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 na├»ve. 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.