Category Archives: Spirituality

To Our Home’s New Owner

Welcome to your new home!

We are so happy that you were interested and even happier that you’ll be staying a while.

We are very sad to leave, perhaps it’s good for you to know that. We’re not leaving here to get away from here, but because we’ve been called elsewhere. We intended to stay here for many years, but life, at times, has different plans. And so we are moving across the country, and this space has been prepared for you.

A building is made of wood and plaster and nails and paint. It is a material thing which was, at one time, built; and will be, at another time, gone. It is a thing, not a living thing, but a thing which is made up of so many things which once were living but had died so that this house could be built. But in a way, It is living. Because, as I’m sure you understand, a house is made of wood and plaster and nails and paint, but it is much more than just that.

This house saw our family grow from two to three, and it was to first home to which we brought our son. It was within these walls that we had sleepless nights, laughed, cried, and began learning how to be parents. These walls saw his first smile, first sitting up, first crawling, first pulling up. These rooms echoed with laughter from dinner gatherings with friends and family. These walls heard of joy and sadness, hope and despair. In fact, this was the very first house that we ever owned.

Far more than a shelter from the elements, this house served as a respite from the trials of the world and was a place that was bursting with love, with all of the ups and downs that come along with that. And so we will take all of our things with us, and all that will be left will be the marks in the carpet where our furniture was. A desk, a table, the crib. And with time those marks will fade and any remnant of our time here will also fade away. But that’s okay, that’s the cycle of life.

You may be wondering why I’m sharing all this with you. There is, though, something within me that finds the process of selling a home less than satisfying. So impersonal, anonymous. Those times that you’ve been here, I’ve been gone. And we will likely never meet. And it is strange for me, to have this home that has been so much a part of our lives, and now to sell it to someone that I’ve never met. And perhaps you feel similar, wanting to meet the people who loved this home before you. And so this is why I’m sharing this with you. To let you know a bit of ourselves, and to welcome you to this space.

Even though we’ve only lived here a few years, so much life has happened here. And now it is time for a new chapter for this house. Our chapter has ended, and you are just beginning to add a piece of yourself to these walls and to the collective memory which is held within its bones.

I hope you add much life, and life in its fullness, to the memory of this home. The ups and downs, the twists and turns. Because it is not just the happiness that is meaningful, but all of it.

We hope that you enjoy it here. We have been blessed here. I hope you find the same blessing. 

 

Blessed are the Autumn Daisies

Long after the trees have dropped their leaves, and the canopy of green becomes a jagged collection of branches reaching upward toward the disappearing sun, long after the geese have ceased honking and the birds have stopped their morning songs, long after the bushes begin to blaze but are not yet consumed, long after the patch becomes nothing but green stems without any sort of beauty, the autumn daisy blooms.

***

Autumn has always been a significant time for me. It is a time of transition. The leaves die and fall off, and the trees, which not long ago were thriving, look dead. Once the leaves have fallen it is nearly impossible to look and tell the dead trees from the live trees.

Flowers which brought forth color into the world have all wilted and died, leaving nothing behind but stems and a corpse.

Autumn is a time in which it is evident that we are in the midst of a broken world. The colors are beautiful, to be sure, but the beauty is fleeting, as each leaf which turns into brilliant reds and yellows and oranges are in throes of death. It is a transition that happens every year, and while I know that spring will be coming, and these very trees will bud and the flowers will once again bloom, there is a long and cold winter filled with ice and snow which covers all with which to contend.

Yet in the midst of the cooling temperatures and the ever decreasing sunshine and the clouds which cast a gray haze over all, something unexpected occurs, in the midst of the daisy patch when all of the flowers have given up their energy, one more blooms.

***

I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the natural order. Trees which have cracked and have fallen down continue to grow and bloom, small and comparably weak blades of grass can burst forth through the concrete of a parking lot which has been vacant for only a short time, and dandelions, although they are mowed over again and again, are determined to finish their mission and go to seed.

And when all the other daisies have bloomed, when the bees are gone, when the temperatures turn cold, and there has already been a layer of frost, when the sunshine can no longer be reflected in its golden centers and white petals, a daisy shines like the sun in the midst of a gray autumn day.

***

There are days when I find it hard to face the world, days when I can relate to the trees which have let their leaves die and have dropped them, and they hunker down, and prepare for the lang haul. When the light lessens and the darkness grows, I, too, have the instinct that the rest of nature has as it begins to den and hibernate for the duration.

But I cannot do this, even when the days are difficult, even when the darkness is difficult, even when the world which I must face is harsh, I catch a glimpse of the daisy beaming in all of its glory, amid the dead leaves.

Blessed are the autumn daisies, for they point to life when it is difficult to find.

When you can’t find the words

My calling is centered around language, as language is the way to communicate, to express. In my pastoral role, it is my charge to speak to the community and for the community — to express the experiences and life of the community and to help us all find meaning in our individual and shared experiences. But yet, for myself, I often lack words, I lack the ability to sufficiently translate my experiences into the limits of language. This is especially so in my attempts to speak with God.

Much of this Lent has been spent in the hospital, periodically standing on the boundary between this life and eternity. As I have recently written, nighttime was particularly isolating. When the doctors go away, when the tests and scans and procedures are done for the night, and all that surrounds me is the sound of monitoring machines and the hiss of the oxygen tube, I am left without anyone to which to speak or for which to speak. There is no communal life or experience to articulate. It is just me, overflowing with fears and worries and pain, none of which will abate, and I lack words to offer to God.

***

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
   my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also. 
For my life is spent with sorrow,
   and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
   and my bones waste away.  
(Psalm 31:9-10, NRSV)…

 

I’m over at That Reformed Blog today, come on over to read the rest…

When God sits at your bedside

I am a pastor. I spend time with people, not only preaching and teaching, but also checking in on them, visiting them in the hospital, praying with them and talking with them before operations about which anxieties are high. But in March, the day after Ash Wednesday, the tables were turned.

I spent almost three weeks in the hospital, one week of which was in intensive care. I was extremely sick, but for a while, none of the seven physicians could ascertain a root cause. I went through a significant regimen of scans and tests and exams and lab work and biopsies as I continued my downward decline. I was having difficulty breathing, was being pumped full of fluids continuously and in incredible constant pain. It was a scary time for my family, and it was a scary time for me.

It was a time in which, instead of caring for others, it was I who was being cared for by other pastors, and members of my congregation. I was cared for by members of my family. I was cared for by my beloved.

Night time was particularly scary. While I was hooked up to all different types of machines and nurses checking on me every couple hours, I was afraid of what might happen when I go to sleep. Would I stop breathing? Would my lungs continue to decline in their ability to absorb oxygen? Would my heart finally give out under the tremendous strain to which it was being subjected?

***

My beloved sat with me many days and every night. We tried to carry on some of our routines and watched Jeopardy every evening. But we could not follow our routine, and we both knew it, and we worried that we would not be able to return to our routine.

One night it was getting late and my eyelids were getting heavy. My beloved saw this and she took my hand and held it and patted it. “Go ahead and close your eyes,” she said to me, “and I’ll stay here and sit with you for a while.”

***

So often we wonder why, when sickness or tragedy befalls us, why didn’t God do anything to prevent this? Why doesn’t God fix this?

It’s a valid question. It is a question that I have asked many times.

But I also wonder if we tend to place our focus on the wrong thing. Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. What if the amazing thing about God’s presence in tragedy is not that God will prevent it or fix it, but rather that God simply sits at our bedside?

While I am careful not to deify my beloved, I do strongly believe that God works through people in the world. While the face and the voice was that of my beloved, I have no doubt that the words were God’s, “close your eyes, my child, and I will sit with you, and keep watch over you.”

I fell asleep and I know that my beloved did leave that night, but even though she left, it later became apparent that God never did. Sometimes God manifested Godself in tangible form: my beloved, a visitor, a chaplain, or a nurse who was concerned not only with my physical well-being, but also my emotional and spiritual well being.

This, I think, is the wonderful thing about God’s presence in our lives and care for us. It is not so much that God waves a wand and makes it all better, but rather, that God spends countless hours, and sleepless nights sitting in the chair next to the bed, allowing us to sleep because of the assurance that God will watch over us when we cannot watch over ourselves.

***

While my sickness was serious, I am thankful that it was not what they initially thought. It was treatable and the treatment should completely resolve it. I’m doing much better now, and at the same time that I am filled with gratitude, I grieve for those who are not as fortunate, and are diagnosed with something without a cure, or something for which the treatment is difficult and the outcome uncertain.

But I never cease to be amazed that in these dark hours, when things look bleak and the shadows seem to come ever closer, God remains in these hours. Sometimes working something more clearly miraculous, other times simply sitting at one’s bedside keeping watch.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

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Sitting at my window, I cannot make out what exists outside. The view is obstructed by the coat of ice on the interior of the century old windows in my century old flat.

It is winter, I am not complaining. I am from Michigan and live in Wisconsin, long and cold winters are simply part of life. I largely appreciate winter, and the drastic change in seasons. But today, in February, I look out and all I can see are distorted shapes representing life.

Or rather, life in slumber.

I appreciate winter, but today it feels bleak. A city typically teeming with life seems desolate. Water, typically inhabited by ducks and geese is solid and empty.

Trees without leaves, sidewalks largely empty except for a couple of times a day. The only signs of life are the buses and cars which continue to carry people from place to place. But still, a meager sign of organic life.

***

I know that winter does not last forever, I have experienced many seasonal cycles, enough to know that winter will come to an end, the ice and snow will melt, birds will return, leaves will grow, and my city will once again be filled with life. I am looking forward to being able to go outside without a coat or boots, or without ice forming in my beard. But today, on this day in February, it almost seems as though this will last forever…

Today I’m over at That Reformed Blog. Come and Visit for the rest of this post…

Deep seated pieties

As I closed my eyes, I felt moved to a different time, and a different space.

In becoming familiar with our denomination’s new hymnal, Lift Up Your Heartsthere was a hymn sing at the annual gathering of delegated Ministers of Word and Sacrament and Elders from the entire denomination from around the United States and Canada.

***

My faith was nourished by a steady diet of rural Midwestern Dutch Reformed fare. We take religion and faith seriously, and we take the church seriously. We sang hymns. At the time I hated it. I loathed the hymns, I did not appreciate the simple faith of my farming community. The organ was ancient, the practices were dated, and nothing reflected what I estimated to be a lived Christian faith.

My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
for thee all the follies of sin I resign;
my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

Ever since I have gone to seminary, I have not particularly appreciated the personal language when it comes to Jesus, I have come to learn that perhaps the language of Jesus as “mine” is not always the best way to think about our relationship to God. I often find myself trying to avoid hymns like this, as I find them theologically lacking, and simplistic in piety.

The hymn-sing selections where chosen to represent different types of pieties, of which this hymn is one. It is a familiar hymn, it was a hymn that felt like Sunday evenings in my Christian Reformed Church.

I love thee because thou hast first loved me
and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

The hymn was being accompanied by a piano, and I could hear people behind me harmonizing. I closed my eyes, and I felt that I was moved to a different place and a different time. For a moment I stopped singing and simply listened to the intimately familiar words of the hymn.

I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death,
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath,
and say when the deathdew lies cold on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I could hear the organ in my childhood church, and I could see the see the familiar faces who formed my faith. As I looked around my small country church, I saw a host of simple people, unrefined people, people of deep faith who loved God in their glorious ordinariness. At the time I wanted nothing more than to be rid of my church, but this hymn, reviled at the time, functioned almost as my heart language and brought me into deeper communion with the divine.

Despite how much I had desired to flee from my church of upbringing, rural Midwest Dutch Reformed pietism is so deeply imbedded into my very existence.

The piano began to crescendo in preparation for the final stanza

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

As I returned to my time and my particular place, tears streamed down my face as I knew not what else to do with my deep experience with God.

Curiosity on a Sunny Saturday Morning

The sun is warm and the birds are chirping. It is finally a spring-like day during this unseasonably cold spring.

The front window is open and I hear a group of boys talking.

The city is doing utility work on our street and there is a square of concrete which is removed surrounded by sawhorse barricades so that unsuspecting motorists do not drive into the section of missing street.

This is all I see, a square of missing street.

What the boys see, however, seems to be something more than that.

The three of them stand around the missing segment and look down into it and they talk to one another. I cannot not hear what they are saying, but they appear to be interested in what lies before them.

One of them puts his foot out, as if to step into the void (although only about six inches deep), but backs away from doing so. Again and again they circle the void, looking into it and talking.

Finally, that same boy, again puts his foot out, and after pausing, takes a step into the hole. The other boys, seeing that this one was okay, also step into the hole as well. Shortly after this, they move to the porch on a house across the street. The whole experience was about twenty minutes.

I could not help but watch the event. Not because it was particularly exciting, but because I was enamored with how interested these boys were in a square of missing concrete. Something which I overlook, or if I do notice, it is seen as a nuisance — this is a source of investigation and curiosity for these boys.

Perhaps they were bored and this was the most interesting thing. Or, perhaps they were curious.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, as the adage goes, but it is the very thing that is life-giving for humans.

Seeing with New Eyes

I wonder what Moses saw. After wandering with a rag tag group of refugees recently liberated from slavery, Moses stood atop a mountain and was given a view of the Promised Land, the land that God was giving to this people, the land which he spent so long looking for. But it was also a land which Moses knew that he would never step one foot into that land which was lush and fertile, a land that scripture tells us that “flows with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27, NRSV).

Moses was very old and close to death. It would only be natural that he would be in a time of looking back at his life and considering whether it was worthwhile and meaningful. Moses set off to lead a people to a new land, but he would never be there to lead them into that land. He was charged with leading a people who did not want to be led, to bring to faith an unfaithful people, to teach a people who were not interested in being taught.

Perhaps Moses wondered whether it was all worth it; perhaps Moses wondered whether any of it really matters. So what does God do? God brings him to a mountain where he could see the land that he had spent much of his life journeying toward, yet would never enter.

Me? I would likely have been disappointed. Looking for meaning, and all that is given is a view of some property. But I wonder what Moses saw.

From the mountain he had a broad view of the land that laid before them, the land that would become their home, the land which would become a tangible sign of God’s favor, of God’s promise. What was before him, then, was land — but it was also much more than that.

I can imagine that Moses must have had a great imagination. Simply to stay with those people for so long would require a great imagination — not only to live with what is, but to imagine what could be. This is the essence of hope: not simply wishful thinking, but to imagine God’s future and our role in it.

***

John Calvin writes beautifully about vision when he likens scripture as new spectacles that allow us to see the world in new and different ways. What we look at has not changed, what we see is different.

***

Thousands of years later and on the other side of the world, I stand on a chancel and look out. I am certainly not Moses, but I do lead my own rag tag group of people who are seeking to follow God. There are people who are hurting, people with cancer, people who have had friends and family who have recently die. I look out at people of great faith, and I look out at people who would dance around a golden calf without thinking twice.

But my desire is not only to see what is there, but to see what I ought to see. Anyone can look at what is there, but it takes a special perspective to truly see. If there is nothing more to see than what is, then there is no hope. Hope is dependent on truly seeing, not just observing.

I wonder what Moses saw, and I wonder what I ought to see. I am pretty sure that Moses looked at trees, bushes, dirt, water, and roads. I am also pretty sure that Moses saw something much greater and much deeper.

For me, it is easy to see the “not yet” but is so hard to see the “already”. The best I can pray for is vision to see and not just observe.

What, dear reader, do you need to actually see in your life?

A Brush With Grace

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I was almost in tears.

“It’s just a jelly roll” my beloved attempted to console me.
“It’s not about the jelly roll,” I responded.

We sat quiet for a few minutes as we drove over the high point of the bridge crossing the port. The bridge is the best place to get a view of downtown, and at night I find it particularly beautiful with glowing streetlights dotting the panorama, and high-rise buildings with a random pattern of lightened and darkened windows. Although I’ve lived here for over a year already, it is a sight that I still love.

“I’m sure the cheesecake is fine too.”
“No, the cheesecake was messed up and so is this janky jelly roll,” I responded with a mix of anger and fear.

We were on our way to do something that we do not often do: Spend time with some people with whom we are building a friendship. Even though we have been beginning to make friends, we have found it particularly isolating here. I don’t have any co-workers, my beloved works out beyond the suburbs, and we don’t have many people from those usually natural connections with whom to spend time on the weekends.

But this night was different. We were going to spend time with people, and I wasn’t there as a pastor. I was just Matthew, which happens extremely rarely, and I was incredibly excited. We were charged with dessert. Dessert is up my alley. I love baking, and I’m told that I’m not too shabby at it either.

I was convinced that I needed to impress them. I needed to make a good impression, to give the impression that I can do things, and that I’m worth having as a friend because I have things to offer.

A marble cheesecake was the verdict. I worked all day whipping and mixing and measuring, and packing, and browning, and melting, and marbling, and baking, and cooling. After nearly six hours working and waiting it was cool enough, I needed to examine my work to ensure that it was a worthwhile offering. It wasn’t. It did not bake evenly and wide swaths of it were underdone.

Knowing I could not present this, I scrambled for something else that would be tasty, not from a box, and, most importantly, able to be completed in the short time that remained. A jelly roll was it.

I measured and beat, and whipped, and mixed and poured, and baked, and rolled, and unrolled, and slathered, and rolled again.

As I was rolling for the final time, the beautiful golden crust from the top of the sponge cake was coming off, sticking to the parchment that it had been turned out onto. Knowing full well that nothing could save it and I had no other options, I continued rolling and attempted to make the best out of my second failed desert of the day.

As we drove to our destination, I held the jelly roll. I glared at it in disdain. This “Plan B” desert was equally a disaster. My desire to impress was over. I would stand at their door holding this humble jelly roll and I was going over explanations in my mind.

“I made a cheesecake, but it didn’t turn out,” I would say. “Sorry that this didn’t turn out,” I would say. “Bad Day,” I would try to explain.

“I can’t believe this!” I said.
“It’s just fine,” my beloved replied.
“This is a perfect metaphor for my life,” I said, “I spend a lot of time and effort trying to make something, and trying to do it well, but it all just falls apart.”

A tear streamed down the cheek of my beloved as she listened to my newest installment of my verbal self-flagellation.

We rode silently for the rest of the trip across town.

As I rang the door bell, my heart sank as I looked upon my broken offering and disfigured addition to our meal, desperately hoping that it did not reflect poorly upon my prospects for friendship.

As one half of our host couple opened the door, I forced a smile, said hello, and held out my now-hated jelly roll.

Before I could apologize for it, she pulled my beloved and I in for a hug.

“It’s so good to see both of you!” She said.

I tried to coolly apologize for our contribution.

“Don’t worry about it one bit,” she said, “we’re just glad you’re here.”

***

This was a brush with grace, and I think, a brush with the Divine.

Perhaps this is what we are like in front of God. We stand and hold our best efforts and best intentions in the form of a broken and far-from-perfect offering, and God gives us a hug, saying, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Today is January 1st, New Year’s Day. The first day of 2013.

My travels for the holidays are over, and I have been able to settle back into my home and to some sense of normalcy (if such a thing can exist for pastors).

Although the end-of-year retrospectives are typically over, I am doing so as I stand between what has been and what will be.

This past year, 2012, has been a year of transitions and experiences.

First and foremost, it was during 2012 that I began this blog. A few posts are earlier, as I have had a couple of blog incarnations before this, none of which were brought to fruition for a number of reasons. While I am still working on finding my routine on this, my public writing space, this has been a year of disciplined writing, and a place to share some of my world with you, with the hopes that you can relate to this in one way or another. I am grateful for this space, and I am grateful for each of you, my readers, who share this experience with me. After all, you are the reason that I continue coming back here week after week to reflect on my view of the world we share.

This past year was also one in which I was able to celebrate anniversaries. I celebrated the one year anniversary of ordained ministry. I have been able to share with you joys and struggles, the good and the not-so-good, the moments in which God is clearly evident and the moments in which God seems to be absent. I have sought to honestly, openly, and graciously reflect on the beauty and the underside of ministry in an inner-city context.

So here we together stand at the cusp of the year 2013. A new year with new possibilities. A new year can be an exciting time, looking forward with anticipation to what may come. It also can be a time of great anxiety as is common for facing the unknown.

I am not sure what 2013 will hold, but one thing I know: God will walk with us, and lead us, through whatever we may face this coming year. This, while not erasing anxieties, allows them to be manageable and allows me to look toward this year with hope.

Thank you for sharing last year with me, and I hope that you will continue to stick with me this coming year, dear reader, as I am looking forward to sharing it with you.