A Long, Slow Journey

This past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) took the step of recommending to its nearly two million members that the denomination change its constitution to include same-gender marriage; and, allow its ordained pastors to officiate same-gender marriage ceremonies in states where same-gender marriage is legal. When I first heard the news, I was mostly relieved. Relieved that the leadership of the church had finally, formally, recognized the beauty, and legitimacy, of such unions. And relieved to know that I could now, happily accept any requests to officiate a same-gender wedding - robe, stole and full regalia.

Yet, if they had done this twenty years ago, I might have thought about leaving the denomination.

I first experienced the presence of Christ during college, within the loving embrace of a vibrant, evangelical community. This community introduced me to the Grand Story and the three-person God behind it all. They revealed to me the joy, purpose and hope that comes with giving your life over to the care and direction of God, through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. They introduced me to the breadth and depth and beauty of the scriptures; and the health and healing that comes within a caring, intimate group of other disciples. Most of all, they welcomed me in to space and time set apart for God; and, one day, within that set-apart place and time, I realized that Jesus was present with me - the risen Christ, the Anointed One alive and present. I am, literally, eternally grateful for those brothers and sisters in Christ.

It was within this community that I first started hearing rumblings of discontent within a "small faction" of the greater church world - those who were gay and lesbian (at the time, we talked mostly of the "L" and the "G" part of the "LGBT" community and didn't even really think of those with other orientations). I heard there were arguments taking place over whether or not gays and lesbians could be ordained leaders within a congregation. Membership was a given: "We're all sinners. If we made purity a requirement of membership, the church would be empty." But ordained leaders were held to a higher standard. It was acknowledged that leaders, as fallen human beings, would still slip up, but as long as they admitted the sin as sin, repented and sought forgiveness, it would all be okay. So, according to the understanding of the community I first learned from, a homosexual orientation wasn't really the issue, it was whether or not you "acted" on it. That was the sinful part. The phrase I learned early on was, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Of course, the assumption underlying all of this was that homosexual love, expressed in its most intimate act, was a sin.

These were not ignorant, illiterate, mean-spirited people. These were bright, thoughtful, self-giving disciples of Christ who read the scriptures, understood in a broad way the reality of historical context and issues of translation, and believed, deeply, that God forbade homosexual acts. Further, because of God's "clear prohibition" in the scriptures, anyone who supported homosexual love was "selling out", "watering down" the Word of God, and "caving in" to society's immorality. They pointed out the scriptures to me, both Old and New Testament that they believed supported their views; and, to me, at the time, it all seemed pretty much as they said.

I don't know when, exactly, my understanding of the scriptures changed. But, I have spent the past twenty-plus years studying the scriptures intensely, meditating on them deeply, and learning from as many others as I can along the way. My focus has not been on any one issue, argument or situation currently being faced by the church. I have simply sought with all my heart and mind to know what God has said and is saying. As one consequence, for me, I now feel strongly that every single scripture that has been used to condemn same-gender relationships can be interpreted, with complete scholarly integrity, to reveal otherwise. I think I've known this in my mind for quite some time. What has been far slower to change, though, has been my heart.

In part, seeing same-gender couples together, especially holding hands, kissing, embracing, simply took some time for me to get accustomed to. Early on, I thought my discomfort was because "it was wrong." Now, I realize I just hadn't seen many same-gender couples in my life. I imagine it was like what some people experienced in the days when mixed-race couples first began to feel safe enough to be seen in public. I watch scenes from movies about the 50's and am shocked by the hatred expressed at what is now an accepted part of the fabric of our society. Often our discomforts trouble us simply because we haven't been accustomed to something.

In addition, my heart has been slow to open entirely to the beauty and goodness of same-gender relationships, because it felt like a betrayal of myself, and God. Those first lessons I learned from that community through whom I first met Christ settled in deeply. For a long time, I feared that giving up any one of those first beliefs might lead to me giving up every one of those beliefs. Honestly, I feared losing God entirely. Christ means everything to me. I couldn't risk losing him. So, a part of me held on tightly, deeply.

I don't know exactly when I finally let go. But I have now. And instead of losing Christ, I feel like I see my Lord profoundly larger, more loving, and far wiser than I had ever imagined.

Part of the reason I chose to commit to a large, "Old Growth" denomination, was the desire to be rooted deeply within the historical church. I worried that If I didn't have a weighty history and tradition grounding me in the Christian faith, I might too easily drift off. Committing to an old-growth denomination means acknowledging that we are not the first people to follow Christ, nor the first to read the scriptures. It means giving voice to our ancestors on what we believe to be true and right. Sadly, that means sometimes we are slower to let go of those things we have been wrong about. I deeply regret all those who have been hurt along the way by the denomination and me; and, I ask forgiveness for me and the denomination I represent. It's taken me twenty years to get it right, and the denomination even longer. But, I thank God for the steps the PC(USA) took last week, and that I'm still here twenty years on.


I know it won't happen; but, what if? What if our entire country stopped for a day and prayed? Prayed to whatever God, gods or higher power we believe in, and listened? Listened for what God truly desires for us as a people in relation to guns, violence and brain illness? And then, because we had been able to come to some sort of mass consensus, we actually did the right things?

I have a hard time believing that our society would continue that way it is. I have a hard time believing that we would think that having so ridiculously many and appallingly destructive guns is what God wants for us. I have a hard time believing that we would think that having negligently open access to guns is so absolutely "essential" to being human that we are willing to sit back and do nothing while innocents are slaughtered! I have a hard time believing that we would think that leaving people with brain illness on the streets without care is what God wants.

I know this vision won't materialize, but it should. I know this dream won't come true, but if we have any connection to God left whatsoever, we have to continue to dream it.

Tomorrow, the Christian church will remember the day when the Holy Spirit flooded into our world in a dramatic, new way. The moment had been promised for centuries. Jesus - the Anointed One - reiterated the promise; and, several weeks after his resurrection and ascension, as his followers were gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the Spirit arrived and dwelt within them all.

One of the most important effects of the coming of the Spirit into their lives was the coming of dreams and visions of what life might be, of what life could be, and should be. As one of the Anointed One's followers proclaimed,

This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. Hear what God says!

In the last days, I will offer My Spirit to humanity as a libation. Your children will boldly speak the word of the Lord. The young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Yes, in those days I will offer My Spirit to all servants, both male and female, and they will boldly speak My Word.

It was the inspiration, truly the "in-spiriting", of the Holy Spirit that led to the creation of hospitals so the sick were not simply quarantined and left to themselves. It was the Spirit that inspired the abolition of slavery and the end of segregation since all human beings are created in the image of God.

And the Spirit not only inspires dreams and visions, the Spirit also empowers us to make those dreams come true. As Darrel Bock writes,

The key to accomplishing [the dreams God inspires] is the enabling work of God's Spirit...A quick look at Acts 2 [cited above] shows how Peter himself is transformed from the timid figure of denial and failed nerve at Jesus' trial, to a preacher with fearless enthusiasm before an immense crowd at Pentecost. The contrast evidences the Spirit's transforming power at work.

Thursday afternoon, June 5th, another lonely, brain sick human being, took a weapon designed for ripping gaping wounds in mammals, took 50 rounds of ammunition, and walked onto a college campus wanting to blow away the lives of other human beings. In this case, he walked into Miller Hall on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, killed one human being and tried to kill many more. Now, families are grieving the loss of their children; students, faculty, staff, first-responders will live with nightmares and insecurity for the rest of their lives; and, families, students, faculty, staff and first-responders in other parts of the country have had their wounds from previous shootings torn open!

What if the whole country just stopped? Stopped to pray, to repent, to ask forgiveness, to seek guidance, and accepted God's power to act? Even if it doesn't happen on a national scale, that does not mean that we have to submit to the same path of sin that we have submitted to so many times before. The spirit still inspires us now, giving us dreams and the power to make dreams come true. God wants this sin to STOP! And the only way that is going to happen is with God's vision and God's power, with the inspiration and empowerment of the Spirit.

We can't make the whole country wait upon the Lord, but we can do so ourselves.

May we have the humility and courage to be guided by God. That we might see the day when no human being ever shoots another human being and all those who hurt, and suffer, who are in want, are cared for and healed.

The Quiet Good

For years, my drive to work in the morning took me past a blight on the city's landscape. Heading south on Aurora, I would pass the infamous "Thunderbird Motel." For those who have spent almost any time in Seattle over the past few decades the mere mention of the Thunderbird Motel will immediately conjure up visions of hypodermic needles, stained mattresses and police cars. Passing the motel in the stark light of morning revealed every decrepit detail of decay with a harshness bordering on cruelty. This was a sore best left to the darkness of night.

Over a year ago, the city put us all out of our misery and shut the place down, boarded up the windows and fenced off the property - condemned it. Mercifully, months later, the big rigs rolled in and tore the place to the ground. All that was left was the parking lot. Even a barren lot was better than what had been.

Not too much later, I noticed, with great delight, that new construction began in its place. As the weeks passed by, a pleasant structure began to form. On a stretch of highway known for low-slung motels and businesses in converted, old houses, this new building even had some architectural creativeness. For a while it did appear as if the color scheme would be a rather dull grey. Yet even that took a turn for the good. The crew finished the building with a lively design of yellow, tan, and white squares. In contrast to the grime and grossness of the Thunderbird, this new building appeared bright and hopeful.

But I couldn't figure out what it was for. No sign went up during construction, or after. Occupants moved in. Still no sign of who they were, or what they were doing. However, considering what had been there before, I drove past every morning thankful for whatever it was.

Then, about three months ago, I found out.

Years ago, a friend of mine had a very well-paying job at one of the companies in Seattle that has an international profile. He is a fantastic accountant and was firmly established. But he hated the constant pressure put on him to use his skills to increase the company's profit. After an anxiety attack that manifested as a heart attack, doctor's cautioned him that the real thing might not be that far off. He quit his job soon after and thought long and hard about what he really wanted to do. He ended up working for a non-profit that built low-income housing around the state. Within a few years, he combined that work with his faith background and went to work for the Archdiocese of Seattle overseeing the building of all of their low-income housing. Over the holidays this year, he and I were having a beer and catching up on each other's stories.

I'm sure many of you have already made the connection by now. But, the building that replaced the infamous Thunderbird Motel was built by my friend. The building is now a safe, warm place of shelter for those having a tough go in life. It is a place where they are not given a key and left to their addictions and loneliness; but given a key and provided with services and a caring community. Quite a renewal for that plot of land on Aurora.

You may have noticed also that I haven't given my friend's name. I thought about it and decided I wouldn't. After finding out it was his project, the next time I drove past the building, what struck me was how good and decent and significant the renewal of that property was, but how quietly it had all happened. Rather than try to make a big deal out of that specific good work, I'm thinking maybe it is even more important to ponder how many good works we each pass by every day and don't notice. After this particular experience for me, I'm now thinking that it happens all the time. Yet, rather than feeling discouraged that the good isn't celebrated with a louder voice, it's perhaps even more encouraging to me to know that all around me, all the time, the Spirit is at work, quietly breathing life into the world. Lack of commotion, or promotion, isn't a sign of the lack of people doing good. It's simply a sign that those who are doing good work are often far more concerned about doing the work than making noise.

The God of Outsiders

In studying for the sermon last week (Sunday, July 18), I came across a brief section of a larger prayer that caught my attention. It lies within the prayer Solomon gives at the dedication of the newly completed Temple. Solomon is standing before all of Israel, publicly proclaiming his desire for God’s blessing on this glorious new building. Early on, Solomon sums up in one word his greatest desire from God, praying, “Hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” (1 Kings 8:30, NIV translation, italics mine)

Of all the things Solomon could have requested of God, he chooses to emphasize forgiveness. Why that in particular is the topic for another time. Suffice it to say for now, that Solomon then elaborates on this prayer with seven specific scenarios in which most require some sort of forgiveness from God. However, one scenario, in particular, does not ask for forgiveness at all. It is the one scenario involving the prayers of “the foreigner”:

“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel
but has come from a distant land because of your name – for [people]
will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched
arm – when [the foreigner] comes and prays toward this temple, then
hear from heaven…and do whatever the foreigner asks of you.”
(1 Kings 8:41-43, NIV, italics mine)

Even if Solomon had reversed the general tenor of the scenarios and had asked, mostly, that God “do whatever” the good church-going folks ask of Him, and “forgive” the “foreigner”, I would still have found the prayer somewhat gracious. But, the way in which he truly prayed I find astonishing. I could fill another page qualifying this request from Solomon; but, I won’t. I think we are meant to hear this in all of its audacity. In fact, the next line in Solomon’s prayer reveals his own intentions for this part of the prayer. His desire is, “…that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.” (1 Kings 8:43)

To know someones name, in the scriptures, is to know who they are in the fullness of their character. In this case, answering this prayer, as prayed, would reveal a God whose door is open to “all the people’s of the earth”, a God who hears their prayers and answers them, a God whose first concern is that they “come from a distant land” to be with Him.

Throughout the scriptures, both Hebrew and Greek (i.e., Old Testament and New), I have found these passages that reveal God’s love for those outside of the circle. From Day One, literally, God’s desire has been that all peoples live within the loving embrace of the Trinity. God’s initial act of creation is full of grace, gift. Always, God’s initial movement towards those not yet within the fold of love is gracious. Further, the persons who God is most demanding of are those who claim some special favor by being on the inside.

In a world so violent towards those who are standing on the opposite side of various lines, I find every word of God’s that reveals God’s love for the “outsider” both encouraging and challenging.

Here We Go…or, at least, Here I Go.

I have a bit of a quirky job. One of the things I get paid to do is ruminate. I read, study, pray, contemplate, meditate, procrastinate. Ooops, that last one just kind of slipped out. Beware unattended alliteration.

The goal of all of this rumination is to somehow find a connection, a bridge, between the dust and dirt of the ancient scriptures, and the damp earth and glass towers of present-day Seattle. I will readily admit that it’s a good gig. I love the challenge and the whole process from study to sermon.

One of the only frustrations I have, though, is that I ALWAYS discover, or am reminded of, way more good stuff than I could, or should, ever share in one sermon. By Monday, I’ve moved on and all that good stuff gets left behind also.

And so, “Hints & Guesses”. I am starting this blog that I might share some of those good things – ideas, authors, images, etc. – with anyone and everyone who cares to look in now and again. I make no claims of brilliance on my own part. However, I am often pretty good at spotting it in others. So, I will look to share only those things that might catch your breath, cause you to pause, maybe see the world a little differently going forward.

I won’t restrict myself to the dirt and the dust of the ancient scriptures. I plan as well to share the good stuff I gleen from the damp earth and glass towers of present-day Seattle. One day maybe it will be a posting about the source of Solomon’s wisdom; on another day, it might be a line of great wisdom from a Fleet Foxes song.

I should also beware of false advertising. I doubt I will be posting one “day” then the next; as might be inferred from the above paragraph. Realistically, I’m shooting for at least one post each week. I would love to think that I will really start rolling and be one of those bloggers who starts writing about a great idea / thought even before they’ve had one. But, likely not. In addition, no one may be interested in my “hints & guesses” at all. Well, if such is the case, at least I’ll have a written record of some of the good stuff I have come across and be able to find it easier.

The Title

A word about the title for this blog. Some of you will recognize this phrase from T.S. Eliot’s, “The Dry Salvages”, one of the Four Quartets. The phrase is from a line that follows a passage about the difference between saints and the rest of us. Eliot writes that, “…to apprehend / The point of intersection of the timeless / With time, is an occupation for the saint.” He then goes on to say:

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarna-

I’m not a saint. But I’m fortunate enough to have an occupation where I can focus on what Eliot calls “the rest” – prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. My hope is that out of all of this you and I might be able to experience a few more of those “hint[s] half guessed” or “gift[s] half understood.”

Have You Heard the One about the Comedian and the Priest?

In a wonderful way, it isn't a joke. I know many of you saw the words that comedian, Patton Oswalt, posted on Facebook after the Boston Marathon bombing (and before any information on suspects had been released). For those who didn't have that opportunity, the normally very funny man, wrote a very poignant piece on facing the evil and darkness that the act represented. I'll share just a few of the thoughts he wrote:

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, "Well, I've had it with humanity." But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem -- one human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths. But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet...every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness...But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evildoers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation...So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."

I must admit that I was completely taken aback by the depth of beauty and thoughtfulness Mr. Oswalt's post revealed. I love his comedy (check out his tweets for Downton Abbey, or his "Parks & Recreation" improv on YouTube). But I had not expected such inspiring words from the same person.

And it reminded me of the purpose I intended for this blog - to share "glimpses of God's beauty and grace in a messy world." Mr. Oswalt did that for me, and many others, at a bleak time. Further, as my last blog was a bit outside my stated purview, Mr. Oswalt prompted my to get back to my preference. Specifically, his thought that there are many in this world who fight against evil and attempt to bring light into darkness brought to mind the story of a person who was recently awarded the Medal of Honor for actions he took in the Korean War. Ironically, the Medal honored only the smaller portion of the good he did during that conflict.

Just two weeks ago, on April 11, 2013, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to the relatives of the Rev. Emil Kapaun. In a quirky move, since the Medal is awarded only for bravery "in combat," Rev. Kapaun officially received the honor for actions he took at the Battle of Unsan, on Nov. 1 and 2, 1950. As quoted from an article written by Stan Finger of the Wichita Eagle:

[Kapaun's] 8th Cavalry regiment was overrun by Chinese forces. He helped aid those wounded in battle with no regard for his safety. Witnesses said Kapaun ran 200 to 300 yards outside a shrinking defensive perimeter to rescue wounded U.S. soldiers despite enemy fire.

Such action is worthy of recognition and honor, certainly; yet, it was his actions after the battle that are truly remarkable. As Finger points out, "[Rev. Kapaun] also stayed behind and let himself be captured by the Chinese forces so he could care for wounded U.S. soldiers" (the italics are my addition). One of those who was interred in the same prison camp through the winter of 1950-1951,Mike Dowd, 85, witnessed Rev. Kapaun's truly heroic work:

He's personally responsible for saving hundreds of lives, and probably contributed to saving thousands of lives that winter.

Having interviewed many of those present at the ceremony who had served with Rev. Kapaun in either combat or in the prison camp, the reporter, Stan Finger, relays that, "...the only things keeping them alive were handfuls of birdseed or stolen food, and the spiritual and emotional nourishment offered by the priest from Kansas." Specifically, Finger writes:

After his capture at Unsan, Kapaun kept rescuing soldiers on the march to prison, persuading able-bodied soldiers to help carry wounded comrades. In prison, he...picked lice off the sick, washed the clothes of the wounded soldiers and with others stole bags of food while other POWs deliberately started fights to distract the guards.

The Rev. Kapaun himself died in captivity.

In addition to wanting to share an inspiring story illustrating the truth that Patton Oswalt was affirming in the aftermath of the horrible events in Boston, I have tried as well to emphasize the fact the Rev. Emil Kapaun was, specifically, a Roman Catholic priest. Part of what Mr. Oswalt was after in his post, was putting the bombing into the context of a much larger story and proclaiming the truth that there is far more to this world than the horror we witness. As rightful as it has been to condemn the horrific crimes perpetrated by Catholic priests through the years, and clergy in general, the truth is that there are far more who are doing good than bad. Therefore, rather than "giving up on humanity" entirely, or clergy specifically, I hope all of us might be able to confront the horrific acts of human beings - whether Muslim, Catholic or Presbyterian! - and know, the good outnumbers the bad, and will win in the end.

On the Mars Hill Church Phenomenon

Now and then over the past several years, I have been asked what I think about Mars Hill Church, based here in Seattle, or about their founder and main pastor, Mark Driscoll. For the most part, Mr. Driscoll has written enough inflammatory, self-incriminating remarks that are a part of the public record that he has made it fairly easy for me to justify my deep apprehension about the damage I believe he is doing to those who listen to his preaching on a regular basis. I have also listened to a half-dozen or so sermons of his online just to make sure I was giving him a fair shake. They only confirmed my fears.

However, the one argument in favor of the work he is doing that has always caused me to hesitate on feeling more justified about the worries I have for those in his congregation has been the sheer numbers of people who are flocking to his church. As has been said to me, and even by me at times, "We ought to be grateful that all those people are hearing the Word of the Lord." I know that the vast majority of those same people would never be attracted to a congregation that I serve as a pastor. So, why not just say, "God bless Mark Driscoll for the work he is doing;" and move on? But I have never been able to make peace with that sentiment; and, it seemed like it was because of more than pure envy alone (though I know some of that was/is mixed in too). I just couldn't figure out why it felt wrong to leave it at that. I think I now know why.

This Sunday marks the day on the Church calendar that we call "Palm Sunday." It commemorates the occasion of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the beginning of what we now call Holy Week. Many of the English translations of this story in the Gospels headline this section, "The Triumphal Entry." And, why not? It is estimated that 10's of thousands, if not, 100's of thousands, flocked to the road upon which Jesus was entering the city, waving palm branches (a sign of welcoming a victorious hero), and crying out, "Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of the Lord!" In John's retelling of the event, he notes that the people even added, "Blessed is the King of Israel! (John 12:13, NIV) Meanwhile, the frustrated mainline pastors, otherwise known as the Pharisees, looked on in total exasperation, even commenting, "The whole world has gone after him!"

It sounds and looks a lot like many of us current mainline pastors as we look on at what is happening at Mars Hill, and in total exasperation think "the whole world" is now going there! So, again, why can't we just be thankful for the crowds worshipping Jesus and move on? My answer is the same as that that the writer's of the Gospel's came to after watching the full story of Holy Week play out. As the week went on, the multitude of people, the thousands upon thousands who were hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the King, ended up realizing that he wasn't at all what they were told he was; and, when they found out who he really was, they ALL left him. The number of disciples who stood with Jesus at the cross at the end of the week was down to single digits!

The expectation of the crowds waving palm branches was that Jesus was a kick-ass stud who was going to pummel the Roman occupiers, throw out the namby-pamby religious leaders and take over like a real-man should! But that is not what happened at all, because that is not who Jesus is. It's not who he was or will be. In fact, Jesus specifically rode into town, NOT on a horse, which would have been a sign that he was coming to kick some ass, but he rode in on a donkey, as a sign that he came in peace. Later in the week, when the authorities came to arrest him and Peter pulled out his sword and sliced off the ear of one of the guards, presaging the "God-given" American right to bear arms, Jesus specifically and thoroughly renounced exactly that way of doing things! "Put your sword back in its place...for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" (Matthew 26:52-54, NIV) Rather than "man-up" like some fighter in MMA, Jesus allowed himself, chose, to be led to his crucifixion "...like a sheep to the slaughter." (Acts 8:32, NIV) This is the same Jesus who shocked similar crowds of people earlier in his career by proclaiming,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10, NIV)

Now, either he was lying, or he really meant that these are the "blessed" ones, not the strong, the arrogant, or the mocking. This is also the same Jesus who showed his own sensitivity by openly crying in overwhelming sympathy for his friends Martha and Mary as they mourned the death of their brother, Lazarus. And, this was no mere trickle of a tear down his cheek as he stoically "manned-up." As Bible scholar, F. Dale Bruner puts it, "I think 'bawling' fairly captures Jesus' genuine heartbreak with and compassion for those around him." (p.678, The Gospel of John: A Commentary)

My fear is that the crowds of people, the literally thousands of people, who are attending Mars Hill Church, Sunday after Sunday, are being sold a false Jesus. I think they are being taught that Jesus is powerful and victorious in an "we-are-better-than-the-pagans-and-weak-Christians" way, a way that Jesus condemned over and over and over again when he saw it in the serious, religious leaders of his day; rather than being taught the Jesus of the Gospels, who is powerful and victorious but powerful and victorious over prejudice, elitism, sin that separates, and death. I fear they are following after a triumphantly, nationalistic Christ that is, in fact, a blasphemy; rather than following the one who came because God so loved the WORLD, that he gave his only begotten Son. I simply do not believe that the Jesus being proclaimed by a man who encouraged his followers on Facebook to share their favorite stories of "effeminate, anatomicaly-male, worshipper leaders," is the same Jesus of the Gospels I believe in. And, simply because there are thousands and thousands of people lining up to hear him doesn't mean they are hearing the true Word of God, or following the King, as Jesus defined himself. Look no further than the crowds lining the road to Jerusalem that "triumphant" day. Come the crucifixion, will they still be there?

Like Taking a Walk

While stopped at a stoplight recently, I noticed a mom and her young son crossing the intersection directly opposite me. She held her son's hand firmly in her own and walked to the other side purposefully and directly. Her son, however, had other things on his mind. He was perfectly enchanted with the broad, white stripes painted on the street marking the crosswalk. While his mom held his hand guiding him across the street, he jumped from stripe to stripe with clear intent not to touch any of the underlying dark grey asphalt. While Mom held his hand firmly and looked about for any oncoming cars, other pedestrians or large dogs leashed or no, he had his head bowed down concentrating earnestly on his leaping. He was in a state of pure abandonment to joy, completely trusting of his mother's capability to both keep him safe and know where they were going. As long as he felt her firm grip on his hand, he could give himself entirely to jumping from stripe to stripe. About the same time I caught this moment of tender trust between mother and child, I read a fantastically liberating quote from F. Dale Bruner in his exceedingly profound, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. In reference to the words of Jesus that John records in Ch.3, vv.14-15 ("You see, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man has got to be lifted up, so that every single individual who is simply trusting may, by means of him, have deep, lasting Life.") Bruner writes the following:

The condition, 'who is [simply] trusting [ho pisteuon],' makes the connection [to deep, lasting Life] so simple, puts the bar so breathtakingly low, and makes the connection with the hoisted one so utterly uncomplicated. No believer's work is described only a decision of the most elementary kind is prescribed: the decision to believe...'Trusting' is all that is requested on the human side...According to this verse, how complex (from our side) is human access to divine Life? As complex as simple trust...the simplicity of trust is not at all an insignificant part of the joy of the Good News. No merit, deserving, struggling, steps, conditions, techniques, disciplines, or inward or outward 'doings' ('works'); no emptyings or yieldings; no adverbs of 'utterly, totally, completely, truly' are placed on our back. Rather, and let us hear the promise one more time: 'Every single individual who is [simply] trusting has, by [Christ's] means, deep, lasting Life.' May this simple gospel never be made more complex.

After reading the quote above, my thoughts kept finding their way back to the image of that young child letting his mother hold his hand and take him wherever it was that she willed. He didn't bother looking up to see if cars were coming at him, he wasn't asking to look at the GPS on her phone so he could see where they were, where they were going and what path they would take to get there. He trusted his mom to take care of all those things. As long as she had his hand in hers, he got to concentrate on jumping.

Would that we all might let the Anointed One take our hands and jump.

On Reading Memoirs

On the morning of February 6, 2012, I sat in my office on Queen Anne hill and read the following sentences, "It was the month of Kislev in the twentieth year. At the time I was in the palace complex at Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, had just arrived from Judah." As I read those opening lines from the memoirs of Nehemiah (as the Message so delightfully translates it), it struck me that these were words written down by a real human being thousands of years ago. They sound like the opening lines of any one of the hundreds of memoirs being written and published every year in our current place and time on earth. So often I read the scriptures with a sense of distance and formality, forgetting that these writers were flesh and blood like us. They dripped sweat, drank water and had to relieve themselves just like us. This experience this morning not only brought the words I was reading from the scriptures down to earth; but, also lifted, at least a little, the words I read of current writers a little higher than pavement upon which we walk. Who knows what will amount to something of great importance a thousand years from now?


It could be nature; it could be nurture. Either way, I am a child of the Pacific Northwest. My personality very much reflects the weather of the area: most often grey, drizzly; occasionally, flashes of sparkling sunshine; followed by heavy downpours. Any comic intent aside, darkness has been a struggle for me. So a while ago, I read about keeping a list of things for which I am thankful. I jot down items as they come to mind and take a look at the list now and again to remind me of things that bring me joy. The danger in sharing any specific items from a list like this is the tendency to try to make myself look good; i.e., "Isn't that sweet...what a wonderful person he must be." So, I'll mostly only share a few random items from my list that tend toward the more superficial; but that really do bring me joy: HD TV on a flat-screen; the call of the Northern Flicker; used-book stores, free wi-fi. Of course, both Bronwyn and Benjamin, our kids, are on the list; and, Andrea, my wife. This week, I've added something new specifically related to Andrea, and that is that she has put up with me for 20 years. I really mean that, "put up with me." I've come to the realization of how difficult I have made it for her for two decades. Yet, she has loved me throughout. I'm hoping that I'm making it a lot easier for her these days. Still, I am deeply grateful for her faithful love even when it has been hard.

In addition to this list, years ago a friend taught me, and some other friends, a great game for gratefulness. We had hoped to hang out on Broadway for the afternoon (Capitol Hill, not Manhattan), but slate grey skies, chilling winds, and pouring rain forced us into Charlie's Restaurant to get something warm to drink. As six of us sat around a table, Miki proclaimed that she had a "great game!" we should play. As she explained it, I cringed. It sounded totally hokey. The idea is to go around the circle with each person sharing one thing at a time that they, "totally" love ( you can probably tell this was the mid '80's). Anything is fair game - "Patty Griffin's music," "being at the stadium when the Sounders score a goal," "Kettle Korn," whatever (those, of course, are more current examples). I have done this with different gatherings of people only a few times since. Every time, though, it has been the same experience: starts a little slowly, people are unsure whether to go "all in" or be cool, then someone mentions something and you think, "Oh, I love that too!" and it reminds you of something else you love. Pretty soon, you want to throw in three of four things at a time so you don't forget before your next turn.

As I write this, it's daytime, but soggy clouds block most of the light from the sun. Leaves are scattered across lawns and streets and cars from heavy winds. Plugged gutters have become ponds. And tomorrow is "Thanksgiving." Some people, very much strangers to me, will have no problem giving thanks tomorrow. Others may need to be more purposeful, like me. Still, even if it is truly only one thing that we can find to be thankful for, I pray that it will be like a seed planted in our hearts. May the rains nourish that seed. May the brief flashes of sparkling sunshine that follow the rains cause the seed to grow, flourish, and provide enough fruit for a feast. I know I have at least one thing to be thankful for; and that is for anyone who has read this far. Thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving.


Society measures success in myriad ways. In addition, we often inflict on ourselves our own idiosyncratic measurements as well. Some of these categories prove to be completely ambiguous - "happiness," "prestige." Some of the time the categories are quantifiable, but discouraging - "income," "place on a corporate ladder." Recently, I came across a definition of "success" that struck me as both easily quantifiable, and delightfully encouraging.

There is no success in life as sweet as making a baby laugh.

At first glance this definition may seem trite or insubstantial. Taken even on its' own though, there is a great depth to be inferred from the relationship it calls for between human beings. However, it stood out for me even more because of its' context. The line comes from the mind of a character in a novel of historical-fiction by Carol Wallace, Leaving Van Gogh. An imagined scene takes place between the real-life doctor for Vincent Van Gogh in his final days of life, Dr. Paul Gatchet, Vincent and Vincent's brother, Theo Van Gogh, plus Theo's wife and child. In the doctor's back yard, Vincent carries his nephew in his arms and rushes at some ducks. In their wild, squawking escape, the commotion causes the baby to laugh. Though the scene is imagined, the emotions and the connections it portrays are true to life.

There is no success in life as sweet as making a baby laugh.

This aphorism got me thinking of a poem from Wendell Berry that I have long thought of as a great guide to a successful life as well. It reminds me a bit of those "commencement speeches" that circulate on the internet every year around graduation time. The difference with this one is that it is quite verifiable and from a man whose thoughts have become more prophetic with each passing year. The poem is titled, "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front"

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for a profit they will let you know. So, friends, every day do something that won't compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. Listen to carrion - put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men. Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth? Go with your love to the fields. Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts. As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark a false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

The Best Definition of Sin I've Ever Read

Most of the definitions of "sin" that I've read, or heard, tend to focus on ethics, the "10 Commandments" (but really only #6-10), the "Sermon on the Mount", maybe some of the lists of St. Paul. All of these have solid precedence for following. Still, something has always been missing for me. None of these taken alone did much for me beyond causing more of a sense of guilt. Earlier this summer I finally found a definition that articulated vague ideas that I had never been able to put into words and, truthfully, made me feel better for knowing! Ironically, the words were not penned by an illustrious theologian, a brilliant philosopher, or a wise, old minister; rather, they came from a novelist who made his living as the head writer of the soap opera, "One Lift to Live"! The writer is Michael Malone. The novel is titled, appropriately, Handling Sin. It's a story both hilarious and sweet, and full of quirky, delightful characters. The definition of "sin" arises in a scene between a soon-to-be-defrocked, Episcopalian priest and his nine-year-old son, Raleigh - nicknamed "Specs." Raleigh tells his father, the Father, of a situation in Sunday School that disturbed him. "Mrs. Jimson [the Sunday School teacher] wrote all these sins on the blackboard. And she says if we do any of them, we have to go to Hell, even if we aren't even grown-ups." A scene that reminds me of all too many definitions and discussions I've witnessed myself, or worse, participated in.

Raleigh's father replies:

'Mrs. Jimson is a horse's ass.' 'Cursing's one of the sins.' 'Bullshit.' Raleigh flushed with excitement. He looked at his father's face, only inches away...He could see his own face in the dark center of the blue eyes. 'Specs, remember when Christ said there were really only two commandments...Love...' 'I already know. Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.' 'Right.' His father rubbed the boy's corduroy knee. 'Well, there's only one sin...What do you think it is?' Raleigh looked in the eyes for a clue to the answer. He didn't like being wrong. '...Not loving them?' 'Right.'

There it is. The best definition of sin I've ever read.

No Good Answer

One of the most devastating questions that I am asked, frequently, as a pastor is, "Why?"  Why did God allow [fill in the blank] to happen? Why didn't God prevent [fill in the blank] from happening? Why does God allow evil, or suffering, or pain at all? Why? I purposely left out any specific details in the questions above, because that is where the problem lies, in the specifics. I always have generalized answers that I could give based on my theological / Biblical training - plenty, in fact. But in the presence of someone actually suffering, none of those answers are satisfying or comforting. It is one thing to draw generalized conclusions from a passage like 1 Peter 1:6-7:

 "Now, for a little while, if needful it is, you have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."

It is an altogether different matter to look into the eyes of a heart-torn mother who has watched her little baby writhe in agonizing pain through months of tortuous treatments, and still dies, and try to answer, "Why?" It is sinful, even, to try to explain away the overwhelming weight of darkness for someone who is sorrowful to the point of death, as was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion.

For a long time I felt inadequate as a pastor for not being able to give an answer to that question; or, at least not being able to give an answer that would lift the weight of grief, darkness and confusion from those who are suffering. But then I heard Dale Bruner teaching on the story of Jesus' crucifixion as told in the Gospel According to Matthew. Dale Bruner is arguably the most gifted teacher of the Gospel that it has ever been my good fortune to hear. For years he taught at Whitworth College in Spokane. He also has written the most enriching, enlightening commentary on The Gospel According to Matthew, that I have ever read.

For those not entirely familiar with the storyof Jesus' crucifixion, or Matthew's particular version of it, I'll recap briefly. Having already been beaten and tortured hours earlier, Jesus' body is nailed to crossed posts and raised above the ground. After several hours of public humiliation and derision, in utter grief and exhaustion, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I'll pick up Bruner's commentary at this point:

Let us begin with the concluding question mark: '?' Jesus' last sentence before death was a question, not an affirmation. Jesus could have ended his life much more triumphantly with a sentence completed by a noble exclamation - 'God is love!' or 'Love one another!' or 'I triumph!'...It would have seemed stronger of Jesus to die with an exclamation, true; questions seem weaker than exclamations. But Jesus has been redefining strength his whole life...This question, the why...means that in some cases we cannot honestly know why....It is not wrong to try to find out why. Often we find out why and are freed. But just as often we haven't a clue, and so Jesus' why is strangely liberating. Jesus' why means that even the wisest men and women cannot always know why some things happen."

Bruner then alludes to the story of Job. Job is a person in the Hebrew scriptures who suffers the tragic, overwhelming loss, of his family, property and reputation. However, before all this suffering occurs, as the story opens, we read that he was a good man who had lived well and done nothing "deserving" of such pain. Some "friends" show up to help him in his grief. They start off well, they just sit with him and let him grieve. Unfortunately, then they start talking. They contend that Job must have done something horrible, because - in their minds, and the conventional, religious wisdom of the time - good things happened because you did good things, bad things happened because you did something bad. A simple formula, as plain as karma. Job contends with God, essentially asking "why?", much to the disapproval of his "friends" (you can't question God!). God finally shows up at the end of the story and doesn't really answer Job's question, directly. However, God does make it quite clear that the friends should have kept their mouths shut because what they said about God wasn't right.

So, Bruner continues:

Job's counselors knew the why of everything in Job's life; they were very devout, and they were very wrong. Shouldn't our possession of the Word of God in Scripture give us access to all the main answers to all the main questions? Yes, but not to every personal question. Jesus' why does not answer the problem of evil or the problem of pain or the problem of suffering, but it is a large step in the direction of an answer. For it tells us in no mistaken way that we cannot know some answers. If Jesus said 'why,' let us all be extremely cautious in saying 'because.'

The one contention I have with Bruner is that he didn't make his concluding statement even stronger. I would put it this way, "Since Jesus, himself, questioned 'why?' who are we to answer 'because?"

I write this as we, Christians, are approaching the celebration of Easter. I will celebrate the event with great joy. But I write this aware at the same time that our joy is not yet complete. For those of us who are still crying out "why", know that we are at least in pretty good company; even though we haven't yet found an answer that lifts, fully, the burden of the question.

Putting It All Together

Almost daily, I am flabbergasted by what technology can do for us. I used to carry around a Thomas Guide book of maps in my car so I could find my way to the various homes, hospitals and churches I needed to visit. Now, I have an app on my iPhone that not only shows me where my destination is in relation to where I am, at that exact moment, but will also give me detailed directions to follow - if I so choose. Facebook keeps us up to the second on where our friends are and what they are doing, even if they are on another continent. With an HD, flat-screen TV, I now even find hockey at least somewhat interesting...because I can finally see the puck ! But, ultimately, as always, the question becomes, "So, what?" What does it all amount to? In her highly encouraging book, Reframing Hope, Carol Howard Merritt notes that, "...facts are so ubiquitous and nearly free now," that they are, "...less important to us." (p.72) Further, she writes, "Whereas we once needed researchers to dig up each piece of information from expansive libraries, the Internet and reliable search engines have placed the facts at our fingertips...In light of this shift, what we really need are people who can present those facts within a context and with an emotional impact." (p.73) What we really need is to understand how all of these fragments of information, and experience, fit together in a meaningful whole.

For me, I am reminded of the context and experience the emotional impact, most often on Sunday mornings, gathered together with this oddball, glorious, broken group of people at the top of Queen Anne Hill. Every week we bring all those fragments of fact and foolishness, joy and tears that we have collected through the days and ask, "So. what?" It's not as if it always comes together in that moment, or every time. Still, it seems that over time, after hearing the Story over and over again, after listening to the prayers, singing the hymns, even chatting over coffee after the service, that a piece will fall into place. Then, given more time and attention, another piece will find it's place in the picture and I feel a little closer to whole.

Merritt shares a story towards the end of the book that helps me understand what the church is all about, or, at least should be. She writes about a pastor she knows in a small town in South Louisiana, surveying the damage to his community after a hurricane:

Walking around the area...it pained the pastor to see the houses torn apart and contents spilled on the ground in broken and tangled heaps. As he walked among the tree limbs, he saw in the dirt [a photograph] of a smiling face. Bending over to pick it up, he realized it was a wedding photo that the storm had ripped and discarded in the street. Someone, somewhere, was missing the photo. He wondered who it could be. So, he decided to open the basement of the church and allow the community to have a photo lost and found. He set up long tables and invited the whole town to bring in any pictures they had picked up out of the storm debris. People came with the bits of anonymous family histories: proud men standing in front of cherry-red Chevrolets, women posing in their Sunday best in front of bursting azalea bushes, anxious couples going to their high school dance, and small children playing on the park swings. Along with the crumpled bits of pictures, people began to pour into the fellowship hall, recognizing parts of their own lives and those of their neighbors. Years after the fact, people still talk about the church that opened its doors to all the torn bits of people's lives." (p.137)

Here's hoping that all churches might, "...open their doors to all the torn bits of people's lives," that we all might find that place where we can gather all the fragments together, that person who can put it all together, the bits and the bytes, and make us whole.

In The Mean Time

I've held off sharing this last poem in the "Christmas Con Carne" series because it is so much more appropriate once we have returned to the routine of non-Holiday life.  It comes from W.H. Auden's, "For the Time Being", subtitled, "A Christmas Oratorio."  It's a brilliant, provocative and lengthy work.  The majority of what I will share is written in the voice of the "Narrator"; but, the piece ends with a beautiful song by the "Chorus".

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -- Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, And the children got ready for school.  There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -- Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully -- To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now Be very far off.  But, for the time being, here we all are, Back in the moderate Aristotelian city Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience, And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it. It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.  The streets Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten The office was as depressing as this.  To those who have seen The Child, however, dimly, however incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all. For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be Grew up when it opened.  Now, recollecting that moment We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious; Remembering the stable where for once in our lives Everything became a You and nothing was an It. And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause, We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose Would be some great suffering.  So, once we have met the Son, We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father: "Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake". They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form That we do not expect, and certainly with a force More dreadful than we can imagine.  In the meantime There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem From insignificance.  The happy morning is over, The night of agony still to come; the time is noon: When the Spirit must practise his scales of rejoicing Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure A silence that is neither for nor against her faith That God's Will will be done, that, in spite of her prayers, God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.


He is the Way Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Fleshy Words

As I have, recently, been sharing some of my favorite poems relating to Advent and Christmas, I have been aware of the irony of it all.  Christmas celebrates "the Word" becoming "flesh"; and poems reverse the process, making "flesh" into "words".  Still, I trust that the appropriateness of the medium has come through in, at least, a general way.  To make the connection even stronger, though, I offer the following poem from Luci Shaw.  Shaw's poems are often delightfully mealy; they are best read aloud, letting the words fill your mouth.  They are almost chewable.  So, I encourage you to find a space where you won't feel embarrassed to be heard reading the following poem, and give your mouth, ears, and heart a treat.

Mary's Song

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast keep warm this small hot naked star fallen to my arms.  (Rest... you who have had so far to come.)  Now nearness satisfies the body of God sweetly.  Quiet he lies whose vigor hurled a universe.  He sleeps whose eyelids have not closed before. His breath (so light it seems no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps to sprout a world. Charmed by doves' voices, the whisper of straw, he dreams, hearing no music from his other spheres. Breath, mouth, ears, eyes he is curtailed who overflowed all skies, all years. Older than eternity, now he is new.  Now native to earth as I am, nailed to my poor planet, caught that I might be free, blind in my womb to know my darkness ended, brought to this birth for me to be new-born, and for him to see me mended I must see him torn.

The Longest Night

Thankfully, over the past ten years or so, I have heard of more churches that have become sensitive to the reality, that for many, Christmas is not the "most wonderful time of the year".  Far too many people have experienced great loss around this time of the year; and, the fact that the majority of the words surrounding us at this season include urgings to be "merry" or "happy", only pours salt on the wound.  While still honoring what is the essential message of Christmas - hope, many congregations now offer a service recognizing and allowing for  grief on the winter solstice, i.e., the longest night of the year.  So, to honor those of us for whom this longest night, its darkness, is representative of the state of our spirits, at least for the mean time, I offer the following poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins.  And, if there is someone you know who may be hurting these days, I encourage you to give a call, send a message, drop by and let them know you care.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. What hours, O what black hours we have spent This night!  what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went! And more must, in yet longer light's delay.          With witness I speak this.  But where I say Hours I mean years, mean life.  And my lament Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent To dearest him that lives alas! away.

     I am gall, I am heartburn.  God's most deep decree Bitter would have me taste:  my taste was me; Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.      Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.  I see The lost are like this, and their scourge to be As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

The Dawning

As I write this, the air outside bites with clarity and cold.  The sky is a crystaline blue and the sun warms every surface it touches.  But the days are short this time of year.  Within a couple of hours the long, dark night will settle around us.  As Christmas Day approaches, in the midst of the pressuring dark, I share the following poem:

First light

It is an early morning like all others. The moonlight slants along the snow.  Faint stars Dissolve into the sky.  The household, Cat and children, deeply sleep.

It is morning like no other morning. There is a signifying in the silver dawn. Stars hesitate, streets listen, Snow melts in tenderness, trees wait.

The strangeness of the moment quiets lungs and blood.  The touching of a cup, The turning of a page, is holy. Even the stillness of the room breathes wonder.

Child, Light to my soul-shadow, my confusion, Coming sweetly, and so small, Growing within, a stealth, a mystery - I am moved by this simplicity.

Transfixed with thanks, folded in love, I cannot adore enough.  I cannot speak. Like trees and snow and stars and street, I too am silent in the widening light.

                                                      Myrna Reid Grant

Christmas Con Carne

Christmas with meat.  Not the usual pork or poultry type -ham, turkey - but human meat: flesh, blood, bone, muscle and sinew. (What a great word - "sinew".  It has the taint of "sin", but the power of "new.")  One of the great truths we celebrate at Christmas is that by coming to this earth, being birthed on a barn floor in Palistine 2,000 years ago, with all the muck and mess that implies, Christ has redeemed this world and everything in it.  Though we often don't see it, the stuff of this world, literally - from diamonds to dumpsters - has worth and value.  Even when Christ comes again, it will not be to vaporize us into some vast ethernet in the sky; it will be to re-new this earth, it's oceans and coastlines, it's mountains and cities, the work of our hands and the air that we breathe.  Consequently, our goal in life is not to escape this world, to try to live unsullied by exposure to its substance, but to embrace all that is good and glorious and beautiful in it and to work for the full redemption of all persons and things.  Those who most often help me to see this truth and whet my appetite to experience life in greater depth and breadth are usually poets.  I find that gifted poets don't encourage me to "rise above it all" but, rather, to "dig into it" and discover, experience, what lies within.  And I find this gift of poets particularly meaningful in conjunction with the celebration of Christmas.  As John tells the story, at Christmas we celebrate this mind-boggling truth that, "The Word [of God, the Thought, Mind] became flesh and dwelt among us." Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in the often quite poetic, Message, "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood."  The birth of Jesus forever embedded our faith in earth, in dirt, in mud and carbon and tissue and fiber and muscle and meat.  Christmas con carne.  The In-carne-ation.  Poets help me see this incarnation of God in the world.

And so, over the next week or so, leading up to, maybe even a bit beyond, Christmas, I would like to share some of those specific poems that bring all of this together for me.  In hopes that maybe someone else might also find meaning, experience the Incarnation, in an even greater way this year.  The first poem I'll share is particularly appropriate for the main focus of this particular blog.  The other ones, I promise, will be just as "earthy" but not quite as "visceral".

God tries on skin

Once, he stretched skin over spirit like a rubber glove, aligning trinity with bone, twining through veins until deity square-knotted flesh.

In a whirlwind spin he shrank to the size of a zygote, bobbed in a womb warm as Galilee's shore.

In the dark, he brushed up on Hebrew, practiced his crawl.

After months scrunched in a circle, he burst through his cellophane sac, bloodied the teen legs spread on the straw.

In his first breath he inhaled the sweat of Romans casting lots, sniffed the wine mixed with gall.

                                          Marjorie Maddox Phifer