Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Sermon preached on December 21, the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Text: Luke 1:26-38

This sermon is based around two characters. Here is the first one:

“Be very very quiet - - - haaaaaaa…..” Of course, Elmer Fudd wanted quiet because it was hunting season – duck or rabbit.
Elmer Fudd’s words are not easy to observe. We live in a decidedly noisy society. And we keep thinking of ways to make it noisier. Have you ever felt frustrated when you were trying to call someone on their cell phone, and they did not answer right away? Haven’t our expectations for being able to talk with someone risen dramatically? It has become so much easier to carry around large quantities of music. I can carry around all the Beatles music on a small Mp3 player. When I first started buying music to listen to, it would have required carrying around a stack of record albums, and then something to play them on – a portable turntable. Our cars are equipped with CD players, Mp3 players, some still have cassette tape decks, they have radios. When we shop at the stores, many have background music playing continually. It is not that difficult to conceive of an entire waking day without a time when there is no human produced noise.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once defined religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness” (Religion in the Making in Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology, 472). What would Whitehead, who lived in the early part of the twentieth century make of our time when quiet solitariness is at a premium?
In our noisy world, this is a noisy season. The music in the stores is Christmas music. At least two Duluth radio stations have gone with an all-Christmas music format. We hear bell ringers standing by Salvation Army kettles. People sing for others in Christmas caroling. These are all good things, and they add to the noise of our world. Maybe because we live in such a noisy world, some of my favorite Christmas songs are quiet ones – Vince Guaraldi, “Christmas Time is Here,” “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Even so, I can play them often enough so that I leave myself little sense of quiet.
I think our lack of quiet is problematic. I would argue that a measure of quietness, stillness, solitude are essential as we prepare to open our lives to the Christ anew – which is what this season of Advent is all about. Quiet, solitude, stillness are not only important for Advent, they are vital to Christian spiritual life. To be sure, different people have different needs for such quiet, but I can’t think of anyone whose life and relationship to God and the world would not benefit from a measure of quiet.
This brings me to the second person who frames this morning's sermon

This is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 painting “The Annunciation.” Tanner was the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. The annunciation story is what we read from Luke today, the story of how the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce that she is favored by God and will bear a special child.
The Mary portrayed in Luke’s gospel is a model for a person of Christian faith. She has an encounter with God and opens herself to God’s purpose for her life and the world. She is willing to be a part of God’s impossible possibilities.
Notice one phrase in particular in this story. The angel Gabriel greets her and it says, “but she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (v. 29). One thing I really like about Tanner’s painting is that it evokes that feeling of quiet, stillness, wonder, pondering. The presence of God through the messenger Gabriel is so wonderfully done. Mary takes all this in, ponders, acts. She followed God’s way out of a quiet and still center.
Advent is a good time to remind ourselves of the importance of a little quiet, a little stillness, a little pondering in our own live. In the rest of this morning’s sermon, I want to offer testimonies to quietness, stillness, pondering.
Charles S. Peirce is well-known to students of American philosophy, but perhaps not to many others. He deeply influenced William James. He believed that at its heart Christian faith was a way of life defined by love. In one of his essays on God, Peirce wrote about the importance of what he called “musement” (Selected Writings, 360), the pure play of the mind. Peirce was convinced that as people engaged in this kind of thinking, the idea of God would become more convincing. In the Pure Play of Musement the idea of God’s Reality will be sooner or later to be found an attractive fancy, which the Muser will develop in various ways. The more he ponders it, the more it will find response in every part of his mind, for its beauty, for its supplying an ideal of life, and for its thoroughly satisfactory explanation of his whole environment. (365) Because of the promise of taking time to ponder, to muse, Peirce recommended the practice highly. Enter your skiff of Musement, push off into the lake of thought, and leave the breath of heaven to swell your sail. With your eyes open, awake to what is about or within you, and open conversation with yourself; for such is all meditation. (362)
St. Hesychios was the abbot of the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush at Sinai, probably sometime in the eighth or ninth century. His work, “On Watchfulness and Holiness” is a part of the Philokalia, the remarkable collection of Christian spiritual writings from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Hesychios thought one important aspect of “watchfulness” is “freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still” (volume 1, p. 164). Of this practice he writes, “Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace” (165).
Parker Palmer is a teacher, author and lecturer. In one of his early works, The Company of Strangers, Palmer wrote about people of Christian faith and the renewal of public life. His words remain powerful as we seek to renew public life yet again in the United States. Christians need to engage the world to foster community, to work for peace, to build justice. Such action, Palmer argues is “promising, important, even obligatory for Christians” (154). We miss an important part of the annunciation story if we miss its political side. There is a child to be born, a child who will rule, a child who will be called “Son of God.” Well, according to the ruling Roman power, there was already one born son of god, and that one was the emperor. Why would God choose this young, poor woman in backwater Palestine to give birth to God’s new thing? Wouldn’t it make more sense to work with the powerful government in Rome? In the song that follows shortly after the verses we read today, it says that God is one who brings down the powerful from their thrones, who scatters the proud, who fills the hungry with good things. We call this song of Mary, the Magnificat. Action for justice is part of this story.
But Palmer is concerned that we not become overly busy doing all the time. My hope, as a Christian, is grounded not in our own ability to solve problems but in God’s love, God’s justice, God’s promise of fidelity to us…. If we are to know hope in God’s will , then inward quest is necessary, for it is inwardly, in the stillness of prayer and contemplation, that God’s word is most often clearly heard…. If our public action is not to lead to burn-out and despair, the inward quest is necessary once more, for it is inwardly that we renew the wellsprings of faith which sustain action. (154-155) Out of the quiet of her pondering, Mary said “yes” to God and God’s work of love, beauty and justice.
Writer Annie Dillard shares a story about living for a time on a farm on an island in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington (“A Field of Silence” in Teaching a Stone to Talk). She writes about it with a beauty and thoughtfulness that is uniquely hers, and those of you who have read Annie Dillard know what I am talking about. But she shares of an experience she had one morning and of its aftermath. Standing looking at the fields around the farm, she writes, The silence gathered and struck me. It bashed me broadside from the heavens above me like yard goods; ten acres of fallen invisible sky choked the fields. The pastures on either side of the road turned green in a surrealistic fashion, monstrous, impeccable, as if they were holding their breaths…. All the things of the world – the fields and the fencing, the road, a parked orange truck – were stricken and self-conscious. A world pressed down on their surfaces, a world battered just within their surfaces, and that real world, so near to emerging, had got stuck. There was only silence. I hope you get some sense of this profound experience of the silence, one that was almost oppressive to Dillard at the time. Only later she would say something remarkable. Several months later, walking past the farm on the way to a volleyball game, I remarked to a friend, by way of information, “There are angels in those fields.”… I’ve rarely been so surprised at something I’ve said…. I had never thought of angels, in any way at all….From that time I began to think of angels. I considered that sights such as I had seen of the silence must have been shared by the people who said they saw angels. I began to review the thing I had seen that morning. My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits – spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at the time – thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernable to the eye, and whirling…. Their motion was clear… and their beauty unspeakable. Out of silence, Annie Dillard finds herself in touch with a profound sense of divine beauty and mystery.
One night a number of years ago I was driving home to Alexandria, Minnesota from leading a church conference somewhere north and west of Park Rapids. Snow had started falling as I left and it got heavier and heavier as I drove. The highway that would take me into Park Rapids, and lead toward home, skirted the edge of Itasca State Park. I wanted to try and get home that night, and so was making the best time I could. In one stretch of highway, with tall pines becoming covered with a blanket of bright new snow, and the large flakes falling with a beauty and grace no movie could replicate, and the road becoming covered with snow, I had this strong sense that I should pull to the side of the road and get out of the car – just for a while. I steered my car to the shoulder and turned it off, leaving the lights on in case another car should come by, though there was none in sight. I got out of the car and stood there, listening to the silence – no cars, no music, no phone, only the wind blowing through the trees, blowing the snow around. To try and put words to what I felt seems to betray the experience. There was something of God in that moment for me, and sometimes when I am struggling with a day, I try and remember that moment, for it was only a few moments before I got back in the car and headed for home, I try and remember that moment – the quiet, the stillness, the aloneness yet not feeling alone.
Carve out a few moments of quietness, stillness, pondering, musement this Advent. See if the Christ does not find a new way to be born into your life this Christmas.

(The sermon was followed by a time of silent prayer. A gong was used before and after the silence)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Edison Stole the Idea

Sermon preached on Sunday December 14

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Someone recently shared with me a number of notes children wrote to God. They are wonderful and I will share them with you from time to time. Here are just a couple. Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that o.k.? Neil 2: Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry. 3: We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday School they said you did it. So I bet he stoled your idea. Sincerely, Donna.
So Thomas Edison stole the idea of light! Of course Edison did not invent light, so I guess it makes no sense to accuse him of stealing from God. Instead he figured out a way to have electric current flow through a carbon filament to create light out of electricity. This occurred in the late 1870s. Until that time, and for many years afterward, until electricity was brought to nearly every area of the country, people burned oil lamps or candles for light once darkness had descended. Light in darkness, maybe Edison stole that idea from the writer of John’s gospel, for he uses it quite a bit.
Surrounding the passage we read today about John the Baptist, the writer of the gospel (who is not the John who is John the Baptist) says things like all things came into being through the Word, including life – “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light, darkness, life – if you read John’s gospel you will encounter these themes again and again. The gospel writer uses the images in chapter one to say that something wonderful and awe-inspiring and life-giving and life-changing and history-changing has happened. He wants to say that God has been at work in a wonderful way, that God has touched our lives and our world in the life of a man named Jesus. It is like light shining in the darkness.
We need to use this image with care and with intelligence. We use it with care because such images have reinforced racial stereotypes, and that is not what they are about. Darkness in the Bible can be a frightening, dangerous place, but also a place where God is found in unique ways. John uses it to describe a kind of life that is less than life, a life filled with fear, a life blind to beauty and possibility. John, the gospel writer writes centuries before Edison, during a time when darkness was terribly dark. Once the sun set, there were no street lights to illumine dark places. If you wanted to see at night inside, you needed to burn candles or oil, but these might be in short supply, especially if you were poor. In the dark, those who would do you harm might feel freer to strike. The darkness could be a time of violence and robbery. Even today, people are cautioned if they are out well after dark to walk in lighted places. The gospel writer uses a common, everyday image to try and share something about what God has done in the life of Jesus – brought light and life into a dark world.
It is almost redundant then to share this story about John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s function is the same as the writer’s function – to testify to the light. God can be at work in the world, but God is always looking for people to share the story, to witness, to testify. God always calls people to see, to hear, to pay attention, and then to tell others about where God is at work.
The dynamic of God inviting people to witness, to testify, has a long history in the Bible before the Gospel of John. John the gospel writer, in fact, turns to an older biblical text to describe the testifying and witnessing work of John the Baptist. He is like the voice of one crying in the wilderness – a quote from Isaiah 40. Isaiah also writes about a person filled with the Spirit sent to bring good news. This could be John the Baptist too. God’s movement in the world, God’s Spirit touching lives, is meant to be witnessed. Good news is meant to be shared. The good news of Christian faith is that light of God’s love shines into the darkness of our lives and our world. The good news of Christian faith is that God continues to inspire so that the oppressed are given justice, the brokenhearted are healed, the captives are set free, those who mourn are comforted, faint spirits are strengthened. Peter Gomes from Harvard has said succinctly that the good news is “You don’t have to be as you are” (The Christian Century, December 15, 2008, p. 37). I would add, “The world doesn’t have to be as it is.” Such good news needs a witness. Such good news needs one to testify on its behalf.
I can testify to the light of God’s love. I can witness to the difference God’s grace, God’s love makes in a human life. I have not shared a great deal about the family I grew up in, in large measure because I know some of you know my parents. I intend to remain somewhat circumspect about this, but for me to testify to the power of God’s love in my life, you need to know a little bit about my background.
My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties. I don’t think it would be sharing too much to say that the tensions which resulted in that divorce were felt in our family for a number of years. It added some challenges to growing up. As I have learned more about my family history, I know that there are issues going back further than my parent’s marital tensions. Both sets of grandparents had alcohol problems, though they were significantly less pronounced in my grandmother who is still living at age 96. Alcohol contributed to the deaths of my other three grandparents and to my mom’s brother – who died in his late 50s. Who can say what those issues ended up contributing to my own parent’s marital discord. In the past few weeks, I have heard a story that goes even further back in my family history. My great-grandmother, who lived to be 94 and who I remember well, in fact she died twenty years ago this past week, my great-grandmother divorced her husband in 1946. She was 52 and Catholic. She had been suffering from bleeding for a time, but her husband told her she would be just fine and forbid her from seeking medical attention. She worked with some of her children to come to Duluth to get the attention she needed, and she determined that she would never return to her husband.
One of the issues that divided my parents was church. My dad had been raised Catholic, but never attended church when I was growing up. My mother did not drive, but would walk us to church when we went. I suppose I could tell you I was always excited to go to church, but I was not. I remember trying to pretend I was sleeping and hoping my mom would not wake me to go to church. It was when I was in the eighth grade at my home church that I had a powerful experience of God’s love and grace, an experience that has shaped me ever since. I didn’t fall down on my knees in a flash of blinding light or go forward at a mass evangelism rally. I had a teacher who told me of God’s love and over time I became convinced of that love and believed I needed to respond. I can do all kinds of analyzing of this time in my life – tensions at home, feeling awkward at school in so many ways (it was eighth grade!) – all of that no doubt contributed to what I experienced, but I trust that God was in the midst of that, calling me by name, letting me know that I was beloved. That’s what my name in Hebrew means – David, much loved. It was at that time I first considered becoming an ordained minister.
But there was not a straight line from eighth grade to this moment standing here today. In later high school and college, I questions, I explored, I drifted. My mind expanded but my faith did not immediately follow. When Julie and I started dating in college, she was probably the more traditional Christian than me. But in the midst of all this, the church, which was not always a kind place to me as I have shared before, my church was a kind place, a welcoming place, a place that gave me room to explore – or at least welcomed me as I explored. Even as I entered seminary, it was less a vocational choice than the next step in my spiritual journey, my journey of faith. But I had been touched by a light, embraced by a love and I found my way back to that faith – a different faith perhaps, but a faith for a new day a new time in my life. Two quotes come to mind to describe this part of my journey – one I have loved for a long time and one I have just discovered.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
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
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets, 59)

The supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God
Kirk Bingamon (in Cooper-White, p. 23)

Finding my faith again, renewed, transformed, a faith able to grow, to handle questions even as it continued to question me, led to hearing a call from God to ordained ministry. I have continued to try and follow that call and the way of Jesus and Christian faith in my life. I am not perfect at it. I know those places in my life where I can be unloving. I know the struggles I have within. I know when my “spiritual disciplines” are faintly followed. The way of Jesus is a challenging way. To be open to all the world is not easy. I have never related well to those stories of faith where a person finds Jesus and then they just skate along. That’s not been true for me. What I can testify to is that there has been a powerful love in my life which continues to call me, shape me, form me, invite me to be my best self and to care about the world. Because of that love maybe I’ve been able to resist passing on some of the less helpful parts of my family history, and perhaps have passed on some better ones. I am still growing and developing, still asking questions and exploring, but I know that a light has been shined into the darkness. I know I can be different than I am now, that the rough places can be smoothed out. I know that the world can be different and I will do what I can to make it so. Like John the Baptist, I testify to the light.
You can too. You have stories to share about how God’s love has made a difference in your lives. You have stories to share about how Christian faith, the Bible, church, make a difference for you. And people need to hear your stories. One part of sharing your story is to invite others to this community of faith. Frankly it is often easier to begin with that kind of invitation than to share your whole life story with someone, but the two go together.
We invite people to church and to faith by sharing our faith story. We invite people to church because we know that there are many stories of faith to be heard, and in a way the job of testifying to the light of God’s love in our lives belongs to us all, and belongs to us all together. We share our stories and invite people here because we want others to know God’s love, to have some sense of the joy and peace and direction and even challenge we know in our lives. We invite people because we want them to know God’s love and to live God’s love with us.
In recent newsletters I have written a lot about inviting, about radical hospitality, about sharing what we have here with others. I know that this is a little uncomfortable because I have heard from some that it is. Shouldn’t the church be interested in others and not itself? You have a point there – but what if what others need as much as anything in their lives is a sense of community, a people with whom to ask questions, a place to search out their spirituality, people who will laugh with them and cry with them? Don’t we have that to offer? Why wouldn’t we offer it?
I am going to be straightforward with you. I would like to see this church grow. I would like to see both our worship services average near 150 in attendance. I would like to see more small groups. But churches grow in all kinds of ways and growth in numbers is not as important as helping people grow in faith, as growing in our sense of community with each other – love for each other, as growing in our ministry to our community and world – a ministry of compassion and justice. I would like to see our church grow because I believe people need what we have – each other, a faith that enriches our lives and challenges us to be better and a God who loves us even when we fail. I would like to see our church grow because I believe the world needs what we have – people committed to a more just, peaceful, compassionate and green world. My primary reason for wanting to see this church grow is to connect people with God’s love, to help them grow in their understanding and experience of that love, and to live that love more fully in their lives. That’s so important to me that I tell people who may be checking us out, “if this is not the place you need for your faith right now, for your spiritual journey, I will help you find another congregation in town that may be more helpful.”
What we are about is connecting people to God’s love, to each other and inspiring people to live God’s dream for the world. That’s the light that shines in the darkness, and I want people to find a place where that light shines most brightly from them.
But if we don’t testify to the light, if we don’t invite people, we never give them the opportunity to think about their lives in some new ways. And you need to find your way to do it. You will do this in your way, not mine. You will do it in a way that avoids all the obnoxiousness that too often comes with discussions of faith and invitations to church.
Dan Dick, a United Methodist pastor shares the story of a time in an airport when he was between flights. A woman approached him. “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Dan said he was startled by the woman and tried to ignore her. She persisted. “You may think I’m weird, but I need you to know that you are in danger of eternal damnation if you don’t accept Jesus. TODAY!” “Thanks, ma’am, but I’m a United Methodist pastor.” “Yes, but are you saved?” Irritated, Dan looked her straight in the eye and said, “I just told you I’m a minister.” “But you said you were Methodist. I want to know if you’re Christian.” (Bursting the Bubble, 93)
You have my permission and deep encouragement not to do that!!! But find ways to testify to the light in your life. Find ways to invite others to journey with you and with us. To give you a little help and encouragement, you will find an invitation to Christmas Eve services in your bulletin. You are invited. I invite you to invite someone else. Testify to the light. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What's a Nice Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

I did not preach this past Sunday. It was our children's and youth Christmas program. I thought I would post a sermon I preached awhile back - May 6, 2007.

Scripture Readings: John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18

After church one Sunday morning, a boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a minister when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us, but what made you decide you wanted to be a minister?” “Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell.” (Pretty Good Joke Book, 106)
I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital here in Duluth in 1959. For my first six years of life I lived in a duplex on 43rd Avenue East. Then we moved to 5430 Avondale St. I attended Lester Park Elementary, Ordean Junior High, East High School, UMD. The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a police officer. That was in third grade. It was in eighth grade that I first though about becoming a minister – and that idea came and went a few times before it stuck.
When I came here to interview with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee in late March of 2005, as the person the Bishop wanted to appoint to First United Methodist Church, the committee told me that this was a Reconciling Congregation and asked if I could be supportive of that. A Reconciling Congregation is one that has publicly declared that it will be open to, welcome and affirm gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons – GLBT persons. The official position of our denomination is that all persons are of sacred worth and yet we believe the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. As a reconciling congregation we have said we stand in opposition to the last part of that and we will welcome GLBT persons and let them participate fully in our congregation, as fully as our denomination allows.
Thankfully, I knew that when I was asked about it by the Staff-Parish Committee. I’m not sure what would have happened had I said, “a reconciling what?” I told the committee that I could and would be supportive of the church’s reconciling position. What I could not honestly say was, “You know, ever since I was a kid I aspired to be the pastor of a Reconciling Congregation.” I just could not say that. And sometimes I even wonder, what’s a nice boy from Lester Park doing trying to talk about such matters in this setting? How did I get here? I want to say a few words about that today, because it has everything to do with the Scripture readings for this morning and I’ll make that connection shortly.
When I was growing up, I never knew much about GLBT persons or issues. I did not have a closeted uncle or aunt. My siblings are straight – divorced, but straight. In junior high and high school, we used to throw the term “fag” around kind of loosely. When a few of us looked up the word in a dictionary and found it could also mean a “bundle of sticks” we used to tease each other by calling out “you bundle of sticks.” Who can explain adolescent boys? But to be honest, though I would sometimes use such words, and probably sometimes in anger, I never really thought that anyone I ever called a bundle of sticks really might be different, really might be gay. It just never crossed my mind. I do remember reading some Christian literature that talked about the issue. David Wilkerson a pastor and author of The Cross and the Switchblade, wrote about the issue. Homosexuals are not “queers.” They are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters from all walks of life involved in a serious problem…. So-called homosexual Christians can never be acceptable in the eyes of God if they live in their sin (Jesus People Maturity Manual). I read the words, but what did they have to do with me?
In college I guess I became more aware that there were really GLBT people, but again, what did that have to do with me? I wasn’t one, and did not care much if they were who they were. I don’t recall my pastor ever talking about the issue – and about now some of you may be wishing for the same thing. We don’t need to hide the fact that we get a little uncomfortable talking about human sexuality.
When I got to seminary, however, I came face-to-face with GLBT issues, because for the first time I came face-to-face with gay and lesbian persons. This was unfamiliar territory for me, and uncomfortable. Some of the words I had read in the past remained a part of my thinking, no doubt. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. I also became much more aware of how difficult and divisive an issue this was for the church.
There were those Scriptures of our faith that seemed to present a pretty negative take on GLBT persons – Levitcus (two verses), for instance. But it became puzzling to me that we could take a verse or two from this book so seriously, yet let others slide by so easily. In the same chapter of Leviticus that seemingly condemns a man lying with a man as with a woman, the Israelites are told to put to death those caught in adultery and those who curse their mother or father. In the very next chapter, the following types of people are prohibited from becoming priests, or serving as priest while these conditions persist: one who has a blemish, the blind or lame, one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, one who has a broken hand or foot, “or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs, or crushed testicles” (Leviticus 21: 18-20). Our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry does not ask clergy candidates about such things.
And in a few places Paul writes rather disapprovingly about same-sex relationships. He looked around his culture and saw things he disapproved of, but we are not sure just what it is Paul was concerned about. In the words of theologian William Placher, in his book Jesus the Savior: “We are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw…. Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong in the same way to Paul? We cannot summon him up from the dead… and find out what he would have thought” (100). Placher, in fact, makes a strong point in his book. It is hard to imagine how anyone, reading the Bible through, could come up with homosexuality as one of the central topics it lays out for ethical reflection (96). Texts that address GLBT issues are very few, and are open to genuine interpretive differences.
At the same time I struggled with Scripture, I was hearing stories like one shared by Parker Palmer. Stuart Mathis was a gay man who grew up in a religious community that regards homosexuality as a sin. His church insisted that he “change his sexual orientation,” and when he found it impossible to do so, he committed suicide, leaving these words behind: [My] church has no idea that as I type this letter, there are surely boys and girls on their callused knees imploring God to free them from this pain. They hate themselves. They retire to bed with their fingers pointed to their heads in the form of a gun. I am now free. I am no longer in pain and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended for me to be straight. Perhaps my death might be a catalyst for some good. (A Hidden Wholeness, 41)
I was also meeting people who were wonderful Christians, and gay. It remained rather uncomfortable territory. Even as a senior in seminary I confessed to a friend that I still found something about all this a bit “unnatural.” Yet something continued to simmer inside of me.
Peter could not imagine less unnatural a thing than that God’s Spirit might be at work in uncircumcised, non-Jewish people – Gentiles. Jesus had been Jewish. He taught in synagogues. He worshipped at the Temple. He was a rather faithful follower of the law, even as he criticized some of it. While he often told stories that made heroes out of non-Jews, and seemed at times willing to reach beyond his people, his first followers were all Jewish and it seems they expected that those who would follow Jesus would be Jewish too. But a wild dream experience compels Peter to reach out to Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort. When he goes to see Cornelius, he finds that God’s Spirit was also present. Peter, in giving his report to skeptical believers in Jerusalem says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter moved by the Spirit of God, compelled by the words of Jesus himself (I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.) Peter goes beyond his comfort zone. Love brought him to a new place. The Spirit took him into unfamiliar territory. His mind was changed about who was acceptable to God and to whom God might give God’s Spirit.
I have had no wild dream like experience and I cannot even tell you when exactly I came to this point, but love and God’s Spirit brought me to a new place – at first uncomfortable, unfamiliar, but a new place. I say in Peter’s words, if God is at work in the lives of GLBT people, and I have witnessed that time and again, who am I that I should hinder God?
Now I don’t have to say that everything any GLBT person does is o.k. just as I would not say that everything a heterosexual person does is o.k. The Christian faith has consistently maintained that all persons are vulnerable to sin, and that may include sexual sin, and in fact, all have sinned. But at its best our faith knows that the essence of sin is a violation of the command to love. It is refusal to love. I don’t see homosexuality in itself as sinful.
So here I am, a kid from Lester Park, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Duluth, a Reconciling Congregation. And I am proud to be here. And I also want this church to be a place that welcomes those who may not be in complete agreement with our reconciling stance, who may be at a different place on the journey. How hypocritical it would be for me, who took a journey himself to say, “if you are not where I have arrived at, you are not welcome.” For above all, a Reconciling congregation should be a place that takes seriously the idea that God’s Spirit moves in surprising ways, invites us into unfamiliar and sometimes challenging places, but always in service of God’s love. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. And who knows where love may take us? Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Lesson of the Pine Tree

Sermon Preached November 30, 2008. Text: Mark 13:24-37

Did you know that if you had purchased $1,000 of Delta Air Lines stock one year ago, you would have $49 left? If you had invested that same $1,000 with Fannie Mae, you would have $2.50 left. With AIG, you would have less than $15 left. But if you had purchased $1,000 worth of beer one year ago, drunk all the beer, then turned in the cans for the aluminum recycling refund, you would have $214 cash, and you would have enjoyed the beer. (Funny Times, December 2008, p. 10) By the way this story is told for illustrative purposes only, and no investment advice is to be inferred from it. You might say, however, that the story offers the lesson of the beer cans.
Jesus liked to use ordinary images in his teaching, common images to make a point. He was especially partial to images from nature. In today’s Scripture reading from Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “from the fig tree learn its lesson.”
And what lesson was Jesus trying to convey? Keep alert. Keep awake. Just as you watch a fig tree to give you clues as to the change of seasons, so watch the world to see signs of the presence of God. Keep alert. Keep awake. Many of the early Christians, and maybe even Jesus himself had expectations that God was going to change the world dramatically in the near future, that the fullness of God’s dream for the world was going to become a reality. Even though the expectation was high, there remained a note of caution. “About that day or hour no one knows,” only God. So there would be no passive waiting around for this coming world-altering change. With waiting would come alertness and awakening – more active terms. The people were reminded that whatever might come, the teaching of Jesus would be part of that newer world – “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Almost 2,000 years later, we still wait for the world to be made right. We still hunger for a world that is just and peaceful. We still yearn for a world where differences are celebrated as part of a rich tapestry, instead of used to divide – a world of reconciliation and forgiveness. We desire a world of joy and love, where the very creation itself is embraced. The headlines about economic crises, about terrorist attacks in India, about violence closer to home all tell us that the world is not yet God’s dream for it. So we wait.
But our waiting is not to be a passive waiting. The season of Advent which begins today, that season of four weeks until Christmas, is meant to remind us that we are to keep alert, keep awake – that we are to be people who continue to try and live out the words and Spirit of Jesus. Advent invites us to prepare our lives to receive the Christ in new and renewed ways. In the spirit of Jesus’ own teaching, I think we can be reminded of some of the lessons of Advent by learning the lesson of the pine tree. If Jesus were teaching in Northern Minnesota today, I’m not sure he would ever appeal to beer cans in his teaching, but I think he would encourage us to learn the lesson of the pine tree.
So what might we learn from the pine tree? We might learn something about being alive and vibrant in a variety of circumstances. Pine trees are evergreen, displaying their life in every season – winter, spring summer, fall. They exist in a variety of environments – the cold of northern Minnesota, the heights of the mountains – many of the trees on the tree lines are evergreens/pines. Different species of pine are found in climates from frosty to balmy. But this morning I want to focus on the pine cone and the lesson it teaches us about preparing anew for the Christ in our lives, about being awake and alert. The lesson of the pine tree and pine cone I want to develop is openness. We prepare ourselves for the renewed presence of the Christ by cultivating the openness of the pine in our lives.
Pine cones open to give to the world. I did some research for this sermon and discovered, or re-discovered, that pine cones are distinguishable between male and female. No, you can’t tell which is which by picking them up and looking underneath them. Male cones tend to exhibit less variety from species to species, while the female cones’ structures vary more markedly between species of pine. I don’t think I want to draw any lessons there! Both male and female pine cones are open in giving. The male cones produce pollen which fertilizes the seeds in the female cones. That seed is nurtured and then the female cone opens its scales to release the seeds into the world so that new evergreens can sprout and grow.
We open our lives in faith when we risk sharing our faith story with others. Many of us have deeply appreciated the faith stories we have heard shared during our stewardship moments these past few Sundays, and I have had a number of people tell me they would like to hear more of that more often. I agree. To share something about the joys and struggles of one’s faith is powerful. When that happens it helps us all, the ones sharing and the ones listening. When we hear how faith has helped someone in a difficult time, or when it has given meaning and direction to a life, we hear something of our own stories in that, and we can say “yes.” When we hear how sometimes other struggle with deep questions of faith we no longer have to pretend that faith in God and in Jesus Christ provides us simple answers for the complex questions of life. It helps, but the way of Jesus is not always easy or simple. That kind of honest sharing in faith is important for us all.
Sharing our faith story with others also helps us live our faith more consistently. When I was a young clergy person, one of the most challenging lessons I had to learn was to get comfortable with the fact that whenever you are in public, you are a clergy person. You never know who may be seeing you. It took some time for me to grow into being comfortable with that responsibility, but I honestly think it has helped me in some ways. I always want to present the best face for our church and for Christian faith. Like all of you, I can get impatient in traffic or standing in line. I get irritated sometimes, like Friday when the three older women in the mall parking lot seemed completely at a loss for where to park, and I was right behind them. It helps me to remember that I am the face of the church and need to let go of my impatience and irritation. That doesn’t mean I am perfect or less than myself – it means I have an extra incentive to be my better self. When we share our faith, we have an extra incentive to be our better selves.
We open our lives in faith when we sow seeds of love and joy, healing and justice in the world. This is a time of year when we often decry the excesses of our culture, and there is good reason to do so. After worship, the Sustainability Group is going to be distributing a guide to celebrating a simpler Christmas and we need to pay attention to that. For all of our excesses and missteps, though, I still appreciate this season of the year. I was reading the blog of a friend the other day and he was saying how he has really come to dislike Thanksgiving – we eat too much and too much of what is bad for us. The history of the holiday often masks the darker side of the relationship between Native Americans and European Americans. I agree with what he said, but I cannot dislike Thanksgiving and Christmas if for no other reason than that they seem to evoke in so many people the openness to sowing seeds of love and kindness, healing and justice. Make sure part of your celebration of the holidays this year involves giving yourself generously, sowing seeds of love and joy and healing and justice.
To learn the lesson of the pine cone, we also need to know that pine cones open to receive from the world. We prepare our lives for the renewed presence of the Christ when we open ourselves to the world around us, to receive its gifts.
One of my favorite prayers is the prayer that has come to be known as The Serenity Prayer. It is a staple of AA, but I prefer its original version, as written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. God, grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed; the courage to change the things that should be changed; and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. I like this version of the prayer best because it is rooted in God’s grace. It is a prayer for grace – the grace of acceptance, the grace of serenity, the grace of courage, the grace of wisdom. When we seek to sow seeds of love, joy, justice and healing, we seek the grace of courage to change the world. This prayer asks us to be open to the world in giving. This prayer also asks us to be open to the world in receiving, and I often find that more difficult. God grant me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed. I cannot change my height, I cannot change where and when and to whom I was born. I cannot change my DNA. I cannot change the fact that at 21 I was diagnosed with a chronic colon condition. I cannot change other people, at least not directly. I cannot change the past. There are more things in the world that cannot be changed than we sometimes like to admit – things wonderful and frightening, things beautiful and ugly, things that bless and things that curse. Part of the lesson of the pine is that we need to be open to receiving from the world as it is – from God, from others, from reality itself. We will want to change much, but I think change begins with an openness to things as they are.
In the most recent issue of Ode magazine, a woman named Hilary Hart wrote a piece on “receiving” in which she argues that one of the greatest gifts we can offer someone is “the willingness to receive fully and freely.” Giving and receiving are fundamental aspects of experience, connecting all life in an interdependent whole. Just as many of us long to experience moments of pure altruism, when we offer our hearts with no strings attached, we also long to receive deeply and freely, experiencing what it means to be given to – touched, nourished and even transformed by life. Some of her reflection was prompted by the receipt of a scarf from her mother – a gray cotton scarf with pink flowers – and Ms. Hart does not wear pink. So she mulls over what it means to be a good receiver – our longing for it, the difficulty of it. “Receiving isn’t easy. If it were, more of us would do it with grace and gratitude.” She is insightful about what makes receiving difficult – that it sometimes comes with strings attached (quid pro puo), that it sometimes seems to put us in a weaker position, e.g. the March of Dimes wants me to call everyone I’ve helped to see if they will give a donation to the March of Dimes for me. We are concerned about receiving because we are concerned that others may not be getting enough. Receiving is complicated, yet necessary for fullness of life. In Hart’s article a woman named Miriam Greenspan shares her insights and story. Life is a gift we receive each day, but the gift can be terrifying when we don’t get what we want or want what we get, when there is disappointment and even catastrophe. So we close down. And when we are close, it’s as though we are asleep to the gift of life. These might seem like nice sentiments, but coming from Miriam Greenspan they are more than that. Miriam Greenspan was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany where she lived for four years after the Holocaust. Her first child was born with a brain injury and lived only 66 days. Her third child was born with complex physical and cognitive disabilities. The gift in grieving for our losses, for example, is deep gratitude. From fully experiencing despair we go on a journey for new meaning and find a more resilient faith in life. When we befriend our fear, we discover the joy of living fully.
Hilary Hart tries on the scarf her mother has sent and is surprised to see how good it looked.
This Advent season, let us learn the lesson of the pine cone. Let us learn that to be ever green and growing and full of life is to be open to giving – sharing our faith, sowing seeds of love, joy, healing and justice; and open to receiving – from others, from reality, from God. Advent reminds us that the Christ comes again and again and that we know this Christ in ever new ways as we give and as we receive. Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What'd I Say

Beginning with this entry, I plan to post the texts of my Sunday sermons on this web site. I will use my other blog for an eclectic collection of thoughts, musings, and the like. Thanks for reading.

This sermon was preached November 23. The Scripture text for the morning was Matthew 25:31-46

Someone sent me this bit of humor recently. A minister decided that his Sunday sermon could use a little something so he devised a visual demonstration. Four worms were placed in four jars at the beginning of the sermon: one in a jar of whiskey, one in a jar containing cigarette smoke, one in a jar of chocolate syrup, and one in a jar of good clean soil. At the conclusion of the sermon, the minister opened each jar and reported the following results. The worm in the whiskey jar – dead. The worm in the jar with cigarette smoke – dead. The worm in the chocolate syrup – dead (kind of a waste of good chocolate syrup, and I suppose you could say the same about the whiskey!). The worm in the good clean soil was alive and well.
So the minister asked the congregation what they learned from the demonstration. A parishoner, sitting near the back quickly raised a hand. “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have any worms!”
Keep those cards and letters coming.
All kinds of interesting things have happened to the stories Jesus told. Each Gospel writer told the story for his own reasons, told it in a way that he thought would help the Jesus community he was preparing the gospel for. We need to pay attention to that context. Since the gospels were put in print, the stories have been interpreted countless ways, and sometimes the wrong lessons have been drawn. I want to say a few words this morning about what the story Jesus tells, as it is recorded in Matthew 25, isn’t about.
It’s not about worms and whiskey, but you knew that already.
I don’t think this story is about hell, either, though some use it that way. I have mentioned recently my visit to the Vineyard Church national web site, where it says that after the final judgment the wicked will experience “eternal conscious punishment.” The Scripture reference they site is this story in Matthew 25. Without being too harsh, I think they have it wrong.
In Matthew’s gospel, this story comes as a part of a series of stories told by Jesus, all of which have to do with remaining faithful to the end, of not giving up on the way of Jesus, even in difficult and confusing times. You need to know that the times were difficult and confusing for Matthew’s audience. Matthew was probably writing for people who had come into the Jesus way from out of Judaism. Maybe a better way to say this is to say that they saw in the way of Jesus a needed and authentic reforming of their Jewish faith. There is often a lot of excitement at the beginning of a reform movement, but that excitement ebbs and flows. The Jesus movement was separated from the larger Jewish tradition. That was painful for Matthew’s community. The Temple, which has been such a powerful religious and national symbol for the Jewish people had been destroyed by Rome. Matthew’s Jesus community had every reason to lose heart, and so he retold stories told by Jesus to help his community keep the faith. More importantly with this story, he was reminding people that keeping the faith was more than just hanging on to the bitter end, more than isolating oneself to try and keep pure. To live the Jesus way was just the opposite of isolation from the world, it was engagement with the world – with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those lacking clothing, the sick, the imprisoned. The final judgment metaphor is best understood as a way to emphasize in the strongest terms that when you pass by opportunitites to touch a sufering life, those opportunities are lost forever. It is a powerful metaphor, but its power is not the power of fear threatening us with eternal conscious punishment.
If this story is not about hell it is also not about ridding ourselves of religious and spiritual language and practice. Notice that both groups that come before the Son of Man as king address him as “lord.” Sometimes we are tempted to read this story and say that what it means to be a Christian is to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. We are right in saying that this is what it means to be a Christian, but we would be wrong to say that it is all that it means to be a Christian. We would be helped to recall other words in Matthew, Matthew 7:21: Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matthew is writing to a practicing faith community reminding them that the Jesus way, while not less than spiritual practices like prayer, like gathering in community, like worship, is always more than that – that it is justice, that it is compassion, that it is kindness. Absent these, you are missing the boat, but we don’t throw the other spiritual practices out of the boat either.
In sharing what this text isn’t about, I have begun to say what I think it is about, and I want to explore this further beginning with some helpful words from the theologian Robert Neville. Christianity first and foremost is about being kind…. Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists. Whether a social welfare system is ultimately kind if it creates a long-term dependent class of people is a debateable point at this stage, and how to amend it to make if more kind is also debatable. But some obvious and up-front meanings should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases. These include being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Neville, Symbols of Jesus, xviii).
The illuminating thing for me when I read Neville’s words and the words of Matthew 25 is that Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about doing good and about being different. We miss some of the power of Matthew 25 if we make it only a to do list. Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about what we do and about who we are. Generous people do certain things, and they also have a certain kind of heart, a certain inner orientation that is open to helping in a hurting world. Sympathetic people do certain things and they also have a certain kind of heart, a certain inner orientation which opens them to the suffering and pain of the world. The Jesus way in the world is about willingness and readiness and openness, as well as about doing. That is deeply embedded in the story Jesus told itself. None of those who are commended or condemned in the story realize what it is they have been doing – they just did it, it flowed out of their heart and soul. Christian faith, the Jesus way, is a way of being in the world that both transforms the world in the direction of kindness and transforms the self into a kinder heart. That is where traditional spiritual practices are especially significant. Our hearts, our souls, are transformed by prayer, by worship, by gathering in community. They are also transformed by doing good itself. All is needed.
A couple of weeks ago, I was running a late afternoon errand before returning to the church to help the Staff-Parish Relations Committee prepare for the Wednesday night meal. I went to a store to buy a couple of things, and I paid cash. When the cashier told me how much I owed, it seemed less than I had expected, but I had used a discount coupon, so I paid and walked out my car. I couldn’t help but think that somehow the store had been short-changed and so I looked at the receipt, and sure enough, the woman had not charged me for one item. Well it is nearly five o’clock, the time when I was supposed to be at the church, and it wasn’t my fault that the cashier had messed up, and I spend enough money at this store… I opened the car door, and put my package inside. But I couldn’t leave. Something inside of me told me that I needed to take the time to go and pay what I truly owed. I couldn’t help but smile at the potential irony of telling myself that I couldn’t go back into the store to correct the error because I was running late for church.
This is not a big deal. I am not bucking for sainthood here, but I know that at one time in my life I think I would have been capable of driving away, and now I am not. I continue to be formed on the inside and it continues to be expressed in doing good.
I think the most challenging part of the story Jesus told and Matthew retold is that the kind of heart, mind and soul that is encouraged is a heart, mind and soul open to the suffering of the world. We are invited on the Jesus way to cultivate a heart, a mind, a soul, that sees hunger and thirst, that sees lonliness and alienation, that sees deprivation and poverty, that sees sickness, that sees injustice and imprisonment, including some of the self-created prisons in our lives. We see, and we respond.
The kind of hearts and souls we are invited to develop pay attention to thoughts about poverty like those offered by Noble-prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain. Neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life. We cannot ignore that. We are called to care and to act. Neither can we ignore the kind of suffering that is less amenable to social remedy – the suffering of grief, the pain of loss and disappointment, the hurt of failed relationships. Sometimes the best we can do, and it is a lot, is to stand with people in their pain.
To have our hearts and minds transformed in this way is difficult. It means opening ourselves to a measure of sadness. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes, “an inescapable sadness is part of the life of any reflective person” (Freud and Man’s Soul, 111). I have for awhile appreciated this analysis of the heart and sadness offered by Elizabeth Lesser. Sadness is not the opposite of happiness. The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180). That’s the Christian journey, too, though I would add that we necessarily need to let our tenderness flower into action to alleviate suffering in the world.
A heart and soul open to the suffering of the world invites a certain sadness inside, a sadness at all the suffering there is, a sadness that the human community has not done more to alleviate preventable suffering, a sadness knowing that as a person, I cannot do something about every suffering I encounter. This is a difficult way, but the joy of this way is a tenacious and tough joy. It is a joy that can look at the worst the world has, and not give up in despair. It can look at the worst that the world has, and act hopefully. It can look at the worst that the world has, and not neglect the best and most beautiful.
The Christian faith, the Jesus way in Matthew 25 is a way of transforming the world and transforming the heart and soul. During the Nazi period in Germany, many Jews had to flee the country and leave their houses behind. If they were able to sell them at all, they received ridiculously low prices for them. Many Germans were happy to purchase a cheap Jewish villa. German theologian Dorothee Soelle tells the story of how in the town she grew up in a young teacher was offered one such empty house for a very cheap price. His response was, “I cannot move into such a house. Legally and morally it still belongs to the former owner.” The young teacher was disliked by the Nazis for this response. Shortly afterward he was sent to a concentration camp. (Not Just yes and amen, 12-13).
The invitation is there – to develop your heart and soul, to do good and to develop your heart and soul through doing good. How are you going to respond. What suffering will you open yourself up to this holiday season? What will you do about it? As a part of your journey of faith, I invite you to take advantage of some of the opportunities our church is offering you to respond to suffering and hurt in the world. Our Thanksgiving offering will be shared between the ministry of the church and with midwest flood relief. Our Christmas offering will be shared between the ministry of the church, Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, and Harbor House Crisis Shelters. On Christmas Eve, CHUM will again organized a vigil in the civic center, collecting warm gloves, hats, boots, mittens, blankets – and if you can’t give any of these, just come to support that effort. I will be doing all these things, and will also be helping the March of Dimes, through their jail and bail event – if you would like to help with that, I would welcome your donations. I invite you who have heard this story and this sermon today to challenge yourselves to do something in the remaining month of this year to alleviate a little suffering in the world.
Christian faith is never just about what we say, whether we say it in prayer or song or in church. Christian faith, the Jesus way, is about what we do and about how our hearts and minds and souls are being changed. The way can be difficult, that’s one reason we are on the way together. The way can be difficult and it is the way of life. For this way and for the grace which opens this way to us, we are grateful. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

melancholy leaves me breathless.

 Mary Oliver, “Sometimes” in Red Bird

As she so often does, Mary Oliver speaks truth, but why would anyone want to read such truth? I read it because it is good to know that one’s feelings of sadness are shared by others, that the melancholy which leaves me breathless also leaves others breathless – and yet we can create art out of it which then helps us move through the sadness. It is why I listen to the blues. In the blues we hear the sadness and the art made from sadness, an art which helps us negotiate it. It is why I love the Psalms, too.

Here is one of my attempts to create something out of sadness.

There are days
when the truest
statement in the
creed is:
He descended into hell,
and when the
first truth of
Buddhism appears
its most profound:
Life is suffering.
Both also promise
a way forward.
The eightfold path.
Neither promises
that the way
is easy.
And the stay
in hell was
three days.

Trying to Create Beauty,


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thich, Tillich and Dorothee, too

“Submission, obedience and other such terms have never been my favorite theological or spiritual concepts. Perhaps there is something of the spirit of Euripides in me. “The wisest men follow their own direction and listen to no prophet guiding them” (quoted by Anthony Storr in Feet of Clay). One of my favorite scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a film I enjoy a lot) is the one where God tells King Arthur and the knights to “stop their groveling.”

Yet the notions of yielding, submitting, surrendering, obeying run throughout spiritual literature, especially theistic spiritual literature, including that of the Christian faith which is my tradition. Sometimes I ask myself if my resistance is little more than the spiritual recalcitrance of a rebellious soul who because of his stubbornness is missing out on some of the depths of relationship with God.

I struggle with the notions of obedience, submission, surrending, and yielding because of the abuse I have seen accompanying those concepts. Obedience to God seems to easily slide into obedience to God’s chosen leaders and history is rife with the horror stories of blind obedience. Think of the obedience given Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh and others, and of the awful consequences of such blind following.

Surrender to God or to some abstract guiding principle is not only seductive but understandable and, in some instances, valuable. Surrender to a human guru is fraught with risk. Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay, 221-222.

Okay, so one can and should distinguish between obedience to God and obedience and submission to any human person. Christian faith even provides a solid foundation for resistance to blind obedience to any person as fully embodying the will of God. Even though this distinction is important and necessary, I confess that an uneasiness remains. Obedience, submission, yielding, surrender connote a complete self-abrogation to God. A God who demands utter, complete, blind obedience seems created in the image of emperors and dictators and I am uncomfortable with this.

This issue was recently raised for me again as I was listening to an audio CD of Thich Nhat Hahn – “Touching the Earth: meditations for compassion.” The CD was a free gift for subscribing to Ode magazine. The title sounds inviting enough, but Brother Thay discusses “the five prostrations,” “bowing down and surrendering to the earth.” That kind of language again brought to the fore these issues of obedience, submission, yielding, surrender. The five prostrations are: bowing in gratitude to ancestors in one’s family, to the ancestors in one’s spiritual family (and here Brother Thay included Buddha and Jesus), bowing in gratitude to the land and to all who helped make it available (including Chief Seattle, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King. Jr.), in gratitude and compassion bowing and pledging to transmit energy to those one loves, and, finally, in understanding and compassion bowing down to reconcile oneself with all those who have made one suffer. That is a lot of bowing and submitting and it sounds rather masochistic. Listening to Thich Nhat Hahn, though, a very different feeling came over me – not a closing off of self in order to submit to a power that was other but instead an awe, a reverence and an opening of the self. I had the feeling of openness to something that was part of me, though also other than me.

Listening, I also thought again of Paul Tillich, a theologian I encountered early in my seminary days and one with whose thought I have continued to engage fruitfully. Years ago, Tillich’s categories of theonomy, autonomy and heteronomy helped me deal with the language of obedience, submission, surrender and yielding - - - helped me incorporate that language into my own spiritual life in productive ways, though not without continuing unease. I often have to translate these ideas into other concepts.

Without getting into all the subtleties of Tillich’s theology, heteronomy implies a power from outside one, or outside of a cultural creation, that seeks to denigrate or even destroy the autonomy of that self or creation. Autonomy represents freedom from tradition and can again be applied to persons and to cultural creations. Theonomy “is the directedness of the self-creation of life under the dimension of the Spirit toward the ultimate in being and meaning” (Systematic Theology, III, p. 249). Tillich applies these concepts most consistently to culture. The original theonomous union is left behind by the rise of autonomous trends which necessarily lead to a reaction of the heteronomous element. Without the liberation of autonomy from the bondage to an “archaic,” mythologically founded theonomy, the culture could not develop its potentialities. Only after their liberation from the uniting myth and the theonomous state of consciousness can philosophy and the sciences, poetry and the other arts, appear. But if they achieve independence, they lose their transcendent foundation which gave them depth, unity, and ultimate meaning; and therefore, the reaction of heteronomy starts: the experience of the ultimate, as expressed in the religious tradition, reacts against the creations of an empty autonomy. (Systematic Theology, III, 251-252). I guess I am getting into the complexities of Tillich more than initially intended. The basic idea is that the Spirit can be experienced as a setting free (autonomy), and sometimes as a check against an empty autonomy (heteronomy), but is most fully present in a theonomy that encourages freedom and connection to the ultimate in being and meaning at the same time. That ultimate in being and meaning is not separate from one’s own being, though it is more than oneself. In simpler terms, I take all this to mean that God is not completely other and God desires and wills the human good in community, which includes my good. Not all my thoughts, desires, whims are the movement of God’s Spirit within me, but the movement of God’s Spirit within me is not completely different from my deepest hopes and dreams. This helps me understand why the language of obedience, submission, surrender and yielding does not come easy, and yet may still have a place, especially if I understand yielding to mean something more like openness to life and to reality.

Cracking open Tillich’s Systematic Theology, reminded me, too, of another influential theologian from my seminary days, Dorothee Soelle, and of her book, Beyond Mere Obedience. Soelle describes her book as “an attempt to work through the oppressive aspects of traditions of obedience I inherited in my national, religious, and sexual identity. Being a German, a Christian, and a woman I was brought up with three kinds of traditions that demanded obedience” (ix). Soelle makes good use of Erich Fromm’s helpful distinction between authoritarian religion and humanitarian religion. In authoritarian religion “God’s love and righteousness are less important than God’s power” (xiii). Humanitarian religion “operates with a force which springs from the inner life of the spirit. There is one creative power in God as well as in people.” (xii-xiii). Soelle poses a critical question. “Why do people worship a God whose supreme quality is power, not justice; whose interest lies in subjection, not in mutuality; who fears equality?” (xiv-xv). Soelle’s work is rich and thought-provoking. Here are some other helpful passages.

Selflessness is possible only where a particular level of self-awareness has been achieved. A person whose own capacity to love has been awakened, who has experienced so much happiness that it radiates from her, who has discovered her own identity; such a person is actually capable of acting sacrificially in particular situations. (38)

The conventional picture of Jesus has always placed his obedience and his self-denial in the foreground. But that phantasy which is born of fulfillment is a far better description of his life…. Should one consider the death of Jesus from the point of view of obedience alone, one would overlook the fact that selflessness and a readiness to live sacrificially are possible only when a person has come to himself and has reached the fullest level of personal freedom. (56, 57)

For Jesus “God” meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. (64)

At the end of all this reflection I can again affirm that the language of spiritual teachers about obedience, submission, surrender and yielding has value, but only if critically appropriated. For me, that critical appropriation leads me away from these words themselves and toward the language of radical openness, an openness to God as Spirit at work in the world. When I am more open to that Spiritual Presence, I also find God’s Spirit at work in me, in my soul and spirit. This language of radical openness, coming through a critical process is also self-critical, for I know there are other voices contending inside of me, not just the voice of the Spirit and it is to those better angels of my nature that I need to pay attention and to yield.

Trying To Create Beauty,


Monday, October 27, 2008

Was Jesus a Buddhist?

Of course not!
There are some who speculate that Jesus was influenced directly by Buddhist thought, either through the work of Buddhists traveling west to spread the word or through Jesus traveling east in the missing years of his twenties. I don’t think there is evidence to support either of these claims. Having said that I would also say that my more recent engagement with Buddhist thought has brought “mindfulness” to my attention (pun intended), and I can’t help but think that Jesus exhibits mindfulness to a remarkable degree.

What is mindfulness? Sylvia Boorstein, in her book It’s Easier Than You Think writes that mindfulness is “the aware, balanced acceptance of present experience” (60). Daniel Goleman expands on that a bit. In the most recent issue of Greater Good he writes that it is “a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s internal state and external environment” (11). It has to do with paying attention, calming oneself and being attuned to the feelings of others. Thich Nhat Hanh writes: Right Mindfulness is the energy that brings us back to the present moment. To cultivate mindfulness in ourselves is to cultivate the Buddha within, to cultivate the Holy Spirit. (The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, 64) Daniel Goleman’s spouse, Tara Bennett-Goleman offers the most expansive notion of mindfulness in her book Emotional Alchemy. Mindfulness entails “harmony and simplicity, a mind alert but at rest, clear attention to the moment” (26). She goes on to write: Just as quieting our tumultuous thoughts offers one such tool for sorting out the jumble in our mind, other qualities of mindfulness provide powerful means for exploring our emotional lives. Among them are spacious clarity, calmness and equanimity, freedom from self-judgment, confidence and courage, intuition and trust, freshness and flexibility. Perhaps most important for emotional alchemy is a sustained investigative awareness, the ability to inquire with openness into an emotion until its meaning is revealed (29).

When reading many New Testament stories through the lens of some traditional Christological categories, one often assumes that Jesus knows things because of his divine nature. At least that is how I often read such stories. Then I got to thinking – however Jesus was divine, he was fully human and his prescience can be attributed to awareness, sensitivity, openness – in short, to mindfulness. “But Jesus, aware of their malice…” (Matthew 22:18) – the question about paying taxes. In the story of the paralytic man healed by Jesus, Jesus first offers forgiveness. Yes, the story really is more about Jesus having the authority to forgive, but might it also be about Jesus mindfully discerning that what this person needed as much as anything was forgiveness? Perhaps my favorite example is the story of the woman who touches Jesus in the crowd. In Luke’s telling (Luke 8:42-48), Jesus is in the midst of a crowd, and is responding to one man’s plea for help when a woman touches him. He knows it, but the disciples don’t understand his degree of mindfulness. He senses that he is being touched and senses the deep need of the one who touched him.

In Jesus we encounter a person of deep mindfulness. To nurture Christlikeness may include nurturing mindfulness. I happen to think it does. I also think we can learn something from the Buddhists about how to do this.

Trying To Create Beauty,


Friday, October 3, 2008


In an episode of MASH, one of my favorite television shows, a shamanistic Korean wedding is arranged over the objections of some of the camp personnel – Majors Burns and Houlihan primarily. When Capt. Hawkeye Pearce asks the camp chaplain, Father Mulkahey what he plans to do, the priest tells Hawkeye, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Hawkeye replies, “You spiritual thrill-seeker you.”

That story came back to me recently as I continued to ponder a sermon I delivered a few weeks ago. The sermon was about spiritual types, and the typology I used was based on the work of Corinne Ware. The essential idea is that you can have two continuums – one that runs from “thinking/head” to “feeling/heart” and one that runs from “katophatic/concrete/known” to “apophatic/abstract/mystery.” Ware asserts that people tend to prefer certain forms of the spiritual life based on the four quadrants.

Quadrant I (head/katophatic) people function with a head spirituality that focuses on feeding the intellect, on tangible and intellectually compelling images for God, on ordered worship. Words are very important. Quadrant II (heart/katophatic) people function with a heart spirituality. They, too, like tangible and concrete images for God, but not to stimulate their thinking but rather to warm their hearts. Personal spiritual renewal tends to be important. Spontaneity in worship, experience in worship and prayer are important. Quadrant III (heart/apophatic)people operate with a predominantly mystic spirituality. They are interested in experiencing God, but see God in mystery and silence. Meditative prayer is attractive, and worship should have moments for quiet and silence. Quardrant IV (head/apophatic) people have an activist orientation to the spiritual life. They want worship to inspire them to change the world. Justice is prominent in their spirituality, and they may think that action should be the essence of prayer.

These are broad categories and like any typology, it can be misleading and misused. At its best, it reminds us that we are not all alike, that different things may feed our souls and spirits, and that we need to be open to being stretched.

When I first took this inventory, I ended up with almost equal numbers in each quadrant. That’s not all that surprising given my background. I grew up in a United Methodist Church, but my dad’s family was catholic and we attended a number of Catholic weddings. I was frankly fascinated by some of the worship, the hand movements, they mystery. In junior high school I had a heart-warming Christian experience which I understood in fairly traditional Christian terms. When I was in junior high school, I also discovered that I had a talent for logical thought. I have a deep appreciation for meditative practices and have used meditative prayer with some frequency. I believe God’s dream for the world goes beyond individual transformation to include transformation of the world toward more justice, toward reconciliation, toward peace. I now find that my soul is fed by high church liturgy and by the simple ringing of a meditation bell and silence. I am more of a feeling person – higher F than T on the Myers-Briggs inventory, but I love to discuss ideas. I have marched for justice and peace and reconciliation and visited my legislator with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, and have meditated in silence on a zafu.

For me, then, this typology is a way I have of describing my own spiritual journey. In one way, it began in quadrant III, with they mystery of grace embracing me in baptism before words. My conscious spiritual journey began, though, in quadrant II – my heart-felt experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ when I was in eighth grade. I became a part of a local Jesus people church in the months following – a heart spirituality. Frankly, I drifted for a time in late high school, but this God, this spiritual journey would not leave me alone. In later high school and college, I engaged in a deep intellectual search. I majored in philosophy and psychology, and these intellectual endeavors were part of my spiritual journey. When I entered seminary after college, it was as much to continue my spiritual journey as to move toward ordained ministy, though that calling came along the way. I loved theology – Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann, H. Richard Niebuhr, Dorothee Soelle, John Cobb and process theology. Quadrant I became more like home. But some of the best theology recognizes its limits, the limits of language when discussing the Divine. During my time of searching, I had spent some time getting to know other religious traditions and was especially drawn to Zen Buddhism – which was, as I understood it, an interesting combination of intellectual work and heart work. Along with my study of theology, I began to find resources within the Christian tradition that included meditative prayer, a place for mystery and silence. Another discovery in seminary was the whole tradition of Christian social concern, a social gospel. While in college, I had become politically interested and active, and now I began to integrate this into my Christian faith journey.

So here I am, open in many ways to the movement of God’s Spirit. Maybe this is a sign of some kind of spiritual attention deficit disorder. Maybe I am a spiritual thrill seeker of some sort. I rather like having this kind of multi-faceted spirituality, and I know I need to tend to each side if I am to continue growing. I can get stuck in one quadrant or another for too long. At best, I will continue to mine the richness of the spiritual life in these diverse ways while appreciating the differing ways others are spiritually nourished.

Trying To Create Beauty,


Coming to With Faith and With Feathers, thoughts on Paul Newman

Saturday, September 6, 2008


In recent years, the concept of “vision” has come to be seen as the magic elixir for leaders and organizations, the holy grail for leadership and organizational renewal.

Well, that may be a bit strong, but there are countless articles and books about the importance of vision for leaders and for organizations – and make no mistake about it, vision is vitally important. The words of the writer of Proverbs ring with truth – where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18, KJV). But what is vision all about as related to organizations and leadership? I have not always found discussions of vision and leadership fully adequate. As I have read and pondered, I have pulled together some thoughts to come up with what I consider a more adequate sense of the meaning of “vision.” You may not find this one fully adequate, either, but I find it helpful.

One of the most helpful pieces I have read on vision, leadership and organizations was written by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and included in the paperback edition of their book Built to Last. Collins and Porras argue that vision for an organization or group consists of two major components: core ideology and an envision future. The core ideology of an organization is comprised of its core purpose, some might call this the mission statement, and core values. An envisioned future is just what it says it is, a vision of where you want to be down the road. It is often this envisioned future that people talk about when they speak about “vision,” but I think Collins and Porras are more helpful to include the core purpose and core values in an understanding of vision. For Collins and Porras, an envision future should be comprised of goals – big, hairy, audacious goals vividly described.

What I find lacking in this extremely helpful understanding of the concept of vision is a sense that a certain part of a vision should be beyond reach. Goals are target to aim for and hopefully accomplish. Disappointment is the typical response when one fails to accomplish one’s goals, even big, hairy, audacious goals. Is there room in the concept of vision for the even larger horizon, the hoped for future that may be beyond long-range goals? To my mind the concept of vision should include that slightly ethereal "out there" that calls us into the future.

Not long ago, I came across someone who agrees with me on this. Max DePree, in his book Leading Without Power writes: Part of an organization’s vision can be an ideal toward which we always strive without ever reaching it. Part of a vision must be attainable, lest the group lose hope. A good idea does not a vision make. Without some risk, with some promise of change, with a touch of the unattainable, a good idea may just become the vision for a group. Visions are liable to fail. A vision can never be guaranteed, no matter what the price or source. (117) DePree argues that even though visions can fail, they are critical. Organizations without a view of reality may stumble along for a while but will never succeed. Organizations with vision remain mere organizations, surviving but not living, hitting temporary targets but not moving toward potential…. We can teach ourselves to see things the way they are. Only with vision can we begin to see things the way they can be. (116-117)

So maybe vision needs to include what theologians might call “an eschatological dimension,” that larger horizon which informs our core values, core purpose, and our envisioned future, but which remains a long-term yearning of the soul for a better world.

Such talk risks cutting vision loose from a mooring in reality, and that makes me think that we need one further dimension of vision, sight. DePree contrasts “sight” and “vision,” but he is also the person who wrote in an earlier book, the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality (Leadership is an Art, 11). A comprehensive vision for an organization needs to include some sense of the world in which it functions – how its core purpose matters, how its core values add something to the culture, even as they provide a critique of some part of the surrounding culture, how its goals would change the current state of the world. If we want to get from here to there, we need to have both a sense of here and of there – and I think both can be included in a vision.

To my mind, then, vision for an organization includes: (1) core purpose/mission and core values; (2) an envisioned future; (3) a larger horizon which calls the group forward even beyond its goals; and (4) a sense of the context in which the organization strives to live out its purpose, values and goals, a sense of the way the world is and of what will be needed to get from the present to the envisioned future.

Visionary leadership has primary responsibility for articulating vision, and especially for painting the picture of the envisioned future which is consistent with the core purpose and values, with the larger horizon, and which is sufficiently grounded in a sense of the present reality so as not to appear “impossible.” Depending on where an organization is in its life, visionary leaders may have different foci – sometimes they need to work to articulate core purpose and values, and sometimes they need to paint the vivid picture of the envisioned future (I am convinced that leaders can’t take people places they don’t want to go, but they can help people imagine a place they had never dreamed about going and help them get there). Sometimes visionary leaders need to remind people of the “way the world is” and sometime they need to remind them of the larger horizon which calls us into the future. Visionary leaders paint pictures and work with others to build the road that gets a group from here to there. Visionary leaders need to be able to lay some bricks for the road as well. Visionary leaders work cooperatively with others in all their endeavors.

Trying To Create Beauty,


Monday, August 18, 2008

The borders between reading and writing and living are fluid. I do not take time out from life to write, nor do I take time out from life to read. When I quote somebody, I’m not hiding. I’m introducing you to one of my conversation partners.

Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion

As I have considered what to do with this blog, until some grand idea comes sweeping over me, I think I would like to use it to introduce you to some of my conversation partners. I do that on my other blog, too, but I think I would like to make that the focus here. I agree with Henry that the borders between reading and writing and life are fluid – and I am glad to hear someone say that. How often I have heard, “well, you can’t learn that in a book.” True enough, we can learn from experience, but we don’t always, and we should not shortchange what we learn when we maintain fluid borders between reading, writing and life. I appreciate Patrick Henry as a conversation partner.

A new conversation partner was introduced to me by a woman in my church named Karen. She sent me this link, and I found the lecture very interesting.

Dr. Michael Wesch

One irony is that the lecturer is discussing new teaching techniques in a very familiar setting – the lecture hall. Do we sometimes become too enamored with new technology? Two of his thoughts caught my attention in particular. Wesch argues that learning is much more than acquiring information. That is the easy part in our day and time with the multiple information technologies available. Wesch argues that to learn is not to acquire information, but to discuss information, challenge information, critique information, share information, create meaningful connections, and create significance. In order to create meaningful connections and significance, Wesch also argues that teachers need to work with students to create a grand narrative which provides context for information that is shared, discussed, critiqued, challenged.

Another recent conversation partner has been the author J. K. Rowling. Yes, I should have read Harry Potter by now, but think of the joy that awaits me. The Rowling that I am in conversation with is the woman asked to give the commencement speech at Harvard this Spring. You can listen to the speech and read the text through the following link.

J.K. Rowling Harvard Commencement

I was particularly taken by her words on imagination, quoted here in part. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. [Rowling’s examples of her use of imagination as a worker for Amnesty International are not to be missed]. Unlike other creatures on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places. Of course this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize. And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know. I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agrophobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathize may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

Somehow, Wesch and Rowling connect for me. Learning is about making connections and creating significance, and this requires imagination. With all our information resources, are we more imaginatively rich or more imaginatively deprived? Perhaps there are possibilities for both. Some listen to only that information which confirms their current imagination of the world, and to keep other information at bay, they speak more loudly. Will humanity use its capacity for imagination well? That question has been with us for a long time. Christian faith has been used to inspire great acts of imagination, and been used to argue for a constriction of imagination, even though we have a wonderfully imaginative text (the Bible) as a defining core.

Listening to these conversation partners, I recalled the voice of one more, Parker Palmer.

Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline…. We must find a way to live in the continuing conversation, with all its conflicts and complexities, while staying in close touch with our own inner teacher.

A Hidden Wholeness, 127

Trying to Create Beauty (with imagination),


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Withdrawal Speech July 18, 2008

Please note this is reconstructed from notes and memory, and may differ slightly from words actually spoken. In addition, some of the references, like the beginning words, made sense in the context of the Jurisdictional Conference, but may make less sense out of context.

“It is good to be here. It is a blessing to be among friends.” I thought I would try this out if only for one brief, shining moment.

This morning my bishop, Sally Dyck, asked me how I was doing, and I told her I was doing fine. I told her I rather liked roller coasters. But as the roller coaster comes around the bend this time, the time has come for me to get off. The ride is coming to an end for me.

As I get off, however, there are two signs that face me. You know how that is when you get off a roller coaster and see such signs. On one sign are these words from the New Testament. I don’t often see them quoted, but they are beautiful words – I Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.” On the other sign I see is this poem by Wendell Berry:

Whatever happens
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

As a Christian, I understand love to include justice, peace, reconciliation, joy, healing. Whatever happens, love.

I want to say “thank you” to a number of people. First of all, I want to thank those who shared this journey with me. Frank, Tim, Randy, Wesley, Jerome, Laurie, Jorge, Larry, Greg, Christina, Julius – it was an honor to have been on this journey with you. We can use a lot of metaphors for what this is like, some more harsh than others. I rather like to think of this as a stroll that we take together, and every so often, one of us peels off to return home until only one is left to take the next steps toward a new home. I have enjoyed your company.

I want to thank all the delegates who took time to listen to me. To those who heard me and said, “I think I could vote for this guy” – thank you. To those who heard me and said, “I could never vote for this guy” – thank you. Listening is a profound act of love.

To the Minnesota delegation I owe deep and profound thanks. You have surrounded me with love. When my energy was flagging, yours never was. Thank you so much.
I have had the great privilege and joy of sharing this week with the three most important women in my life – my wife, Julie, and our daughters Beth and Sarah. Beth was kind enough to take me up on my invitation to introduce me to delegations, and I shall never forget that.

Finally, I want to thank the God of Jesus Christ, this God who loves me and seeks to love the world through me, this God who loves you and seeks to love the world through you, this God who loves the church and seeks to love the world through the church. God embraced me at baptism and I reached back through the ministry of an eighth grade Sunday School teacher at a United Methodist Church. I said “yes” to God’s “yes” in my life. God continues to work on, in and through me so that I am different and the world is different – so that people are embraced, with God opening my arms wider than I had ever imagined as a kid; oppressive systems challenged – systems I did not even know existed growing up. God took this shy ninth grader whose greatest fear was public speaking and whose councilor told him the next step was to lead because he had the gifts for it, God took me and has brought me to this place. I can testify to the transforming power of God in my life and in the world.

Whatever happens, love. Whatever happens, do justice. Whatever happens, create peace. Whatever happens, reconcile. Whatever happens, heal.

Bishop Palmer [Bishop Gregory Palmer, Iowa Area who was presiding at the time], I know we have to take another ballot. I would like to invite all the delegates to join me in voting for Julius Trimble. Thank you.

Well, that’s it. Thank you, too, for your interest.

Trying to Create Beauty,


P.S. Now that I have completed my New Testament project, which occupied this blog for the past year, I wondered what to do with it. For now, I will use this as a companion blog to “With Faith and With Feathers.” I may take an idea introduced there and probe it in more depth or from a different angle. Maybe a new long-term project will find its way into this space. By the way, With Faith and With Feathers has a more detailed description of my experience as a bishop candidate.