A Pastoral Letter

I am deeply grieved by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia that unfolded on around August 12. I must also confess that a cloud of fear surrounds me as I reflect on these events, events over the past few months, as well as those looming on the horizon. My sense of fear is honed by the anxiety and chaos that surround the possible launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile by North Korea and potential retaliatory attacks by the United States. I find it difficult at times to focus given the amount of chaos and plethora of threats – it kind of feels like my name is “Dug” from the movie Up and I’m constantly distracted by squirrels. Every day brings a new distraction and I find it difficult to remain oriented.

I continued to search out all of the factors that seemed to be causing to grow the cloud of fear around me as I watched and reflected on the events of Saturday. I named a fear that such unrest and violence could arrive in our community; I named a fear that such activity could endanger my family and friends, near and far; I named a fear that what we are watching is only one eruption among many others that potentially will unfold as a result of the deep divisions that exist in our country and culture, ones that too often we gloss over. I spent much time thinking about this last named fear – the nature of the divisions that exist around race, sexuality, gender, identity, religion, economics, and others; wondering how we as a community begin to heal such deep divisions; how we find a common sense of purpose that is greater than the rifts and that can guide us forward. I think these pieces of our dilemma are significant, but I do not live under the illusion that this list is exhaustive. Yet, I continue to live in hope, imagining tomorrow as God intends it rather than being swamped in the despair that can easily overcome each of us. I am reminded of the teachings of Jesus and the prophetic leadership witnessed to in the Hebrew Bible, both of which help me see what God intends. I offer this narrative so that you can perhaps understand a bit of my thought process.

As I watched and thought about the hate-filled events initiated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, I recalled Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4) when he, by speaking one on one with this woman, challenged not only gender norms but also reached across the racial divide of Samaritan and Jew. The story of the Canaanite woman who begged for her daughter to be healed (Matthew 15:21-28) makes this point even more clearly. When she pleas for her daughter to be healed, Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). When he makes this statement using the term “dogs,” Jesus uses a racial slur. But this affront will not stop the Canaanite mother and so Jesus heals her daughter. The gospel writer here uses a rhetorical device to make a point that race is a topic addressed by the one we call Lord and that his teaching makes clear these boundaries of race are crossed and a new path forward is marked. Here is the center line of that path that guides us towards the Garden of Love that God intends: All are children of God! There is no room in the teachings of Jesus Christ for any race to claim supremacy over any other. White supremacy and anti-Semitism are sins and have no foundation in the teachings of Jesus!

I continued to watch the reports and I wondered how clergy would respond on Sunday morning and the week ahead. I remembered Jeremiah’s struggle against the false prophets as he called the people of Jerusalem and Judah back to the path of God. The other prophets promised that all would be okay, that God would bless Judah because Judah was righteous, and that Judah and Jerusalem would be great again. In this time of great turmoil, God’s prophet reminds the people that God has not abandoned them and that God will bring them home from exile and cut a new covenant with them, engraved on their hearts. I recalled Ezekiel and his vision of a valley of dry bones and the wondering if they could live again. The divisions are great, chasms are too large to cross at times. Yet, the Spirit of God moves among the valley of bones, brings them back together with muscle and flesh, and again breathes life into them. It is a vision offered to the people of God trapped in oppression and exile. It brings hope and reminds that it is God’s vision that will guide us forward. I concluded Sunday evening feeling a sense of hope rooted in God’s love and intention for creation. I felt I had a place from which I could speak to how we move forward confident that God’s intent will guide us.

But it was a restless and sleepless night. The call of Isaiah in chapter 6 kept coming to mind when the prophet confesses, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (v. 5). The prophet acknowledges his call to proclaim the message of God but simultaneously says he’s not up to the task. Not unlike this moment, the cultural context is shifting and the threat of war looms large on the horizon. I started thinking what these words had to do with my own situation. The fear is daunting but it is not ultimately silencing. As I spent considerable time reflecting on the call of Isaiah and my sleepless night, I began to think about my own place in the situation. It was, and continues to be, not an easy exercise of self-reflection. It is important though to know the answer if I am to be an agent for change that contributes to the blossoming of God’s Garden of Love. I believe that when we begin to see our own privilege and position, then we can begin to see everyone else more fully. Our awareness of advantage, systems of inequity, what is considered desirable and normal aides us in seeing the other sides of each of these areas and thus helps us see others more fully and how the systems of inequity need to change. I am a white male, raised in the south, straight, middle class, had access to education, among many other privileges. I am aware of the privilege I have had and still do. As a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the senior minister of First Christian Church of Topeka, I am ready to stand and point out the racism and hatred and say these are sin, ready to say we have to walk the path of God’s vision.

As you reflect on the violence, hatred and bigotry exhibited by white supremacists, anti-Semitists, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, I call you to engage in self-reflection to assess your own place of privilege so that you may see others more fully. (This linked questionnaire may assist you in reflecting on privilege.) Together, we can work to help God’s Garden of Love blossom and live into God’s intention for all of humanity and indeed all of creation.

Almost Out of Gas

I almost ran out of gas yesterday. I was heading south on the Kansas Turnpike to jump on US 50 for a drive across the length of the state. I’m heading to Ghost Ranch (near Abiquiu, New Mexico) for a workshop/retreat that I scheduled in the heart of my sabbatical. I’ve discovered that I prefer to drive the highways and by-ways rather than the interstates. So I was using the turnpike to get to the highway I wanted. The thing is – the turnpike has even less exits than the interstate and it is 45 miles from Topeka to the convenience stop. I swear when I started out the gas gauge said the tank was half full. About 15 miles into my drive, the gas light came on; the range said 40 miles. No problem right, I can still make it the 30 miles to gas. Then 2 miles later, the range says 30 miles – so I turn off the air conditioner and roll down the windows to enjoy the wind of this 105 degree day. And then a few miles later the range says 20 and the gage says less than 1/8 of a tank. I started wondering if I could get to the one exit between Topeka and the convenience stop, which by the way doesn’t have any services within 25 miles of the toll plaza. But I made it to this exit and then started trying to solve the problem of how to get gas. I called my daughter – for whom I recently made a similar gas run when she was driving this same vehicle and she had sworn that she had a half of a tank when she started. Haley thankfully was available to bring me some gas but it meant I had at least 45 minutes to wait – time to think about my mistake, to wonder what was wrong with the car, to resolve not to pass up fuel stops along the way because there would be some distance between possibilities. That took all of 5 minutes. Then I started thinking about my sabbatical time.

I’m in about the middle of my sabbatical and I have written almost nothing for any purpose including Facebook or Twitter posts. I have read several books and many online articles covering several topics. There’s been some more time with Traci, Haley, and Will along with more time to explore my camera (which I realized I know little about) and to play a few more rounds of golf. I’ve spent time on house and yard projects. I went on retreat at the Grateful Retreat House on High Hope Farm with the incredible hospitality of Johnny and Deborrah Wray. While there I learned about a different way to farm, ways to renew the earth through intentional practices, ways to practice the stewardship of raising animals, and ways to hospitality through the gift of time.

All of these activities have been important parts of my sabbatical to this point. I must acknowledge though that I wasn’t feeling more rested or renewed from my time away. Several colleagues had told me that it would take a couple, or maybe even a few weeks, to slow down enough for the time to begin to do its work. It took me almost 6 weeks before I began to notice any change in my own sense of the time. I don’t know if that is good or bad, whether it should have been less or more time, or where it will lead. After the 5 it took me to resolve not to pass a gas station on the remainder of my journey, I spent the next 40 minutes thinking about how I almost ran myself out of gas.

 

Words to Live By

Word Cloud Circle 2mbWhat a great joy it is to continue our celebration of the Easter Season and the resurrection of our savior and lord, Jesus Christ. In the worship calendar, Pentecost is in just a few weeks (May 15) and then we enter what is called Ordinary Time or the Season after Pentecost. We also know this time as summer.

I am excited to share with you information about our summer worship series entitled “Words to Live By.”

In recent news reports, election coverage and social media, I’ve been struck by, at least as it seems to me, the increasing liberalization of language. I notice how words are used in ways that I would not want to use them and with meanings that I often would not agree. Particularly, I notice this happening with the words and language of faith. I think it leads to a polarization within our culture and within the broad Christian tradition. In this Words to Live By series, we’ll look at words like faith, love, justice, hope, and others as way to redeem our language and claim what we mean when we use these words describing our faith. I’m trying to get at the questions, what does this language mean and what does it mean to use these words?

I look forward to this journey exploring our language of faith. I hope you do as well.

Choosing to Leave the Garden – Weekly Bible Study for Genesis 3

Genesis 3, as most of Genesis 1-11, are etiological stories. Such stories seek to explain the origin of something in mythological or literary terms. William Blake’s poem, The Tyger, composed in 1794 is an example of an etiological story:

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp.
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Blake offers a poetic reflection on the origin and nature of a tiger. Etiological stories do not provide a scientific explanation of something; they provide an imaginative explanation. The story of the first humans, the two trees, and Eden offer an explanation of why life is difficult and why things are the way they are. So Genesis 3 would explain why childbirth is painful, why the physical labor of farming is difficult, and why humans and serpents are at odds with one another.

Miguel A. De La Torre describes the story this way, “The opening of the eyes of humans by eating the fruit of the tree may lead to expulsion; but in a way it also is what defines our humanity, our independence, our free will” (Genesis. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2011, 69). The story recognizes that sometimes. Human curiosity and inquiry has led to great discovery and great failure on our part. We learn from those experiences and adapt. The serpent within the story serves as a trickster that provides tension that moves the story forward to a critical moment.

While the story recognizes our independence and our free will, it also acknowledges that our nature leads us sometimes to desire to be like God, or even imagine that we are God. The story says the penalty for eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is death. But no one dies in the story, so the story is not a reflection on death so much as it is a reflection on troubled, anxiety-ridden life. I think it also begs the question, where would we be today if Adam and Eve had not eaten from this tree? Without this action, the story cannot continue because it cannot move forward.

Reflection Questions
1.  How do you make sense of the two trees? Why would eating from both be a problem?
2.  How does our curiosity lead to a knowledge of good and evil?
3,  How do our choices help us live more or less faithfully with God?

I Love to Tell the Story

But what story do we love to tell and what reality does our story tell?

Preacher and seminary president, David Lose suggests “that we live in an era when multiple stories, worldviews, traditions, convictions, and versions of reality now circulate, and even compete, with each other largely because of the advent of digital communication” (http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/what-is-digital-pluralism-come-and-see/). He uses the term, “digital pluralism,” when referring to this new context in which we live. I think Lose is onto something in describing the challenges of the world we live in. Absolutely, we live in a time when “multiple stories, worldviews, traditions, convictions, and versions of reality” bump up against each other with greater frequency and certainly our technology contributes to this reality.

I think though that bumping up against each other has always been a part of the human experience. So there have always been the question “Which story will we tell?” and some related ones too:

What’s the nature of the God we follow?
What’s our relationship with God?
What does God ask of us?
How does our relationship with God shape our relationship with others?

These are some of the questions with which the stories of scripture wrestle and that continue to be before us. As we explore our favorite stories from the Old Testament, we’ll take up these questions and some others as we start our new sermon series next Sunday.

I Love to Tell the Story

My first memories of bible stories come from the night time rituals of my childhood. My brothers and I prepared to go to bed (my sisters, Kelly and Lori, weren’t around yet) and one of my parents would read a story from our children’s bible – Noah, David and Goliath, Jonah, Joseph, Ruth, and Jesus feeding the 5,000 among others. My knowledge of these stories continued to expand in VBS, Sunday school, and then in my formal education. I love these stories. I discovered though as I learned these stories in more of their depth and fullness that they are richer and more meaningful than I first discovered as my parents read them to me when I was a child – as we should expect.

As I think about these stories, I wonder what your favorite stories are from scripture? Specifically I’m wondering about your favorite stories from the Old Testament?

Our fall sermon series is entitled “I Love to Tell the Story” and will focus on our favorite stories from the Old Testament. I invite you to share with me your favorite bible story from the Old Testament and why it is a favorite. You can share that by completing this online survey or by responding via Facebook, email, and always a written note. I look forward to hearing from you.

Continuing Our Circles Conversation

I want to say thank you again to everyone who attended Scott Miller’s introductory presentation about Circles on July 16. We had great support and turnout by our folks here at First Christian Church. We had a good response from the wider community to our follow up meeting yesterday.

As we have discussed in the Justice Ministry Team preparations for presenting the Circles model to the Topeka community, our role is not to take on this project solo. We see Circles as a way to make a difference that leads to the transformation of peoples lives and our community that better reflects how God intends us to live – with enough resources to thrive as individuals and families and not in poverty. Our goal is to generate multiple individual and organizational partners who can take a variety of roles as Circles begins in Topeka.

There are still lots of questions to be answered and challenges that lie ahead for us as we move this project forward in the community. As we stand in the shadows of Scott’s presentation 2 weeks ago, we have talked about some of these questions with several folks from the congregation. The suggestion emerged in these conversations that we have a follow up meeting for the congregation to talk further about Circles and how the model works, the necessities of the program, and how we as a congregation can be involved in the project. We invite you to join in this conversation on Monday, August 10, at 6:30 p.m. We’ll meet in the sanctuary to take advantage of our audio/visual capabilities in that space. I hope you’ll join us for this continuing conversation about how we can witness to God’s call to practice mercy and do justice!

Weekly Reader of the Week of July 5

Lots of things pulling in lots of directions – not as much read this week

On Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

Why Are Black Church Fires Associated with Acts of Hate?

Testimony: Is There Something of God Here?

A Global Middle Class Is More Promise than Reality

The Changing Face of Online Religion

Becoming the Media: Darkwood Brew at Countryside Community Church

Weekly Reader for June 23

Here’s a selection of my reading for the past week.

Reflection and Commentary on the Mass Shooting at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

As Nation Mourns Racist Murders, Flag of Hate Still Flies Over South Carolina 

Shooters of Color Are Called ‘Terrorists’ and ‘Thugs.’ Why Are White Shooters Called ‘Mentally Ill’?

Nikki Haley To Call For Confederate Flag To Be Removed From South Carolina Capitol: Reports

South Carolina Lutheran Pastor: Dylann Roof Was Church Member, His Family Prays For Victims

Faith and the Confederate Flag

Taking Down the Confederate Flag Won’t Solve Racism

Stewardship & Generosity

The Essential Guide to Growing Your Online Support for Nonprofits

The Future of Fundraising

Buildings for a New Tomorrow

Reflection on Ministry from Christian Century (Read all of these essays if you have the time)

Reversal

Pastoral Leadership

The Failure-Tolerant Leader

On Our Way: Sabbath Keeping

The summer solstice is nearly upon us and with it the official start of summer. Summer probably began in your mind as well as mine with the end of the academic school year. With the storms and rain, this summer feels quite different from the past few.

In the swing of summer our schedules change somewhat. Sunday school shifts its pattern for the children and youth, small groups are taking a break for several weeks, kids are off to camp, families are preparing for kids to go off to the start of college and trade schools. Other families have children home for summer break. For many of us, vacation planning is underway, and even happening already, and we are looking forward to a time of rest, relaxation, and renewal. We often hang a lot on these vacations. Into them, we try to squeeze as much play and relaxation as possible to the point that the vacation can become exhausting. I’ve finished a vacation on occasion and thought that I needed a vacation from vacation. Have you ever felt that way after your vacation?

Kids Playing in Fountain, Lake Charles, LA

Kids Playing in Fountain, Lake Charles, LA

When I feel that way, and perhaps when you do as well, the play of vacation becomes something else that I must work at accomplishing. What’s missing in the midst of such times is any sense of rest and renewal. Another way to put it is to say that such times lack any sense of Sabbath.

Sabbath should not only be a part of vacation but is something that we need regularly for our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The discipline of Sabbath keeping helps us maintain the necessary balance between work and rest. Our society skews this balance with its demands for action and accomplishment. The result of such demands is exhaustion and burnout. Sabbath restores balance to our lives and enables us to “remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity” (Muller, Sabbath, 6).

So as you think about the summer time and rest and renewal, I invite you to consider how you will keep Sabbath. Perhaps this exercise from Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, can aid you in this process. Muller writes, “Sabbath can only begin if we close the factory, turn out the lights, turn off the computer, and withdraw from the concerns of the marketplace. Choose at least one heavily used appliance or device – the telephone, [cell phone], television, computer, washer and dryer – and let them rest for a Sabbath period. Whether it is a morning, afternoon, or entire day, surrender to a quality of time when you will not be disturbed, seduced, or responsive to what our technologies offer. Notice how you respond to its absence” (Muller, Sabbath, 6)

This practice may be difficult for you. It is for me I can tell you. But our decision to do it will create the space, time, and energy for us to experience a time of Sabbath – a time of renewal and rest. Please do not use the space, time, or energy to do some other task such as run errands, take care of the household repairs you’ve been too busy to take care of, or take on another job. Instead, use the space, time, and energy to be silent and listen for God, take a Sabbath walk, read a book, be with loved ones and friends, or simply play. Engage in purposeless enjoyment and harvest some of the sweetest fruit of life.

Such Sabbath keeping helps deepen our relationship with God and with one another as God’s people.