Friday, December 6, 2013

The Hunger Games - some additional brief thoughts

Last week I was compelled to post something about the recent ***Hunger Games*** movie by the teenagers who were making lots of noise in our tv room. The next morning, the teenagers who stayed over the night are raiding our kitchen for breakfast, I was compelled to think about the bigger-picture issues that are brought up in the Hunger Games trilogy.

I found this series to be well done from a bigger-picture perspective. See, when I read the trilogy, I noticed the inequality between the districts and the capitol. However, I experienced the first book (& film) as more personal stories. 

Through the first book, I found myself preoccupied with Katniss, particularly with regard to how she would:
  1. navigate her relationships with Peeta and with Gale; 
  2. experience the scarcity of the life she's accustomed to in District 12 compared to the extravagance of the capitol; and 
  3. conduct herself during the games.

The global issues of hunger in the face of plenty, of comfort in the face of struggle, and of obliviousness to injustice were there in the story, but weren't center-stage for me.

The second and third books, though, move Katniss and the reader beyond the personal and into the universal/global. It's almost as if the characters are being forced to mature – to grow up – right in front of us. Which, in itself, is another reason that this is a great series for teenagers to read. Hopefully, in addition to the personal struggles we all face(d) during adolescence, they see that part of themselves mirrored in their reading.

The ideas and the imagined reality presented in the books certainly are disturbing. And at the same time, I feel like they reflect the realities that high-school-aged people struggle with. For instance, we see the political reality that some people are oppressed by those in power. We see that sometimes it's necessary to sacrifice something of ourselves for the benefit of those we love. And every so often, it becomes necessary in life to leave everything behind in order to move on with our life … and when we do that, we often discover what's actually important and worth working to hang on to.

At the same time, what's in the books and films are real life in caricature. But issues presented cartoonishly large give young readers permission to see their own struggles mirrored in literature in a way that takes them seriously.

Which makes the books and films worth the time, at least in my opinion.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Hunger Games - some brief thoughts

I just went with my family to see the new Hunger Games movie (I read the book a couple times). I was impressed by the storytelling, by the acting (especially for an action-type film), and by how closely the filmmakers were able to stick to the heart of the story as written in the books.

Additionally, I was glad that the complexity of the books was not completely ignored in the film. The Hunger Games is one of those series' written for and marketed to teens that actually does what it should – explores the complexities of the actual and real lives that teens today are living.

Let me just say that I don't have any desire for my children, or any children, to have to navigate a world like the one that Katniss and Peeta and Gale and Prim have to live in. At the same time, though, these characters have some of the same struggles that young people do today, and so I'm glad they're explored in literature and film.

From one perspective, this is a classic coming of age story. Katniss is forced, by the circumstances of the world around her, to grow up quickly and act like an adult even while she longs for the comfort and perceived safety & security of childhood. And though she doesn't feel like she's ready, she faces what comes her way with grace and honor – just like, I'm sure, most teenagers hope that they will.

From another angle, we see the struggle with a loss of innocence. I'm sure you remember taking that step from what was to what will be, and realizing later that you'll never be able to go back. Maybe it was the first time you got drunk, the first time you had sex, or when you realized the truth about Santa Claus – whatever seminal moment it was in your life, it was a turning point from which you could never regress. The biggest of these moments in the Hunger Games story is when Prim's (Katniss' sister) name is called at the reaping, and Katniss, in volunteering as tribute in her sister's place, takes the step from which she can't turn back.

The Hunger Games trilogy also explores the complexities of human interpersonal relationships as we see Katniss struggle with knowing how to relate to the two boys/men that she loves. Not knowing how to relate to Peeta without hurting Gale, and not knowing how to save her relationship with Gale even as their shared experience forces her to grow closer to Peeta surely mirrors what many teenagers feel – or, if not, I must be completely alone.

And the closest-to-home part of the complexity of her relationship with Peeta and Gale is the truth that there's never any satisfactory and satisfying resolution. Thanks be to God and Suzanne Collins, there's no sitcom ending, because the reality is that our real-life relationships in the real world are really and actually complicated. It's nice to see that reflected here as well.

There's a lot more to appreciate about this story beyond the reflection of how teenagers may experience life, but that's a topic for another blog post – maybe in the next day or two?


Friday, November 8, 2013

A Blank Page

a blank page
        stares back at me
    as if laughing
        as if mocking
            as if a reflection
    of my mind


without words to express
        or articulate
    whatever swims thorugh my
without words to share
        with others
    whatever occupies
        the deep parts of
my soul

then, as blank as it may be
    this is where
                 I trust
    divine creation finds work space

Friday, August 30, 2013

Athletic Competition and Cooperation

I had a conversation with a friend a long time ago, when I was in college. We were young, we were idealistic, and we were exploring the places where our philosophical positions synced up (or didn't) with real life.

The conversation I recall revolved around sport – particularly around the competitive component of athletic endeavors.

I was making the point that competition was necessary because only when we compete with someone else do we improve our own capabilities. For instance, I can become a decent basketball player on my own, but I'll never be as good as I could be if I never played basketball against players who are better than I am.

My friend was making the point that competition necessarily produces winners and losers; and that when there are winners and losers, the community is degraded.

I couldn't disagree with her. At the same time, I knew that athletic endeavors had the potential to build community up rather than tearing it apart, provided that everyone celebrates the achievements of the losers as much as we celebrate the winners.

The trouble, though, is that very few people do this. So I couldn't actually disagree with her, though at some level I recognized that there must be someplace I could point to where both competition and community were valued, where a person could truly and fully celebrate the achievements of the person they compete against.

For the past year, I've been working out at a CrossFit gym – which is where I've discovered what I didn't know how to talk about when I was in college.

Here's what happens at the CrossFit gyms I've been in. The class starts by warming up together. Then much of the time we work on strength-building. At the gym where I keep my membership, we do our best to partner up with someone who has similar ability, which allows us to encourage each other.

Then it's time for the Workout of the Day (known by the acronym WOD). This workout is either doing an appointed number of repetitions of something as quickly as possible (how quickly can you do 50 pushups?), or it's how many repetitions can you do in a certain amount of time (how many pullups can you do in 8 minutes?)

Obviously some people are going to either finish much more quickly than other people, or some people are going to do say more repetitions than other people can. And obviously what could happen in the gym is that those who finish quickly or do more reps could celebrate their own success while those who were not as strong/fast/capable can only wish they were better.

What actually happens, though, is that the stronger/faster always encourage the weaker/slower, celebrating their success at working hard and improving their own fitness.

They say that CrossFit is the only 'sport' in which the ones who finish last get the loudest cheers. And in my experience, the saying holds true – that's what actually happens.

In this way we can compete with one another while still building up community. In this way we can recognize the role competition plays in personal improvement. And we can recognize the truth that competition doesn't have to degrade community when the goal (instead of winning and losing) is nothing more than improving the self. Because I know that if I have done my best, I can celebrate my neighbor doing their best no matter which of us is 'better' at whatever we were doing that day.

It doesn't happen everywhere - but at least at CrossFit gyms, competition and cooperation can coexist.


Friday, August 16, 2013

I probably know her name

every so often she shows up,
eating donuts between services,
while not quite understanding
     social mores

a little awkward,
with one-too-many pastries
     on her napkin
she seems stuck
out on the edge of a community
     where only some of us know her name

I always cringe a little when I see her
     since conversation never flows easily

she stays outside at worship as well
not sitting in the 'normal' seats,
     standing when the rest of us sit
not quite sure, it seems,
     how to pay attention to how to be

yet she knows enough to come forward
     hands extended
to receive bread and cup, body and blood

before she scoots out, not needing to
talk to anyone

I know her name
          she told me early on
but I wonder if she misspoke

it's probably better for me to just
     start calling her "Jesus"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Offering Prayer

last-minute scrounging from
couch cushions or auto ashtrays
to put cash in the plate

cans of food delivered weekly
and almost-anonymously, filling our shelves today
so that tomorrow someone can eat

checks, written carefully
the first of each month,
leaving other bills 'til later
a couple bucks, emptying my wallet
of all but credit cards
so the cardboard-sign-guy can eat

school supplies on a sanctuary table
destined for kids whose parents
may need to write their own cardboard sign

an elder kneeling beside a preschooler
for just a moment on the patio,
to hear her immediate story

bank transfers,
digital ones and zeros magically lessening
my account, strengthening our work together
grieving parents offering
their dying son's organs
to bring another family new life

All These We Offer To You, O G-d

Friday, June 28, 2013

Coffee Shop Diversity

I had a surprising experience the other day.

Before you read about that, though, you should know this.

In most of the places I go, I tend to be surrounded by people like me – people who are either urban professionals or suburban-family-types (I may or may not qualify for either, but I could pass as both) – at any rate, the defining characteristic might be middle-class and middle-American (whatever that really means). By and large we speak with the same accent, we are familiar with the same cultural references, and we can come to understand the other's perspective even if we have different political views.

So when I go to a coffee shop, particularly the ubiquitous green one with the trademark goddess on the awning, I expect a certain atmosphere. I expect that people will be typing on laptop computers (much as I am as I write this). If people are talking to one another, I expect volumes and tones hushed to such a level that I could only eavesdrop on the table immediately adjacent to me, or that I could dismiss as white noise. I expect most people to not make eye contact, and for the baristas to only be friendly enough to get my drink order right.

Then, the other day when I went into a coffee shop I hadn't been to before, I was surprised by a little bit of culture shock … which was really pleasant.
To a person, the staff seemed genuinely joyful. I first noticed this when I ordered. 

But then I watched as I sat there, and they had the same attitude with each customer, and with each other when there was no one ordering.

The mix of people who came in for coffee was almost as diverse as you'll see in the Denver metro area. In the space of about 15 minutes, I heard Spanish and French and Arabic. I heard (what I believe is) Urdu and I heard heavily-accented English. I saw about eight different varieties of skin tone.  And the buzz of conversation was much more lively (and felt more fully alive) than what I'm accustomed to.

It was truly a joyful coffee experience for me.

It seems to be the case that if there's one person in a groups who's different, our tendency is to focus on that difference. And if there is a great deal of diversity in a group, we tend to look for and discover what we have in common.

I like the second option better.

I wonder how our outlook on the world would change is we more frequently and more intentionally surrounded ourselves with people who are different from us.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Team Culture

A couple of my ten readers may know that I'm a fan of basketball.  I played basketball in high school and in college (on an intramural team - Go, Sewer Boys!).  And I've been a fan of the San Antonio Spurs since George Gervin was playing.

So, if you're even aware that the NBA finals are happening right now, you might guess that I'm spending some time watching the series between the Spurs and the Miami Heat. 

It's fun for me to watch the games, but I'm more interested in writing about something I've noticed about these two teams.  I'm obviously a Spurs fan, so what I'm writing may be biased, so please read what I write with a grain of salt.

As I watch the post-game interviews, I notice a difference between the Spurs players and many players from other teams. 

What I noticed the other day, after game two (when the Heat destroyed the Spurs), Heat star Lebron James was talking continually about himself.  He talked about his own performance in the game - and even when he talked about his teammates, he referred to them as his players, and as his guys.

In contrast, whenever I listen to Spurs players, they talk very little about themselves and a great deal about the contributions their teammates made.  And they compliment the play of their opponents.  I don't hear that from most other professional athletes, especially basketball players. 

It's a relief, in our culture that's so wrapped up in self-centeredness, to hear rich and famous people humbly focusing on others.

It seems that there's a different kind of culture in the Spurs organization - a culture where individuals support one another for the sake of the team.

I wonder what church would be like if we were more focused on our neighbor more than on ourselves.  Wait ... didn't someone with the initials J.C. mention something about that?


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Children in Worship, once more

Today at church there were quite a few kids.  Many of those who often show up were there at the same time.  Plus, there were a number of others who were visiting to celebrate a baptism. 

And there was life.

I think we all felt it. 

There was an atmosphere of vibrancy at worship, as if the energy of the young people was contagious.  Now you must know that there was a time or two when someone in the congregation might have though that one or two of the children was momentarily too loud ... but by and large, even when a child made some noise, the atmosphere carried life rather than annoyance.

And what I believe the community experienced during the liturgy, in addition to our own worship, was the worship of those young people. 

By the simple fact of being in the midst of the whole rest of the congregation, they allowed the rest of us (who are normally relatively quiet during the liturgy) to catch a glimpse of their own experience of the divine. 

Which got me to thinking ... who are we (who prefer it quiet) to say that (we're right and) the children are wrong to make noise when they worship?

Why is it that we act like we believe that the only way to worship is by sitting still and being quiet?  What if they, with their squirmy selves, are worshipping more fully than we with our minds that get so distracted by grocery lists and family concerns and whether we'll get out of here in under an hour this week?

For the little beautiful one who was baptized today, I heard the noises of the other kids calling to her.  I heard, "Come and join us here - we're in a place where we are welcomed as we are."

She was welcomed into community by young and old alike this morning.  But what if she had been the only non-adult present this morning?  What if the entire congregation had been adult?  She would have certianly received a welcome. 

But it wouldn't have been enough.  She would have only been welcomed in an adult way, into an adult community, where the expectation would be that she should worship like an adult. 

Thanks be to God there was diversity of ages joined together in worship this morning, so that the newly baptized could be welcomed, exactly as she is, by the whole people of God. 

And thanks be to God for children who have not yet put away childish things ... for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Children in Worship, Again

In the congregation where I serve as pastor, we've been thinking and talking (and struggling just a little bit) with the place and role of children and parents in worship. 

In our June newsletter (we publish a monthly newsletter designed to connect folks to our life together as church), the article I wrote was focused on this topic. 

I'd love to hear any feedback that my seven (ten?) readers might have.  Since it's written to a particular congregation, I'll edit the article so that, hopefully, it makes sense here in this context.

... many of you have noticed that "children in worship" has become a topic of conversation in this congregation.

From what I’ve heard, the conversation has typically been focused on how children behave in worship.  I think that, for the most part, we all agree that it’s good for children to be in worship.  I think most of us agree that there’s a certain amount of noise a child can make, and a certain amount of moving around that a child can do before that child becomes an inappropriate distraction to folks around her or him.  And I think most of us agree that if children can’t behave well, if they move around too much or make too much noise, it’s best for them to be taken into the narthex (foyer/lobby) until they’re calmed down.

The trouble that we identified the other day at the church council (governing body in the congregation) meeting is that each one of us has a different definition of “too much”.

We are a varied and diverse group of people ~ I question whether we’ll be able to come up with a radius of movement or a decibel level that everyone can agree to.

So I started wondering ~ what if we re-frame our conversation?  I’m sure we already think in these terms, but what if we start saying out loud to each other, “How are we raising up children in the faith?”, and “How are we fulfilling the promises we made to young people when they were baptized?”

To that end, I’d like to think for a moment about we do well as a congregation, rather than worrying about what any particular individual or household does poorly.

1) Among other things, this congregation has a tradition of inviting young people to a front-row seat to watch baptisms, which allows them to be surrounded by a whole congregation confessing their faith and praying for each other. 

2) This congregation has a tradition of welcoming children to hear a message geared to them during the worship service. 

3) This congregation has a tradition of pairing confirmation students with adult mentors for conversation and worship during the season of Lent. 

4) This congregation has a tradition of providing children a safe place to make friends with other children and with caring adults.

I wonder how our conversation would be different if our concern was less about what other people are doing during worship and more about how we as a congregation can best raise up children of faith.  I’m excited to continue to hear from you, and to continue to have this conversation. 
My hope for the congregation I serve, and for this forum as well, is that this can be a start to conversation about who we are and how we are as children of G-d. 


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Children in Worship

There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.
     ~ Nelson Mandela

I don't know whether it actually happened or not, but I heard one time about an old and curmudgeonly pastor who was asked about the noise that some children were making during worship, especially during the sermon. Picture the classic and stereotypical German Lutheran pastor who was of the age to have retired in the early 1970's. You know, a little bit gruff and a little bit opinionated and a little bit stubborn.

What I heard is that, when he was asked about the noise children were making, he replied that he enjoyed it … he said that the screaming of little children during the worship service is simply evidence that parents are bringing their children up in the church.

The way I imagine the conversation going, I don't think that the questioners getting the answer from the pastor that they wanted.

That congregation (the one with the old German pastor, a congregation and pastor which may well only exist in my mind) is not the only one where children (and the parents of children) who make noise or move around during worship get sideways looks from other members of the congregation; it's not the only congregation where people come to the pastor with a complaint about those children, or a request that the leadership come up with a solution to the distraction that children cause during the liturgy.

From what I can tell, the problems that people have with children in worship have to do with their own personal comfort level, with their own ability to pay attention to the liturgy, and with their own ability to worship.

To be fair, when there's a child who's screaming during the sermon, it's hard to hear what the preacher is saying. When there's a child who scampers away from their parents during the choir's anthem, some of the harmonies might be a little off. When the child behind you is rustling papers or crinkly toys, you might not catch every word of the Eucharistic prayer.

That's all true. Those things might be distractions to one or more individuals in their worship. If that's true, then arguably I need to be distracted from worship, because it would seem my worship is more about me than it is about G-d. 

Plus, the approach to worship (that I need to get something out of worship or it's not worthwhile) carries with it the assumption that those who lead worship are the providers of a service, and those who are in the congregation are simply consumers.

The truth is, though, that when children are moving around and making some noise, I can both watch them and pay attention to the preaching.  I can hear the child behind me and hear the choir's anthem.  I can turn my head toward the child who's escaped from their family's pew while I continue to sing and pray.

Some congregations have the (explicit or implicit) expectation that when children are even the slightest bit "disruptive", the parents should remove them from the sanctuary.  Unfortunately, requiring parents to remove children from the sanctuary feels a lot like removing families from the community.  

When we invite (or ask, or require) parents to stifle their children, we communicate a belief that children's whole selves are not welcome in the Body of Christ. Of course we would never say this out loud. But if part of the nature of children is that they move around and make a little noise, to require them to be still and quiet is to say that the nature of children is not welcome in worship.

Obviously it's not appropriate for the sanctuary to resemble a day care center (where children are encouraged to move around as much as they want). At the same time, the sanctuary should not be as a library either.  The atmosphere should probably not be chaotic, and the atmosphere should probably not be overly restrained.  

We need to feel free to bring our whole selves into the worshiping community. 

We should echo the proclamation of Gospel with loud and bold Amens. We should sing with deep breath and full voices. We should eat heartily and drink deeply of the bread and cup when we come to the Eucharistic table. 

In our worship, we are called to embrace and embody and celebrate the fullness of life. Children should not be stifled – neither should adults, for that matter – for we are all the Body of Christ. When any one is missing (or kept away), the Body is lesser. 

And I think none of us (in the Church) want to lessen the Body of Christ.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure

The weather this week has been … rather less perfect than we might have liked to have ridden through. I'm riding down the Natchez Trace Parkway with the Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure this week.

I rode on this same trip last year, and aside from one day of rain (which was almost pleasant to ride through, since it was relatively warm), we had beautiful weather. This year, however, only the first day was beautiful ... or even pleasant, really. We've been a little challenged since then by rain, cold, and cold rain.

But it's still been an amazing trip. The people who choose to embark on this kind of experience are, almost by definition, interesting people. And because the Fuller Center is such a phenomenal organization, the people are interesting and compassionate, willing to raise funds and give time and energy to helping other people.

From a purely personal perspective, though, the thing I've most enjoyed about this trip has been spending time with my family. Last year I rode this adventure with my dad, and it's really great to spend the week with him again this year. Plus, it's cool to see how much the other people on this trip enjoy my dad.

But more than that, this year my daughter came along on the adventure. We got to spend a lot of time this week riding bicycles together, which we both really enjoy. I got to ride with her on a day when she rode 100 kilometers, which was twice as long as her previous longest ride. I got to ride with her when we were sitting in a paceline going about 20 mph down the highway. It's fun to go fast.

In addition to the simple riding down the road on two wheels, it gave me joy to do a couple other things with my amazing daughter. She was interested in learning to shoot a basketball. So with our extra time one evening, we spent a while shooting hoops (which provoked a little nostalgia in some of the other riders as they remembered their dad teaching them to play basketball).

I also loved teaching her, on the day we helped repair someone's home, to use a handsaw and a hammer & chisel to cut and shape a board for the deck of the house.

But more than those things I've enjoyed being around Harper on this trip, because I get to see her as she is around other people (not just the way she is around her family). It's fun to watch her enjoy other people, and to watch other people really enjoy being around her. And I have to say, she's pretty great.

We may end up doing this ride together again next year … that'd be fun.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Rain, Rain, Rain

Day Two on the Natchez Trace Parkway with the Fuller Center for Housing Spring Bicycle Adventure today, and we encountered almost every single type of rain possible through the course of the day. 

Before we left one of the most mission-minded and hospitable congregations in the world, it just started to sprinkle a little bit.  Intermittent light showers gave way to stronger rain which soaked us from above as it fell, from in front as we rode, and from below as our tires kicked water up into our faces and skunk-striped our backs.

There were a few moments that it didn't actively rain on us, times when millions of tiny drops clouded our vision almost like fog, times when huge drops pelted our faces and shoulders ... and a couple of us even though there was a moment or two of hail.

The rain, and the somewhat-cold that came with it, didn't dampen our mood too much, but we were all relieved to get to the warmth of the Collinwood United Methodist Church.

We're having a fantastic adventure so far, and it's a tremendous joy for me to be with my dad and my daughter.  I think maybe I'll write more on the experience of being with family in the next couple of days.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Lenten Midweek Reflection on Psalm 32


I am curved in on myself
and lack the concern for others I should have
I am selfish,
wanting for me before, and more than, for others
I am afraid
wishing that I can do enough to earn the favor of the divine

I know these things about me
(and I expect they're true of you ?)
I know these things about me
yet seem to not be able to move beyond
selfishness, greed, envy, deceit, cowardice …
are they
character flaws?
focus areas to improve on?
topics for self-improvement?
or plain old, regular and ordinary,

the latter, I expect ...

sin, to which
I am in bondage, and cannot free myself

Yet, happy are we
(not that we revel in sin)
happy are we
that our sin is put away
happy are we
that we have the opportunity to return to the Lord our God
happy are we
for God does not seek us out to condemn the world
but in order that the world will be saved

happy are they, we,
whose transgressions are forgiven
rejoice in the Lord
shout for joy

let our prayers of thanksgiving rise like incense
and may our prayers remind us, as well
that even when we are not happy, we are beloved by God.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lent Midweek Reflection on Psalm 63

Ever been thirsty?
ever been hungry?

the kind of thirsty where it's hard to breathe
it takes 45 seconds just to moisten your tongue
you can't imagine another moment without water
and taking a drink preoccupies your thoughts completely

ever been thirsty?

ever been hungry?

the kind of hungry where your stomach has stopped rumbling
a handful of raisins would fill you up
and simply standing up makes you lightheaded
ever been hungry?

in that way, my flesh faints for you, O God
my soul thirsts
as my throat in a desert

the world around me says
get yourself a drink
make yourself some food
but why do I spend my time on that which does not fill me
my energy on what does not satisfy?

so I turn, again and again
to you, the author and giver of all life

because though I try,
I can do nothing without you
though my culture's praise of independence
propels me from your presence
still my soul thirsts for you
to drink deeply from your love, from your grace

and though I try to stray,
still you seek me out, bring me back
welcome me into the arms of your mercy
Ever been hungry?
ever been thirsty?

my soul hungers and thirsts for you, O God
lead me beside still waters
restore me with living water
the bread of life, the cup of salvation.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lenten Midweek Reflection on Psalm 27

My home, when the blizzard drops snow incessantly
falling vertically onto my roof
and falling horizontally into my walls
and rattling the windows
my home is safe and secure
and I sip warm tea
huddled underneath a quilt

but when I go out,
the pellets of snow assail and devour my face
even as my feet struggle to find purchase
so they can do their job of remaining underneath me

and the shelter of my car is temporary
and tenuous
as I have to navigate slippery streets
and avoid other drivers

I may or may not be protected
by the divine
from the weather and dangers of the road
still, when I return to my home
it is as if I am resting in the shelter
of the God of the universe

my tea and my quilt, they comfort me

but do not give me up, O God
to the will of my adversaries
or especially to the will of your adversaries

I know that my home brings me comfort
and protection from the sting of the snow
from the bitter of the cold
yet so many of your children
do not have shelter
I know the food in my pantry
will fill my belly and warm my body
yet so many of your children
are hungry
I know I am protected by your strength
and need not fear your enemies
yet so many of your children are not safe
are not secure

I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord
here, in the land of the living
and I believe that, once I recognize the goodness of the Lord
I believe that sharing the goodness of the Lord
will probably begin with me

and with you.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lenten Midweek Reflection on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

I do my best to dwell in the care of my God
to take shelter in the shadow of the almighty
from the spiritual desert sun
I do everything I can to take refuge in the Lord
and to allow the most high to abide with me
when eventide falls, and every other time of day as well

and yet, I don't feel borne up
I don't experience the elation of being held in God's arms
I don't see evidence of angels standing guard

to trust in God,
it seems from some psalms
and from some tv preachers
to trust in God, it seems,
is to know no hardship
to know no pain, no struggle

and yet, euphoria … nirvana … heavenly bliss
seems so fleeting
my struggles are all around me
before and behind, above and below
they will not let me go

And then I turn around
recognizing that when I abide in God
though I may experience pain
my joy is greater
although I may know hardship and struggle,
as I give my life over to the divine
I begin more and more to know
that I will still struggle
and that in my struggle
in my pain, in my despair
God does not abandon me
but is always near

God, who's divine body knows our pain and our struggle
our despair and our death

the psalmist is right:

They will call me, says God
and I will answer them
I will be with them in their trouble.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Spring Bicycle Adventure

If you took a look at this blog about a year ago, you might remember that I participated in a 400 mile bike ride. It was a remarkable experience, and I'm looking forward to doing it again this year.

Now, if you weren't reading this blog a year ago (I suppose there may be some, since one of my readers mentioned that I might have more than seven readers … maybe even as many as ten), you may remember me writing a little about that experience.

I got to spend six days riding my bike, one day putting a new roof on someone's home, and the whole time meeting and interacting with great people in every single place we found ourselves.

And, perhaps more significantly, I got to be part of the work of the Fuller Center for Housing, to give people who wouldn't have it otherwise, the opportunity to have a safe, comfortable, and affordable home to live in.

What's great about the work they do is that they do is that it's tremendously financially responsible. Every dollar that comes in to the Fuller Center goes back into supporting the mission of providing housing for people.

Some of their financing comes from the generosity of people like you (see below). But you should know, also, that the homes aren't given away. Every family that moves into a Fuller Center home is expected to work … actually work … on building their home.

Further, every family that moves into a Fuller Center home pays for the home … it's not a handout. The family takes out a zero-interest loan, sets up an affordable payment schedule, and repays the cost of the home.

There are no huge corporations or fat cats making exorbitant profits from Fuller Center homes, families are able to build their credit rating, and all of the money paid on the mortgage goes into building other homes in the future.

I did last year's ride with my dad, who's riding again this year ~ and what's pretty great is that my daughter is also coming along this year.

I feel honored to be able to participate in the Spring Bicycle Adventure, and to support the work of the Fuller Center. I want to invite you, my 7 10 readers, to also support the work they're doing.

Since we all have to raise a certain amount of money for the Fuller Center, I'll provide a link to my fundraising page.  And you may support my daughter's fundraising efforts here.

Thanks for reading, and for helping people have safe and affordable places to live.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday Homiletical Reflections

Bearing in mind the truth that sermons are spoken events, a holy interaction between preacher and congregation that is mitigated by Holy Spirit, I post the text that I used for the Ash Wednesday homily at the congregation I serve. 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, and from our Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen

Remember, you are dust
these are the words we’ll hear in a little bit
when ashes are traced on our forehead

these ashes are a reminder for us who are healthy that life doesn’t last forever
a reminder to the old and the ill that death may be approaching very soon
a reminder for the youngest in our midst
that though there are many years to look forward to,
the vitality of life now is not guaranteed forever

so we trace ashes on our forehead
a reminder of our mortality
a reminder that life is fragile, tenuous
to be blown away, scattered as in the wind, as dry and dusty ashes from a campfire

remember, you are dust
my friend* has pointed out that dust is everywhere
that it does a fine job of settling on stationary things,
collecting in rarely ventured places
making its presence known only when a film develops
but, he points out,
did you ever notice how when the light streams through the window just the right way
endless particles of dust are made visible?
Always we are walking, breathing, living in the dust.
he concludes with a reminder that God does some pretty cool stuff with dust

Remember, you are dust
and when the light shines in the right way,
when the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it
there is beauty even in dust

In the beginning, God fashioned and shaped the dust
breathed into the dust’s lungs
and created life,
life, in which God continues to take delight

God takes delight in life
which, as we are reminded today, will end
but which, as we are reminded in the waters of our baptism
is made new every day by our God, the author and giver of all life

this ash that we receive on our foreheads in just a moment
it’s not simply ash
there is oil mixed in it
(though I must issue the disclaimer that some pastors don’t mix oil in the ash they use)
I do, though … and this oil, mixed in the ash
will be traced onto the same place as the oil used in baptism …
traced in the same place where the cross was traced, perhaps in oil,
when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

The oil helps the ash to stick better to our faces
a more long-lasting reminder that we are dust, and we will return to dust
and at the same time, a reminder that underlying the truth of our mortality
is the bigger truth that in God we are given life,
and only by God’s grace and mercy
we have received the gift of new life

Remember, you are dust
mortal, fragile, temporary
remember, you are dust,
and to dust you shall return

remember, we are dust
filled with breath, spirit, life
by our God, who from lifeless dust
creates beauty, and eternally creates new life
remember, we are dust,
and to Christ we shall return.

* the person I refer to is the Rev. Christian Nisonger, whose Facebook posting I used as a template for the thought and language of this section of the sermon text. 


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Middle School

Some of you, my seven readers, know that I enjoy youth ministry. I enjoy spending time with young people, in particular middle school and high school students, and especially in the context of exploring faith.

So it was with great anticipation and pleasure that I took a few middle school students from the congregation I serve to join a few hundred others at a youth gathering. There's much about this event that I could write about, but my favorite part of this youth gathering every year is “Stump the Pastor”.

What happens is that the young people participate in different one-hour workshops. One of the workshops they can choose from is led by a pastor, and is simply a forum at which the young people can ask the pastor questions.

I don't know how other pastors run the workshop when they're in charge, but here's what I do: I tell the students that they're welcome to ask any question they have … about anything. And so that they feel free to actually ask anything, I use pens and paper to make the process anonymous.

If you've spent a little time with middle schoolers, you'll expect that I'd get questions such as, “What is my name?” (answer: my name is Matthew), and “How do you write 8 in binary?” (answer: 1000). These questions are fun, and when I take them as seriously as I take any theological or scriptural question, the kids seem to understand that I'm taking them seriously as people and not trying to shove 'church answers' down their throats.

Now, if you've spent more than a little time with middle schoolers, you'll also recognize that they have some questions more serious than “Do you like Tim Tebow or Payton Manning better?” (answer: I haven't met either of those guys, so I can't say).

You know those existential questions that most of us wrestle with in the company of our friends late at night when we're in high school or (especially) college? Well, middle school students wrestle with the same questions, even though they might not have the language to articulate the questions well. And this is the part of the workshop that's the most rewarding – taking what's written seriously enough to ask, and then address, the question that sometimes isn't very well written.

Who wrote the bible? Are gay people accepted and loved by God? Does my friend who goes to a Presbyterian church believe the same thing I do? what about my Catholic friend? Mormon? Jewish? Does God love the Muslims?  Is it ok to kill someone if it's self-defense, or if they're threatening your family?

At the end of the day, middle schoolers (and this is news to no one) seem to be primarily concerned with figuring out where they belong in the world. And at the end of the hour, my hope and prayer has always been that they've found a place like that at least for a little while. I hope they recognize that no matter how they grow and change, and no matter how much their faith changes and grows (or even shrinks), that they can find a place to belong in the Body of Christ.

Of course that's probably my hope and prayer for everyone, whether they're middle schoolers or not.


Sunday, January 13, 2013


Living Water

as in a shower,
    warm and cleansing
    therapeutic to the body

as in a summer cloudburst,
    warm and refreshing
    cleansing the air and giving life to the earth

as under a waterfall,
    strong, powerful,
    eroding the ground beneath

as winter sleet
    abrasive and abusive
    chasing us back to shelter

as a mountain stream
    abundant with elusive life,
    frigid to the touch

as throughout algae-covered lakes,
    seemingly stagnent
    yet alive at the surface
        and at every level beneath as well

as in the ocean
    vast and encompassing
    pounding relentlessly on the safety of dry land

Baptism, Living Water.