In the meantime…

With the approach of Christmas we have images of bright lights, peaceful evenings by the tree, and gatherings with loved ones. Even with the bleak backdrop of COVID, we anticipate hearts warmed by the preparation for this beloved holy-day. But the Lectionary Committee who choose the Bible passages for this First Sunday in Advent throw this doom and gloom prediction our way—as if approaching Christmas with COVID lurking is not worry enough! So “Ho Ho Ho and get your act together—now!” We scratch our head and wonder, are we awaiting the birth of a Savior or the end of the world? We know how to wait for Santa—most of us remember opening up little windows on paper Advent Calendars as children, excited for the double window we got to open on Christmas Day. The countdown to Santa is measurable. But watching for Jesus? That’s not so easy.

The text urges us to stay awake, to be ready because we don’t know what’s coming around the next corner. I think we’ve learned that lesson pretty well this year, don’t you? Most of us have the luxury of being able to plan ahead. We set a date for our wedding, make big plans and carry them out with lovely pictures to document the occasion! Not this year. The teaching of Jesus invites us to learn from the past so that we can live better in the present. There will be indicators in the present that prepare us for what’s ahead if only we live attentively in the moment!

This teaching takes place in the Temple where Jesus is surrounded by the religious elite. Jesus has shifted gears to preparing His disciples for His absence. The cross is within Christ’s sight and He wants to ensure the readiness of His inner circle of followers. He predicts that the very temple where they are studying will be destroyed. This would have been regarded as blasphemy—and impossible! When we traveled to the Holy Lands several years ago our group smiled for the camera on the stones that made up one wall of that Temple where Jesus taught. They are massive boulders chiseled into square foundation stones. They are still heaped in a giant pile, unmoved because of their size. It’s unimaginable that soldiers would have been able to knock these stones down like a remodeler knocks down a flimsy wall on our favorite HGTV renovation show. But they did, like an army of ants, and we stood on the proof that Jesus’ outlandish prediction came true when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

This passage falls into the category of apocalyptic writing. There are several general traits to this kind of literature. Christopher Hutson writes, “The basic message of apocalyptic visions is this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.” So fa-la-la and run for cover! People have used this sort of message for generations to predict dire events in the future. The Jews and Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem would have thought that Jesus’ prophecy was being fulfilled then. Remember the Y2K frenzy? Some folks prepared for the end of the world as we moved into a new millennium. As COVID hit our country, fear overtook us and people hoarded toilet paper to keep supplied until the world as we knew it was over! But, so far, none of these doomsday preachers have been right. The predicted day of annihilation arrives, passes, and we move on with another reminder that no one knows the day or hour of Jesus’ return. So don’t focus on the future. Live attentively in the moment. Remember Jesus’ prayer that we continue to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread…”

Our neighbors operate a beautiful orchard primarily of apple trees. For decades they poured their retirement energies into pruning each tree, spraying regularly to ward off insect damage and finally harvesting bins of beautiful apples that were carted off to market. The past two years have been difficult for this couple. The husband had a heart attack two years ago and was told he might live another year. His wife, who had declined due to Alzheimer’s for several years, died last winter. It had been her parents’ farm. This year the apples hang on the branches of the trees as the fall leaves drop and the first snow brings sparkling cover. It’s heartbreaking to witness the changes in this orchard that was tended to so meticulously. Jesus gives an example of a tree that would have been common to His listeners: a fig tree. A good farmer is going to watch for pest infestation. He will make certain that there is enough water and nutrients in the soil. She will prune the branches and set time aside at harvest to gather the fruit that provides nourishment for the community. A vigilant farmer pays attention to the fruit growing in the present moment so that there will be a crop. Likewise, we are to be watchful in our own time so that we can perform the necessary tasks in a timely manner. If we do this, we won’t need to worry about the future.

Jesus wraps up this particular lesson with an acknowledgement that His audience included more than those Jewish men who sat at His feet in the shade of the Temple. “And what I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” He made a point of saying that He was teaching His urgent lesson to all. Stretching through the ages, past one dire prediction of end times after another, Jesus even had us in mind as He reminded a preoccupied people that they need to slow down to enjoy the moment rather than worry about a future that we cannot control. He would have remembered how a brutal dictator in 167BC banned all foreign religions in his kingdom. Antiochus Epiphanes asked those in his vast empire to recognize him as a god. He had coins minted with his image and the words, “The Face of a God.” He was a maniac who fought to keep control by removing any form of his subjects’ religion except for worshiping him. The Jews were forbidden to make sacrifices to Yahweh or even to possess a Torah in their synagogues. The Jews had to literally fight to maintain the integrity of their religion. Some 200 years later, in spite of these restrictions, Jesus, a Jew, lived among a Jewish population that had not only survived hard times but thrived. Believers like Esther, Daniel, and (much later) Paul professed their faith in spite of the risk it posed to their lives.

Much has changed for us this year in how we live our daily lives. The Corona Virus has shut down churches and changed the way we celebrate communion. It has forced us to minister to each other with porch deliveries and zoom meetings with family on Thanksgiving. We have revised and re-revised plans for weddings and funerals. We have ceased singing with each other out of concern for each other’s well-being. Some of you spent Thanksgiving alone in your homes for the first time ever. Some of you are quarantining in one corner of your home, fighting a deadly virus, while loved ones tend to you from a safe distance. We have been prevented from doing the things we like and took for granted. We have fought to hang onto some vestige of the familiar while grieving the temporary loss of beloved traditions.

The usual message this time of year is to slow down. Many of us have been forced to slow down. We aren’t throwing parties. We aren’t doing our usual holiday cooking and baking. We are ordering gifts on-line rather than enjoying shopping outings to familiar places with loved ones. We understand, more than any other Advent season, what it means to wait. We are waiting for an effective vaccination that will inoculate us against sickness, loneliness, and fear. We are waiting for our government to work together for the good of its people. We are waiting for business to pick up again, for good health to return, for a chance to wrap our arms around loved ones we miss more than we imagined possible. As the Advent season begins, Jesus calls out to us: Stay awake. Watch the signs of the time. Be ready.

And so we wait. But not like a child who sits in class, pulling on her gum, waiting for the bell to ring. We wait like the batter who steps up to the plate knowing that a ball traveling upwards of 95 miles an hour will soon be flying his way. He is expected to be ready to make contact and turn it into a hit. That’s the kind of watching we are asked to do. Your children open tiny doors on Advent calendars or seek out an elf in a different place each morning. They anticipate the arrival of a man who slides down chimneys in a red suit. But Jesus pleads with us to watch for the places He shows up to shine the light of His glory into dark corners.

We live “in the meantime.” Rather than being fixated on a particular sort of future, Jesus invites us to take pleasure in today. Even with COVID, with hateful division, with economic stress; in the face of hurricanes, raging fires, floods, and melting icecaps; while separated from friends or quarantining in the basement, we give thanks to God who dwells with us “in the meantime.” Those who assembled the lectionary readings want us to know, like every generation before, that much is at stake in this season. So we pray as we sing the words that were penned in the 9th century: “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”


Celebrating Andrae


A boy about ten years old was called up to the front of the church. Dutifully he walked up to the preacher, his father. His daddy laid hands on him and commissioned him before the whole congregation for a new responsibility. Through prayer the preacher man proclaimed his boy as being anointed for service to God as a musician. Andrae would be the song leader for Christ Memorial Church in San Fernando, California. A decade of living under his belt, he was given authority in his church family.

His father knew the boy had talent. The commissioning didn’t come out of nowhere. Andrae had been singing and playing the piano long before this altar call. He changed keys effortlessly to harmonize with his people, not the other way around. He was self-taught. His father anointed Andrae Crouch as the church musician because he saw God’s hand upon him. Andrae did not disappoint!

Andrae’s father founded Christ Memorial Church in 1951. Andrae’s mom was very involved in the ministry as well. Born on July 1, 1942, Andrae spent his whole life alongside his twin sister, Sandra. The two of them formed a band in the early 60’s called Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. In an interview years later Andrae said, “I know what I’m supposed to say in a particular song. I don’t know the order to the song. I don’t know if it should be, the end should be on a high note or a low note or something mellow. When I’m going to record it, God gives me the interpretation of the song and how to deliver it. And when I feel it that way, and it touches me, then I feel like it would touch somebody else.” He could have no idea how true his inclinations would be about his own musical appeal. When he was in high school he wrote the song, The Blood will Never Lose its Power. There was no looking back for Andrae. His passion for music and the acclaim of others led him on a non-stop journey as a singer/songwriter.

Long before there was an understanding of dyslexia, Andrae lived that reality. He developed his own sort of sign language, using drawn pictures if he couldn’t recognize the word. Andrae told the Associated Press in 2011, “Some things that I write, you’ll see a page with cartoon pictures or a drawing of a car—like a Ford—or a flag. I still do it on an occasion when a word is strange to me…So when I finish a song, I thank God for bringing me through. You have to press on and know your calling. That’s what I’ve been doing for all my life. I just went forward.” Rather than viewing his disability as an impediment to his success, he saw it as an asset. He said, “If I was sharp in every area, I might be too big-headed or something.” Turning barrier into blessing would become part of his trademark.

Bridging the Gap

Andrae started writing music in the tumultuous 60’s. New styles of music shocked an older generation but became the background rhythm by which a younger generation made their moves. Andrae utilized pop writing techniques and paired words of faith with those upbeat melodies. He bridged the gap between sacred and secular unlike any musician before him was able to do. His love of jazz and black gospel music stretched traditional hymnody beyond the acceptable bounds of the 1950’s American Church. He didn’t have an agenda—he had a style and he used it to give expression to his faith. In an article in the Baptist Press from January of 2015, the journalist wrote, “Crouch could craft an innovative melody and heartfelt lyric while unabashedly proclaiming the Gospel in his songs—man’s sin; God’s love and faithfulness; Jesus’ death, resurrection and imminent return. Crouch’s songs were transparent and honest about the struggles of the Christian life, yet full of hope.”

His unique blending of traditional Black Gospel sounds with other music genres formed a bridge between white and black churches. It inspired people from evangelical congregations to mainline Protestant churches to belt out his music. He is understood to be the author of Contemporary Christian music that took off in the 1960’s and 70’s. He was criticized for diluting Christian music with contemporary musical traits. The appeal to this new form of church music wasn’t fully appreciated as Andrae started composing. Unfazed, he continued to churn out new hymns that had repetitive word patterns that drew people in. Surrounding himself with other musicians, including his sister, they combined a melody line and words–words simply about life’s experiences or taken directly from scripture–and they would riff on that. “Let the church say amen” is one example of that. In this video clip we see Andrae sitting at his piano, friends standing around him, as he explained how that simple line came to him. The limited lyrics allowed other musicians to jump in, adding their own voices to it. The result was a moment of worship that brings me to (joyful) tears every time I hear it.

The song that would launch Andrae’s career as a globally-recognized musician was My Tribute. When he was 18 he felt God calling him to serve in the Los Angeles Center of Teen Challenge founded by David Wilkerson, the author of The Cross and the Switchblade. On his first day of work he met Larry Reed, newly released from San Quentin Prison. Initially Larry had no interest in Andrae’s faith and stuck to his convictions of being an atheist. But Andrae’s music spoke to him and, over time, he became a Christian. One day Larry called Andrae up. He said, “I had a dream about you the other night. I dreamed that you were going to write a song that is going to go around the world. It will be the biggest song you ever wrote, to this day.” Taking the man’s words seriously, Andrae asked what he needed to do. Larry directed him to John, chapter 17. We call this section of John’s Gospel Jesus’ high priestly prayer. In that passage Andrae read Jesus’ words: “Father, I have glorified Thee, now glorify me.”

The next morning Andrae found himself singing, “To God be the glory.” He wondered where those words came from. He went to the piano and within ten minutes had written the hymn we love, “My Tribute.” Andrae hosted dinner guests that evening in his home. As was his custom, they gathered around his piano and sang together for about an hour. They sang his new hymn. Andrae told his guests about Larry’s prediction that he would write a song that would travel across the globe. One of the guests was incredulous when she learned that the song they had been singing was written that same morning. She insisted that My Tribute must be the very song of Larry’s dream. Andrae couldn’t imagine that his testimony of faith, put into song that morning, would have a wide appeal. So the dinner guests reviewed the passage from John 17 together: “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” Excitedly, Andrae realized that it’s all about glory: “To God be the glory…for the things He has done.”

“My Tribute” became a signature piece for Andrae who toured in Europe, Africa and the Far East to sing his Christian music. Not only did he bridge the gap between white and black congregations; between traditional hymnody and new contemporary music. Andrae’s musical talent was so appealing that he was sought out by secular artists. He helped Michael Jackson write the song, The Man in the Mirror. He became the Producer/Arranger for Madonna’s Like a Prayer. His choir sang the background vocals to her hit. Artists like Elton John, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Elvis and Paul Simon sang his music. He had a long relationship with the Oslo Gospel Choir, bringing his mix of black gospel, jazz and traditional hymnody to Norwegians! He won 9 Grammys, an Academy Award and Dove Awards for his compositions. At Michael Jackson’s memorial service in 2009 Andrae sang his song, Soon and Very Soon to a packed out congregation in the Staple’s Center. He is one of very few gospel musicians who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame in 1998. In her article in the Baptist Press (Andrae Crouch kindled ‘new dimension’ of worship by Laura Erlanson, 1/9/15), Laura Erlandson quotes Christian rapper, D. A. Horton: “The impact Crouch had on my life and ministry is deeply meaningful. Andrae broke ground for ethnic minorities in mainstream evangelicalism and popular American culture. His methods will be missed, but the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that he so boldly preached remains.”


I remember hearing an interview with Andrae years ago. His words planted the seed in my heart of one day leading a service devoted to the musical imprint he left for us. He talked about the time that his parents and older brother died, all three in just over a year’s time. Lost in sorrow, he stopped writing music. After a time he had an encounter with God who asked Andrae, “Praise Me.” Andrae railed at God for taking his parents away from him. God persisted, “Praise Me.” Undaunted, Andrae continued his diatribe against the God he assumed was responsible for the tremendous losses he had sustained. God’s response was steady: “Praise Me. Praise Me, Andrae.” Finally, as he let out his anger at God, Andrae collapsed and wept. He allowed God to comfort him then the music started welling up again. Andrae’s music was an expression of what he was feeling at any given moment. He battled four different forms of cancer, the disease that claimed his family members. He lived with diabetes and was hospitalized for complications of the disease. Toward the end of his life he struggled with congestive heart failure. In an interview, Andrae spoke about his song, Through it All. In talking about his bandmates he said, “We’ve been through a lot of things together. We’re not just up here hooping and hollering. But we know the Messiah and we’re always praying. When this song was given to me I didn’t really know how much I was going to have to use it. And I still don’t know how much more I’m going to have to use it. But I’m ready. I just want to be at the place that where God takes me, I want just to be there, to go through it, to be able to say ‘yes’ in every situation and not to complain but just to go through. And we all gotta do that because he don’t have any favorite persons.”

Crouch’s December 2014 tour had to be postponed due to pneumonia and congestive heart failure. Just a month later, he died on January 8, 2015 at the age of 72. Michael W. Smith told Billboard Magazine: “I’ll never forget hearing Andrae for the first time. It was like someone had opened a whole new world of possibilities for me musically. I don’t think there is anyone who inspired me more, growing up, than Andrae Crouch. The depth of his influence on Christian music is incalculable. We all owe him so much and I’ll forever be grateful for the times we got to work together.

Patricia Stuart offered her praise on his obituary page: “I was 14 years old when I began listening to Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. I was blown away by his music because no other music reached my heart the way his music did. I ran out and bought his albums with my allowance and continued to buy his music. To this day, his music touches my heart and I can’t stop listening to it. He was a musical genius who gave you an honest part of himself and a glimpse of God in all of his music.”

Our congregations’ musicians and I talked with each other about what a gift it was to immerse ourselves in Andrae’s music. We shaped a joyful worship service in which we honored his legacy. I awakened to find his music in my head. His lyrics spoke to my heart. I wept at times, moved by the way he and his band poured out their faith in repetitive lines that affirm our faith in Jesus. I am thankful for a boy named Andrae who accepted the calling his father placed upon him to rise up and lead his congregation in song. He did it then and has been doing it ever since! To God be the glory!


A High-Risk Venture

Have you ever gone on a balloon ride and floated above the earth with a stunning view below? At a potluck some years ago our church member, Milt, was sharing some of his stories from his years as a pilot. I didn’t realize that he was a balloon pilot in addition to being able to fly planes. So he told us a story about a time he and another balloon pilot were going to take a flight near Lake Michigan. They lifted off 25 miles east of the Grand Haven Airport. They climbed to 3000 feet where they leveled off. For half an hour they enjoyed the view but then Milt noticed that they were covering the ground much faster than they had been initially. The Grand Haven airport was no longer in sight and they were edging closer to Lake Michigan with the passing of each second. When Milt checked their ground speed he was alarmed to see that they were going about 15 miles per hour too fast for balloon speed. As they scanned below to look for a potential landing site, they only saw trees. Knowing that they were running out of time before they would be blown over the big lake, he dropped the balloon down to 1000 feet so that they could land quickly if an opening presented itself. As they leveled off at that lower altitude, an open two acre field appeared out of nowhere. He pulled on the rope that lets out the hot air (another instance when it really isn’t good to be full of hot air!?) and descended very quickly. They landed intentionally against the trees so that the wind couldn’t take them airborne again. Once again on terra firma, they took deep breaths, reflecting on how this harrowing experience could have ended much differently!

I’m not one for high risk adventures! I don’t need to go on Fear Factor and eat a bucket of bugs or slog through the mud while climbing a mountain on the Amazing Race. When I was young I was never tempted to sign up with Outward Bound. I have exciting moments in my life that stretch my limits. But you’re not going to find me scaling the side of a cliff any time soon! How about you? Do you seek out thrills that get your adrenalin pumping? Or are you a creature of habit who likes to play it safe?

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25 about three servants and a wealthy Master. The focus is primarily on the third slave who is characterized as being lazy. His boss is harsh and driven. This makes for bad office mo-jo, a vocational mismatch. So it’s not surprising that it ends poorly.

But that’s not the only message of this story. Jesus’ parables have layers to them. In this one the Master is generous. Since he’s leaving for a long journey he entrusts his assets to three faithful servants. A biblical talent is the modern-day equivalent of 15 years of wages! Each worker is given the amount of responsibility that the Master knows they can handle. There are no directions given for how they are to manage their Master’s affairs. The two more astute financial planners double their money by investing it. The third worker does something that was viewed positively in 1st century Palestine: bury the wealth in the ground! The third worker can sleep in peace until his Master returns.

It’s important to state that this slave is not a bad man. In fact, when the stock market is precariously down, he might even look wise! When the Master returns he is proud to be able to give back all of the money. He didn’t steal any of it. He didn’t foolishly invest it or lose any of it. He gives it all back to the Master, safe and sound, expecting the same kind of praise given to the first two workers. But Slave #3 is treated as harshly as anyone is in the scriptures! So this isn’t just a vocational mismatch or an ancient version of Horrible Bosses! This story creates waves that ripple out to the edges of Jesus’ society that challenged how a life of faith was to be lived.

The words in the parable give us a hint of the problem. Did you notice the emotion behind the third worker’s dealings with his Master’s money? Fear. He fears his Master so fear drives his action (or inaction). This fear becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy in the end when he is thrown into utter darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. I’m not sure what it means to gnash teeth but I don’t think I want to find out! Meanwhile the first two workers are invited with joy into the inner circle of trust with the Master. Rather than being dominated by fear they took risks, just as they knew their Master would. Their courage and savviness was affirmed with a promotion from servant to partner!

So this isn’t a lesson in Micro-Economics. It’s not even about money. It’s about investing fully in our daily lives and taking risks for the sake of the Gospel. John Buchanan flips our common understanding of risk on its head by offering this interpretation:

“The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently. Orthodox, conventional theology identifies sin as pride and egotism. However, there is an entire other lens through which to view the human condition. It is called sloth, one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins. Sloth means not caring, not loving, not rejoicing, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Bartlett and Taylor, p. 310)

When has your faith led you into a high-risk venture? We often think of faith as a security blanket, a source of comfort. This is not wrong but it is an incomplete understanding of our faith. Jesus models for us a holy life that forces us to expand our horizons. He calls for us to follow Him, not simply talk theology. Jesus told this story in the last days of His life. It’s the third parable in a series that teaches how we are to pass our time while waiting for the return of Jesus. He is nearing the end of His own high-risk venture and offers this as part of His “Last Lecture Series.” He must prepare His disciples to carry the Christian faith forward for future generations. He doesn’t ask for anything more from us than He is willing to give.

The story begins with an unexpected moment of divine generosity. We are each given not just life but assets or blessings with which to live our lives. It’s as if a very important person has entrusted power, wealth, freedom and responsibility to us as a gift. This generous benefactor shows love for us by giving us space and power to act as we see fit. There is no micromanagement, no strings attached. But we will reap what we sow. The third slave identified his Master as one who reaps where he has not sown. The Master is God and God has the right to take away some or all of our gifts at any time.

Some of us make lists to keep organized and for them (me!), there is no greater joy than crossing something off that list. What if we were asked to keep track of how we spend our hours? Like a law office, what if we had to chart every 15-minute increment and what we “produced” in that time. What if we had to describe our productivity based on an accepted set of priorities? Would it suffice to take our gifts and stuff them under a mattress to keep them safe? Or, when the market is in a tailspin and the future looks bleak, is that the very time to invest in the market believing that the influx of our talents will lead to positive growth? This is starting to sound like an economics lecture! The question is, while waiting for God to step in and bring our struggling world to a glorious end; while anxiously awaiting a mass innoculation of the world with a vaccination so that we can get back to “normal”; while waiting for our daughter’s horrific divorce to be finalized, for our son with ADHD to finish his degree, our salary to bump up by a dollar an hour so we can keep up with our bills or our loved one to come home from an overseas assignment? In these and so many other moments, how do we live? Do we pour it all out for the love of a Savior who redeems our messes and sorrows? Or do we hunker down in a cozy corner and clutch to ourselves everything of value?

I recently heard the conversion story of Anne Lamott, an author with deep Christian spiritual insights. From the way she writes it’s evident she has known struggle. Her conversion experience, described in her book Traveling Mercies, is difficult to read but moves me greatly. In April of 1984 Anne learned that she was pregnant. The father was someone she had just met who was married. She had no desire to have a relationship with him and had no money to raise a baby. So her friend drove her to a clinic where she had an abortion. So deeply saddened by the experience, when she got home she retreated to her bed with a bottle of booze and some codeine the nurse had given her for pain. She drank away her sadness through the night. For a week following the abortion, she drank, took pills and smoked pot to numb her pain. She had medical complications from the procedure such that her friend suggested she go back to the clinic. But Anne was so disgusted with herself that she holed up, anxiously tending to her own needs.

She writes that, after several hours, the bleeding stopped. That night she climbed into bed weak, sad, and too exhausted to abuse her body further with alcohol or pills. As she lay in her bed she became aware of someone with her. Someone was hunkered down in a certain corner with a presence so real that she turned on the light to make sure it wasn’t a real person. It was not. Back in the dark again she knew, beyond any doubt, that it was Jesus. She wrote, “I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.” Rather than welcoming His presence she was incredulous that He could care about her. She was horrified to think of how her friends would react to her becoming a Christian. She turned to the wall and said out loud to the Jesus who gave her space to make her own decisions: “I’d rather die.”

She carried on that week as if she had simply endured a bad dream but felt as if she was being followed everywhere she went. She had been attending a church for a time and she went to the service that next Sunday. The music spoke to her so deeply that, during the last hymn, she felt herself being held and rocked and comforted. She fled the sanctuary in tears and ran for her home, feeling followed all the way. When she opened the door to her houseboat, she stood there a moment, then said with resignation, “I quit.” She writes, “I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’”

My faith has been inspired by Anne’s writing. Knowing the hardship of her story and the power of Jesus’ pursuit of her, I am all the more impacted by her testimony. Jesus knew that she had many gifts that could be used for holy purposes. But self-harming behaviors neutralized her impact. Christ sought her out so that she could influence countless seekers, many of whom might have also taken the rocky path into the Christian faith. Like the third servant she was willing to settle for a life that was OK. But God awakened in her the need to step out on a limb of faith and discover that she wouldn’t fall. She was invited into the embrace of her Maker. She embarked on a pilgrimage that has brought her and many others great joy.

In her commentary on Jesus’ parable Lindsay Armstrong writes, “We know what faithful living looks like, but we hesitate to live it. We bury too much goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent in the ground.”

As we await the end of Covid, the end of election tensions, the end of our sickness or sorrow, as we expectantly await the time that God enters our history to straighten us out; in the midst of that waiting we practice a faith that is really a high-risk venture. It will take us to new heights. It will scare us at times. It will bring us great joy! It will give us a sense of God’s nearness as we behold the beauty of the world around us. It’s the greatest hope we have for being unified in our neighborhoods, nation and world!


A Pledge Under the Old, Oak Tree

Is there a tree that is special to your family? Is there a tree on the family farm where dinners stretched out on simple picnic tables giving space for animated conversation? Did someone put up a gazebo, sprinkle it with flowers and get married in the shade of its branches on a warm summer day? Is the tree near the driveway where your grandfather climbed into a Model T to start a new life with your grandmother in another part of the country?

Our family cottage is built on the shores of Lake Michigan. The property has been in the family since the 1890’s although our cottage was built in 1974. We have come up to Michigan for more than 120 years as a family, sitting on chairs along the bluff that afford a vista of the water below. It’s so beautiful that local artist James Brandeiss has painted three stunning sunset pictures from our bluff. One of them features two trees that stand proudly next to each other.

I wonder how many generations of our family, those still among us and those who have long since left this earth, would recognize those twin trees that withstood winter storms and summer heat? Our shoreline is ravaged with the high water levels. The bluff is a raw wound, open sand that loses the battle against wind and water on daily basis. One of those trees has already fallen.

I climbed over our safety fence when I was there a couple of weekends ago and cautiously leaned against the remaining tree. In my heart I thanked it for keeping a vigil over the lake for so many years. Much of its roots are already exposed as it stands with dignity on the precipice of a land that is disappearing. I imagined my grandfather scrambling past that tree to get down to the lake when he was boy. He and his six siblings bathed in the lake, he always told us. My mother spent summers there with her grandmother and aunt. No matter where we lived as an Air Force family, we tried to get to this piece of property for much of the summer. I stood against that tree that probably won’t survive the winter, reflecting on who has benefitted from her broad branches.

Is there a tree that is significant in your family life?

Joshua called a meeting of all the Israelites. “Y’all gather by the oak tree for a family meeting!” They numbered in the thousands. That’s some family reunion! It almost sounds like a rally of loud people who are excited to be together. Can you picture that?! Joshua chose this place because it had meaning for them. They were in Shechem which is the first place where God appeared to Abraham, the patriarch of their clan. It’s the place where Jacob and his entourage renounced their idols and buried them. In those moments of their history they were foreigners on this land. But now, at this point in our scripture passage, the land is theirs. The old oak tree that had witnessed so much of their ancestral story now belonged to them. Not because they deserved it, paid for it, or fought for it. Joshua makes it very clear that they are able to put together a revival on this sacred ground because God gave it to them. God has been there for them all along and this is God’s gift to them.

Joshua calls out, his voice thick with conviction, “Did we do anything to deserve it? No! Remember that–NO! The God of our ancestors has brought us into this promised land and given it to us. GIVEN—IT—TO—US!”

Joshua called this meeting because his newly-liberated people were claiming this familiar place. None of them had been there before. 40 years in the wilderness and, before that, 400 years of slavery in Egypt separated them from this land that had been formational to their tribe. So Joshua knew it was essential that they lay the spiritual foundation to rightly align their priorities in this new home. His people had lived for generations among foreigners who worshiped many gods. The Hebrew people had gone along with that. It’s easier to give in to the dominant culture than it is to fight it for generations. They still loved their God but threw in statues of other favorite gods for good measure. Better to cover all the bases than discover that your Deity Insurance Policy doesn’t offer the broad coverage you imagined!

No more of that, Joshua told them! They are told that they must revere and serve Yahweh, the name they had for their God.

Do you want to do that? Because if you do you will have to “put away” the other gods. The translation for this verb could not be stronger. They will have to radically renounce all that they had counted on in the past: their greatest comforts, their security blankets, their stash of weapons, their hoarded treasures, whatever they valued more highly than their relationship with their Maker. Joshua asks for commitment from the present generation who stands where the very first generation met Yahweh. They are told to make a choice—freely—but they must then be ready to adhere to it.

There’s a back-and-forth rhythm to this ceremony. Imagine the speaker at the podium calling out to the massed gathering:

Do you want to serve the God of our ancestors?


This isn’t easy! You have to incline your heart and obey God’s voice. Are you sure you want to do this?

The crowd roars, YES!

Joshua replies, NOT SO FAST! This is not an easy commitment! Maybe you’ve forgotten that our God is holy…and jealous! If you say yes but go back to worshiping your former gods, it’s not going to end well! Remember 40 years in the wilderness we just left behind?! That’s because our ancestors gave up on God. Are you sure you want to throw away all that you’ve counted on in the past and worship this God alone?


Three times they affirm their loyalty to God. Since there are no neutral parties to serve as witnesses to this mass pledge toward revival, Joshua chooses a boulder, joins with other family members, and heaves it under the old oak tree where Abraham met God and Jacob ordered his people to bury their false idols.

The stone is our witness to all that we’ve agreed to today. There can be no more wishy washy faith. You cannot divide your allegiance between gods. You are committing to a singular focus on the One who asks for your very lives. Joshua offers the words that have traveled like a challenge across the ages: As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!

Is there a tree that’s significant to your family, where promises were made and loved ones gathered? Where graduates posed for pictures and initials were carved into her bark? Perhaps the undertaker’s hearse carried a loved one away for the last time under the canopy of her gracious branches? Did you discover in those moments what really mattered to you? Were you crushed to find out that your security blanket couldn’t protect you?

Martin Luther challenged his people to get rid of their idols. His challenge revolutionized the Church. He stated that anything that we rely on and trust in is a “god.” What are the idols you have had to give up in this COVID time? What gods have failed you in the bitterness of this election year?

In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey writes, “A political movement by nature draws lines, makes distinctions, pronounces judgment; in contrast, Jesus’ love cuts across lines, transcends distinctions, and dispenses grace. Regardless of the merits of a given issue—whether a pro-life lobby out of the Right or a peace-and-justice lobby out of the Left—political movements risk pulling onto themselves the mantle of power that smothers love. From Jesus I learn that, whatever activism I get involved in, it must not drive out love and humility, or otherwise I betray the kingdom of heaven.” (page 245)

In this election year battle lines were clearly drawn, rules of engagement were made, changed, and remade. Enemies were characterized and vilified. It seems as if there is no neutral ground on which to stand. A question that surfaces from my gut is, do we have to buy into that?! Is there no other way to stand together under the family tree on land that is dear to us and join our hearts as one in worship of the God who created us? What would it cost us for this to happen?

For us to commit to a covenant renewal as we look with uncertainty at our future we must be ready to let go of our gods. Charles Raynal puts it this way in a commentary on the text: “Like Joshua, the covenant renewal will remind the people of the unique miracles of the Lord for the people and issue a call to forsake the false gods and insecurities in our common life, such as the love of North American wealth, the fear of terrorism, the trust in military force instead of the other choices required for building up alienated and oppressed people. We all need to rediscover Joshua’s way of single-minded loyalty to the Lord, the obedient refusal to give ourselves over to the temptations of compromise with the great wealth, powers, and fears that enthrall most people and all nations today.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, page 366.)

Those who lead this country forward will have to be healers. And we know that healing isn’t linear. There can be several good days and our hopes soar. But then the fever returns, the muscle aches and we have to take a nap just three hours into our day. There’s a reason Joshua asked the throng of family members three times to what faith convictions did they really want to surrender their lives? Change doesn’t happen overnight. Healing takes time, especially when the wounds are deep. Joshua’s style is affirmation followed by command. We like the affirmation. We can even make an affirmation to love and serve only God. But we aren’t so fond of the commands that follow: Incline your hearts to Yahweh and obey only that divine voice.            

Are you ready? Can you pledge your allegiance to Christ alone? I wonder if we can do it together?


Letting Go in Peace

I remember seeing a video years ago on a hidden camera sort of show that dealt with death in an unusual way. Folks checking out at a cash register could see themselves in a round mirror above the cashier’s head. It’s that kind of mirror that gives a full view of the store. Through clever technology they superimposed the Grim Reaper just behind the customer and I thought it was both funny and surprising at how seriously some people took this brush with their mortality. Take a look at it to see how some people feel when it seems like death suddenly comes knocking at their door!

I guess I find it surprising that folks would believe such a stereotyped apparition and that their response would be so visceral! But the reality is that few of us would respond calmly to news that our time on earth is nearing an end. We are a people who go to doctors for a diagnosis, fully expecting a treatment plan. We have much to live for on this side of heaven so we fight for more time with our loved ones. Alan Minter, a British professional boxer, was quoted as saying, “There have been injuries and deaths in boxing, but none of them serious.” If the video tells us anything, we can be sure that no one considers the possibility of imminent death, whether in a boxing match or suffering in a hospital with COVID, as anything but serious. We have seen people triumphantly leave a hospital to the cheers of medical staff after months of being on a ventilator. What leads them to fight for life when they have suffered so greatly?

In his daily meditation for September 14, Richard Rohr addresses the subject of suffering. He reminds us that there are no dead ends with Jesus. Even when our circumstances seem hopeless, Christ meets us in our suffering. He transforms it into a teachable moment. We don’t ask for these trials nor do we necessarily appreciate them at the time. In fact, most of us will choose the easy path over the steep, rocky path if given the choice. But suffering happens. Problems show up on our doorstep. Reminders of our mortality confront us and how we respond to these moments is telling. Richard Rohr writes about the approach we are invited to take toward our suffering. Facing our challenges with faith can bring relief not just to us but to those who see how our faith shines out in dark valleys. Inasmuch as we have held onto our faith in a loving God in dark times, we become crucial companions to others when they face their own trials. We claim our identity as wounded healers instead of bitter pessimists who have given up on God.

Rohr writes, “What we do when faced with our deepest wounds determines whether there is authentic spirituality at work or not. If we seek to blame other people, accuse, attack, or even explain and make perfect, logical sense out of our wounds, there will be no further spiritual journey. But if, when the wounding happens, we find the grace and the freedom to somehow see that it’s not just a wound, but a sacred wound, then the journey progresses. Then we set out to find ourselves, to find the truth, and to find God. It’s all about what each of us does with the wound.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Wounded Healers, September 14, 2020.)

We have been walking with Moses in recent weeks through the lectionary texts. We have witnessed his courage, his exasperation with his people and, above all else, his complete trust in God. We appreciate this as he faces his death in Deuteronomy 34: 1-12. He isn’t looking over his shoulder, trembling with fear. He isn’t railing at God, asking for more time. He isn’t even questioning God’s determination that, after all he’d done to lead his intransigent people for 40 years in the wilderness, he wouldn’t be allowed to lead them into the Promised Land. I am upset for him when it comes to this Divine Decision that seems harsh for such a faithful servant. But Moses is at peace. What we read from Deuteronomy 34 is his obituary. It is glowing. It exalts Moses as the pre-eminent prophet who had the distinct honor of meeting God face-to-face. Because of his powerfully personal relationship with God, Moses could let go of his life. Even though he fell short of his end goal he was at peace because he dwelt in the safe embrace of his Creator.

I stumbled across an unexpected news story this past week. It was about the memorial service for a cat! In 2008 a cat showed up during the Christmas holidays at the Southwark Cathedral in London. She was looking for food. When she received it, she settled into the cathedral for good. She was named Doorkins Magnificat and became a favorite presence in this architectural gem of a cathedral. She sprawled out on the pews as if she owned the joint. She scampered across the altar during mass. She napped in the hay of the nativity scene one year, giving evidence to the presence of animals at Jesus’ birth. She died on September 30, blind, deaf and beloved. So much so that the Dean of the cathedral hosted a live streamed memorial service for this internationally beloved feline “parishioner” on Wednesday. Not everyone in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church thought it fitting but people tuned in from all over the world. The loss of an aged cat named Doorkins Magnificat gave permission for people to grieve other losses. Presenter Kate Bottley said the service allowed her to grieve the passing of an aunt. She stated, “I hadn’t cried yet, until today. I watched this and cried and cried and cried, because you know what? This wasn’t about a cat. It’s ok if you don’t get it, it’s ok if you think it’s silly, but for me this helped, it really helped.”

On All Saints Day our congregation pauses to remember those who paved the way of faith for us by their own example. We put death in its proper context: the natural endpoint to our earthly lives with an assurance of eternal peace. We read aloud the names of loved ones we have lost, perhaps enabling us to more fully entrust them into God’s eternal keeping. Sometimes hearing the names of complete strangers invites us to grieve our own loved ones. This year has been a time of unequalled loss for our generation. I suspect all of us, by now, know of someone who has died from COVID. Even if it’s not someone close to us, it reminds us that death is never far from us. It can tap us on the shoulder when we are in our prime. Some of the losses we have mourned remind us that there is no guarantee that we will get to the “promised land” of our own dreams. Can we let go in peace as Moses did, with the assurance that we have handed off our earthly endeavors to those who can carry the torch of our faith forward? Can we be at peace in dark times because our eyes are fixed on Jesus who calls us home?

There was one scene in the movie, Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, that brought me to tears. Tom Hanks played the role of Fred Rogers, legendary creator of supportive TV programming for children. Based on Rogers’ life as a TV personality and ordained Christian minister, in one scene Mr. Rogers is visiting a man dying of cancer. The man lived a rebellious life that distanced him from his own family. He spent the last year of his life trying to make amends for his mistakes. He sought out his grown children who weren’t ready to forgive him. Mr. Rogers stopped by the house when the man was confined to his hospital bed, set up in a small living room. Family members were keeping a vigil in a time of precious reunion. Before he left, Fred quietly spoke into the man’s ear, causing him to nod and smile. The son walked Mr. Rogers to his car and asked him what he had whispered to his father. “I asked him to pray for me. Anyone who’s going through what he’s going through must be very close to God.”

Can you imagine how amazed this lost soul must have felt to be entrusted with the responsibility of praying for such a Godly man? If your loved one had made painful mistakes throughout your life, costing you much joy, would you appreciate it if a pastor asked for that relative to pray for them? Would you believe it possible that they had a clear view of God in this very last chapter of their life? Would you be willing to forgive them their past and believe that God dearly loved even them? Or would you cling to your own interpretation of who gets into God’s eternal presence and who does not?

We would never view death as being “not serious.” We treasure our earthly life too much to readily greet death. But, as people whose faith has been shaped by the saints in our past, we rest in the assurance that our present trials are only temporary. The way we face them will either transform us more into Christ’s likeness. Or they will derail us from God’s presence so that we slog through each day with bitter remorse. Moses was remembered as a prophet whose “eyes were not weak or his strength gone” as he breathed his last. The people who tested his leadership grieved his loss, knowing that they met God through him. With his eyes fixed on the Promised Land he would never enter on earthly terms, Moses let go in peace. He knew that what awaited him on the other side was even more beautiful. For all the saints, like Moses, who from their labors rest, we thank you.


All Saints Prayer

God of all nations, we come before You today on the brink of an election. We are weary of negative ads. We are skeptical of promises easily made. We yearn for leadership that will place the needs of the wider community above their own self-interests. We place before You the deep rift in our nation from a myriad of dreams and strong opinions about how to achieve them. Sometimes it feels as if we are hopelessly lost. So we beseech You to help us find our way. We pray for Your blessing upon our elected leaders that they may know You and seek to serve You.

Help us to anchor ourselves in Your love for we know that alone brings healing to us and those around us. We recommit to live on this earth as Your Son, Jesus, did, reaching out to the poor and oppressed. Help us to recognize and relinquish the false gods to which we cling. Give us generous hearts so that we can ease the financial burden of those who are deprived of the most basic needs. Inspire us to assist those whose lives were devastated by earthquakes in Greece and Turkey this past week. We pray for our friends in the south who are cleaning up after yet another hurricane. Open our eyes to see the faces of children who are counting on us to speak up for them and to make sure that they have every opportunity to grow into adulthood with strength of body, mind, and spirit. We pray for the refugees in our country who fear for their safety. Fill us with Your Spirit so that we advocate for just systems that make room for the least of these. Help us to work alongside of our neighbor in spite of differing politics to bring healing and hope to those too weak to cry out on their own behalf.

We pray for patience and safety as the COVID virus continues to ravage our communities and world. Help us to continue to respond to the challenges it presents in our homes, schools, and church family. We pray for those fighting the virus now. We pray for those who have lost loved ones. We pray that we will work together as nations to find a cure so that we can get back to Your work of healing our world.

Today we remember the impact of particular saints who loved us and helped us to know You. We are keenly aware that we are who we are because of who they were. May we freely give of our many gifts to those around us, as they did in their generation, leaving an imprint of Your goodness in our wake. We ask this in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.


Strangely Familiar

Moses is weary. He’s on a journey with no clear destination and just wants to see God. He says, “We don’t want to go a step further if you can’t assure us that You will be with us.” He’s been leading a nation of complaining wayfarers through wilderness and is tired of trying to figure out correct directions with none of the usual road signs.  God has been leading the way—a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night—but Moses yearns to know this God: “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight…Show my your glory, I pray.” Or, in Modern English parlance, “For Pete’s sake, will you just let me catch a glimpse of you?!”

It makes me think of a memorable dream I had recently. I seldom remember my dreams but I awakened from this one feeling like I had been in it for hours. In the dream I was at the church I previously served. That church has an enormous facility with three floors of classrooms at one section. In the dream I was in charge of leading a memorial service and I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. Somehow there was no easy route on the main floor. I was given the advice that I should go up to the third-floor to cross between two wings to then descend into the sanctuary. I knew that the service should have already started. While anxiously running into dead ends I met up with the custodian. I told him I needed my clergy robe and my notebook. He assured me he could get those for me. I was relieved but still anxious because I was barefoot. Typically my bad dreams have to do with not being able to pull off worship in the right way at the right time. People are waiting and the prelude loops back several times, waiting for me to show up. In the worst worship nightmares I am barefoot, a sign of my vulnerability and humiliation. In this dream my clothing wasn’t suitable for leading worship so I wanted to wear my clerical robe over my clothing. When the custodian did mercifully arrive back by my side he brought some sort of dry cleaning items and not a robe. Useless. The notebook he brought me was not for worship but a cookbook our church had put together some time ago. That was not going to help me with the eulogy! To make matters worse there was an all-male group of musicians in burgundy costumes who were scheduled to rehearse in the sanctuary immediately following the memorial service. So there was a time crunch. Because I wasn’t starting on time we were running late with the service and that was going to be inconvenient for the musicians. Mourners were already gathered for the memorial service, upset that nothing was happening. Yet I was powerless to find my way into the sanctuary in this space that was strangely familiar.

I met by zoom with my spiritual director last week and brought up the dream. She quietly asked me what I thought was the message of the dream. As you might guess, it was not all together apparent! So she helped me examine it.

I couldn’t find my way into the sanctuary. I have led worship in sanctuaries for 35 years. This is familiar territory for me but I was confused. I had gone back to a church that I served before but I’d forgotten some of the landmarks. It was both strange and familiar. I couldn’t navigate my way into the sanctuary in spite of the guidance of people around me. Because I wasn’t prepared for this situation I wasn’t dressed appropriately for it and, in fact, I didn’t even have shoes to make the journey respectable and more comfortable.

Do you remember what God asked Moses to do when he was called into service? Moses saw the burning bush which was a remarkable spectacle. As he went over to examine it God spoke to him from within the bush. Remove your sandals, Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.

Sometimes God gets our attention when we have forgotten our shoes. Sometimes we are most apt to see God when chaos surrounds us and we lose our way. When we can no longer take refuge in our sanctuary, our safe space, our faith wanes. We find ourselves among a nation of people who are all looking for sanctuary, buzzing around with arguments over masks and political candidates and church programs that have to adapt to survive. But even though we’re sharing space with a lot of people, we’re not really connecting with them. We go into Meijer now and can barely recognize anyone because of our masks. Our goal is to get in and out of the store quickly so that we don’t end up carrying COVID out of the store along with our groceries. So we put our heads down, throw a few items in our cart and run out. We head home feeling more alone than ever. Our grocery trip feels strangely familiar.

Moses has been leading a huge congregation of people at the time of this passage. They’re in the wilderness. They’re complaining. They’re blaming him. They’re picking fights. And Moses is weary. He suggests to God that it might be wise to take good care of these people. “These are your people, God, remember?! Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if other nations who worship other gods saw the Israelites perish in the wilderness because You failed to provide for them?” I find it funny that Moses thinks he can manipulate God by threatening international humiliation if the chosen people languish. Hoping for swift action to keep his people—and himself—sane, he cries out in desperation to God: “Show me Your glory, I pray.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but tensions run high these days. With forfeited agendas, lack of employment, and frazzled parents homeschooling their children,  tempers flare and chaos ensues. Those in leadership positions face unprecedented pressures in making decisions. In today’s climate, there is no way to please all the people all the time. Just ask Governor Whitmer.

In the midst of his leadership crisis (which also happened to be a spiritual crisis) Moses begged God to show him the divine face. Moses somehow knew that being able to see God would give him the strength he needed for another day. Remember how Aaron fashioned an idol for the people in Moses absence last week? We worship most readily that which is in front of us and tangible. Moses wanted just a piece, a tiny piece, of God. He experienced God’s glory on the mountain while his people danced wildly around a golden calf in his absence. When he came down into the valley, he was glowing with God’s presence. They called it the Shekinah glory. The Israelites couldn’t even look at him because his face was so brilliant with holy radiance. “Just give me a bit of that light now please, God, because I’m not sure I can hang on for another moment in this land that has become strangely familiar.”

My dream reflects a COVID reality. I was in familiar territory but I couldn’t find my way. I knew the job I was supposed to do but I couldn’t find the tools to do it. I knew my people were gathered somewhere, waiting to grieve their losses, but I couldn’t get to them. I was dressed inappropriately for a search that had gone on much longer than I could have imagined. I was confused, tense and embarrassed that I wasn’t better prepared. All of this was happening in a place that was strangely familiar: God’s house, Christ’s Church, the place where the Spirit guides those who have lost their way. I woke up before there was any resolution to the challenges my dream posed. I was still stuck in an uncomfortable place with no assurance that I would ever find my way into the sanctuary in time to connect with my people. I was barefoot and missing my eulogy.

This story reminds us that the sacred is all around us. We may not be making it into our churches or offices. We may not be seeing family members from across the country. We probably feel vulnerable in this new world where a virus slams our lives into an indefinite hold pattern. But the colorful trees and bushes are all around us. As many as there are flaming trees filling us with autumn awe, that is how close our God is to us. We remember how it all began for dear Moses, who never wanted the job description God gave him. Almost foreshadowing what was to come, Moses met God in the heat of the desert. A bush was on fire: strangely familiar. But from the bush came a commissioning. “Take off your sandals, Moses, for the ground you are standing on is holy.” The road forked at that moment in his life and Moses partnered up with this strange God. Saying “yes” to the summons didn’t get him out of trouble. It didn’t give him clear directions. It didn’t awaken him from a nightmare with an assurance that everything was fine, after all. It didn’t even allow him, after years of faithful service, to enter the Promised Land along with his people. What his partnership with God gave him was a glimpse of God’s glory, just the backside, mind you! But that was…enough.


Uncle Neil

Neil invited us to visit him in Moline, Illinois. He was excited about a condo he purchased on the Mississippi River. It was near his hometown of Erie and it would allow him to have his own place for extended family visits. Of course, being Neil, it allowed him to serve as host in a town where people were dear to him. He breathed in his childhood history with each breeze off the river. We promised him we would make a road trip to see his new digs.

We made that trip this past September. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to stay with Neil at his condo. Wanting to honor our promise to him, we headed to Moline to visit Neil at his final resting place. He died suddenly of a stroke nearly four years ago. We were deeply saddened. Our history with him went way back and we weren’t ready to let him go. Garrett looked for the names of relatives listed in his obituary. I remembered that he had lots of sisters and that some of his family was at the service at First Unitarian Church of Chicago. Garrett made contact with a nephew he found on Facebook. The nephew connected us with his mother who lives in Erie and we introduced ourselves. I suspect it’s not very often that a stranger stalks you on Facebook, suggesting you meet them at the graveside of their departed loved one. But that’s what we did and two sisters and one brother-in-law gave us their address. We plugged it into our GPS on a hot Thursday morning and turned on the AC for a five hour drive.

Garrett’s and my first date was to one of Neil’s parties. He was the librarian at the Chicago Theological Seminary and Meadville/Lombard Theological School. He was an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister but spent his career immersed in books. Garrett met him his first year in seminary and I started my theological education a year later. Garrett got up the courage at the end of one of our Old Testament classes to ask me if I wanted to go with him to Neil’s party. I had settled nicely into the North Side of Chicago but I was game. I was intrigued with this guy who wore red-framed sunglasses and a yellow canvas hat, standing out from other seminarians. The average age of incoming students was 55 and we were three decades younger than that. So it made sense to connect with this displaced Dutchman for a few reasons!

Neil loved to have people over even though he didn’t cook. He was a Harvard grad who was modest but loquacious. It wasn’t about the food or the decorations for Neil. He loved good conversation. He laughed easily. His space was your space and you could bring in any kind of refreshment and he wouldn’t feel insulted. When he had us for dinner he gave us several possible entrees from which to choose: Swedish Meatballs, Lasagna, Stuffed Peppers, or Chicken Cordon Bleu. Once we placed our orders Neil started working them through his microwave. His freezer was always loaded with Stouffer’s frozen dinners and we enjoyed great conversation over Neil’s Melt-a-Meals which he always put onto real plates before serving them. That first date party went longer than I expected. By 1AM we were down to about five people. By 2:30 there were four of us left: this guy who had asked me on a date, Neil, and another new seminarian who left a job as a Red Lobster security guard to pursue ministry. Conversation never waned and we finally ended up at a Golden Nugget Café near my North Side apartment at 5AM. I was dropped off at my place around 6AM, after a hearty meal of pancakes and eggs. “Did you like him,” my roommate asked me later that morning? “Yes,” I said, “but let me get some sleep first!” I also have the distinct memory of walking into a White Castle on the South Side of Chicago at 2AM with Garrett and Neil because sliders sounded good at the time. Neil wore his sunglasses into the elite joint and we got the feeling that we should order and get out quickly.

Neil came to our wedding. He wasn’t afraid to dress with flair and you can see that with his tie. I wonder how many weddings and ordinations he went to over the course of forty years at the two seminaries. Unlike many faculty members, he fraternized with students and became a beloved part of our theological education. When I was expecting our first child we took a trip to Dixon, Illinois with Neil. I don’t remember why we went there but Garrett told me it was to dig into Ronald Reagan’s roots. I remember we stayed at some sort of campground that had rustic cottages. There were two bedrooms, a living room and a sink. We had very little money and it fit within our budget. I remember two things about that trip (and it wasn’t related to any museums we might have seen). We sat around our cabin table getting splinters and playing scrabble. Neil had the first turn of the game. With his crooked grin, he triumphantly laid down all seven of his tiles, spelling out the word TOILETS. He received 50 bonus points for using up all his tiles in one turn plus a tripling of the value of his tiles. We laughed about that for years. The other thing I remember is making my way across a dark campground in the middle of the night, a pregnant mother-to-be who needed to use the toilet in the camp bathroom. The days of using that sort of accommodation in our marriage were short-lived.

After three years of serving a suburban Chicago parish, Garrett and I moved to Grand Rapids with our 15-month old daughter, Lisa. Neil came to visit numerous times. He was an easy guest and interacted readily with our children. I remember Lisa eating a fruit roll-up with a very unnatural turquoise coloration. She was clutching it in her warm hand, eating it while playing. It probably had some hair sticking to it. Neil asked her what it was and she offered it to him. Before I could stop him, he leaned over to her extended hand and took a bite. Ughh! “That’s good!” he exclaimed. Lisa toddled away, happy to have shared. He visited another time with a seminary friend from downstate Illinois. Karen was funny! She threw herself a spinster party when she turned 35. She and Neil agreed that they would marry at age 65 if they hadn’t found anyone else by then. The weekend they came to stay with us our boys had other little boys staying in tents in our backyard. They ran in and out of the house all night, disrupting our conversation and filling our living room with gangly, flying insects. I was horrified as a host but the two of them sat there happily while chaos swirled around them. For two individuals who didn’t have any kids that was extraordinary.

But Neil was one of seven kids. He grew up in farm country. Erie is about twenty minutes from Moline, where Neil bought his condo. Moline is right across the river from Davenport, Iowa. As you drive southwest from Chicago, where he spent his career, the land stretches out in lush fields and stately old barns. Neil traveled “home” often to be with his extended family. He was beloved Uncle Neil to nearly 20 nieces and nephews who, no doubt, offered him molten fruit roll-ups and other delicacies. He left his quiet bachelor pad in Hyde Park to enter effortlessly into the energy of his family in the small town of Erie and the big metropolis of Moline. No wonder he could handle our kids so well. His last visit to us was over Memorial Day weekend in 2016. He stayed with us for four days. So we hit some museums. We ate good meals at our home and in the city. We played games with our grown children. He and I sat on our front porch one morning reading our respective books. When we said goodbye to him we were certain that our next visit would be to his condo on the Mississippi River.

We traveled to Neil’s church in Hyde Park for his memorial service on November 12, 2016. The sanctuary was packed. Various people spoke and we learned that Neil was family not just to us but to countless others. One former seminarian said that Neil kept up with him after he left the Chicago area for ministry. So this former student invited Neil to join him and a few others on a camping trip. Neil said, “Sure.” When Neil met up with the guy and transferred his gear into the guy’s car, he hung a bright, summer suit on the hook in the back seat. His friend laughed and told him he didn’t think they would need a suit at any part of the camping trip. Neil told him that he thought there might be an evening when they would leave their tents or cabins or whatever and go into town, whatever town they would be near, and then it would be nice to have something dressy. The suit traveled with them to their campsite. I don’t know if he found the occasion to wear it but I suspect he did. The point is, Neil didn’t camp. He wasn’t one to go on hikes or put on spandex or sweat pants. He readily agreed to go on this trip because he loved being with people. He had countless good friends whose kids, like ours, knew him as Uncle Neil and offered him prized treats from sticky fingers. And he communed with them.

Neil’s family hosted us well when we stopped by to visit him in the Erie Cemetery. We stood at his gravesite with two sisters and his brother-in-law, sharing memories. We could see where his gift for good conversation came from. The heat index that evening was nearly 100 degrees and the sun shone hot. But we lingered there, feeling like we were honoring our commitment to come see him in his new digs. His brother-in-law told us exactly where his condo was in Moline. After a river boat ride up and down the Mississippi River in Moline we looked for it and found it. We saw the third-floor balcony where he would have brought out a steaming hot plate of Swedish Meatballs, fresh from the microwave. We would have squeezed together on the balcony, overlooking the river of his childhood and talked well into the night.

Happy Birthday, Neily. We miss you.


Holy Revelry

In spite of a menacing virus we have enjoyed some parties in the past months. Many of them have certainly looked different from the pre-COVID parties but they have honored the high points in folks’ lives nonetheless. We did a drive-by parade to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduating high school seniors. On Mother’s Day my family gathered on our front porch, balancing plates of hot food on our knees in 42 degree weather! There have been scaled down weddings held in outdoor sanctuaries. We confirmed twelve young people into the church family in our parking lot in June, giving them individually packaged cupcakes instead of a cake reception with the praise of a whole congregation. We have found ways to mark the high points of each other’s lives even with limitations put in place.

But there have been other sorts of parties as well. In Alabama some young adults threw COVID parties, inviting someone who was infected with the virus. Everyone who attended knew that the first person to contract the coronavirus after the party won a cash prize. Over the summer there were pool parties at private homes where people crowded together, eating and drinking happily, only to later be part of an outbreak of the disease. College coeds, despite warnings, went south over Spring Break. They proclaimed to the TV camera that their mental health was as important as their physical well-being. That sounds good until some of them found themselves hospitalized and, in some cases, on a ventilator because of their careless partying. Some who were interviewed stated between gasps for breath that they hadn’t taken the virus as seriously as they should have.

So why do we throw parties? We enjoy being with others. We like to know we belong. We’re looking for joy. Sometimes we walk away from a party getting out of it what we desired. Other times, the only parting gift is a hangover.

In Exodus 32 we witness a party. A gold sculpture of a calf is centrally placed and people dance around it wildly. Their leader, Moses, ascended Mt. Sinai earlier and the people despair of him ever returning. He is their connection to God. Without him, they feel fearful and lost. They cry out to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and he decides to melt down their jewelry and form an idol that they could both see and touch. The Golden Calf Shindig was an effort at bringing God down into our world. Aaron tries to strip away the mystery of the faith and make God into what the people wanted. In Moses’ absence the Israelites become a self-worshiping community.

False worship is a feast we give ourselves. A couple of years ago our confirmation class went to Temple Emmanuel for their Friday evening Shabbat Worship service. Much of the service was led by a 12-year old young man as a crucial requirement for his bar mitzvah. After a year of study with the Rabbi that culminated his leadership of the worship, the family threw a huge coming-of-age party for their son. Some non-Jewish friends ask their parents to throw a bar mitzvah for them. They want the same kind of joy that was shared amongst the loved ones of their Jewish friend. In some cases, parents granted their wish, throwing lavish parties. But these were devoid of any spiritual significance. No prayerful study went into the celebration, as it did for their Jewish friend. With false worship a gathering closes in on itself. We give ourselves our own nice, alternative world where everything centers around us and God is not on the guest list.

In our worship services God is the host and we are the guests. The scriptures we hear, the prayers we say, the words to the hymns we love point us to God. Participants in our services use their gifts not to hear our applause. They hope that others will meet Jesus through their offering. I remember a little girl dancing around the Advent candles one Christmas Eve because she knew the moment was special. Her family was going to light the Christ candle and she offered her own liturgical dance! That was beautiful, unscripted worship of God! One child in our congregation gave me a picture she had colored in Sunday School. It showed Jesus on the cross, smiling. I asked her why this stick figure of our Savior had such a broad grin. “Because He’s dying to save us from our sin,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. She couldn’t believe that the pastor didn’t know that! Her image of smiling, crucified Jesus was an act of worship! We can tell when someone is “performing” for human accolades and that feels very different from someone who loses him or herself in sacrificial giving in Jesus’ name. God must be central to our worship in order for us to find joy.

We get some background information about who is at the Golden Calf Shindig in The Book of Numbers. In chapter 11 we read about the Israelites crying out to God for meat in the harsh setting of the wilderness. Verse 4 states: “The rabble among them had a strong craving: and the Israelites also wept again and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat.’” As the Jews fled from their masters in Egypt, making their way across the parted Red Sea, there were non-Jews who joined them. These were folks who were caught up in the power of God and whose own lives may have been very difficult. So they grabbed onto the Jewish nation, expecting freedom in a new country and an ease to their difficult lives. But they found themselves eking out a living in the desert. With the miraculous parting of the waters nearly forgotten and the trials of nomadic living a daily challenge, the emptiness of these spiritual interlopers became evident. Not unlike the outsiders who have hijacked peaceful protests this summer and turned cities into war zones, these “rabble rousers”, as they’re called in Numbers 11, aren’t anchored in the Jewish faith. Understandably the Jews’ boundaries are not well in place because of the hardship of their daily lives so they are easily led astray by this small but vocal minority.

“Make us gods who will go before us, Aaron”, cry out the folks who have never bowed down to a higher authority. Their idolatry of self leads the Jews to abandon their faith in the God who has just liberated them. Instead they throw a party and worship an inanimate object that has been crafted out of their family jewels.

How do we establish fail-safe boundaries as Christians when our self-absorbed culture has made gods of themselves? How can we find joy at drunken parties where the desire is to get wasted and not connected? Martin Luther describes this challenge in the words to his hymn, A Mighty Fortress: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” When is our revelry holy because God is the object of our praise? When does the party go south because we’ve decided it’s all about us? We live off our own strength, worshiping our own versions of Golden Calves, until our lives fall apart. Then, maybe through a Moses figure who pleads on our behalf, we see God. We are reminded that God never left us. We reorder the broken pieces to our world and find joy!

Karl Barth is the theologian who suggested that our faith requires us to hold the newspaper (or our smart phone now?)in one hand and the Bible in the other. Daily life collides with our faith and our faith helps us sort out the pieces. Barth writes, “We are God’s debtors. We owe him not something, whether it be little or much, but quite simply…we owe him ourselves, since we are his creatures, sustained and nourished by his goodness. We, his children, called by his word, admitted to the service of his glorification—we, brothers and sisters of the man Jesus Christ—come short of what we owe to God.” Karl Barth, Prayer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p.74.

In several conversations with clergy friends we’ve wondered what church will be like when the threat of COVID is over? It felt pretty comfortable to worship in pajamas on Sunday mornings, drinking coffee and watching the service on our TV. Never before have I “led” worship like that in my 35 years of ministry! The longer we stay apart, the more “normal” this new life of being distanced becomes. But what are we missing? Our congregation has responded with great innovation to the challenges of leading worship during a pandemic. But maybe we’ve discovered that the very nature of being Church is bodily presence: sharing from the same loaf for communion, holding hands for a closing prayer in a small group meeting, hugging someone after worship who’s had a bad week, setting out a table of homemade treats for coffee hour after worship. How are we still the Church now, in our fractured state? How do we hold onto our sense of community now and how do we pick up the pieces when, by God’s grace, we can meet safely again?

As usual our congregation is doing a stewardship campaign this fall. We invite our membership to make their financial commitments toward the next year’s budget. This is certainly a strange year to ask folks to fund our ministry given that many haven’t been and won’t be in the building for quite some time. Our Stewardship Committee has followed a four year theme of growth: planting, growing, harvesting and, this year, letting the fields lie fallow. A good farmer knows that the nutrients in soil need to be replenished by leaving the field fallow for a year. We could not have known, when we chose these four stages in growing crops, that our lives would lie fallow in some significant ways this year. As our personal lives narrowed to our homes, our church life became remote as well. We have had to dig deep to find the spiritual resources needed to survive feelings of fear, loss, and loneliness. We have had to learn new tricks—like zoom meetings ad nauseum—in order for our businesses and schools to survive. We have discovered how much personal contact with others matters to us. Though much of what we value has been set aside, we have found joy.

The Israelites set aside a Jubilee year every 50 years when land was restored to families, debts were cancelled and the community lived off of the crops from the previous year. I don’t know if the past eight months have offered you some element of rest? But I am sure you have drawn from a spiritual well to find joy in a time of hardship. When toilet paper cannot be found and hand sanitizer prices soar due to high demand, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. In the midst of these disorienting changes your faith keeps you anchored. Your relationship to your home congregation, though lived out differently for now, is still vital. Teaching your children to love Jesus could not be more important as ugly politics set poor examples for how we do business and classrooms are associated with risk more than learning. As our congregation makes plans for our ministry in 2021 we don’t know what it will look like. But we do know Who guides our way. I hang onto the words of the song we belted out from small chairs in Vacation Bible School years ago when our young voices gave rise to holy revelry: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart. (Where?) Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay!”


The Water Bowl

I heard a man tell a story about the gift given to him by a dying cat. In his neighborhood there was a stray cat that everyone saw on a regular basis. The cat was missing one eye. On that same side of her head her ear was mangled. She had a stump for a tail and one foot that was deformed. Her skin was covered with sores which were visible through patchy fur. She scrounged in the garbage for her meals. Clearly her life had been a struggle.

She always approached people and rubbed against their ankles, hoping for friendship. Repeatedly she was pushed aside because no one wanted the fleas she was carrying. No one trusted the sores that plagued her. She remained forgiving of their cruelty. The human community gave her the name, “Ugly”.

One evening the man heard a fight between a dog and cat. He went outside to see two dogs attacking Ugly. They ran away when he yelled at them but the cat had already sustained significant injuries. He gently picked her up and carried her up to his apartment. He tried to clean out her wounds but she was badly hurt. As he held her, she purred. She only lived several minutes in his care but she looked into his eyes and purred. In the last moments of her life she finally found someone who
was kind to her. He held her for awhile after she died, deeply moved that she had trusted him. He saw past her scarred body and realized she had great beauty. The brief moments he spent with a cat named Ugly changed him.

When the quarantine began many of the animal shelters in our country emptied out! Facing the reality that they would be shut in their homes for a lengthy period of time, folks quickly headed to animal shelters to find a loving companion. Children were excited to finally get the dog they had always wanted. People living alone knew that they would need a friend during a predictably lonesome time. So animals traded cages for warm beds. They had lots of time to bond with their new friends. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “My Rescue Dog Rescued Me”? Shelter animals and strays seem to have a lasting gratitude toward those who adopt them. They remember the time that they had no home, when they were hungry and thirsty with no one to provide for them. So when they are welcomed into a family that provides good ear rubs and a water bowl that is always filled, they show us their contentment.

In Galatians 5 we read, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” We encounter these attributes in our pets. We had a Blessing of the Animals service in our parking lot this past Sunday. Twelve furry friends joined in worship with their human families. Folks shared some stories about how their pets teach them to love! One man in our congregation shared how the family dog would always welcome the teenaged son home from school. His high school years were hard so he arrived home subdued. The dog would come right up to him, place her paws on the young man’s chest and look into his eyes. It didn’t take long for him to leave the unkind words of classmates behind and settle into his dog’s unconditional love.

Our dog learned early on that we don’t want him barking loudly. When he is particularly anxious around the dinner table for some scrap of food he doesn’t bark but makes conversational sounds. He reminds us that he’s there. When a UPS driver runs up to our door and leaves a package, there is no self-control! He barks to let us know that there is an intruder. But he has learned to exercise self-control, as difficult as that is for him, because he wants to please us. Animals that are reunited with their owners after a lengthy separation are forgiving of that time apart. They are kind toward their owner even if their needs are not perfectly met. They are endlessly forgiving of our foibles and how we sometimes forget to keep the water bowl full. In these animals who share our lives, we experience the fruit of the Spirit that reminds us of how we are to love one another.

In Exodus 17 the Israelites, who are newly liberated from the Egyptians, they find themselves in the austere setting of the wilderness. They have left a settled life of slavery for a nomadic life of freedom. We read that the Israelites journeyed by stages. One step at a time, their whole camp literally pulled up stakes and moved on to the next spot. Similarly our lives travel forward in stages. I suspect we will look back on 2020 and say that this was not a great phase of our life‘s journey. Some stages are easier than others and we learn not to take that for granted. Some have great gifts that we are only able to recognize later. With the upheaval of hurricanes recently we have seen how animals stick with their human companions at difficult times. They are resilient when we move them to different places, knowing that belonging to the pack is all that matters.
In this challenging time for the Israelites they asked a question that laid bare their sense of abandonment: Is the Lord among us or not? Even in their slave quarters in Egypt, they had a cherished sense of routine. They raised their families, had food to eat and knew what to expect each day. But in the wilderness, with no reliable supply of water or food, they wonder if God can possibly be with them. So Moses takes their plaint up with God. He begs God to do something about their needs, arguing that neglect of the chosen people would be a bad reflection on God. Moses also gives a reminder that these are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah who were assured that they would be part of this sacred covenant. What if all of them were miraculously transported across the Red Sea only to die in the wilderness?

God listens to Moses who is at his wits end. God points to a large rock and instructs this exhausted leader to tap the boulder with his walking stick. Having seen the waters of the Red Sea part, Moses approaches the solid object with optimism. No sooner does he tap it and water gushes out. The Israelites would have an endless supply of fresh water. With their needs met, their question is answered: God is among them.

I think of the complete reliance our pets have upon us. It’s endearing when they make it clear that they need us. My dog sometimes paws at us when we stop petting him, as if to say, “Don’t stop! I love this!” My daughter, Maria, fell in love with a tiny bunny that fit into her hand at the Truffant Flea Market eight years ago. When Ingrid is very happy with an ear rub, she makes a noise that Maria calls “chittering.” She receives the rubs and bumps her nose against Maria’s hand if she stops. Our animal friends count on us to love them, feed them, and keep the water bowl filled.

I think back to the cat named Ugly. After a life of rejection and suffering she spent her last moments in the arms of someone who finally wasn’t afraid to touch her. She showed her gratitude toward this stranger by purring in spite of her grave injuries. He might seem like the savior but, in fact, he was deeply moved by the generosity of this wounded cat’s spirit. In her dying moments she accepted his love, forgiving the ugliness those who looked past her needs and rejected her. Our pets are such a gift to us with their wagging tails, their loud purring and their sweet requests for affection. Today we offer our blessing to them knowing how greatly they have blessed us. In these relationships that bridge human and animal worlds, we are reminded that God created us to be interdependent. Our faith calls us to acknowledge our complete reliance on God who more than tends to our needs. So each time that we fill the water bowl for our furry friend or spiky hedgehog or hopping rabbit, we remember that God made water come out of a rock! We are in good hands. God is among us, whatever the stage of our journeys!

Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!