Stranger Danger

You know, if Jesus was born in modern day America, they never would have gotten past the information desk at the hospital, much less up onto the maternity ward. In fact, they may not have even made it through customs. A couple of middle or far eastern looking guys with vague intentions, no idea where they are going, and carrying valuable items across the border?

I can see them handing over their passports and customs declarations to the officer as she asks them:

“What is the purpose of your visit? Business or pleasure?”

“We are following a star”

“Umm… yeah, that’s not what I asked. Are you entering the country for business or pleasure?”

“A little of both I guess. We are looking for the king of the Jews.”

“Yeah, well, isn’t everybody. I guess we can just check the “business” box on these forms. Where will you be travelling while you are here?”

“Umm, we’re not really sure, just gonna follow the star until it stops.”

“Yeah, again, that’s not really the answer I was looking for. Listen why don’t all of you step aside and go see that nice officer over there; we have some additional questions we’d like to ask.”

And let’s say they are lucky enough to make it through homeland security, following a pat down, thorough check of their records and probably the confiscation of their gifts. Just think what awaits them at the hospital.

“Hi, we’re here to see the king of the Jews.”

“First and last name please?”

“Ummm, we don’t have one, but Herod told us he was here. And there is this thing with the star above the hospital.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, but according to HIPPA rules, without a first and last name I can’t release any information.”

Given the new rules of hospitality enforced in the name of security, safety and freedom, there may be little chance for a modern day epiphany story if it occurred in contemporary America. In fact, if Mary were a product of the current American culture, I have to wonder if she would even think to let a couple strangers near her newborn, especially ones who might look as well-traveled as these souls may have been.

When I launch into one of Caitlyn’s recent adventures, my mom never misses an opportunity to share with me how much Caitlyn and I are alike, especially when I was her age. It is often a reminder of how I have changed in the ensuing years. You see, Caitlyn is a no holds barred extrovert, who implicitly trusts others, who loves new situations, and who has little anxiety about change or meeting new people.

For example, over the past couple years, Elizabeth and Caitlyn have attended a music class together on Saturday mornings. After they return, I would generally ask Elizabeth how things went. With a hint of melancholy, Elizabeth would often report how Caitlyn would wander the circle during class. It wasn’t that she couldn’t sit still, though that certainly was an issue. It was more a function of her social nature.

Caitlyn would wander the circle telling everyone hello and looking for the first available open lap to plop down in, regardless of who owned that lap, and join the festivities. The other parents in the group ate it up, telling Elizabeth how much they wish there children were more social. We just wanted her to sit still for a 2 minute song.

So, I do not look forward to the days when we have to teach her about safety and about stranger danger. I only hope that I can help her distinguish between being aware and being wary. Because the difference between the two will impact her life and the lives of those around her forever.

You see, I think awareness, as a fundamental disposition towards the world, is about taking in information, assessing its relevance, and acting according to the emotional and mental responses we have towards that information. To be aware is to recognize the happenings of the world, whether good or bad, and be informed by our hearts, heads and guts as to how we might react to the circumstances around us.

Wariness, on the other hand, prejudices the world and those that live in it as something dangerous. Wariness without awareness is a predisposition; it is the result of a decision that has already been made; and it is an attitude towards the world that somehow the world, or the people that inhabit it, are going to do us harm.

Wariness imbues a situation with caution, fear, and anxiety before anything has happened. Honestly, there are many dangerous things in this world. There are certainly times when being wary can save our lives. But truly, what kind of life do we lead when all we are is cautious? What is the purpose of living in a diverse and creative world, if all we cling to is fear or safety?

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I walked by a homeless man in front of a King Soopers on Colorado Blvd. He was leaning against the wall near one of the entrances, wearing a baseball cap, dirty flannel shirt and stained jeans. He wasn’t holding a sign, nor was he approaching people for money. He just seemed to watch as people passed by; present, yet invisible at the same time.

I was in a rush, or at least that is what I told myself, so I hastily made my way from my car to the entrance, careful to walk on the other side of the sidewalk. All the while, I felt his eyes on me, but I was too involved with maintaining the integrity of my personal space. He didn’t say a word, and with a brief glance I noticed that he had averted his eyes to the ground, as if he might be ashamed or embarrassed. I made my rounds in the grocery store, and intentionally left by a different set of doors so that I would not be confronted with the uncomfortable feelings that the previous non-encounter had engendered in me.

This encounter had new meaning for me when I read the news this week. By now most of us have heard the story of Ted Williams, dubbed the homeless man with the golden voice. A man who was videoed and then made into an instant celebrity when that recording was seen by over 13 million people on YouTube.

The person in this story that you may or may not know is Doral Chenowith. Mr. Chenowith is a member of a small Methodist church in Ohio and is also a videographer for a local news outlet. He was also the person who made and released the video that changed Mr. William’s life. As his friends and family explain it, stopping to talk to homeless people is standard operating procedure for him, whether his camera is with him or not. He has a special gift or talent for seeing people that are often invisible to the rest of us.

His rationale for this kind of behavior is simple. As he explained to one interviewer, “It’s a part of my faith, you may not be able to help someone with money, but you can at least say hello, how you doing, and look at them.”

His words make me wonder if the man out in front of King Soopers was embarrassed and ashamed or if it was me who felt those things.

Now you know, as well as I do, that we all have different gifts and talents. I am not on a crusade to get us out of our cars talking to every homeless person we see. But something must fundamentally change, if we are going to creatively engage our faith in meaningful ways.

In a culture that feeds off of wariness; a culture whose life blood these days is built on fear, the threat of violence, anxiety and mistrust. As a people of faith, we have to decide if wariness is the best way to live out that faith.

There are certainly people, pastors even, out there who would tell you that there is no other way to interpret the world. But that seems to fly in the face of hope, and more to the point today it may even keep us from experiencing the kinds of epiphanies that can change our lives and world.

You see, while epiphanies can come through our relationships with objects and places; most often they come through interactions with other people in the world and our faithful interpretations of those moments. But that requires us to take some risks in our lives; the kind of risks like the Magi took in following a star; the kind of risks they took in stopping to ask for directions, and then heeding the warning of a dream.

To push aside our wariness and be aware of the world around us can be nothing short of an epiphany of its own. Awareness helps breed the kind of radical hospitality needed to confront the perpetuation of fear and mistrust. Awareness helps us see people as people, rather than people as problems. Awareness enables us to greet people and situations as novel and full of possibility, rather than always seeing new moments through old rose colored lenses. We might even begin to understand awareness as a precursor to epiphanies.

As the author of Matthew reminds us, the Epiphany story is one of inclusion, of remembering the grand gestures of a God who is for all people. Epiphanies aren’t our opinions about things, they aren’t the radical concoctions of pundits, politicians or even some preachers. We would do well to remember that an experience isn’t really an epiphany unless it somehow expresses the great hope and love of a God who sent a child into a dangerous world to be a messenger of faith, hope and love through his relationships with others.

At some point we will have that talk with Caitlyn about the possibility of danger in relationships. My greatest hope is that we do it such a way that she doesn’t lose that innate curiosity and joy that comes in meeting people where they are. She will learn soon enough that there are plenty of people out there willing to fan the flames of discord, fear, violence and mistrust. I, for one, can only hope my voice does not join that chorus.

The Hills are Alive...

I’ve heard it said that confession is good for the soul. So, go ahead, it’s okay. You can confess that your first thought upon reading the sermon title was the title song from The Sound of Music. You can confess to picturing yourself in a long blue dress, or lederhosen for the men out there; spinning around in a green meadow on an Austrian mountain, singing at the top of your lungs, until with a gasp you fall backwards into the grass and flowers.

And, looking up to the deep blue sky, you ponder the eschatological nature of Jesus’ ministry, or the attributes of God in relation to creation, or why you might bother to wear leather work pants while singing on a mountain top. It’s okay, you are in a place of confession. You’re even allowed to acknowledge that you might want to make the hills come alive with the sound of doctrine.

While we’re on the subject of confession, I might as well admit to an indiscretion of my own. The pulpit, for some reason seems to be a place of confession.

My rarely spoken of act happens under the cover of darkness. On these nights, I wait patiently until my wife and daughter are asleep and the house is quiet. I settle down into the cushions of the couch in our basement. Sitting there, I whip out the remote control and begin to reprogram the television in order to find some of the stations that normally never see the light of day in our home.

With the television ready to broadcast those illicit channels, I sink a little further into the sofa and let the words and images wash over me. Talking heads full of perfectly gelled hair, million dollar smiles and crowds of adoring fans draw me into the world of televangelists.

I find myself basking in glow of cheap easy grace that requires little more of me than to send in a pledge card, a check and say a quick prayer. And so, I sit there in the flickering light of the television and hope that the blissful ignorance of unquestioned and faith-filled positivism will make me feel better and quiet the discontent of my mind. I pine to go back in time to the point when all of this faith business was as simple as these carnival barkers for Jesus make it out to be.

I mean if I just believed what they had to offer; I would be wealthy beyond my wildest dreams; I would have a permanent smile on my face from all of the ways God blesses me; I would no longer have to worry about this world and its problems.

I sit there and get the chance to think that my self-esteem is the only thing that matters in this world. After a few minutes of this kind of theologically self-affirming navel gazing, I re-program the television to cover my tracks and shuffle off to bed. Of course, when I awake the next morning, I feel a little dirty and ashamed at my night-time exploits. Which makes me wonder what is it that sometimes draws me into that grand Messianic Industrial Complex.

I mean one obvious reason to watch is for the sheer entertainment value. The interpretations of scripture are often laughable, as are the ornate chairs and television productions from which they are proclaimed. Then there are the rooms full of gushing fans and the serious call centers waiting to take down your pledge information, or maybe if the price is right say a little prayer for you. It’s entertaining to watch people try and drum up support for the impoverished, the unsaved and the outcasts from the comfortable confines of a television set.

Yes, entertainment is one reason to watch televangelists, but mostly, I think it is their confidence that draws me in to that world. Because, it certainly isn’t their doctrine.

Most televangelists by my count are one trick ponies when it comes to doctrine. There are the theology of prosperity types, who claim that if you make a positive affirmation of faith, and tithe, preferably to their church, then you will receive untold wealth and blessings from God.

Another trick that some of them claim is the eschatological prophetic vision. These are the doomsayers that sit behind faux news desks and trot out the same old scriptures over and over again in order to support their claim that the end of the world is near. The problem is they have been claiming this for 20 years, using the same tired interpretations and nothing’s happened.

Now, some televangelists are “the baptize all nations” folks. They are the ones who plead for you to save your soul and make the commitment to God. They are the weepy big haired women or the perfectly styled men with the strong voices, nowadays they even come in tattoo-flavored for the kids in the crowd.

Finally, there are the faith-healers and positive thinkers. Their doctrine generally comes from the power of positive thinking movement with a little God thrown in, just to make it feel Christian. They are ones who believe that everything is up to you and if you just think right, God’s blessings will flow, as if God were some magical spigot you could turn on and off.
In fact, our parable today (Luke 18: 1-8) is one that would bolster most arguments that these kinds of televangelists would make. They might say, if you pray hard enough and in the right ways, you will convince God to act on your behalf. Persistence and positive thinking helps get God off the couch and on the road to helping you with what you need.

For all their faults, the one thing they do well is preach these messages with confidence and charisma. They don’t hide their beliefs. They speak their minds, teach their doctrines, and tell you what to do and believe in order to encounter God in your life. And despite the shallow waters in which they theologically tread, people eat up their confidence and message as if this were the last meal we would ever receive.

You would hope that people would bored with a one trick doctrine. You might hope that we would be wise as serpents, realizing that just because something is repeated over and over again, it doesn’t make it true. You would think that we would grow bored with the repetition and lack of complexity. But we, as a nation don’t, we keep listening to the confidence and the faith that televangelists have in their message, believing just as they do, that the more we hear it, the more likely it is that that message is true.

When Paul warns us about finding teachers who merely parrot our opinions, under the guise of faithful teaching, I think in a narrow way he was warning us about the televangelists of his day. More broadly, he was warning us against finding one simple comfortable position or thought or teacher and never stretching ourselves in life or in faith.

Paul was reminding us that the Gospel is something radical and life-giving, challenging us to see God in the world no matter how messy it gets or alone we might feel sometimes. Sound doctrine, in many ways, is a reflection of the notion that the Gospel “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” More so than that, doctrine forms the building blocks upon which we live out our faith in the daily moments of life.

Doctrine helps us interpret the world through faith colored glasses. It helps us grasp at both the biblical witness and the events unfolding in the news with an eye towards how God continues to work in the world. And, whether you know it or not, you carry doctrines with you wherever you go. Because our doctrines form beliefs, which guide our actions and reactions.

We minister types will occasionally converse about theological worldviews. Which is a fancy way of asking, “how does what you think and believe about God impact the ways you physically, mentally, emotionally and relationally interact with the world?”

A theological worldview is basically a living, breathing doctrine which guides our steps, making the world meaningful by placing theology and faith as central to the way we interpret everything: from family to parenting, voting to vacationing, from what we eat, wear, drive to where we live, work and play. We learn about doctrine so that we might begin to make sense of our experiences in meaningful ways that reveal our beliefs and faith in God.

Doctrine is something that can make the hills come alive as they sing of God’s creation. It is something that makes relationships more meaningful as we seek to see the image of God in one another. I think the major difference between the doctrines we learn and live by and those of televangelists is that ours recognizes the complexity of God’s world. Furthermore, we embrace that complexity, seeking God in moments of knowing and in times of mystery.

Let me tell you why it is important that we teach and preach and read about doctrine, why we gather together in fellowship and also seek to care for one another. We do this so that in those moments when the world comes crashing down upon you; when you knock at the doors of life until your knuckles bleed, and yet the door remains closed; when the mystery and complexity becomes overwhelming and things no longer make sense. We teach about doctrine because: it is in these moments when the rug is torn from underneath our feet that a solid foundation of faith is vital. It is in these moments that we must be able to find the truths of faith that sustain and guide us, so that we might find rest and hope again.

We must find ways of embracing sound doctrine so that we might live confidently and boldly in faith. And yet, so often our doctrines, the life blood of our faith, remains hidden from the world. We are found scratching our heads like disciples hearing a parable for the first time, often offering nothing of meaning, and when we do speak the words of faith, they fail us and world laughs or cries at our silence.

And so, when children kill themselves because the doctrine of the world they inhabit is violent and unrelenting, and safe places are few and far between. And when the church is strangely silent, even though our hearts break with the families and our anger boils at a culture that allows such tragedies. We seem lost.
We must all begin to find ways of speaking, with words and actions, through the foundations of our faith. Because, when we cannot speak with confidence about who we believe God is and how God works in a complex world, we no longer are relevant to the world around us. And people begin to believe that the truth from the church comes from mouths of televangelists.

If you are willing to let them be the voice, your voice, of Christianity, so be it. Stop learning, stop listening, stop reading and stop stretching yourself and your faith. If not, then go and find the places, the classes, the books, the people that will challenge you. Go out seeking to meet God in the world wherever that might be and boldly live as a proclamation of the good news of hope and love that God has shared with us all.

Jubilee Sunday Prayer

God of faith,
     We celebrate the coming of the fall,
     As the leaves change and the weather cools,
          We look to a new year of study and fellowship,
               To new moments of worship, mission and evangelism
     As we pull the coats from our closets,
          We ask that you surround us with your loving presence,
     So that we might see the world afresh and live more deeply in faith.

God of grace,
     We lament with those whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the
     destructive presence of fire;
          We pray with those who lost loved ones as we mark the anniversary of
          September 11th;
               We pray with those who have lost homes, belongings and livelihoods
               with the fires in Boulder;
                    And we pray for those who find it necessary to meet violence with
                         For those who would lift up one Holy book by violently
                         destroying what is holy to others;
As we awaken to this changing world, O Lord, broaden our narrow minds so that we might find meaningful ways of living with our neighbors in ways which reveal your kingdom of heaven on earth.

God of hope,
     We often speak of imagining a world that honors your presence,
          Yet we prefer to believe that our limited ideas about you and your love
           reflect the only reality around us.
               Remind us that you are bigger than our concepts, descriptions and
                    Enable us to live imaginatively, seeing the world anew through the
                    eyes of a childlike faith;
               So that our lives might be an ever-living thank offering to the grace
               you have shown us.

We ask these things, humbly seeking the guidance you offer in the prayer taught to us by your son…

Labor Day Prayer

On this day, O Lord
     We celebrate the journeys that are undertaken by choice,
          and lament with those who are forced to move from their homes
               whether by natural disasters,
                    human oppression, poverty or war;
     Each of our journeys begins with but a step,
          and as we place one foot in front of the other,
               make the steps we take purposeful and light,
                    make them gentle and strong,
     and teach us to walk with one another as a global community of faith;
          finding meaning in the steps we take along
               as well as those which are taken hand in hand with others.

O Rock and Refuge,
     as we anticipate a day of rest from the weariness this world imparts,
          guide our steps so that we might find moments of joy this day.
               enable us to remember that your son often took days of rest
               and honored the Sabbath by remembering you in prayer and
               with thanksgiving;
                    help us honor and remember your presence as we lay our burdens
                    aside in order to breathe and soak up the goodness of your world.

God of peace and justice,
     even as we stretch our legs and enjoy the day before us,
          we remember the miners in Chile,
               we remember those who are affected by renewed violence in Africa,
                    we pray for those who are returning to their homes
                    on the east coast,
                         and we pray for those in our own communities whose
                         next steps are hidden and uncertain;
     open our eyes to the many who labor, but are not rewarded;
          open our ears to the cries of those who have little rest;
               open our hearts in faith so that we might love in ways which
               reveal your hope for this world.
We ask these things, ever mindful of the prayer taught to us by Jesus,
the one we call the Christ...

...and I feel fine

The text today is taken from the 21st chapter of the Revelation of John, verses 1 through 6. In this passage, we are privy to John’s vision of a new heaven and earth. He imagines the decent of a new city out of the heavens, which is often the focus of preachers who take the words of this passage literally. Searches across the internet will divulge artist renderings of the descent of the new Jerusalem. However, this passage is about so much more than just the plopping down of a series of buildings onto the earth. In fact, if you read this closely even the idea of a new Jerusalem is nothing more than a metaphor for the ways in which God dwells among us and calls us into community with one another. Moreover, the main message of this passage may be found in the latter verses rather than the imagery of the first few. Let’s take a look, and listen to how the Spirit speaks to the church today.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

No court of law would have ever convicted me. Technically, I wasn’t lying; and any halfway decent lawyer would have saved me from any punishment I would accrue for my actions. After all, I was spending the night with a friend. I just didn’t happen to tell my parents where.

This was how I found myself sitting on a sidewalk at a strip mall at 3 AM. About a dozen friends and I were enduring a humid night in the concrete jungle in order to be the first in line to get concert tickets. In those days it was a risk to try and wake up early to phone in an order. The internet was no help, because, really, the internet as we know it today did not exist for this kind of purpose.

So we sat at our urban campsite, leaning against the bricks with copious amounts of snacks and distractions, watching the music store to make sure we were going to be first in line. Every once in a while one us would break out in a frenzy, flailing at the thick blanket of mosquitoes that hung over us on that Florida night. In our minds, there was great value in being the first in line for tickets to see a favorite band. And so we sat, and ate, and played guitars and held Olympic quality shopping cart races.

A few hours later we would migrate to the other end of the strip mall and camp out in front of the door of the store to buy our tickets to see REM in concert. A year earlier REM, a little band out of Athens, GA, hit the big time. And though we knew many of their older songs, in 1988, REM released one of their biggest hits entitled “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”

Like most years, 1988 was full of well-known and obscure events. We were wearing: Acid washed jeans and denim jackets, leggings, leg-warmers, shoulder pads and Hawaiian shirts; we were watching for the first time, the Wonder Years, Murphy Brown, Yo! MTV Raps, and America’s Most Wanted; we went to the movies to see Rain Man, Die Hard, Big and Bull Durham.

In 1988 we would celebrate an Olympics, elect a president, and mourn those who died on a plane blown-up by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland. But, one of the main things I remember about 1988 was probably one of the more obscure things for others.

Early in the year, a little book was introduced to the world by a former NASA engineer and student of the Bible. The book, entitled “88 reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988”, sold 4 million copies and was freely distributed to over 300,000 pastors around the world. It claimed, among other things, to have scientifically and mathematically deduced the end of the world. So convincing was the argument that even Trinity Broadcast Network interrupted its regular programming during the second week in September to play, over and over again, a show dedicated to teaching people how to survive in a post-rapture world.

As you can deduce, 22 years in hindsight, the author might have been a little off on his calculations. In fact, in the months afterwards, he went on to publish new versions of his book in 1989, 1993 and 1994 before people stopped listening to him. You know I have heard it said that the popular definition of insanity is when someone tries the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

I am not even going to venture a guess as to what you might have expected from a series of sermons on Revelation. Our series this summer on eschatology (say it with me, eschatology, which means the study of the last things), our discourse on the eschaton (or last days) has taken a different course than popular literature or those late night ecstatic and erratic preachers.

This summer, we have spent time understanding that there is more to the Revelation of John than fantastical creatures, gory subplots and the destruction of the world. In some ways, I imagine that it might be a little disappointing that we didn’t spend more time with the four horsemen or the seven signs and seals. After all there is much more entertainment value in the imaginative parts of Revelation than the practical ones. And where a television preacher like a John Hagee might try to scare you into believing, by pointing to the death and destruction that awaits your mortal soul at the end of times… we focused our energies on things like love, patience, fear, tolerance and hope.

One of the major critiques I have of the fire and brimstone preaching I hear on late night television is their seething disdain and even hate for life and the world. There seems to be a deep seeded fear of change on one hand and a groping for some kind of ultimate change on the other. It fascinates me that people feel as though this world lives on a precipice and their only mission is to push us off the cliff.

This is a world, that God created and called good; these lives and bodies that help us navigate the world, that are gifts from God; and the relationships that we share with others, which are indicative of the community God calls us into; Some might even say that those who are trying to bring about the end of the world, are hell bent on doing so.

It’s as if, for these preachers, God has abandoned this world. That God is so far removed from us that nothing good can come of this life; and the best they can do is try to force God’s hand into making the rapture a reality.

And so you won’t often find preachers of this ilk working for peace, because the more destruction that is around them, the greater claim they have for the imminence of the end of the world; they don’t have to genuinely love, because hate proves their point about images of the anti-Christ, persecution of Christians and the coming rapture; they don’t have to be patient or seek hope in or for this world, because God is coming at any moment, and according to their prophecies, they and their followers are ready to go.

It is as if they took a look around the world in disgust, and threw their hands and heads to the heavens expecting that Jesus will just funnel down onto their shoulders saving them from this mortal coil. They, in effect, have become so heavenly-minded that they are truly no earthly good. And their position about the apocalypse and a New Jerusalem, through this lens of disdain for the world, becomes one of the more nonsensical, non-theological and unbiblical positions any one can take on the life of faith.

I am of the mind that you cannot simultaneously love God and despise God’s creation; you cannot honor God and do nothing to show that you understand what the Kingdom of heaven is like; this is why we spend a summer talking about the pastoral impact of John’s Revelation.

I can pretty much guarantee you that anyone who promises to know when the end of the world is coming, is lying. I can also assure you that most people who spend their time looking for signs about the end of the world, or predicting the future of God’s world, lack any significant measure of faith in humanity and the world God has created and ordered. When you read Revelation, you are reading a pastoral letter to a community suffering under a political nightmare; it is much like some of the letters Paul sent to other communities, only it is written with a lot more zeal and imagination. When it comes down to it, when we read Revelation, we are reading a call to live a life of deeper and greater faith.

When we reach this part about the New Jerusalem, I believe we come to find one of the most important messages of the Biblical witness. Namely, that God dwells among us; that God is with us, luring us into new moments of life where endings and beginnings become muddled and murky. For me, the story of revelation has less to do with destruction of the world and our eternal rewards and more to do with God’s presence and how God holds us in God’s memory.

The most meaningful acknowledgement we can make is not that God is coming, but that God is already here, that God has never left in the first place. The New Jerusalem is the realization that each new moment brings about the possibility for novelty, for creativity, for comfort and for hope. Every moment we feed the hungry, a New Jerusalem descends washing away an old world by refreshing life through the waters of a living faith. Every time we care for those who are sick, a New Jerusalem descends from the heavens and the tears that cloud our eyes and cause so much pain are wiped away. Every moment we tend the wounded, gather in community, confess our sins, forgive and are forgiven, A New Jerusalem descends from the heavens reminding us that everything that was old is new again; that even in death, life can be found in the presence of God; that with each moment of life, our God, the Alpha and the Omega, extends a cup of living water that renews our souls; in each moment of our lives when we plant a mustard seed of faith, the Kingdom of Heaven descends upon the earth and begins to grow once again.

As John Cobb, Jr. put it, “what we are and do from moment to moment matters to God, and what matters to God now matters to God forever, and therefore what we are and do truly matters. We should not be tempted into being observers of a meaningless show. We must be participants in the healing of the world.”

It is no lie that this world will end for each one of us. In fact, each moment we live is a moment of death and resurrection. Our comfort lies with our faith in the presence of God, with the idea that even though our worlds end, they will begin again; and in that process we are not forgotten. We can rest comfortably knowing that God’s memory is long and true, and that no matter the circumstance of our arrival at a particular moment in time, we do not arrive alone, nor do we leave alone.

Our world is a constant cacophony of beginnings and endings, of old cities and new Jerusalems; and in this way, Revelation does reveal “the end of the world as we know it…”; but it also reminds us that God is with us, that God comforts us, and that through a living faith “we feel fine”.

Thinking the Worst

What’s the worst that could happen? It is probably the most over-utilized question in situations where something egregious is probably going happen.

I stood there with my friends as one of them sat in his father’s car. He just received his license and was finding great joy in, as the kids used to say, “burning rubber” in an empty car lot. He circled around the area in this smallish maroon Dodge, leaving black streaks along the asphalt. The little car took the punishment well.

After an especially loud and pungent loop he stopped in front of us and rolled down the window. With the infinite wisdom of a sixteen year old boy, he admonished us to stand back. He decided that he was going to put the car in reverse and then slam the transmission into drive so that the tires could truly smoke as they spun on the asphalt. He claimed to have done it before to great effect. With a shrug, he declared “what’s the worst that could happen?”

The car began accelerating in reverse and we saw his brow furrow and lips grow tight. With wild abandon his shoulder grabbed the shifter and he wrenched it with all of his might. At that moment the car halted its backward momentum and the tires began to squeal. Abruptly, the car halted with a loud clang. A look of worry washed over my friends face as he slammed on the brakes. Running to the car we watched him struggle with the shifter.

Apparently, one of the worst things that can happen is that a car’s transmission will no longer function as it was intended. A panicked look crept up my friend’s face as the shifter remained stuck. I think, at that moment, he just thought of his parents and imagined the worst that could happen.

Bad things happen; it is a part of life, a part of risk, a part of living. Good things happen as well; also as the results of life, risk and living. One of the great sins of the church may be that we often err on the side of bad things happening. When it comes down to it, the church actually risks very little. It is almost as though we ask and answer the “worst that could happen” question before anything has been said or done. Risk is what the church, what our faith is built upon.

How would we be different if we risked transforming our theologies? How would we change if we risked becoming radically hospitable? What would we look like if we lived into the transformative nature of faith, hope and love?

To be the church is to ask the question “what’s the worst that could happen”, and believe that it is of greater risk to not do something rather than step out in faith and believe God will be present to these moments in life.

In the end, there will be times when we step out in faith and drop the transmission of our cars through reckless abandon; in those moments when we face the worst that could happen; we realize that we never face them alone. So, maybe, the worst that could happen is that we sense God’s presence and strength in the face of disaster. In the end, that might not be such a bad thing…

I Really Don’t Care

I don't care about your salvation. I don't need to know if you think you are saved. I don't really want to know your testimony; the exact moment, place and emotional state of your recognition of God? I really don't care. In fact, I am pretty sure that God could care less about your perceived moment of salvation. God knows it all anyway. In fact, if we want to be all Reformed about it, then God chose to be in relationship with you long before you could speak, walk or control your bowels.

I sat in a small circle with a group of college students. As we were talking, one person piped up and said let's share our testimonies. He leapt right in to his own life story, sharing moments of health issues and healing which culminated in a life altering moment where God suddenly became real and he was saved for eternity. Like a good little sheep I pulled every hair-raising story from the recesses of my mind and came up with a pretty good emotional journey which culminated at an alter call in Jekyll Island, GA. As the storytelling continued we reached a good friend of mine who basically said "no".

We were perplexed at her response and asked her to elaborate. She said (and these are my words 10 years later), "I don't have any tragic stories. There are no great emotional moments or epiphanies. In fact, I hate telling testimonies because it feels fake, and it puts down the people who haven't endured suffering in their lives. I don't see the need to tell these kinds of stories. I just know God is there and that I am trying to listen."

Needless to say our campfire moment came to an abrupt halt. Little did I know, she was the most Presbyterian among us. We were used to the evangelic language of the deep south and the idea that if you couldn't describe that moment of epiphany, you weren't a real Christian. I look back on that day and see the courage and faith it took to save the group from itself. In her words, I see more of God than any others that were shared.

And so, while I really don't care about your salvation, I do care about the times in your life when God becomes real. In the Reformed Tradition we have this silly notion that God has always been with and for us, long before we could acknowledge it. Our whole idea around Baptism is that God, out of God's love chooses us for relationship. So, our stories about conversion are more myth than reality in the Reformed Tradition. A more accurate assessment of these narratives is that they are the moments when the faith God has instilled in us from birth becomes real. We do not save ourselves in some grand gesture, God is been working a minor miracle of grace within us, hoping we might recognize the deep relational bonds of the divine-human connection.

In a recent article, John Cobb, Jr. challenges the church to take on as its mission "working with God for the salvation of the world". If you read this, then read that article. It is brief and full of important ideas about the true meaning of salvation. Furthermore, it reveals the kind of salvation I do care about. This kind of salvation seeks to move beyond the eternal reward and begin to think about the impact we should be having on the world as faithful people. So, while I don't care about your salvation, I do care about the manner in which you are a party to the salvation of the world.

I do want to hear your stories of struggle, success and failure as you try and live out the relationship God has initiated. I want to know about your deep wounds, created by a world that has somehow failed you or the ways in which you have failed as well. I also want to hear how God is challenging you to accept the love and grace of a living faith and life-giving relationship. I want to know how you are working with God to save the world.

Thought Provoking Things

Over the past week I have read several things that made me think or see the world with a different set of lenses. Here are three of them.

Sometimes the Facts Don't Matter : In this Talk of the Nation interview we learn that when people learn facts that are contrary to the "truths" they hold as beliefs, the facts don't change our minds. This got me thinking about the people who get scared when we tell them that truth is relative. It is because truths are often based on the beliefs we hold rather than the facts we know. A fact is true, but a truth is not necessarily a fact.

Speaking of facts, Gravity Doesn't Exist. In this NY Times science article a physicist and string theorist theorizes about gravity and its existence. To make a long story short, he doesn't believe gravity exists. His argument is based on the laws of thermodynamics, and the notion that there is something that causes gravity rather than gravity being a force of its own creation. It is interesting to me that science finds these revolutionary moments around the time something is accepted as a fact, turning what was previously known into a truth.

Finally, Teddy H. builds another one. This one hits a little closer to home. I am glad T.H. has found God again and is building a missional church. However, this reinforces a belief of mine (a truth if you will) that some large churches are built on the personality of the preacher. One of the few reasons I remain a Presbyterian is the focus on lay-lead ministries rather than cults of personality. It is important to me to believe that the community of faith has a voice, a vote and a vocation in making the church work to its fullest potential. I wish T.H. the best; I wish that his experience had opened him to accept a broader theological position; I hope that his betting the farm on expanding so quickly doesn't come back to burn him. I seem to remember him saying that this was a church for downtrodden of society. Moving to the 2000 seat civic center doesn't seem to invite those kind of people. What a quick turn around...


Murky Waters

I was not thrilled as I looked at the gray sky before me. A smattering of rain drops pelted my forehead and I frowned a little on the inside. Wandering down the gravel pathway we scoped out a perfect spot for our picnic. We checked the ground for sticks and goose poop. Satisfied that we were safe from both squishy and poking objects we set up camp for the next few hours.

Two blankets, numerous Tupperware containers, a glass of lemonade and four scattered shoes later we settled down to listen to the free jazz concert in City Park. We chatted a little; watched Caitlyn dance and play around the blankets and scoped the area for some friends who we knew were heading our way. The rain held off, save for a few droplets here and there.

Our friends would arrive about twenty minutes later, and our two blanket camp blossomed into five. Wine was poured; food eaten; conversations came and went. We laughed as the two boys and Caitlyn tested the surroundings. They were both about six to ten months younger than her. They were, as it has been said before, all boy.

As the evening wore on, Caitlyn was content to stay on the blanket and watch the world around her. This was a new development and one that my spouse and I welcomed. Caitlyn has never been one to sit still and we were relieved to have some time together without one of us chasing our wild horse.

As the daylight waned, the two young men, no longer enamored with the sticks they were using to dig holes in the ground, noticed a rather large mud puddle across the gravel trail from our picnic spot. They began by poking the puddle with stick, gradually placing their feet into its murky depths. Then the fun began…

Soon afterwards they were the hit of the picnic area, running the length of the puddle, covered in muddy water from their feet to their waistbands. The other picnickers watch with a sense of joy and laughter as the two boys ran faster and the splashes grew larger. Several other children attempted to join in, only to be caught by their parents before their first step could hit the water.

Caitlyn watched this from across the trail. Smiling as the boys moved from one side to the other. She asked if she could join them and we said no. She asked again, and again we said no. To her credit she never cried, never fussed and so when asked a third time, we said sure. We put her on the ground and watched her cross the trail. Caitlyn doesn’t run so much as prance; she lifts her knees up high and kicks her feet out to the side a little. She lined up at one end of the puddle and began running towards puddle, full of elbows and smiles.

The crowd around the puddle held their breath as she hit the edge of the puddle. We watched as the smile was torn from her face replaced with what could only be described as a look of horror. It took her another three steps before she realized that she had made a horrible mistake. Rivulets of muddy water stretched up the back of her legs; her once pink shoes turned a dark shade of brown. On the third step she veered off course and back onto the dry ground, seemingly in shock.

I sometimes wish I had the tenacity and flexibility that Caitlyn demonstrates. She saw something she wanted and went for it. Sometimes we do need to take the risk and experience new things. This is how we learn and grow through our experiences in the world. If we remain comfortable and clean then the world becomes boring and simple. A muddy puddle is a complicated thing depending on how we experience it. For two little boys and the crowd that watched them it was a revelation in joy and unfettered fun. For a little girl and the crowd that empathized with her, it was an uncomfortable experience in a wet sticky muck.

This is where Caitlyn’s flexibility shone like a bright star. It only took three steps into the puddle to realize that it wasn’t for her. She didn’t bother taking the remaining six to eight steps and finish trudging through it. She veered off course and evaluated the situation. Reflection on the decisions we have made, the positions we have taken is crucial to experiencing a novel world and making meaning out of it. One of the greatest sins of modern liberal and conservative church goers may be our inflexibility and the belief that we are always right. Rushing headlong into the mystery and murkiness of faith and theology without reflection we succeed in only making our self muddier and muddier.

As we step together into the novelty of each new moment, what are risks we need to tenacious about and how will we know when to stop and be reflective and flexible about the path we are taking?

Do Not fear (Just Kidding)

The reading this day came Revelation 2: 8-11
‘And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: ‘I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

From my second to my eighth grade years we lived in the same home in Decatur, Georgia. It was an old ranch style bungalow that, at one point, had its top popped and then lovingly wrapped in lime green asbestos shingles. By the time we moved into the house it was in dire need of updating and my parents set about the task of renovating it from top to bottom. This was a project that last every day from the moment we moved in through the final week before we sold it and moved to Florida.

Our slowly transforming lime green abode was the first house on a block bordered by businesses behind and to the west of us. Thankfully, there was a vacant lot that provided a bit of a buffer between our bedroom windows and the car dealership next door. That vacant lot was ringed with large oak trees and when we first moved in it was neglected, but you could see clearly from the street to the alley in the back. As time wore on, the weeds continued to grow until they formed a canopy of flimsy trees.

It was a wonderful place to play hide and seek or any manner of games that involved chasing another person while being slapped by bushes and branches. Throughout the days, months and years, our constant running wove a path from the street to the alley which enabled us to quickly move from one end of our house to the other sight unseen.

One day, a few years before we moved, I took off out of the back yard with a friend following close behind. I broke out in a full sprint around the corner of our garage and headed towards the path in the back of the vacant lot. Careening through the branches which floated over the edges of the path, I rounded a bend in the path at full speed with my friend only a few steps behind me.

The moment I rounded the corner my eyes widened as I dug my heels in the ground and skidded to stop about a foot from a large spider which sat in the middle of its web spun directly across the trail. My abrupt stop alarmed my friend and, hands out, he pushed into my back as he attempted to avoid running over me. His momentum edged me forward to within inches of the spider and its web. My heart pounded in my chest as I focused on the spider and directed my muscles and body to avoid it at all costs. I felt my body contort into an oddly tall banana shape as my arms curved over the top of the web and my feet felt as though they slid underneath it. I desperately began to backpedal trying to escape, and I felt myself let out a scream as I was being pushed ever closer to the web. Somewhat angry, definitely afraid, I practically climbed over my friend to retreat back the way I came faster than I had ever run before.

For the last two and a half years I spent my time wondering and learning about the emotion of far. During that time, I have been aware of two things, that God often tells us not to be afraid; and that fear is an inescapable human reality and one of the most powerful human emotions and forces in our lives.

To be afraid is to be human. It is to act out of the most basic emotional instincts and reactions to something that threatens us. I think, maybe, in a weird way, God tells us not to be afraid so much mostly because we really can’t help it. You see, there is this little part of our brains that makes the emotion of fear an inescapable reality.

Out of clay, the great potter saw it fit to add a little fear center to our highly evolved brains that makes us squeal like a helpless toddler when something threatening surprises us. This is why the words “do not fear” can often feel out of place. I mean, seriously, has God seen the world lately? All the floods, earthquakes, oil spills, wars, all of the crime we hear reported, and the constant food and medicine recalls. The world can be an overwhelming and scary place, and God has the audacity, when our bodies are hardwired to experience fear, to tell us not to be afraid.

The summer before I began high school, we sold that formerly lime green house and moved to Florida, far away from that frightful vacant lot. It was the first time I ever had a bathroom to myself. It was a three quarter bath, with a tiny shower stall, but it was mine.

When I showered in the morning before school I would often hang my towel over the shower rod so that I could dry myself off without tracking water everywhere in the bathroom. One morning upon finishing my shower, I began to retrieve my towel. As the end of the towel whipped over the rod, I saw that a large brown spider had ridden its way to the top on the tail end of the towel...

The next few moments happened in slow motion as I watched the spider leap off the towel, certain that it was going for my jugular. I pressed my back against one wall as it plummeted into the small shower stall with me, legs splayed into, what I was convinced, was an attack position.

As soon as it hit the floor, I leapt an equal distance out of the shower, simultaneously throwing my towel on top of it. I quickly turned on the shower. Remembering that the rain washed the itsy bitsy spider out and I was going to make sure it washed this one away as well.

Later I went back to retrieve my towel only to find that the spider was gone. For a few days afterwards I had recurring dreams of a sopping wet angry spider stalking me throughout the house…

One of the reasons that fear is so important is that it helps us survive in a world that can sometimes feel overwhelming and threatening. There are things out there, people, places, animals, objects that make the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. These things make us want to run, to protect ourselves, to somehow escape to live another day.

In the case of our passage from Revelation the threat is the suffering, probably more specifically, the pain and torture that would accompany the suffering. The church at Smyrna recognized that there were threats in their midst; people, institutions, leaders who wanted to do them harm and to make them suffer for what they professed.

Rightfully so, they became afraid. Maybe they insulated themselves from those around them, hiding their faith and beliefs. It is natural to want to run when fear strikes, to sever the relationships that might cause us harm. Fear, left unchecked, can take over our lives and isolate us from people who care about us; it can isolate us from a community of faith, or a family, or even God. Furthermore, fear is contagious. Once something frightening is reported to be true, our imaginations take over and we begin to become more aware and suspicious of our surroundings.

One of the major stories of American history will be the attacks on September 11th. A footnote to those attacks is the five people killed by anthrax sent through the mail about a month afterwards. The reporting of these ominous letters set off a small panic in certain circles of America.

One of the interesting things about humans, or any animal for that matter, is that when we experience the emotion of fear, we become quite self serving. Fear, quite appropriately, leads to activities related to self-preservation and self-importance.

Once the widespread reporting of this credible threat reached a saturation point, a new industry popped up to exploit this goal of self-preservation. Anthrax protection kits became the rage, as stores slapped together a breathing mask, rubber gloves and goggles and marketed them as a cure for our fears. Not to be left behind, purveyors of plastic sheeting and duct tape were boxed together as protection from biological or chemical agents.

The makers of the original duct tape went so far as to create a new product which promised to seal the corners of your windows so that nothing could get in or out. A few months after these attacks we began a war on terror, a war on fear if you will, which continues today.

What is interesting about our war on fear is the tactics begin used; we tell everyone to be more vigilant, to be more aware, essentially to be more afraid of everyone and everything in order to prevent feeling terrorized.

The ironic thing about fighting fear with more fear is that it inevitably leads to greater isolation, suspicion and discord. When we fight fear with fear, our imaginations get the best of us. And ordinary garden spiders suddenly become shadowy figures stalking us in the night; ordinary people become enemies before anything is known about them; and the church isolates themselves from the people around them, pushing away the challenges and possibilities that come with novelty and creativity.

But the amazing thing is that despite all of the times we give in to our fears, God remains faithful. To the church in Smyrna, the command is that they remain just as faithful. That they have hope, even in the midst of their trials.

During my two years of study on the emotion of fear, I came to learn one important thing that helps us understand what God is asking us to realize. That is, that fear and hope are inextricably tied together.

There is no fear apart from hope, because without hope there is little reason to live, to want to survive, to attempt to thrive.

When we are afraid, we are afforded a window of opportunity to remember the things that are important to us. Fear not only saves us from something that threatens us, it also saves us for tomorrow; for all of the relationships that are meaningful to us; for all the places that help us realize God’s presence; for all the dreams that provide meaningful windows into the future.

To be afraid is not the end of the world, it is merely a fact of the world. However, for those of us who believe in an active God, a God that cares for us, a God that provides the possibilities for a hopeful future. Fear can be something positive that reminds us what is worth living for at the end of the day.

The message to the church in Smyrna is the same message that is given to the church today. The world will be a difficult place; there will be times when the obvious response to the things happening around you is fear. Don’t worry though, fear is a natural response to these difficult moments and threatening things; just remember, fear is not the end of things.

Your faith, the faith that sustains you, the faith that gives you strength, the faith that you profess in a living God is more powerful than anything that threatens you. In fact, if you look hard enough at those moments of fear, you will see the hope of God as it plays out in the meaningful moments and relationships of your life. So go out into this world and be afraid, but don’t let fear rule your life. Instead live in the hope born of being a son or daughter of God…

Pastoral Prayer – June 6th

O God,
Our source of strength and life,
We come before you this day,
Humbled by the gifts of your world,
Some of us standing firm in the realities of life we face,
Others of us faltering as world consumes our energy;
Wherever we stand this day, O Lord,
guide our next steps,
enable us to run without growing weary,
strengthen us to walk and not grow faint,
for in these moments where life teems around us,
we stand ready to hear your words and act on your wisdom that guides, heals, transforms and sustains our lives.

O God Most High,
Our world is a mess,
In the pursuit of short-term gains we forget that the world lasts longer than our meager lifespan,
We drill holes in the ground,
Knowing we have little to no plan should disaster strike,
For our efforts we devastate a coast line,
Ruining the lives of fish and fowl,
And the livelihoods of countless people.
Forgive our arrogance and belief that we have the right to conquer your creation.
In the pursuit of personal freedom and gain,
We forget that the world is a much larger place than our own backyard,
Than the interior of our cars,
Than the size of our bank accounts;
As a result we leave the world worse than when we found it;
We take care of our families, of our own;
And our small circle of life is better for it.
But we truly forget what it means to risk, to lead, to step out in faith and love those around us;
Forgive us when we refuse to see past our noses,
When we refuse to get messy;
The world is a messy place, and while we will not clean it up in one generation, we can give the next one a head start.

And so, O Lord, on this day, we try;
We baptize children who may be the next leaders of the church; who may discover answers to questions of faith and science; who may lead us to a greater love, faith and hope in a messy world;

On this day, O Lord,
We commission youth and adults to serve, love and share your hope with the world. We send them forth to do your work; to make the world a better place with each step they take, with each brick they lay and with each word they say. Steady their hands and hearts to be a witness to your love and to receive a witness of love from others.

We ask these things, binding these words to those of our hearts, in the name of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit who emboldens our lives and creates the space within us to be greater than we were yesterday. With one voice, we humbly ask that you would hear our prayer, as we remember the prayer taught to us…

3 years

It's been almost three years to the day. My last post came right around the time I began my dissertation. This one comes at the end of that particular road.

A lot has transpired in that time. I became a father. I am a licensed therapist. I am a Doctor of Philosophy. I am a pastor again.

My hope is to ease into this world again. My writing has taken a turn for the academic. This is not altogether a bad thing, just an outcome of the company I have been keeping. Now is the time (and hopefully there is now time) for me to remind myself there is life outside of academia.

I hope to post once or twice a week at this point. The topics will seem similar to those before. I can only hope I am not howling at the wind. Though, if I am, it will be a mighty howl...

grace and peace...

Who do you say we are?

Seriously, who are we? What are we? How did we come to be in this place at this moment in time? I know you can probably ask, and answer, this for yourself. However, think a bit bigger if you will. I am asking about your anthropology.

I know, fairly big word, first post in almost six months, plus I doubt many will read this post anyway (and of those that do, even fewer will respond); yet, doesn’t all theology, to some extent, begin with anthropology? Our experiences of the world, of people, of ourselves provide us with qualities we often ascribe to God.

Yes, we can certainly hope the God we believe in is more than the projections of mere mortals. In fact, that may be our greatest hope, that God is something infinitely more complete than our brains, our experiences, and even our hopes might concoct.

Yet, even these enduring qualities only make sense through our experiences in life. It is said that God is love, but what is love apart from the experiences of the emotion we have had, or apart from the relationships that sparked such emotions? Is the Love/God the entity of Falwellian preaching? Does this enduring/infinite love have limitations as that former preacher might endeavor to assume? Is the Love/God the entity of a schoolboy/schoolgirl crush? How even could we assume to know what love is in order to posit it to the Other?

We see dim reflections in mirrors (according to Paul at least) and in those reflections I would say we assume to know who or what God might be. We posit absolutes where the reflections are nothing more than smudged and fuzzy pictures of reality. In the end, we proclaim who God is without fully understanding or even taking responsibility for what it is we are claiming.

So, then, who do you say we are? Because who you say we are reveals who you say God is as well. After all, those dim reflections are nothing more than smudged self-portraits of often scared and lonely (joyful and hopeful as well) people. Anthropology has much to say about theology and vice versa.

As for me, at this moment in time, my hope lies in two places. First, my hope lies with that smudged self-portrait, in that fuzzy Imago Dei.Second, my hope lies with the realization that without a brighter object than myself, there would be nothing to reflect in the first place.

Grace and Peace…


What if there was an alternative to balance?

I know I said earlier that I wished to give up on balance, to let go of its safe confines and stretch out into a world that needs more than people who can only balance themselves precariously between two relatively distinct points. Work and family, serious and playful, depressed or hopeful, we often set up false dichotomies that lend themselves to the idealization of one particular way of being and also a sense of failure when we cannot achieve relative satisfaction in either domain.

Jim, a reader and commenter here, is retired from his "profession" but now works in an educational setting with kids with special needs. Why (My answer is based on my own thoughts and nothing that Jim has reported to me other than what I have read on his blog, I would expect him to correct anything I have to say about him)? He has worked most of his life and conventional wisdom says that the balanced approach to his life would be one of leisure and "retirement." Therefore, is Jim out of balance? Is he upsetting the apple cart with his approach to life? My sense is Jim has found something meaningful in his life that provides stimulation to the person he is and is becoming. Jim, in my own words, lives harmoniously with his circumstances.

Harmony is my substitute for balance. Where balance seeks a middle ground between two points, harmony seeks to embrace both points as valid and seeks to complement the multiple ways that life unfolds before our eyes. Harmony performs, plays, creates and builds on our lives. It can enrich an otherwise bland performance by altering the experience and the one who does the experiencing. To be in harmony with one's surroundings is to awaken oneself to the world of the moment, rather than looking forward to a different point in time where one must attempt to even out experiences and allay guilt.

I really have nothing against those who strive for balance. Balance can even be a way of living harmoniously with one's life. However, the more I think about harmony, the more I think it can offer an alternative to the pop culture mindset that has embraced balance and shunned grasping for the meaning in the moment. Balance works because we are a rational people. It can even be said to be Biblical, sort of. The greatest commandment is a three-way balancing act, God, self, others. Then again, how can we balance three separate things? There are no three-way teeter totters on the playground.

Maybe the greatest commandment is best enacted as a harmonious part of a life engaged in the moments of our lives. Harmony says that we do not have to sell all we have and give everything to the poor. However, a harmonious life might seek simplicity, might seek to honor God, self and others with the gifts of their life. It might seek to hear the stories of those who hurt and share their own stories of hurt and hope. I have often heard it said that the earth sings of the creation of God. If this is so, shouldn't we take the time to a hum a few bars back to the Creator?

yesterday and today

I have seen motorcycles with flags blazing riding down the street in an impromptu parade.

I have briefly surveyed the media's rendition of a memorial service.

I have watched names being read, and wreaths being laid.

I have listened to reports about being prepared for an emergency.

All of these things are meant to remind us to remember. But what is it that we are to remember? Death? Evil? Coming together for a brief second? Economic destruction? Fear-mongering? I'm not sure what I am supposed to feel (or even remember) these days.

Whatever goodwill we gathered has been used and abused. The event we memorialize has been turned into a political stump upon which dissenters and those critical of the current way of handling things are constantly beheaded.

Furthermore, what are we, as "Christians," supposed to do with this day? Undoubtedly some amongst our midst will use it to further the cause of hatred in the world based on religious views; others will use it as a sacrament to inextricably tie Christianity to this particular nation; still some might see it as a prime time for an altar call. Regardless, I have no doubts that Christians everywhere will find some way to interpret this day as a rallying cry for a "God"-fearing vindictive stance to those things that are different.

At a conference this summer I spent some time with a group of people talking about the events that took place at Columbine a number of years ago. One of the sticking points for many "Christians" was an impromptu memorial that happened in a local park after the event. At the memorial, crosses were placed for ALL of the people who died including the two shooters. Those in the community decried the placement of these crosses as an act of insensitivity and they were forcibly removed from the memorial.

When we memorialize things, I think we have a tendency to glamorize them as well. We turn ordinary people into martyrs and perfect them through the reporting of their lives over the public airwaves. However, there are those who commit acts that hurt other people, and they are human beings as well. Just as we deify the lives lost, we also demonize those who take lives. How are we to deal with these people, the ones who commit atrocious acts but are nonetheless also creations of God? We have ignored our responsibility as "Christians" for too long. Instead of being a conscience for this nation, we have become crusaders bent on domination rather than humble servants of a God bigger than we can comprehend.

The people who committed these acts do not have to honored, but their circumstances and their lives need to be remembered as well. Moreover, we need to ask the tough questions that led to the creation of their beliefs and actions. We need to understand both our complicity in the creation of their situation (global poverty and hopelessness among others), and their responsibility for their actions. Christians, above all, are about the business of grace and yet where is the grace in the memorialization of this day? If we are about forgiveness, then where are the preachers and theologians who are crying out for this discipline on this day? If we are about justice and righteousness, then where are the voices who are speaking out against global poverty and economic justice for all people so that some of the conditions that breed hatred can be alleviated? If we are about peace and grace, where are the "Christian" voices that are speaking out against violence, war and terror?

Instead of a day of memorialization this can become a day of dialogue. A time where we can come together and talk about what needs to change in the world so that events like this no longer are necessary. Maybe someday we can realize that behind every religious veil we created to hide or separate ourselves from one another hides a human being who is struggling to make sense of the world, the meaning of life, and their responsibilities.

grace and peace

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