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On my wall is a picture of a rabbi preaching from his pulpit.  Beside it is a brass plate with a map of ancient Israel encircled by the names and symbols of the 12 tribes.  Beside that is a framed Star of David.  To me these represent my heritage.  My soul’s allegiance is to a Jewish carpenter, a construction worker who lived some 2000 years ago.
When I was in college I was introduced to the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I had been taught that anyone who didn’t say the magic words, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” couldn’t get into heaven.  But my professor said we were required to read this book by this Rabbi.  So, I read it.
One evening, as I was reading words that drew me in deeply, I began to cry.  Sitting in the reference room, alone at a table, with this book in my hands, I got overwhelmed.  I was reading about the grace of God, how God deals with human beings in ways of mercy, of gentleness, with the fulness of life that God possesses.  I was being told that God understood our frailty, our limitation, our moments or years of despair. I cried because I knew how much I wanted that grace, the peace it afforded.  I wanted that grace that comes after salvation, the peace of knowing God as a friend. And I cried because I did not understand how a man, who could not get into heaven, could understand God’s grace so well.  Much better than I did.
And with my tears, I began to pray.
“I don’t understand how this works.  Judgment.  I don’t get it.  I can’t do it.  I don’t see how anyone can do it.  How do you do it?  So, I’m giving it up. It’s yours. However it works is up to you.”  As a young man, wandering around big ideas, I occasionally found the trap door that allowed me to get into one before it snapped shut behind me. That night the trap was set keenly and as I came down the steps below the door, walking into the cool depth of truth, I felt the door slam shut above me and then I heard the voice of the carpenter say,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you            will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

And I was free.  Somehow the trap deposited me out into life.
I was free in the reality that I never needed to judge, to decide who gets in and who is kept out.  That’s not my call. My call is just to make friends and to welcome anyone to my table.
There is a voice shouting over our heads today that is saying that we must judge, we must decide, we must because we should be afraid.  That fear is used to win elections.  It’s also the fear that loads assault rifles.  Like any big idea, the idea inhabiting that fear has a trap door that will snap shut locking us inside.  But there is a burning, flame, bursting around inside this idea that scorches the conscience, sears the heart and burns away compassion.  It leaves us thinking we are in touch with truth, but it only deposits us in pain.  That pain is so severe it motivates us to bring it onto others, confusing our pain with truth.  This is hate.  It captures enemies, those who believe they can make the world better without the other. The trap of this fear/idea doesn’t care which side you’re on.  It’s burns regardless.
As I mourn tonight, I stand looking down into the opening of this big idea, to the fire below the trap-door, and I think, I must vote well this year.



I thought I was developing an ease with you
But then it was taken away
Which means it did develop
And now I wonder, can we ever find it again

It is that flickering candle flame blown out
The way back is kindling
With dry brush as our ancestors did
We must strike flint, make spark, start again

Before we ever approach another candle
It requires a new candle
We must learn to make fire as of old
All the way back to trying and trying again

Wishing, like pretending, doesn’t make it so
So, we invite each other to scavenge
I’m glad you also seek outings for brush and twigs
That will base the flame, warmth, light again


The Choice to Be Vulnerable

I was talking with a small group today about the resurrection of Jesus and I mentioned how I’d been to a seminar where the guide shared a picture of Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene outside the tomb.  She showed us how Mary’s neck was extended, her jaw up, baring her throat.  It was an act of vulnerable submission.

When we act with vulnerability we demonstrate submission to another.  Christ-followers are called to take that position with each other.  We are called, each one, to make ourselves vulnerable to the other followers around us.  “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:21 says at the top of one of Scripture passages that is a great challenge to many in our culture as it outlines a relationship between a wife and husband.  This works if that first admonition is adhered to well. The wife in the passage following is simply told to make herself vulnerable to her husband, but the husband is given explicit instructions to make himself vulnerable to the wife in the manner of a body servant – one intimately knowledgeable, caring and helpful to another in bathing or dressing.  Husbands are to be vulnerable to the wife as if they were caring for their own body.  A radical statement in the culture of the time… if not our own.

But, how frightening to consider living in such a manner generally with other Christians.  Yet, each time I get into the pulpit, I am called to submit myself to every other person in that room.  That can mean that my vulnerability is just providing ammunition to those who are looking for weakness.  Each time we admit to the truth, expose our neck, we leave ourselves open to utter destruction.  Why act in such a manner?
vulnerableThe reason I believe this must be part of my preaching is because we preachers must live out our “fear of the Lord.”  It can’t be just talk.  The reverence we have for Christ demands that we not be afraid of how people will use our words, use our stories of limitations or frailty or faults… not above our trust in the Lord.  Our fears must be mixed into our trust because that is the formula of courage.

If we’re trying to hold onto a job or trying not to offend or trying to not reveal so much that we make others uncomfortable, we’ll miss the opportunity to speak into the ears of those who are angry or sad to the point of despair or just broken.  Those who wonder if there is hope in the world are the ones for whom we bare our throats.Round yellow flower with torn petals

I’ve learned that in doing this, personally and out of the pulpit, with those I think may be friends, I can seem confusing or challenging, as if I’ve said too much.  But, I’ve learned that those folks intended to be colleagues.  And sometimes it is best to be colleagues or acquaintances.  But, when I find the one who bares their neck back to me in response to my own… I credit that as a marvel… and as the body of Christ.



We are called to progress, to move.  We’ve made that word, progress, a noun, but its inherent sense, even as a noun, is movement.  We are called to move and to keep moving.

I sometimes feel a bit whelmed by that, by the idea that I have to make sure that I’ve moved by the end of the day.  It’s like I’ve been given a garden, like the garden is the gift, but I can’t see the gift for the work.  I look at it and all I see is the hoe, the rake, the trowel, the shovel, the shears… And all I feel is the sun, the sweat, the hours, the row, the clods, the rocks, the fertilizer, the barrow…

It may be that, while growing up, I discovered that “let’s” meant “you.”  I had so many jobs that began as “Let’s…” Like “let us…” clean the garage, rake the back yard, weed the beds… but what they turned into was me working by myself.  And it felt a bit like bait and switch.  I can remember going with this bit of excitement, the expectation of time together with my dad and learning that it was just a chore.  It wasn’t that he didn’t go off to do something else that also needed to get done, but it was somewhere else usually.  I’d be working on whatever it was by myself.

So, maybe I get a bit hesitant with God.  When God calls me into the garden, into the weeding and feeding, maybe I miss the expectation of harvest and fruit because I expect to be doing it on my own.  I can’t quite imagine the cultivating will include partnership… in each moment.

I don’t think my dad was actually setting me up.  I don’t think he was consciously thinking of tricking me, pretending that he was going to work with me on something so he could just get me doing it.  It was just the way he talked.  But, that didn’t mitigate my disappointment.  And, he didn’t get it when I complained about the switch.  In his mind it was always the work I was being sent to do.
With God, I’m discovering that it isn’t a chore.  It is always partnership because I’m always supposed to be learning.  I’m always supposed to be moving with him into a new discovery.  It’s not work that needs to get done.  It’s cultivation of what is growing.  It’s making sure that it grows well, hoeing what sucks life out of the good plant and nurturing it with sustenance.  So my progression is a daily engagement with the new thing, not straightening up, organizing, polishing to keep the old in place.  And it is always done together with God.


How to Lament

Healing is the holy work of God and one of the ways we position ourselves so that God can heal us is through our lament.  Lament, that anguished complaint, is coming to truth and when we tell someone the truth of our souls, our true core reality, we connect in a deep way.  This may include our accusation of how they haven’t come through for us, have hurt us or forgotten us.  It may be how deeply we’ve been hurt by life and include the feeling that, although they didn’t add to it, they also didn’t do anything about it, or never seemed to acknowledge it.

When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he gave her the opportunity to say the truth about herself and the truth about herself and God.  He walked her into that moment with three steps.  He offered her the truth of God’s quenching work for her soul.  She admitted that would be great to find.  She then expressed the truth about her relationship with the community.  Then he offered her the truth about life’s destruction on her soul.  She admitted that the toll was great.  Then he offered her the truth about herself. He validated her.  And then she admitted her greatest need, her exclusion from God.lament

And that’s how we lament.

  • We admit how we would love to find the helping, healing work of God, but we don’t.
  • We admit the toll that life has taken on our souls, our self-esteem, our plans for the future, our trust in others, in life, in God.
  • We admit our greatest need and our deepest disappointment with God.
  • But, we then remind our souls that we don’t know everything, we don’t see every connection or possibility and we don’t know the future. We admit that God does and that God loves us.

When we lament we walk ourselves into the depth of truth that God desires to live between us. When we are able to express our deepest need… God is able to work in us, God is able to teach our souls real truth, God is able to heal.  God wants to hear our lament so he can say his love most clearly.

The consequences of damage may not go away immediately or maybe at all.  We may still live within the consequences of the damage, but we don’t carry it any longer.



So, I went to an organization’s celebratory luncheon the other day.  It was a festive time and as I walked down the hallway to the meeting room, the chattering of so many people felt inviting.  I could hear through the general din words like “Oh, thank you!”  “So glad…”  “We’re so grateful for all…” I walked in, past the buffet tables and servers, waiting to be focus of attention.  There were slides on three walls sharing images of the good work that had been done over the past year, round tables where folks were seated but throughout the room were scores of people greeting, talking, laughing and even eyeing the delightful dessert table.  I stood and looked around and realized I knew no one.

As an introvert, I have to say… put me in a room with 300 people who aren’t looking for me, sit me at a table of 8-10 of folks who, it turns out, all know each other… and it feels like heaven.  Well, not exactly, more like the opposite.  But, I’m up for a challenge.

I looked for an almost empty table and, sure enough, I found one where there were only a couple of people who didn’t know each other either.  Good start.  I was welcomed and began small talk, and then the woman next to me spotted a friend and excused herself to go to the friend’s table.  That left me with a couple of members of the organization.  And we chatted about the organization, its work, direction, all good things… for like 2 minutes.  Then the table began to fill, and it was all people who knew and worked with the people who were first at the table.

Have you ever become an obligation?  You know, where people turn to you because they realize that they’ve been carrying on with their friends for 5-10 minutes and you’re just sitting.  I’ve taken those kind of moments in hand and struck out into them (not unlike an explorer in a wilderness), asking questions of ohers, even to people across the table.  My attempt is to get everyone talking all together, especially at a round table.

Being the “obligation” is like being the in-law when the other in-laws don’t really need you in their lives.  It’s the grandparent who is across the country or in “the home” and isn’t part of “how busy we are.” It’s the kid who’s new. It’s the teacher seeking a real conversation with a student.  It’s the friend who is trying to share stories or reconnect after realizing they haven’t been for like 8 months. It’s even the person who wants forgiveness after screwing up badly.

God must feel like that…like the obligation, sometimes. God must be in people’s lives when they feel like they have to start up a conversation or acknowledge God’s there, around, still here. It’s got to feel so distressing to feel like an obligation rather than a desire.


I stuck at the meal until there was a moment when I could comfortably excuse myself and did. Do you think God does that in people’s lives?  Thinking about, “As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for you…” (Psalm 42:1) and getting to that.




The Identified Patient

When there’s a breakdown in some families, you can sometimes find that everyone is clear that if ONE person changed, everything would be fine.  “If she just got her act together… if it wasn’t for her… if she just wasn’t here…”  What’s clearest, to anyone looking in from the outside, is that the problems, breakdowns or frustrations all stem from the presence and nature of one person.

Ever been “the identified patient?”  It’s a lousy position in which to be.  Any move you make, any breath you take, any cake you bake is evaluated from the position of the problem you are to the rest of the household.  Sort of the way a mountain creates its own weather, the identified patient creates atmospheric issues of life in a community.  It doesn’t really have to do much more than be there, just being present creates turbulence, crowdedness, disquiet.

Consider how the identified patient might feel in that setting.  They don’t have to try.  They just have to be there and they’re wrong.  If they say something, they’re wrong.  If they do something, they’re wrong.  But they don’t have to do or say anything… we just all know they’re wrong and will only, always, ever be wrong.  They’re in the way, roadblocks, hampering movement forward and so the best thing is just to ignore them or get rid of them, if possible.

But then someone comes along who wonders if anyone has ever climbed the mountain… and gives it a shot.  It’s treacherous, the air gets thin, sometimes it feels like they’re dying, but then, as they get to the top, suddenly a vista opens up, the world is clear.  They can see forever.  They’re glad they made the trip.

That’s what happens sometimes when the identified patient is not attended as a “patient” but as part of life, as a person.  It’s a hike, no question, and sometimes its more of a climb than a hike.  Mountains get driven up by a lot of ancient trauma from below.  But when someone takes the time and makes the effort, they can learn the mountain and can reach a spot where they see clearly and they also love the mountain.

There’s a story Jesus tells of the guy who is a problem.  Jesus tells those who follow him to go one-on-one to sort out the problem the guy has or is.  He goes on, if that doesn’t work then bring another with you and if not then, bring in some authority for help and if not then, get the community to come together to clear things up.  If that doesn’t work then “treat them like a tax collector or sinner.”  This has been used as a road-map on kicking someone out of the church… but that’s not how Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners.  He didn’t kick them out.  He chose to get to know them, to climb the mountain.

Just when you figure someone is nothing more than a pain in the butt, so we should just dismiss them… Jesus comes along and says, “Nah, …get your gear!  We got a hill to climb!”  Who does this guy think he is?


There’s Always Only One Side to Every Story

Have you ever noticed that there’s only one side to every story?  I know the old adage says it differently… something about “two sides.”  But, it’s been my experience that there’s always only one.  I used to think it was mine.

I used to know when I was in an argument or when there was a misunderstanding between me and someone else that there was only one side to the story and I had it.  I was right.  They were wrong.  They just weren’t seeing clearly or their logic was off or they were just being dull or they were looking for a good excuse to be angry at me or they were jerks or choosing to be stupid or numbskulls.  I like that word… “numb-skulls.”  It’s such a tangible expression.  It’s like “no-brain.”

I remember watching an interview where an actor referred to a director as having “the brain of a pea.”  He didn’t say he had a brain “the size of a pea” (which is how I’ve always heard it).  He said he had the brain of a pea.  I liked that, too.  It is so graphic.  I spent a little while looking forward to the moment when I could copy that, use it to refer to someone who ticked me off.

That was when I used to think that there was only one side and that it was mine.

Now, I’m convinced that there’s always only one side to every story… and it’s always God’s.

When I was at the place in my life where I was open to collecting clever insulting names to use on people I came upon “Raca.”  It’s the old word for “empty-head,” a different way of saying “no-brain.”  The trouble, for me, was it was used by Jesus and it was in the middle of his saying that people who refer to others this sort of way were just as guilty of murder as the person who just fired the gun.  Paying attention to Jesus means you have to give up clever insults.  That can feel like a drag for a while because they’re so tasty.  They have such a chewy, saltiness that it makes you want to hang onto them for a while… and there’s Jesus telling you to spit it out.  Like some Mom who discovered you picked up something from the ground and in her disgust, she’s still telling you to spit it into her hand.  Jesus is acting like that.  She wants it out of you.

I had friends, next-door neighbors, when I was little, who decided to try out the taste of tar from the new coating that had just been put down on the road outside our houses.  Their mom not only made them spit it out, but she used a little Lestoil to get it off their teeth.  Talk about washing your mouth out with soap!  My Mom made a big deal of telling me NEVER to do that or she might need to use Lestoil on me.

That’s a word from God.  If you do something like that, if you put words like this in your mouth, we’re going to have to do some heavy-duty cleansing.

Jesus has this way of taking something that seems like a cool idea at the time and showing us how it impacts us really.  Which can feel like buzz-kill until you think about it with him… and then you’re getting to the one side of the story.

The one side belongs to God because God’s the only one who sees the whole story.  He knows what’s going on in everyone’s head and heart.  He knows what we have seen and what we haven’t seen, what we’ve mixed up or ignored.  He knows… and we don’t.  There’s always one side to every story and it belongs to God.  That’s why he calls us to reconciliation.  He’s telling us that we need to join him in getting back together with people, so we both admit to the story he’s revealing to us.



NYNY, Islam, Justice League and Thanks

Listening to TLC’s version of Sleighride, sitting in a Starbucks because it is the only coffee place open within a couple of blocks and fresh out of a late night showing of “Justice League” in the Regal on 42nd Street in NYC.  Realizing that this isn’t the regular placement of a Senior Pastor of pretty much any First Presbyterian Church. Seems characteristic, however, to what works for me and the nature of this occasional blog.  We came north to the city to have Thanksgiving with family.  New York, NY is a marvel that should be credited as such, as should the new superhero movie from DC and that Sleighride had its reins released by the ladies.JLA

Wrapped up Thanksgiving by dropping into the theater we were passing to see what they had done with these favorite characters in their new story.  Sent on my wife and sister-in-law because they had no interest in staying up that late… or seeing costumed myth come to life.  All told it was a really fine way to finish the day.

The movie is about the gathering of reps of various populations of earth to fight a common enemy. It is SO much better than the earliest reviews suggested.  And, it put me in mind of holding a Thanksgiving Eve service with our local Muslim community on Wednesday night. Clergy and church members from different churches came to the Islamic Community Center to celebrate together. That kind of connection – reps from various populations of earth gathering to fight a common enemy – between myth and reality is something more people should talk over.  There’s a marvel within that.

As I am the President of the Downtown Ministerium this year, I was asked to consider including the Islamic community in our Thanksgiving Eve service.  So, I reached out to the leaders in our area and brought a version of worship that might be used. It included language I knew I could say authentically and that I hoped would not offend and, in fact, would include these neighbors.  Turned out, it fit for them as well.  So, we went forward with the proposed battle plan.  The common enemy is hate, but hate’s comrades are prejudice, neglect, misinformation… a crowd.  As I watched Batman in the movie working his way into the lives of people who didn’t see why they should associate immediately, I felt for him.  The tone of the conversation was recognizable.

The thing about this gathering was that we had to acknowledge the truth of personal understanding, faith, history and differences.  The value of differences is crucial because I’m not going to water down the Gospel of Jesus anymore than the followers of Islam are going to stop praying at the correct hours.  Batman has a goal but he has to learn each of the people before he can gather them in.  He must step into risk as well in order to find the resources he needs for the entire team.

           It all works because the people are willing to come together and to act as themselves, not by giving up their identities but by combining their efforts.  So, on Wednesday night we all gathered alongside each other and admitted we all needed to say thanks. It was not earth shaking but it had the strength of light in the darkness… which is a marvel indeed.  We simply said, as neighbors, that we won’t fight, deride or even challenge.  No one claimed to be right or that others were wrong.  Instead, we admitted our shared humanity and that we can only accomplish life with help and that requires an expression of gratitude.  And then we ate pie together.  It’s amazing how strong light can be.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Matthew 6:36


No Alternative to Right

As a Pastor, I know that Jesus can seem confusing.  When we read the words, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it,” we can scratch our heads.  I know that there are different ways to understand these words.

But one way of receiving these words is that God’s kingdom has been under attack and that violent people lay claim to it (and the Greek there is almost always a descriptive of maliciousness).  We can recognize truth in that idea.  Even if we broaden it out to say, “What is right and good has always been used violently and those who do that abuse the worth of it,” we can recognize that removing the religious element doesn’t change the inherent truth of the words.  People who have no place within the truth, will try to use it for their own gains.  They will claim that it is speaking about themselves and their cause.

The claim doesn’t make it true.

There is no right or good within the alt-right movement.  There is no life.  It doesn’t speak to the worth of America or the history of America.  It is only about themselves gaining power.  It takes a bit of truth – there is value in honoring heritage – and violently twists that to gain power.  That is the skillful work of liars, taking a bit of truth and creating a world of one’s own design by manipulating it to one’s desire.

The point of the power they seek is to overthrow the value of human beings, particular human beings… our black, Jewish, Asian, or differently-oriented human beings.  The point of the power is control and dominance and prestige.  It is to make others serve a vision of the future where their whim or edict will manage life, all lives.

If we do not step into this moment, if we waffle over whether we too believe in the honoring of heritage and not recognize the lie it is being used to support, we lose what is right and good.  We lose truth.  We cannot allow that.  We cannot expose our children to this subtlety because it will confuse them and they will become susceptible to the damage this lie brings to hearts and minds.  We must be forthright and plain.

The alt-right is not honoring heritage and not claiming a historical value.  It is maligning the value of other human beings for their own gain.  They are saying they have more value than any other.  They use blame and intolerance as tools to break down truth, to guide those who have been worn-out by tough times into serving them.  They take the lonely, the frustrated, the impoverished, the aimless and give them a direction built on a half-truth, a subtle dismissing of the value of anyone but themselves.

The tools against this lie seem impossibly weak in comparison to the violence it fosters.  The tools are friendship, conversation and love.  These don’t seem to move fast enough to counter the seeming wave of hatred.  But they are the tools to use and they must be used ferociously.  We must invite our neighbors over for dinner and talk with them.  We must build friendships with the other-oriented, the differently skin-colored, the races we do not know.  And we must seek the best for these other lives, in any way we can do that.

It may mean that we receive damage to our property by those who hate, it may be that we find ourselves maligned, we may be mistreated, we may even receive death threats for loving our neighbors.  That does happen to people who take truth seriously and who stand within the value of those who are different from themselves.  It does happen.  I recognize that and am willing to live in that because, really, Jesus isn’t confusing at all.