Saturday, December 15, 2007

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!

I don't like snow.
Especially on Saturdays and Sundays,
when it makes people reluctant to get out and come to worship.
Snow is cold and uncomfortable to walk around in.
And it makes driving a little nerve-wracking, too.

But, somehow, when I look out the window and see those little bitty flecks of white covering the dead grass, and the bushes and the leafless limbs of the trees, I can't help thinking it is just beautiful.

Encouraging Word from our friend in Beit Jala

John Setterlund's newsletter arrived yesterday, and had this encouraging take on recent events in the news.
John is going to be in the US over the holidays, and in Philo at the end of December. If his schedule allows, I'll try to put together a little coffee get together so that those of you who haven't met John (he was Pastor of Philo's Lutheran church for several years, so some of you know him from those days) can meet him.

Bishop Optimistic

Believing in the cup’s being half-full rather than half-empty, the Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, says he feels the Annapolis peace talks were more successful than anyone expected. Speaking to a group of visitors in our guesthouse, he pointed to some positive results of these talks.
Until now, for example, Israel had never discussed yielding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians; now such a proposal has been published in the newspaper. Previously, negotiations between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights had not been possible, but now this issue is on the table. All sides seem to be taking a more realistic look at a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issues.
This does not mean that the facts “on the ground”, especially the settlements and the Wall, have changed. But it does indicate greater awareness of the problems on all sides, and a sense of urgency in solving them. §

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Speaking of Olive Wood

This was in the paper last night, and it made me very sad:

"The Israeli forces left behind heavy damage to al-Fukhari, a farming community near the southern twon of Khan Younis.
About 75 acres of olive tress and orange groves were uprotted, greenhouses and the outer walls of homes were damaged, and homes were left without power, said ouda Alomar, mayor of the community. Repair crews were trying to restore electricity and reopen roads that were closed with dirt mounds put up by the troops, he said."

These "incursions" into Palestinian land naturally, I think, solidify resistance on the Palestinian side. Violence begets violence and prospects for peace recede into the far distance.

This last month the water company came down my street and dug things up and left a big mess in yards across from the church. I've heard several people express anger and disgust that their yards were dug up. Can you imagine if bulldozers came through Philo or Champaign or through Curtis Orchard and uprooted trees, just to make a political statement? Just to show us that they could? Apologists for Israel say that they have to take defensive actions to protect themselves from attack. Were there snipers in the olive trees?

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Would that you knew the things that make for peace!"

Who said that?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Children's Sermon Revelation

The children of the church really do "lead" me sometimes. This Sunday's children's sermon was one of those times. For the children's sermon I had planned to talk about olive branches as a symbol of peace, and to present two olive wood candle sticks, to sit on our communion table with the olive wood nativity that the church displays every year.

I bought the candlesticks at the meeting of the Israel/Palestine network in Chicago in November. They were made in Palestine, and imported by a "fair trade" organization which helps Palestinian craftspeople make a decent wage in that economically wrecked part of the world.

Now here was my surprise "leading" from the children: The candlesticks were wrapped in an Arabic language newspaper. As I unwrapped the package, I commented on how it looked like one of our newspapers, but "can you read any of it?" And they immediately picked up on the beauty of the Arabic letters. They asked how to read it, "Left to right? Is it backwards? Are these letters like our ABC's? Which one is A?" Etc. So we looked at the paper more closely. It was the sports page, and there was a big picture of some people playing soccer. Now, THAT we could understand. And some of the ads had pictures of families, and children. And we could see that this one was about the same age as one of our kids, etc.

The kids picked up on how the people were like us. Even though we didn't know what the words said, it was a newspaper, just like our newspapers. People like our moms and dads probably read this newspaper, clear across the world from us. That piece of newspaper conveyed so much of how related we are. And the children got a feel for the humanity of people about which we often feel nothing, except perhaps fear. It was a beautiful children's sermon. And the children preached it for me. That's what I love about the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for "Peace" Sunday

Dec. 9, 2007
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Second Sunday in Advent

Our Advent preparations this year take the form of a journey – a trip guided by the prophet Isaiah that will take us through one of the darkest parts of the year and into the light and peace of Christ’s presence – made known to us in the child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Last week, Isaiah showed us that the point of origin for our journey is the landmark of a shoot rising out of the root of Jesse – a sign of the miraculous possibility of new life and growth. This week, Isaiah invites us to venture a little farther along the way, and to share a wonderful vision with him. On the right side of the tour bus, Isaiah helpfully points out, you will see the world being drawn to God like a magnet. You will notice God’s word transforming their chaos and violence into order and harmony. Don’t miss the weapons transformation factory, where swords are turned into farm tools and tanks into tractors. You’ll notice, of course, that no one is studying war. They are too busy learning from God and from each other how to walk in the wonderful, peaceful world. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they study war any more. Isaiah’s vision is a vision of peace. World peace.

The journey to Bethlehem leads through a vision of profound peace. Do we dare to go there? This Christmas season, do we have the courage and the faith to dream that dream?

Or would we rather dream of . . . something more real? I’m indebted to PC Ennis, the theologian in residence in an Atlanta Presbyterian church for noticing a commercial. (I wonder how my approach to my job might change if my business card said, “Theologian in Residence”. Hmmmm.) Apparently, I’d watch more TV, since PC saw a commercial that I haven’t seen. The ad begins with a dreamy vision of a sparkling new bicycle. A child’s voice is heard: “Oh, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas. I hope to get a bicycle for Christmas – and peace on earth, of course, - but I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas.”

Clearly – the way the TV presents things – to dream of a bicycle is to dream of something real. And world peace? That’s just Christmas season window dressing. That’s just a sentiment on Christmas cards. That’s just something we sing about. Briefly, and not with much heart.

Our very great temptation this Advent season is to ignore Isaiah our tour guide, and to look out the left side of the bus, where SALE banners are hanging in store windows and shiny new bikes look so close we can almost touch them. There’s a vision for Advent. Come, O Come pre-Christmas sale.

This year, focusing on that bike is so much easier because it means we don’t have to deal with the horrible sound of bombs falling around the bus, or worry about IEDs in the road head. You know what I mean? We live in a country that is conducting war right now. Killing and being killed. Maiming and being maimed. Suffering, and inflicting suffering. That’s real.

And up against the nightly news and the hourly radio bulletins and the daily newspapers and the weekly magazines, full of the horrors of war - - - against all that we are invited to believe in a vision of peace? Come on!

But you know what? Isaiah says, Yes! Come on! Isaiah is not some naïve, wide eyed hippie, sitting in field of flowers, doing banned substances and talking about Peace, Man! Isaiah is a war correspondent. Isaiah is battle tested. This vision of peace and light is embedded in 65 chapters of very realistic account of how, over the generations, people’s turning away from the ways of God have resulted in violence and suffering and death. My Calvin College connection, John Witvliet, calls the Isaiah advent passages “The Pretty Passages” of Isaiah and urges preachers to put them in context for congregations.

This is a book written over a couple of generations of the greatest loss and horror a people can suffer. Invasion. Extradition. Living as aliens. And in between graphic and horrifying accounts of the reality of war, Isaiah insists on communicating this persistent vision of peace.

Why bother? What’s the point? The point, according to Isaiah, is that sometimes in this world, what we believe in is more important journey than what the world tells Us is “real”.

Do you trust the world’s version of what is real? What constitutes ‘The way things are’? Are you a fan of reality TV? What’s real about Road Trip? Or . . . that other one where they pick out 10 fantastic looking 20-somethings who don’t have job or family obligations, set them up in a house worth a million dollars, and watch them fight over who cleans up the kitchen. Is that reality?

Who gets to decide what’s reality? In a recent news article, a White House aide was quoted as saying,
..., "Guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."
Got that?
Who determines reality? The biggest, boldest empire? But don’t we all know, in our heart of hearts, how unbelievably UN real it is to think that what is happening in the world right now is going to lead to real peace? Saying that locking people up for years and years with no trial and no access to the evidence against them – that that has something to do with freedom – is that realistic? Who gets to say what is a real threat to world peace? Who gets to say what is real?

In a world where we are so regularly misled and distracted from what is happening - Is it so unrealistic to believe the Bible? Even if the Bible tells us that peace is possible? That there is another way to live on this planet? That swords can be beaten into plowshares and we can study war no more?

Isaiah’s vision isn’t a lie. It’s poetry. But it isn’t a lie. It’s prophetic. But it isn’t a lie.

The point of Advent is “do not dismiss the vision of peace as irrelevant. Do not write off the Biblical proclamation of God’s will for our lives as fantasy. (PC Ennis, again)

The vision of peace to which Isaiah directs our attention cannot be ignored as we journey to Bethlehem. It must be seen, and believed, and entered into, if we wish to arrive at the place where God enters the world - Emmanuel – to be with us.

How do we walk in the light of God’s peaceful vision for us and the world? We start by sharing Isaiah’s vision. We take the first steps toward peace in our own lives and in our own families. And we enter into the larger world, our schools, at sporting events, among the communities, looking to learn what makes for peace. And we question the reality of those who preach fear and threats and force.

We hold onto the promise, even when we are told it’s just a dream, the dream of peace on earth. We do our very best to live out that dream and we wait for the day that God has promised, when the dream finally comes true.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sunday Sermon - 1st Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
“Journey in the Spirit”

It is Advent – the time for us to get ready to encounter the Christ anew. Advent is the beginning of the church’s liturgical year, and so it was a time to begin again as a disciple. Historically, Advent, the four weeks before the celebration of Christmas, served as a little Lent for Christians. It was a time for quiet, heart and soul searching, and repentance. Advent hymns were often solemn and sometimes even in a minor key: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” sounds like something medieval monks chanted in darkened cathedrals. “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” - is another soulful Advent standard that this congregation doesn’t know or care to learn.
Of late, say in the last 100 years or so, Advent has become a more joyful, hope filled and expectant time, in which we attempt to remind one another of the amazing gift of God that is “The Reason for the Season” – Jesus Christ.
With post-war prosperity and the economic imperatives of a consumer society, Advent has changed once again. Now, the challenge of Advent is to prepare to receive Christ anew, while at the very same time decorating one’s home, entertaining business clients and personal friends, baking family member’s once a year favorites, buying gifts, attending school and church holiday functions and dealing with appeals from charities every time you go to the mailbox or walk into the supermarket.
I don’t want to give you another task to get done by the time December 25th rolls around. Someone shared another church’s worship folder with me this week. THIS ADVENT – it read in all capital letters: WORSHIP MORE, SPEND LESS, GIVE MORE, LOVE ALL. Wow, I thought. That’s a lot of imperatives to pile on people who, if they are anything like me, are already feeling a little overwhelmed. So, at church this Advent, I won’t be asking you to perform yet another holiday obligation. Instead, I want to invite you to “get away from it all” – to go on a journey - think of it as a guided tour if you like – a journey to Bethlehem. Our tour guide will be the prophet Isaiah. Our destination is the place where Christ was born.

Ann Weems:

In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
An inn where we must ultimately answer
Whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
We can no longer look the other way
Conveniently not seeing stars
Not hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily
Tending our sheep or our kingdoms.

This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem
And see this thing that the Lord has made known to us.
In the midst of shopping sprees
Let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
Let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,
Let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
And find our kneeling places.

We’ll be traveling companions for each other – and we’ll meet some interesting natives along the way. But mostly, we’ll be taking in the sights and sounds and experiencing the wonder of what God has done. Advent isn’t about what we do. It is about God has done, and continues to do – he comes into our world, into our lives, into our messes and our mistakes, and brings divine love.

So where does our journey begin? The journey to Bethlehem begins at the sign of a shoot coming up from the ruined stump of the old Kingdom. The old Davidic dynasty had Israel’s pride and joy and hope for the future. But the majestic oak was rotten at the core. With each generation removed from David, the corruption grew worse, until the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians and then the Romans swept in and loped off branches from the tree until nothing was left but a stump. The life was gone out of it. It was a failure. It was a mistake. And yet, Advent begins with the sign of new, fresh, vibrant life, emerging from the ruined past and promising a new future. What a wonderful promise that is!
For those of us who have stumps of dreams, or ambitions, of plans, or relationships, of careers, or even just the stumps of Christmases past – Christmases in which we were too frazzled or too pressured or too inattentive to meet Christ anew – the sign of new life with which Advent begins is a beautiful gift. God is not one to let our failures or mistakes in the past rule out a beautiful future. He is coming to offer us another chance at Christmas, at love, at life. This is the very first thing our tour guide, Isaiah, wants us to notice as we set off toward Bethlehem. The possibility of new life.

The second thing is that this journey is a chance for us to breathe deeply and freely. The Hebrew for Spirit is the same word – ruah – as breath. So read that verse 2 substituting breath for spirit and it says,
“The breath of the Lord shall rest upon him.
The breath of wisdom and understanding,
The breath of counsel and might,
The breath of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

What we breathe in and what we breathe out will make a big difference in our journey. How great to know that God offers us an alternative to the polluted atmosphere of commercialism, greed, fear and cynicism that the world seems to exude, even in the midst of the holiday season.

At Christmas we collide with the mystery that God entered our world as an infant. And this verse reminded me of a how a baby’s breath smells. You mothers, if your think, you will remember. Fathers, big sisters and brothers. How would you describe it to those who haven’t held a baby so close that you are breathing in the little puffs? Like a airy, sweet, caramel-y. Like a can of Eagle-Brand sweetened condensed milk, only softer and lighter. Like heaven. Like little puffs of heaven, pure and good.

At the beginning of the Advent journey, stop for just a moment and breathe God’s goodness in.

And then get ready for lots of surprises. The journey is through a land we can barely imagine – where the wolf and the lamb are friends. Where the leopard curls up next to a baby goat. Through a place where hurt and destruction are things of the past. A child fearlessly leads us into the presence of the Almighty God.

This is our destination. And this is where we begin. As poet TS Eliot wrote:
The end
Is where we start from . . . .

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Four Quartets)

Let us go to Bethlehem.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Kids and Christmas

Here's an interesting article I found in the Illinois Alumni magazine (Nov/Dec 2007 issue)

It's about Kids and Materialism - and suggests that feelings of self worth and acceptance are crucial to helping kids develop less materialistic values.

And you know what is the best (research from the UofI again) help for kids and teens developing a realistic sense of self worth? Participation in faith based youth groups. And service to others. Interesting, huh?

If our kids have a way to give to others and know their worth as children of God, they "need" fewer material things. Interesting.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Preparing to Prepare for Christmas

Long before the Thanksgiving turkey is turned into turkey enchiladas or the dressing reheated into a cinder, I start thinking about Christmas preparations.
I'm sure this is no surprise to you, but as a pastor I feel a certain responsibility to prepare, not just my own heart for the coming of the Christ, but the heart of every single person in the entire congregation. All I want (it's a simple thing, really) is for every Philo Presbyterian to experience the hope, joy, peace and love of Christmas in a deep and profound way. Is that too much to ask???
How to help that happen . . . this is the subject of the pastor's inner dialogue day and night. We (not the royal "we" - really, there are lots of us!) "converse" with the lectionary passages, devotional literature, the Hymnbook, choral music we have collected over many years of hanging around church choir lofts. We reread journals (or vow to begin keeping one) and think back over Christmases past. We note what thoughts and themes keep recurring. Is that God's still small voice speaking?
And soon we come to the realization that . . . we are paralyzed. There are too many possibilities, and none of them seem very promising. Sleep is fitful. Nerves are stretched tight. Papers pile up on desks. Prayers grow more desperate: Please, God, don't let another day go by before I figure out how to do Advent!
God, in his wisdom and mercy, however, does not allow time to stop. And so soon (and very soon! - that's an advent song) the time for planning is past and execution of the plan must begin.
That's where we are now.
So I'm sorry I haven't written anything the last few days. I was hoping to find just the right thing. But it's too late to worry about that anymore. We'll just have to set off down the bumpy road toward Bethlehem and hope for the best. Maybe for the valleys to be lifted up and the hills made low and the rough places made like a plain? Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

New Blog Dedicated to Walking

I set up a new blog just for Walking to Bethlehem partners. I don't want to lose any of my friends here at "Shepherd's Hook" (cause you are a very small and select group as it is!!)
But I wanted to have a place for folks who don't know us to feel welcome and "with it". So, check out

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Short Walk . . .

Several people are walking or planning to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
So I'm excited.
How far have you gone?
Did anybody take a walk today? I'll confess that I didn't do much more than get the dogs around the block. I figure I went 4 miles the first day, and only 1 mile the next. And today? Friday is the deadline day for articles to the local weeklies, and I wanted to get a follow up about Trick or Treat for Cans, and a piece announcing "Walking to Bethlehem" to the editor's desk before noon. So the pre-breakfast time was spent at the computer.
(Lucky me, I took my pitiful copy to Jim Evans last night and he rewrote the "Walking" article for me.)
After hitting the "send" button, I hopped in the car to get Caleb to school and to round up sporting supplies and food for the afternoon.
Along the way I took a solemn vow NEVER to set foot in the WalMart on 130 again. Here's what happened:
I was looking for pingpong paddles and balls (they seem to disappear, like socks in the dryer, in our church basement). Sporting goods is WAY in the back. I finally found the aisle that was clearly marked "Table Tennis" - but it was all golf. Golf balls, golf towels, golf tees . . . Golf. There's a woman in a walmart shirt standing there.
"Ping Pong?" I say.
"Where are the ping-pong paddles?"
"Pang Pong?"
"The sign says this is the aisle for table tennis. Ping pong? But I don't see any ping pong stuff." "Oh. I'll ask."
A few minutes later she and an older, more authoritative looking person returned. "What is it you are looking for?" So I explained it again. Finally, the older person understood.
"Oh," he said, "We zeroed those out and cleared them."
Now it was my turn to be confused. "You did what with them?"
"We don't carry them anymore."
"Walmart? And you don't have pingpong paddles? What kind of a place is this? Last month I went to the craft department and they didn't have any clay. What is going on here? Are you closing the store? Is the Walton legacy dead? I can't believe this!!"
The younger woman attempted to slip away. I heard her whisper, "I'll call the manager."
But she didn't fool me. I knew it was Security she was calling, and I trotted toward the doors, hissing over my shoulder as I went, "I don't have time to talk now. You tell the manager for me I'm never come into the store again as long as I live! Have a good day." (Isn't that a pretty picture of a spiritual leader? HA.)
I know that the Apostle Paul was arrested for disturbing the peace, but I have no intention of visiting the slammer because of Walmart.
Once noon hit, I had several (8 at most times, 10 at other times) 5th -7th graders at church for "Early Out" fun. Today I'd like to give myself a mile or two credit for playing kickball, but I'll resist the temptation. (It was a good game, though, and certainly got my heart in the "target range"! but . . . oh well)
So, I think that tomorrow I'm going to try to set up a specific, dedicated "Walking to Bethlehem" blog. The newspaper article is inviting community members to participate, and I don't want to quit writing about church/life stuff here, (and I certainly wouldn't want anyone who didn't know me to read anything that might make them think I can be impatient and petty sometimes, like for instance my Walmart adventure.) So I hope I can link the two sites, but I think one ought to be purely travelogue.
What I have in mind is a little account of what the trip would have been like in Mary and Joseph's time, and what is going on along that same route now. It's an interesting country or two over there! And, of course, I want to include plenty of fitness facts.
Tell me if you have any other ideas for the program.
See you down the road! (But not in the Urbana Walmart!!)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Walking to Bethlehem and Driving to Effingham

I'm driving to Effingham for an all day Committee on Ministry meeting today. Pray for me.
As I get older I find that I don't want to go to any meetings I don't moderate. So this is a good discipline for me.

First Leg of the Trip

OK, everybody! I'm walking to Bethlehem. Yesterday I walked for 1 hr- so I'm calling that 4 miles. And it was fun. I went over to church and walked 15 minutes before breakfast. Then I went to walk with the ladies at the Philo Gym from 8:30 to 9. Then I walked to the Post Office, back home, and to Zion and St. Thomas to deliver flyers for the CUPS Thanksgiving service.
Easy squeezy.
We're going to have to write an Advent hymn called Walking to Bethlehem. See if you can come up with some verses as you "journey" toward Christmas.
But you know the "Walker's Hymn", don't you?
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for thee.
Those lines (from "Take My Life and Let It Be" #379 in your hymnbook) never fail to bring a smile to my face. The thought of offering God feet . . .

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Walking to Bethlehem

Don't you just HATE it when people rush the Christmas season? Kohl's has already had a holiday themed sale, and it's "beginning to look alot like Christmas" in several retail establishments. No singing, please!
Well, I don't want to rush things, but . . . I have this great idea that's sort of Christmas-y and I just can't wait to get started:
It's called "Walking to Bethlehem" and it's a group walking/fitness program. The challenge is to "walk" from Nazareth to Bethlehem, like Mary and Joseph did. Everybody keeps track of their own miles, (or their other fitness activity minutes) and we chart 'em and encourage each other. The reason I'm so anxious to start is because it is 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Advent might not give me enough time to make it.) And I want to get a jump on Mary and Joseph so I can be there when they arrive!
So are you with me? Jim Evans suggested that if enough people were interested, we could not only have Mary and Joseph (and the donkey! don't forget the donkey!) miles, but also have shepherd miles, wise men miles, innkeeper miles, etc.

Here's what we'll do:
I'll post a little milepost thought or devotion or picture every day. And everyday you log your progress in the comments section. As we get farther down the road, we'll have reports in the bulletin, etc. I can't wait.

See you on the road.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Broken Bottle by the Side of the Road

A couple of people remarked about the image of the light of God being reflected and shining through, not only the "stained glass saints", but also the saints whose lives are more like broken bottles, lying by the side of the road.

After I had written that, I went back to a poem I vaguely remembered. It is by Robert Penn Warren, from Or Else, Poem/Poems, 1964-1974. (p. 11-12)

. . .

A new high-/

way is under construction. Crushed rock has/

been spread for miles and rolled down. On Sunday,/

when no one is there, go and stand on the/

roadbed. It stretches before your eyes in-/

to distance. But fix your eyes firmly on/

one fragment of crushed rock. Now, it only/

glows a little, inconspicuously/

one might say. But soon, you will notice a

slight glittering. Then a marked vibration/

sets in. You brush your hand across your eyes,/

but, suddenly, the earth underfoot is/

twitching. Then, remarkably, the bright sun/

jerks like a spastic, and all things seem to/

be spinning away from the univer-/

sal center that the single fragment of/

crushed rock has ineluctably become.

At this point, while there is still time and will,/

I advise you to detach your gaze from/

that fragment of rock. Not all witnesses/

of the phenomenon survive unchanged/

the moment when, at last, the object screams/

in an ecstasy of/


Sort of combines a lot of spiritual elements:



fear/courage in perceiving what is real,

pain/ecstasy of being real,


being changed and, of course,

the center of the universe.

Vertical Habit #7 - "How Can I Help?" - Skip Down to Start the Day!

Vertical Habit #7
“How Can I Help?”
Nov. 4, 2007
Ephesians 1:1, 11-23 (or something close)

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about “Vertical Habits” – phrases that connect us with God. These are phrases we are invited to make a habit when we talk to God: I Love You, I’m Sorry, Why, God? All of these prayer phrases are also worship phrases: “I’m Listening” is what we say with the prayer for illumination. “Please/Thank You” are part of our Prayers of the People”. “Bless You” – this is a Prayer of Adoration at the beginning of the service, and a Benediction (which is another word for blessing) at the end of our time together on Sunday mornings. I’d love to have some feedback on whether talking about these vertical habits has actually given you some ideas, some tools, some encouragement that enriches your corporate worship or strengthens your personal prayer life.
This week we focus on the last “habit” - the last phrase – that can strengthen our relationship with God. And this is the phrase “How Can I Help?”.
“How Can I Help?” is a phrase that one is most likely to remember hearing spoken by someone who does not mean it. One of you remarked to me that “How Can I Help?” is what people say when someone is sick, or a family member has died, or some other tragedy strikes, and they don’t really want to do anything. In most cases like that, if we really love and real close to someone, we don’t ask “How can I help?” We say, “I’m bringing dinner tonight.” Or “I’m going to come over and help get the house ready for out of town visitors.” Or “I’m coming by so we can sit and pray and cry.” Or “Let me come pick up the kids and take them for a few hours so that you have time to sit and have a cup of tea.” Saying, “Is there anything I can do to help?” is just an invitation to be excused. “Not really. Thanks, but no thanks.”
So, if I’m discouraging the use of the phrase “How Can I Help?” horizontally, I still think it is a good phrase to use with God. Why? Because God is bolder than people. God will never answer, “Thanks, but no thanks. There’s really nothing that you can do to help.” God, amazingly enough, has specifically called us and set us apart to be helpful to him and to one another. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians, “we have been destined according to the purpose by God to accomplish all things according to his counsel and will.” We’ve been baptized, set apart, called into the church, in order to – in the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy – “Git R Done!”
It is fitting that this phrase just providentially landed on the one day in the calendar set aside for remembering saints of the church, and considering ways that we might live more like saints on this side of heaven. Saints are those whom God has called into conversation with him, and not just conversation, but action. Saints of God are those who ask God “How can I help?” and then faithfully set about the task God puts before them.
I say to you, as Paul said to the Ephesians, “Grace and peace to you saints who are in Philo.” But I know you aren’t used to thinking of yourselves as saints. If you look up “Saints” in a secular dictionary, you are likely to find definitions such as:

1: a person who has died and has been declared a saint by canonization 2: person of exceptional holiness [syn: {holy man}, {holy person}, {angel}] 3: model of excellence or perfection of a kind; one having no equal [syn: {ideal}, {paragon}, {nonpareil}, {apotheosis},

Clearly, we are reluctant to consider ourselves exceptionally holy, or a model of excellence or perfection. That’s how non-Christians use that word. But Saint is a word that belongs to the church and I’m completely unwilling to give it up to the culture, to let others use it as they will – whether to describe Mother Teresa or Diana Princess of Wales, or more recently, Angelina Jolie. A saint is not a person who lives a larger than life life – or someone who does good deeds – or someone who puts up with a lot of grief in order to help somebody out.
Since New Testament times, Christians have been described as saints because saints means “set apart and called by God to a life of faith.” Saints don’t do good deeds by virtue of their own extraordinary will power or determination. Saints do whatever they do by the grace of God, poured out for us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We don’t earn our sainthood by good works. I want to be perfectly clear about that. God doesn’t love us because we make ourselves saintly. God makes us saints because, quite without provocation or reason, God loves us immeasurably just as we are. We are not either saints or sinners. We are always both saints and sinners at the same time.
Connie Bandy, who preached here last summer, says her favorite saint story is this one: A young child went on a tour of one of the great cathedrals, one famous for its stained glass windows telling of heroes of the church. There was a panel of St. Joseph. A panel of St. Mark, a panel of St. Paul, a panel of St. Teresa, a panel of St. Patrick. Afterwards, the girl was asked by her father, “And what did you learn about the saints?” The girl said, “I learned that the saints are the ones that the light shines through.”
The light of God, shining through our lives, is what marks us as saints. And, let’s face it, God’s light shines, not only through beautiful and pious, church-y type saints, but also through those of us who feel more like broken bottles, lying by the side of life’s road. The glint of holy light that hits us sometimes and reflects up and out and into the world like a prism, making it, if only for a moment, more beautiful and precious. That light is saintly light. Everyone of us is molded, like glass, cut like crystal, broken sometimes, polished sometimes – to reflect God’s light into the world.
“How can I help?” reflect that light? Most of you know the answer to that question already. You know how God has shaped your life to reflect his light. You have talents. You have insights. You have leadership abilities. You have money. You have time. You know whether God’s light would shine better if you taught Sunday School or knit baptism blankets or both. You know whether you can be an example of generosity or of hospitality or both. You know whether you can sing, or encourage the pastor, or visit the sick. You know whether you are better gifted to teach theology or wood working. If you have asked God, habitually, “How can I help?” I have no doubt that he has drawn you into projects, and involved you with relationships, and given you assignments that are a blessing to you and to other people. If you are just beginning to ask that question, then I can promise you are at the outset of a great and rollicking adventure as you discover your sainthood.
If we were locating this phrase in worship – it would be what we think and pray and say to God as we are walking out the door and into the world. OK, God. You love the world so much that you have given your only Son to save us from sin and death. How can I help you love the world? Whose life can I touch for Jesus? What task can I accomplish for Christ’s body, the Church? How can I do my work, or talk to my friends, or spend my money, or use my time, in a way that contributes to Your saving the world?
I’m not naïve. I’m aware that the phrase on the church stairs at 11 am on a Sunday morning is often, “Where are we going to lunch?” But I hope that might be woven in with this phrase “How Can I Help?” and that at least today, as you sit around the table on Sunday with your family or your friends, you might ponder this phrase.
And I hope that you are pondering it as we symbolically gather around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ this morning. For it is at this table that Christ, the head of the church which is His Body, nourishes us, His Saints, that we might live for and shine into the world, the light of his glory.

Why the Angels Sing

There's an article in the Sept. 24th New Yorker magazine by Oliver Sacks, the nuerologist/philosopher. I really love his stuff. It's always about somebody with a wierd brain injury or nuerological condition and how they put life together, or not. (If you're up for a challenging read, Richard Power's latest novel, The Echo Maker, has an Oliver Sacks character in it, and he has totally clay feet. Since I read that book, Sack's articles are even more interesting to me because now I read them with a layer of wondering about the author's life and relationships and ability to cope . . . It's not just the patients that are interesting!)

OK. That was an aside. Here's the point: This article is about a man who has complete amnesia. He doesn't remember being alive from minute to minute. Every time he blinks, he opens his eyes to a new world. That memory part that ties life together for us is gone. BUT !
He has performative memory. He has language. He can walk. He can feed himself. He knows how to do everyday tasks (if someone reminds him to do them - rather like yours truly). And - this is the important part - he was a musician before his brain injury. And he's still a musician! He knows pieces. He can learn pieces. He reads music and can conduct a choir, just as well as he could before. During the performance of music, he is completely alive and whole.

At the end of the article, Sacks speculates on why this is. And he quotes Victor Zuckerkandll, a philosopher of music . . . "The hearing of a melody is a hearing with the melody. It is even a condition of hearing melody that the tone present at the moment should fill consciousness entirely, that nothing should be remembered, nothing except it or beside it be present in consciousness. . . . .Hearing a melody is hearing, having heard, and being about to hear, all at once. . . . Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown. (Sound and Symbol, 1956)

Here's the phrase I love: "Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown."
Doesn't that make "melody" the moment when faith (in a past that we can't remember)
and hope (for a future we cannot foreknow)
are joined in love (which fills the present)?

Doesn't that help explain why music and spirituality are so closely linked?

I'll by hummin' all day long . . .

Playing Ketchup

Here, let me wipe a few cobwebs away and dust off the old keyboard . . .
That's better.
This poor blog has been sorely neglected. But I'm back now, and I will try to do better.
(The story of my life.)

So what have I missed?
Three sermons. I'll put those on, though that's not really good blogging.
And some really profound thoughts. Which are completely gone now.
Reflections on life and death and losing congregation member Roger. That will be ongoing.
A picture or two?
At least two REALLY good books, which I highly recommend to any and all of you who aren't put off by totally strange women and their spiritual journeys. (I guess you wouldn't be here if you were TOO put off by that combination.) I'll "review" Take This Bread (by Sarah Miles) and Grace, Eventually (by Anne LaMotte) at some point soon.

So . . . let's get started with what I read this morning before my first cup of coffee, and won't quit thinking about all day: Music as the divine language. Or something.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Vertical Habit #4 - "I'm Listening"

Here's the sermon from this morning.
It is quite a bit rougher than usual. I didn't get the manuscript cleaned up before I preached it. And now it seems . . . too late. So imagine the transitions smoother and the connections tighter. OK?
The Scripture was I Samuel 3:1-11

Vertical Habits . . . phrases that we use to strengthen our connection with God.
I Love You; I’m Sorry; Why, God?.
This week the habit on which we will focus is the encapsulated in the phrase “I’m Listening” In our scripture story, we heard the remarkable story of the young man, Samuel, who was coached by the Old Priest, to say to God, “Speak, Lord. For your servant is listening.”
This idea that Samuel was coached in listening has made me realize that listening is one of the communication skills I have had the least training – yet am called on to use the most. I’ll bet that it true for you, too. I was very carefully taught to read in the days of “See Spot Run”. And I learned to write, even though I wasn’t very good at it at first. I traced letters over and over again. I struggled to stay within the lines. And cursive! What a challenge that was! I still remember Mrs. Bessler and Mrs. Quail’s lessons in cursive writing.
Later, I was trained in how to organize a 5 paragraph theme. And then essays of various lengths and purposes. And sermons. Sermon writing is an ongoing training ground.
I was formally trained in public speaking as well. My mother was my first teacher. Stand up straight. Project. Enunciate. Articulate. Debate and Speech in high school. Speech classes in Seminary. Princeton was, at that time, quite different from other seminaries They left whether we had something worthwhile to say to our Biblical studies and theology teachers. in that the speech department was made up, not of preachers, but of actors and acting teachers, who schooled us on techniques that made for good communication.
They even taught communication through body language. A Princeton grad never wipes her hands after she breaks the bread.
But, and I’ve really searched my transcripts as well as my memory. I never had a course in listening.
And listening is the communication skill that most of us use most frequently. Many of us spend 70-80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. (I guess the TV counts) Of that time, we spend about 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening. Yet most of us are not very good listeners. (U of Missouri Extension – “Listening: Our Most Used Communication Skill)

On average, we retain only half of what we hear for a brief period, and only half of that do we remember a couple of days later. 75% of what we hear, we don’t really listen to. That’s pretty poor.
I wonder if poor listening skills had something to do with the reason that in the scripture we read this morning it says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. There weren’t a whole lot of people listening and paying attention to what God said. So maybe, he was speaking and nobody noticed. Like that puzzler, If a tree falls in a forest, does it make any noise? Maybe God’s voice had no ear in which to be received.
What is it that keeps us from listening for and hearing God’s voice?
It certainly isn’t that God is not speaking. One of our core beliefs as Presbyterians and as Christians is that God’s Word is alive and active. We believe that the Bible, God’s written word, speaks to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, communicating not only the story of God’s mighty deeds in the past, but conveying his love for us here and now.
One of the ways the Bible communicates that love is by assuring us that God is listening to us. Psalm after Psalm, like #18 affirms that “I called upon the Lord, and from his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” Psalm 19 prays “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.”
Psalm 139 – before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it already.
The New Testament, we are urged to approach the throne of grace with confidence as our prayers draw us near to the one who knows our needs before we even call his name.

Listening is a vertical habit – it is God’s habitual stance toward us.

So if God is speaking encouraging the conversation, how can we improve our vertical habit of listening in order to become better listeners for God.

Samuel – or Samuel’s listening coach Eli – gives the first clue: He says, to say you are interested. Say, Speak, Lord. I’m listening. That sounds so simple, you can’t believe it would make any difference. But there it is. And what the Bible tells us, studies by university communication researchers confirm: Saying that you are interested in something helps you to pay better attention and listen more effectively. Clearly, they didn’t do an experiment with God. But they did study what difference it made if listeners to human speakers expressed a willingness to listen and be interested. People who came to a speech with the attitude, “This is going to be dull” heard much less of what was said than those whose attitude was “Let’s see if there’s anything I can take away from this” They listened to the same speech. But listeners who said they’d listen found their time more interesting, and more useful.
Can we apply that to reading the Bible, or even, now I’m blue skying – sermons? Could we banish even the thought that “Boy, is this going to be dull!” And could we quit saying it to our children? That they’ll find church boring? Jesus said, Let children come to me and hinder them not. It might be that we are hindering them by conveying that they won’t get anything out of the service or worship. And by and large that is wrong.
Ask anyone whose cut their teeth on children’s worship. Jan Siders and I led chapel together for years. The kids did not expect it to be dull. And they were a fabulous congregation! You know why? Because kids listen better than adults. Yes, they do!
A University of Minnesota professor conducted an experiment which tested the attentiveness of students in grades 1-12. These showed that 90% of 1st and 2nd graders were listening attentively. By junior high, 44% of the students were paying attention at any given time. By the upper levels of high school, the average had dropped to 28%, which is almost as bad as the level of adults. Maybe that’s why Jesus says that we have to enter the kingdom like a little child. Cause they are the ones paying attention!!!
God’s Word is exciting. Life changing. Challenging. Surely it is not too much to ask that we open the Bible, and even listen to the sermon with the expectation that there will be something interesting for us there.

When he does speak to Samuel, God says, “I’m going to tell you something that’s going to make the whole country’s ears tingle.”
Which brings us to the second reason that it’s sometimes difficult to listen to God. Tingling ears doesn’t really sound all that good. God is going to say something difficult to Samuel. And God often says difficult things to us. It’s hard to listen when something difficult is being said.
This is what psychologists call becoming too stimulated. When we hear a speaker say something with which we disagree, we begin to use our active brain to develop counter arguments, so that we pay little attention to the next thing that is said. We are busy formulating questions we can ask to expose the error. Or formulating arguments to rebut what’s been said. In cases like this, our listening efficiency drops to near zero. (U of Missouri Extension, again).
I know this is true because I listened to sermons this way for years. I’d hear some mistake in Biblical scholarship, or some sloppy theology, and BOOM! My frustrated inner preacher would be going OFF. I’d never be mentally present for God to speak to through those services. What a waste!
The Bible is full of difficult passages. God rarely has easy answers for our personal problems, our church controversies, our real world dilemmas. The Word of God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And we are going to be afflicted sometimes. The Word of God evokes not just thoughts, but emotions. And some of them are uncomfortable. It is an act of faith and a practice of self - discipline to note where you disagree, or want to argue, but then NOT TO DO IT! Listening coaches say, jot down the sticking point, but then listen to the rest before you start to figure out how to argue your case To keep listening, and postpone acceptance or rejection of the message until you really get the whole thing. Until you are sure that you understand, and have tried to figure out how what you have heard could possibly be. .
Samuel said “Speak, Lord” and then he didn’t say another word until he had heard God out. Is that easy? Not for me. But I’m going to try to get better at it, because I long to be a better listener. I want to strengthen this vertical habit.
But the real good news, the amazing thing about God that the story of Samuel tells us has little to do with developing our skills for listening to God. Hopefully we can express interest. Hopefully, we can learn to hear God out. But the best thing, the most important thing about this story is that God lovingly, insistently and repeatedly initiates the vertical contact with Samuel.
We worship a God who, not once, not twice, but over and over again speaks our name and calls out to us in the night. This is a God who does not give up when we misunderstand, or get up and go in the wrong direction. God patiently tries again and again to open a conversation, to hear and to be heard.
Today we celebrate, with Christians around the world, the meal in which Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples about the lengths to which we would go to show his love and his connection to us. He said, “This bread is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant poured out in my blood.” They didn’t understand. Not right away. And neither do we. But God just keeps inviting us to conversation with him, inviting us to the table, until finally by the grace of his Holy Spirit we respond, “Speak, Lord. Your servants are listening. We’re listening to You.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

World Communion Sunday - Oct. 7!

One of my favorite celebrations of the church year is World Communion Sunday.
In looking at worship resources, I ran across this photo essay. If you have 5 minutes, you gotta see this! It's called "What the World Eats" and you will be fascinated.,29307,1626519,00.html
My suggestion -
Use it as a devotional. Pray for these families and pray that, on Oct. 7, we might be blessed with a sense of belonging to one family as we eat at one table.

More thoughts on "Why?"

At the men's Tuesday morning coffee group, which includes several veterans, the talk turned to Ken Burn's PBS documentary on World War II. Apparently, the show is quite frank about the brutality and horrors of that conflict. One of the men said, And people never seem to learn! That's one of the "why?"s we have to ask God: "Why don't people learn? Why do we keep making war?"

Monday, October 1, 2007

Why? - The Lament Sermon - VH #3

Scripture: Psalm 137
(The Melodian’s Reggae arrangement)

Vertical Habits are about phrases that we use to strengthen our connection and communication with God. “I Love You” is the basis for our relationship. We need to hear this phrase and say it. “I’m Sorry” is what we say when we enter God’s presence. And we need to repent our faults and failings and receive his forgiveness and love.
Both those phrases are regular parts of the worship service – Praise and Confession. Look in your bulletin every week . . . .
This week we are going to examine a Vertical Habit that we often leave out of worship, and may even leave out of our private prayers. It is the habit of coming to God questioning “Why?”
Why, O God, have you let this horrible thing happen to me?
Why does my life suddenly seem so short?
Why do I feel so alone?
Why have the people I thought were my friends stabbed me in the back?
Why is there this suffering in the world?

The vertical habit of why is not the innocent child’s curiosity – Why is the sky blue? But the pain of country song “why do the stars keep on shining”
We call this “why” lament.
And though we do not practice this habit every time we gather for worship, when we look into God’s word, the Bible, and particularly at the Psalms, the Songbook for God’s people, we see that Why? is one of the primary ways people have addressed God and connected to God through the generations and the years. Anger, bewilderment, sorrow and grief, these are the feelings that get expressed in lament – in connecting to God through “Why?”

Maybe life is going well for you right now. I hope so. Maybe you didn’t come to church this morning with an ache in your heart so deep it fills your eyes with tears. Maybe you haven’t suffered the loss of a loved one. Maybe your social and emotional bank account is well in the black. Maybe your real bank account is nicely padded, too. Maybe you don’t watch the news, and Guantanemo, Anbar, Myanmar are just places that seem very far away. Maybe the subject of lament just seems like sort of a downer. Well. I’m glad if your conversation with God can be more upbeat right now. But you might want to file this away for some rainy day. Even if there’s not a cloud in your sky right now, storms do rise. They do rise.

One storm, in which lament is appropriate, is the storm of fear in the face of weakness and death. Hear how the Psalmist addresses God with that fear:

How long, O Lord?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
put the light back in my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.

That’s Psalm 13.
There are circumstances in our lives which cause us to fear that the pain we feel is going to go on forever, that the heartache is going to blot out years of our lives. The first year of grief is often an unrelenting ordeal. Everytime the tide of sadness seems to ebb, another anniversary comes along, another holiday meal with an empty spot at the table, another reminder of what might have been. And it washes over everything again. How long must I bear this? We wonder. How long can we bear this?

And what if we can’t? Most times in our lives, the fact that it will be over someday doesn’t enter into our thinking. But when it does, doesn’t it sound like this: Psalm 22 expresses it this way:

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax, it is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a broken piece of pottery,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaw; I have one foot in the grave.

Human weakness and fear are occasions for lament.

So is betrayal by enemies, or even worse, by those we love.

Psalm 3 says,
O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
Psalm 55 is more graphic:
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, for they bring trouble upon me.
And in anger they cherish enmity against me.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worse pain is what comes from someone we used to love. Again, Psalm 55:
If it were an enemy who taunted me, then I could bear it.
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him.
But it is my equal, my companion, my familiar friend.

And with the pain, there is anger:
We used to hold sweet conversations together
Within God’s house, even we walked in fellowship.
Let death come upon them! Let them go down to Sheol alive!
Let them die, screaming in terror!
Betrayal brings out the most primal response – an instinct for revenge and retribution. When you get betrayed, nobody tells you that’s coming. A person could wonder if they were going crazy, losing their mind or their heart, or their faith to think such malicious thoughts. But there it is – right there in the Good Book. It’s not evil or crazy or abnormal. It’s lament. It’s part of asking “Why?” to ask “Why is that two faced backstabber still walking around? Why don’t you strike him dead? Soon.”

Perhaps the most painful and difficult “Why?” to utter is the one we have to ask when we blame God for the bad things that befall us.
Psalm 88 –
Thou hast caused my companions to shun me;
Though hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;’
My eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon thee, O Lord, Do you want my ghost to praise you?
Am I supposed to declare your steadfast love from the grave?

“Raging at God is a part of the Hebrew tradition,” theologians Kenneth Mitchell and Herbert Anderson write, (All our Losses, All our Griefs) “The psalms of lament are filled with anger at God.”

Sometimes it is personal and individual, as it seems to be in Psalm 88 – “Why is this happening to me?” but often the question is asked with the whole people of God in mind. The Why question is “Why have bad things happened to people who did not deserve them?”

When the Psalms were being written and recorded, God’s people were often being attacked and sometimes conquered militarily and politically. Some of the Psalms reflect a lament about the world situation and what happens to those who lack power to defend themselves:

Psalm 129 – “Sorely have they afflicted Israel from its youth. The plowers plowed upon his back. Long and deep are their furrows.”

Lament is a way to speak with God about the many and tragic situations in the world in which deep wounds are being opened, and reopened like furrows under a plow, or earth cratered a bomb.

One of the most poignant and beautiful Psalms speaks in unbelievably current accents of the tragedy and lost- ness of those who have lost home and hope. How many refugees have been created by Katrina? How many more in Iraq. And Palestine. And Sudan.

Psalm 137 is a refugee song of lament: Listen to it.
By the river of Babylon, where we sat down
And there we wept when we remembered Zion
The wicked carried us away into captivity, and required of us a song
But how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

It’s enough to break your heart, this lament business. But it doesn’t, does it? And that’s the amazingly graceful thing:

That weeping, shouting, raging at God with our “Why” questions does not damage or destroy our connection with God. We might expect that it would, for if we yelled and complained to each other in such stark terms, it would surely cause a rift. But, with God, the lament preserves and strengthens the bond between us.

One way that works is that honest expression draws us closer. In lament we do not attempt to hide any part of our lives from God, but we let it all come out, as naturally as a child expresses grief over a skinned knee or bruised feelings by crying in his Mother’s arms.

But there is more to it than that. And that is why we need to practice this vertical habit using the Psalms as our coach and guide. Because when we look to the Prayer book of God’s people we find that laments are hardly ever offered unalloyed complaint. If you’ll look back at any of the Psalms we’ve read this morning, you’ll find that, as Calvin Seminary’s John Witvliet writes, “Laments, to be sure begin with a cry against the painfulness of individual tragedy, a cry against the injustices of society. But laments almost never stay there. Having voiced our pain and struggle, laments then recite God’s mighty deeds on our behalf. Lament’s give voice to our pain but lead us out of that pain by God’s strength. This is the very pattern of our everyday living: from struggle to praise, from pain to remembering God’s faithful good ness, from injustice to awe and wonder at the divine majesty.” (The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, p. 32)

The connection to God isn’t accomplished by overwhelming the lament with the praise, drowning out the sad music with something more upbeat.
It is in practicing and acting out, until we finally believe in our hearts what we have spoken with our lips – that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus prayed Psalm 22 as he hung on a cross, who said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” just at the point he was demonstrating, even unto death, he would never forsake us.
To ask why of God is to find that God’s own being-with-us is itself the answer.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Here, Read This

Sometimes my friend PeaceBang just hits the nail right on the head. Check this out.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More on "I'm sorry"

Just one story I couldn't fit in the sermon, although I really wanted to:
The great conductor, Arturo Toscinini was presiding at a rehearsal and one of his violins was just awful. The conductor chewed this poor guy up one side and down the other, thoroughly humiliating him in the process. Finally the hapless musician can't take any more. He stands up, tucks his fiddle under his arm, and marches toward the stage door. But, just as he gets there, he turns to Toscinini and yells, "Well, nuts to you!!!!" And Toscinini answers, "No! It's too late for apologies!"

Friday, September 21, 2007

Presbytery - What a funny way to tell God we love him

I got up at 4:22 am and drove to Marion, IL yesterday for Presbytery.
We welcomed 4 new ministers to the Presbytery, and said goodbye to two who are retiring. It was good for me to listen to the speeches about the retirees. I don't plan to retire, but if I do, I definately want some speeches!
We talked about what the essential tenets of the Reformed Faith are. We looked at a packet that spelled out 5 "essential tenets" and 4 or 5 "reformed distinctives" that I think might be helpful to Session and Deacons to spell out what Presbyterians believe. But the Presbytery as a whole was reluctant to adopt this formulation, for fear that people will think that then they don't have to read the whole Book of Confessions. (You think I'm kidding, but I'm not.) And some folks are fearful that spelling it out will make us prone to becoming fundametalist about it. Judgemental, you know.
I didn't want to adopt the paper as it was presented, but I do think that with a little softening and clarification it could be interesting and helpful. But, clearly, it was not to be.
Otherwise, we heard about some cool things churches in the Presbytery are doing, and had a worship service and called it a day.
I don't quite "get" Presbytery. But I'm learning to roll with the punches.

I Love You More

Is that the name of that children's book with the Mama and Baby Rabbit who try to outdo one another in declarations of love?
They start out small - spreading their arms, "I love you this much." But it escalates:
"I love you to the moon."
"I love you to the moon and back."
Until the baby rabbit becomes so exhausted that Mama Rabbit tucks him into bed and kisses him goodnight. And the last picture is of her cuddling the sleeping Baby.
"I love you this much."
It's one of those profoundly theological children's books. Have you read it?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More "I Love You"s

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
Psalm 62:3
Experiencing love and reflecting that love back to God in adoration and praise are two strands, spun together, that make up this "vertical habit". (I think I said that more clearly in the children's sermon than in the longer version on Sunday.)
The Psalmist said it in an even shorter and sweeter version!
Here's your love quote for the day:

I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world . . .
The one who loves is a participant in the being of God.
-The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - "The Most Durable Power"
So another way to check on our vertical habit would be to ask,
"How did I participate in the being of God today?"

Monday, September 17, 2007

Vertical Habits

While we are talking about "vertical habits" - I thought it would be a good idea to try to post a thought or prayer each day to encourage us to keep practicing these phrases with God.

This week the phrase is "I Love You". Do you have a favorite saying or story that reminds you to express your love to God? It would be great if we could share those on this site.

Some of you have mentioned that you don't feel comfortable posting. (Finding a name, figuring out how . . . various reasons.) If you'd like you could email me your thoughts (you shy ones have my email!) and I could copy them here with or without your name. You have wonderful thoughts and perspectives to share. I want to encourage you to encourage one another.

Here's a thought for today from a great preacher:

The world is too dangerous for anything but truth
and too small for anything but love.
- William Sloane Coffin

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Contemporary Worship

Last night was our first foray into shared "contemporary" worship. It was at Tolono, and it seemed like we made a good start. Jennifer (Little - Tolono's interim pastor) designed the service, which included some singing, some praying, a skit about the theme of the service - "Wake Up", scripture, a message and more singing. It was a worshipful time for me, and for the dozen (maybe 15) folks who came.
In October we're doing a coffee house style service at Philo Pres. I'm planning and putting together, so if you have any thoughts . . . I'd welcome your input.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pic at last

The wonders of technology, in this case digital photography, should increase our happiness by decreasing our frustration, right?

For instance - in the days of SLR 35 mm photography, how long would it have taken to share this picture with you? The person (Margaret K., bless her heart) who took the picture would have finished the roll, taken it to the store or mailed it in, gone back in a day or so to pick up the prints, chosen the best picture, taken it and the negative back to the developer for more prints, put one of those prints in an envelope and either mailed it to you, or brought it to church for you to pick up. How long would that have taken? Days. At least. Possibly weeks. (I've found rolls of film that have been lying around for years. But I'm unusually bad about stuff like that. )

My point is that it would have been a long time between snapping the picture and viewing it.

But now - here it is. Three days later. Amazing.

But I wanted it sooner. Technology seems to be shrinking my patience in direct proportion to the speed with which it gets things done.
PS Aren't they cute kids? And such a pretty picture!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Rally Day Highlights

I hope to have pictures to post soon. The best one will be the "window" that the Sunday School kids created over the summer. It is beautiful. They all gathered around it during the children's sermon and Margaret took their picture. I think there were 16 of them . . .

Windows on the World/Who is My Neighbor

The simplest answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbor” is that your neighbor is who you see when you look out the window.
Or maybe, your neighbor is who can see you when they look in. When I first moved to Philo, a parishioner took me aside and said, “Pastor Cindy, let me give you some advice, now that you will be living in the manse.” All right, I said. “Get some curtains.”
Probably good advice. It certainly got me thinking about windows and looking in and looking out.
I thought of that little exchange as I pondered our theme for Rally Day – and for the Christian Education Year – Windows on the World/Who is my Neighbor?
There aren’t a lot of window references in the Bible. Noah had a window in the ark. The spy Rehab let the spies of Jericho escape through her window. But when you get to the New Testament – the most famous window is the place where a young man sat, listening to Paul preach on and on and on. And the young man- Eutycus – fell asleep and fell out the window! This may be the reason that none of the windows in this sanctuary open!

In fact, church windows, not just our church windows, but the vast majority of church windows, are different than normal windows. Because you can’t look out of most church windows. The professor who taught my preaching seminar this summer, Scott Hoezee, finds this more than a little strange. In his book, Remember Creation, he notes that “within most church’s sanctuaries worshippers proceed through the weekly liturgy without seeing or thinking much about the outside world. We gather in buildings crafted of man made bricks, illuminated by artificial lights, and walled in by stained-glass windows – window which though lovely and rich in holy symbolism, point to heavenly things, not earthly ones. Also, the mere fact that these windows are made of stained glass – as opposed to the clear glass of most windows – prevents us from seeing God’s creation. Although the presence or absence of sunlight is noticeable through the stained-glass windows of my congregation, not much else is. There are many occasions when, upon exiting the building after worship, we are surprised to see that it had rained or snowed at some point during the service and we had been wholly unaware of it.” (p. 6-7)

Most of us know how stained glass came to be used so widely in churches: In medieval times, before the printing press, when most people in Christendom were not literate, and, even if they had been able to read, Bibles were few and far between – people could “read” stained glass windows. At a time when church services were conducted primarily in Latin, a language very few people spoke, the stories of salvation were conveyed in the illuminated windows in which people worshipped. The glories of heaven, the magnificence of the creator, the dignity of the Biblical characters, the tenderness of Jesus, the struggle of the faith, the crucial moment of judgment at the end of time. These and other truths of the faith came alive for people through stained glass art. The sun, streaming in through the pictures, made them glow with heavenly light. It wasn’t that the churches were trying to block out the view. On the contrary, they were trying to give a vision of God and his love that otherwise people might never see.

Some windows depicted scenes from the Bible. Zion Lutheran has two windows like this: One is of Jesus as the shepherd in the parable he told about the shepherd who left the 99 to search for his one lost lamb. Of course, that’s my favorite. The other one, the one on Harrison Street – is of Jesus praying, probably in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Those simple windows are seen in many churches.

Other windows told stories – panel (or lite) by panel. Here’s Noah building the ark. Here are the animals boarding. Here’s the ark on the sea. Here’s the raven and the dove. Here’s the ark on the mountain. Here’s Noah under the rainbow. Six lights – and a whole story to stick in the imagination. These narrative windows are kind of like comic books. You don’t see many in the East or the Midwest, but out in the Southwest, where Catholic missionaries built churches to proselytize the indigenous peoples, where language was still a huge barrier to understanding, you see narrative windows sometimes.

Stained glass windows were originally supposed to help people see and understand the mysteries of faith. But during the Protestant reformation, the branch of Christianity out of which Presbyterians have grown, stained glass was condemned as idolatrous, needlessly ornate, drawing attention to its own beauty rather than God. As was any church decoration that took people’s minds off the hearing of the Word. Protestants removed (often with bricks and stones) ornate stained glass windows and replaced them with plainer, less showy substitutes.

Philo Presbyterian’s windows are pretty Reformed. Mary and Chris Stasheff, the couple who came at the beginning of the summer to help our Sunday school design the art project we dedicated, helped those of us in SS understand what we have in our sanctuary.
They told us that the windows were fairly typical of rural Protestant churches in this part of the country. They are plain. The colors are the browns and greens and golds of the earth and growing things. They are windows for agricultural people. They told us that the patterns are stylized vines and lilies. They are so stylized, I didn’t even know what they were supposed to suggest – but not only are these growing things, which would have been important to people of the land – they also mean something to Christians – who remember Christ saying “I am the vine, and you are the branches”. Lilies are symbols of resurrection victory and of the trumpet that will sound, as Paul writes in Corinthians, and the dead shall be raised.

The few pictures we have on our windows are also very Presbyterian – the Bible. The Dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the Easter Lilies. The anchor cross puzzled Mary at first. She said that is most common in churches on or near a body of water. Well, I remembered one from my home church in Kingman Kansas, and I associated it with the Mariners – a group of young married people. That may not be right. I wonder – do any of you know? - If the Mariners were in existence when that window was dedicated?

Even our stained glass windows, which we can not see through, can help us see more clearly where we have come from, the saints who have gone before us, and where we are, what we have to work with, now.

Seeing ourselves more clearly is one good thing a window can do. But it’s not enough. Let’s switch to talking in a more metaphorical, spiritual vein: Windows ought to help us see our neighbors more clearly, too.

The intent of the Sunday school program this year is to find out more about neighbors – near and far – of other faiths and cultures. Supt. Mary Simon and her second in command, Teri Patton, recognize that our Sunday school students live in an increasingly global village. We will be followers of Christ if we learn how to be good neighbors to those who live and believe differently than we do. I hope our students will share with us what they learn about Islam and Judaism and Eastern religions. I hope that they will help us see that people who seem strange to us are also our neighbors.

That was, of course, what Jesus tells us when he answers the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” By telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Surprise! Jesus says, “Your neighborhood is bigger than you thought.”

Jesus is always pushing back boundaries and removing walls. He’s always remodeling our spiritual house – whether we think of that as the church, or as each one of our souls.
The medieval theologian, Augustine, wrote a beautiful short prayer:
"O Christ, My soul is like a house, small for you to enter,
but I pray you to enlarge it."

This year in Sunday school, Jesus will be installing new windows. We want our children to have houses with lots of windows, with light streaming into their lives and brightening their routines from dawn till dusk.
We want our children to have lives that are open to the world, that are neither fortresses nor prisons. The priest and the Levite were “saved” (safe) but also pitifully limited by the spiritual homes they had made for themselves.
We want our children to be able to look out and see God’s world. Sometimes what they see will be beautiful and harmonious – like the rural scene they depicted on their art project. Sometimes the creation will be suffused with heavenly glory. And they’ll be moved to praise and thanksgiving.
But Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is very realistic. It doesn’t paint an overly rosy picture of what lies outside in the world. And so when our children look out and find that what they see is sad, wrong, unjust, (like the man lying in the road. Ugly. Scary. Wrong.) Then, like the Good Samaritan, like the Good Neighbor Jesus wants us all to be, they’ll be moved to acts of compassion and pity.
The world outside our stained glass window - whether it is beautiful or terrible – we want them to see - we want to see and believe - that the whole world belongs to God.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Who is my neighbor?

This is our theme for Rally Day - Who is My Neighbor: Windows on the World
Which means, I think, that I have to preach on the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
My concern is that we've heard that text twice within the last 6 months.
It was Youth Sunday this spring, and it was the text for Connie Bandy's sermon in July.
I like it and all. And I don't think texts (especially Jesus' stories!) ever get "squeezed dry" of meaning. I'm sure there's more in there. I just worry that when everybody hears the story (AGAIN?) they'll turn off their hearing aids. What do you think?
The actual lectionary texts are great this week. Philemon. Luke 14:25-33 (counting the cost of discipleship) and Jeremiah 18:1-11 (God is the potter, we are the clay). Hard to resist any or all of those, but I don't see Neighbors with Windows there. Maybe I'll ponder some more. I don't really have to have the hymns picked til tomorrow.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Turning the Tables

This was Sunday's sermon/communion meditation.
The text is Luke 14:1, 7-14

How many people have email? And how many of you have received a message from Ms. Mary Williams? Or Joseph Smith? I bet you have. These people are officers in a bank in Nigeria, in charge of the accounts of a rich and corrupt government official who has died, with all his family, in a plane crash. At first Mary, or Joseph, planned to just take the money for themselves, but their conscience – of course! Their conscience! – began to bother them, and they have been led to give the millions to . . . guess who? a church. All I have to do is send them the bank account numbers, so that they can transfer these funds. Now, like me, you probably just delete those messages, probably before even reading them all the way through. But, incredible as it seems, enough US citizens are conned by this sort of thing that $200 million dollars is lost to this fraud.
But recently I heard about someone - a man named Mike - who wasn’t content to just delete the message and go on. Instead, he wrote back, saying that he would be happy to help, but that he worked for a church that only could not do any business with people not of their faith. And signed it “Father Hector Barnett of the Church of the Painted Chest.”
Soon, of course, the scammer asked about the church and how he might join. Mike wrote back about how this church was founded by an early missionary to the Masai people in West Africa, who had painted his chest red to establish trust with those people. So everyone who joins paints their chest in a particular way. He sent a photo shopped picture and sure enough, soon received a picture of the bare-chested, painted Nigerian scammer, asking how soon Mike could send him the $18,000 processing fee for these millions. Mike said the church had plenty of money, but required an $80 withdrawal fee to access it. The scammer sent the $80.
The story goes on and on. Apparently, the correspondence is still going on. There’s something really interesting about a situation in which someone “turns the table” on someone else.

That’s what we love so much about what happened in Ann Arbor yesterday. The Michigan Football Team, like many other big, rich football programs around the country, opened their season yesterday by playing an opponent from the Division 1AA. A small school, which Michigan paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of beating up on the smaller, slower players. It was one of those so-called “cup cake bowls” in which the invited team has no chance at all, but comes for the money, knowing they are going to be lose. Badly.
But yesterday, Appalachian State turned the tables on Michigan. Rather than being embarrassed – like the 94 pound weakling at the beach who gets sand kicked in his face by some big muscle man – the little guys embarrassed #5 Michigan. It was a classic case of turning the tables.

The expression “turn the tables” is really really old in English, and none of my usual sources of etymological wisdom could say where the expression came from. But you know what it means: When two people, or two groups, are in a situation and one of them seems to be in charge, directing and controlling things, then the other person does something to reverse the positions and take the lead . . . that’s turning the tables. When the scammer gets scammed. When the cupcake makes the big guy look like a Twinkie.

One of the cool things about our scripture lesson this morning is that in it Jesus “turns the tables” not once, not twice, but three times!
The first time the tables are turned, the Pharisees who have invited him to dinner are closely watching him, They are watching with squinted up eyes and bated breath, for Jesus to betray himself.
But verse 7 says, that, while they were watching for something that wasn’t there, Jesus had been casually, but keenly observing them, too. He’s seen how they are jockeying for position, trying to get the best seat, trying to make themselves look important, trying to get a leg up on the social ladder. He notices the games they play to curry favor with one another. All their petty little jibes, all their scheming to undercut their rivals. He sees it all. Jesus turns the tables on the guests at the dinner party.
Jesus turns the tables and sees them much more clearly than his dinner companions see him.

I wonder how seriously we take this “turning of the tables” that Jesus does. It seems to me that we in the church do an awful lot of talking about looking to Jesus. Maybe that is good. But, occasionally at least, the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, “What does Jesus see when he looks at us?”

The second instance in which Jesus turns the tables is when Jesus offers some very old, very good advice to the guests at the party. Now, most parties we have here in the Midwest are pretty casual affairs. Usually, we go through a buffet and sit wherever there is an empty seat. Sitting beside the host is less important that sitting by someone who will laugh at our jokes. But dinner parties in Jesus’ day were very status conscious affairs. The banquet table was arranged in a U shape. The host sat (or reclined) in the curve of the U. The most important guest sat to his right. The next most important sat to his left. And people arranged themselves by rank accordingly. It was really a bad faux-pas to take a higher seat that you should. And being asked to move down a bit would be public and very humiliating.
So Jesus advises them to turn the tables themselves: to take a lower place at the table than would rightfully be theirs, and wait for the host to say, “Friend, come up higher.”
This is not really very revolutionary advice. It’s found in the book of Proverbs and in the Apocryphal book of Sirach. It’s like “How to Get Ahead without Really Trying” type advice.
Jesus turns the tables by showing that He knows more about how to get honor and how to play the social game than the social climbers he’s with at dinner.
But it’s a game he doesn’t consider worth playing. Instead, he just uses it to point to the character of the kingdom of God: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Now we know it doesn’t always work out that way in this life. It seems that often times the bullies get the best seats, and the meek are left standing in the back. God says he’s going to take care of that someday.
But it seems to me that the rare occasions on which a person who humbles himself is exalted on this earth, that it is a sign of the kingdom shining through. It’s a little epiphany of what is to come. So, for me it was a religious experience when I opened the paper on Tuesday night and saw that Jim Evans had been honored with an Abraham Lincoln Excellence in Agriculture Award. Jim would never in a million years have wanted me to say anything about that in church. And I wouldn’t, except that I want everyone to see how God exalts the folks he says he’ll exalt – those who put others before themselves. Some people will not know that honor until heaven. But God keeps us hopeful by signs like this one on earth. We ought to rejoice and be thankful, and be encouraged to trust that God will keep his promises.
The humble will be exalted and the tables will be turned.

After advising the guests on their manners, Jesus turns to advise the host that when he is having a dinner party, he shouldn’t invite his friends and neighbors and family. Those people are in a position to invite him right back.
Jesus advises the host to invite those who are poor and blind and disabled. They can never repay the host’s hospitality.
There are two ways to understand what this means for us: The first is that, as Jesus’ agents, the church should be careful to invite those who we might not want to put very high on our guest list. If we were drawing up a guest list – people we’d love to have here in this church, we’d probably come up with folks that would add a lot to the church, and not require very much from us. Jesus’ advice to the host is a clear warning against explicitly or implicitly being choosey about whom we invite.
But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. The Gospel is not about what we do, or what we should do, or what we’d like to do. The Gospel is about what God has done, and I think that’s what this advice to the host is about.
How many times does Jesus say, “The Kingdom of God is like a banquet . . .”? And in the kingdom of God, who is the Host? In the kingdom of God, the host has issued an engraved invitation to those who can never repay his hospitality. When Jesus turns the table, it is to invite us to take a seat.
Those who are poor, whose “hostess gift” is the tiniest token of a poor little life.
Those who are crippled, by the pain of unhappy families, by the memories of unkind words, who come to the table so disabled they can barely feed themselves.
Those who are lame, hobbled by regrets over the dream that died, the potential that was wasted, who slowly and painfully limp to the party.
Those who are blind, who do not see what God is doing in their lives, who do not see in each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
Those who do not deserve a place at the table are invited and encouraged to come. Those people who are invited – those people are us. We come to this table as honored guests, not because we deserve to be here. But because at Christ’s table,
we are invited to share
in the bread of life and
the cup of salvation
that we could never earn and never can repay. Thanks be to our Host, Jesus Christ

More name games

That last story reminded me of my second Sunday at Philo Pres. I stood at the back door, shaking hands and greeting the congregation as they left. There weren't very many of them, and I was proud to be able to use most of their names.
But here came a couple whose names I didn't have down.
"Good morning! Good to worship with you!" I said. "Will you please help me? I'm sorry, but will you tell me your name again?"
And the man growled his name. "How many times are we going to have to go through this?"
I remember his name.

I can name that person in . . . 5 seconds!

Yesterday, my dear mother treated Chris, Caleb and me to the CU Symphony Benefit Car show. It was a nice event. Phil (the boy's dad) is in town and he went along. And it was one of those events where you see alot of people you sort of know, or used to know, but don't really know. Ya' know?
One of Chris' high school teachers recognized him. I could come up with the first name (Greg) but couldn't get the last name for nothin'. I stayed out of that conversation, though when Chris finished talking and rejoined Caleb and me, he told me the name and immediately I could remember what subject the guy taught, how Chris had done in his class, how he ran Parent-Teacher conferences . . . all those memories hooked up to the name I couldn't summon.
About five minutes later, I was the one with the name. I looked down (she's short) and there was someone whose first and last names came right out. She didn't know me from Adam, but when I told her my name, she did. We chatted, and she asked me if that was Phil standing not too far away. (I wondered who else in the world could it be? He doesn't look like anybody else! Except maybe his children, who are much better looking, due to MY genes being mixed in!)
Anyway, I said that yes, it was Phil. And she said, "I'm going to go see if he remembers me!" and bolted over there. I followed as fast as I could, but she was little and fast and she arrived at his side with her mouth moving, so I didn't have the opportunity to say, "Phil, look who I found: Mary Smith!" And of course he didn't know her. I managed to work her first name into a sentence. But I don't think he'd ever known much more than her name, and he couldn't come up with that now.
And I was struck with how interested she was in him knowing her. He asked a very generic question about how she was, and she responded with details about her recent life that demonstrated that she thought he knew exactly who she was. It was something to behold.
How hungry we are to be known! How eager to share who we are with someone we think we know. Or used to know. Or thought we knew. How important that, no matter what happens to us or to them or to the world we used to share, they still know our name.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Text for Sunday, Sept. 2

The Gospel is Luke 14:1, 7-14
In it, Jesus has advice for hosts and guests at dinner parties. The guests are advised to sit in a less "prestigious" chair rather than grabbing a place of honor. Then the host can say to them, "Friend, come up higher!"
Interestingly enough, the week after our Rural Life Sunday celebration, I opened the evening paper to find that one of our members was honored at the Farm Progress Show, with the Abraham Lincoln National Agriculture Award.
Jim Evans was one of five people so honored - the others being Denny Hastart, former US Ag. Secretary John Block, etc. etc. Big name company.
So . . . in church on Sunday we celebrated Rural Life and farmers, without even knowing that in the third pew back on the north side of the sanctuary we had a person who was honored for his contributions to agriculture at a very high level. Amazing.
I don't know anyone else in all of creation who would have been able to keep quiet if they had been awarded a big prize like that. Jim is amazing.

p.s. If you scroll down to picture below, Jim is 2nd from the left, in the bucket hat. Do you suppose he got a new stovepipe hat, as an Abe Lincoln Award winner?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Rural Life Sunday

Just a few pictures, for those of you who couldn't be at the Moore's farm for the afternoon events:

The weather was perfect for sitting in the shade and visiting. Jim Evans brought extra caps and issues of AG MAG (a newletter from the Farm Bureau) so we could all dress the part and learn something new about agriculture.
Frank explained his grain handling system to several interested listeners.

Horse back riding was a hit.

So were rides in a wagon, a tractor and the golf cart.

The kids also played basketball in the "shed" and explored other machinery.

All in all, a good time was had by all, many thanks to Janice and Frank Moore, Celeste Taylor, and Jim and Marlene Evans!!!