, but in our belonging and connection, we are a part of everything.

When I walk among the ghostly white birch trees and their golden tresses and flaxen carpets, I am reminded that I too will let go one day. I too will die. But I am not afraid. I belong. When the leaf realizes it is actually the forest, it loses all fear.


October 5, 2021

Psalms: Prayers of the Heart

This autumn we will fall into the comfort and familiarity of the songs of God’s people – the Psalms. For the months of October and November we will be preaching from the Psalms. Our canon – our Bible – contains 150 psalms but there were other songs and prayers of the Hebrew people in the form of the psalms.

We know the beloved psalms such as Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) and Psalm 100 (Make a joyful noise to the Lord) but do we know the “heart of the sea” in Psalm 46 or the “hope of the ends of the earth” in Psalm 65 or God our “hiding place” in Psalm 32 or the great “Leviathan” in Psalm 104?

Through the sung prayers and poetry of the Psalms, we find our deepest yearnings voiced and our silent sufferings healed. The Psalms give us permission to be angry, to be sorrowful, to be joyful, to be humble, and to be thankful.

Together with these ancient writings of poetry and praise, we will see how the Psalms of God’s people speak truth to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

What is your favorite psalm? Why does it speak to your heart? How does that psalm inform your daily life? Do you sing the psalms or read them silently?

As a young adult I was drawn to Psalm 51, a psalm we usually read as part of our Lenten practice. I found comfort in the confessional nature of Psalm 51, a psalm attributed to King David when Nathan the Prophet called out David’s sin when he stole Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed in battle.

I promise I have not stolen anyone’s spouse nor had anyone killed but I do find Psalm 51 to be a healing and cleansing psalm for me when I am in need of a new beginning or a second chance. Psalm 51 speaks magnificently to me of God’s grace and redemption.

Join us in embracing the words and the prayers of the Psalms as we hear the laments and joys of God’s people.

Pastor Kelley

September 28, 2021

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley

An uncomfortable truth that we prefer to ignore is that very little we do in this life remains very long. Our friends and families will remember us for a generation or two. If you make some extraordinary contribution people will remember you for a few centuries. If you hurt a lot of people, you may be remembered for a few centuries more. If you really want to be remembered, giant monuments help (King Zoser still has his pyramid). The most ancient known individual we can name is a Mesopotamian from Uruk named Kushim who appears to have been involved in barley distribution around 3400 BC, but an accounting ledger is not exactly a rich biography. For the vast majority of all the human beings who have ever lived, we are forgotten by history.

One of the hardest lessons that time teaches us is the vanity of our pride and ambitions. Ecclesiastes asks us, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” 1 Peter answers the question, “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man is the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away.” Or as Shakespeare put it at the end of Cymbeline, “The scepter, learning, physic, must all follow this, and come to dust.”

What we do matters a great deal proximately to our selves and those closest to us. But as we recede in time and space, all our deeds matter less and less. And all our anxieties and shames, especially that we have not done enough, worked enough, loved enough, and achieved enough disappear in the scale of eternity.

Existentialists have grappled with these cold facts for a century. Indeed, if you gaze too deeply it will drive one to despair (witness the lifestyles of existentialists if you do not believe me). But there is an alternative foundation for our identity and destiny. Instead of centering ourselves on doing we can center ourselves on being.

Being is not the opposite of doing. Being is the firm foundation for all right action. Being is rooted not in desire and will (that usually get us into trouble), but rather in belonging. We are who are in connection with others, and we experience and develop a sense of self in relationship with others. We are who we are in the thick web of belonging, both with other people, the world around us, and other far more durable foundations.

Blaise Pascal once observed that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” By that he meant that human beings have a hard time centering ourselves on being rather than doing. But being seems to be exactly what God had in mind in a garden a very long time ago. God seems at best mildly amused with all our doings (consider Babel).
One would think that being would be a far more attractive option for human identity. The problem is that our egos get in the way. Being is a gift, not an accomplishment. We derive no egoic satisfaction from being. So, we go off looking for things to control and achieve.

Being is so much simpler. Genesis describes us as being made in the image and likeness of God, not accomplishing tasks similar to God’s. Our true identity is not something we earn, achieve, or build. It is a gift. It is all a gift. And a gift does not require accomplishment, it simply requires acceptance.

Sitting quietly, knowing in your deepest essence who you are and whose you are and accepting that as the greatest gift is the foundation from which all right action, all right doing emerges. What we do must be the expression of who we are, not the other way around or we are all in deep trouble. The gift of being, infinite love giving itself away in and as this moment is both the ultimate expression of reality and the only durable foundation for our identities. We are who we truly are only in God not in our accomplishments.

As I have gotten older, I have discarded many desires and let go of many ambitions that did not belong to me. Each one was a beautiful trap for the unwary and the proud. Life disabused me of my pride, but then something else from somewhere else invited me into something so much better. Beyond all our proud strivings is a still point of being that cannot be moved. It is the strong fortress that the psalmist spoke of, the warm place where being emerges from belonging sheltered beneath the mother eagle’s wing. We do not need to worry about eternity because we rest in one who is eternity.

It is all so simple.

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still


September 21, 2021

Last week I shared a bit about how participation seems to be the central idea holding most Christian doctrine and spirituality together. The early Christians called this Methexis, borrowing the term from Greek theater for when the audience participated in the action on stage or the music. That can all sound rather abstract. A reasonable question is how exactly does one participate in or with God. The answer is simple: imitation.

In order to explain the shape of Christian life, the early church borrowed another idea from Greek art: mimesis. Mimesis literally means imitation (actually it is the root of our word imitation and mimic). More specifically it refers to the inner beauty, pattern, and order of something that human beings try to imitate in our artistic representations. So, a marble statue of a discus thrower tries to imitate (mimesis) something of the original athlete’s balance, strength, and striving. The early church fathers borrowed this idea to explain the nature of Christian life. We are all called to participate in and through God by imitation, specifically imitating the expression of God in human life we call Jesus the Christ.

It is hard to think about, let alone understand, God in God’s own self, but we do not have to. We know God in and through God in the flesh as one of us. Imitating Jesus is imitating God as much as any human being can. This suggests’ that Jesus whole life, not just his oral teachings, was meant as a lesson for humanity on how to be a human being. Some in the church focus on what Jesus said. Others focus on what Jesus did. The ancient church taught they were inseparable and the whole of Jesus’ life, everything he did and said, is a guide for us in how to be what we are meant to be.

Imitation of course is not duplication. In music, imitation is one way a musician learns to play. But she or he will never play exactly the saw way as the original performer. Instead, tiny little differences creep in. These differences are why all imitation is a form of improvisation. We make the imitation our own. Imitation without improvisation is called a recording.

Think of Jesus like a jazz band leader. He lays out his rhythm for us to follow and a few key phrases for the melody. Then it is up to us to develop the themes on our own instruments in our own time. A piano, a saxophone, and a trumpet will all imitate in different ways, each contributing something to the whole. We are all imitating the bandleader, but we are all necessarily doing so in our own way. When it works, improvisational music is richer and deeper than it could have been in the beginning. Even when mistakes are made and dissonant notes played, they can all be skillfully worked into the theme with even deeper harmonies.

There are lots of discordant notes in our lives and in our world. Pain, suffering, cruelty, and death seem to get the last word. But what if all those dissonances were merely the material out of which a deeper harmony is woven? What if our calling is simply to imitate the band leader and make something beautiful out of all the notes, even those we never wanted? No one can tell until the end of the song.

I do not know what God wants of me. But I can try to imitate Jesus (with the emphasis on try not can). And that imitation may not only be the key to a good life, it may actually be the objective way to encounter God. When Jesus said in John 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me,” maybe he was not talking about how we should be thinking about him. Maybe Jesus was telling us to imitate him.


September 14, 2021

Concerning Participation

The one idea that holds my faith and spirituality together is participation in, by, through, and with God and others. Participation makes sense of everything else in my theology. Creation, in the image of God, is the original stamp of and invitation to that participation. Love and grace are our experiences of the bond that fuses us into that participation. Sin is the separation that rejects participation. Redemption is the loosening of other bonds as we lose ourselves in that participation. Atonement is God’s sweeping invitation pulling us into the vast dance of participation in Trinity through Christ. Election is our standing invitation and nudging instinct that we were made for participation. Salvation is losing oneself in that ecstatic (literally being beyond yourself) participation through Christ. The church is the social expression of that shared participation in community. And Trinity is simply the title we give to God to acknowledge that God in God’s own self is participation, belonging, and communion.

In spirituality, participation makes sense of prayer where prayer rightly understood is direct communion with God’s love giving itself away in and as this moment. Participation in God is what gives us that uncanny sense of wonder and awe because it is always and necessarily beyond every human understanding. Participation is always experienced as losing oneself in bigger and bigger realms of wonder and being. Participation is what grounds human life in hope knowing that our life in and through God cannot be shaken or undone by anything in this creation because its foundations are far deeper than creation itself. Participation explains why we have such an affinity for creativity, beauty, and the arts striving to participate in our own way in God’s creative work as subcreators. Finally, participation suggests that human life and growth do not end at death, but continue into an eternal progression of greater intimacy, connection, awareness, and sharing with God. What we do today to participate in God, no matter how mundane, resounds unto eternity.

Participation is not some flaky notion that we become God. Humans are creatures (created beings) and some days, I do not even do that so well. Creatures do not become God. Instead, we are invited to participate in divinity. This is how Paul and the very earliest Christians understood Christ’s work in our lives and in our world. Growing up I was told that what mattered was having “faith in Jesus” citing Galatians 2:16 and other texts. It was only when I started reading the Greek text that I realized that same phrase could be better translated as “faith of Jesus.” In other words, what matters are not the assertions and assumptions that I make about who Jesus is, but rather Jesus’ own trust and intimacy with God. We are justified and we are ultimately saved not because of what we believe (which is probably wrong anyway), but rather because of how Jesus trusts and who he is as son. So, when we participate in him, we are of necessity participating in God. This also explains all the convoluted transitive grammar about Jesus being in God and us being in Jesus. Jesus both came to show us how to do this in his teaching and then made it possible through his death and resurrection for even gentiles like us to now belong and participate.

Through participation, faith is not assenting to a bunch of assertions. Faith is trusting relationship and giving oneself over to the divine dance. One of my favorite ancient thinkers, Gregory of Nyssa introduced the notion of methexis into Christian life. Methexis is a term from ancient Greek theater for when the entire audience would join in with the players on stage and improvise a scene or a song together. We are like that audience invited to join in with what God is doing. Jesus taught us the themes of how to be truly human. Now God is inviting us to join in the cosmic participatory jam session. Centuries later, another of my favorite thinkers Owen Barfield (J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s longtime friend and drinking buddy, Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was written for Barfield’s daughter Lucy), picked up this notion in describing human life as the wilderness between original and final participation. For Barfield, as for Gregory and for Paul, the destiny of human life is full, final, conscious, participative belonging in God.

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27). “[Y]ou belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Corinthians 3:23). “[A]ll things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. (John 17:10). “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1). “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20). Too often we treat these and other verses like them as metaphors. But what if they are actual descriptions of who we are, and who we may yet be in Christ?

All we have to lose is our bondage. All we have to gain is . . . everything.


September 7, 2021

I returned late last night from a wonderful family visit to Oregon with every intention of writing about participation as the organizing theme of Christian spirituality.

And then I came into the office this morning.

In the past fortnight, four beloved members of our congregation died. It made all too real the ubiquitous sense of grief that seems to hang like a dank pall over our world right now. So tonight, I think of them and their smiles. I think on my own memories of conversations with them and their kindnesses, humor, wisdom, and curiosities. And then I hold up all those who loved them in their pain and grief hoping that somehow, in holding them before the light of God’s radiant love, their pain would be diminished and grief lessened. But I know too well that grief will not be ignored or denied. Our God has an annoying habit of not relieving us from pain, but rather companioning us through it. Saint Teresa of Avila is attributed to have quipped in prayer, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, perhaps it explains why you have so few.”

Grief is everywhere and infecting everyone. For some, like the family members of those who have died, grief takes on the sharp, tearing sensation of trauma. For others, it is like a chronic ache. Time does not heal all wounds. Some we just learn to live with. For still others, grief is diffused, not anchored to one particular loss, rather omnipresent as it slowly saps life of its color and flavor. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis observed, “Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” (A Grief Observed)

Grief manifests itself in the infinite diversity of human beings and forms of loss. Unfortunately, too often we tend to evaluate, measure, or judge grief, both our own and others’. There is no “right” measure of grief. It is at best futile and more likely hurtful to even compare. No good has ever come from trying to comfort another person with any sentence beginning, “Well, at least . . . “

Our society’s preferred response to grief is denial. Get over it. Get on with it. Buck up. The problem is that grief is not a personal emotion to be controlled so much as an outside force that refuses our bidding. It can overtake us in an instant like a tsunami that thrusts aside every other sensation, thought, or feeling, sometimes literally taking our breath away. At the least convenient of times, it intrudes unbidden making a mess of our well laid plans. And more ominously, grief denied tends to metastasize into boundless anger at others and ourselves. We can see symptoms of this anger/rage all too clearly in our society.

I would like to offer a simple panacea for our pains. I cannot. Loss comes for the just and the unjust. God does not relieve, rescue, or extract us from the pain. Lewis remarked, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” A cursory reading of scripture reveals that the most devoted of God’s servants avoided none of the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune. Instead, they went through it. The only thing to do with suffering is suffer through it. But we do not do so alone.

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I know you are hurting right now. Our community, nation, and world are hurting. The causes may seem petty to others or titanic. It does not matter. You are not imagining it. There is no deserving or undeserving. Your pain is your pain. And it is all too real, but not really a thing that can be measured and mapped, let alone quantified or controlled. It is more of a process or a journey that must be undergone not according to a calendar or preordained route, but simply followed.

Of all the world’s religions, none save Christianity equate the full revelation of God with pain, humiliation, suffering, and death. The honest truth is I have not even begun to penetrate the depths of that mystery. But one thing I do know for certain. In the depths of loss and grief, we are not alone. When we lose everything, we are found. Sometimes in grief it feels like we are walking in circles, and perhaps we are. But we may also be walking up or down a great spiral that leads to somewhere, something, someone I could not find on my own.

I do not close with a blessing to be delivered from all pain, which I know would be not merely a lie, but quite likely blasphemy. Instead, I can only offer this which may be far more. May Jesus companion you along your way until you find your rest in him.

August 31, 2021

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur Ambulando is a Latin phrase that in its simplest form means “It is solved by walking.” On a practical level this phrase refers to anything that is solved by a practical demonstration or experiment. On a deeper level the phrase has taken on a more spiritual meaning, referring to the practice of walking as prayer or spiritual discipline in order to clear one’s mind or spirit.

In my early years of ordained ministry, I struggled to identify a practice of spiritual discipline that felt like “home” to me. The common practices of journaling or writing or fasting or meditative prayer were more difficult for me.
Of course, all spiritual practices are difficult and require a commitment of heart, mind, and soul; and even more importantly, a commitment of time.

But the desire and the time were not the stumbling block for me. It was the form of the spiritual practice that was a struggle. Silent, meditative prayer in a dark space does not speak “peace” to me! I do not like to close my eyes when I pray. I am much more deeply drawn to open-eyed prayer than closed-eye prayer. And, “silent” and “still” are not words with which any of my closest friends would describe me. I am a verbal processor and not very “silent.” And I rarely hold my hands or feet still even when I am sitting. I prefer all things visual and verbal and tangible and kinetic!

And so, even in my younger years, I began to be drawn to movement as spiritual practice, and specifically the practice of walking. I vastly preferred walking to biking or walking to driving if time and distance allowed. And on those long neighborhood walks to school or back home or just for the joy of taking a walk, I began to find my voice in prayer. I found something deeply grounding in the practice of walking. I felt a wholeness of body, mind, and spirit that I rarely found anywhere else.

My spiritual practice of walking and hiking continues today. Visually, the unmatched beauty of creation centers me for prayer and draws me to my Creator. Kinetically, I feel God’s presence in the miracle of my body; muscles, bones, skin, and organs all moving together to remind me that I am human. Verbally, I find a freedom outdoors to lift my voice in prayer or song, even with the occasional glance of a passerby. And tangibly, I can touch the leaves and trees and ground with my hands and feet, and feel the wind and sun upon my skin. Prayer has become for me an act of place and movement. With all of my senses, I am in prayer with God.

I recently applied to a hiking challenge called Over 50 Outdoors for women fifty years old and over that is sponsored by an outdoor program called the 52 Hike Challenge (www.52hikechallenge.com). I was delighted to be chosen as one of 150 women from across the United States who have covenanted to hike once a week for a year and stay connected with each other through monthly meetings and online apps and social media. There is such a spiritual bond already among the women despite our distance apart and our different life stories.

Will you join me this year in hiking as a spiritual practice or a community act? Maybe you already walk in your neighborhood or in a local indoor mall. Maybe you walk alone or with friends or family. Maybe you hike in some of the amazing metro parks in the Dayton area. Or maybe you take a short stroll around your yard or up and down your driveway. All of these are wonderful ways to “solvitur ambulando.”

I will be leading quarterly church hikes this year – autumn, winter, spring, and summer – for all ages and paces of our church family. I hope you will consider joining me in walking as a spiritual practice as we grow together as God’s people. Watch the newsletter, bulletin, and weekly emails for upcoming details on our church hikes.

Peace to you,


August 24, 2021

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity…
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Psalm 133:1-2

Kindred. A beautiful word. A soul word.

I just returned from a trip to Oklahoma visiting my beloved kindred – my mom, my dad, and my brothers – for the first time since the pandemic! I had not seen my family in-person for a very long time. Many tears of joy were shed!

It was so comforting and natural to be “home” again. Mom fixed our favorite meals, dad and I walked each morning, and my brothers and I laughed to the point of tears. There is healing in being with our kindred, our beloved people. No matter the distance or the passage of time, kindred connect in deeper, unspoken ways. Our belonging almost feels eternal. As the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”

We are kindred, dear Fairmont folk! We are family and we belong to one another. It is easy to forget in the midst of a still unknown and unfamiliar “post pandemic” way of being the Body of Christ that we are kindred. It may be more difficult to feel our deeper connections when we are divided among three different worship venues – 8:30 a.m. service, 10:30 a.m. service, and live-streaming – but we are kindred! We belong to God and we belong to one another. Our belonging is eternal and neither pandemic nor social distancing nor online programming can keep us from being beloved kindred of God!

Our summer days are soon coming to a close and we will celebrate the beginning of a new church year. Many of us have been scattered across the country this summer reconnecting with beloved kindred and finding a much needed sabbath break from work and responsibilities at home. And yet as summer moves into fall, we find a natural gravitation once again to be with those who are kindred, who are our beloved family. The family of God.

How very good and pleasant it is indeed when kindred dwell together in unity! I am grateful for you, beloved kindred, for the community and covenant we share as God’s people. Our time together – in worship, in bible study, in fellowship, in mission – is healing for me. May it be so for you.

Love and peace,


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.

And repeat.

And repeat.

In the spiritual classic, The Way of the Pilgrim, a seeker is told by a wise old teacher to go off and pray the Jesus prayer 5,000 times. He comes back and says he had not found God. He is told to go and pray the Jesus prayer 50,000 times. He comes back and says he had not found God. He is told to go and pray the Jesus prayer 500,000 times. Finally, after many days he returns to his teacher. He tells his teacher that although he did not find God, he noticed that at some point in the 500,000 prayers he stopped praying the prayer and the prayer started praying him. The teacher observed, perhaps you have not found God, but maybe now God has found you.

Prayer, rightly understood, is not us doing anything. Prayer, rightly understood, is God being God in and through us.


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.


Pastor Kelley

May 18, 2021

What holds a people together—culture, politics, fear, hope, law, love? Phrased differently, what makes a crowd a community? What is its special sauce? In the past two hundred years or so, at least since 1848, the most common answers have been some combination of shared national origin, common history, language, and culture that we call nationalism. But there are other older answers.

The ancient Hebrews were special in that they knew they were not special. Their self-understanding was that they descended not from demigods, but slaves in bondage in Egypt. What made them “special” was nothing in their pedigree or resume, but simply being chosen by a rather curious deity that one of them bumped into in the deserts of Midian. In time, that quality of “chosenness” took theological form in the covenant and social form in the law, the Torah, that informed their relationship with their God and with each other. To this day, Jews celebrate that relationship fifty days after Passover with the festival of Shavuot, celebrating Moses receiving the law on Sinai.

Focusing on whose you are as opposed to who you are was a novel turn in human history. But there were still more surprises. Sometimes I think God must be a jazz musician, taking old themes and reworking them in endless new variations, improvising them into something altogether new and surprising. Fifty days after one particular Passover in they year 30 or 33 something very odd happened. The pilgrimage crowds gathered together in Jerusalem for Shavuot like they did every year, but something had changed. God had taken that notion of chosenness and bumped it up to a whole new level. God had moved in and spent several years showing us, not just telling us, how to be human and be alive in ways we could not have imagined. Humans really have a hard time with that kind of intimacy with the divine, so we killed him. But he would not stay dead. And after that quantum fluctuation in creation things started changing. The crowd in Jerusalem perhaps had heard the rumors, but they now found themselves as full participants. You can tell that Luke is at the limits of his vocabulary as he describes something like a powerful wind followed by energy sort of like fire dancing among the people. This crowd drawn from the far corners of the ancient world, speaking a dozen or so languages, all began to understand each other as they experienced the gift of mutual comprehension. God was making a new community all over again.

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which sounds awfully churchy until you consider it functionally. The Holy Spirit is that power, potentiality, and potency that connects, relates, translates, informs, and binds together. The Spirit is not just the connector, but the connection itself between you and me and all of us and God. And right now, we are in rather urgent need of that mutual comprehension and connection. Emerging from our Covid lairs we are a rather prickly people right now. Feelings are raw and opinions abound with fury. Such an environment is not conducive to participating in the Spirit. So, I would like to make a modest proposal that may both heal some of our connections and be the means through which the Holy Spirit may come into our lives.

First, listen. Always listen first with ears directed outward in compassion rather than judgment or even thinking of what we want to say next. Let us set aside the complexities of politics and public health policy for the time. Instead, when you talk to someone ask them about something that brought them joy this week, what was something beautiful they beheld, what is one dream that they have, ask about their family, what is one question that they would so want answered, what is one thing that they would like to be known for, how do they show love to other people, how do they want to be loved, and that is just the warm up. Where have they felt pain in the past year? What have they lost? How, if at all, have they been able to honor their grief? What are they afraid of? How does that fear impact their life? What wounds do they carry that have never healed, just become a part of them? And then, what do they hope for the future? What might fulfill them? What would give them a sense of purpose, meaning, and value? These are just some of the questions that actually permit us to connect, to understand, to hold each other in mutual compassion, and, according to Jesus, begin to heal our wounds.

The Holy Spirit is not a neutral mindless force to be channeled. It/He/She is a person (technically speaking a hypostasis, don’t worry about it) who comes like all persons when invited, sneaking in where least resisted. And it settles whenever and wherever people connect, relate, and bond together just as it did in Jerusalem long ago. Invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit is not an esoteric mystery; it is the disciplined practice of love. And love is special sauce that God uses to hold us together with God and each other

May 11, 2021

The least recognized, most forgotten annual celebration in the church calendar is Ascension. In case you were not paying attention, it falls on this Thursday. On Easter Jesus rose from the dead and on Ascension he left. It comes as something of an anticlimax. Objectively, the only thing that Ascension tells us is that Jesus is not here. But we knew that already. So, let’s move on to Pentecost next week.

Except the thing that keeps niggling at me is what if Ascension, while it may not seem very important to us, might be important to God? We always assume that Jesus’ life and work is about us, but maybe we’re not the center of it all. What if Ascension is not about us, but about God? What if Ascension points to a deep change that we tend to ignore: a change in God.

Scripture and our creeds make a scandalous claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and then ascended bodily to God. We have a nasty habit of forgetting about bodies, both Jesus’ and ours. We much prefer a purely and conveniently divine Jesus. We like to imagine Jesus as radiant spirit emanating love. We tend to forget about his dandruff, wrinkles, BO, receding hairline, bad breath, and probably a fair number of parasites (which gives life in Christ a whole new meaning). No First Century Palestinian peasant reaching the then advanced age of 33 or so would have avoided those things. We tend to leave those things in the tomb like a forgotten husk of Jesus’ rather embarrassing humanity, something to be disposed of in the resurrection.

As Protestants we also tend to forget that we don’t merely have bodies, we are bodies. Even worse, we begin to eagerly anticipate disposing of our bodies, hoping for a day to come when God will free us from all their inconvenient messiness. We forget that God created us as embodied creatures not just disembodied spirits living inside of sophisticated bio-mechanical suits. We forget that God promises to resurrect us as, not merely in, new and improved bodies, a new humanity in a new creation. A human being without a body is simply not a human being, not now, not ever.

Every week we recite the ancient words: “He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the father almighty.” That’s not just pretty language, it is making a central claim about God. Whatever was human about Jesus, his messy, complex, conflicted, humanness, warts and neuroses, corns on his toe, a funny laugh, wrinkled hands, a love of wood-working and words, stubbed toes, a wee bit of impatience, bad breath, BO, and a fondness for wandering off by himself from time to time, all of that, the whole untidy package of really truly being a embodied human being not as an abstraction but in the flesh with all its faults and problems is now lifted up, embraced, and made an integrated part of the very life and character of God. The Ascension shouts down the centuries that Jesus’ incarnation does not end in the resurrection nor does it end in the Ascension. Jesus’ humanity does not end, period. It is who Jesus is today and for all eternity. From Ascension and for eternity being human is now a part of God’s own life in Trinity.

We affirm that God is all knowing, omniscient. That means that God knows all the facts of creation, God’s handiwork. God knows space and time and dimension and what you may be thinking at this very moment, but that is all God’s knowledge of facts and things and events like a divinely upgraded Wikipedia. I have no doubt that God knows the precise location of every electron in an upper atmospheric electromagnetic disturbance, God sees the quantum fluctuations giving rise to a plasma cascade as currents of positive and negative electrons reach out and dance with each other, a stunning phenomenon of subtle complexity we call lightning. But what God did not know, indeed what God the all-powerful and all-knowing could not know is what it feels like to be a little boy at home pulling his security blanket over his ears because he does not understand any of this and the thunder and the lightning terrify him. Knowing what that feels like is an altogether different kind of knowing, you can only get from the inside. You can only get that kind of knowing in the flesh.

Our flesh and our bones, our muscles and tendons have memory and understanding deeper than words. If it were not so anyone could simply read a book and become a major league pitcher. Our whole lives are experienced in and through bodies so in order to really understand what it is like for a human to be a human the only way to do it is in the flesh. The incarnation in Bethlehem means that God now knows us as we truly are. The Ascension means that knowledge is now forever a part of who God is.

In Ascension God knows us as one of us, not who we say we are, not who we wish we could be, but the messy and hopeful reality we truly are. The Good news of Ascension is that not despite, but because of this, God loves you in the flesh, and perhaps loves us all the more.

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.


Pastor Kelley

March 30, 2021

It was fear that killed Him.

Fear is the problem. Fear is always the problem. That is why Jesus’ most common instruction is, “Don’t be afraid.” Fear is not an emotion so much as it is an alien force that seeks admittance into our emotions, will, and reason and, when implanted, begins to replicate itself like a virus displacing values, wisdom, logic, and love. Fear is ubiquitous touching every human life with its insidious intrusion corrupting our egos, relationships, politics, religion, and culture. Frustratingly, it evades all our direct efforts to contain it. All we seem able to do, and then only sometimes, is face it and pass through it.

The crowd in Jerusalem was afraid that He had betrayed them. He was not the Messiah they expected or wanted. They were afraid of having their hopes denied and their yearning for liberation mocked by anyone who claimed to be Messiah who would not throw out the Romans and restore Judah to its once, imagined, glorious past. So they abandoned Him and sided with the zealots who, if not promising freedom, at least honored their grief and grievances.

The scribes and the priests were afraid that He either might be right or someone might believe He was right. He turned on the Temple and its officials, calling them a brood of vipers. He made a ruckus in the court of the gentiles and disturbed their lucrative business operations calling them something worse than robbers. He compared them to bandits who plundered the pilgrims on their sacred journey. And to make matters worse, He himself seemed to have no interest in the work of the temple. He seemed to have something altogether different in mind to reconcile the people with their God.

The High Priest was afraid of politics and who might get killed by it. Caiaphas feared the potential disintegration of law and order and the respect for institutions that He insinuated. Caiaphas’ position was never particularly secure, always one wrongly priced bribe away from exile, or worse. More charitably, he feared from what might happen if this carpenter and his message caught on. Those crowds on Sunday holding up palm branches knew exactly what He was doing. And so did the Romans. Kings of the Jews, claimed, feigned, or otherwise tended to get a lot of people killed. Perhaps it is best to take care of the problem sooner rather than later.

Pilate was afraid because of the inherent weakness in his position. A mid-level colonial bureaucrat, he kept one eye on his patrons and their dangerous game of thrones in Rome and another on his boss, the demanding and avaricious Governor of Syria. In theory, he had almost unlimited power over Judea. In practice it rarely extended far beyond his court. With only about 3000 half-trained auxiliary troops of dubious loyalty to govern the entire nation, he did what he could to keep order. But if things got out of hand, inquiries from the Senate would soon follow and shortly thereafter a new Prefect. So every year he dutifully marched up to Jerusalem with reinforcements during the Passover hoping things would not get out of hand. Messiahs were the last thing he wanted.

I should not judge any of them too harshly. They were all just being very . . . human. We want what we can see and touch and control. Even if it is not very much, letting go of control is even scarier. So we create all our systems, rituals, and habits of thought to maintain that predictability and control. Among those systems is religion to regulate divine/human relations on our terms. But what if some day God actually did show up, in person? Would I be able to let go of everything, absolutely everything I ever knew or thought I knew?

The hard, unsettling question of Holy Week for me is not how could those people back then do what they did. The hard, unsettling question of Holy Week is facing my own fear and in its bitter reflection asking myself whether I too would to seek to escape it or walk through it to find Him on the other side?

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

Johann Heerman, Ah Holy Jesus

March 23, 2021

In the spring of 1993, a seminary friend and I hiked the San Juan Mountains out of Durango, Colorado to the Continental Divide, an elevation of 14,000 feet. I had hiked many mountain trails in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northern New Mexico and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California but had never hiked a backpacking trip of this degree before. It was both challenging and rewarding to hike this beautiful trail with the spring rains, muddy paths, and the steady elevation gain, so I felt most proud when we finally reached the Wolf Creek Pass of the Continental Divide.

There were many wonderful surprises on this backpacking trip – the sheer beauty of the mountains, the aspen trees, the clear water of the mountain streams and lakes – but one of the biggest surprises was the return trip back down the mountain. I naively thought that the climb up the mountain was the most difficult part of the trip and that the hike back down the mountain would be easy as pie. I clearly was wrong! It takes an entirely different set of muscles and immense physical strength to carry a weighted backpack down many curvy, steep miles of rocky paths strewn with tree roots and mud puddles. By the time we reached the bottom of the trail we were exhausted! But there was one more surprise in store for us before we reached the end.

The small mountain stream we had easily crossed on our way up the mountain had become a raging river with the spring rains that had accompanied our trip. As exhausted as we were, we now had to safely cross a swiftly moving river with water up to our waists and backpacks on our back. It was one of the most exhilarating and frightening moments of my life!

The majority of injuries and deaths which occur during climbing expeditions and backpacking trips happen the second half of the trip during the descent of the mountain when hikers and climbers are most tired and believe that the hardest part is over. Even the most experienced hikers and climbers get caught off guard by the sheer strength and concentration it takes to descend a mountain.

We, by the grace of God, are on the return trip – the descent – of the mountain; a mountain called Pandemic. Our ascent up this Pandemic Mountain this past year was very difficult but we, hopefully, have reached the top now with the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccinations and we are finally on our descent back down the mountain to home.

But we must remember that the descent is just as difficult as the ascent, only a different kind of difficult. In order to safely reach the end of this pandemic we must use the muscles of patience, persistence, and compassion even when we think we are almost to the bottom of the mountain. We must be wise in our steps and intentional in our journey as we come to the stream at the bottom of the mountain which now looks very different than it did when we went up the mountain.

As the Fairmont session and staff are mindfully making plans for when we will be together again in-person for worship and ministry, my prayer is that we will stay strong for this last part of this journey and safely cross that river.

Blessings and love,

Pastor Kelley

March 16, 2021

Human beings do not like complexity. We prefer to keep things simple: yes-no, up-down, right-left. We tend to reduce questions to binary decisions because most of us can effectively evaluate only two things at once and then only in relation to each other. This simplification allows us to make decisions very quickly. Unfortunately, it also allows us to make decisions very wrongly.

The morning news reported that up to 36 people in Europe had died of blood clots after receiving the Astra Zeneca vaccine. So, various national governments decided blood clots bad, no blood clots good, and suspended the use of the vaccine. It was only later in the day that some public health experts pointed out that out that if you picked 17 million random older Europeans, like the number vaccinated, a similar number would have developed blood clots regardless. We confuse correlations with causations and simplify causation to one cause and one effect. And that habit can get us into messes. Today millions of people in Europe are not going to be vaccinated because of knee jerk reactions of fear that fail to consider all the facts.

Closing down our church last March was dramatic, but simple. On March 12, 2020 people came to church. On March 13, 2020 people stopped physically coming to church. We went from open to closed, a simple binary decision. Now however, we are dealing every day with a multivariable, interconnected, complex process in which each decision is linked to other decisions and we never have enough information to validate them all.

The question is not whether we reopen. Of course, we are reopening! The question is how are we reopening in what ways and under what conditions and how do those decisions in turn impact other decisions? That is a wee bit more complicated. Everyone has different values, preferences, opinions, and sources of information that inform their views. That makes consensus building challenging. For example, many of our older adults are vaccinated and want to get back to worship. But none of our younger families or staff are fully vaccinated yet. How do we balance those preferences and different conditions? There is no obvious answer. And “return to worship” means different things to different people: which service, with music or without, with fellowship or without, and at the same time or different? And hovering above all these questions is the matter of our online worship that now draws in more than a hundred or so more people than we had in person before the pandemic. How do we include those worshippers meaningfully into the life of Fairmont?

I am better with questions than answers, especially right now when hard data is in short supply and opinions abound. These sorts of challenges are ripe for potential conflict as we talk past each other while advancing our own preferences. The next month or two will be bumpy for us as community, as families, and as a church as we sort all this out.

I have a couple of reminders that may help with this. First, humility is always a good place to start. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 11:2. None of us has all the answers and a willingness to be open and learn from others will not only strengthen our own decision making, it might just cement some friendships along the way. Listening before speaking, and then asking clarifying questions to understand better where someone is coming from is always advised.

Second, flexibility is a sign of wisdom. When facts change our opinions should change to reflect them. There is no manual on how to emerge from a pandemic. Everyone is making this up as best they can. And most decisions are reversible if they later prove wrong, so the stakes are lower. We can actually make wiser decisions when we share what we know. “Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.” Proverbs 13:10.

Third, always assume good will. Most people, most of the time, absent undue stressors, try to do the right thing for the right reason. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Colossians 4:5-6.

Fourth, do not ever assume that things will be like they have always been before because we do not live in the past. The circumstance of our world and the context of the ministry to which Jesus calls us have changed. Those changed circumstances may require changes in our approach. “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” Ecclesiastes 7:10. To ignore change is simply obstinate pride that is neither right nor safe.

Last March we shut down and quickly innovated to provide a new sort of ministry at Fairmont. Now we are building something new, the outline of which is not yet quite in focus. This process will be sometimes complicated and sometimes confusing. But we will do it together. God is nudging us towards participating in the next chapter of the Gospel in our world. It may sometimes be difficult, but the next few months and years will be an exciting time to be a part of Christ’s church. Hold on for the ride!

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.

Much love,

Pastor Kelley

February 9, 2021

I am a Protestant raised among stoic, sensible Swedish Lutherans in Minnesota. Growing up in Minnesota you are taught at an early age not to complain about how cold the winters get because everybody is cold and everybody hurts (my perch in Grand Marais did hit -27˚ F. this week!). Actually, you are taught not to talk about your problems at all. Everything is always fine. Anything less would be considered self-pitying. Anything more would be pretentious. So, you learn to be fine.

Next week we begin the season of Lent. Lent is a season for self-examination and repentance, which are fine things. Lent is perfect for dour Minnesotans. Lent grants collective social permission for obsessive individual guilt. And in a state where the lakes do not thaw until May and it occasionally snows on Memorial Day (trust me I have been camping in it), Easter’s promise of spring and new life seems infinitely far off.

Despite all my developmental adaptations and affinities with Lent, I find myself oddly out of step this year. This year, I find myself yearning for Lent’s raucous, slightly hedonistic twin: Carnival. Carnival aka Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday if you prefer English) is the celebration of life in all its glorious excesses just before the beginning of the Lent. Culminating in Fat Tuesday, Carnival (which itself literally means a celebration of meat) is Southern Europe’s counter argument to the austerities of Lent. This year, following eleven months of isolation, frustration, loss, conflict, and grief, perhaps Lent’s penitential asceticism needs a little help. Maybe we need a little Carnival in our lives to effectively kickstart the transformational work of Lent. Maybe we need to be reminded a bit of life’s savor, promise, and potential more than we need to be reminded of how sinful we all are. Depression is not a promising starting point for penitence. There will be plenty of time to confess later.

The truth is we are not fine. Our nation is not fine. Our world is not fine. Stoic self-control is a coping strategy, not a comprehensive world view let alone the way to lead a life. Most of us are getting by, and that is no mean feat, but getting by is not the same thing as thriving. The fact that others are struggling makes your own struggles no less.

It is cold out and it hurts sometimes and it probably will for some time to come. It feels like we have been doing Lent for eleven months. So be gentle with yourself so you can be gentle with others. It’s okay not to be fine. It’s okay not to have answers. And maybe this year a little dash of Carnival is precisely what we need most of all in spite of the surrounding gloom. After all, we do follow after a Messiah who organized a dinner party three days after his own funeral. Life will find a way. Laissez les bons temps rouler!


February 2, 2021

So, that happened.

At 7:14 p.m. I remembered. I forgot to write Beside Still Waters today. There were lots of other things demanding my attention today–leading worship at an assisted living facility, preparing taxes with my accountant, staff meetings, and preparing a Presbytery training I will be leading on Thursday. Then tonight I was reviewing film clips about Thomas Merton for tomorrow night’s Connections Class. In all that time, writing Beside Still Waters never once came up in my consciousness until now. Faced with this oversight I essentially have three options: (1.) kick myself repeatedly for my negligence; (2.) try desperately to write something thoughtful even though I have not been thinking about it at all; or, (3.) try to ascertain what the experience of this moment itself might be saying. Options one and two are my usual go-to’s. But tonight, I want to try something different.

Perhaps because I have been reviewing old interviews with Thomas Merton, the mystic and contemplative teacher, I find myself asking what exactly is the lesson in this or any moment? And the lesson that has seems to be welling up in this precise moment is the reassurance that everything will be okay. Actually, everything will be better than okay if only I loosen my ego’s grip on trying to maintain control and acknowledge my own fallibility, which is just another way of saying my own humanity. Acknowledging our humanity and the fact that we make mistakes is simply telling the truth, but a truth we desperately try to conceal from others and most of all from ourselves. My ego works very hard to avoid that truth. I normally implement strategies to create an impression of competence, chiefly detailed to-do lists. The problem is that sometimes I can get rather lost in those strategies and lists. Sometimes, it feels like the tasks are all I am. Sometimes the “I” gets lost in all the doing. And I know from talking to some of you that you feel the same way too sometimes. When that happens, you may perchance notice something deep down inside us seeking to be recognized and valued manifests itself in procrastination or petty neglect because it cannot get our attention any other way.

A human being does many things but is not, in its essence, doing. A human being is being and neglect of that being sends us down all sorts of dangerous trails in life ranging from crushing shame to willful pride. The theological language we use for this is works righteousness (I am valued because of what I do) versus grace (I am loved because of who I am). But behind all the theological language is a far simpler and more immediate question we all know. Am I worthy because of what I do or am I simply worthy? If it is the former, our identity is on the line every single day measured according to an unknowable and unachievable scale. If it is the latter, then we can begin to let go of our constant anxiety and simply be . . . right . . . here . . . now.

There is only one place and one time where I will ever truly live and know and be known: here and now. It is just so hard to get there when all our endless to-do lists clamor for attention. So maybe the next time you forget to do something, possibly it is a gentle reminder to pause, breathe, let go, and practice the most difficult art of discipleship embracing both attention to the moment and compassion for our humanity.

It can happen.
Pay attention.
And be gentle with yourself. Brian

January 26, 2021

This morning I took my dog for our daily walk in the forest. Trudging along the slurried path, there were no shadows cast in those dreary woods. It was as if a pall of sameness had been spread over the hills under a gunmetal sky. The trees and the ground and the sky blended together in complimentary shades of gray. Absent evidence of racoons or squirrels, my dog gently pulled me on the paths towards home wanting to return to her slumbers.

The difficult thing for me about this season, this year, of quarantine is not so much the separation as it is the way in which life seems to have lost some of its flavor. Like a gray, muddy Ohio winter, it goes on and on in its unvaried sameness. The horizons of memory and hope flatten into a perpetual gray moment of now where there is no clear way forward and none back and not even the sun or stars to guide us.

And yet, this moment, this next step is where it begins.

Dante begins his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, with these words: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the true way was lost.” His metaphorical journey begins not in some heroic commencement, but in confusion, disorientation, and darkness. There and only there, where the way we knew is lost and the way will go is not yet found, we finally come to ourselves. In being lost we are forced to let go of our assumptions, certainly our assumption that we know the way and exercise control. And perhaps that is the beginning of truth. Humility and humiliation both come from the Latin root, hummus, meaning the earth. To be humbled is to be returned to the very ground of our being, our shared foundation.

This pandemic is hard. The suffering is real. But it is also an invitation to begin again on the firmer foundation of truth rather than the sweet lies we tell ourselves both in memory and desire. Right now, we are being offered an invitation to return to our true selves. And from that place of reunion, all things are possible.

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Luke 14:11

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,
long ago.

But the cold and dark of winter cannot stop the glorious incarnation of God, as Rossetti’s words proclaim:

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
nor earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate
Jesus Christ

This beautiful hymn, of course, is most often sung in Christmastide but it has been playing in my head off and on for days now as we have entered a new year and begun the colder, more serious days of winter. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am not very fond of winter. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that I am not very fond of cold weather! We have had a very mild winter thus far with more sunshine than I anticipated on this darker side of the earth’s tilt but even so I yearn for longer days of sunshine and warmer temperatures.

But it is not just the shorter days and colder temperatures which create this “bleak midwinter.” Even for those who love the seasons and the coming of winter, we find ourselves in the midst of a very bleak midwinter as we are ten months into this joyless pandemic and many months yet to go before all are vaccinated and we are free to “be” together once again, even embrace one another again.

The new year has brought much hope with the welcomed news of the coronavirus vaccines, so all is not bleak, but we have experienced much grief and loss this past year and we must stay strong and safe for just a little longer. As painful and lonely as these days have been, it is often here in our bleak midwinter that we are most able to recognize and receive God’s love and light incarnate in Christ. There is something about the dead of winter that strips us bare, like the naked trees of winter, and forces us to let go of all that keeps us from seeing God.

Our midwinter will soon turn to resurrection spring and we will know that God has carried us through painfully cold days into the warmer days of light. Remember that we are still the Body of Christ – together yet apart – even when the winter seems so bleak.

Last week I mailed out an Epiphany letter and Epiphany Star Word to all our Fairmont members and active non-members. If you did not yet receive your Star Word, give the mail a few more days to get to you and then text, call, or email me and I will make sure you receive one (kshin@fairmontchurch.org).

Our Epiphany Star Word is a simple spiritual practice to keep our hearts, minds, and spirits on the Christ Child from Bethlehem during this bleak midwinter and all through this new year. My hope is that you will use this Star Word in prayer, bible study, faith conversations, meditation, and reflection. My prayer is that we will continue to seek Jesus as did the Magi who followed the star.

In the bleak midwinter, God came to us incarnate in Jesus. We are not alone. Hope is ahead and shining forth even now. Stay strong, dear family of God, stay strong.

Love and light to you!

Pastor Kelley

January 12, 2021

Every January I fill out an annual statistical report for the denomination. It is the sort of form that gets filed away somewhere in an unmarked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory in the basement of the denominational headquarters in Louisville. One of the questions caught my imagination this year. What is the value of assets acquired in 2020? I added up the cost of the domestic water line replacement, new carpeting, a new computer, and new live streaming technology and I came up with a rough figure of $190,000. But I knew that the true answer was so much more.

What is your most valuable asset? Your home? Your 401(K)? Your career, reputation, family, skills, relationships, dreams, abilities, or faith? For the church, some things that we thought were really valuable and important to us, like our building, are not so important right now. So, it made me wonder, what is Fairmont’s most valuable asset.

At one level, the answer is obvious: God. But I am too much of a Reformed Christian to ever claim God as an asset. So, the next obvious answer is each other in all our diverse unique, wonderful, and wacky giftedness. Then again, human beings may comprise a congregation, but are never its possession. People are always free. What allows them to work in concert, what nurtures cooperation towards shared goals, what models better human relationships is the real asset of our congregation, our culture—the stable, yet always evolving, collective pattern of our behaviors toward one another. Culture, how we treat each other as we seek to navigate this world together, is our most important asset and it has been on full display this year.

I have seen remarkable acts of caring and kindness this year at Fairmont, with older adults constantly checking in on each other, 102-year-olds gently encouraging their juniors to get on line, and children reaching out to each other on screens in worship. Our congregation has demonstrated trust in each other, confidence in our shared goals, resilience in the face of frustrations, enormous patience with separation, and hope for the future. All these qualities emerge from the links that bind each of us to one other. They are not the possession of any individual. Instead, they are the emergent quality of our community as a whole.

Not everyone likes everybody else with equal intensity. Sometimes we can annoy one another. But when that happens, our habits of relating to each other take over. Those patterns we have practiced for so long we no longer think about them silence tongues before they say something we might regret and trigger a smile when we might prefer confrontation. It is not “fake.” Reticence for the sake of belonging together is no bad thing. Relationships are always worth a moment’s pause. Together, we practice the gentle habits of the heart that provide the crucible for community.

In our workplaces, in our families, and most vividly in our nation’s politics, those gentle habits, the culture of community, is being tested right now. Everything that we do together, like finding a cure for Corona Virus or going to the Moon, is built upon the shared assumption of trust. Without that trust, community disappears. And trust does not just magically happen. People need to work at it. People need to build a culture around it.

Sometimes our most important witness to Jesus Christ is simply how we treat each other.

January 5, 2021

Starting this past Sunday, we began preaching on the Gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings. I like Mark. It has short sentences. We tend to pretty it all up in our English translations. The King James translation makes it sound all fancy. But the Gospel is written more like, “See Jesus. See Jesus Run. Run Jesus run!” It lacks fancy vocabulary and transitions. It does not even have a decent introduction or conclusion. For me, it is the perfect Gospel for 2021.

Things are far from perfect right now. Our thoughts are as scattered and ill-considered as our world. Beauty and eloquence have yielded to survival and endurance. And none of us are our best selves right now. We all see some hope far off coming for us, but there will probably never be a tidy, comprehensive conclusion. Everyone seems increasingly irritated and irritable. Instead, we each are asked to become authors of our own little hopes each day, often delivered in considerate silence as much as speech. As in Mark, we all have a sense of expectation, but precisely for what we cannot say.

Mark’s account of the resurrection is not so much an account as a question. Mark ends his story mid-sentence with the women running away from the tomb into the early morning gloom. It is then up to us, the reader, to supply what happens next. Does the good news get out? Does hope escape the gloom? Is the way of the Lord prepared, or not? There is no conclusion, only invitation and perhaps a bit of curiosity.

Covid-19, isolation, exhaustion, anxiety, discord, distrust, and fear have all taken their toll. We are not as clever, resilient, organized, strong, self-reliant, kind, or courageous as we thought we were. We wander around in the gloom as confused curators of hope. But still, we hold on to that hope. And in our wandering, perhaps we bring some light to dark places.

The Gospel is good news: we are not alone; the universe is not as messed up as we appear to have made it; and, despite our best intentions, there is a genuinely caring supernatural entity who holds it all, including our lives, in the intimate belonging of love. People who are clever, resilient, organized, strong, self-reliant, kind, and courageous really do not need it and might not even notice it. Good news stands out in sharp contrast only when you are expecting bad news. The people who are accustomed to bad news make the very best good-news-sharers because they can see it clearly. So that is what we call them, except we make it fancy and do it in Greek. We call them evangelists. And right now, in the middle of this mess, that is precisely the role to which God is calling you.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it because you will be carrying it with you wherever you go.


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.

Merry Christmas,

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,

Pastor Kelley

November 3, 2020

Anxiety is the precursor emotion and raw material out of which fear is made. Anxiety is not fear, at least not yet, because it lacks a specific object. I am afraid of wasps, distracted drivers, physical education classes, and my own potential incompetence. All of those fears are specific and directed toward something I dread. Anxiety is different. Anxiety lurks beneath all those fears as a pervasive readiness to be afraid, even though we may not yet know of what. Anxiety heightens our threat response putting us all on general alert. Anxiety awaits like a coiled spring wound tight for the moment it may erupt into fear.

Today, I have had lots of conversations with lots of people about their anxieties. Absence of our normal social rhythms and the regulating effects of social contact have made these anxieties even more acute. You can see it in peoples’ stress responses–listlessness, irritability, binge eating, fatigue, insomnia, and self-medicating to name a few. But you cannot really talk about it because there is no object of thought or fear to discuss. Anxiety is like a dank vapor that permeates everything but cannot ever be grasped.

I have several short-term remedies for anxiety. First, get out of your head and into your body. I go for a several mile walk with my dog every morning that (while it induces fear in local squirrels) subtly shifts my focus from the endless what ifs to the immediacy of the weight on my feet and the air in my lungs. My dog has no time for anxiety and always pulls me back to the givenness of now.

Second, talk to people, even if they are dead. Conversation always reframes our current dilemmas perceived and otherwise within a broader context. Things are rarely as bad as they appear and the problems we confront are rarely novel. Consider this thoughtful reflection on our American presidential elections:

For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardor is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.

These words were written not last week or last month, but in 1835 by Alexis De Tocqueville as he observed the American penchant for “factional ardor” and division. Sometimes, we gain the best perspective and context from observers long dead. Few problems are truly new and yet we have a genius in muddling through.

Finally, I turn to hope. Hope is not a fuzzy wishful emotion that things will somehow get better. Hope is form of perception that penetrates appearances to notice the underlying pattern and progress of life. Hope lets you see what the world, media, markets, and politicians tend to hide (like humanity is materially better off in almost every possible way than any generation in human history and the rate of improvement is accelerating). Hope re-centers our vision away from the urgent to the important, away from the presenting problem clamoring for our attention to the enduring, eternal, and steadfast. And at the center of my hope lies not political parties, but an invitation to a dinner party from a steadfast and stubborn host who will not take no for an answer.

So, for this election night and all our anxieties, I would submit to you a short poem from some 3000 years ago by people not so unlike us. Psalm 146 reminds us see beyond all the artificial passions, intrigues, and feverish excitement to what is and what shall be.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them—
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The Lord reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.

Do take care and be gentle with yourself and others. This is a tender time. –Brian

October 27, 2020

The First of November is All Saints’ Day, the day when we remember all those who have died in the past year. All Saints seems especially poignant this year because of all those we have lost to Covid-19 and our inability to gather as community to share both our gratitude and our grief. We all need safes spaces to lament in order to heal and there is so much right now to lament—sickness, lockdowns, cancelled everything, stress, exhaustion, frustration, separation, and social conflict. We can all still mourn and rejoice with abandon, but we need to do it on our own. And as a pastor sometimes I feel rather useless, only able to encourage people at a distance.

Facing uncertainties, I have been taking some solace from the journals of another pastor, William Bradford, the sometimes preacher and longtime governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony, the man perhaps most responsible for the survival of the pilgrims in the new world. He wrote with searing honesty about his own uncertainty in those difficult early years of the colony, especially the winters. He took solace in the history of our ancestors who faced much the same. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Hebrews 11: 1-3. What I so desire is that vision to see beyond the mess of the present moment, to see through faith to the real that lies beyond all our and my anxieties and uncertainties.

Two of my spiritual teachers keep nudging me forward. Meister Eckhart, the great medieval Dominican mystic once wrote, “Wisdom consists in doing the next thing you have to do, doing it with your whole heart, and finding delight in doing it.” Serendipity and delight merged when I heard a slightly more contemporary spiritual teacher, Anna from Frozen 2 singing the same sentiment in, Do The Next Right Thing: “This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down. But a tiny voice whispers in my mind, ‘You are lost, hope is gone. But you must go on. And do the next right thing.” Despite all our anxieties and forecasting, the master plan is well beyond our pay grade. Neither I nor any mortal know what is going to happen next. It does not matter. Actually, it will only drive you crazy if you dwell on it–what may happen next week, next month, or next year? All we have, all we have ever or will ever have, is what is right in front of us. All we need to do is be fully present and attentive to the moment we are in and do the next right thing. And then repeat.

I wish I knew what will happen and I so wish I could change the painful circumstances in which so many now find themselves. So did all our ancestors in faith that went before us. Neither they nor we are privy to the patterns of providence or chance. But they did have faith, which helped them to see the truth emerging right before them. They had faith which focused their perception on the only thing requiring their attention, the moment before us right now. They simply did the next right thing. That is the lesson of the saints for us. It is not so hard, but it does require focus. Just do the next right thing. And then repeat.

October 20, 2020

75 years ago, the suburbs of Dayton essentially ended at Stroop Road. Beyond lay cornfields. In those first exciting months and years following the end of World War II, new communities were created out of temporary wartime housing that we now call Kettering, Centerville, Springboro, and others. In the spring and summer of 1945, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began planning a mission church for these soon-to-be-developing communities. Reverend Roland “Rit” Anderson was called to be the founding pastor. On September 18, 1945 the Presbytery of the Miami Valley approved $2400 for the purchase of the site. Originally meeting in the Van Buren Township firehouse, donated caskets from a nearby casket factory served as the initial pews. By October the small meetings started growing and moved the Dorothy Lane School. Later that month, the Presbytery met with 42 families who indicated they wanted to form a new congregation. On October 14, 1945, Fairmont Presbyterian Church was officially authorized to form as a congregation. On November 5 the first officers were elected and on December 3 the new congregation was officially incorporated. In 1948, the “basement church” was constructed (now the lower level beneath the sanctuary, you can still see the old front door inset on the north side of the church office). This was understood to be the foundation for a much larger sanctuary when funds would allow it. Finally, on Christmas Eve, 1952 the Fairmont congregation moved into its present sanctuary.

History can be read as a sterile record of events and dates. But the events and dates are merely the markers of memory for hopes, dreams, risks, sacrifices, commitments, and love. This Sunday we are marking the 75th anniversary of Fairmont and celebrating the tradition we have received. Our tradition demonstrated the energy, intelligence, and creativity of our founders starting a church beyond the edge of town. Our tradition has emphasized both the caring of belonging as well as service to our community. Our tradition has stressed the formation of hearts and minds for our children and adults. Remarkably stable (Fairmont has only had seven Pastors), our tradition has underscored attentive stewardship, collective decision making, dialogue, mutual respect of differences, curiosity, and most of all hope. These qualities, virtues of life lived together in community, are our true tradition and our treasure.

The historian Jaroslav Pelikan once stated, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” At Fairmont our tradition is a living, vital inheritance that is guiding us through the greatest public safety crisis in our 75 year history. We are creating new ways of worshipping, teaching, equipping, and serving our community just as our forebears did in fire stations and school rooms 75 years ago. Our mission field now extends to the horizon of every member’s social network. And in all of this we are aided by connectional technologies that could not have been imagined 75 years ago. We are guided by our past into God’s future sharing together in traditioned innovation.

The world has changed profoundly in the past 75 years. Our mission has not. The church really does not have a mission. We are simply one small part of humanity’s response to God’s mission: inviting belonging, sharing the story, and shaping our lives. That is what Fairmont is for. That is what Fairmont does. That is what Fairmont will do. If we remain faithful to that purpose, I am certain that our future is bright because that future belongs in and to God.

May God bless Fairmont. Far more importantly, may God through Fairmont bless this world.

October 13, 2020

Recently, I was part of a Bible study conversation on Mark 5:25-34, the story of the woman healed after twelve years of bleeding. She was healed by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. There are many powerful gems of truth in this gospel story but the one that spoke to me most deeply was the reminder that we all need the gift of touch.

This woman who Jesus healed had been completely isolated and ostracized because she was “unclean” in the eyes of the religious law. For years and years she was unable to be held or touched by anyone because of the purity laws of her faith. Her emotional and psychological pain must have been horrendous. In just one sacred moment, she found the courage to go to Jesus, in the midst of a great crowd, and touch the hem of his garment. Jesus instantly knew that she had touched him and felt the power of healing go out of him to the bleeding woman. With one touch of Jesus’ garment she was healed.

One of the great griefs of these days of COVID is that we cannot touch each other. We must, for the sake of keeping the virus at bay, keep distance from each other and are not able to hug or shake hands or put our arms around the shoulders of friends and even some of our distant relatives. We are missing such a simple but profound part of our humanity – touch. Even on the rare occasion when we actually have an in-person gathering – social distanced or outside – we must sit far apart from each other and wear masks. The simple gift of touch has been taken away from us for this time of pandemic and we feel the absence of it in our souls.

I do believe when we come through this time of pandemic and “no touch” gatherings that we will find a new appreciation and even joy in some of the most simple parts of being human, namely the gift of touch.

On Sunday, October 25th, at 12:30 p.m. we as a church will gather in the parking lot of the church for a “no touch” gathering to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Fairmont Presbyterian Church. We will be sharing a “tailgate picnic” together from our cars and will be masked and spaced apart in the parking lot. It will be great to be together again even though we cannot hug each other or shake hands! We will have the joy of being in each other’s presence and sharing a boxed lunch (provided by the church) and we will find a new way to be together as God’s people without the gift of touch!

You are all invited to our “tailgate picnic” on October 25th BUT you must RSVP to the church (email or phone) so that we can know how many are coming and be best prepared. You can RSVP at jmason@fairmontchurch.org or (937) 299-3539.

Blessings and love to you!

May the Peace of Christ “touch” your hearts.

Pastor Kelley

October 6, 2020

My morning walk takes me through a stand of enormous trees that always seem to have something to teach me. Other than one stubborn maple, they are all in various stages of changing and letting go of their fall foliage. Every morning, I look forward to their fiery crimsons and dapple pale gold crowns. But I know they are impermanent. Soon they will all let go. Leaves do not just fall as if by random accident or pulled by autumn breezes, they are systematically let go. A tree (at least deciduous trees) lets go of its leaves for a very good reason. By releasing their leaves, a tree can conserve water and energy for the cold, dry winter ahead. It also helps the tree release pollen in the springtime so it can make more trees.

The fancy name for this whole process is abscission (which shares a linguistic root with our word scissors). Abscission goes through several distinct stages. First it starts reabsorbing all the useful nutrients from the leaf back into the tree. Chlorophyll, which makes leaves green, is one of the first nutrients to get recycled back into the tree. That is why leaves change color, because the tree is reclaiming its little harvest of nutrients for the winter ahead. Then the tiny abscission cells get to work snipping the leaf from the branch and pushing it out into the world. Finally, these same cells grow a protective coating over the spot where the former leaf connected to the branch. It is all an amazingly interconnected process of biochemistry and biomechanics expressed in the beauty of a flaming sugar maple.

I have a lot to learn from trees. I too love impermanent things and I have a very hard time letting go of them. Partly it is aging, partly the gentle, enforced ascetism of Covid-19 quarantines and social distancing, that snip away fondly held hopes, plans, habits, ambitions, and pleasures. I cannot do what I want to do. I cannot go on that vacation, dine at that restaurant, see those friends, go to that theater, or hear that concert. Behind those preferences, are dearer and more tightly bound assumptions to which I tightly cling like I am in control, I can make everything right through my competencies, and I know what the future will hold. The tireless abscission of Corona Virus snips these off these dearer commitments as well despite my emotional objections. Shorn of those fondest attachments, I fear not only what will happen, but who I will be.

Trees are not known for their self-pity. They simply get on with the essential business of tree-ness–breathing, growing, and letting go. They do not grieve the autumn, but let it come, gracefully surrendering their crowns knowing that the letting go is the essence of their pattern of life. And so it could be, and so it should be, for us.

Letting go of our fondest presumptions is especially difficult in a world that celebrates possessing, clinging, and achieving. But it is the essence of our way of living. The formal theological name for this is Kenosis, self-emptying. It is the way of the cross. During Lent, I look to the cross to remind me of this eternal truth, but in the fall, the trees testify all on their own.

The forest sings a sermon both beautiful and demanding. The truth is all around us. The way to life begins in letting go.

September 29, 2020

Last week I had a little meltdown one evening. I was sick of my own cooking and I let my frustration show. For a little while I was a bit of a pill—irritated and irritating to everyone around me (sorry Lisa). The problem was solved with a frozen pizza and vegetatively watching Big Bang reruns. An hour or so later, I had regained my composure and was fit again for human society. I still cannot tell you what exactly happened or why. All I knew in that moment was that I was mad and sad.

Scientists once imagined human beings as thinking creatures who occasionally feel. Now we understand that we are much more like feeling creatures who can think. Our emotions are always there shaping our perception and behavior lurking just beneath the surface of language and conscious perception. Hidden though they may be, our emotions color every experience, every preference, every judgment, and every decision. They are the powerful unseen territory of us.

In our midweek Connections class, we have been discussing Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized trauma and the pathway to healing our hearts and bodies. Unlike so many books on race, it is not expressly about politics. Avoiding that stalemate, Menakem takes an entirely different approach. He focuses on what lies beneath race, racism, and our perennial debate: feelings of pain, fear, and shame. He observes that these feelings are the concealed drivers behind rage and avoidance, anxiety and depression, rationalizations and brutalities that we inflict on others and on ourselves. If we limit our discussions to the cognitive realm of policies and justice, we will never address the pain that lies beneath. And if we do not squarely face that pain, then it will return from generation to generation.

Last week I watched the wonderful 2018 documentary on Rev. Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? What struck me was the consistent theme through Rogers’ lifetime of work, trying to help children understand and manage their emotions. In his 1969 Congressional testimony, Rogers said, “I feel that if we can make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” The key for Rogers was neither to avoid nor deny feelings, but rather to recognize them as a part of us that we could then choose to act on or not.

While Mr. Rogers and Resmaa Menakem are infrequent conversation partners, they both speak to the very real need for adults, who may be so gifted in other aspects of their lives, to grow emotionally. With pandemic fears, economic anxieties, low grade depression, partisan rancor, and claustrophobic isolation, it is so easy to either get lost in our feelings and let them overwhelm us. We act out, lash out, or shut down, following scripts we learned as infants. It does not have to be that way. We can identify and own our feelings without being controlled by them. We can choose which we act on and which we can lovingly disregard. We can tag those that do not really belong to us, but others in our lives. We can feel deeply without becoming our feelings.

Last week I was mad and sad. Mad that the world was not working out the way I wanted and sad about not knowing when it will ever end. Any three-year-old would understand those feelings intuitively. But I am not three. I get to choose what controls my life and my behavior. So, I choose to hope despite the sadness and worry. I choose because choice is the gift we all received. We are more than our emotions, or at least we can be if we choose. . . And a frozen pizza sometimes helps. –Brian

September 22, 2020

Our souls are in danger. There are powers and principalities at play that do not seek human welfare, but their own divisive ends. Our endless 24/7 news cycle clamors for ceaseless attention with an infinite variety of fears, anxieties, and offenses tailored to trigger the lesser angels of our being. By all appearances and forecasts, at least for the foreseeable future, it is all going to get worse. Between now and election day and who knows how long after that, the shrill voices instilling discord and fear will only grow louder and more insistent.

The endless media diet of fear and anxiety, outrage and offense, a cacophony of chaos real and imagined, threatens to spill over into our perceptions about other people, our selves, and our world. Our politics, so far from offering constructive solutions to pandemic, recession, discrimination and a thousand other ills, now fans the bonfires of mindless rage and conflict. The problem is that if you consume this diet of discord for long enough, you become it. If you allow it to shape your opinions and habits of mind, it becomes your opinions and habits of mind. You are what you eat, and also what you read, watch, and listen to. So, what kind of life, what kind of person do you want to become?

Our souls are in danger and I would like to propose a temporary, stop-gap remedy: a news fast. Severely limit your consumption of all TV, newspapers, periodicals, radio, and most of all social media to no more than thirty minutes each day. Regardless of which news media outlets you listen to, little in the next 42 days will shape you as deeply and as faithfully as a news fast. At worst, you might be less informed about current events. At best, you may save part of your soul.

Moderation, compassion, forbearance, consideration, restraint, and equipoise, were once distinguishing virtues of a human life, well lived. They provide the grounding habits of thought and action that nurture and sustain our practice of the presence of God as well as a life lived in peace with others and the world. They are practices we can actually do that can change not only the fervor of our hearts, but the quality of our creation. Etty Hillesum, the Dutch mystic who died at Auschwitz, wrote from her concentration camp, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”

There is danger around us, but there is hope. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27. For that peace to mean anything we need to claim it and make it our own. Now turn off the TV and go for a walk in nature, show someone you love them, create something beautiful, read a poem, pray, or simply sit in silence. Spiritual healing is no secret, it is merely seldom followed. –Brian

September 15, 2020

The Bridge to Nowhere

The city of Choluteca, in southern Honduras, is located on the Choluteca River. A beautiful silver bridge once crossed the river in that city. This bridge was a gift from the nation of Japan to Honduras. In October of 1998 Hurricane Mitch, a category 5 hurricane, devastated the country of Honduras with rainfall amounts up to 75 inches. Hurricane Mitch left 1.5 million people homeless and almost 7,000 people dead or missing.

The city of Choluteca was heavily damaged, receiving more rainfall than any other place in Honduras. While the bridge withstood this powerful storm, the roads leading to and from the bridge were completely washed out. Due to the massive flooding of the hurricane, the Choluteca River (which is several hundred feet wide) carved itself a new channel and no longer flowed beneath the bridge at all; the bridge now spanned dry ground. This impressive structure quickly became known as The Bridge to Nowhere.

Startling images (easily found online) of this Bridge to Nowhere invoke immediate reflection for us as people of faith about our present day church and the reality of six months of pandemic. Best practices and traditions which have for decades worked for the church, no longer work for this time of “the church has left the building.” The spiritual bridge which once spanned a deep-and-wide river, no longer connect the opposite shores. What worked for our church in February 2020 does not necessarily work today, deep into the isolation and devastation of coronavirus.

We are in the midst of a monumental shift in best practices for church and faith. The church was already beginning, somewhat slowly, to realize that traditions and cultures from the 1950’s were no longer relevant for the church of the 21st century, cling as we may to those 1950’s traditions! But the coronavirus pandemic has flung us fast-forward into a new way of being and doing church. We have always proclaimed that “the church is not the building,” as Loralei shared with the children on Sunday, but we may not have really believed that until now. We are deeply aware in a very visceral way that “we” are the church! We the people of God -wherever we are – are the church. At home, at work, outside, at the grocery store, at school, in front of a computer, or in the sanctuary of Fairmont – wherever we are, we are the church of God. Body and spirit, head and heart, young or old, we are worshiping God and being church in a brand new way in this time of pandemic.

We the church – the Body of Christ – must not lose hope. Instead, we must be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and learn a new way to “be church” in this day and time. Culture and society change, but God does not change. We must build a new bridge that spans the physical limitations we are experiencing with this virus and embrace a new way to “be” the church.

Let’s go there together!

Blessings and love,

Pastor Kelley

September 8, 2020

I want to talk about politics. Does that fill you with dread? As it is so often practiced in our nation, it should. What we usually observe are various competing groups talking past each other vying for power to impose their policy preferences on the community. Politics becomes a highly stylized form of violence that separates us and keeps communities divided into mutually hostile groups.

There is a better way. One of the frustrating things about Jesus is how he refuses to be identified with the political factions of his day. In his refusal to play the game, he annoys every faction. Instead, he keeps working on expanding the imaginations of everyone he meets. Through his parables and healings, he nudges his audiences to imagine a world that operates on different foundations. In his teachings and willingness to cross social boundaries, he coaxes, demonstrates, and urges us to expand our imagination of life and living beyond our own circumstances to a vaster frame of reference: empathy for all life. Indeed, it is that empathy—identifying one’s own life with that of another—that is given its perfect and ultimate expression in the incarnation. God’s empathy with humanity is perfected not in an emotion or a thought, but a human life.

Empathy is the sustained practice of incarnation in our lives. Empathy is that set of qualities and practices that allow a human being to connect, identify with, and care for another. As it makes sense to me, empathy consists of three dimensions. Emotional empathy is our capacity and willingness to imagine the feelings, sensations, and experiences of another as our own. Cognitive empathy is our ability to carefully observe the emotional states of others and discern the causes for such emotions. Constructive empathy (which we could also simply call compassion) is the willingness to act on behalf of the welfare of another. All three are necessary and important, but everyone is differently equipped.

My hope is that in this season of isolation we—all of us—could both deepen and expand our sense of empathy. We are all suffering in different ways and to different degrees. Pain hurts, but it is also an invitation to enter into the pain of others. Now we are all vulnerable and, in our vulnerability, we have the choice between opening ourselves to the moment, which is definition of courage, or hiding behind our personal and collective defenses. Because I feel pain, I can imagine better what another person feels, understand what it looks like and feels like, and may (hopefully) be more willing to do something about it.

What if our politics were based not on competition, but on empathy? What if winning and losing mattered less than connecting to, identifying with, and caring for other people? What if the content of our politics consisted of how best to do that? If any of that were to happen, even to the smallest degree, we would transform our hearts, our nation, and then the world. If any of that were to happen, our politics would be a source of renewal and hope rather than dread. None of it will ever happen at the level of parties and factions. It never has. It happens one human life at a time. That was Jesus’ lesson and our invitation. And there is no better time to start than now. –Brian

September 2, 2020

Today is Lisa’s and my twentieth wedding anniversary. Many months ago, we had grand plans for a celebrative trip. Covid-19 thought otherwise. Tonight, we will meet in a park for a long walk and then go home to prepare a favorite dinner together, share a bit of reading, and, as usual, go to bed early. If you would have told me a year ago that these would be our anniversary plans, I would have been rather disappointed. But now, I am wondering if this might be precisely the most fitting way to celebrate two decades of marriage.

Constrained by cancelled trips and postponed celebrations, we all face a temporary suspension of the future. Absent grand plans for the future, some are driven to depression. Admittedly, I do miss trip planning perhaps more than the actual going. The future will of course return some day. There will be other vacations and other anniversaries to celebrate. But today, absent the distractions of possible futures, we have the blessing of now. Today, this bench, this path, this meal, this bottle of wine, all nudge us to look not to the possibility of future delights, but the immediate blessing of this moment in its perfect ordinariness. It is so easy to get caught up in day dreams of future pleasures that we ignore the joys that are right before us. Our minds and hearts are always inclined to live more in the future and the past than in this moment. But right here, right now, there is enough. Right here, right now there is abundance. And if we fail to notice what is right in front of us, our hearts can harden as we become vulnerable to despair over uncertain futures beyond our control and ungrateful for what we already enjoy.

The lessons of pandemic shutdowns seem to align with some of the important lessons of marriage. Our family photo albums document our celebrations and vacations, important high points of life well lived. But the real blessings of marriage lie not in those punctuated moments of revelry. The real blessings lie in the ordinary moments of contentment, adaptation, challenge, comfort, and growth sharing this journey with another soul. Those moments of profound ordinariness–washing dishes, sipping tea, walking the dog, paying bills, making the bed—contain hidden blessings if only we pause and pay attention. We grow together, and sometimes apart, and then back together again each becoming someone we never could have anticipated from who we were on our wedding day. The joy lies in the not in memories of who we once were or expectations of who we may yet become, but rather in the delight of discovery again and again in the ever-surprising now. And the beauty of all these blessings in the ordinary is that they are never contingent on chance and circumstance or even Covid-19. They are always present in and as this very moment.

The experience of our lives is not as much the product of reality as it is the product of our perception of reality. We choose to pay attention or not. We choose to live in the past, present, or future. We choose the things to which we assign value and meaning. It is, in every moment, a choice. Hope and joy are far more durable in the now than anywhere or any-when else. There is an infinite welling up of love giving itself away in and as this very moment. Today I hope you rush out to meet it. –Brian

August 25, 2020

When I first heard that the ancient redwood trees in Big Basin Redwoods State Park were burning in the midst of the raging wildfires in California, I wept. I wept openly. So much lost. So much burned to the ground. So much grief. Grief for the lives and homes and businesses which are being destroyed. Grief for those ancient redwood giants which hold the stories of thousands of years. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. So much grief.

And surely my tears held more than just the devastation of wildfires and the thought of losing those ancient giants, some as old as 2,000 years. Those tears held in them the grief of a worldwide pandemic, the grief of preaching to an empty sanctuary, the grief of trauma held in black bodies, the grief of trauma held in white bodies, the grief of so many young adults struggling with depression and anxiety, the grief of political divides and nasty name-calling.

There is a lot to grieve right now. I know each of you feel it and hold it in your own bodies these days. Somehow the raging fires in California speak to our collective grief.

But the ancient redwood giants have a lesson to teach us. These giant trees have hope to bring to us in the midst of our grief. Reports from inside Big Basin Redwoods State Park show that although the campgrounds and park buildings, sadly, have burned to the ground, most of the redwoods have survived. These amazing giants have lived through fires much worse than the current fires burning through the Big Basin area. Redwood forests have survived centuries of wildfires and stand tall to show it. The thick bark of the redwood tree acts as a fire retardant, giving the tree the coating it needs to survive wildfire after wildfire. These ancient giants have survived through the flames and the devastation of hundreds of forest burns. And from the ashes of the fallen trees, new buds will soon grow as tall and magnificent as before.

Like the ancient redwood trees, we will rise up through our grief and our brokenness and our sin, too. New spring-green buds of hope will grow out of the ashes of this pandemic, and even out of the ashes of our racism and division. Christ calls us to die to ourself and to be reborn in the waters of baptism. We have hope in Jesus Christ who makes all things new.

Look up, my friends. Look up at the mighty branches of the great redwoods, towering above all the dirt and ashes and mess on the ground below. God has given us sure and certain hope in Jesus, the One who died and lives again. Spring-green buds in the midst of ashes! Thanks be to God!

In love and hope,

Pastor Kelley

August 18, 2020

On Reading Slowly,

The irony of all writing is that the most important truths cannot be expressed in words. Metaphor, simile, illustration, and allusion all approach what we are trying to share, but like asymptotes, never quite reach their limit. So instead we use language to point towards something ineffable hoping that the reader or hearer will intuit that to which we point. Communication, at least about life’s most important truths, therefore requires a delicate dance of hope and trust between the speaker and the hearer and between the writer and the reader. Communication is always and necessarily relational.

In our tradition of revelation summarily called Judaism and Christianity, we tend to rely on ancient books to discern the character of God and the quality of our lives. But for such enormities, pale words, whether in Hebrew, Greek, or English seem woefully inadequate. There is a world of difference between the exhilaration and utter terror on the edge of awe that threatens to utterly engulf the self and those limp words on the page, “the fear of the Lord.” “The Love of God,” teases at, but cannot deliver, the utter rhapsodic ecstasy of being lost in the transcendent divine bliss of Trinity. Sometimes, I fear that the church has confused the map with the destination and the words with the Word.

Lately, in this time of disruption and distancing, I have found myself having a hard time praying. Too many anxieties and idle daydreams barge through my intentions squatting on my attention. Perhaps you too have felt some of this spiritual and emotional attention deficit. When lost in the constant busyness of ceaseless thought I either take a nap, and use sleep as a gentle drug to quiet my mind, or I double down on the words hoping that from the outside something or someone might meet me there. I try to read slowly, very slowly, forcing myself to speak the words aloud simply to prevent my mind from racing on. Then sometimes, someone shows up. Not in anything as coarse and language, but in the subtler hues of presence, intuition, and emotion I catch a passing glimpse of Truth in the periphery of perception. I read slowly not to fully consume the words and arrogantly presumed meanings that I import, but rather to hold the author’s hand hoping that Truth may show up. Having been trained by the practice of law to scan pages diagonally at the rate of 120 or so an hour, I can only manage this with poetry and scripture where my eyes do not presume to navigate their unfamiliar topographies of form and genre. So lately, I read the Bible not so much to learn about God as to meet God. And I read poetry not so much to discover its meanings as to encounter the heart of another person. Sometimes, someone shows up.

Disruptions to our daily patterns of living have caused annoyances, hardships, and a mild, all-pervasive depression. But disruptions to our daily habits of mind can open us to something more important than our selves, our desires, or our presumed conclusions. Unmoored from the well-worn ruts of perception in which all we ever find is what our unconscious selves present to our conscious minds, we may yet encounter something or someone else. There is Truth out there looking for us, if only we allow ourselves to become vulnerable and open to it. –Brian

August 11, 2020

I have discovered a new Corona-Virus friendly hobby, genealogy. It permits me to socially distance from the living while I draw closer to the dead. My family, like so many in the United States, had little sense of its own past. While I knew my grandparents from my childhood, and vaguely remember one great grandmother, our family was small so I had little sense of coming from anywhere or anyone. Instead of family stories, we had vague categories of national origins in Europe. There were no elders, no rituals, no traditions, no ancestral artifacts, land, or stories, just our little family trying its best to make it in this uncertain world.

Thanks to the internet, and the fastidious labors of the Latter-Day Saints, genealogy is now a cross between library science and database management. Through public records, I have been able to piece together bits of a story that was inaccessible to me. Beginning with the life markers of births, deaths, and marriages, I am steadily filling in the terra incognita of my own past in the pasts of others. While I would like to tell you about all the famous people I am descended from, the truth is I come from the sort of people that the world usually forgets—farm laborers, servants, stone masons, and home makers. But when I re-remember them, perhaps the first time they have been recollected in years if not centuries, I find both a certain comfort and energy. Simply gazing down on the family tree, some branches of which I can now trace to the sixteenth century, conveys a courage for simply being. I know they overcame obstacles–like emigrating to the United States. And they bore searing hardships–the long toll of early deaths bears silent witness to chasms of grief. But they endured and each in her or his own way experienced this life, all contributing to make me. In a very real genetic and epigenetic sense, I carry them with me.

Ancestry is not the same thing as the communion of saints, but it is a subset that better fits the size of my mind and heart. I cannot conceive of that great cloud of witnesses as anything more than pure abstraction, but these 128 or so ancestors have names and places I can explore, and perhaps even stories. I can even imagine them in the faces of people I love.

This is a hard time. We are all suffering each in our way and each to different degrees. But we will get through this pandemic and all the other calamities and reckonings that swirl around us. Others have gone before us through much the same, if not worse, and if you listen carefully you may just be able to hear them praying for us. None of us is alone. We all come from somewhere and someone. And so did they. Down the great chain of being, we all belong somewhere and to someone because that great tree has one foundation and one living taproot. I close my eyes and imagine them around me and I know, no that’s not quite right, I feel in my body that all will be well. We are held by unseen hands and loved by hidden hearts that perhaps only now in loving us have found healing from their griefs. We depend on each other. And when all the branches of this family finally see and know the vast magnitude of our shared belonging, then the Father’s reunion celebration will begin. –Brian

August 4, 2020

From Lament to Hope . . .

This afternoon I sat on our little front porch with Lisa talking about the Women’s Gathering at Fairmont this fall. The theme is, “From Lament to Hope.” While it was chosen more than a year ago, it seems oddly prescient for our current predicament. The tricky thing is that there is no direct pathway from lament to hope. We all want to go from whatever mess we are in to the outcome that fulfills our desires, which we call hope. Such a wish is understandable, very human, and very misguided. We, of course, want to assert our own solutions, self-help programs, self-control, resilience, and planning, as we deftly navigate time and chance to reach our preferred destination. But that is not the way life or this universe works. We are in charge of far less than we presume.

People who encounter real suffering and loss know the vanity of our assumptions far too well. Some losses cannot be overcome or gotten over. Some losses become a part of us. And one such loss that comes for each of us in time is the hard lesson that none of us is really in control. It can be a painful and certainly a humbling lesson, but it need not destroy us or our future. The lesson is simply one more fact that makes us human. The lesson helps teach us how to live.

There is a river in time and circumstance that carries us to places we would not choose to go on our own. There is a pattern in events woven into the warp and woof of this creation that shapes us, not the other way around. We can and do of course deny it, curse it, cajole it, and occasionally attempt to bribe it, but the river carries us despite our tantrums and entreaties. And the interesting thing about a river is that it has its own curious course and currents quite independent of anything or anyone floating along in it. You cannot directly cross over a river in a straight line. You hit eddies and tidepools that detour our progress. When you finally do get to the other bank in the shortest line possible it is never where you intended to land on firm ground. It is always someplace new, unexpected, and unchosen.

I want to get out from lament and move directly to hope. I particularly wanted this yesterday as I found myself flooded with anxious static emotion, a restlessness that comes from trying too hard to rest after working too long. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, I found my home and my life oppressively small. I wanted to get out. I wanted to get all this Coronavirus induced grief behind. I wanted to get to the other side as quickly as possible. But what the benevolent one was trying to teach me once again was the value of surrender. Instead of kicking and pushing against the current, all I needed to do was let go and surrender to it. If you float along, it may carry you quite some distance, but you will in due time but not in your preferred time, reach the other side.

The strange land called hope is out there. There is a future and it is marvelous. But the way to it cannot be navigated by human desire or agency. Jesus taught us that the way into that future was not found in resisting, striving, or dominating, but only in surrendering and letting go, knowing that the current will carry us to a new home and a new life.  So, stop paddling so hard. I know it is hard and I know it is sad. Let yourself be sad. Let yourself be lonely. Let yourself be scared. These are not afflictions to be overcome; they are part of being human. If you do that, if you just let yourself be, the other side will find you, who you become will become more true, more steady, more hope-filled that you can imagine from here. –Brian

July 28, 2020

Hiding from Now

with apologies to Saint Augustine and Marcel Proust

Lately, I find myself reaching for my calendar more than ever before. I rely upon it both to help me orient myself—exactly what day is it? —and to help remember and in remembering construct some sort of narrative of memory. In this season of canceled . . . everything, I find that one day blurs into the next without much distinction or difference. Work, sleep, eating, chores follow a constant rhythm forming a pattern that extends not just from day to day, but now from month to month. Memory has flattened and without the familiar topography of change and circumstance, I begin to lose those distinct moments upon which to attach perceptions. So, while time passing goes on much the same as before with its varied moments of idleness and industry, recent time passed has become a blurry absence in memory. Like a long drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we know we have travelled, but cannot really say for how long or where we have been in the mile after mile sameness of it all.

I think that some of us are suffering from minor (or in a few cases major) depression caused by short time memory failure. The problem is not forgetting. The problem is that in this season of shutdowns, lockdowns, isolation, cancellations, and aloneness, new memories are not being created. Many of us have only the most fleetingly tenuous grasp on the present and none whatsoever on the future, so we tend to rely on the past as our reservoir of meaning, purpose, and feeling. Our past is never really past because every experience, perception, and emotion is shaped by our memory of the past. Memory is the mind’s unreliable narrator that makes sense of the present. And while memory is a notorious deceiver, at least it is comfortingly accessible. Without its orienting navigational overlay onto the present, we begin to lose track of not just where we have been, but where we are, indeed perhaps even who we are.

Since March, many of us have been experiencing essentially the same day over and over again. Without my calendar I could not tell you when it started (March 13). And no one knows when it will end. So, we are confronted with the tyranny and the invitation of the now. One can of course numb oneself to the now (Netflix and daiquiris anyone?) or pretend that nothing has changed by trying to replace memory with endless doing. Or one can face it directly. The fleetingly insubstantial moment of now is normally squeezed almost out of perceivable existence between the tectonic pressures of our nostalgia/trauma of the past and desire/fear of the future. But absent the defining compression of future and past, the extensive moment of now reveals its true nature. Now, without future and past, is what we call eternity. The eternal moment of now is always inviting us into not just a new way of perceiving, but a new way of being, one that we usually discard as ephemeral in our headlong rush into a future that we never seem to reach.  Before considering your “next” thing, consider that for God, or indeed anyone living into eternity, perception of time would coalesce into an ever-present moment of now.

I am haunted by the some of the most enigmatic verses of scripture, the part of Ecclesiastes that follows immediately after they Byrds’ lyrics. “God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. . . I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.” Ecclesiastes 3: 11, 14-15. In this ground state of Now, Now as eternity, past and future are not irrevocably lost, they are perfectly present.

Why are we so unwilling to go there, or then? Why do we run away to our plans and reminiscences? I suspect because it is so vulnerable. Being in the Now deprives us of all controlling and defining narratives of memory and desire. Now makes us shed both defining traumas and nostalgias and the unspoken wants that drive our lives. Now may contain all truth, all belonging, every memory and hope, indeed may be the holy ground where we meet God, but it leaves us naked, stripped of defining identity and reassuring agency. All you can do is behold, which is distinctly underwhelming to most of our egos. But in that beholding of the Now is not just the invitation into, but an actual experience of eternity.

Put your calendar down. Actually, you are going to need to set down quite a bit more. This is hard, really hard for so many of us. Stop worrying so much about doing . . . anything. Breathe. Feel yourself planted on the Earth. Feel your heart beating. Do not try to think. Do not try to do. Instead, simply feel. Not in this moment, but this moment of now itself is nothing less that God giving God’s own self away in love for you and me and this pattern we call creation. Now is God-love given away for us and for our being in and as this moment. And it only took me a pandemic and a global shut down to notice. -Brian

July 21, 2020

I heard on the radio over the weekend about a new endeavor by lemonade company Country Time. The mega corporation has decided to provide one hundred dollars to anyone under the age of twelve whose parent applies on their website, the premise being that children are unable to have their usual lemonade stands in this summer of pandemic. Country Time intends for the little bit of money given to each of these families to help stimulate the economy, stating on their website their hope that the money will “help kids preserve the values of lemonade stands, honest work, and entrepreneurship, while putting a little juice back into the economy.” Presenting their case that even the littlest entrepreneurs should get the same treatment as the “big guys,” they are calling this new endeavor “The Littlest Bailout.” More information about the program can be found here: https://www.countrytimebailout.com/

While at first glance the idea may seem silly and unnecessary, the message it presents is much deeper. What might this pandemic society look like if we all took it upon ourselves to “bail” one another out? How might things look different? I have a hard time keeping my critical eyes, ears, and mind out of the way when I interact with fellow humans these days. Everyone seems annoyed with everyone else, and no one seems to be meeting others’ expectations of how they think we should all behave. I find myself frustrated when I go out, frustrated when I stay home, and frustrated when I participate in any conversation surrounding current events. I do my best to keep my judgement of others’ behavior reigned in under the premise that we are all struggling, lonely, frustrated, angry, annoyed, and the list goes on…but I am far from perfect. There are days I absolutely wish someone would come along and bail us out, and not just with lemonade stand cash. We need help.

But here’s the thing: when I step out of my frustration and criticism and judgement, just for a moment, I remember that we have been bailed out, long ago, by one who loves and cares for us more than anything in creation. Long ago, on a cross, we were more than just bailed out. We were given new life. And when I remember that, I can remember to show a little more patience, a little more forgiveness, and a little more gratitude in my day to day living right now. How are you showing this kind of sacrificial love to those with whom you disagree, especially right now? How are you living this kind of grace-giving life even when you are angry with your church, your grocery store, your neighbors?

I cannot bail out all of creation, all of the world, or even a few hundred children with lemonade money. But I can bail out one person at a time – my neighbor, my Target cashier, the Winans barista – with kindness, grace, and understanding that are universally understood and appreciated. And so can you. Country Time may be on to something here. There is something to be said, I think, for making lemonade out of…well. You know. ~Rachel

July 14, 2020

But now thus says the Lord, who created you…do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.   Isaiah 43:1-2

As these long, hot, and somewhat undefined days of COVID summer creep along I find myself in need of some simple spiritual practices in order to keep my mind and spirit in the right place. Especially when I go to the grocery store or any of the few essential trips that I must take these days and I see someone not wearing a mask or not social distancing or not washing their hands, I am grateful for a simple prayer mantra which allows me to pray rather than “preach at” some poor soul! Silently, I begin to chant and pray Kyrie Eleison which means “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, have mercy on me” as I judge another human being, “Lord, have mercy on them” as they risk their health and that of others, “Lord, have mercy on us all” as we walk through these hard days together.

Emotions are raw and edgy these days, as we all know. In our world, in our country, in our own homes, we are in need of God’s presence to go with us throughout our days so that we might “pass through the waters” and not be overwhelmed as the prophet Isaiah promises us. God is with us. We belong to God. Do not fear.

Any simple prayer mantra can be a safety net for us when we are feeling vulnerable or angry or impatient or without hope. Just muttering the word Shalom under our breath when we are anxious or tired invites God’s peace to be with us and with our neighbors. Maybe the simple words My God and My All prayed continually by St. Francis of Assisi speak to your heart and bring calm to your spirit. Or the prayer Maranatha, “Come, Lord.”

In the Gospel of John which we have been studying and preaching since the beginning of the pandemic, we hear Jesus’ invitation to his followers and to us to drink more deeply of the living water, Jesus the Living Water. How do we do that? How are we drinking more deeply of the living water of Jesus during this time of drought and depression and isolation? I know there is no easy answer to this question as each of us are struggling with our own grief, fatigue, loneliness, and angst during this time apart but Jesus promises us that if we drink of this living water, we will live.

My prayer for each of you is that you will drink more deeply of the living waters of Jesus, and my prayer is that even the simple prayer mantras of Kyrie Eleison, Shalom, My God and My All, or Maranatha might allow you to take even just a sip of that living water in this time of thirst.

Peace and love,

Pastor Kelley

July 7, 2020

Consider Grumpiness

Everywhere I seem to turn, whether it be at Kroger’s, watching TV, at the gas station, the General Assembly of the PCUSA, or even at church, I encounter our present golden age of grumpiness. Allow me to define my terms. By grumpiness I mean the interconnected behaviors and assumptions of a general dissatisfaction that the world is not the way we wish it to be combined with assumption that this unfortunate state of affairs is the fault of others, others whom we assume to be either negligent or bearing malign purpose. It is not simply sadness about how things are. It is sadness redirected outward into prickly madness.

Everyone seems grumpy now. Since early March we have been living under the shadow of fear which cannot be contained, mitigated, or predicted. Moreover, our sense of control over our “normal” lives has been pulled from under our feet with social distancing and all the normal pleasures of life cancelled. Compounding all of this is our collective incomprehension decoding the emotional cues behind our masks. Is that person smiling or smirking at us? Without our near constant flow of non-verbal emotional cues, we revert to our feral instincts assuming ill will behind every face mask. And what is the result? Lack of trust, the break down of relationships, institutions, and cooperation, and, of course, ever increasing grumpiness feeding its own growth.

Grumpiness is not all bad. As I mentioned, it is comprised of two components. First, we are disappointed, unsettled, anxious, and saddened by the way things are. That sadness is an honest and authentic response to pain. Normally, all by itself, we call that form of sadness, grief. Grief is the necessary experience of every mortal creature who loves life, beauty, and other creatures. Grief always arises because this world is touched by a pall of darkness from the very beginning that tinges every joy with the melancholy of inevitable loss. That is what this life and this world are like. Things do not always work out. We lose those we love. Everything mortal ends.

Given this reality of loss, the ancient answer of the church is not to deny or ignore the pain, but to sit with it and ultimately step through it. The pain is the embodied experience of letting go, letting go of our dreams, letting go of our loves, and even letting go of life. The curious thing is that in letting go, we finally find ourselves held. In letting go (a great metaphysical maneuver to bypass mortality that Jesus demonstrated on the cross) we finally liberate ourselves from all those attachments that kept us bound for so long. In letting go we finally find ourselves to be not only free, but in a reality more beautiful, loving, and rooted than anything our frustrated desires could dream of.

The problem is that this process of letting go or self-emptying can get misdirected. Grief is the greatest teacher of wisdom, but only if it does not get distracted towards others and transform into grumpiness and anger. We are afraid of looking inward and asking the hard questions, so we start hurling our grief outward onto others hoping that it will somehow stick. The shortest and most dangerous separation in the human heart is between grief and anger. Grief always wants to conceal itself as anger so it can go unnoticed, unprocessed, and unhealed. So, we ascribe fault to others. We push them away. We blame, accuse, and judge. And then we find ourselves ever sadder and more alone.

I look around our nation and often into my own heart to see the vast seas of unprocessed grief in which we paddle our lives. Time does not heal all wounds, it only conceals them as they sink down and become a part of us and for too many, become us. This danger befalls not just individuals, but entire nations.

There is another way, but it is hard. Job posed this same challenge and Jesus supplied the answer. We can face our pain. We can befriend it. We can walk through it. My pain is my pain and belongs to no one else. Blame will not remove it. Accusation will not lessen it.  The pain is simply a part of being mortal. But if I listen to it and loosen my need for control and predictability, I find myself upheld from somewhere else, from someone else.

The present crisis is not fundamentally a question of virology, public health, cancelled vacation plans, deferred gatherings, personal freedoms, collective responsibilities, civil rights legislation, family expectations, or even national character. The present crisis is simply asking us whether we can face our own feelings and grow up. -Brian

June 30, 2020

With the need to find more outdoor and socially-distant hobbies this summer, one that I have become particularly fond of is river kayaking. Feeling the burn in my biceps and on my sunbaked skin, the cool water sprinkled on my legs with each lift of the paddle, trusting the gentle current to carry me to my destination, all against a backdrop of bent and ancient sycamore and birch trees (whose low-hanging branches I admittedly try to avoid for fear of spiders in my hair). It is a lovely new outdoor recreational activity, and typically a somewhat leisurely one.

A few weeks ago, I was kayaking with my friend Alli on the Great Miami River. It was a wonderfully pleasant afternoon; we could not have asked for better weather or friendlier water. Twenty minutes from the pull-out point at the end of our three-hour trip, the fluffy clouds were replaced completely and without warning by a menacing sky and driving rain. Alli and I pulled onto a beach on the riverbank as we debated what to do. With no way to view the radar and no perceivable break in the unannounced monsoon, we decided that our most beneficial and logical (albeit perhaps not safest) course of action would be to keep paddling toward the pull-out point. Back on the water, the lenses of my glasses became immediately covered in gigantic rain droplets, like windshields without wiper blades. Unable to make out anything but blurry water molecules, I took off my glasses and shoved them into my bag. Though I am legally blind without them, I concluded that fuzzy vision was better than no vision at all. I pulled my boat up alongside Alli’s and informed her that she should take the lead as I could not see more than a few inches in front of my kayak, and I would follow right behind her. And so we made our way slowly down the last mile of the river, Alli confidently navigating around every rock and eddy as I (quite literally) blindly followed, trusting her judgement and the water’s flow.

Much like learning to walk in the dark, navigating a river blind requires a great deal of awareness and trust. You must learn how to read the water not visually but physically. You need to feel the current beneath you and hear the bubbling of white water around the sharpest hidden rocks. And when those senses inevitably fail, you need someone who can guide you around the hazards that you cannot see.

These waters – the waters now in particular of Montgomery County and the waters of our world – are anything but still. The good news is, we have a guide who doesn’t just show us the way. Our guide IS the way, and the truth, and the life. And so we paddle. ~Rachel

June 23, 2020

This is getting harder. People are still getting sick. People are frustrated. People are angry. You can see it in the news from the streets and the mood of the nation. We are moving towards a partial church reopening that, while it is the least bad option available, really makes no one happy. Everything now seems to be making do. Amid all the frustrations, compromises, and indefinitely deferred futures, I just get tired. Maybe, you do too.

So, I went for a walk in the woods.

Amid ash and oak, elm and walnut, I am surrounded by icons of truths far below words and beyond my endless spinning thoughts. A giant maple, with a trunk more than a yard in diameter, has silently stood watch on that lawn for a century. Her canopy nearly touches the earth forming a shelter from innumerable storms and changes. From the eternal twilight beneath her boughs, I watch as branches mighty and minuscule bend and wave in the rolling wind. She has stood there far longer than I have been alive, and by the grace of God, will likely stand long after I return to dust. And her key to majesty and beauty is not strength but resilience. She bends before the wind, but always returns to her true form following a pattern locked deep inside her genes. I lean against her trunk gazing up into the verdure in wonder, gratitude, and awe.

On Sunday morning I had a related moment of wonder, gratitude, and awe listening to Judy Bede’s prelude on the old Shaker hymn, Tis the Gift to be Simple.  Normally, the tune is played in A Major with bright consonant tones. But that is not where Judy started. After a brief introduction, she introduced the main theme in clashing dissonant chords that hinted at the form, but none of the content of the ultimate conclusion. In her musical offering, Judy enacted and demonstrated the lyrics without uttering a single word:

Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free
‘Tis a gift to come down where I ought to be
And when I am in the place just right
I will be in the valley of love and delight
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend I will not be ashamed
To turn, to turn will be my delight

‘Til by turning, turning, I come ’round right.

Always returning to the same simple form, Judy allowed the dissonances to follow round and round in their own unhurried pace as the melody bent and bowed to intruding flats. But the pattern held steady and strong finding at last rest and resolution in the tonic conclusion, there resolving into precisely what it was meant to be from the first note.

Bent, bowed, but unbroken, we trudge on through chance and circumstance. The world does not care a wit about our preferences or bend to our wills. Instead, it is we who learn from the book of creation, beauty, and grace. In its pages lie the deep wisdom of the trees and mystery behind the music. True strength lies in gently yielding while always knowing your true form. True beauty lies not in the absence of pain and discord, but in their tender interweaving into deeper harmonies we could never have imagined without them.

So, I make do, not as failure and compromise, but rather as the essence of being a creature growing in and being shaped by this creation. The Creator’s themes are long and winding and we have only our few measures to play. But the great theme is not merely beautiful, it is beauty itself and it is Truth. And we, even we, even now at this moment amid our fear and frustrations, are an absolutely essential part of it. Because we know who we are in the vast intention we call God, we bow and we bend, but we will not break.  –Brian

June 16, 2020

Learning How to Walk in the Dark

Like a lot of people right now, I am not sure of where I am going or what I am doing. There are so many uncertainties swirling around us right now—is it safe to go out in public, is corona virus growing or receding, how should I respond to racial injustices and civic protests around me? Last February the way forward seemed so clear. Now, not so much.

I remember as a child learning how to walk in the dark. You open your eyes wide, but they provide no useful information. So, you reach out your hands to feel your way along. You cannot tense up your fingers, lest you jam them on a wall. You need to reach out ever so gently trying to sense presences before actually running into them. You need to move slowly, paying attention to subtle body sensations–a change in the patterns of air movement, or the creak of a floor board near the center of the hall. You strive brush against the world, not smash into it, and you can only do so at the speed of careful perception.

The second thing you need to do is have a very clear sense of your own body, your own kinesthetic sense of up and down, left and right. Normal visual cues will not aid you in the dark. If you want to remain upright walking down a dark hallway, you need to be tuned into and trust your own sense of balance.

Finally, you need to have some sense of your own motion through space without actually watching yourself move. You need to be aware of where you have been–how many steps, how have you drifted or staggered, and how far have you come?

If you do all these things with gentle, attentive perception, you can walk in the dark. You will never walk quickly, but you will get to where you are going. What matters is not speed, but careful, observant attention to the signals from around you and to the signals arising within you.

I do not know where I am going right now or precisely where I am doing. What I do know is how to get there. I need to remember to relax my anxious responses and my tendency to reactively clench as if to receive a blow and instead reach out with gentle hands, a gentle mind, and a gentle heart. I need to spend less time worrying about what ifs and more time attending to what is, here and now. Perceptions, rather than anxious imaginings, provide the useful clues. I need to know myself, especially my perennial habits of wandering off into self-doubt, projections, and attachments. I need to be exquisitely attentive to my own sense of value, meaning and purpose. Finally, I need to know where I have been, the commitments, consequences, and follies of a lifetime that trail off into the wake of memory.

The odd thing is that I have never really known my destination. It has usually been a projection of my desires. What has changed me and shaped my life are those moments when I have attentively walked in the dark. In those moments, and not when I presumed to know where I was going, have I been found.

Maybe it takes walking in the dark to make us pay attention and realize that we are not alone.

Maybe it takes walking in the dark to get anywhere at all.


June 2, 2020

Concerning Bodies,

In this season of Easter now drawing to its close, my imagination has been haunted by bodies–bodies tortured and resurrected, bodies recognized from their wounds, bodies transformed by grace, bodies empowered through the breath of God, and bodies embraced in ascension as part of God’s own identity. And then I think about other bodies–brown bodies, white bodies, police officers’ bodies, bodies frightened and in pain. Seeking to follow a curious God incarnate in a first century Palestinian peasant, one cannot ignore God’s clear focus on the human body as both an expression of divine creativity and grace and the medium through which both divine truth and judgment are revealed. The Gospel of John in particular focuses our attention on bodies because for John it is through and in bodies that the truth is revealed and humanity is presented with a choice, literally a crisis. Do we see in one Jesus of Nazareth a mangled insurrectionist dying on a cross or in him do we see both truest humanity and truest God?

I do not know what I do not know. But I know my body knows more. I know my body seems to retain the hurts, shames, and anxieties of not just my life, but my ancestors as well, even when I cannot articulate them. And I know that my body grants me access, privilege, deference, and respect in so many environments, even if I cannot tell you how, why, or when. If this is true for me, I assume it is true for others. Conversely, I suspect that the traumas of generations reside in the flesh of many of us. Maybe you too have had hints at this sort of knowledge that is literally in our flesh and bones.

Something has shifted in our world. Maybe it was the pent-up anxiety of pandemic restrictions. Maybe it was the unprecedented economic carnage experience so disproportionately by communities of color. Maybe it was simply the pent-up rage of a people who have been forced to endure too much.  The constant parade of African Americans killed by the agents of the state in our country—Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephen Clark, Botham Jean, and Breonna Taylor, to name but a few—threatens to numb our sensibilities and reduce tragedy to mere statistics. But then the shocking film of George Floyd brought something new to our collective conscience—horror and compassion. George Floyd should not have died. He was handcuffed lying prone on the street. And you could hear him beg, begging for a breath of air from the officer kneeling on his throat, and begging for his mother, “Momma, I’m through.” What I did not know was that Floyd’s mother died two years ago. Seconds before his own death, he cried out beyond his own anguish for his mother, a primal plea that comes up deep from within our bodies moments before their destruction pleading for rescue, release, and mercy. You cannot hear Floyd’s anguished plea and not hear its echoes across time and mortality all the way back to the cross. You cannot hear Floyd’s pleas and not be haunted by them.

The Gospels’ vision lesson works in two dimensions. Vertically, it challenges us to see God in Jesus. Horizontally, it challenges us to see that same God present in every person, every neighbor, just as in our selves. The failure to see in either direction is the essence of Sin. John in particular goes further claiming that the failure to see constitutes eternal judgment upon ourselves. The unfortunate truth however is that it is far too easy to fail to see that which we do not wish to see, far too easy to justify, rationalize, ignore, or obscure. As a white man in America–ridiculously overeducated, protected and content, safe behind all my clever words and connections–it is far too easy for me to not see the pain and suffering in my neighbors, my literal neighbors here in this community, one of the most economically segregated in the nation. But a dying man calling out for his mother, that even I cannot ignore. Nor should I.

So, what should we do? Pray for peace? Certainly, but prayer all by itself is a lousy substitute for action. Peacefully protest? Always a good thing, but history suggests it not terribly effective method for producing lasting societal change. The truth is that our current predicament is the consequence of millions of discrete choices, choosing against black bodies, for many centuries. No action, no reform, no prosecution, or policy could undo centuries of harm, even if we knew what we should do and we do not. Moreover, the deepest hurt is not in our law codes, or even our culture (although it is abundant there), but in human bodies testifying to centuries of trauma.

Or perhaps we should issue a statement, a proclamation decrying racism, oppression, and brutality. My inbox is littered with institutional censures of structural racism and prejudice, some curiously from institutions that at one time actually owned slaves. But if our commitment to our common humanity, justice, and human compassion must be proclaimed in a press release rather than simply demonstrated in our collective and individual character, then such words are obscene lies. So yes, racism is evil. White supremacy is a corrosive lie rooted in sin. Extra-judicial killings of unarmed, handcuffed men are atrocities. And there is something deeply malignant in our society that continually metastasizes our national original sin of violence towards people of color. But what should we do?

I do not know what I do not know. And my knowledge of the life experiences, hopes, and pains of people of color is minuscule. Perhaps, right now it is best to avoid declarative sentences altogether and simply listen. That is how Fairmont responded in the past, hosting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1968. Those panels expressed discomforting truths to more than 400 in the audience, convicting testimony that has never disappeared, only waited for verdict. Before I was born, a few hundred white people at Fairmont were simply willing to lean into the discomfort and listen. Maybe right now I should just listen, with all my anxiety and all my discomfort when I would rather turn away (recognizing we are all anxious and uncomfortable). But then we cannot merely listen, we need to bear witness. We need to listen compassionately to the truth of others and then point the world to that testimony. As good news bringers (aka evangelists) this should be an old habit for us. We are not particularly good at saving the world, but we can point to the truth. And the truth, if we are brave enough to bear and share it, may yet set us free.

The hard work of changing the world lies not in changing our laws but in changing ourselves. That can only happen when we let the truth of others break open ours. This requires us to look inside us to places we prefer not to go. It requires us to look outside ourselves in compassion (which literally means to suffer with) to perceive and testify to others’ truths. But I suspect that if we learn to see God in a man dying on a cross, we will also be able to see our neighbor in man calling out to his mother with his last breath. And when we can hold our witness to both in truth, loving our God and our neighbor, then I suspect we will be getting closer to the answer we seek. –Brian

May 26, 2020

I heard a prayer this morning that stopped me in my tracks. In his deep southern, South Carolina accent, beloved professor and theologian, William Willimon prayed these words, “God, I praise you for your great, glorious turning toward us.” God’s great and glorious turning toward us…

I am so drawn to these words. In all my fumbling and fickle attempts to really know and love God, I always come back to the painful awareness that I am lacking and unworthy. Which in the end takes me back to focusing on me and my actions, and all that I have or have not done to know or love God.

God’s great and glorious turning toward us is God’s action of love and redemption, initiated by God, completed by God in Jesus, and sustained by God through the Holy Spirit. There is no “me” in the ultimate work of salvation. God turns toward me. God turns toward us. Even when we are fumbling and fickle and failing. It is God who turns toward us to redeem us and love us and call us.

Hold that image in your mind, that image of God turning toward you, toward us. In the presence of the great and glorious God, all of who we are melts away, even our failures and fumbling. Of course, we are unworthy and lacking. We all are. God knows that yet turns in love toward us to redeem us and heal us and call us. This is the nature of God. Love.

I have many fragile and false markers I use to define who I am:

-people’s perceptions of me
-my own expectations
-how hard I work
-the words and actions I speak

-the mistakes and the successes in my life

When my great and glorious God turns toward me, I can only see God and God’s love for me, and not those false markers I create for myself and others.

As I pray for each of you during these days of being together-but-apart, I imagine you at home alone or with your family, in your yard pulling weeds or planting flowers, in your makeshift office at home juggling work and children, or venturing out for the weekly grocery shopping adventure. I also imagine you tired, frustrated, short-tempered, and anxious, and at other times joyful hopeful, grateful, and content.

My prayer for you during these long and uncertain days of this pandemic is that you will see God turning toward you with love and redemption, and that you will simply and wonderfully receive God’s turning.

May 19, 2020

One of the hardest lessons of faith is that we are not in control. The universe does not revolve around us, nor does it care about our intelligence, industry, cunning, or craft.  We camouflage over this hard truth with our strategic plans, risk assessments, and long-range forecasts. In “normal” times we are able to maintain the charade. But not now. Now we simply respond to what happens according to our best knowledge and values, knowing full well that our best knowledge is woefully inadequate. It is profoundly, sometimes embarrassingly humbling.

But curiously, it is precisely in the humbling that we find a solid truth to stand upon. Humble and humiliation both derive from the Latin word humus: the earth. To be humbled is to be brought down to earth, which is of course our home, from what we are made, and where we live and love. To be humbled is to learn who we truly are, creatures made by a Creator around whom this world unfolds. Once humbled, our lives can at last learn to bend with all creation to the Creator’s love and care in the great cosmic dance. We were not made to be autonomous, self-defined, or in control. Indeed, that was the essence of the problem in the garden long ago. We were made for a relationship defined not by us, but by our Maker. And in that embrace, is peace, bliss, and belonging beyond anything we could every dream or do.

I am just a little person in a big world and so are you. But we belong to someone who loves us and weaves time out of love for us simply as a place for belonging together. Today may not be a good day, nor even tomorrow. But God makes time for us, and on that day we will dance.

May 12, 2020

This is going on a long time, much longer than I expected. I do not mind the closed shops or even the closed restaurants. For me the hardest thing is the disappearance of the future. Beyond a few days out, everything is now indeterminate. Plans, events, celebrations, even deadlines have blurred. The presumed certainties of the calendar have collapsed into mere functions of probability. We simply do not know what will happen or when, and so we are forced by circumstance to content ourselves with an endless repetition of now.

For those of us who derive much of our self-worth and identity from future oriented industry, this can be a devastating loss. Goals, deadlines, and plans have all become fuzzy and porous as waves of pandemic wash in and out eroding all our assumptions. The once presumed road ahead is now more like trackless grassland extending out in all directions. You can see a long way, but the prairie covers your track and everything to the horizon rolls in motion before unseen winds. You know you are still standing, but cannot see your feet, let alone the trail.

One of the few genuine gifts of this moment in our history is precisely this moment. Social isolation, the slowing of doing, and the clouding of every moment except this moment forces us to look down and pay attention to this and only this moment. A quick inventory reveals that we are in fact stably grounded, breathing, reasonably healthy, and reasonably sane. So why are we all so afraid of living into the eternal now of this moment, which is of course the only point in time which we will ever occupy? Why do we endlessly yearn for the faraway horizons of the future that are, of course, mere projections of our desires?

I am here now. Where else could I ever be?  I feel the air moving in my lungs. I feel the weight of my body pressing though my feet into the good earth. There is only one moment in time in which God can reach any of us and it is now. And there is only one place in all creation where God can reach any of us and it is here. The whole mystery of the incarnation made the here and now sacred as the sacramental vessel where the divine and the mortal meet, mingle, and dance. The past is utterly inaccessible to me. My memory is already hard at work re-editing it. The future is beyond my grasp.  It will come as it will regardless of my plan and anxieties. But right here, right now God is giving away God’s own self to me in creative love in and as this very moment. Not soon, but now. Not close, but here. Welcome to the sacred crucible of now.

May 5, 2020

People ask me lots of questions for which I do not have answers. When are we going to open the church? Will older adults return to worship? What is going to happen? My problem is not that I have neglected to consider these questions. My problem is that the answers to these and many others are unknowable at the present time. Lack of knowledge and lack of control make me feel alternatively anxious or incompetent. I try to bury those feelings through busyness and talking to people, but I know they will come back. Perhaps you too have felt some of these critical, worried voices popping up inside your head and heart.

The most common human response to these darker feelings is avoidance. The nightly news recites an account of daily infection statistics and then ends the newscast with some human-interest story about a puppy. If we really are in control and we really do define our own identities and outcomes, then that is the best we can do. Science, politics, and culture will provide the only answers we can cling to, even it they don’t provide much. In such a world, the only rational response is despair or avoidance, hence all those puppy stories.

In an odd way this whole pandemic mess is strengthening my faith by weakening everything else that I might depend on. I am daily confronted by my own ignorance and anxiety and I can hear it behind all the talking heads on television as well. Daily I am reminded how little agency I exercise over my life and my community. And even more personally, I am reminded how I cannot generate my own feelings on demand. I do not have the freedom to create myself, let alone my world. The beautiful thing is that I do not have to.

The first and greatest freedom of a Christian is the freedom not to have to create yourself or your world. We are instead created. The second freedom is closely related. Who we are and what we do is not the product of our skills, knowledge, or achievements. Rather, who we are is the result of an encounter. Our lives are defined by a relationship, not by ourselves. I am defined by a relationship with one who loves me despite myself, a relationship with one who adopted me despite my running away, despite my anxieties, and despite my incompetencies. None of my stuff really matters, only the relationship. Only God.

If all your hopes lie with humankind and our skills and knowledge, then today is a day to despair because all those hopes eventually end in the grave. But if you believe in a God who is meeting us as us in the middle of this and every mess, then you are now free to teach the world how to live . . . and how to die . . . and how to live. The first commandment—you shall have no other gods before me–is the greatest commandment not because it forbids idolatry, but rather because it points our way beyond ourselves to freedom and to life itself.  B.