Providence and Pandemics

We all see daily the devastating consequences of the coronavirus on those who have become ill with the virus, those who need a hospital room for any reason, and those who have lost their jobs. Let’s continue to hold them in our prayers.

The promise of Scripture is not that people of faith are spared from the consequences of living in a fallen world. And, Scripture does not, as a whole, support the idea that God causes suffering for some unfathomable meting out of justice. Rather, God promises that even the worst that the world throws at us will not separate us from the love of God in Christ. Somehow, God will work through, around, and within this pandemic to bring the world a bit closer to the Kingdom of God.

The full spectrum of how that will be remains to be seen in retrospect by subsequent generations.

Among the pieces of the growing wreckage, I am finding some bright spots. Some who are ill are recognizing the depth of care others feel for them. Many who were addicted to busy-ness are framing this time of shelter-in-place as a catch-up time for long-neglected Sabbath. I see families making music together, painting, creating sculpture, and reconnecting after years of never sharing a dinner table except for holidays. 

I have been hearing and reading for years how important it is for churches that want to thrive in the future to raise their online presence. I have said, “I know, I know, of course we need to do that,” but it has always been on the back-burner, outweighed by more pressing matters. In the last three weeks, it feels like the church I serve has leapt two or three years ahead of where our online outreach would have been had we not been faced with this fierce urgency of now.

The challenge to disciples of Jesus Christ is to hold these two priorities together: to pay attention to those in need, those who are suffering the most from the pandemic; and, to open our eyes to the little glimpses of the Kingdom of God breaking into our world, the pin-pricks of light breaking through the darkness.

Stay home. Wash your hands. Pray without ceasing.

God bless you all. 

Some Thoughts on my Ordination Anniversary

This Saint Patrick’s Day, Tuesday, will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination. I have been contemplating this week all the things I learned, and all the things I did not learn, in a seminary education from 1981 to 1984.

  • I did not learn how to pastor a congregation through a pandemic.
  • I did not learn how to hold meetings through Zoom, or any other online platform.
  • I did not learn how to lead worship in front of a camera for a YouTube or Facebook Live audience.

So, I have been thinking about asking my seminary for my money back. 

But then, I remember what I did learn.

  • I did learn that God loves us, even in the midst of plague, famine, or a wilderness journey.
  • I did learn that being a pastor will require learning something new every day.
  • I did learn that Jesus said, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

Perhaps that M.Div. degree is worth it after all.

From End to Beginning

Our worship planning team for Lent, Easter, and our April 26 building dedication service has adopted the theme, “From End to Beginning.” Rather than the traditional Lenten fast, giving up something for Lent, we invite you to think about two things: What would you like to end? What would you like to begin?

The theme arose from the story of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and burial.

The end.

And then, a beginning, the resurrection.

With Jesus’s journey as our text, we began to reflect on our life together as a congregation. This journey of renovating, expanding, and updating the building began about eight years ago with an idea. It continued with the needs assessment, a vision, then planning, fundraising, and finally the build. As the construction comes to an end, we begin anew, not just with a newly renovated space and tool for ministry and service, but with a new vision for our ministry together.

In my personal life, it has always been easier for me to begin new projects than to end old things. My work on building my second guitar serves as a case in point. I have been planning this second guitar for a year now, collecting wood and tools when they go on sale or I find them used. I have sharpened up a new-to-me old traditional hand-planer, and decided on the guitar’s size, shape, and model and bought a set of plans.

The hard part is finishing my first guitar. I have finished it several times, but when the bridge popped off one day while I was playing it (from a shoddy job by an inexperienced builder) I let it sit in its case for months before picking it back up and repairing it. I put it off because I knew I would have to go back and address more problems than just gluing the bridge back–I would have to refinish the top to create a better gluing surface, replace the saddle (the piece of bone in the bridge that keeps the strings at just the right height) and learn the right technique to use animal hide glue. As I knew it would, it took me many hours (not including drying time) to finish my last guitar.

It has been a reminder of all the ways that finishing or ending things well can be so much more difficult than starting a new and exciting project. Or relationship. Or job. Or exercise program. Or spiritual discipline.

How about you? Anything sitting around that needs some hard or tedious work before you can find closure and begin anew? Someone difficult to forgive? A well-meaning effort to change someone that is time to let go of? A hard conversation you need to have to make room for a new beginning in your relationship?

Every generation wants to sing a new song, begin a new thing, discern a Spirit-led future  unimaginable to previous generations. What will we have to release to make room for God to do a new thing among us?

They Call It Bunny Hunting

Washington Post Headline:

“They Call It Bunny Hunting”


Agile as Mowgli,

Bounding through the forest

Barefoot over rocks and creeks

Swinging on vines from tree to tree

Our little digital natives

Run free through the digital forest

Carefree as Baloo

Innocent as bunnies

Hopping under the canopy of illusion

That their agility removes

Their vulnerability to

The eyes of the King Cobra

Who waits in the branches above.

We Need New Plan

“U.S. Agencies Investigating Covert Russian Plan to Disrupt 2016 Elections.

The Kremlin may be sowing public distrust through a cyber- and disinformation campaign.”

–Headline, The Washington Post, September 5, 2016


To: Boris

From: Natasha

Re: We Need New Plan


Our old plan to disrupt ze election

Has been uncovered by Amerikan spies.

New better scheme is midcourse correction

At last, zey ask Natasha to advise.

Forget computers. Zey are onto us.

Cyber-attacks are passé (to turn phrase).

New plan is old school: greed, drunkenness, lust.

Zey never expect what worked in old days.

We flood U.S. with vodka, best in world.

Make cheap to appeal to their greed; and then,

We really knock out boys with Ukraine girls.

But, what we do for those who like ze men?

Shirtless pics of Putin put me in mood . . .

I know! Statues of Donald in ze nude!



September 11 in Newfoundland

September Eleventh in Newfoundland


This story of kindness, almost buried

Beneath the ash and the smoking rubble

Born of hate, suspicion, and fear, carried

Light, a defiant fist of grace doubled

Against the blinding darkness of the day.

Today is just one decade and a half

Since seven thousand airline refugees

Landed in Gander, and she wears her myth

Of gracious hospitality with ease,

With far more ease than I can make it real

As I spin the yarn to a child too small

To have lived through that day, too young to feel

The horror of watching the towers fall.

The darkness she believes. She, too, knows grief.

But mass kindness? She says, “now that beats all.

Such hospitality defies belief.”

“Think of an anti-matter barroom brawl,”

I say, “a fit of contagious kindness

where instead of mirrors shattering, walls

of fear and hate tumble down around us.”

She grinned slyly before we parted, said,

“Then who would mind hearing, ‘You started it.’”

Refugees, Reactivity, and Jesus

Hello, Friends. I’m back, after a long hiatus from blogging. I’ve been working on a few life goals away from the computer this year, but now I’m settled back in to our home in Sherman, Texas and serving a church part-time in nearby Whitesboro. Beginning today, I’ll be blogging about once a week with a post each Wednesday evening. With the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, and with the refugee crisis intensifying, I have been thinking a lot about emotional reactivity and its relationship to the practice of faith.

Nature provides us with a part of our brain that reacts instantly to a perceived threat with an instinct to fight, flee, or freeze. That part of our brain has been provided to save us when there is no time for reasonable thought or moral judgment. A striking snake, for instance, will trigger a reaction in us that will be faster than our higher brain could possibly handle. We do not observe the snake and say to ourselves, “Hmm, that snake is in a striking posture. It has the triangular head typical of many poisonous snakes. Let me look closer and see if it also has the elliptical pupils of a venomous snake or the round pupils of a non-poisonous snake. Ahh, it does have all the marks of a venomous snake. I think I will move out of its way.”

By that time, of course, we would have a viper hanging from our nose.

Refugees, however, are not snakes. The reactivity that serves us so well when we do not have time to think or make moral judgment can derail our attempt to be faithful followers of Jesus. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., along with most major Christian denominations, has been active in refugee resettlement since our nation began, but especially in the aftermath of the World Wars and the devastating wars and genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia. The biblical mandate to care for the refugee carries with it challenges that the reactive part of our brain cannot handle. It requires reason and love to be the one out of step with a fearful and reactive society; to be the Samaritan who stops to help the Jew, the Egyptian who welcomes the fleeing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, the rebellious daughter of the pharaoh who pulls Moses out of the river and raises him as her own.

In times such as these, the verse from Hebrews 13:2 printed on the banner that hangs in the front of our sanctuary calls us to a deeper love and faithfulness, a love and faith that conquers all fear: Remember to welcome strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.Version 2

A Gift for You

81tTwaiPleL._SL1500_If you stumble upon this post by Friday, December 5, you can receive a free e-book I published on Amazon, Eyes Peeled for Elvis: Haikus from a Road Trip. As I drove to New Hampshire from Texas to take my daughter Suzannah to her new job at New Beginnings, I recorded the trip on social media with a series of Haikus and many of my friends answered in Haiku form. Some are funny, some just slightly amusing, and some are bittersweet. This book includes my own Haikus and some from my friends, including a couple of award-winning poets. The e-book is free until Friday. After that, it’s still a bargain at $2.99. Any profits we make from this project will be donated to New Beginnings, an organization to prevent domestic and sexual violence and provide support, advocacy, and/or shelter for victims.

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.

Third Sunday of Advent

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Here are a couple of Advent sermons for your reading pleasure as we await the Second Sunday of Advent. Enjoy.

John 1:26-27 (From The Message)

26-27John answered, “I only baptize using water. A person you don’t recognize has taken his stand in your midst. He comes after me, but he is not in second place to me. I’m not even worthy to hold his coat for him.”

Chipping Away At the Darkness

A legend of Michelangelo says that his patron looked upon the finished sculpture of David and asked, “How on earth did you carve such a realistic sculpture?”

Michelangelo replied, “It was easy.  I took a big piece of marble and carved away everything that didn’t look like davidDavid.”

The Gospel writer John, telling us his Christmas story of the Word becoming “flesh and blood and moving into the neighborhood” (The Message) begins with the other John, the cousin of Jesus, and begins to chip away at all that is not Jesus.

Nope, I’m not the Messiah, John says.

Nope, I’m not the Light; no, I’m not Elijah, no, I’m not the prophet.

John, in the tradition of the prophets, presents himself as next to nothing, just a voice, “thunder in the desert,” a sound that comes before the life-giving rain.  Amos said, “I’m only a shepherd;” Moses said, “I can’t speak well enough;” Jeremiah said, “I’m too young.”  John says, “I’m not worthy.”

That’s not the response we would expect from someone who is about to get a ticket for baptizing without a license.  We might expect him to flash his credentials, to defend himself, to say, “Hey, I’ve got a right to be here!  God sent me!”  Instead, the voice crying out in the wilderness echoes Isaiah who resisted his call, saying, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

It’s the third Sunday of Advent, and we’re about ready to hear Luke’s version of the Christmas story, about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, ending up in a stable where Mary gives birth with all the farm animals, then the shepherds coming to tell them what they heard from a chorus of heavenly angels.

But, that’s not how John tells it.  If all we had was this gospel, our Christmas pageants would be easy:  just one child, standing on a dark and empty stage, reciting or singing about the light:

“In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.”

And instead of Joseph and Mary riding into Bethlehem, as we imagine, on a donkey, in the Gospel according to John, there’s just one guy, the other John, maybe not even visible, but just a voice out of the darkness, because he is not the light, but a witness to the light.

Which brings us to the reason the temple police came all the way out from Jerusalem to Bethany, some backwater village known for its lepers and outcasts:  “If you are not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet, why do you baptize?”

John’s answer, of course, is a non-answer.  He doesn’t tell them why he baptizes; instead, he tells them that those who are baptized with water are a preview of the One who comes after him.

A few years ago, I served a congregation as it went through a building project that included a small chapel. The building committee counted the cost, listened to ideas from the whole congregation, prayed and discussed and tried to discern the shape of a building that would serve as a tool for ministry in the decades to come.  The architect, began to draw.  The committee looked at the drawings and said, “We like this; this part, not so much.”  The architect drew some more.  He drew the floor plan, then the elevation from each direction, then more detailed drawings for the plumber and electrician.  By the time we broke ground, we had a stack of drawings an inch thick.

I studied the drawings carefully and felt like I knew this building.  I knew what it would look like inside and out, and I knew how it could be used.

And then, after construction had continued for a few weeks, I drove up one morning and the framing was underway.  By that afternoon, the walls and the joists were all together and it looked like a building.

When I walked through, and came into the middle room on the north side with the vaulted ceiling, I realized that the drawings were just pointing to the space.  They could give us information, they could describe the space, but they were not the same as walking into a place that instantly opened all my senses to the presence of something Holy.

Looking at the drawings, I knew that the middle room would be pretty.

Walking into the space, I felt the need to worship God.

That’s something like what John is saying about baptism with water.  It’s the architectural drawing.  We who are baptized are not the light; we’re not Elijah, we’re not the Messiah.  We are people with ordinary names.  Like architectural drawings, those names may be beautiful.  And all together, we are called the church, the body of Christ.  But, we are not Christ.  We are not the light, we only point to the light, the Word made flesh and blood.

In a culture where Christmas has become primarily a marketing event, we in the church have to struggle to keep our attention on the light to which John pointed.  At a time of year when the days are short and the night is long; when all the music and merriment can emphasize the loneliness and heartache for those on the sidelines, it is a struggle to focus on the incarnation, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

If your Christmas tradition includes giving to organizations that are changing the world, you may have noticed must how much need there is in this world. Browsing through the Alternative Christmas Market catalogue could be a downer.  Without a faith in the light of the world, it would be easier to keep our spirits up through the darkest time of the year if we tried not to think about the intractable poverty of the people of Haiti; tried not to look at the haunting photograph of a child sold by her parents as a sexual slave; if we tried to forget about people who will spend this Christmas on the street or in homeless shelters.

For some among us today, this is the first Christmas after the death of a loved one.  For those in the still-fresh pangs of grief, the merriment of the season can deepen the sadness of all we have lost.

This, however, is the darkness into which the light of Christ came.  The light of God, the Christmas light, God made flesh, came into deep darkness.  The good news of Advent is that the light still enters the dark.  With the Christmas story of John, we have no fear of the dark; the darkness of the world is like bits of stone that Michelangelo carved away from the marble to reveal his vision of David.

As those who are baptized with water, we chip away at the darkness with the faith of those who know that the light is breaking through in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.

Second Sunday of Advent

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Mark 1:1-8

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 

The Christmas Angel

To find the Christmas angel in the gospel according to Mark, we have to look hard. There is no angelic appearance of Gabriel to Mary, as there is in Luke. There is no angel appearing in a dream to Joseph as there is in Matthew. In Mark, Mary the mother of Jesus is named only in passing and Joseph is nowhere to be found.

The Christmas angel comes in the quotation from Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;”

The angel is almost impossible to find until we remember that the word “my messenger” is the English translation of the Greek word, angelon. There it is, not Gabriel, not Clarence, but John the Baptizer in the part of the Christmas angel, announcing the advent of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, the Son of David, Messiah, God in human flesh. Mattia-Preti-St-John-the-Baptist-Preaching-600x360

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy steps out on the set with a strange smile plastered on his face. You know immediately he’s doing an impression of someone, but it takes just a second to realize who it is. It’s when he puts on the cardigan sweater and the tennis shoes that you know, even if you don’t have the sound turned up, that he’s singing “It’s a beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and channeling Fred Rogers.

John the Baptizer, when he slips on the camel hair and leather belt and crunches in his teeth those delicious locusts dipped in wild honey, we know what kind of angel, what kind of messenger John is channeling. Even if we don’t have the sound turned up, we can hear the tune of that piece from Handel’s Messiah,

“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way . . .”

Ah, a prophet like Isaiah or Elijah.

And, sure enough, John comes preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This is not the Christmas angel of our culture, not at all; but then, the church, at its best, does not follow the world, it follows Christ. Imagine if we sent out Advent cards instead of Christmas cards. Perhaps the front of the card could feature the prophet in the wilderness dressed like Elijah, with a cartoon balloon from his mouth saying, in huge capital letters, “REPENT!”

What would the inside say? Perhaps, “Wishing you a season of shocking self-awareness and humble contrition.” Imagine receiving such a card from a loved one, perhaps with a list of suggestions of sins you in particular might want to consider putting on your repentance list.

Well, thanks a lot, Mark the Gospel writer. I can already feel that Christmas spirit.

It may sound kind of ridiculous, given how far removed such a thing is from the world in which we live, and yet, that is exactly where the gospel leads us on the path to Christmas. We cannot realize the depth of God’s gift in Jesus Christ until we realize the depth of our need. It’s a paradox, this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

On the one hand, traveling that path from the starting point of blaming others into that dark and frightening forest of seeing our own sin as part of every problem we care about can overwhelm us. It can lead to pain and heartache. It’s not exactly the kind of Christmas preparation the secular world presents as a pathway to comfort and joy.

And yet, the comfort and joy God has prepared for us waits at the end of that very path.

In the movie Blood Diamond, Solomon Vandy, a fisherman from Sierra Leone, is taken prisoner by the rebels and forced to work in a river panning for diamonds that will be used to finance the civil war. His eleven year old son is kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, forced to participate in such atrocities they can hardly be described. His wife and daughters become refugees, barely escaping the violence of the civil war.
When a very dodgy character, a diamond dealer and gun runner, asks a journalist named Maddy to take Solomon with her and reunite him with his family, she says, “All this suffering, millions of people dying, and you want me to help one guy? Why should I do that?”
And then, you can see it on her face. She hears what she has said. In the next scene, we see her next to Solomon in a helicopter on the way to a refugee camp where he will begin to put his family back together.
What difference can I make? Why bother to help one child with an angel from a tree, why bother to give a few dollars toward the problem of sexual slavery when the problems of human suffering are so huge? Surely we can do nothing more than bail out a cup of salt water from the Gulf.
The Advent message is that God has come to earth in human flesh. Even when all we can see is suffering and sin, we gather at this table and affirm that God has not abandoned this world. We commit ourselves to rise up and live for the Prince of Peace. In these few years we have, we will walk in the path that God has made, even when we cannot see the sweet fruit hidden deep in the orchard.
Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through the mountains of North Carolina one afternoon, and they encountered sheadstoneeveral miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone.” The words on the road sign read:
End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

Until we reach the end of construction, the journey will be full of road blocks, frustrations, and rough patches.
The courage to take this Advent journey comes from knowing our destination, that place where peace reigns, where every path is made straight, every rough place made plain. Until then, remember the words of the Christmas Angel: “Fear not.”
Thanks be to God.

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.