Stragglers

birds.jpg__800x600_q85_cropIt’s been a long time since I posted. Hopefully that was a quirk.

A couple of days ago, I saw a flock of large birds—not sure what sort—flocking. You know, they were flying in various patterns, back and forth, probably following wind currents. As is typical with flocks of birds, they changed directions in unison, as though one mind was directing them all. They were functioning as a single unit instead of a bunch of individual birds.

Then I noticed two other birds trying to catch up with the group. They were consistently out of sync, however, so in the time that I was watching, they never got into the group’s rhythm. The two flew too far to one side, then too far behind, then they turned in the wrong direction. Just when it seemed they were about to join the group, the flock would change direction and the two stragglers would be left behind again.

It was almost as if the flock was rejecting them, although I know this is anthropomorphizing birds—assigning human qualities where none exist. I doubt that flocks of birds have admission criteria or carry grudges.

Maybe the two laggards were injured—or were young and still learning the rhythm of the flight. Maybe they were newcomers trying to fit in. Or maybe they were just bad fliers. Not knowing much about birds, I have no idea what might have been going on. I just remember looking at those two stragglers and thinking they were like lost souls trying to find their way home.

We all know what that feels like: to be left out, left behind, or simply left. We all know what it is like to be out of sync or inexperienced or the “new guy.” And sometimes we just don’t measure up to expectations—we are simply bad at fitting in or finding our way.

What helps us to get over this feeling of left-ness? The kindness of others; the compassion of friends and loved ones; the forgiveness of our shortcomings and faults; the willingness of others to make space for us.

And because we ALL know what it feels like to be those left-behind stragglers, it seems fitting that when we see others who are struggling to catch up, that we make space for them, forgive them their failings, and show them compassion and kindness—the very things that help bring us into the fold when we are lagging behind.

This holy season, what people is God putting your path and inviting you to welcome into the flock? Look closely: I’m sure you’ll see someone who needs help finding their way. And when you figure out who it is, be Jesus to them.

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Sooner or Later

sunrise_of_the_plains_by_kkart-d39obsx
A Dakota Plain

Sooner or later everyone comes home.

I read that line in a mystery novel last week. Even though it was spoken by a detective about a murder suspect returning to the scene of the crime, the truth of it struck home for me.

When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown of Tiffin, Ohio to move to the big city of Columbus to attend college. I lived in Columbus for 20 years. After seminary, I asked to be sent out west. The bishops, in their wisdom, sent me as far west as northeast Indiana. I lived there for 10 great years. Then the Spirit called me to Perrysburg, outside Toledo, Ohio and suddenly I found myself only an hour away from my hometown. Now I am less than an hour away from my hometown, serving in Norwalk, Ohio, a small city very much like where I grew up. Over the past 40 years, I made a little circle, winding up pretty much right back where I started. And you know what? It’s OK.

Sooner or later everyone comes home.

Here’s why it’s OK that I’m back home: home is a place where you know the people. Even though I knew no one in Norwalk before I came, I knew who they were. I knew how they thought, how their lives went, and what was important to them. I knew this because they are the very people who shaped the early years of my life which prepared me for ministry.

And I know the landscape of this place—not just the physical landscape, but the spiritual and emotional landscape. It’s my landscape too. Even with all those years of city living, the landscapes of this part of Ohio are deeply ingrained in my being and continue to shape the person that I am today.

Sooner or later everyone comes home.

Theologian Kathleen Norris wrote an excellent book entitled Dakota, in which she talked about our spiritual landscapes and how the geography in which we live shapes us in profound ways. As someone who grew up in western North Dakota, she was shaped by the unique beauty and emptiness-that-is-not-empty which is the American plains. No matter where she went or lived, the plains were always home. (I commend her book to you.)

Sooner or later everyone comes home.

Often, people come home when they die. I have spoken that line at many a funeral: that so-and-so came home to this town/this church/this people. There’s something so compelling about home that even someone who has lived the majority of their life somewhere else will often want to come home to be buried. I suppose that’s the “later” part of “sooner or later.”

Sooner or later everyone comes home.

And of course, as people of faith, we trust that one day we will all be home with God. I don’t agree with theology that says our “true” home is with God: that belittles and ignores the importance of the earthly homes that so deeply shape our lives. But I do believe that our ultimate home will be when we return to the One who created us out of love and who will welcome us back into the fullness of that love when our earthly lives end.

Until that time, I invite you to consider how your spirit/soul/being was shaped by your home—good or bad—and to consider what home means for you. Because, sooner or later, everyone comes home.

 

A-maze-d

corn-maze1Last Sunday some of us from St. Peter went to Brasee’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch in Wellington. There were some kid-friendly games, a hay ride around the property, a few greedy goats and other animals to feed, and several mazes, including a small corn maze, a large corn maze, and a crawl-your-way-through-a-pitch-black-hay-bale maze in the barn.

The crawl-your-way-through maze was an immediate “no” for me. I do not like enclosed spaces and crawling around in the dark with strangers before or aft does NOT appeal to me. The kids loved it though.

I thought I would try the corn maze. The big one. My first corn maze, if I’m being truthful. I followed of the heels of a couple of our teens, but about 10 or 15 minutes in, when it was apparent we were lost, I separated from them and eventually found my way out—out the entrance, that is. That was OK with me. 20 minutes of wandering around a muddy corn maze was enough.

A bit later, a larger group from our church decided to go into the big maze. I took a deep breath and went with them. We wandered and wandered. About 15 minutes in, we found some more St. Peter folks who were also lost in the maze and we joined forces. They’d already been at it for at least 30 minutes and their frustration was showing. As a large group, we tramped around for a while, laughing and enjoying our time together. One of our younger members kept saying “At least we are lost together.” Good theology, I thought.

However, after we’d been at it about 40 minutes, we were getting anxious. Our scheduled hayride time was fast approaching, and we needed to get to the pick-up spot. A large part of our group—including the folks who’d been in the maze much longer than me—decided to head through the corn to the edge of the field and forget about the maze. And that’s what they did: went out the side and walked around the outside edge of the field.

The rest of us followed the instructions of a group member who said we should keep turning right in the maze. We hit a few dead ends but using her instructions, we actually found our way to the exit—the correct exit, not the entrance I’d used the first time or the self-made exit of the rest of the group. And everyone made it to the hayride pick-up spot in time.

I confess I didn’t much like the maze. I didn’t like feeling lost and out of control. I did enjoy the companionship and there were lots of laughs and groans as we slip-slided through the mud and standing water. But I kept wishing that the farmer would have given us some clues—a map or flags at the entrance and exit—something to give a reference point. Alas, there was no such assistance.

What a great analogy for life—and for the life of faith too! Even when the path is clear and well-marked, it’s often hard to tell if it’s the right path or a dead end or one that will lead us the wrong direction. Even as we made directional choices, we didn’t always know what we were doing. Mostly we were making our best guess and hoping it turned out.

A couple of members of our group showed both initiative and wisdom. One decided to get off the path entirely and forge a new way. That worked for them, even if it meant the going was more difficult and that they had to walk the long way around to their destination.

The other member of the group used knowledge she’d gleaned in the past and she persisted in walking the maze, making turns based on her prior experience. Her choices were not always correct, but she was accurate more often than not. And thanks to her knowledge and our willingness to trust in her greater experience, we eventually found our way out.

I don’t think I have to say much more. You’ve got the analogy by now. Sometimes we have to forge a new way and sometimes we just have to be persistent and trust in someone who has greater knowledge or experience than us. Both ways led to the same end point, just using different routes.

And even though we were at times frustrated and even maybe a bit anxious about being lost, it was SO much better to be lost together. We were able to encourage each other and pool our shared resources to get to the right destination. That’s why we are church. It’s too hard and confusing to walk the path of faith alone.

And of course, as people of faith, we trust that no matter what bad turns we make, no matter if we must forge a new way or patiently walk the path before us, no matter how muddy or frustrated we get, we never walk alone. God is always present to encourage and sustain us and maybe even to laugh a bit when we turn into yet another dead end or fall into another puddle. To rephrase my young parishioner: At least we are lost with God.

I did not really enjoy my time in the corn maze. I don’t plan on doing it again any time soon. And when I DO try it again, I’ll make sure I don’t do it alone.

Violence Begets Violence

today-show-nbc-logoThis week on the Today Show, they have been talking about a recent major study that documents the negative effects of screen time on children. Part of the study revealed that children who play violent video games are more likely to act violently towards others.

Duh.

I could have told them that without spending however many millions of dollars on a study. (Although I do understand the importance and value of documenting and quantifying results.) Anything that we consume with our minds has the power affect our behavior. For example, it has long been known that pornography affects the way people act sexually. People who act in sexually deviant ways (child molesters, rapists, etc.) are nearly always consumers of pornography. Nobody is surprised to discover that a rapist has pornographic materials that depict rape fantasies. It’s a connection that makes perfectly rational sense.

The purpose of this new study was to clarify if violent video games CAUSE violent behavior, rather than serve as a harmless outlet for violent tendencies that already exist—which is the perspective of many gamers and game developers. I say potato, you say potato. Surely the correct answer is that it’s both.

Human beings have violent tendencies. This is part of our hard-wiring. If we feel threatened or are protecting love ones, even the most benevolent of us is capable of violent behavior. Violent tendencies can also be increased by childhood experiences of violence.

But regardless of genetics or childhood experiences, when we choose to experience or participate in explicitly-violent activities, we are also shaping our minds and our behaviors. Even when we know that a game is “pretend,” I firmly believe that what we consume with our minds affects us as much as the food we consume with our bodies. We are what we eat.

When we are talking about the minds of children, the effects of such consumption (body and mind) is substantially increased. Just as the food children eat profoundly affects their physical development, so do emotional and mental experiences affect the development of their minds, egos and self-esteem. Of course violent games shape children’s minds in ways that lead them to practice violence in their own lives. The games teach these malleable minds that if you don’t like someone, violence towards that person will “fix” the situation.

But it’s not just true for children. As adults, our personalities are already mostly formed, so what we feed our minds and spirits may affect us less profoundly than it would a still-developing child. Yet it is still true that if we “consume” violence or pornography or hate-based rhetoric, we do damage to our spirits, to  our sense of self, and to our view of the world. While some may argue that violent games are a release for them, I would suggest that’s only half the story and that violence experienced in any form shapes character and affects future behavior. We are—or we become—what we eat.

And now we have some proof.

So who do you want to be in the world? What sort of person is God calling you to become? After you decide this, then choose activities and actions that will help create and nurture that person. Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Or as Ann less-famously paraphrased: “Be the person that you want to be in the world.”

Kohlrabi

kohlrabiI ate a kohlrabi for the first time recently. I’ve heard of them—even seen them in stores—but never eaten one. I got the kohlrabi as part of my farm share. I bought into a Community Supported Agriculture farm from which I get a weekly bag of vegetables. (You can check out my CSA here or go to funacres.net.) Before the season begins, one can choose which vegetables you like. I had decided to be a bit adventurous and checked “Like” next to veggies and fresh herbs with which I do not have much experience—such as Swiss chard, dill, and kohlrabi.

Thanks to the internet, I learned that kohlrabi are also called “German turnips” and that the name kohlrabi means “cabbage turnip.” However, the kohlrabi is not part of the turnip family. Instead, it belongs to the same plant family as broccoli, cabbage and Brussel sprouts. Both the bulb and the leaves are edible. The internet had a lot of recipes for preparing kohlrabi and the one I tried turned out quite well.

I’m not a terribly adventurous eater most of the time. I tend to find things I like and stick with them. But occasionally, I feel daring and eat something completely new. Sometimes it works out and sometimes I wished I stayed with the tried and true.

I’m presently reading a book on Christian leadership called Canoeing Up the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger. I’m only a few chapters in, but already I am resonating with Bolsinger’s premise. Essentially, he is saying that most pastors today have been trained to lead churches from the 20th century, not churches from the 21st century. Moreover, he says that most church members, especially long-term church people, are in the same canoe—the church they knew and loved and served is rapidly disappearing and they (we) do not know what to do. We are in uncharted territory.

Already the book has given glimpses of where the author is headed: that we the church need to try something entirely new or we will die. In a recent sermon, I said something similar: that churches that do not change will die. Bolsinger is even more blunt: the church doesn’t need to change a few things—we need a radical overhaul or we will die.

While I find myself agreeing with Bolsinger, I also find myself a bit overwhelmed by what he is saying. I am one of those pastors who was trained to pastor a 1980’s or 1990’s congregation. Some of my congregation members feel I’ve already introduced too many changes to St. Peter because they long for the St. Peter of the 1960’s or 1970’s. Yet Bolsinger has already made the point—because this is a book on Christian leadership—that the first person who must change is the leader, AKA, the pastor. The pastor is not the only one who must change, but s/he is certainly must go first. That’s a little intimidating to me. If it’s uncharted territory, how do I know where to begin? What happens if no one else in the congregation wants to enter the uncharted territory with me? What if we enter this entirely new paradigm and it falls apart around us or blows up in our faces? What if we hurt our church instead of helping it?

And I thought: kohlrabi. It was new to me just a few weeks ago, a vegetable about which I knew nothing. I was hesitant about preparing and eating it, but I found that kohlrabi was quite tasty.

I suppose this is the attitude I would need to take into this uncharted future for the church. What if this radical shift for the congregation turns out to be a good thing? What if we get energized and excited again about the Gospel? What if we grow in faith and service and maybe in membership?

After all, if I hadn’t liked the kohlrabi recipe, I probably would have tried another recipe. If I eventually decided I didn’t like kohlrabi, that would not stop me from trying some other new vegetable—say, Swiss chard or parsnips or collard greens. Alternatively, I could go back to what I know—the tried and true.

Unfortunately, going back to what we know is not an option for the church. We have already been doing things that we know how to do—tried and true—only it’s not working or not working as well as it once did. Instead, Bolsinger’s book urges churches to honor their past without getting stuck there and then to try some kohlrabi—something utterly new. If the kohlrabi is a bust, you go on to Swiss chard or rutabagas or some other new possibility. Eventually, something will work. It’s about learning to be church in an almost entirely different way, he says. After all, the purpose of the church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that never changes. Christ is the message—the church is part of the delivery system. The message is eternal; the means of delivery can change at any time.

Tod Bolsinger also makes the point that the declining of the Christian church will not lead to the failure of the Gospel. As disciples of Jesus, we know that the Gospel is more powerful than the church and that whatever failures the church may experience, the Gospel will survive and thrive. Hopefully that provides some comfort and courage for those who are adventurous enough to move forward into the uncharted territory that lays before the people of God.

Accents

Hinterland
One of the shows I’ve been watching

I mentioned in the last blog that I’ve been binging on British TV shows recently. The shows have been set in Scotland, in Wales, on a Scottish island, and of course, in England. I have especially enjoyed learning about other cultural practices from these shows, as well as seeing how people live in these parts of the world.

I have had one problem when watching these shows: the accents. The actors often have very pronounced accents and of course, the various parts of the Britain have regional accents and dialects too. I find that it often takes me watching several shows in the same series to finally understand most of what is said. Even then, I often must stop and rewind in order to listen again to the dialog. And sometimes, even after listening several times, I still don’t know all of what was said.

And these good folks are speaking English! They are not speaking French or Mandarin or Swahili or Portuguese. They are speaking English and I still struggle to understand what they are saying.

Many years ago when I was a social worker at The Salvation Army in Columbus, a young fellow from Mississippi came in to ask for a bus ticket home. His accent was so thick—Cagayan perhaps?—that I could barely understand him. He tried to tell me why he was in Columbus and why he wanted to go home. I understood very little of what he said but felt embarrassed about asking him to constantly repeat himself. The accent made it obvious that he was NOT from Columbus, and he simply wanted to go home, which seemed a reasonable request. When I asked him to tell him where he lived in Mississippi, he told me the name of his town—and I could not comprehend what he said. After he repeated it several times, I finally asked him to write down the name of his hometown. That’s when I discovered that he was illiterate and couldn’t even write his own name. It was frustrating for both of us. We finally figured out the closest major city to his home and I arranged for the bus ticket to that city. He assured me he could get home from there on his own.

Again, this man was speaking English, he was from my own country, and yet I could not understand most of what he said.

Communication is hard. Even when we speak the same language—literally or metaphorically—communication is fraught with misunderstanding. We think and speak differently, we have diverse experiences and personal filters, and we are not always good at being patient with those who express themselves another way.

My experience with the British TV shows has reminded me that if we are patient and listen carefully and if we are willing to be persistent, understanding can come. It may come slowly and it may be an imperfect understanding, but understanding is possible. The only way we can learn to appreciate how unique and special God has made each of us is to be willing to listen to one another and be open to learning a new perspective. Think how much more peaceful and pleasant the earth would be if we all listened to one another with patience and persistence. Maybe it should start with each one of us.

 

Through the Cemetery

allsaints_01_churchyardLately, I’ve been binging on British television shows via Netflix. On one of the shows, a recurring character is the local rector or pastor in this small town. In order to enter the church where he serves, the congregation must walk through the graveyard which surrounds the church on all sides. In other words, the church building is in the middle of a cemetery.

I’ve never pastored or belonged to a church that had such a set-up. Many churches have cemeteries next to them—especially in rural settings—or across the street or even a bit down the road. I’ve not seen a church surrounded by a cemetery. My closest experience was when I did a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. Here, one had to walk by a small cemetery in order to enter the monastery. Still, the abbey was not surrounded by tombstones.

In one of my first call congregations in Indiana, the small country church had a cemetery across the road from the building. The cemetery had belonged to the church at one time, but its care had been taken over by the township long before I arrived. Still, many of our members were buried there, and I thought of it as “our” cemetery. Numerous times in my ten years in that place, I walked through the cemetery and read the tombstones. There were familiar names whose descendants and family members still attended the church. There were even a few tombstones for members who were still alive, but had purchased their gravesites and installed their headstones in preparation for the time when they would be needed. It was startling to me the first time I saw tombstones bearing the names of people who still sat in church every week. It was a stark reminder of the earthly death that awaits us all.

When I saw that church-in-a-cemetery on the television, I found myself thinking that there is something about walking through the earthly remains of former church members in order to enter one’s place of worship—the place where we weekly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Worshippers walk out of their daily lives, into a place of death, and then into a place of resurrection. Sounds like a perfect metaphor for our lives, doesn’t it?

And let us not forget walking OUT of the that same tombstone-surrounded church. Worshippers must also walk out of a place in which they heard the good news of Jesus Christ, through a place of death, and back into the world, renewed and reminded of what they are called to do: to proclaim a God of resurrection in a world fraught with death and fear and hopelessness. Even those who do not attend a church-in-a-cemetery, this is the call of all followers of Jesus Christ.

I also think that walking through the graves of our spiritual forebears might increase our sense of connection to our past, as well as remind us of our responsibility to ensure the future of this faith community. Church cemeteries should not cause us to cling to the past or mourn what once was, but should encourage us to look forward, knowing that our time on earth is limited and that God’s call is not about what was, but about what IS. The past is important to help us understand who we once were. Yet God calls us to live in the NOW, to speak and enact the good news today, and to trust the future is in God’s hands.