The Musings of a “Seeker-Disciple”
Over the years pastors and preachers have used the monthly newsletters or weekly bulletins to communicate with their parishioners. In this digital age of webpages and personal blogs we find a new way to communicate the Good News. These are articles that have been written with my congregation of Messiah Church in mind. Messiah Church is such a wonderful community of faith – giving, reaching out, tolerant of other beliefs, selfless – these I believe are the qualities of a disciple of Jesus. Thanks for visiting my blog. My wish for you is the one that Jesus wished for all people – that you may find peace.
The Dream for Our Churches
Only a month ago I read a report from March of 2021 by Gallup Poll. It was depressing for sure! U.S. church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937, and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. Today, that church membership stands at 47% – a drop of nearly 25% in just 20 years! For the first time in nearly 90 years there are more non-believers, other-believers, and non-affiliated believers than those belonging to an organized faith community. For those of us who have spent our lives within institutional religion, we see the writing on the wall – church as we know it is changing and changing fast. Now let’s be clear. God will still be God. Jesus did not come to start a church movement (he lived and died as a Jewish man of faith), and faith communities will continue to thrive and flourish where we least expect. I am constantly surprised by the deep faith of those who profess to have no faith community.
Still it had me “pondering” as Pastor Mark invites us to do each week. I was still pondering the decline in churches two Sundays ago when I found myself taking a breather from working out at the Planet Fitness off Midvale Blvd. I glanced around the gym so filled with young and old, many people of color and many Caucasian as well, men and women, those with disabilities and some with none that I could see. The place was active and purposeful and alive. I thought to myself: This is the dream for our churches – such vibrant diversity! What might Planet Fitness teach us as pastors?
Then I glanced at the wall and there in large letters was a simple slogan: YOU BELONG! How often in our institutional church communities have we relayed the exact opposite message? We let folks know in subtle ways that they really DO NOT belong if they have made terrible mistakes in their lives, if they have had too many marriages, affairs, or infidelities. Some denominations make it clear that you do not belong if you’ve had an abortion or you’ve been incarcerated, if you’ve been divorced or you are LGBTQ. Sometimes we let people know that they DO NOT belong by hanging on to buildings that cannot be accessed by the disabled, or requiring allegiance to creedal statements that were developed 1600 years ago, or demanding tithing or “jumping through the hoops” membership classes. The point is I’m not sure the church has done a great job with Jesus’ message – YOU BELONG.
Then I glanced at the opposing wall and there in large bold letters: JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE. Wow! How has the church done with that? We judge people by their clothes and their hair styles, their tattoos and their piercings. We judge others by their political parties, their intelligence, their stewardship commitment. Constantly we exercise judgement in all our subtle messages of non-belonging.
Then just as I was getting a drink from the fountain, there on the wall above: NO CRITICS! Again I wondered about our institutional criticism. Oftentimes to be a critic is to dwell on the negative. Certainly churches have been guilty of that. We can get negative. It is part of the human condition. We are negative about the state of the world, our ability to affect change, the way the world is during this extended pandemic, even the future of the church.
And so Planet Fitness challenged me. How can I proclaim that everyone BELONGS here? How can I work on my own heart so that I become more and more a JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE, and most of all how can I drop the negativity in my own life so that people see in my demeanor, my words and actions the promise of positivity and hope. Will these see in me NO CRITIC – rather, a friend and bearer of Good News? The church can do better. We can do better as a faith community. I can do so much better.
1 Cor 13
Amidst all of the loss of this past year there have been blessings as well. One of the many blessings that has come to me is the chance to work alongside of Pastor Mark. While his time here is not what we anticipated when he came on staff, his ministry has already touched so many lives. Each week Mark would record a reflection after watching a past sermon and ask a question to help us ponder the Good News in our home church settings. Along with his visitation ministry, grief support and spiritual direction, Mark also wrote Ponderings for our church Facebook page – often three times each week! He is a magnanimous soul for sure.
Only last month, on May 29th, he offered a wonderful reflection along with a passage from 1 Corinthians 13 in a translation for modern ears. I loved it! I have been dealing with people in situations of great loss. A young man facing serious cancer, a husband dealing with an unexpected loss of his wife, two older women (and longtime friends) facing death, a few parishioners facing life changing situations. All of these people are feeling the heart ache of loss – and the loss is felt more deeply because of their great love. Mark’s reflection brought me comfort…and hope. Here is what he shared.
A Moment with Pastor Mark
Marchaé Grair writes about The Power to Love, in a devotion on a fragile day. Hours before sitting in the dentist chair to repair a broken tooth, a day before a battery of tests with a visit to the cardiologist, followed by my second vaccine shot – her powerful reflection took me out of myself. In this brilliant devotion she wrote this:
The ecstasy of love is worth the grief that their love will inevitably end…all great love requires great risk. Then she prayed, Holy Beloved, loving deeply is a risk my spirit needs me to take – Let my most vulnerable love be a blessing. Amen.
To ponder a love that is worth the fragileness of life and health. Have you ever had those brittle anticipated days, when out of the blue, a reflection from another brings together the mind and heart and there is space to breathe deeply? Amidst anticipated uncomfortable moments, erupts a reminder of just how deeply loved we are. I love God’s surprises!
If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.
All great love requires great risk.
Prayer: Holy Beloved, loving deeply is a risk my spirit needs me to take – Let my most vulnerable love be a blessing. Amen.
I ponder, taking a risk in love…with you for a new day.
Pastor Mark is right of course. You all are deeply loved. Love deeply in return. The risks of love are worth it.
Right from Wrong
Once upon a time on the outskirts of a big city stood an old temple. Young boys would come to live in the temple and to learn from the master teacher, a monk. One day he sought to teach them a valuable lesson.
The old monk gathered his students around him. My dear students, as you can see, I am growing old, and slow. I can no longer provide for the needs of the temple as I once did. The nearby city is full of wealthy people with more money in their purses than they could ever need. Go into the city and follow those rich people and when no one is looking, and only when no one is looking, steal their purses from them. That way we will have enough money to keep our school alive.
But Master,” the boys said in disbelief, you have taught us that it is wrong to steal.
The master answered: It would be wrong to steal if it were not absolutely necessary. And remember, you must not be seen! If anyone can see you, you must not steal! Do you understand?”
The boys looked nervously from one to the other. Yes, Master, they said quietly.
The old monk rose slowly and watched them go. When he turned back inside, he saw that one student was still standing quietly in the corner of the room. Why did you not go with the others? he asked the boy. Do you not want to help save our temple? I do, Master,” said the boy quietly. But you said that we had to steal without being seen. I know that there is no place on Earth that I would not be seen, for I would always see myself.
Excellent! Exclaimed the teacher. That is just the lesson that I hoped my students would learn, but you were the only one to see it. Run and tell your friends to return to the temple before they get us into trouble. The boy ran and got his friends who were nervously gathered just out of sight of the temple, trying to decide what to do. When they returned, the Master told them the words the boy had spoken and they all understood the lesson.
The master said, No matter what we do, we always have a part of ourselves that is quietly watching, and that knows right from wrong and can guide us if we listen.
Last month I wrote about the need to rediscover the “common good” – the sense that we are on this journey of life together and we are bound to one another in a social contract of sorts. I shared with you the importance of seeing the greater picture beyond one’s own rights, needs and desires.
Along with this I think too, we have often lost the sense of the still, small voice within each of us – the voice of conscience helping us to discern right from wrong. Conscience is that part of us that always sees our self. Do you believe that there is that voice within you? We are living into the season of Pentecost, a season of the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught about the Spirit as a voice of direction if only we take time to listen. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, the Spirit will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14: 26) Jesus was teaching his friends that the Holy Spirit lived within them and if they listened they would know what to do. We need that direction, that Spirit more than ever today. In responding to those who think differently that we do about Covid response, or mask mandates, immigration or global warming, racial issues or criminal justice reform, sexuality or gender equality – you name it – there are dozens of issues that can cause such hurt and division. Before you respond – listen to that still small voice of the Spirit. Remember that you cannot hide from your conscience. Try to do what is right in the days ahead.
We are coming back together after such a long time apart. Patience and understanding, tolerance and kindness will go a long way toward the healing of our divisions. Trust the Spirit within you – listen…listen…listen…
The Common Good?
A miserly baker once lived next to a poor kind and generous soul. Every morning the smell of cinnamon buns and sweet rolls wafted out of the bakery and the neighbor would enjoy the aroma as he ate his breakfast of oatmeal. The baker watched from his window – he could see the neighbor enjoying the scent of fresh rolls. The baker’s miserly heart was struck and he thought to himself: The smell of my rolls and bread make his lousy food taste delicious! He should have to pay me for it! Well he went next door and handed his neighbor a bill. The neighbor laughed and said: Thank you for the wonderful smell of your rolls but I don’t have enough money to pay this bill.
Enraged, the baker went to the judge to plead his case. Everyone expected the judge to laugh him out of court but after listening to the baker he said: This is a very unusual case. I must be fair to both parties. He ordered the baker and the neighbor to appear in court and he ordered the neighbor to bring along five gold coins. The neighbor was nervous! Five coins was all the money he had left in the world. Still, he showed up the next morning with the money.
The judge made his decision. I find you guilty of stealing the baker’s smells, he told the neighbor. Do you have the five gold coins I told you to bring? Sadly the neighbor started to hand the coins over but the judge ordered him to stop. Not yet.. Drop the coins from one hand to the other. After the neighbor had done this the judge asked the baker: Did you enjoy that sound? The baker answered, Oh, very much sir. The judge smiled to the neighbor then turned back to the baker: Then you have been repaid, said the judge. The pleasant sound of money is I think a fair payment for the sweet smell of your rolls. Case dismissed!
Now here is a story that is more than just a cute fable about wisdom – more – it is a story about our connectedness to one another. We are bound to each other in sounds and smells, in works and ways of which we are often not even aware. In these times of societal division, I thought it appropriate for today.
Jim Wallis, the well-known commentator on religion and values in American society wrote an article for TIME Magazine entitled Whatever Happened to the Common Good? Like the baker in that story, Jim Wallis writes that many Americans are so focused on their personal rights they fail to see their connectedness to their neighbor. It’s my right to refuse the vaccine. It is my right to own a gun. It’s my right to refuse to wear a mask. It’s my right to speak my mind however I choose. It’s my right to do this or that – and so on and so on. We are consumed with our personal rights! Jim Wallis maintains that we have forgotten a principle at the heart of community, a principle that has been a building block of both protestant and catholic ethics for centuries – we are in this life together. We are connected to one another in a social contract that should not be broken. We are on a journey to the kingdom as one human family. This is the Common Good!
Jesus spoke about the sense of common good when he shared the Parable of the Good Samaritan and asked a young man: Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? And the writer of James speaks of common good we he writes: Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is faith? And again St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit into one Lord.
I wonder if a renewed commitment to the Common Good might help our country heal in a time of deep division. How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another? These are the questions of the Common Good. In the end these are the questions of how we love our neighbor as ourselves. Jim Wallis ends his reflection with a challenge of love.
The common good should impact all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, congregational, communal, and yes, public lives. It is those individual and communal choices—from how we raise our own children, to how we engage with our local communities, to what we are willing to bring to our elected officials—that will ultimately create the cultural shifts and social movements that really do change politics in the long run. Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.
Knowing When to Open?
The Graybeard engineer retired and a few weeks later the Big Machine broke down, which was essential to the company’s revenue. The Manager couldn’t get the machine to work again so the company called in Graybeard as an independent consultant. Graybeard agrees.
He walks into the factory, takes a look at the Big Machine, grabs a sledge hammer, and whacks the machine once whereupon the machine starts right up. Graybeard leaves and the company is making money again.
The next day Manager receives a bill from Graybeard for $5,000. Manager is furious at the price and refuses to pay. Graybeard assures him that it’s a fair price. Manager retorts that if it’s a fair price Graybeard won’t mind itemizing the bill. Graybeard agrees that this is a fair request and complies. The new, itemized bill reads….
Knowing where to hit the machine with hammer: $4995
I have always enjoyed this story! Knowing where to hit the machine, or knowing the right thing to say, or knowing when to speak and when to listen – or in the case of the church during these crazy times – knowing when to open back up…these are the tough questions! When to open? This is an especially difficult question for a church community.
The Parish Council has taken guidance from The Wisconsin Council of Church’s (WCC) document Holding Our Plans Loosely. We have also watched the data from the CDC as well as Public Health Madison & Dane County. Nothing of course gives a clear cut answer. The WCC speaks to this difficult decision: Churches have been given great freedom within public health guidance. We are mostly able to make choices about gathering people together for religious activities which do not necessarily align with restrictions placed upon other types of businesses or organizations. There are many competing goods at work. We must attend to the questions of spiritual, mental and emotional health of parishioners as well as physical health as we consider the risk of viral transmission in the community.
I have heard from so many of you the longing to be together again, and yet the council is mostly in agreement that after a year of sacrifice, we must continue to be patient and as we weigh the competing goods. The WCC, leaning on the advice from public health professionals, medical school faculties, infectious disease research and church leadership has recommended certain metrics. For the safest gatherings they look for vaccination rates of 70 – 85%, viral transmission to be less than 1 case per 100,000 people, and the positive test rate of less than 5%. Here in Dane county we are improving each day and if the trajectories continue by mid-May we should arrive at each of these thresholds.
If these trajectories hold, the council is recommending returning to our normal church schedule on Pentecost, May 23rd. How wonderful! Pentecost is the birthday of the church, the day when the apostles took to the streets, stood among their brothers and sisters to proclaim that Christ was alive, within them and around them.
We hope that no new surges arise that might force us to revisit this plan, and indeed we have work to do to ensure safe gathering from May 23rd and throughout the summer. We will be gathering a small group of health professionals to work with our staff to envision liturgy in the near future. How much surface area will need to be sanitized? How will we utilize music? Who will be singing? How will we receive communion, offer the sign of peace, pray the common prayers, greet visitors, take up collections, space the seating, and gather for hospitality? So many questions! Like the WCC we will be Holding Our Plans Loosely.
Still, Pentecost gives us something to look forward to, to circle on our calendars and to prepare for – all good things. I trust the movement of the Holy Spirit in the parish council and in our Messiah staff. I trust that same Divine Presence in you my friends and the fruits of the Spirit are these: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. May the Holy Spirit be our constant guide in the days ahead – Veni, Sancte, Spiritus – Come Holy Spirit.
The Black Dot
One day, a professor announced a surprise test. He distributed a paper to each student, with the front side facing down. The he asked the class to turn the page and start the test, but there were no questions on the paper – just a black dot in the center of the page. I want you to write a few lines about what you see on the paper, the professor said. Puzzled, the students started the test.
Once everyone was finished, the professor collected all the tests and started reading the essays out loud. Without exception each student had written about the black dot. One wrote that the dot signified their smallness in the great plan of creation. Another wrote that the black dot pointed to the lack of perfection in even the most successful enterprise. Still another wrote that the black stood for the power and purpose of diversity and difference. Some mentioned the size of the dot, others the position, still others expounded brilliantly on the color of the dot. One by one each essay was read aloud and after reading the answers the professor addressed the class.
None of you will be graded on this test. I only wanted you to ponder over something. All of you wrote about the black dot yet no one concentrated first and foremost about the white part of the paper. The same thing happens in our lives. We all have white paper to observe and learn from yet we always seem to focus in on the dark spots. We have so many reasons to celebrate – our parents, co-workers, friends, good health, a satisfactory job, a child’s smile, the miracles we witness every day.
However we often limit our horizons by focusing on just the dark spots – our disappointments, our frustrations, our fears and anxieties. In our day to day lives we tend to take so many good things for granted and rather focus our energy on insignificant dot-like failures and disappointments.
Take your eyes off the dark spots, the black dots of your life. Look and focus on what brings life and the larger picture. Most of all – look for the good.
Looking for the good is another way to describe the journey of faith I think. Looking for the good is looking for God. This of course is not to deny the problems or avoid the problems that demand our attention – rather it means that the darkness does not overwhelm us. Only last week after reading the headlines I was overwhelmed. I grew angry over what I had read and began dwelling on negative thoughts. I opened Morning Prayer for that day and read this from Ephesians:
Never let evil talk pass your lips; say only the good things others need to hear, things that will really help them. Do nothing that will sadden the Holy Spirit with whom you were sealed against the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ.
The writer of Ephesians is simply echoing what Jesus proclaimed in calling us to love one another. Ephesians challenges us to focus on what brings life – the larger picture. Perhaps it is the pandemic we are living through, or the troubling times in our nation’s history, or the difficult moments in each of our lives – whatever it is that threatens to overwhelm you – perhaps these are moments challenging us like the Letter the Ephesians to make a choice. Will we focus on the black dots, the problems and pain, or will we look for the good? Will we look for God? This is the journey of faith! Stay strong my friends. Stay hopeful. Love one another and always – remember the One who holds you forever.
A Memorable Christmas
It was a memorable Christmas for me. I was only twelve years old at the time but I remember wanting the newest bicycle from Schwinn. I had desperately wanted a five speed Stingray with a banana seat and high “ape hanger” handlebars. It was all I wanted. It was all I talked about. It was the most important thing in life – at least in my twelve year old mind. So I thought.
Near the beginning of December that year my parents were in a horrible car accident. They had broadsided a drunk driver who had pulled in front of them on the highway. Colliding with a car at 60 miles per hour, the front of my parent’s Oldsmobile Cutlass had collapsed in on them, the engine part way on their laps, and they were severely injured. My parents had so many broken bones – arms, legs, noses, rib cages and the broken glass had cut deeply into my mom’s forehead. After surgery and intensive care, they recovered in the hospital for three weeks. They came home only days before Christmas.
I remember the joy of my brothers and sisters, and my relief, when they walked (or rather hobbled) through the front door. Friends and family visited that night and the moment was radiant. I remember it had snowed and I had gone out to shovel the driveway. I stood in the drive on a December evening and looked through the living room window at that beautiful scene. My mom and dad were laughing and enjoying the company. My cousins, brothers and sisters were sitting on the floor playing games, and light from the house lit up the newly fallen snow on the front lawn. I stood there in the driveway taking it all in. I realized that I wouldn’t get a new bicycle that year, and I no longer cared. I knew that everything that was most important in my life was in that house. And as long as we were together, as long as we had people who claimed us as family, as long as there was love to see us through – it would be enough for me. It was a memorable Christmas.
I often reflect on that memory when I read the Christmas narrative from Luke’s Gospel. I think of what Joseph and Mary wanted in life. They wanted a family and to have a safe birth of their first child. They longed I’m sure to be surround by those who loved them. They wanted to be safe and secure in their home in Nazareth. They wanted to celebrate the birth with friends. They wanted peace, and joy and a life without fear. Yet in Luke’s narrative they received none of this! Joseph and Mary were poor and desperate travelers displaced by a cruel tyrant. They were on the road far from home. They were giving birth in a barn with no one to help them. In the story of Luke we find two people who only have each other to cling to, who only have a barn to call their home, who throw their trust only on God, the One who loves them forever – and it was enough. It was the first Christmas.
I have lived 27 Christmases without my father. This will be Melissa’s fourth Christmas without hers, and her first now without her mother. We wanted so many more moments with them. Like you we wanted to spend the holidays with family and friends, sharing laughter and hugs, stories and songs. We wanted to come to Messiah on Christmas Eve and be inspired by hundreds of joyful people and wonderful wishes for a happy and healthy new year. We wanted nights out and dinner parties shared. We wanted toasts to the future, and presents and cards and gatherings. Like all of you – like Joseph and Mary – we will receive none of this.
And so I wonder if this year the gospel of Luke might not feel different, perhaps even more precious and life changing than ever before. Like Joseph and Mary we will shelter in place with only each other and our small family. Like that Holy Family so long ago, we will try to care for each other when we become anxious about the future, and cling to each other when we face the darkness, and be grateful for each other every day. Even for those who are alone this year, Luke promises that they we never truly alone, the angels of God will surround us and help us and sing with us. It isn’t what we wanted but it where we are, and still there is love. Wherever there is love there is enough. It will be more than enough. It will be a memorable Christmas.
A Time to Talk
After nearly two decades as your pastor you know by now that I enjoy poetry. I have often used the lines of a favorite writer in my homilies and reflections. So today I turn again to the great Robert Frost in his poem, A Time to Talk.
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
Of all the moments that I miss about gathering for liturgy, I miss most of all the friendly visits that take place as I’m walking around getting things prepared for worship. Melissa often teases me about my energy level as I run from here to there, “flit” from thing to thing, from one detail to the next and stopping to chat with whomever I encounter. I never mind the interruptions because as we gather in joy it is indeed for me, A Time to Talk.
It is this need for a time to talk that has been evidenced in our greater community and world over the past six months. I have seen drive through graduations and drive by birthday celebrations. I have been a part of drive through backpack pickups, and drive by teacher parades. I have even witnessed drive through wake services and drive by weddings.
After sending you a letter last week along with Time, Talent and Treasure forms (a pledge card) I started thinking about the Harvest Meal. We will miss our Harvest Meal this year and the procession of pledges to the altar and all the visits that would have taken place on that week end. I had an idea this morning for a friendly visit! A drive through visit!
Commitment Sunday and our Harvest Meal normally fall on the second Sunday in November. So this year Commitment Weekend is November 7th and 8th. On both Saturday November 7th, and Sunday November 8th from 9:00 AM until 12 PM Noon each day I will be available beneath our new beautiful awning – outside the front doors of church – for some friendly visits. If you would like to drive through for a short chat, even for a brief wave or smile I would welcome that. There will be staff around (in masks of course) to receive your pledge card if you would like to drop it off at that time. And more – I would offer you communion if you would like to receive. We will offer the communion elements (host and wine/grape juice) in individual containers with a prayer and blessing. Rest assured that we will do it as safely as possible. So Commitment Sunday will look a bit different as with all things these days.
I would ask that you pray about your commitments again this year, and send in your pledges or drop them off when you come for the drive through. While we are not meeting as a church – the church has never closed! The ministries of outreach continue. 60 confirmation students are signed up for live zoom classes, and 90 Sunday School Students are registered for recorded virtual lessons. Our outreach ministries continue to be funded and Melissa and I (along with Steve and Pastor Mark of course) will continue to provide worship experiences each week. Funerals, baptisms, weddings and blessings continue to be celebrated. The church is NOT a building and yet we need to keep this one up and running until we can safely gather again. And we will gather again.
Until then, stop by on November 7th and 8th between 9:00 AM until 12:00 PM Noon and let’s have a friendly visit.
By the Babylonian Rivers we sat down in grief and wept;
Hung our harps upon the willows and mourned for Zion when she slept.
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and bitter land?
Can our voices veil the sorrow? Oh Lord save your holy band.
This is an old song and is based upon Psalm 137, a psalm written when people from Jerusalem were held captive in Babylon for 70 years. Scripture scholars refer to this as the Babylonian Exile and it took place nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. For 70 years the jewish captives could not gather in their temple, or celebrate their Seder meals, or worship and remember their Passover. They were apart from their brothers and sisters for 70 years!
We have been distant from one another for only a few months, since the middle of March. Our quarantine has given us a small glimpse into the pain and longing of the Babylonian exile. I have heard the desire of people from this congregation to gather and celebrate again, to re-open our church to worship, to celebrate and laugh together, to sing and to commune. I write however to inform you that we will be in exile for some time yet, and thus we will continue to connect virtually. The Pastoral Parish Council is following closely the recommendations from Public Health Madison and Dane County as well as the recommendations from the CDC, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the advice from the church wide office of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. All of these resources are recommending caution.
I have heard the argument made: Why shouldn’t churches be allowed to worship at 25% capacity if the state and county allow restaurants, bars, gyms and retail stores to do so? My response is this: Firstly, the mission of the church is different from the rest. Our mission is to be Jesus for the world and to protect life. We are most “the church” by loving one another and distancing ourselves as an act of love and life until we have a treatment or a vaccine for Covid-19. Secondly, what is legal to do is not necessarily the right thing to do. I have expressed my reservations to my friends in certain Evangelical and Catholic churches on their re-opening. I find it ironic that those who most vehemently proclaim their pro-life stance, are the first to risk life by gathering together against the advice of Public Health officials. I think they are wrong to do this and I choose not to follow their example. As Luther said: Here I stand. I can do no other.
Still, as a pastor and shepherd I feel deeply for the loneliness of members of our congregation, especially those who live alone. They are truly exiled, living in a strange and bitter land. The Covid Economic Response Team has done a superb job of reaching out via phone calls to those who are older in our midst. So many children have written and made cards for those confined in isolation, many have utilized Facetime and Zoom to stay connected. We must re-double our efforts to ease the exile and remind them of community. In the next few months we will find ways of doing that. Perhaps it will be small gatherings in the parking lot at church, opening the church sanctuary for personal prayer (one or two at a time), some sort of a larger distanced gathering where we could see one another. This is how we will love one another.
One final word about re-opening. Nearly every expert in the field of virus transmission admits that it may reach a point where it is safe for large groups to gather again, yet they caution it will likely be only for a short time – this virus has its own timeline! Most epidemiologists say that we are now in the eye of the hurricane and the autumn will bring renewed spikes. And remember – even if we were to gather for worship, it would not resemble what we experienced before. There would be no gathering/conversation, no congregational singing, preaching would be shortened, communion would be very different, and certainly no fellowship afterward. Until there is treatment or a cure this is our new reality. I miss you. I miss celebrating with you. I miss worshipping the way we are used to worshipping. Yet this is how we will be the Body of Christ for the world and one another – by protecting each other and not risking life unnecessarily. One day we will journey out of exile to be together again – all of us – not just the young, not only the healthy, not only those who are not physically compromised, not merely 25% – NO! One day all of us will gather again. As the psalmist ends the prayer so this is our belief:
Let the cross be benediction for those bound in tyranny.
By the power of resurrection lead us from captivity.
The Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a proponent of the concept Ubuntu. This word comes from the Zulu language. Ubuntu means humanity. Desmond Tutu often translated it as I am because we are. I love that! It was Desmond’s belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. He once said: Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means we are people through other people. It means that we cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence; we are made for family. When you have ‘Ubuntu’ you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate and forgiving. Desmond Tutu believes that if the world had more Ubuntu there would be no more war. The powerful would lift up the weak. With Ubuntu there would be peace on earth.
I wonder if during this quarantine, this sheltering in place we might not be learning Ubuntu? Isn’t our human connectedness what we are missing most in this time of solitude? Are we not learning that there is no I am without we are?
I recently read an article by Steve Goodier on his blog Life Support System. He writes of this interconnectedness, Ubuntu. Steve shared a story of World War I.
In 1918 several British and American ships were transporting Prisoners of War when news came of the Armistice, the end of World War I. Almost overnight the ships suddenly became joyful transports bringing American soldiers home. One of the ships, the Mauretania returned to New York Harbor on December 30th carrying over 3700 soldiers, 237 injured and ill, hundreds of civilians returning home, and nearly 500 German Prisoners of War.
The Mauretania had on board a group of musicians named The Glee Singers. On Christmas day five days earlier they had entertained the troops during a dinner of turkey and stuffing. Now as they were anchored awaiting docking instructions in New York Harbor, within sight of the Statue of Liberty someone asked the captain for permission to sing to the prisoners who were as certainly as homesick and lonely as the passengers. Permission was granted and the Glee Singers made their way to the lower hold where the prisoners were held. The Glee Singers began with Silent Night, that terrific German carol.
Within seconds of the beginning of the carol, a deafening clatter shook the ship’s hold. Hundreds of German men had crowded the tiny windows in order to better see and hear the Glee Singers. Tears streamed unashamedly down the prisoner’s faces. At that moment everyone experienced the universal truth – that at the core of our being all people everywhere are one. They experienced Ubuntu.
This feeling of Ubuntu doesn’t just happen says Desmond Tutu. It must be exercised and acted upon, especially on those with whom we disagree. Even as we are separated from one another, the anger and division hasn’t magically dissipated – it some ways it grows in our anxiety. Archbishop Tutu invites us to put ourselves in our enemy’s shoes (like the Glee Singers who sang to POWs) and to ask: Why are they acting like they do? What are the values they are trying to uphold? What are their fears and concerns? How can I engage without demeaning them? Can I see them as a fellow travelers on this planet? Do they have children, spouses, friends who love them and who they love? Do they not see the same sunset that I see? Breathe the same air that I breathe? Long for the same peace that I do? Archbishop Tutu says that Ubuntu begins in our own hearts and only then extends to the hearts beyond. This is hard work for sure! This is the work of the gospel. This is the work of Jesus!
As the Archbishop reminds us: We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family. This is Ubuntu!
The Speech of God
The speech of God is silence. His word is solitude. Thomas Merton
These are odd words aren’t they? Then again, they were written by Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion. When I was a young man I first read his most famous book, The Seven Story Mountain – his autobiography and journey from a brilliant, vain and worldly young man consumed with his own passions and desires to a believer, a Christian and a man who became a Trappist monk. Years ago I travelled to the Monastery of Gethsemani where he had lived, near Bardstown, Kentucky to pray at his graveside. And while I so admired his life and writings, I knew I was not cut out for the monastic life. Solitude is hard work!
I think we are all discovering that these days. So I have been reflecting on our forced solitude and I have been challenging myself to explore areas of my life that I tend to ignore in the busy-ness of my normal routine. Again, this is tough work!
A few weekends ago we celebrated our final liturgy together at Messiah – before our collective quarantine and forced solitude. On Sunday morning after listening again to Pastor Mark’s reflection on the Woman at the Well and challenged to leave something behind in the bucket – I chose to leave fear behind. Now this is easier said than done, yet I have often preached to you that fear is the opposite of faith. Trusting in God I will enter the deep work and hard work of solitude. Coincidentally that afternoon a friend of mine, Doris Zache sent me a video from her daughter’s church in Pennsylvania. It blended so well with Pastor Mark’s challenge for my soul.
Normally as I am listening to the story of the woman at the well I’m noticing how an encounter with Jesus transforms the woman’s relationship to her shame. She goes from avoiding the cold shoulders of her neighbors by going to the well in the mid-day heat to boldly inviting those very same neighbors to come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done! Normally as I’m listening to the story of the woman at the well I am dreaming of and I am praying for an encounter with Jesus that will transform our relationship to our shame too. Jesus wants you to be free of all of that. But today given everything that’s going on, as I’m listening to the story of the woman at the well, I’m noticing something different. I’m noticing her profound solitude. And noticing too that our Lord Jesus meets the woman in her solitude gently speaking to her the truth about her situation and promising her his never failing friendship.
In the coming days and weeks many of us are going to experience a degree of solitude that we have never experienced before. May Jesus our living water, meet you in the coming hours of loneliness, confusion, boredom and fear with the same gentle and generous way that he used with the woman at the well. Use this time brothers and sisters – your time at the well – to speak to him, to listen to him, to dust off your Bibles and read about him – do so for your own sake; do so so that you have someone with whom to share the little joys of these quiet days; do so that you might have someone with whom you can process those things that are keeping you awake at night; do so that you have someone to pray with you for your dear loved ones from whom we are temporarily separated. And do these things too for the sake of our whole human family in this time of need, especially the vulnerable, the sick, the serving, and those who are experiencing financial hardship.
At the end of her story, as the Samaritan Woman is bringing her neighbors to meet him, Jesus seems to see them coming in the distance and says to his buddies: Look around you! Fields are ripe for the harvest! So have faith my friends. The One who meets us at the well, the One who is with us in this solitude, is the same One who will restore us to the fulness of community at the ripe time. Amen.
Do not fear the solitude my friends. Let us together do the hard work of waiting and reflecting, of sitting in silence. This is the language of God. The speech of God is silence. His word is solitude.
The Lenten Experiment
There is a simple story entitled, The Experiment. It reminded me why the church celebrates the Season of Lent. Lent too, for a Christian is The Experiment.
A young boy was having trouble in school. The subjects were difficult, and getting out of bed to face the day was hard. There were bullies to be faced and he was entering his teenage years filled with self-doubt and anxieties. Why is life so tough grandpa? Asked the boy one day. You know something, replied the grandfather, I don’t want to depress you, but it doesn’t get any easier as you age! Life can be tough for sure. Rather than giving the boy a long explanation on the verities of life, the grandfather changed the subject and suggested that they do an experiment. And the boy agreed.
They went to the makeshift greenhouse in the backyard where two saplings were waiting to be planted. The grandfather said: We’ll plant this one in the back corner of the yard. It will get pretty good sun there, and we’ll water it and fertilize it, but mostly we’ll leave it to the care of Mother Nature. Then the grandfather picked up the other sapling. Now this one we will plant in that large clay pot. We’ll keep it safe here in the greenhouse and make sure it always has plenty of fertilizer and water. We’ll shelter it from the cruel winds and storms and put a grow light on it.
When they were finished planting the two saplings, the grandfather turned to his grandson and ask: Which sapling do you think will be more successful growing into its full potential? The boy thought for a minute then replied: This indoor tree. It’s too scary being outside all the time. The grandfather replied: We’ll see. That’s ‘the experiment.’
During visits and holidays, the boy made sure to check on the progress of each tree. When a winter storm dumped several inches of snow in the area, the boy was convinced that the outside tree would not be able to make it through the season. Once the snow had melted and the springtime arrived, the boy was surprised to find the sapling growing and thriving in the corner of the yard. He was also even more surprised to find that its counterpart in the greenhouse wasn’t as big. He watched the phenomenon continue through the summer and into the following spring.
The boy said to his grandfather one day: I don’t understand how the tree in the yard is growing so much better – it’s taller, thicker and stronger. It has to deal with the wind, rain snow and cold. The grandfather spoke with a kindness and a wisdom that came with age: Maybe all of the things that seem harsh or challenging – perhaps they helped the tree in the corner of the yard establish roots. You asked me long ago why life is so tough. I don’t know but I know this. You are like the tree in the yard. Face your challenges each day and every challenge will help you grow. And the boy learned a great lesson from his Grandfather and The Experiment.
I think all of us would agree with the lesson of this story. As much as we long for a world without cares, in fact, we have grown the most in challenging times, in the harsh and cruel moments, and on those days when we were barely hanging on. It is in the tough times when we grow roots and grow strong.
This is the essence of the season of Lent. Every Lent is a kind of Experiment in spirituality. During this season we read about people struggling through tough times. Jesus is in the desert wrestling with temptations; Bartimaeus a man blind from birth is struggling in darkness; the Samaritan Woman at the Well is struggling with loneliness; Martha and Mary are standing at the grave of Lazarus and struggling with death and loss. Each of these great Lenten stories is a sort of Experiment, a remembrance that the struggle, whatever the struggle, always leads us back to God – and where there is God, there is growth, and strength, and life!
We all know this don’t we? We do not grow in the easy times of life – No – real growth happens in the tough times. Everyone in this congregation struggles with something. In this Season of Lent, we are tempted like that boy in the story to ask: Why? Why me? Why now? Perhaps rather than asking why, fight on and survive the tough times. Go and embrace the moments when you feel like that little sapling beaten by the cold and snow. Get up every day and hang on even when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope. Never give up, for here in the struggle is where we will grow. This Lenten journey, this experiment will lead us back to God – and where there is God, there is growth, and strength, and life!
It’s a New Day
Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” He also said to me, “Write this, because these words are true and can be trusted.” (Rev. 21:5)
This is the promise of scripture – God will be the Spirit of newness for all who trust and risk, for all who believe and love. At the beginning of a new decade this is also the promise for our parish community. There is newness happening in our church.
This past October I was sitting in my office along with Holly (Executive Ministry Assistant) and Kate Mennenga (Council President). We were working on something new, a job description for a new staff position – Ministry Support Coordinator. Kate began with a question: Pastor Jeff, if you could have anything you want in this person to help your ministry, what would you hope for? I answered: I’d want someone organized and efficient. Someone who is self-motivated and at ease inviting people into service and ministry. I would also like someone who was comfortable perhaps visiting people in a hospital or rehab center, someone who people would come to trust, and perhaps a person who might preach occasionally. Holly and Kate listened as I spoke, and yet I could see a sort of puzzled concern on their faces. What? Am I asking for too much? I asked. Kate responded. You aren’t asking for too much. You are asking for two people – a ministry support coordinator and an associate pastor. Kate and Holly challenged me to connect with the Bishop’s Office, speak with my pastor colleagues and look for some avenues of help.
Over the past two months I have done just that, and I think the Parish Council has come up with a terrific plan. I have a friend in ministry who is on the active roster of ordained ELCA pastors in our synod. He is respected by his colleagues, works as a Spiritual Director in the area, and is familiar with Messiah and my style of ministry. His name is Pastor Mark Petersen. Mark and I have also been in a prayer group that meets every Friday morning for breakfast. We have been meeting for 14 years! So I can say confidently, I know Mark. Pastor Mark is 63 years old and has served as pastor in a number of congregations including long pastorates at St. Peter Lutheran in Sheboygan and Covenant Lutheran in Stoughton (15 years). Most recently he served as an interim and renewal pastor in our synod. Mark has a wealth of experience.
With the recommendation of the Bishop’s Office I approached Mark and asked if he might be interested in working in the area of Visitation Ministry and Grief Care for about 15 hours/week on a contract basis. We would renew the contract year by year and make adjustments as we moved forward. Mark would be responsible for preaching about six times/year including my vacation weekends, making hospital calls on days when he would be in the office, and serving as an emergency back up in crisis situations where I might be unavailable. After prayer and reflection, including bringing his wife Peggy here to worship, Mark was excited about the possibility. Pastor Mark, Holly and I worked on a job description and Mark met with the Parish Council in December where he led us in prayer and we interviewed one another. The Parish Council is proposing a budget that would allow us to offer this position to Mark beginning in February and I so look forward to this new adventure. The position would be called Pastor of Pastoral and Spiritual Care. As with all other staff positions I would be the supervisor and Head of Staff, and the Parish Council would be charged with evaluation and guidance.
Along with the Pastor of Pastoral and Spiritual Care, the Parish council is also budgeting for a Ministry Support Coordinator. This too would be a 15 hour/week position. This staff member would work alongside Holly and across all the ministry areas to coordinate volunteer efforts. I envision the person working with the ordained staff as well to determine new areas of outreach and care, to shore up areas in need of support and to teach, mentor and encourage our many committed volunteers. There is newness happening at Messiah Lutheran Church.
And so my friends let us walk in the newness of the gospel and continue trusting in the One who walks with us. May this New Year and this new decade bring you blessings and joy. I am so very grateful to be your pastor – and always – your friend…
The Most Precious Gift
“Today was a Difficult Day,” said Pooh.
There was a pause.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Asked Piglet.
“No,” said Pooh after a bit. “No, I don’t think I do.”
“That’s okay,” said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend.
“What are you doing?” Asked Pooh.
“Nothing, really,” said Piglet. “Only, I know what Difficult Days are like. I quite often don’t feel like talking about it on my Difficult Days either.”
“But goodness,” continued Piglet, “Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you’ve got someone there for you. And I’ll always be here for you, Pooh.”
And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs…he thought that his best friend had never been more right.
I agree with Winnie the Pooh – Piglet was so right. To be present for another in the darkest moments of life is perhaps the greatest gift we could ever offer. It is certainly one of the most sacred gifts we could receive. And in this season of gift giving and receiving this is the gift we are called to offer one another, the most precious present, the gift of our love and support. This of course is the very center of the Christmas story that we turn to each year.
While there are two infancy narratives in the New Testament, on Christmas Eve we turn to the one in Luke’s gospel. I’ve often said that Luke’s gospel is the gospel of presence. There are so many scenes where someone just shows up to be with another – no words, no real actions, they are simply present in a dark moment.
There is the story of the Visitation where Mary travels to be with her cousin Elizabeth, to be present to her as she worries about carrying a child in her advanced age. Then of course there is the wonderful narrative of Zechariah who is struck mute and can only wait with Elizabeth in her time of delivery. He stands at the margins trying to be of support to his beloved. There is the ever silent Joseph who travels with Mary to Bethlehem and shelters her in an animals stall to be faithful to his commitment as her husband. And of course there are the shepherds watching their flocks by night who listen to the call of the angels and rush to the stable to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ birth. None of these people do anything, and often times they are completely silent as in the case of Zechariah. What stands out however is their presence to others even in the darkest moments of life.
The Christmas Story in Luke’s Gospel is a story about presence on Difficult Days, of knowing someone is in your corner. And isn’t this the center of Christmas, that God is forever birthed into this dark world, present to us forever and always? Doesn’t Christmas mean that God has promised to be here for us?
And if the Divine is here for us, then we are called to be present to one another.
This year open your eyes to the people around you – those sitting next to you at church, or standing in line at the grocery store – those you pass on the street, or share rides with on the elevator. Everyone is dealing with something. There is plenty of darkness in the world and more than Difficult Days for every human being. Try to be kind to one another. Be gentle with one another. Try to be there for someone else this Christmas. Your presence is the greatest gift of all.
Thirty years ago I had the blessing of studying alongside a wonderful writer and scholar, Ron Rolheiser, a Canadian priest from the Oblates of Mary. Not so long ago I read one of his newspaper columns and it touched my busy heart. Perhaps it will yours…
Be still and know that I am God. Scripture assures us that if we are still we will come to know God, but arriving at stillness is easier said than done. As Blaise Pascal once stated, All the miseries of the human person come from the fact that no one can sit still for one hour. Achieving stillness seems beyond us and this leaves us with a certain dilemma, we need stillness to find God, but we need God’s help to find stillness. With this in mind, I offer a prayer for stillness.
God of stillness and of quiet …
• Still the fever I inhale from all the energy that surrounds me, that makes my life feel small. Let me know that my own life is enough, that I need not make an assertion of myself, even as the whole world beckons this of me from a million electronic screens. Give me the grace to sit at peace inside my own life.
• Still my anxiety, my heartaches, my worries, and stop me from always being outside the present moment. Let each day’s worries be sufficient onto themselves. Give me the grace to know that you have pronounced my name in love, that my name written in heaven, that I am free to live without anxiety.
• Still my unrelenting need to be busy all the time, to occupy myself, to be always planning for tomorrow, to fill every minute with some activity, to seek distraction rather than quiet.
• Still in me the congenital fear that I’m unloved, that I’m unlovable, that love has to be earned, that I need to be more worthy. Silence in me the nagging suspicion that I’m forever missing out, that I’m odd, an outsider, that things are unfair, and that I’m not being respected and recognized for who I am. Give me the grace to know that I’m a beloved child of a God whose love need not be earned.
• Still my unforgiving thoughts, the grudges I nurse from my past, from the betrayals I’ve suffered, from the negativity and abuses I’ve been subject to. Quiet in me the guilt I carry from my own betrayals. Still in me all that’s wounded, unresolved, bitter, and unforgiving. Give the quiet that comes from forgiveness.
• Still in me my doubts, my anxieties about your existence, about your concern, and about your fidelity. Calm inside me the compulsion to leave a mark, to plant a tree, to have a child, to write a book, to create some form of immortality for myself. Give me the grace to trust, even in darkness and doubt, that you will give me immortality.
Still my heart so that I may know that you are God, that I may know that you create and sustain my every breath, that you breathe the whole universe into existence every second, that everyone, myself no less than everyone else, is your beloved, that you want our lives to flourish, that you desire our happiness, that nothing falls outside your love and care, and that everything and everybody is safe in your gentle, caring hands, in this world and the next.
You Are Salt!
Yesterday I read a story entitled The Domino Factor. I’m not sure why exactly it resonated with me. Perhaps because I like a good story. Maybe because it’s a preach-able story. Or maybe just because I need to work on my attitude. Who knows?
Jerry was not a morning person. He yawned as he grabbed a paper and poured himself a cup of coffee at the corner convenience store. He yawned again as he made his way to the counter where the clerk stood like a mannequin waiting to take his money. She yawned too, as she mumbled the amount Jerry owed her. As he fumbled through his pockets for the correct change, he yawned again – which prompted the man in line behind him to yawn as well. Jerry paid and left the store. He was a block away before he realized that he’d left his newspaper on the checkout counter. He vowed to be more on the ball tomorrow.
Well the next morning when Jerry stepped into the store, a raucous scene was unfolding. A man was arguing bitterly with the cashier that the coffee wasn’t hot enough. Two other customers bickered at the pastry kiosk after one of them had picked out a roll and then put it back. A woman let out a cry as her purse fell open, spilling its contents down the aisle. And as she urgently tried to retrieve everything her toddler began to scream. This was too much for Jerry. He turned around to exit the store and accidentally bumped into a man coming in. Hey, watch where you’re going! the man bellowed. I certainly will, thought Jerry, because I don’t want to be around any more cranky people today!
As Jerry was a creature of habit, he went to the same store the next day to get his morning paper and coffee. But this time, he poked his head through the doorway to gauge the mood of the customers. A new cashier stood at the register, smiling. Good morning! she said as she waved him in. I just put on a fresh pot. Jerry poured his coffee and grabbed a paper. Smells great, doesn’t it? Will that be all today? she asked. Yes and yes, Jerry replied with a grin. Without batting an eye, the cashier said, OK then, that will be $125. Jerry reached into his pocket and then looked up at her quizzically. She gave him a wink. Gotcha, she giggled. Jerry shook his head at his slow uptake. Yes, you did! He smiled broadly.
Now there’s the smile I was looking for, the clerk said as she handed Jerry his newspaper. Now go out there and make it a good day. Jerry called out: You too, as he headed out the door. He stooped at the entrance and looked back at the clerk. She was laughing with another customer in line. Jerry started to chuckle himself. This was going to be a great day!
Attitudes are contagious! This is the point of the story. And I wonder sometimes if this isn’t the essential point for every family, every community and every church. You see, the attitudes we carry around within us each day affect other people. In ways in which we are not even aware, how we speak to others, and smile at others, and respond to others creates a chain reaction that can bring more darkness and death to our world – or – more light and life. And the thing is – we are responsible for our attitudes!
This is I think what Jesus meant when he said to his friends: Look guys, you are the salt of the earth! Wherever you go you will leave a flavor. Life can be boring and sad, solemn and forlorn – OR – it can be filled with life and zest, adventure and joy. You are the difference! Leave your mark, salt the earth, and flavor the world!
As we move into the busy-ness of another schoolyear try to remember this each morning. As you rise from sleep make this your prayer: Lord help me to bring the flavor of your kingdom to this day. Whoever I meet today may they be touched by my attitude and changed by meeting me. Let me bring more joy to this world. Help me to laugh easily and love freely. Help me to be generous and kind, understanding and accepting. Use me as your instrument O Lord. Make me the salt of the earth!
When I was growing up outside of Neenah, because we had a lot of land, and not a whole lot of neighbors, we always seemed to have plenty of animals around. My family raised chickens, geese, and even ducks for a while. For a few seasons we raised rabbits but for the most part, throughout many years, we had dogs – hunting dogs. You see my Grandfather, my Dad and my older brother were hunters and so it seemed natural that they would spend a good part of their free time training good hunting dogs.
Now although I wasn’t a hunter, I always enjoyed the dogs. In fact, when I was ten my Dad allowed me to take the coins I saved all year long and buy myself a young beagle pup. Since most of the coins I saved were nickels, that’s what I called him…Nickels. I remember the day we went to pick him out. His Father was a field champion and had won many awards. Nickels however was a little too big and his tail a bit strange looking so the owner was willing to let him go cheaply. Anyway, for me he was just the right color, the right shape, and the right size. Beagles are hunting dogs, still it made no difference that I wasn’t a hunter, it was the right animal for me.
I loved the dog as anyone might love a pet. I fed him, nurtured him, played with him and cared for him. Nickels never lacked for food or comfort. At times however, Nickels seemed restless and unfulfilled. Whenever I would throw a ball or a stick out into the field, Nickels would stand near the object confused as to fetch it or sniff around. Whenever I would walk out into the woods, Nickels would run around barking frantically and searching in circles, always returning panting, winded and obviously frustrated with a scent he didn’t recognize.
Slowly I came to realize that Nickels was not meant to be a house pet – soon I came to see that I was stopping him from being what he was meant to be – a hunter. I gave him to my Uncle Wally who trained him how to follow a scent, to break off a trail when called, and to kick up animals without killing them. He lived for a number of years afterward. Nickels always seemed happier after learning to hunt. I suppose he finally came to know the thrill for which he was born.
There comes a point in all of our lives when we need to let someone go in order that they might learn who or what they truly are. Whether it’s a young mother who must send her first child off to kindergarten, or a middle-aged man who must walk his only daughter down an aisle, a parent like me who sees his first son off to college or an elderly woman who kisses her husband one last time before he dies – there comes a point when all of us need to let someone go in order that they might grow and discover who they truly are.
I often think Jesus’ ministry was one of preparing his friends for the moment he was to leave them. Surely Jesus must have felt a tremendous desire to hold on to his friends. He must have been filled with nostalgia and memories of the good times – the times when they laughed together, sang together, slept under the stars together, worked miracles together, even suffered together. Yet Jesus knew that if they were to grow and become what they were meant to be, then he had to let them go and return to the Father. It was only after Jesus left, that the Apostles came to know the thrill for which they were born.
So many times in our Christian lives and in our prayer we feel as though God is so far away, perhaps we even feel abandoned. Often though, we come to realize these are the times when we grow most of all. Perhaps it is in these moments, when Jesus seems to have left us behind, that we grow to become what we were always meant to become. Jesus left his mission in the hands of the Apostles, and that mission is the thrill for which they were born – to proclaim love and peace and a new Kingdom to the world. It is that mission which we have inherited today and the thrill for which we were born. Like the Apostles so long ago, Jesus knows what we can be and what we are able to do. The Lord is never far from us. Now the mission is in our hands.
We Can Do So Much Together
It was late July in 1986. I was assigned to Holy Innocents Parish and walked into the rectory to meet with Father Leo for the first time. I was told by the Bishop that I was to be his eyes, ears and legs for the next five years. Leo was 72 years old at the time – diabetic, overweight and immobile. Diabetes had taken a toll on his eyes as well. He was supposed to be my mentor but in my youthful arrogance I wasn’t so sure. I thought: How much help will he be?
He pointed out that my apartment was upstairs yet with his mobility issues he couldn’t walk up the stairs to show me around. So I headed upstairs to check out the terrain. Later he urged me to walk across the street to the school where 500 children would be educated in the coming year. Again, he couldn’t walk across the street to show me, so I headed off by myself to look around. An hour later, from his lazy boy chair in the living room he pointed out the secretary’s office across the hallway and explained her duties and hours. Finally, he showed me the parish budget and asked me to read the numbers aloud so that he might explain them, his eyes being too weak to see clearly. All the while I again thought: How much help would he be?
Father Leo asked if I had any questions. I thought through what I had seen and asked: You and I are the only ordained here. How can we possibly take care of 6000 people? He smiled and replied: Didn’t they teach you anything at that fancy seminary of yours? Our job isn’t to take care of 6000 people. Our job is to teach them how to take care of each other. And that was the moment that I realized I had so much to learn and he had so much to teach me! He was going to be more help than I could have imagined.
One of the greatest lessons in ministry I learned on my very first day – we are here to take care of each other. My work as pastor is to encourage and equip you to do this work. Here at Messiah we do not have 6000 people – though we have close to 2000. Not even a large staff of pastors could care for 2000 folks. So the question then for the future of Messiah is not how do we add more pastors, rather, what processes can we put in place to extend the pastoral ministry beyond my reach and the reach of our terrific staff? Over the years our beloved Doris Zache has been an extension of my communion ministry. Even into her nineties, she has a list of 10 people or so that she communes each month. She visits them, listens to them, brings cookies to them, and befriends them. Doris is a true servant. Along with other communion distributors I have been blessed by her fidelity. Still, more needs arise each week.
Steven Ministry is a national program that arose in the discussions of the Evangelism Committee and further, in the work of the Long Range Planning Committee. It is used in 12000 congregations in 160 denominations around the world! Named after the first martyr from The Acts of the Apostles, Steven Ministry takes its name from St. Steven, one who cared for the widows and orphans in Jerusalem. Steven was a deacon in the early church, that is, an extension of the twelve apostles. Steven Ministry seeks to train volunteers within the church to work one on one with the homebound, the sick, those in rehab facilities or those dealing with grief and loneliness. As we began to look into Steven Ministry, two members of our congregation Dawn Olson and Sandra Allen stepped forward offering to co-lead this initiative. Again, I am blessed by this fidelity!
The Pastoral Parish Council has approved this new direction for Messiah Lutheran Church. Dawn and Sandra will attend a week of training in Dallas with the National Team for Steven Ministry then return home to begin recruiting volunteers to work one on one with those in need within this parish community. The training of volunteers will cover twenty weeks using the curriculum from the national office. The idea is that what I am called to do as pastor, each of us is called to do as a disciple of Jesus – we are to care for each other.
And so the Pastoral Parish Council asks for your support and prayer in this new endeavor of faith. Pray in a special way for Dawn Olson and Sandra Allen as they coordinate this new ministry. Most of all pray for those whom the Holy Spirit will call to be an extension of the pastoral office here at Messiah. We can do so much together!
The Vital Activity
Only this morning Melissa mentioned that she had watched old tapes from our video recorder. She was transferring them to disk and became sidetracked by the birth tapes from Ben. She said: Wow Jeff…you really cried a lot! I did cry. I wept too at the birth of Joe and when we adopted Rachel. In each case the anticipation and the waiting burst forth in tears of joy and gratitude. For my May 2019 Column, would you mind if I took you back 16 years to an article I wrote only a week before Joey’s birth? May your springtime and your Pentecost be filled with blessings of the Holy Spirit!
(The Column, May 2003) The great American writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote this about waiting:
It is the slowest activity which is often the most vital. The saint is the one who knows how to wait as well as to make haste. All good abides the one who knows how to wait wisely.
Waiting has been on my mind quite a bit lately. This morning on my way to the church I looked at the world around me – gray and rainy, so cold and dreary – and I realized how I longed for the warmth of springtime. For now I’ll have to wait. Still, recently I’ve come to discern that there is a good waiting that is a kind of activity, and a disciple of Jesus, a saint is one who understands how to wait wisely, how to be involved in good waiting.
By the time you read this Column Melissa and I will most likely have our second child. In the past nine months I’ve come to a new appreciation of my wife and all women who carry children. You see, pregnancy is an exercise in active waiting. There is nothing passive about carrying a child. I’ve watched Melissa closely as she’s moved through this pregnancy and witnessed firsthand the preparation that goes into being a mother. As in the case of her first pregnancy, there are the vitamins to take, a diet to monitor, doctors’ appointments and ultrasounds, the nursery to prepare, diapers, bottles and formula to buy. There are the sleepless nights as she wonders if all the details have been covered, the name to pick out, and prenatal books to read, the scheduling of a Cesarean, the insurance/hospital preregistration, and the details of coming home with our infant. Of course there are the thank you notes and phones calls, the endless conversations about what this birth will bring and the moments of sitting with this child in her womb – feeling for signs of life, the kicking and movement. This is active waiting!
I sometimes think that this is the kind of waiting demanded of us as Christians. So often in my preaching and storytelling I refer to the God who is around us and within us – constantly surprising us with a presence and power. Still, we must be waiting. As Christians we must learn to wait wisely!
This is not a passive sort of waiting but an active endeavor – like a woman carrying a child – we must be preparing for an event so extraordinary that it will be life changing for us. This is the kind of waiting that is demanded of a believer. To wait for God, like waiting for a baby demands preparation. We must take time from our schedules to slow down and prepare a place for God in our lives. We must be in conversation with other Christians, gathering with other believers on Sunday and throughout the week, reading literature that will help us on our journey, praying, reflecting and studying. Waiting for God involves sharing our faith with family around the dinner table and with friends over a cup of coffee. Waiting for God means living as if the birth of God within our day might happen at any moment. This is what it means to wait wisely and what Thoreau calls “the most vital” activity.
A Simple Poem
Let’s begin this April reflection with a bit of rhyme. (Composed on Sunday Night, March 10th, 2019)
I was so tired on Sunday eve
With too much on my mind,
I glanced inside the Capital Times
To see what I could find.
I found a children’s coloring page
Like those of yesteryear
I sat down at my “pastor’s desk,”
With colored pencils … and a beer. ?
And listening to Pandora
And a bit of “Simply Folk”
My daughter sat down next to me
She smiled and ”Simply Spoke”
Could I color with you Dad?
I won’t mess up a thing.
But Rachel didn’t color a lick
All she did was sing!
A simple child-like poem doing a child-like activity on a late winter afternoon – with my child. I really did pick up an old copy of the Cap Times and for some reason was impelled to color the puzzle page insert. And Rachel did indeed sit down next to me and sing – for two straight hours! Seriously though, I was amazed at how refreshed I felt after focusing on a simple task like coloring.
Carl Jung, the great Swiss Psychologist, often encouraged his patients to color. He had them color circular patterns called mandalas. Jung saw the circular images his clients experienced as movement towards psychological growth, expressing the idea of a safe refuge, inner reconciliation and wholeness. Jung believed that at the heart of every psychological problem was in fact a spiritual problem. He taught that we become so consumed with our egos, our individual problems, and so overwhelmed with our daily worries and concerns that we forget we are connected to something greater. He taught that religions call this wholeness or purpose “God.” Isn’t this what the writer of Psalm 62 means? Only in God will my soul be at rest. From God alone comes my hope and salvation. Each of us longs for wholeness and peace, for meaning and purpose. I believe we long for God!
I wonder if Lent isn’t a time to lose ourselves in activities that draw us out of our problems and into a greater purpose. On Sunday afternoon I colored with my daughter and I was so consumed by following the lines and shape, so intent on the task at hand that for the first time all week I was truly mindful, truly present in the moment, and truly resting in God. Perhaps running does it for you, or fishing, crossword puzzles, knitting, walking in the woods, meditating, practicing yoga, listening to music or playing piano. These activities and so many more can be forms of prayer that draw us out of ourselves and into something greater.
So in these final weeks of Lent I encourage you lose yourself in an activity that might center you in God. Life can be so chaotic. For those of us raising children our days are consumed with schedules and demands. For those in the workplace the daily stressors can be overwhelming. For those in retirement years – well the Golden Years can be anything but golden – another surgery, another doctor’s appointment, another illness. Our young people too have lives filled with anxiety. We all need to be reminded that we are never alone and we are connected to something greater.
In these final Lenten days try to free your mind from all the worries of the world by losing yourself in a mindful activity. Maybe sit down and color like when you were a child. Perhaps in losing yourself you will find something greater. You might find wholeness, or purpose. You might find God.
Years ago I read Sand County Almanac by Madison’s own Aldo Leopold. Back in March of 1948 Aldo Leopold published his little volume of Conservation essays and he wrote this in the introduction:
Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our present concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. This much is crystal clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material things.
Even back in 1948, Aldo Leopold saw the rampant materialism of our culture as one of the great diseases of our time. And I share his words this month because we are entering the Season of Lent, a time when we are to turn our hearts to God alone, a time when we are supposed to nurture a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material things! What do I mean by this?
Well first and foremost, we begin the journey of Lent on March 6th – Ash Wednesday. We come together in prayer on Ash Wednesday and cross ourselves with ashes. We place dirt on our foreheads to remind us that we are NOT defined by the things we own, or even by the things we have done. NO! We place ashes on our heads to remind us that we are dust and dirt; that we are part of the created world; that the world doesn’t belong to us – we belong to the world! Remember O human, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that we are in community with all creation and that we must re-learn how to use it with love and respect.
Secondly, during the season of Lent the Church invites us to the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving (giving to the poor), and prayer. For modern Christians, fasting, almsgiving and even prayer are sort of crazy activities. Why should we deny ourselves food or give up something we enjoy for 40 days? Why should we give even more of our money and our possessions to others? Why give up extra time in our busy lives for prayer? Like the ashes of Ash Wednesday, these disciplines remind us that in the end, everything we have is a gift from God and we depend on God. Whenever our stomach churns noisily asking for food we remember that we are simply creatures before a gracious God, that we are part of the created world, and like every other creature of the world, the food does not belong to us – rather everything belongs to God. The same is true of our money given to the poor and our time spent in prayer. In each activity we remember that food is NOT our god, and money is NOT our god, and our time is NOT our god – only God is God! With each activity we develop a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material things!
Finally the Season of Lent ends with the great celebrations of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. At no point in the church’s life are we more in tune with what it means to be a disciple then during these three days. The figure of Jesus washing feet on Maundy Thursday calls us to be a community serving the world. The vision of Jesus hanging on the cross reminds us that we come into the world with nothing and we leave with nothing and in the end all we have left is God. And certainly the celebration of Easter is a day to remember that if we let go of all the things that we cling to – food, material possessions, time, addictions, power, prestige, money, even life – if we let go of all of it, God will still be there to cling to us. That is the message of Lent and Easter, that in the end all that is left is God!
This Lent remember who you are on Ash Wednesday; use the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer to develop a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material things; and worship with us on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter to remember that we are truly a community. This Lent let go – and let God!
What Will Be Remembered?
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.
One of the greatest orators and statesmen of ancient Greece, Pericles, wrote these words some 450 years before the birth of Christ. He was writing during the Golden Age of Athens. Pericles directed the building of the Acropolis and the Parthenon; he fostered Athenian democracy and led in the development of art and literature; and he was one of the greatest military leaders of ancient Greece leading the armies of Athens between the Persian and the Peloponnesian wars. Still, Pericles was astute enough to know that sooner or later Athens would fall, he would one day die, and all that would be remembered was what was woven into the lives of others.
As I write my yearly annual report I always feel impelled to remind myself, and in doing so, remind you that what we leave behind is not engraved in stone monuments. It is easy to lose track of this. This year we paid off our mortgage debt, and gave thousands of dollars to mission outreach. We have increased our programming and grown in nearly every measurable category, membership, streaming community, numbers at our Children’s and Young Adult programming, Senior Adult Ministry and so many others. We have taken care of the building and have begun a long range planning process for future growth. We will continue taking care of this beautiful church space and update where necessary. There are so many outward monumental signs that are easy to lift up as signs of success, and sometimes we can even fool ourselves into thinking that Messiah Lutheran will be remembered for all of this. Yet churches come and go, and membership ebbs and flows, and sometimes numbers shrink – this is a fact of life. Buildings will be forgotten. What will be remembered of Messiah Lutheran Church is that which was woven into the lives of others.
The truth is that Jesus was never much impressed with monuments or buildings. He was never a stickler for pretty religious trappings and rituals. And he never built anything or encouraged others to build. He was concerned with how people loved each other. That was it! He asked his disciples to connect with the poor and reach out to the outcast; to lift up the lowly, and be a voice for the voiceless; to stand up for justice and lay down their lives. Jesus never asked for monuments. He wanted his followers’ love to be woven into the lives of others.
And so my Annual Report is more of a prayer. I pray that as we live into 2019 we will continue to grow in our care for each other. I pray that we will never get tired of learning each other’s names and celebrating birthdays, that we will celebrate births and show up for each other in times of loss, and that we will find new ways of growing into a family of faith. I also pray that we will move forward from the support of charities to getting involved with the work of justice. It’s so important that we help feed the poor and shelter the homeless, but it is even more important to strike out against the injustices that bring about poverty and homelessness, i.e., systemic racism, unfair economic policies, and educational inequality. Discipleship demands that we learn about issues of injustice and get involved. And I pray that we will find new ways to care for the people who are not in church on the weekend, those who are homebound or in care centers, those who are hospitalized or recovering, and perhaps those who don’t feel as if they are welcomed here. The monument we have built here is beautiful and impressive but buildings do not last forever. What will be remembered is our love for one another. What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.
I Love Christmas Eve!
I love Christmas Eve! In just a few short weeks Christmas Eve will be upon us, and once again our sacred space will be filled to capacity with so many people. The air will ring out with wonderful Christmas carols, and joyous laughter, talkative children and crying babies, all a great cacophony of sound. As a pastor I especially appreciate that many people return to their church home to celebrate this year and to remember Christmases past. And Christmas is a time for remembering. There is an old Chinese story about remembering.
At the foot of a great mountain in China lived a father and his three sons. They were a simple and loving family. The father noticed that travelers came from afar eager to climb the dangerous mountain. But not one of them ever returned! The three sons heard stories about the mountain, how it was made all of gold and silver at the top. Despite their father’s warnings, they could not resist venturing up the mountain.
Along the way, under a tree, sat a beggar, but the sons did not speak to him or give him anything. They ignored him. One by one, the sons disappeared up the mountain, the first to a house of rich food, the second to a house of fine wine, the third to a house of gambling. Each became a slave to his desire and forgot his home. Meanwhile, their father became heartsick. He missed them terribly. Danger aside, he said, I must find my sons.
Once he scaled the mountain, the father found that indeed the rocks were gold, the streams silver. But he hardly noticed. He only wanted to reach his sons, to help them remember the life of love they once knew. On the way down, having failed to find them, the father noticed the beggar under the tree and asked for his advice. The mountain will give your sons back, said the beggar, only if you bring something from home to cause them to remember the love of their family.
The father raced home, brought back a bowl full of rice, and gave the beggar some as a thank-you for his wisdom. He then found his sons, one at a time, and carefully placed a grain of rice on the tongue of each of them. At that moment, the sons recognized their foolhardiness. Their real life was now apparent to them. They returned home with their father, and as one loving family, lived happily ever after.
On Christmas Eve we gather to remember! You see like those sons in the Chinese fable we often get side tracked on our journey of life. Sometimes we get distracted by our careers. We throw ourselves into work and begin to define ourselves by what we do, and we forget that we are more than what we do for a living. Other times we get distracted by stuff. We buy and accumulate stuff – new cars, new homes, new clothes, new boats – whatever the stuff may be, and we forget that we are not defined by our things – our stuff. And sometimes we get distracted by the business of life itself – running from this event to the next, this soccer game to that basketball game, this doctor’s appointment to that party, and we run and run and never slow down. In all the activity we forget that what is most important in life has nothing to do with all the running around. We forget who we really are.
And then comes Christmas Eve! On Christmas Eve we return to our church home to remember that loving and being loved are what life is all about. We affirm that what is most important in life is our family – the parents who have raised us, the children who have been given to us, and the friends who sustain us. And more than this we come to a church each year not only to gather, sing carols, greet our neighbors and talk to friends, we also come to the table of the Lord to receive a reminder of our forever home, a taste of food that will help us recall who we are and who we have always been. This is what we do at communion! We receive the bread and drink the wine and our eyes are once again opened. We belong not only to our particular family – we belong to the family of God! On Christmas Eve we celebrate that each of us is a child of God. And when we remember we are children of the same God, when we remember we belong to one Divine Family, when we remember each person we meet is a sister or a brother on the journey of life – when our eyes are opened – only then can we begin to trust again the promise of the angels – peace on earth and good will toward all. Every year we come here to Messiah to remember who we are and who we will always be. Our eyes are opened anew. We are Children of God. We are family. I love Christmas Eve!
We have been in our “not so new anymore” worship space for nearly nine years now. It’s hard to believe isn’t it? So many years ago on the day we dedicated this space, I presented a plaque to Tim Martinson, the Chair of our Building Committee. There is a duplicate that hangs in our Gathering Space. It reads:
A good man leaves an inheritance for children’s children. (Proverbs 13:22) In grateful appreciation for the dedicated leadership of Timothy J. Martinson without whom this building project would not have been possible. Messiah Lutheran Church honors Tim’s commitment and lifts up hi wife Linda, their family, and all those they love. Tim has left us an inheritance to be shared with many generations to come.
From that day until now Tim Martinson has served this community as Building Manager. On December 31st Tim will retire and hand over his duties to Clyde Tunak with whom he has shared the role for the past two years. While Tim is fond of saying: Everyone can be replaced, I often challenge him: No Tim. No one can be replaced. Their work can only be done by a different person in a different way. You see, I am going to miss Tim being around each week – like each one of us, Tim is irreplaceable!
I think Jesus so often in his ministry was trying to make this distinction. Every time he spoke about the hairs on our head being numbered, or when he spoke about the lilies of the field and told his followers they were worth more than a million sparrows; every time he held children in his arms and blessed them, or ate with his disciples and laughed with them; every time he forgave a sinner or healed the sick or touched a leper; every time he told stories about Samaritans that were Good, and Prodigals that came home, and sheep that were searched for and found – Jesus was saying that every human being is irreplaceable! This is the core of our ministry as well. We are called to remind the people we meet each day that they are children of God, and as sparks of the Divine they are unique and valued, loved and cherished. We are all of us, children of God.
17 years ago this month Melissa and I came to Messiah. Ben was only 4 months old. We found a small home just a mile north of the church. Given the timeline of our move and the amount of painting our house needed, the Property Committee offered to help us get settled. One morning I was standing on a ladder in our family room using a trim brush against some wood molding. There were five or six Messiah members painting the kitchen and the living room. I was tired of painting and not paying attention to detail when Tim Martinson standing on another ladder stopped his work and looked at my effort. I had only met Tim that morning. I looked at him looking at me and ask: What are you look looking at? Tim responded, Aw nothin’ just thinking. So of course I asked: What are you thinking? Tim grinned and shot back: I was thinking I sure hope you’re a better preacher than you are a painter! The other Messiah members gasped and then roared with laughter. That was the moment that I knew Tim would be my friend and that Messiah Church would become our home.
I am so thankful to Tim for what he has given to this church community through the years, and more than this, I am forever grateful for the friendship that he and Linda have given to our family. On Sunday December 2nd, the 1st Sunday of Advent, between the worship services around 9:15 please join me in the Gathering Space at church as we say thank you to Tim Martinson. I kiddingly mentioned that he’s moving from a part time paid Building Manager to a fulltime unpaid consultant! Seriously, we are not saying goodbye in retirement – we are offering our thanks for all the service that he has given to our community. It is time to let someone else do the day to day work. It will be done by a different person in a different way but this much we know for sure – Tim is irreplaceable!
Look for God
Last week a dear friend sent me a blog article from a Madison artist, Jason Kotecki. I was moved by his witness and asked if I could share his story with you. Thank you Jason for your generous spirit. Please visit his site to be inspired! https://escapeadulthood.com/blog/
Years ago our family was blessed to take a trip Mexico, an escape from the Wisconsin winter. The abundant sunshine became a symbol to us of God’s goodness. As the trip was coming to an end, we searched for a sunshine-themed souvenir to bring home with us. We never did find anything just right.
As we arrived home ?about midnight, a handful of police officers were canvassing the street with flashlights, clearly looking for something. We didn’t think much of it, figuring the neighbor kid was in trouble again.
As our tired bodies stumbled into the house, my oldest daughter said, Hey, what’s that on the ceiling? I saw a gash in the drywall. The directional groove led my eye to the window, which had a bullet hole in it. A bullet hole! Kim, I said, Hurry and go tell the cops that we have a bullet hole in our window! The rest of the evening was a blur. We found small bits of glass all over the carpet and on the piano across the room. The officers pulled out a bullet fragment from the ceiling, but it was too mangled to be of any use. They had reports from neighbors who heard multiple gunshots and a speeding car with a bad muffler. At first, I was annoyed that I had to postpone the date with my bed to deal with this after our awesome vacation, but eventually, it hit me. Wait. What if we had been home? This could have hit one of my kids! The mood quickly turned from annoyance, to anger and fear. None of us got much sleep that night.
The next morning, my six-year-old son Ben brought a bullet to Kim that he found in the bedroom hallway. Momma, what’s this? he asked. Another call to the police. The next few weeks were a blur of logistics and emotion. Assurances from the police that our neighborhood was historically among the safest in the city didn’t seem to help. Calls to the insurance company and various vendors about replacing the window and fixing the damaged ceiling were interspersed with the feelings of being violated, and wondering if we were still in danger. I’d never seen my wife cry so much in all of our 18 years of marriage.
We heard stories from neighbors who’d been home. Three young girls next door were in the front room watching TV when the shooting happened. An elderly neighbor across the street told us the gunshots were so loud that she thought her house was the one under attack. A young mother in the home next to her was nursing her two-month-old in her front room. She hit the deck when the shots rang out. Everyone was shaken. For days, we saw cars slow down in front of our house to gawk at the scene of the crime. And then God showed up. God showed up in the realization that our house was the only one on the whole block that was empty when the shooting occurred. And God showed up in the neighborhood meeting that was organized two days after the incident to comfort one another and talk of ways to protect our neighborhood. We connected with each other and friendships deepened.
Eventually, Kim and I got to a place where we could ask: What does this terrible event make possible? Years earlier, we stayed in a vacation home in Santa Barbara that featured some stained glass windows. We’d been smitten by their charm, and wondered if we could replace the broken front window in our living room with a stained glass work of art. The fact that the window in question was a decorative half-circle above the normal windows made it a perfect candidate. Maybe I could even design it. And maybe it would serve as a beacon of hope to the entire neighborhood. We knew immediately what the design had to be – A SUN!
We worked with a stained glass window artisan at our church and I gave him a sketch. God showed up yet again when we received a check from the insurance company that took care of everything that needed to be fixed. We got our ceiling repaired and painted. And we got our sunshine souvenir after all. We never expected to get it AFTER we returned home, in a form we never anticipated.
We live in a dark world, where tragedy is all too common. Sometimes bullets don’t miss. But I believe this – God is a living God. We are given small signs – signs that that don’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things – just to let us know God is there. We are given signs so we’ll remember God is still there when the bad things happen, ready to bring good things out of terrible circumstances. We are given sunny days to recharge us, to fill our reserves with hope that lights the way during the dark times, reminding us that the sun will shine again. It’s worth remembering that even on the darkest, cloudiest days, the sun is still there – it’s only hidden. The people who see silver linings are the ones who look for them. If you are in a dark season right now, keep looking for the light. It will come.
Finally, I believe we are called to be a light for others. We do this by sharing our gifts, but also by being kind. When it comes to people who disagree with us, instead of calling them names, call them up for coffee. The smallest things can make the biggest difference. Our happiness increases when we help others, shining our own light outward. In the battle between light and darkness, the darkness doesn’t stand a chance. So shine on!
Hyla Brook. September – 2018
As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past few years, I enjoy reading poetry, and one of my favorite poets is the incomparable Robert Frost. Years ago, back in the 1940’s Frost owned a small farm in New Hampshire. There he spent many hours reveling in nature, enjoying his family, and of course writing poetry. On the very edge of Frost’s farm there lay a small brook of running water. It seems that every springtime the brook would overflow with the melting snow yet by early summer it would nearly dry up for want of rain. He loved the little brook and wrote a poem about it entitled Hyla Brook.
By June our brook has run out of song and speed
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleighbells in a ghost of snow) –
Or flourished and come up in jewel weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat –
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.
We love the things we love for what they are! Here is where Robert Frost is at his poetic best; where he has a deep insight into love and life; where he speaks the Good News. You see Frost understands the nature of real love. Real love doesn’t try to change another person or mold them or shape them into something they are not – NO – real love embraces another person as they are – for what they are! Robert Frost enjoyed his beloved Hyla Brook precisely because it would dry up in early June, because it was different than every other stream and brook, because it wasn’t perfect. He loved it for what it was.
And this is truly a gospel challenge. Each week we are challenged and inspired by the stories of Jesus, and no matter the story we turn to, always the love of Jesus is the same. Jesus never demanded that another person change in order to be loved. He accepted others for who they were – the tax collector, the lowly fisherman, the sinner and the sick – he accepted them all, right where they were, as they were, for who they were. And how people blossomed under that kind of unconditional and accepting love!
If only we could exercise this type of love! I wrote about this acceptance in a column article two months ago and still we need to be reminded each day. So often we look at our children and long for them to be different than they are. We wish secretly that our spouse would be more of this and less of that. We are frustrated that our friendships aren’t perfect and our jobs aren’t as fulfilling as we had dreamed, and our lives are less than we want them to be. We find ourselves inwardly saying that if only these people and situations were different we could love them all so much better. And so often we find ourselves mired in a restlessness and unhappiness that keeps us always longing for more.
Yet the gospel challenge is the same week in and week out – to love others as they are – for what they are! If we learn to love as Jesus loved – to revel in the wonder of each person, to lift up the good in every day, to embrace what is beautiful and wonderful in each relationship – and more – to let go of the bad, then we will find a peace and happiness that is truly fulfilling. Look around you this day at the people in your life; learn to love them for who they are; tell them that you love them; this is the Gospel!
Peace. August – 2018
There once was an elderly man who set off on a journey to a faraway country. The old man was a mystic with incredible powers of healing and change. As he walked on a desolate mountain road he was set upon by bandits. During the attack three hikers happened down that same path and came to his aid preventing any further harm. The holy old man was so appreciative of the help that he offered to grant each of the young men one wish, a single wish. He advised them to think carefully about what they would ask for since they could only have one wish.
The first hiker stepped forward and claimed his reward. He said that he was poor, that he had been raised in a poor family and that he had always been hungry and scraping along for his existence. There was only one thing in the world that he desired and had wanted for most of his life. He wanted to be rich. Well no sooner than he had made his request when suddenly there was a horse drawn wagon that appeared out of thin air and the wagon was filled with gold and money! The young man jumped into the driver’s seat and grabbed the reins of the horse and trotted off hauling his treasure behind him.
The old man watched him leave and sighed with a heavy heart. He glimpsed the hiker’s future and saw it filled with many false friends and all the flashy things that money can buy. He also peered into the future and saw the day when the trunk would be empty and so too would be the life of the young man – abandoned by fair weather friends, penniless and impoverished in spirit.
No sooner had the first hiker disappeared with his treasure, the second young hiker stepped forward to claim his reward. He was a short and squatty, plain looking young man. He had an oddly shaped face, a crooked nose and rather large ears. There was only one thing he wished for – he desired to be handsome. Suddenly, just as before, the change happened in an instant. He became the most handsome man ever. He looked into a puddle of water, saw his reflection and ran off in delight toward his home.
The old man watched him leave and again sighed with a heavy heart. He looked into the future and saw the hiker’s future. He would enjoy his fine looks and the resulting newfound popularity. In time though age would take its toll on him and his handsome appearance would fade and weather, along with all the benefits they afforded. He would live the remainder of his life bitter, lonely and insecure.
Finally the third hiker stepped forward. He too was poor, and he was so average looking that he would pass by without anyone ever taking a second look. He made his wish and departed for home. This time however the old man sighed not with a heavy heart but with a deeper sigh of relief and joy. The young man had asked neither for money nor handsome looks – he had wish peace of mind and a grateful heart that would allow him to always appreciate what he had. The old man peered into this young man’s future and smiled – he would always be happy.
I hear folks these days making wishes. I wish people could just get along. I wish we lived in a just society. I wish my children would get off social media. I wish the world weren’t so crazy. I wish the humidity were lower. I wish I made more money. I wish young people were more polite. I wish…I wish…I wish… I wonder if we lived as the third young man in that story if we wouldn’t find happiness? I wish for peace of mind and a grateful heart to appreciate what I have.
So here’s my challenge this month. Spend a moment or so in the coming days counting your blessings. Who are the people that God has given you to love? Do you have a roof over your head and food to sustain you? Can you see the beauty of a summer day, a sunset, or a smile? Can you smell the fragrance of a flower, a wonderful meal, the scent of your loved one? Can you be grateful for this moment and this breath and this day? If we learn to appreciate what we have in a world that can sometimes feel so chaotic – if we are grateful – perhaps we will we find peace.
Loving as They Are. July – 2018
This month my oldest son Ben turns 17. It’s not easy to be 17. It isn’t easy to be in a family at 17. Teenagers need to differentiate, they need to set themselves a place apart, they need to believe that their parents aren’t so smart, so in control, and so not perfect! And so I look for moments, just moments when we connect. I try to cherish those moments. Believe it or not, Ben taught me this – when he was only four.
So many years ago on Ben’s fourth birthday Melissa gave him a new game, Dinosaur Checkers. It’s played like regular checkers except the pieces are more to a four year olds fancy – stegosauruses, brachiosaurs, tyrannosaurus rexes, all the figures in “swamp green” or “fire eating red.” I showed Ben how to play checkers. It’s difficult for a child to grasp that he can not simply move his figures wherever on the board he chooses, and turns must be taken, and hardest of all, sometimes you lose a piece to your opponent. I played a couple of games with Ben, he won a couple of times and I could tell he enjoyed the gift.
After dinner and after I had lost the second game I told him that it was time to light the birthday candle and cut the cake. Atop his birthday cake was a small candle in the shape of a number “4.” Melissa lit the candle and said to Ben: Go ahead Benny and wish for anything you want…anything at all. Make the wish and blow out the candle. Ben thought about it, took a deep breath and extinguished the flame. As we cut the cake, Ben threw his arms around my neck and whispered in my ear: I wished that I could play another game of Dinosaur Checkers with Daddy! My heart melted on Ben’s fourth birthday – with all my imperfections, my son wanted to be with me, to play checkers with me.
My son taught me that day. Ben reminded me that our deepest desire is simply to be loved and spend time with those we love. Why then are there so many days when we become confused and think that we deeply desire something else? We wish for more money or a better car. We long for a bigger house or a better paying job. We wish for a great big boat or a fancy new motorcycle. We fool ourselves into thinking that these things will bring us peace and happiness. Yet what we end up discovering is something that even a four year old child knows to be true – that real peace is simply spending time with those we love – being with another who loves us as we are. And this is the key – to love others as they are – even if they are 17! The great Fred Rogers once said: Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.
Every day we have the choice to throw ourselves into a thousand activities and distractions, play and work, travels and preparations, or we can find the time to simply BE with those we love as they are right now. We have the choice to lose ourselves in all stuff that we accumulate and all the things that we can buy, or we can begin to see that our real wealth is found in those we love – and love them as they are right now. We have the choice to get caught up with the details of life and the busy-ness of life, or we can center on our deepest desire – to love others as they are right now! Loving means being fully present to others wherever they are in their development, even if they are teenagers and needing space. We need to be open to the moments, the little moments of connecting. It means cherishing and remembering and embracing those grace-filled moments. Loving means desiring the right things, and longing for the enduring things, and wishing for the eternal things.
The next time I’m overwhelmed by the details of life, or exasperated with work, or frustrated with teenagers, I hope I recall Ben’s 4 year old voice whispering in my ear: I wished that I could play another game of Dinosaur Checkers with Daddy! My deepest desire is to be with those I love and to try and love them as they are right now. In doing that I will find more moments to cherish and so many more memories to embrace. And who knows? Perhaps that 4 year old is still hiding somewhere deep down inside of Ben. I’d like to think that.
What is Wisdom? June – 2018
One day several men in a bible study group were discussing their thoughts about life. They each quoted a phrase from the scriptures that meant the most to them. Love one another; Do not fear; I shall raise you up as on wings of an eagle. Do not worry about tomorrow. Trust in the Lord. One by one each friend quoted his favorite line. When it came his turn, a man who was known for his biblical knowledge thought for a moment and then said that his favorite saying was not from the Bible rather it came from a Persian adage, wisdom from the Middle East: And this too shall pass.
The others were surprised that he had not chosen a biblical saying, such as Love thy neighbor as thyself. He replied: This is what I try to remember whenever life gets me down. Sometimes I get so caught up in the moment that I forget that things come and go, and that we’ve got to take the bad with the good and find the faith to keep going. That phrase is like a window that shows me there is life beyond my momentary problems, even though they feel like a prison. It helps me keep my head up and my spirit strong – there’s a path out there and it’s my job to find it.
I have a suspicion that this story resonates with most of us. After all we’ve all experienced those moments that are confusing, those days that never seem to end, and those situations that are unbearable. All of us have, at one time or another, wondered why all the trials of life seem to come at the same time. And certainly we’ve all been tempted to give in and give up.
Perhaps the wisdom of the man in that story points us to the heart of the Good News even on the most trying of days. This too shall pass never crossed the lips of Jesus in the gospel narratives, still it is in reality a ‘kingdom’ statement. So often in the Gospel accounts Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; the Kingdom of God is like a net thrown into the sea: the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast. Jesus was constantly reminding his followers that the kingdom was something rare and precious, something that we could get a glimpse of right here and right now, but also something that was yet to be realized. In short the Kingdom is “here” but “NOT YET.” This sounds like a paradox doesn’t it? It is indeed!
In last months Column, I wrote of the challenge to live the present moment for all its worth. I wrote of the coming days of summer and the need to appreciate them and live them and cherish them. While this is true, there is a balancing statement that is equally true – we must realize that this moment is not all that there is, for this too shall pass. As Christians we always need to glance every so often at the horizon of the Kingdom of God. We must remind ourselves that the Kingdom of God is still waiting to be realized and God is never done with us.
On those dark and seemingly hopeless days this reminder will come as Good News. There is still life beyond our heart problems and our high blood pressure. There is life beyond our failing kidneys and threatening our liver condition. There is life beyond our rebellious teenager, our dying parent, and our dead-end job. There is life beyond our depression, our anger, and our fears – you see the Kingdom of God means that there is always life beyond – beyond this moment, beyond our problems, and beyond death itself!
To live as a Christian is to live within the paradox of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is here in this moment, right now…BUT…the Kingdom of God is NOT YET. Whenever you’re feeling down remember: This too shall pass.
Stop Rushing – May 2018
Just this past week I was flipping through a file that I name simply -“Quotations, Stories, & Stuff’ – it’s one of those files that contains a little bit of everything. As I moved through the pages, there fell to the floor a newspaper clipping from an Alex Thein Column in the Milwaukee Journal, dated 9-16-87. Wow! I thought to myself. Now this is an old clipping from when there were two Milwaukee papers, the Journal and the Sentinel. And folks accuse me of throwing ‘stuff’ away! I must have been struck by this particular column as I was rushing from one thing to the next during my second year in ministry. I suppose I cut it out and stuck it in the file though honestly, I really have no recollection of doing it. Still, as I re-read the clipping it seemed destined for me here 31 years later.
Apparently there was a little boy named Matthew Krantz who went to St. Joseph Day Care Center in Milwaukee. His teacher, Mrs. Samuelson, was instructing the children about birthdays and age. She told them that the day they were born is their birthday and that every year on that day they would have a birthday and add one more year to their age.
After Mrs. Samuelson finished her explanation, she asked each one in the class when was their birthday and how old were they. When she came to Matthew, he said he was four years old.
And when will you be five? She asked.
When I’m done with four, he said in a firm voice.
I wrote a not to myself on this cute little clipping – Jeff, remember not to rush through life! I’m afraid that I haven’t paid attention much to the note I wrote to myself, and certainly not in the last few weeks. I find I rush too much – from this activity to that, this person to another, this place to yet another place. And more than this I have trying to rush people through life as well. I catch myself wanting my children to be through adolescents and on to adulthood. I want people to rush through their grief, surgical recoveries, problems and pain and get to the resurrection. I want the country we live in to be somewhere in the future where it’s less divided and more whole. You get the picture? I haven’t heeded the wisdom of Matthew. Too often I find myself rushing to five and I’m still not done being four!
Jesus seemed to understand that this was a problem for most people. In Matthew 6 he spoke of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the care that God has for every creature and about letting go of our anxiety. Seek first the Kingdom of God and the way of righteousness and the rest will be given to you. In essence Jesus was reminding people to stop rushing around so much, to quit worrying about tomorrow, and to live today fully and completely.
What a wonderful message for the month of May! May in Wisconsin is always miraculous with life abundant around every corner. Perhaps this is a chance for us to slow down and drink in deeply the world that is around us. Perhaps this month we can make an effort to pay attention to the moment. Let’s not rush off to the next conversation until we’re finished with the one we’re in; let’s not rush off to the next flower until we’re finished smelling the one in front of us; let’s not worry about the morning until we’re finished appreciating the sunset before our eyes. Live deeply this month – breathe deeply this month – love deeply this month. Don’t rush!
The Power of Resurrection – April 2018
Every year in the month of April, I think about my father. April 14th is my Dad’s birthday. Though he passed away 25 years ago this coming June, it seems like just yesterday that I last talked with him. Even after 25 years there are days when I miss him terribly. I know that he would have loved Melissa. I’m certain that he would have taken as much delight in my three children as I do. And I believe he would have enjoyed visiting Madison and coming to Messiah to worship (and of course to hear me preach!).
My Dad was a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor. He enjoyed laughing and talking, fishing, playing cards, building, fixing things, sports (especially the Packers) and countless little hobbies. He was a loving and affirming father who spent real quality time with his children. He loved his wife and family, and lived life to the fullest.
In April of 1993, just before his 63rd birthday he was given six months to live. He had struggled with cancer for four years, and now finally, the fight was over. I remember that year, hearing the news from my Mom just as I sat down to write my Easter homily for my congregation at the Newman Center. After I hung up the phone I recall crying and thinking how ironic it was to be writing and preaching about the new life of Easter when all I felt was death. Twenty five Easters have come and gone, and while I often miss my Dad, more often I remember him with a profound sense of joy and gratitude. In many ways I think I’ve lived into the resurrection story. Recently I read this:
Seen on a bulletin board at the Mayo Clinic:
Cancer is limited.
It can not cripple love.
It can not shatter hope.
It can not corrode faith.
It can not eat away at peace.
It can not destroy confidence.
It can not kill friendship.
It can not shut out memories.
It can not silence courage.
It can not invade the soul.
It can not reduce eternal life.
It can not quench the Spirit.
It can not lesson the power of the Resurrection!
This is I suppose the deepest and most profound message of the Easter Season – that the power of the Resurrection will be found in all of our lives! Easter is more than just a memory of Jesus raised from the dead – Easter is more a promise that all of us will discover life again. When we are surrounded by the tomb of grief and loss, the promise of the Resurrection is that one day we will laugh again. When we are surrounded by the tomb of failure, or addictions, mistakes or stress, the promise of the Resurrection is that one day we will be released from our bondage and forgiven of our mistakes and given a another chance. When we are surrounded by the tombs of broken marriages and broken vows, dead end jobs and disloyal friendships, the promise of the Resurrection is that there is a love and a life and a friendship that will always be faithful.
Whatever cross you carry this year, remember that these crosses are limited. The final word always belongs to God. Remember the power of the Resurrection! Happy Easter my friends.
God is Always – Here March 2018
Nearly 35 years ago I had a spiritual director at the American College in Belgium by the name of Father George Hill. George was a Massachusetts “kid” who grew up on the East Coast and spent his final years at Manhattan College as chaplain of students. Sadly, he died much too young a few years ago at the age of 67.
In my last year of seminary Fr. George gave me a book to read, The Desert in the City by Carlo Corretto. I still have it on my shelf. Mr. Corretto’s contention is that we all need to go to the desert to pray. Jesus went to the desert often and as disciples of Jesus we too must at times retreat to the desert to find God. Coretto believes we do not need to go to the literal desert, but to the desert that is all around us every day. He believes that the desert can be found even in the confusion and noise of the world around us. He contends, If peace and quiet were a pre-requisite of prayer, the poor would never be able to pray. I agree with Mr. Coretto. I have travelled to Third World countries and often their sense of faith, the vibrancy of their worship, the joy they exemplify puts our First World to shame. They have deep vibrant communities of prayer and yet their world is hardly silent! There must then be a way of praying, a place of spirituality in the everyday, fast paced world we live in.
Corretto maintains that we have to be able to pray in the life that we are given now, where ever that life is. He says if God is truly God, then we have the chance to experience God 24 hours out of 24 hours – for God is all around us. Coretto goes on to say: It is not by fleeing that you will find God more easily, but it is by changing your heart that you will see things differently. The desert in the city is only possible on these terms: that you see things with a new eye, touch them with a new spirit, love them with a new heart.
Just a few days before Christmas only a few months ago, I found myself at the Walmart on the Eastside of Madison waiting for my daughter and some of her friends to finish their Christmas shopping. I stood near the layaway area and closed my eyes. I concentrated and listened to the sounds around me. I heard the beeping of scanners, cash register drawers opening and closing, the squeaking of wheels on shopping carts, the cries of infants, scolding parents, background sound of music playing through store stereo speakers, jingling of keys, crunching of plastic bags, the conversation of dozens of people – a wonderful cacophony of sound! I began to wonder if this isn’t the desert in the city that Carlo Corretto was referring to. Is this not the change of heart that he was calling for? Maybe I just need to see the world with new eyes and to hear the call of God with new ears. Can we not find God wherever we are if we still our hearts and look – and listen?
At this time in the church year we have moved from preparations for Christmas to preparations for Easter – oh how the year flies by! The Season of Lent is that time to retreat once again to the desert in the city. It seems to me that Lent is that moment when we are called to enter more deeply into the world around us and not flee from it. The desert, where God is found is all around us especially in the crosses. Perhaps you will find yourself frustrated by the craziness of family life, with too much to do and so little time for yourself. Pause amidst the craziness, close your eyes and listen. Remind yourself that right here in cross of life is God. This is our hope and our faith. Perhaps you will be in a doctor’s office for yet one more appointment, one more treatment, one more blood draw or chemo treatment or session of physical therapy. Pause amidst the seemingly endless wait of medical treatment, close your eyes and listen. Remind yourself that right here in cross of life is God. This is our hope and our faith. Perhaps you will find yourself frustrated at work, or overwhelmed by stress, or like me waiting at the checkout in Walmart. Pause amidst the craziness, close your eyes and listen. Remind yourself that right here in cross of life is God. This is our hope and our faith.
The challenge of Lent is to enter more deeply the world around us, and the crosses that are a part of each of our lives. We are challenged to listen and look for God. We are called to live the desert in the city. God is here. God is always here. God will always be – here.
The Indwelling God – Feb. 2018
In the past couple of weeks I have shared thoughts from two of my theological heroes. On Christmas Eve I shared a story by Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist. And then on the second Sunday after Epiphany I told of my encounter with Henri Nouwen, the great Dutch theologian, writer, and teacher. There is a third spiritual writer that challenges me every time I read his work, a Franciscan Friar named Richard Robert. Fr. Rohr lives in the legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi. This is one of my favorite stories and reflections from his writings.
Where Is God?
“When I was on retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey in 1985, I had a chance encounter that has stayed with me all these years. I was walking down a little trail when I recognized a recluse, what you might call a hermit’s hermit, coming toward me. Not wanting to intrude on his deep silence, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, Richard! That surprised me. He was supposed to be silent. How did he know who I was? Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. Tell the people one thing. Pointing to the sky, he said, God is not ‘out there’! Then he said, God bless you, and abruptly continued down the path.
The belief that God is out there is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our relationships with sexuality, food, possessions, money, animals, nature, politics, and our own incarnate selves. This loss explains why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect – To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This physical world is the hiding place of God and the revelation place of God!
Far too much of religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t. In reality, it’s not up to us. We have no choice in the matter. All are beloved. Everyone – Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, able-bodied and disabled, male and female, Republican and Democrat – all are children of God. We are all members of the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we are aware of this gift. Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters? This is Jesus’ only description of the final judgment (Matthew 25). But some say – They smell. They’re a nuisance. They’re on welfare. They are a drain on our tax money. Can we see Christ in all people, even the so-called nobodies who can’t or won’t play our game of success? When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own. Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all.
Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God! We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are saved by faith – faith that this could be true.”
I love this reflection by Fr. Richard Rohr. As I wrote, he lives in the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi. It was after all St. Francis who proclaimed The Canticle of the Creatures. He sang that the wind was his brother and the moon his sister. Francis believed that the birds and the fish and every creature of the earth were part of his family. He insisted that every breath he took was infused with the breath of the Divine One. This is Franciscan spirituality. For the next 40 days perhaps this should be our spirituality as well.
It seems every Lent I challenge myself to practice the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. This year I want to use these disciplines to remind myself of Fr. Rohr’s reflection. When I pray I will remember that I sit already in the presence of God – God indwells – in me, in others, in every creature of the earth. Prayer is about recognizing the Divine in and around me.
When I fast, when my body yearns for food, I will remember that in every morsel of food and sustenance, God is. Every time I gather to dine with family or friends, there is the presence of Jesus. In the smell of coffee and the taste of bacon, in every vegetable, in every bite – within my body, especially in my physical body, God is!
And finally in those moments when I give alms (gifts to the poor) I will remember Matthew 25, the God who comes to us on the margins of the world. I will recall that every gift is a gift to God, and every person is my brother or sister, and we are one family of God. The disciplines of Lent should be reminders of Richard Rohr’s reflection, and the example of St. Francis of Assisi – God is all around us.
A New Start – January 2018
Many years ago I received a gift in the mail from the Bishop of South Central Synod of Wisconsin, a book of poetry that was sent to all our synod pastors. It is a wonderful reflection on ministry by a Lutheran pastor named Gary Puckett entitled On Living in the Township of Heaven. Well written, often touching, sometimes profound, Gary writes about the ‘holy’ moments of life, the kingdom of God that can be found within the ordinary. As we begin this new year – that is our journey as well.
Put new calendars on the walls
Misdate the checks that pay the bills
Resolve to be more resolute
It’s a new year
It’s a fresh start
Farm out the kids
Shake out the rugs
Take out the trash
It’s a clean house
It’s a fresh start
Dig out the sidewalk
Fill up the birdfeeder
Watch for fresh tracks in the yard
It’s a new snow
It’s a fresh start
Shed an old grudge
Make a new friend
Do something everyone knows you won’t
It’s a new life
It’s a fresh start.
I think Gary touches eloquently on the holiness of the New Year and its connection to the reign of God, or rather, the township of heaven. It’s all about new beginnings. The ministry of Jesus was primarily a ministry of newness, of granting newness and new starts to people broken by their pasts. People followed Jesus because in him they discovered a God who forgave sins, and absolved weaknesses, and offered those who followed a new life and a fresh start. Those who followed Jesus discovered that in the township of heaven every moment of every day, every step and every breath was a chance to begin again, to turn away from sin and to start over. And it was in this newness that they found their joy!
Every January as we celebrate the New Year, there is an echo of the reign of God. And if we listen well we will discover that echo in all of the ordinary moments that make up our lives. If we listen well that echo will be found in even the most broken, destructive and difficult times of this new year. If we listen well we will discover that we are living in the township of heaven – that God is walking with us and beside us, always encouraging us to forgive ourselves and others; to turn away from sin and believe in the Good News; to stand up and walk; to live a new life; to make a fresh start. This is truly Good News! For all of us here at Messiah and for all Christians, every day carries the promise of New Year’s Day. Remember this when you become overwhelmed by the darkness of the world. Remember this when you are disappointed by your life, your children, your spouse or your situation. Remember this when death is at your doorstep and darkness threatens to overwhelm you. Remember this – In the township of heaven God is always inviting us to start again!
Behold I make all things new.
A Sacred Space – December 2017
Joseph Campbell is perhaps the greatest scholar of religion and mythology in the 20th century. This work has inspired generations of scholars to look more deeply at the truths of religious ideas. He once said: A sacred space is where you discover yourself over and over and over again. This past August I traveled to Leuven, Belgium where I had first come into contact with the work of Joseph Campbell. It was fun being back in my old stomping grounds – meeting old friends, making new ones, traveling to the places and spaces that were once sacred to me so long ago.
On the first night of the religious conference we gathered in the chapel of the American College. As soon as I walked into the space a thousand memories flooded back to me. I remembered the first time that I ever preached – it was in this very chapel. I was so frightened, nervous and scattered and I remember the presiding priest telling me as we walked out – get out of your own way Jeff and allow God to use you. And the words just came!
I remembered receiving the ministry of reader on the 125th anniversary of the college and having the honor of meeting the King and Queen of Belgium. I remembered the nights that I practiced music in the chapel preparing for the Sunday Eucharist. I would stand in a semi-darkened church and play and sing as my voice reverberated through the empty space. I recalled the daily Morning Prayer, the community gatherings for communion, and Sunday evenings at night when we would gather in candlelight to begin a new week of study and learning and sing our Evensong. This chapel held so many memories for me – it was truly a sacred space.
I took my place in the congregation on this opening weekend worship and the space resounded with the marvelous sound of 60 people singing All Are Welcome, one of my favorite hymns. On April 14, 2000 Melissa and I chose this hymn as we walked into St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Neenah to begin our life together as husband-and-wife. At that moment more memories flooded back to me. Making a home with Melissa, the birth of our first son Benjamin, moving to Madison and accepting the call to Messiah Lutheran Church, the birth of Joey and the adoption of Rachel, the growth of this church the laughter, the singing, the joy of Sunday mornings and so much more! The American College Chapel that it been a sacred space for me so long ago became a sacred space for me again – it was reminding me of who I was – not only priest and pastor but more husband and father and friend! A sacred space is where you discover yourself over and over and over again. I found myself again!
In just a few short weeks it will be Christmas Eve and our sanctuary will be packed for sure. It is every year. And every year I hear a few pejorative comments about those folks who only come on Christmas and Easter. Those comments never come from me – I love that folks come back to this church. This is their sacred space! I think people come back here to remember that community is our deepest need as human beings. I think others come back here to remember that in the chaos of their lives, amidst all the changes, there are some eternal truths that never change, that God is love and those who live in love, live in God. (1Jn.4:16) Others come here and need to be reminded of their youth and Christmases long ago, and still others because they feel close to those who have died, and others to remember that they aren’t dead yet and God will still be God to them. And nearly everyone comes on Christmas Eve to hope again for peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
In the end I love the Christmas Eve liturgies, and the packed church, and the brilliant carols – and I will never complain about the crowds even if some come only once or twice a year. All of us need to return to our sacred spaces wherever they are and be reminded of who we are – children of God. Messiah Church is a sacred space, a holy place and we believe a dwelling place of God. A sacred space is where you discover yourself over and over and over again. Merry Christmas my Messiah Family!
Doing Small Things – Oct 2017
Professional speaker Jim Cathcart often shares a certain story about how our lives impact those around us. One day, during a layover at the Atlanta International Airport, Jim found time for a snack in the food court. All the tables were filled and several passengers, himself included, stood in any available space to eat.
Then Jim noticed a busboy working his way through the crowd. His shoulders were curled forward and he kept his head down. He moved through the crowd from table to table barely making eye contact with anyone as he cleared away the dirty dishes. Well the sight of this overworked and anxious young man filled Jim with an overwhelming sadness. For someone this young to be so burdened by the weight of work didn’t seem right. He knew that there was something he could do or say to reach out to this young person.
When Jim finished his food and disposed of the trash, he approached the busboy. “What you are doing here sure is important,” he said. “Huh?” the busboy replied. “If you weren’t doing what you are doing, it wouldn’t be five minutes before there was trash everywhere, and people would stop coming here,” Jim said. “What you are doing is important, and I just wanted to say thanks for doing it.”
The busboy began to smile. His posture became more erect and he began to make eye contact with those around him. A few choice words had served as a reminder that he was worth much more than he realized.
I think that this is a wonderful story to recall as we come to the end of September. We begin yet another new year of Confirmation and Sunday school, pre-school and adult scripture study, committee meetings and social gatherings – it will be an autumn filled with busy church activities. As exciting as autumn is, it also brings with it a certain “frantic-ness.” So often people become dismayed by the passing of the summer months and wonder where all the time has gone. They get discouraged by the amount of activities and so often feel like that busboy in the story. They end up walking through their days with shoulders curled forward, barely making eye contact with the world around them. Yet right here in the “frantic-ness” is our chance to share the Good News. Like Jesus who was always able to remind people of their infinite worth, so we too can become bearers of healing. It doesn’t take a great effort to pass on a compliment, share a smile, or take a moment to chat. It doesn’t take a tremendous effort to remember someone’s name, remember someone’s birthday, or introduce yourself to a stranger. It doesn’t take a heroic effort to lend a helping hand, to exercise patience, or offer to listen. These are the moments of Good News that we can share with each other in this season of autumn.
I think it was Mother Teresa who once said: “Holiness does not consist in doing great things; but in doing little things with great love.” If we pay attention to the little things, the small kindnesses, the brief exchanges everyday we can make a difference in the lives of so many people. Watch! They will stand up straighter. They will begin walking with heads held high. Their eyes will be brighter. A few choice words will serve as a reminder that they are worth much more than they realized!
Enjoy these last days of Summer my friends. Peace. Pastor Jeff
What Will People Remember? September -2017
I like those words. I’ve seen them attributed to Maya Angelou, H. Jackson Brown and others – still, whoever first said them, they ring true. We honor and love and remember those people who made us feel honored, and loved, and remembered. It is certainly true in my life.
I remember attending a funeral a number of years ago for an old priest well into his nineties. His name was Fr. Lambert Scanlan. He had retired when he was 70 years old and had good health for more than twenty years. He was known around the Diocese of Green Bay as the Ambassador to Pastors – he spent nearly all his time driving around to different churches of all denominations and just dropping in to talk to the pastor. I remember the day he showed up at my office. He came unannounced and waited patiently outside until I had a chance to see him. He sat down with no great agenda other than to meet me and ask me if I was happy. After 30 minutes of conversation he gave me a hug and told me that I was doing great work for the Lord and promised to pray for my happiness. That was how he spent 20 years of his life, moving from pastor to pastor, waiting for their time, talking and praying for them.
So here I was at his funeral, and the church was packed. There were pastors from so many churches and denominations in attendance and many of his fellow priests as well. When it came time for the eulogy what amazed me was the fact that no one spoke of his nearly 55 years of service to the church. No one commented on the two churches that he helped to build, or the school that he brought to life, or the thousands of marriages, baptisms and funerals over which he presided – NO – what people talked about were the final 20 years of his life when he was too old to work. Over and over again people spoke about those gentle visits where he lingered over easy conversation and inquired about their happiness. They remembered his waiting, his words and his hugs.
As I sat in the pew listening to the eulogies, it suddenly occurred to me that what we value most in life is not productivity but presence; not talent but time; not genius but gentleness. This Ambassador to Pastors had done, in his retirement years, his best ministry. He was a man of presence and time and gentleness. Everyone remembered how he made them feel.
I think that Lambert Scanlan understood the ministry of Jesus. As I read the stories of Jesus I think this is what attracted people to the Lord. Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. He took time to speak with lepers calling to him from the side of the road. He took time to call Zacchaeus down from the tree to speak with him and eat at his house. He took time to chat with fisherman, and meet with tax collectors and listen to the pleas of Samaritan women. This is the predominant theme in the ministry of Jesus – he had time for people. And because he made them feel honored, and loved, and remembered, they in turn honored him, his followers loved him and to this day the church remembers him!
As we enter this month of September with all the flurry of work and school, I’m trying to remember the lesson of Fr. Lambert Scanlan. I want to be productive to be sure, but I wish even more to be really present to the people who come into my life and to my wife and children who share my life. I want to use my talents wisely to be the best pastor that I can be, but I wish even more to be a person who offers time to others. And certainly I want to be a good administrator who others see as competent and intelligent, but in the end I want even more to be known as a man of gentleness and kindness. In the final analysis what we value the most are presence, time and gentleness. I know that Fr. Scanlan would agree and I’m sure if he were still around he would give me a hug and ask me if I was happy. He’d be pleased to know – I am.
A Story and a Moral – August 2017
There is an old fable that goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a group of frogs that were traveling through the woods when two of them fell into a deep pit. When they discovered how deep the pit was, the frogs at the top yelled down and told their two stranded mates that they were as good as dead. The pit is deep and you are so very small. We’ll pray that you will have a peaceful death for you have no chance to make it out. Goodbye dear friends. The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit with all their might. The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead anyway. Finally, one of the frogs took heed of what all the others were saying and gave up. He fell down and died.
Now the other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again the crowd of frogs at the top yelled at him to stop the agony and the pain, to give up and just die. Still, the little frog jumped even harder and finally, amazingly, on what what an unbelievable jump, he made it out. When he got out, the other frogs said: Did you not hear us? The frog wasn’t sure what they were asking and explained to them that he was deaf. While they were telling him to give up he thought they were encouraging him the entire time. Do you know the moral of the story? There is power of life and death in words!
Old fables sometimes carry a great deal of wisdom, and there is certainly gospel wisdom in this one. The ancient Hebrews believed that words had the power to create and destroy. The word that the Hebrews used was Dabar – a force that was dynamic, filled with energy and power. Dabar – the Word – is used hundreds of times in the scriptures. In the book of Genesis the Hebrew people had God creating through the power of Dabar. It was Dabar that came to Abraham and Sarah in the desert, Dabar imprinted on the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and Dabar that comes to all the prophets of the Old Testament. The Old Testament scriptures constantly point to the power of Dabar – the Word. God’s word is burning and irrepressible fire (Jer. 20:7-9), like a sword (Is 49:2) or a hammer (Jer 23:29); it is able to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to ruin, to build and to plant (Jer 1:9-10). It makes sense then, that in the early Church the first Christians pointed to Jesus of Nazareth and saw in him Dabar – he was the Word! Throughout all of scripture God’s words have power. And if God’s words have power – so do ours.
I am so often reminded in my own life of how a word of encouragement or affirmation can transform a day that is dreary and difficult into a moment of beauty. I am also aware of how a word of criticism can cast shadows on even the most glorious day. Words can destroy us, or words can lift us up. Every day we exercise more power than we know. So many people come into our lives each day and how we use our words can make a tremendous difference in their lives. Do we choose words of kindness and peace? Do we try to affirm others whenever we have the chance? Do we challenge our children, friends and family with words of gentleness and a sense of encouragement? Like Dabar in the Old Testament, each of us exercises a dynamic power in the words we choose to use. Use words that build up. Use words that help others. Use words that give life. Remember – your words have power!
The Very Last Time? – July 2017
Only yesterday, I ran across an article by a father of three grown daughters. His name is Anthony Mullinax from Greenville, South Carolina. He was writing about the passing of time and how we so often take life for granted. He writes:
There are so many daily joys for the parent of a young child; for example, pushing their swing; trotting them on your knee; playing ‘horsey,’ etc. Then one day it dawns on you that you aren’t doing those things anymore – they’ve outgrown it. You realize that somewhere back there was the very last time.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have savored the last occurrence of each of those childhood games a little more. I would have lingered a little longer at the swing. I would have trotted my knee a little longer that last time. When we played horsey and that inevitable, gleeful plea came, ‘One more time, Daddy, one more time,’ I would have crawled across that floor on my hands and knees until only sheer exhaustion made me drop.
Now certainly as a father of adolescent children I was touched by the writing of this dad from South Carolina – I wish I savored more intentionally the little moments with my children – when they were still very little. My children have outgrown pushing them on a swing, and trotting them on my knee, and playing ‘horsey.’ And I share this man’s insights with you this month because in a certain sense his wisdom applies to all of life, and my life now as I struggle with the ‘teenage-rearing years.’ How often we take moments of life for granted. How easy it is to move through our days and treat all the little things of life with a mundane casualness. How often we forget the miracle of life itself. Yet if we knew that that this moment, right here and right now, were the last time that we would hold the one we love, or laugh with our best friend, or revel in the beauty of a sunset, or smell the fragrance of a flower – I mean if we knew that this were the last time – Oh how we would cherish this moment!
I think Jesus in the gospels is always trying to remind his followers of the preciousness of every moment. Whenever he spoke about the reign of God being within them, or told them to live like the lilies of the field, or shared with them the abundance of miraculous food, Jesus was teaching them about the miracle that is life. He was always trying to show them that this moment, and this breath and this time together was free gift and should never be taken for granted. Isn’t that what he meant when he said, ‘the reign of God is upon you?’
And perhaps this is why the season of summer comes to us each year as a gospel moment of grace, a time to remember that the reign of God is indeed upon us. Perhaps the lazy days of summer remind us to slow us down and to savor each moment as if it were the very last time. We know of course that the days of warmth and sunshine, the days of vacation and recreation can not last forever – but neither does this life. Enjoy these days of summer. But even more, cherish the people you love right now; believe in the miracle of your every breath right now; watch the sunset, smell the flowers, listen to the sounds of the world around you right now – as if it were the very last time.
Peace! – June 2017
I think that one of the best newspaper cartoons of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. Recently I saw one that made a deep impression on me. One day Calvin and Hobbes come marching into the living room early one morning. Calvin’s mother is seated there in her favorite chair. She is sipping her morning coffee. She looks up at young Calvin. She is amused and amazed at how he is dressed. Calvin’s head is encased in a large space helmet. A cape is draped around his neck, across his shoulders, down his back and is dragging on the floor. One hand is holding a flashlight and the other a baseball bat.
What’s up today? asks his mom. Nothing, so far, answers Calvin. So far? she questions. Well, you never know, Calvin says, Something could happen today. Then Calvin marches off, And if anything does, by golly, I’m going to be ready for it! Calvin’s mom looks out at the reading audience and she says, I need a suit like that!
That’s the way many of us feel as we read and watch the news and deal with life’s ambiguity. Sometimes this world seems quite violent and people seem to be at each other’s throats. A suit like that would help, so we can say with Calvin, Whatever may come my way, I’m going to be ready for it! Bring it on!
Well, I don’t have a suit like Calvin’s though I wish I did. I wish I had a suit of armor that could protect my children from harm, and my world from the darkness that so often surrounds us. I wish I had a suit of armor that could protect my friends and family and congregation from pain and problems, disease and death. Of course I don’t. Still I do have a word! It is the word in the Season of Pentecost – the word that Jesus shared so often in the Upper Room, a word that John’s Gospel uses so many times, a word that is used in the bible over 400 times! Peace is the word I share with you. Jesus in the Upper Room just before Pentecost says: 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.
There is a defining phrase in that statement. One that tells us what kind of peace it is that Christ gives us. The defining phrase is: Not as the world gives. Do you see how that defines God’s peace? The world promises peace through the rule of law. Law and order is the only way for a society and a people to experience peace, and law and order must be kept by the aggressive use of force and threats of punishment. That’s the only way that the world can bring about peace.
God however, offers peace in a different way. Jesus tells his disciples that if they obey his command of love, if they open their hearts to tenderness and mercy, and if they trust in the promise that they are loved and treasured beyond measure, then the Spirit of God will come to them and make a home within them. The home of God will be in their hearts. Do you see the difference in Jesus’ promise of peace? The peace of Christ will come not by force but by choice. This is the difference. The world’s peace is peace through strength. Christ’s peace is peace by surrendering to God.
Those first disciples on Pentecost surrendered to God. Their lives were filled with darkness and disease. They faced trials and tumult. They lost their friends and their families and even their lives but still they had peace! They had peace because they followed the command of love. Their hearts were filled with peace because they lived with tenderness and mercy. They faced death with great peace because they knew that God loved and treasured them and would never abandon them. They chose to surrender to God – and they found peace. And we can find peace too.
When we cannot fix what is hurting our child, or stop our loved one from dying, or cure our disease – we can surrender everything to God and love those near to us. When we cannot fix our world, or heal our climate, or bridge the racial divide – we can surrender the future to God and act with mercy and tenderness now. When we cannot bring order to the chaos of our lives, or the chaos of our relationships, or the chaos of work and family – we can surrender to God and trust that we are loved and treasured more than we can ever know. We can find peace. It is a choice we can make every day – to surrender our lives to the One who created us. Let go, let God, and find peace.
Let’s Pretend – May 2017
Pretend that every person you meet has a great sign hanging around his or her neck that says: ‘Please make me feel important.’ If you respond to that message you’ll be successful in sales and more than, that you’ll be successful in life.
I used this quotation just a few weeks ago when I talked about my father-in-law. I spoke at his celebration of life, the Vigil before his burial. As I mentioned to the assembly that gathered to celebrate his life that evening, I admired so many things about my father-in-law – his love of his family, his curiosity about the things of life, his affection for friends, and his fidelity as a husband. Still I first met Dick Nelson, Melissa’s father, in the early 1991 at the Newman Center in Oshkosh. He and Elaine had come to visit their daughter in college and I admired him immediately as a good salesman. I always admire people involved in sales.
It’s odd thinking that a pastor would admire people in sales isn’t it? And yet in a certain sense “I” am in sales. I don’t do it for money of course, or to build a business, but I do sell an idea, a vision one might say, of the kingdom of God. I try to remind people that this vision will meet their deepest needs. I speak of the love of God it comes to them in Jesus Christ, and more, proclaim the kingdom to which they belong. I sell that vision every time I preach. And so I spoke of my admiration for this salesman I’ve come to cherish and love. You see my father-in-law always made me feel important. He made everyone feel important and that’s what made him successful in sales and successful in life.
There is a story about a young boy of five years old who went to dinner with his family. As the waitress went around the table taking orders the young boy called out: I want honey mustard! His mother spoke over the top of him and said firmly: What he wants is three chicken strips and a few French fries and small lemonade. The boy said again: I want honey mustard! The mother again spoke over him: Oh and please make sure that the chicken strips are cooked completely through and not too many French fries. But I want honey mustard! Said the little boy. The mother again spoke: Now that’s enough honey and the waitress moved onto the next person. When the dinner came, the plates were presented to the patrons and the little boy received his chicken strips, his French fries, a small lemonade and a small cup of honey mustard with a miniature umbrella sticking out – the type used in specialty drinks. The waitress winked at him and began to walk away. Suddenly the little boy jumped out of his chair and ran to her, hugging her tightly. When he came back to the table his mother asked why he had hugged the waitress. His response was joyful. She thinks I’m somebody!
Now there is someone successful in sales and successful in life! I like to think that Jesus was the world’s greatest salesman. Wherever he traveled he seemed to make people feel important. He would walk up to simple fisherman and tell them: Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women (Mt.4:19). He made them believe that they had a purpose in life bigger and broader than they could ever imagine. He would see a leper at the side of the road and he would proclaim: Stand up your faith has made you well (Lk.17:19) He made those thrown to the margins believe they too had a place at the table, in the Kingdom of God there were no disposable people. He would say to a tax collector: Zacchaeus come down from the tree for tonight I eat at your house (Lk.19:15. Jesus made people feel important. He reminded them of the vision of the kingdom of God where everyone has a place at the table.
That is the mission we all are called to in the season of Easter. Perhaps when we leave the church each Sunday we should pretend that every person carries around their neck this huge sign that says please, please make me feel important. How desperately every person needs to know that he or she is cherished by God, and they have a purpose that is bigger and broader than anything they can ever imagine. Every person you meet needs to be reminded they have a place at God’s great banquet table.
Make people feel important. Why? Because they are important – to God. Live this way, and like my father-in-law, you will be successful in life. You will be spreading God’s life.
To Bring Beauty From Ashes – April 2017
There probably isn’t a young person in our congregation who hasn’t read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. The books have become the best-selling series of all time and have sold over 400 million copies. The films based on the books have grossed nearly 8 billion dollars! By every measure J.K. Rowling has been a stunning success. Still, at one point in her life she considered herself a failure. In 2008 Rowling gave the commencement address to Harvard University where she spoke of that feeling.
She told the story of being in her late twenties and struggling to make ends meet with a small child. She had already failed at her marriage; she had no job steady enough to pay the bills and Rowling and her daughter were nearly homeless. She was frightened, alone and almost without hope. She recalled that story and then said this: The fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well acquainted with failure. Believe me when I tell you though, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
I admire J.K. Rowling’s understanding of failure and I share her story and words with you this month because in the season of Lent the scriptures urge us to embrace our failures and to rise from the ashes. That is our theme in this Lenten season – to bring beauty from ashes. In this month of April we encounter a number of great scriptural characters who hit rock bottom, who are stripped away of the inessentials, who cease pretending that they are anything other than what they are. The Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, Lazarus in the tomb with Martha and Mary weeping outside – these are the characters we encounter just before celebrating the new life of Easter. Each of these people is similar to Ms. Rowling. Only when they hit rock bottom, only when they released their fears, only when they found a firm foundation in God’s great love for them – only then were they free to rise in beauty, to soar and be resurrected!
If this is their story, this is our story as well. So often in my ministry I’ve listened to folks tell me their stories of failure. There is the alcoholic who lost everything – his family, his friends and nearly his life until finally at rock bottom he discovered the God who would never let him go. There was the woman in prison who stole from her company and in the end stole years from her own life but at rock bottom discovered the God who would always give to her freely without cost and without merit. There are the folks who lost their jobs, and others who lost their marriages, and so very many struggling with mental illness who almost lost their minds – all of them were at rock bottom until God found them. Each of these people were stripped of all that was inessential and stopped pretending that they were anything other than what they really were – maybe imperfect, maybe failures, maybe at rock bottom – but loved and freed by God. This is the resurrection. This is the story of Easter. This is the beauty that arises from ashes!
Whatever you are facing in your life, whatever darkness surrounds you, whatever the failure or ashes – remember the promise of the cross – God will one day raise you up in beauty. This is the promise for us and for the world. Happy Easter my friends!
“The”Question – March 2017
One of the finest spiritual writers in the last fifty years was a man named Anthony de Mello. Like Jesus’ own use of parables, de Mello often turned to stories to explain the religious issues of our time. In a little book called One Minute Wisdom he shares this story:
One day the Master asked his disciples, What, in your opinion, is the most important of all religious questions?
He received many answers Does God exist? Who is God? What is the path to God? Is there life after death?
No, said the Master. The most important question is: Who am I?
Who am I? How can this be such a great religious question when for me anyway, the answers are pretty simple? Who am I? I am a husband and father. I am a pastor and preacher. I am a musician, a singer, and storyteller. I am an extrovert who enjoys people and loves to laugh. I am deeply emotional and can get angry quickly. I enjoy sports and theater, going out to dinner with Melissa and spending time with Ben, Joey and Rachel. This is who I am – not a very difficult question right?
Still, de Mello’s parable is getting at something much deeper than the hats I wear, or the jobs I do, or the hobbies that I enjoy. The most important religious question is Who am I at the deepest core of my being? Who am I apart from my relationships and work – apart from my talents and titles? Who am I when I stand stripped of everything that I use to define myself? Who am I?
Each year as a church we celebrate the Season of Lent to get us back to this question. The scriptures that make up the Lenten services are readings about people who discovere who they are. We read each year about the people of Israel wandering in the desert, King David standing accused of murder before Nathan the prophet, Jeremiah and Isaiah calling out for repentance and justice, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the man born blind, Lazarus, and so many others – these are the characters of our Lenten journey and all of them share a great secret. The secret is simply this – they are completely, absolutely and utterly dependent upon God! The characters of Lent understand who they are. They know that they are imperfect and broken. They realize that they have made terrible mistakes. They understand that their lives are not what they should be. They have come to realize that their one hope is God and God alone, and thus they are completely, absolutely and utterly dependent upon God.
So every year at this time we are asked to fast and pray and give alms (something for the poor) not because these things are good in and of themselves – NO! We do these things to remind us of who we are. When we fast from food we remember that all food is a gift from God, and that every bite we eat and breath we take is sheer grace and gift. When we pray we remember that we are not worlds onto ourselves but that we are creatures standing before the Creator. When we give to the poor we remember that all of our possessions and all of our wealth are given to us that we might give to others. Everything we do in the Lenten Season reminds us of our dependence upon God and God alone. This Lent my morning prayer every day will begin with this question: Who am I? In my fasting, in my praying, and in my giving, perhaps I will realize what the great characters of scripture realized – that I am imperfect and broken, yet loved more than I could ever imagine and given a future greater than I could have ever hoped for. Who am I? I am, as you are, completely, absolutely and utterly dependent upon God!
LETTING GO! February 2017
A couple of times this winter Rachel and I have gone over to Tenney Park to make use of their wonderful ice rink and warming house. What a beautiful city in which we live! The last time we were there, Rachel and two of her friends were hitting a hockey puck around when a young boy came up to talk to them. In no time at all four of them were playing a pick up game of practice hockey. Each girl would take a turn shooting at the net with the young man serving as goalie. After Rachel’s friends had left the young boy continued to hang with Rachel, talking and giggling.
Knowing that young girls do not want their fathers hanging too closely by when speaking with boys, I gave her a bit of distance. Still, being a father of boys I kept a close eye on them. Sometime later, after the young man had left I skated over to Rachel and asked her about the young man. He’s a good looking kid, I said. Yes he is, replied Rachel. He is from Chicago Dad and his name is Michael. He’s in town for a hockey tournament and he was showing me how to play hockey. He said I should come to his game. He has nice hair and beautiful eyes. He’s not my type though. I was shocked! I shot back, You have a type? Here was an epiphany moment – a moment when I realized my little Rachel was growing up. Soon there will be other boys, and more stories, and lots of types! My heart ached for a moment knowing there will come a day when I will have to let her go. I suppose that is what parenting is all about – teaching, trusting, and then letting go.
So much of life is about letting go. In Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book he says – In the end there are only three things that matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you learned to let go.
I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed that wonderful line from the Gospel of John, Unless a grain of wheat falls upon the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. Jesus knew that as human beings we cling to so much. We cling to our angers our hurts and our old wounds. We cling to our failed relationships, and dead end jobs. We cling to people and we cling to things and only when we learn to let go, only when we learn to die to ourselves, only then do we ever discover true freedom and real life!
And so I am making a resolution. I realize that it’s a strange time to make a New Years resolution with one month of 2017 already behind me, but until that moment on the rink just a week ago I didn’t have a clear resolution to make. Now I do. I want to let go. This year I want to look at some of the stuff in my life, possessions and things, and let go. I want to travel a bit lighter and free myself from so much clutter that fills my living spaces. I want to buy less and enjoy what I have more. I want to let go.
I want to take stock of some of the unresolved angers and wounds that I carry within my heart and forgive myself for carrying them – and more – forgive those who have been the source of those angers and wounds. Life is too short for grudges. I also want to move away from my first instinct of judging others and the constant need to share my opinions. In doing this I’ll be more attentive to listening and trying to understand first. I need to give up a sense of self-importance and ego. I want to let go.
Most of all, I want to remember this year that my children do not belong to me and Melissa is a gift from God. I choose to remember that this parish too is not mine, nor this ministry, nor this moment – everything belongs to God alone. I am going to try to be a bit less controlling as a parent, husband, friend and pastor. I want to let go.
Perhaps if I work on letting go now, someday (hopefully a long time from now), I’ll be able to let go of Rachel with grace on her wedding day, and trust that whatever type she has chosen, she will be loved and cared for. I have to stop clinging. We have to stop clinging. Only when we learn to let go, only when we learn to die to ourselves, only then do we ever discover true freedom and real life!
No One is Beyond Redemption – January 2017
Dear Colleague in ministry,
For those who do not know me, my name is Jeff Vanden Heuvel and I am pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church on the East side of Madison. I have agreed to serve as a board member for MAJM, Madison Area Jail Ministry. In that position I am reaching out to you – parishes who have supported the Jail Ministry in the past, to seek continued support for this valuable ministry. As you might know, our jail ministry began as a joint venture between the American Lutheran Church, The Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod back in the early 1970’s. We have expanded our affiliation and thus changed the name to MAJM. Perhaps you have received our most recent letter asking again for your continued support. If so, thank you in advance for your help.
As an ELCA pastor, I find this ministry to be deeply centered in the mission of Jesus – The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free (Lk. 4:18). And so with this email I am asking two questions:
1. Would you bring this ministry before your Pastoral Parish Council and consider being an annual contributor to our continued presence at the County Jail? This could be done through an annual budgeted gift or through a special collection.
A free will offering for 2019 could be sent to:
Madison Area Jail Ministry
c/o Executive Committee
PO BOX 8885
Madison, WI 53708-8885
2) Would you ask someone in your congregation to be a Point Person (an Advocate/friend of the Jail Ministry)? It’s great if they have a passion for those incarcerated and to be our “friend” who shares our occasional info with you and informs your congregation aware of the wonderful and important work we are doing in the Madison Jail.
I will follow up with a phone call, or feel free to call me (608) 222-3833 office, or (608) 225-9112 cell. Our full time chaplain, Todd Marcotte would be happy to come some Sunday to your congregation to preach at the liturgies and share the mission of MAJM with your congregation, as well as share during adult study time.
Like you, I receive so many calls for help each week. Still the 700 inmates of the Dane County Jail are often the ones forgotten by the world. They need especially to hear the Good News – that God will never forget them. Thanks again and I look forward to speaking with you.
I read a religious blog every week that often challenges my ideas on faith. It is called Unfundamentalist Christians. A few weeks ago, just before Christmas, a young theology student named Zach Christensen published a wonderful post on a Christmas gospel that we rarely ever read in church. It was originally posted on December 6th and as we begin a new year I thought I would share this post with you.
This past Sunday, many people began celebrating Advent, the season in which the majority of Western Christian churches commemorate the birth of Jesus. As we progress toward Christmas, there will be a many sermons preached about shepherds, wise men, innkeepers who are total jerks, and unplanned visits from angels. However, there is one passage from the birth narrative of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that I think truly captures the meaning of Christmas.
In Matthew 1:1-17, there is a genealogy of the family tree that led up to Jesus. If you have ever read the Bible, you usually skip this part (at least at face value, it is about as interesting as reading a phone book). Why would the author lead with something like this? But there is something included in these verses that is not often noticed.
Over the course of the genealogy, the writer deliberately includes the names of four women. In a patriarchal world that considered women to be second-class citizens or property, this was an extraordinarily radical thing to do (if you read all of the other genealogies in the Bible or from any literature from the time, none of them include women). More importantly, the women included are not what anyone would ever expect.
In verse 3, the writer lists Tamar. In the book of Genesis, Tamar was widowed, disguised herself as a harlot, was taken by her father-in-law (Judah, who did not realize it), and bore a child named Perez. By the standards of their day, this was considered incest, and is a terrible Sunday school lesson. The next woman listed, in verse 5, is Rahab from the book of Joshua, who was a prostitute, and bore a son named Boaz. The third woman listed is Ruth (who has a book of the Bible named after her); she seduces Boaz, they marry, and have a child. The fourth woman listed (though not by name) is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, with whom King David had an adulterous affair, which resulted in the birth of King Solomon. This is the lineage that eventually led to Jesus.
The author decided to open his whole collection of stories about Jesus by saying that he descended from the incest of Tamar, the prostitution of Rahab, the seduction of Ruth, and the adultery of Bathsheba. Why would anyone ever open a book this way? The reason is this: all of the moral failures of the people who preceded Jesus did not stop God from achieving his purpose. Indeed, they all ended up being important points in the story.
The early followers of Jesus realized that God can bring something holy out of any human shortcoming, inadequacy, or evil. If God was not hindered by these people, surely God has not bailed on you because of your mistakes. The grace of God revealed in Jesus reaches farther than our deepest vices, and it sets us free to extend grace to one another. When we see the way that God has loved us by emptying himself, we are empowered love others in this same way.
The message of Jesus is that no one is outside the love of God, that no one is beyond redemption, and that this God did not give up on the world, but chose to enter into the turbulent human experience as Jesus in order to reconcile the world to himself. That is what Christmas is all about, and that is Good News.
This is Good News for a New Year isn’t it? No one is beyond redemption! This year in those moments when I fear for the future of our world, when I worry about our country or the state of our politics, when I worry about my children and those I love – I will remember this post from an insightful young man. God will continue to work through the mess of this life – and more – somehow, somewhere God will be found in the midst of the mess. As Zack said well. This is Christmas. This is Good News!
Love is the synthesis of contemplation and action, the meeting-point between heaven and earth, between God and humanity.
NATIVE AMERICAN PROVERB
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
EUGENE H PETERSON
Religion is a very scary thing, because a pastor is in a position of power. And if you use that power badly, you ruin people’s lives, and you ruin your own life.
Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’ They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and now.
PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA
What God is to the world so parents are to their children.
OLIVER WENDALL HOLMES
The greatest thing in the world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.
CORRIE TEN BOOM
Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.
People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know that they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind.
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.
JULLIAN OF NORWICH
If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love
If the only prayer you pray in your entire lifetime is thankyou, it will be enough.
This is what Yahweh asks of you – only this; to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.
FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all, but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.
I long to accomplish a great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
We shall have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of a pastor than the gales which disturb the sea.
The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?
I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.
MOTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA
We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.
POPE PAUL VI
And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ. (Evangelii Nuntiandi)
MAHATMA GANDHI The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart.
Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.
I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.