Category Archives: Spirituality

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.

“‘…for I am the LORD who heals you.'”

I have a parishioner, I will call him Larry.  Larry has been battling cancer for some time, and has seemed to be losing the battle.  It has metastasized in different places, and just a few short weeks ago, he did not expect to be here by Christmas. The pain was unbearable even with pain medicine, and he was continually worrying about those family members that he would leave behind.

Having had loved ones battle with, and some die from, cancer, I understand how this goes. I understand that when cancer spreads throughout one’s body, the handwriting is on the wall. Most people know this as well.

Just a couple of days ago, I spoke with Larry, and ask him how he was doing. He said that he was doing quite well, that the pain was still there but more manageable, and that a couple of the spots elsewhere in his body had disappeared!  Whereas Larry thought he would be gone by before Christmas, now it seems that Larry will be here past Christmas.  Most importantly, however, Larry was able to regain his hope for the future, he was able to enjoy life and savor it, he was able to look at his future without an expiration date stamped on his foot.

To be sure, Larry still had cancer that was slowly destroying his body. However, the outlook, at least for now, looked slightly better? Was it the radiation treatments?  That most certainly would have had an impact. Did God have involvement? Most definitely.  However, what the radiation treatments could not have done was to increase Larry’s outlook. They could not have given Larry a sense of peace, or hope for the future.

In my experience, divine healing is something which is often relegated to Benny Hinn or Todd Bentley. Consequently, I, and I suspect I am not alone, will speak of God as “the Great Physician”, and will pray for healing, but will often expect little in terms of something miraculous.

I am often guilty of thinking of healing in terms of something physical. In the Bible we often read of people who were blind, but were able to see; those who were lame, were able to walk. But we also have the disturbed Gerasene man. While the above named “healers” offer great theatrics, I do not think that this is where true healing is to be found, and I do not thing that for healing to happen there has to be a sudden miraculous moment where all cancer is gone, an incurable disease has suddenly disappeared, where the blind can see, or the lame can walk. Is it possible? Sure it is. Is this the only way? Certainly not.

Sometimes true healing comes in little bits. It comes in a spot of cancer which was there but has disappeared even though it still exists other places. It comes in pain which was unbearable but which is now manageable. It comes in a hope that did not exist but now does.

I have been reminded that God does heal, that God remains the Great Physician, and remains active. The rub, however, that it often comes in a form that we are not expecting, and consequently do not see. Sometimes the miraculous actually comes clothed in something mundane and ordinary.

When there is nothing to say

There is something holy about silence, something which I love and hate.  I love silence because I can better see myself, and listen to God. I hate silence because I can better see myself and listen to God.

When there is silence I cannot necessarily control or predict what is going to happen, what is going to come to mind. I fear that if I listen to God too clearly, if I become too close with God, that I, too, will become like Icarus. In the silence I am better able to see myself, as I often do not like the reflection.

So I fill my space with things. I fill it with all things. Anything that will distort the reflection or drown out the still small voice of God. At some point, though, all of the fillers are unable to satisfy and the only thing left to do is accept the silence.

When I have no words, I wait.

Meeting God at Lake Michigan

The breeze was cool and the geese honked as they flew overhead. Right in front of the dock on which I am sitting, I listed to a rowboat quietly skimming across the surface of the water, the only sound to be heard is the oars dipping into the water to propel the small boat toward one of the sailboats anchored in the harbor.

The water lapped against the posts supporting the dock on which I sat.

I love water. I can’t swim and I don’t have a boat but I love the water. I grew up near Lake Michigan and now I live on the other side of Lake Michigan. It has been an important part of my life. I have never lived apart from Lake Michigan. I have a strange attraction to water.

A large body of water like Lake Michigan continually influences life in the areas surrounding it. In summer it moderates the temperature and keeps it slightly cooler than other areas. In winter the moderation keeps it slightly warmer than other areas. The Lake can greatly increase snowfall and can suddenly change the projection of storms.

One of my favorite things to do is just sit by the lake. I could do this for hours. Perhaps it is the rhythmic sound of the water, perhaps it is the ripple pattern that appears when a gentle breeze moves over the surface. Perhaps it is the fact that many cities, including the one I live in, owe their entire existence to water. Perhaps it is the paradoxical nature of water: it gives life and destroys life. Nothing can live without water, yet water also holds potential for great destruction.

Water also has great religious significance as well. It was with water that God purified the earth (Genesis 7-8), it was through water that God liberated God’s people from slavery (Exodus 14), it was with water that God sustained God’s people in the desert (Exodus 17:1-7), and it was with water that John the Baptizer prepared the way for Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:1-11).

“Water cleanses; purifies; refreshes; sustains…” as the baptismal liturgy reads. “…Jesus Christ is living water.”

* * *

When I look across Lake Michigan it seems as though I can see forever. Like it never ends.

For me, Lake Michigan is a thin place – a place where heaven and earth meet. Just like the sky and the water deeply embrace at the horizon.

Living with what used to be

It was a large square brick building painted grey, about six stories high. It used to be some sort of a manufacturing company, at least that is what I gathered from the remnants of the painted sign on the facade. The days for productivity for this building are over, at least that is what I gathered from the boards over all of the windows, or at least where the windows used to be.

I wondered what was inside this old building. Was it completely empty, or where there still remnants of its previous life? Was there still equipment that could tell stories about how materials were transformed into something useful?

Living in a hard-hit rust-belt city, I have learned a new vocabulary. The vocabulary of “used to be”. This used to be a factory. That used to be a warehouse. Those used to be railroad tracks. There used to be jobs. We used to have hope.

The language of “used to be” is the language of no longer. It is the language of the past, it is the language without much of a future.

People also use this language about themselves. I used to have a job. I used to have a home. I used to have a family. I used to have a future. It is language of despair. Of things gone wrong.

I wonder exactly what this building used to be, and who used to be there.

I continued walking by many other used-to-be’s. This looked like it used to be a beautiful house. That looks like is used to be a corner store.

I walked down the next block and I saw what I thought were used-to-be’s but as I came closer, I saw that they are the “are-nows” — things which used to be something useful and have been transformed into something else useful. I stopped and looked at the new-found sight. I saw was used to be a tannery complex, but is now refurbished space for offices, social service agencies, and commercial space. All of this just a few blocks down from a sea of used-to-be’s.

I think about myself, and I see a lot of used-to-be. It’s hard to identify as a used-to-be. It cuts deep into one’s soul as one reflects on what and who one used to be, but is no longer. It is a great sense of loss, it involves grief, and it can involve a bleak future. Many days I feel like I am running in a hamster wheel forced to watch a never ending film of all that I used to be.

I begin to wonder if perhaps the used-to-be’s are more than just this. Perhaps they are actually “could-be’s.” Those things which used to be something but are simply waiting to be transformed into something else useful.

This is why I identify as a Christian. When I read scripture, I hear one message over and over: God telling the used-to-be’s that they are actually the could-be’s and that one day they will be the are-nows.

this building is a mess

Haartz-Mason

By WickedVT on Flickr

At 8:30pm standing over a flooding floor drain with a wet/dry vacuum trying to control the incessant water is not how I typically picture spending my one day off.

However, this is exactly how I spent four and one half hours of my day off: sucking up water, and emptying the bucket.

The only redeeming quality is that my beloved was with me.  She was able to share some of the burden with me, and she was also a wonderful companion to keep me company, to talk with, and to keep me from doing anything rash like filling the whole church basement with concrete and pretending that it never existed.

This was a problem which could happen to anyone, anywhere. It is not anyone’s fault, and there was really no better solution than just to try to keep it as dry as possible for as long as possible until we could call a plumber.

“It’s just that nothing is dependable,” she told me.  She didn’t have to say anything more, I knew to what she was referring.  Our church struggles financially, so there is no real sense of security there.  Our building is old with a lot of deferred maintenance, and so each day one never knows what surprises the building might be hiding and preparing to reveal.  Our community has a lot of challenges, and I never know what I will face when I get up any given morning.

I have found that I cannot depend on anything except to expect the unexpected.

Perhaps this is true of more things than just our church, though.

Perhaps this is a good lesson for me, someone who is always seeking to find security, dependability, and consistency.  Perhaps this is all one big object lesson to teach that seeking security and dependability in all of this is superfluous; after all, the only true dependability can be found in God.

After our discussion, I went back to the kitchen, turned on the utility vacuum, and continued sucking up water.

This old building is a mess, I thought.  Yes, it is a mess.  But so am I, and so are all of us, when it really comes down to it. Perhaps this is what I am reacting to so strongly and not simply the water.  Perhaps it is that in the fact that the building is filled with problems, and it serves as a mirror where I can see all of my own problems more clearly, without anything to cover them up or gloss over them.

“…God is bigger than the bogeyman…”

Night Gower Street Black and white

By Zach Bonnell on Flickr

For several hours I gazed at the glow from the streetlights which reflected onto the bedroom ceiling.  As I listened to the heavy ticking of the second hand of the clock in the next room, I knew that I had to sleep because tomorrow was rapidly approaching.

I was unable to calm my mind. I thought about my church and what the future might look like; I thought about my future and considered my own calling and how I see it unfolding. I thought about my beloved who was asleep next to me and her tireless effort to support us and encourage me through the uncertainty of my calling and the spiritual and emotional turmoil that frequently accompanies such journeys.

Turning my head toward the clock, I saw that tomorrow became today.

I went into the living room and opened my prayer book to “Prayer at the Close of  Day” also known as Compline.

In that section, my prayer book falls open to almost the same page where I read the familiar words,

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work or watch
or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep…

This is the beauty of common prayer, that Christians everywhere share these same words.  Last night I realized that I was not praying for “those” but I was praying for us.  I realized that that night I was one of those who “work or watch or weep this night.”

I wasn’t alone. Others were awake. Some were working, others were on watch, and still others were weeping.

I wonder how many others were lying awake, unable to sleep. Carrying such heavy burdens upon their souls.

I read it again, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those…” God not only watches over those who keep watch, but God watches with us. God watches with us as we work or weep through the night.

* * *

At times, I hear some people say that the minister represents Christ. I disagree, as one person cannot stand in for Christ. But all that aside, last night I was not a minister. I was simply a person watching in the night, unable to sleep, and awake as God was busy preparing tomorrow which had already begun to arrive.

I am not Jesus, I cannot be Jesus. I cannot save the world and I cannot carry the weight that burdens me. I joined the chorus of those who were awake while others slept; those who work, those who watch over others, those who carry sorrow and worry in their heart. I was able to take comfort that maybe somewhere else, maybe even down the street, someone was praying those same words because they could not sleep.

* * *

As I returned to bed to attempt to rest once more, a song came into my mind. From Veggie Tales.

God is bigger than the bogeyman.
He’s bigger than Godzilla
and the monsters on TV.
Oh, God is bigger than the bogeyman,
And he’s watching out for you and me.

I chuckled to myself, but then realized that yes, God is bigger than the bogeyman, and God is watching out for all of us. Because God is watching out for us, I can rest knowing that I am not Jesus and I don’t have to be.

A Cross in my Hand

I have a cross which is designed to be held in one’s hand. It was given to me when I was installed as pastor and teacher at my church. It has rounded corners and it is smooth to the touch.  It is unfinished and it is designed to absorb the oils from hands over time.

The cross is a somewhat strange symbol to wear and to put on our walls and to hold in our hands, but it is a fitting symbol.

The cross is not a symbol of death, but it is a symbol of new life.  It is not a symbol of defeat, it is a symbol of victory. It is not a symbol which is exclusive to Christianity, but when viewed through a Christian lens, it becomes a wonderful symbol for the life of faith.

The cross is an object which helps me to reflect on the words of Jesus, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38, NRSV).

This is an interesting theme in Christianity: those things which often seem to be defeat, those things which often seem to be death, those things which often seem to be destruction are not ultimately what they seem — they lead to something much greater: life more abundant, victory more victorious, re-creation much more beautiful.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (Phil. 3:10, NRSV).

The cross is a symbol of our walk with Jesus and the road which is often laden with sufferings and trials.  I am learning that the point of the journey is not to avoid sufferings, but to learn to see God in the midst of them and to give thanks.

The cross is not simply a bridge to heaven, as some describe it.  It is an affirmation that we too must take on things which do not seem to be life-giving, we must take on suffering at times (not simply for the sake of suffering, but following God’s calling for us, even if it may lead to temporal suffering).  The cross is a symbol of the affirmation that “I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1).

It is a reminder that things are not always what they seem.  It is a symbol that life and liberation are what God desires for us and are what God will accomplish, but that sometimes they come through the guise of suffering.

It is a reminder to me that God has called me to be faithful — not happy.

It is a reminder to all of us that there is more at work than what we can see or understand, that God has desires which are slowly unfolding, and that we all play but a small role in this narrative.

I hold this cross in my hands, hoping for the glory of God to be revealed.  Hoping that God will bring peace. Hoping that God will bring resurrection and restoration to this lost and broken world, and my lost and broken life.

“…With Sighs Too Deep for Words”

prayer..

By Aronki (Dae Ho Lee) on Flickr

I had an out-of-town meeting yesterday, about an hour away.  On my way to this meeting, the distance provided me with one full hour of unstructured alone time.  I was not reading, I was not making telephone calls, I was not having people stop by my office, and I was not writing.

I had an hour of uninterrupted time to spend some time praying.  I had a lot on my mind, after all.  I was worried about a family in our church that just had their power shut off, I was wondering where the new leaders in our church would arise from, I was wondering if we would have enough money to be able to finish the year, I was concerned that violence continues to cast a dark cloud over our neighborhood.  I felt a weighty burden on my shoulders.  Often times, the only thing that I am able to do is to pray.

The words would not come out.  I could not even think the words that I wanted to say.  I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew the type of things that I wanted to express, but I could not.  In my desperation I let out a big sigh.

It was then that I remembered a verse from the Letter to the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, NRSV).

I wondered, perhaps, if this is the experience to which this passage refers.  There are times in which we feel an oppressive weight upon our shoulders, when our hearts are burdened.  When we find it difficult to focus or concentrate, or even make words.  There are always times in which we feel as though we are barely treading water and as though our pockets are filled with stones.  These are times in which praying can be difficult.

How ironic that there are some very difficult times, times in which we most need to pray, that it is difficult to do so. This is particularly difficult for me, as words are the way in which I make my living and the way in which I live out my calling.  I interpret the words of scripture, and I use words to explain scripture and why it matters to those in my congregation.  I use words to offer up common prayers with and on behalf of my congregation.  I use words to comfort those who are sick, I use words to celebrate the sacraments, I use words to help those entrusted to my care to try to make sense of God, their lives, and how God impacts their lives.  Words are what I do.

There are, however, times in which words are never enough.  When people grieve, sometimes the ministry of being is more important than the ministry of words.  Words are useful only insofar as they communicate something which needs to be communicated.  There is something, though, of the human condition which is ineffable, which cannot be expressed within the limits of language. Sometimes there is something so beautiful and wonderful that words cannot do it justice; other times there is so much burden and that words cannot express the depths of despair.

At these times, perhaps, it is best simply to remain silent knowing what is on one’s heart and mind.  Perhaps, at these times, when words cannot suffice, words need not be necessary because presence with another person and/or presence with God is enough.  When something limited like language cannot express what we need to express, there is a communication which is far deeper than words.