Friday, August 27, 2010

Traditions, again

As a pastor, I get to be part of some of the intimate and significant times in peoples’ lives. Baptisms, when the family comes together with the church to welcome someone into the communion of saints, are always a joy. Weddings, when two people commit to share a life of love and companionship with one another reflecting the love of Christ in their love for one another, can be fun as long as the extended family gets along reasonably well and no one gets too drunk.

The thing is, though, baptisms and weddings, while they certainly can be emotional times, are not usually events during which people completely let their guard down. Funerals, however, can be a different story. Whether the death is a sudden surprise, or has been expected (and sometimes hoped for), coming to grips with the finality of death can be surprisingly disorienting.

I’ve had the privilege of being with all different kinds of people in the aftermath of a death, and I’ve noticed a difference between those who are active members of a church community and those who aren’t. The difference is in how different people deal with death. Those who are active in a faith community are certainly distraught, but in the midst of their grief, they seem to have a solid foundation on which to spiritually stand. Those who are not active in a congregation (including those who are members, but aren’t around very often) tend to spiritually flail a lot more. Their reaction to the death makes me think of our natural reaction to an earthquake, when that which we relied on to be solid is no longer reliable.

This lack of stability and foundation, and perhaps an unnatural sterilization of the dying process is, I believe, where so many new dying and funeral traditions originate. But there is honor and dignity and foundation and stability in those ‘tried-and-true’ practices. For instance, providing hospice care for a dying person and their family can be a wonderful thing. To have someone available who is familiar with the physiological and psychological and emotional and spiritual things folks might go through can be an amazing gift.

However, sometimes even hospice doesn’t live up to its good reputation. Once, one of the saints of the church was dying, and the family invited hospice to be with him and them. However, in this instance, hospice was not very attentive, not very available, and not very helpful. As disheartening as this might be, I believe it was a gift to the family. They were required to tend more closely to their husband/father/grandfather’s physical needs, which gave them the opportunity to be family together in ways they might not have been able to if the ‘hired help’ was doing those jobs.

What I saw through the days while they waited for his last breath is what I picture from the ‘olden days’. In one room there was what used to be known as the death bed, where the dying person lay, awake and lucid at first, but sleeping more and more as the days went on. In the other rooms of the home, the family sat around doing a number of different things. They worried about their husband/(grand)father; they talked about the past; they talked about the upcoming funeral; they talked about their life; they watched television and checked in at work; they ate together, and welcomed friends into the space for visits. It was a transitional space between the death room and the world all around that just kept on going. They made sure someone was always with him to keep him company, so he was not alone in this world when the time came to be welcomed in to the heavenly kingdom.

There were days of what used to be known as death watch, where time slowed or stood still and nothing else was as important as being together. Then, when he died, preparing for the funeral was more important than the rest of life. We gathered for the funeral, proclaimed to one another the grace of God, laid his body to rest, and life for the family began to start again.

They are certainly sad; they continue to grieve; but they’ve never ‘flailed’ spiritually because of the solid foundation of faith that each of them, and they together, have grown in to since they were born.

There’s nothing wrong with new traditions ~ but sometimes, what made sense hundreds of years ago might make sense today as well.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Train Ride

late night departure
after hours at the depot
(is amtrak always late?)
anticipating a summer
in the national park, I'm
excited about what's unknown ~

through night, through day
up and down, back and
forth through the cars
enough travel for temporary
relationships to develop
almost into perhaps ~

snatching sleep when the
blanket isn't sliding off
my shoulders upright in my
ticketed seat ~ awake or dozing
we roll past fertile fields
flat, until the horizon textures

with hills rising out of ranch-land,
a foreshadowing of mountains
just out of sight ~ already
unacknowledged tension dissipates;
and though I've never been here,
my soul is at home

Friday, August 20, 2010

Christian and Muslim

I harbor no illusions of being an expert in inter-religious dialogue or relationship, but there has been an overabundance of conversation and opinionating about the proposed Cordoba center; further, I harbor no illusions of being an expert on biblical history or interpretation. Still, I though I'd offer my opinions on Christian / Muslim relationship and interaction here in this somewhat public forum. Fair warning; what follows may well be complete nonsense, but perhaps my seven readers will indulge me.

I see in the biblical gospel accounts of Jesus’ life quite a bit of animosity between Judeans and Samaritans. Obviously these accounts were written from a Christian perspective, and we can see evidence of hostility between the burgeoning Christian community and the Judean establishment. But when we see interaction between Jew and Samaritan depicted in the story, there seems to be an assumption of bad relationship between the two communities. As I understand it, Jews and Samaritans were very closely related ethnically and religiously. There are enough similarities for each to have a passable understanding of the other tradition; there are enough differences to make it difficult to find real and significant common ground, especially without a will to do so.

The Babylonian religious practices were different enough from the Hebrew traditions that they were easily able to distinguish for themselves. The Samaritans were too similar; perhaps the fear was that corruption of one by the other would too easy, and that's part of the reason for the animosity and separation.

I wonder if this is part of our trouble some Christians have with Muslims in this country. Are our theologies and histories too similar that we feel threatened by one another? Both traditions are monotheistic; both traditions have a great many adherents who theologically moderate, and who simply want to live in harmony and cooperation with their neighbors no matter what their neighbor's religious beliefs are; both traditions have vocal elements on either end of the tolerance spectrum; both are rooted in and grew out of the same part of the world, but have moved and adapted well in different and disparate cultures.

Do we see the same negative and harmful cultural manifestations of the Islam that we are embarrassed about when we consider the way Christianity is manifest in the world? Many Christians are quick to point out that it has been Islamic extremists who have caused significant problems in USAmerica and other parts of the world. They don’t seem quite so willing, though, to recognize the same elements present among adherents to our own Christian faith. We quickly dismiss Timothy McVeigh and Christian Militias as the edges of our faith, and not representative of most Christians. At the same time, we conflate the beliefs and practices of Al Qaeda as representative of all of Islam without recognizing that reasonable and moderate Muslims denounce terrorist actions and beliefs in the same way that we do everything we can to distance ourselves from the Ku Klux Klan, because both Al Qaeda and the KKK distort beyond recognition everything that is good and life-giving about the religious traditions they associate themselves with.

+ + +

In Jesus’ time, the Judeans arguably wielded greater power in the Jewish/Samaritan relationship. So I look at how Jesus, Jew that he was, treated Samaritans. Jesus made a point, in a culture that was hostile to Samaritans, of being open to those who others ignored or condescended to. Jesus treated Samaritans with compassion and mercy and grace.

Christians, today, wield greater power in USAmerica than do Muslims. I wonder, how should Christians treat our Muslim brothers and sisters? Do we succumb to our very natural and human fear & mistrust of our neighbor, or do we take our example from our Messiah?


Monday, August 16, 2010


A few times a year, I enjoy participating in races. I certainly am not, and never truly have been, fast enough to say that I race, but I do enjoy participating. I started long ago, running 5k and 10k events when I was a boy. In addition to the running races, we also went on organized bike rides ~ not really races, but I was still nowhere close to the front of the group. I didn't do many races between high school and moving back to Colorado. I probably ran one or two, but mostly I played basketball to pretend like I was in shape.

When we moved back here, it was a couple years before I decided to actually make the leap and register for a triathlon. It only took one and I was hooked. I have been able to participate in at least two or three triathlons per year, with the occasional running event (formerly known as fun run) thrown in there.

I don't think there was ever a race I participated in that I didn't enjoy at least a little bit. Most of the time, I come to recognize partway through the event that I really wish I was in better condition ~ and that's not really enjoyable. Other than that, most races I do enjoy.

But I've noticed something about myself. Even though I do enjoy all the races, I enjoy the ones that are fundraisers more than the others. It doesn't really even matter too much what charitable group will receive the contribution. In fact, I've even gotten to the point where I usually don't even consider registering for races that aren't fundraisers ~ I'd rather put that portion of my money that doesn't cover the cost of staging the race to an organization that could really use it well.

Having said that, I want to make a shameless request of six readers (out of my seven ... see, at least one of you has already made a contribution (thanks for that)). This coming Saturday, I'm participating in an urban adventure race with a couple guys I know from church. The race is a fundraiser for the Colorado chapter of the Make a Wish foundation. I'd like to invite you to go to the race website and make a contribution to the required fundraising for my team, the Sunday Donut Crew. If each of the six of you just $5, we'd meet our requirement ... and you'd be benefiting a worthwhile organization.


Sunday, August 15, 2010


those old things we do
left over from long ago ~
someone made it up,
came up with it, found
meaning in a time when
their world was adrift

but those days are gone
long past, taking their times
and significance and
meaninglessness ~ shouldn't
the days long gone relegate
dead traditions to history?

when our days - yes, today -
become empty of meaning
devoid of direction, when
we flounder for foundation
we see that traditions thought
to be dead give us a way

to be alive; and we know,
somewhere deep, far more
central to our self than heady
intellect - we know in the
heart of our soul - that who
gave life then, gives life now

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


There's something remarkable that happens at church summer camp. My own offspring spent last week at an ELCA summer camp in our almost-backyard, the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains. I dropped them off on Sunday, everything normal. When I picked them up the following Saturday, I noticed (but was not really all that surprised by) a transformation in them.

Part of it, of course, is simply that they were away from home and all the normal authority figures for a week ~ they were freer to explore their own sense of individuality without the constraints of normal routine.

But another part of it, I believe, is the importance of sometimes being in a different place, a different physical location, in order to nurture our faith life. Camp is (to me) the most obvious. But I believe that's also why people make religious pilgrimages. There's something about getting away from what's 'normal' to see and experience a new angle on God's story, and a new angle on how God's story intersects our own.

The trouble, though, is that when we come back to 'normal', we come back changed ourselves while the community we come back to is still the same. There's often a letdown, a disappointment, a sense that something is missing in the 'normal' place. So the natural inclination is to dismiss the 'normal' as being too boring, or maybe as not enlightened enough. As a result, we go searching for that 'different' experience while enduring the 'normal'.

The thing is, though, that even what's 'exciting' can lose its excitement. Camp songs, as exciting as they are for a week, can become tedious after spending 10 weeks as a counselor.

Further, if we're focused simply on what's boring or exciting, then our faith life becomes entirely individualistic ~ which is fine if you're making up your own religion like so many in my country tend to do. However, individualistic religion is incompatible with Christianity. The point and purpose of Christian community is not to entertain, or to help anyone feel good, or to teach morals, or to meet the needs of any individual. All of these things are good and necessary parts of Christian community ~ but the point of Christian community is to be the Body of Christ (broken though we are) shared with the world who longs to know the story of G-d's grace.

So where, then, does camp (or any other religious pilgrimage) fit back into the life of a 'normal' Christian community. I believe it is incumbent upon the Christian community to listen to each others stories of faith; for those who went to camp to share their experience in meaningful ways that move beyond performance, and for those who haven't been to camp for a long time to listen closely and carefully to how G-d is active in the lives of the campers. Further, it is important that the campers listen closely to the stories shared by those who haven't been to camp for a while ... even in the 'normal' 'boring' 'regular' church, G-d is still moving in ways that are significant for many people.

Yes, place is important ~ and yes, changes of place can be important for our growing faith. But place is important even if we never go away anywhere. In the new and different, as well as in the rite and rote of ritual, G-d is present.


Sunday, August 8, 2010


Every so often I am struck by the level and expression of intimacy afforded to pastors. We are invited into celebrations, into grief, into tragedy, into struggle, into joy. I continue to be surprised more than 12 years into this vocation by the different things people share with us, and by the different avenues through which I am led to pray for people.

One place I seem to be invited into prayer, once in a while, is as I serve the sacrament to the people of God gathered for worship. In our worship tradition, people receive the bread with hands open, extended in front of them (and, incidentally, we don't 'take' ~ we receive communion).

Once in a while, as I am serving, I notice hands. Some are rough and calloused; the result of regularly being used either for work or for locomotion (by walker or wheelchair). Some hands are soft, delicate; hands that gently care for children, or for parents. Some hands are scarred from injury, or gnarled by arthritis. Some are deeply tanned, reflecting a healthy lifestyle and regular outdoor exercise. And some retain bruises, evidence of the IV needles from a recent hospital stay.

Often hands can be a window into someone's life. Today, for instance, one person had a broken blister on his palm ~ has he been working in his garden, or maybe remodeling his house? Another had a brace on each wrist, which only allowed her to move part of her fingers ~ how did she hurt her wrists?

Hands might not seem all that intimate ~ after all, we shake hands with other people pretty regularly, and our hands are hardly ever covered up (unless it's pretty cold outside). But my experience in that sacred space and time is that people's hands just might, on occasion, offer a glimpse deeper into a person's life, and a new way for us to pray for each other.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Climbing Mountains

About 9 years ago, I started a new tradition. Sometime in late summer, as often as possible over my birthday, I'd go climb a mountain. Once in a while it would be a day trip, and other times I'd make it an overnight camping excursion.

About 1/2 the time I'll do these trips with other people. Last year, for instance, I went with a few people who are members of my congregation to climb Bross, Cameron, and Lincoln. The other 1/2 the time, though, I climb by myself. Truth be told, though, there's only been one trip so far on which I've been completely by myself. It was my first 14er. I hiked in, set up camp, got up early the next day and climbed Harvard Peak. While I was on the top of the mountain, there were (in addition to the marmot who didn't seem to care whether I was there or not) two other people who had climbed the north ridge, on the opposite side from the south drainage I had climbed. Other than those two, I didn't see another person for that entire trip.

A couple years ago, in the South Colony Lakes area, I happened to camp next to Don and Brian, who had come from the south to climb some mountains. I was up there by myself, but happened to have a great couple days hanging out with some interesting folks who also enjoy the high country.

Another memorable solo trip was climbing Pike's Peak. The standard route is 12 miles one way. Some people make the whole trip at once, but most of the folks who do have someone meet them at the top (there's a paved road to the summit) so they don't have to hike 12 miles down. Others, though, hike up about 1/2 way, to Barr Camp, where strangers hang out in a cabin together eating dinner and talking about whatever strangers talk about in a cabin at 10,000 feet. It was an interesting an eclectic mix of people who created lively conversation with each other over spaghetti and water-bottle gatorade. In fact, Barr Camp was a much better experience than reaching the top of the mountain where, when I arrived, in addition to the people who had driven to the top of the mountain, a train was disgorging its passengers so they could buy souvenir sweatshirts and souvenir doughnuts and souvenir coffee. I didn't stay on that summit very long ...

Yesterday I came back from my annual birthday climb. People weren't quite so outgoing at the campsite, but I did meet a couple folks on the trails who were friendly enough. Most of the time, though, even though other people were around, I spent most of my time alone. It was ok, though, since I was afforded the opportunity (during the hours-long rain) to take a perfect nap and to read an engaging novel. While I was hiking (and neither napping nor reading), I discovered what it is that I like about climbing. It's that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that I get when I take those final couple steps that define the threshold between going up and there being no more up to go. It's almost an ecstatic feeling, the reward for the uphill effort being relative ease of movement, of unshouldering the pack and pulling out that special top-of-the-mountain treat.

I re-discovered, though, that it's not just at the top of the peak where it's possible to experience this. Yesterday, climbing Missouri Mountain, I realized that that feeling can last longer than just the time on the summit. I remember feeling the same way when I climbed Torrey's Peak. On that climb, instead of following the main hiker's trail, I instinctively turned right and climbed toward the alternate route along a ridge. On Missouri Mountain, the main trail is along a ridge. See, what happens is that you climb up and up and up, but when you get to the top, you're not on top of the mountain. To get to the top, you have to walk along the top of a geological formation which slopes (or drops) off to your right, and slopes (or drops) off to your left. The ridge, for me, simply extends the amount of time to be on that threshold between going up and there being no more up to go. Running a ridge, the reward is that you get to spend more time enjoying having already climbed most of the 'up'. Yesterday, once I gained the ridge, the 'up' was almost all done, but there was a bunch of 'across'. Sure, there was a little 'up' at the very end; but it was easy after having had a 20 minute break from going up while I was doing a bunch of 'across'.

Of course, I was packing for this trip at the last minute and forgot the camera. Does that mean I'll have to go back someday? Maybe someday my kids will be interested in spending a few days in the high altitude Colorado backcountry climbing 14ers. In fact, maybe I'll try to introduce them to the joys of reaching mountaintops.