Bearing Witness

Tree_Sparrow_Japan_FlipThere’s this bird. A little brown sparrow I think, although I’m no bird expert. Last week, he decided to fly into my office. The problem was that he was outside and the windows to my office were closed. This did not deter him. He kept flying into the window, tapping it with his beak and eventually knocking himself off balance and falling to the ground or flying off. Then he would stand on the ground or fly to the top of the nearby shrub and chirp in what I can only describe as a frustrated way. He did this over and over and over.

Thinking this might help him, I got my plant spray bottle full of water and hoped to quietly open the window and spray him the next time he approached the window. I thought perhaps a scare might be the way to get him to go away. While I wasn’t particularly bothered by his periodic tapping on the window, I was worried that he’d hurt himself at some point. However, every time I approached the window, he would see me and fly off. I never got to use the spray bottle.

Finally, at the suggestion of another person, I turned off the lights to the office. Perhaps not being able to see inside might discourage him; perhaps not seeing his reflection so clearly might discourage him. It seemed to work. He went away and I heard nothing from him for a couple of days.

On Saturday, as I was in the chapel next to my office practicing my sermon, I heard tapping on the stained glass windows that face the same side of the building as my office windows. Sure enough, it was another little brown sparrow. The same sparrow, I suspect, as tried to get into my office a few days earlier. After he repeated his window tapping behavior a few times, I turned off the lights in the chapel. The bird did not give up as he had before. He kept at it for at least another 30 minutes before going away. I opened the chapel windows and tried to show him away. He perched on the nearby shrub and scolded me.

Then on Sunday morning, as we were meeting in the chapel for Sunday school, guess who tried to join us? Yup, my little sparrow friend was at the windows again. This time, perhaps because it was cold and windy and rainy, he didn’t try for very long and we didn’t turn off the lights. He just gave up and went away on his own after a few tries.

This morning, he’s back. It’s still cold and windy and apparently my office still looks like a good place to be, so he’s trying again. His attempts are less enthusiastic than last week, though. I hope that’s the cold and rain and not because he’s in pain from banging his beak on the unyielding windows a few times too many.

So—is my sparrow friend admirably persistent or foolishly stubborn? Is he developing tenacity or merely too stupid to admit defeat? Is he keeping hope alive or simply banging his head against the proverbial unmoving wall? I’m not an ornithologist so I don’t know the likely scientific answer. I simply know that I both marvel at him and feel sorry for him. And I do not know what I can do to help except stand by and bear witness. Sometimes that’s all we can do.



oops-error-mistake-ss-1920Yesterday was a near disaster at the early worship service.

First, the laptop computer, which we use to project the service onto screens, died. We don’t know why. It just blank-screened about 10 minutes before the service was to start. Since we no longer print the entire service in the bulletin, we rely heavily on the screens for words to the songs and the Scripture readings, as well as spoken congregational responses throughout the service. We ended up using my laptop and it worked fine. But since we didn’t have time to fine-tune it, the aspect ratio was wrong and all the words on the screens were squished and harder to read.

Then the second Scripture reading was wrong. Or more accurately, it was correct on the screens, but wrong on the printed copy that the reader was using at the lectern. This was entirely my fault. I inadvertently added a couple of extra verses at the beginning of the reading on the reader’s printed copy. So from the get-go, the screens didn’t match what the reader was reading. The poor computer operator—already traumatized by the computer’s crash—was so confused that she flipped ahead in the slides, thinking she’d somehow gotten behind. By the time the reader caught up to the screen, the reading was over. At least the reading wasn’t too long.

Then one of our members passed out during the prayers. He’s OK, but it necessitated trying to finish the prayers while a group gathered around the passed-out man and no one was really listening to the prayers any longer. The prayer leader gamely continued to pray despite the distraction. When the prayers were done, we shared the peace and took up the offering and sat for a few minutes while things calmed down. Eventually, the passed-out fellow was alert enough to be put in a wheelchair and we moved him to the narthex to await the ambulance. And the service continued for the rest of us.

But the fun was not quite done. During the distribution of communion, one of the communion hymns on the screen was wrong. The organist played one tune (the correct one) and the words on the screen were from another tune and the words didn’t fit with the tune—not even close. So after a few lines of trying to make the words fit with the music, the congregation gave up singing and the organist just played a solo until the song was done.

Between services, we fixed it all. The aspect ratio, the reading, and the words to the song. For the second service, everything went swimmingly. No one passed out, so that was a plus.

The entire morning service fiasco has provided much discussion fodder both on Sunday morning and today. We’ve had some good laughs about it and everyone involved may do a little more checking their pieces of the puzzle over the next few weeks. For my part, I am hoping we got all our mistakes out of our system(s) so that Holy Week and Easter worship are mainly error-free.

Sometimes life happens. Curves are thrown, we get careless, we misunderstand, we throw up our hands in frustration. Sometimes we can fix things and sometimes we cannot. But in the end, the Lord is Lord and we are not. Life happens, mistakes are made, but we survive and the Lord is still the Lord. In the case of yesterday’s service, despite the human errors, the people of God heard the Word, shared the Meal and gave thanks to their Creator. And at the end of the day, the Lord was still the Lord and that is all that really mattered.

I’ve been thinking about violence…

PeaceI’ve been thinking about violence. With another school massacre, churches developing safety plans, the #metoo movement, and escalating tensions with Russia and North Korea, violence is becoming ever more present in our day-to-day lives. Whether it is gun violence or sexual violence or violence prevention or international violence, it seems that our supposedly-enlightened world is regressing into a place of increasingly primal violence.

If you’ve ever read popular dystopian literature (like The Hunger Games or the Divergent series) or watched futuristic movies set in a post-Armageddon world (like Mad Max or The Hunger Games or The Book of Eli), then you know that many people envision our world’s future as one full of ugliness, oppression, and unmitigated violence. It’s a long way from the idealistic future portrayed in Star Trek or The Jetson’s or Epcot’s Future World. (I, for one, prefer The Jetson’s.) Yet with the direction our society appears to be taking, the dystopian reality seems to be progressively more possible. It’s a vision of the future that can and does engender fear and anxiety—two emotions that are extremely prevalent in our world today.

I learned a long time ago that I cannot control other people—as much as I sometimes wish I could. I can attempt to influence the behavior of others, but ultimately, I only have authority over my own actions. I choose how and who I wish to be in the world. And in these days, I choose to be unafraid.

I choose peace over violence.

I choose mercy over revenge.

I choose mutual respect over condemnation.

I choose inclusivity over exclusivity.

I choose generosity over selfishness.

I choose love over hate.

I choose Christ over anti-Christ.

That’s right. For me, “anti-Christ” is not a person or the devil or Nicolas Carpathia (or the pope, as Martin Luther once said). The “anti-Christ” is anything that is not Christ-like. Anti-Christ is us when we choose violence and revenge and condemnation and exclusivity and selfishness and hatred over what Jesus taught and modeled: peace, mercy, respect, inclusivity, generosity and love. And I do not want to be anti-Christ.

This is not naïve, pie-in-the-sky pastor talk. I am not naïve. I have seen ugliness in the world. I have experienced ugliness. Regardless, I choose to be one who strives—and often fails—to follow Christ.

So I am going to try to stop thinking about violence. Instead, I am going to think about peace and love and mercy and I am going to endeavor to be a person of peace and love and mercy. And maybe, just maybe, someone else might see and decide to also become a person of peace and love and mercy and maybe someone will see them and decide to become a person of peace and love and mercy and someone else will see them and decide…

One action, one person, one life at a time, and we can turn it all around. In fact, it is the only way that we can.


kindnessLately, I’ve been thinking about unkindness. There seems to be a lot of it going around. People are increasingly angry and anxious about many things. Sometimes that anger and anxiety manifests as unkindness and a lack of compassion for others.

Recently I was talking with a young person about the possibility of being a pastor. I had intended it as a casual conversation—“Have you ever thought about becoming a pastor?”—but the young person responded with an immediate and decisive “no.” Knowing this person was a church kid, I asked why not. The response went something like this: “Church people are mean.” I was startled and assured the youth that church people are NOT mean, at least not all the time, but s/he remained unconvinced.

This is not the first time I’ve heard some comments from young people about the meanness of church people. More than one young adult cited their opinion that church people were mean, often using more colorful language that I won’t reproduce here.

So why are church people sometimes so mean?

I think it is because faith—and church, a place where we practice our faith—is close to our hearts. We have many emotions and experiences and memories tied to church: births and baptisms and confirmations and weddings and funerals and of course, week after week of Sunday worship. We are invested in our church on multiple levels. And as in any situation in which we have invested our energy and emotions, we are sensitive about it. So when another person comes along who seems to threaten our comfort or our memories by suggesting a change, we feel threatened. And when people feel threatened, they choose to flee or to fight. And fighting—even church fighting—can get mean.

It should not be so.

Jesus admonishes to us to love one another and show the world who we by our love for one another. “They will know we are Christians by our love” is not just a 70’s folk song. It is the command of Jesus (Jn. 13:35; see also 15:12, 15:17).

This does not mean that church folks cannot disagree. We are, after all, as human as everyone else. But it should mean that when church folks disagree, we do so agreeably—with mutual respect and love.

Ellen DeGeneres closes her talk show each day with the admonition that we should be kind to one another. I think she got that from the Bible.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)


MISUNDERSTANDINGI have been thinking about misunderstandings.

Last week, I was sending an email on my iPad using the voice interface. When I said “synod assembly” the voice program wrote “some disassembly.” I had a good laugh and then repeated “synod assembly.” The voice interface typed “sense assembly,” which also made me laugh. The third time, it typed “scented assembly.” Now I wasn’t so amused. After two more “scented assembly’s” I gave up and manually keyed in “synod assembly.” Being misunderstood is quite annoying.

We human beings are prone to misunderstanding one another. We all have our own lenses of experience and knowledge through which we filter what other people say and do. After a person has told us something, we often come to a conclusion about what that person REALLY meant based almost solely on our own lenses. It is rare for any of us to have the patience and willingness to remove our lenses and to listen with an open mind to what another person is saying. (That’s what a good counselor can do, though: listen with an open mind and few preconceived notions so that they can hear another person clearly.)

Further complicating communication is that the person speaking ALSO has his or her own set of lenses and experiences and knowledge through which they are filtering whatever they are saying.

Add to the mix that some people are not as articulate as they might wish and they may struggle to find the right words…and misunderstanding becomes a tour de force in many of our lives.

This is to say nothing of the newer communication methods of emailing, texting, Facebook and other social media where one is reduced to written words on a screen as a means of communicating complex and often personal information. I can certainly attest to being misunderstood and misunderstanding others far more often when using e-communication than I ever have experienced in face-to-face or voice communication.

Therefore, aren’t we fortunate that we have a God who completely understands us. At least it feels fortunate when we WANT God to understand us. However, an understanding God also comprehends our flaws, shortcomings, deceits, and secrets—even the ones we keep from ourselves. God understands us fully and despite that—and because of that—God still loves us. God still forgives us and blesses us and calls us beloved children. Being fully understood is indeed a fortunate thing.

May we learn to listen and understand one another as God does and may we learn to love one another as God loves us.

Ash Wednesday vs. Valentine’s Day

Ash_CrossAsh Wednesday is Valentine’s Day this year. An unusual juxtaposition of two very different holy days.

Valentine’s Day, now an extremely secular holiday, originally marked the day of the martyrdom of St. Valentine. There are several stories about different St. Valentine’s, but the most common one goes like this. During the reign of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in several bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius found it tough to get soldiers. He decided that it was because men did not wish to leave their wives and families in order to join the army. So Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. A Roman priest named Valentine defied Claudius’s order and continued to marry couples in secret. When his defiance was discovered, Valentine was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD. After his death, Valentine was named a saint.

Ash Wednesday is a day focused on confession and mortality. As ashes are imposed on our foreheads, the words “Remember that you dust and to dust you shall return” are spoken. We are reminded that we are mortal and that all things on earth will one day be no more. Hence, we are to put our trust in God, the only One who is eternal. And God, in turn, has promised to be faithful and to show us love and mercy that we can neither comprehend nor deserve.

On further reflection, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are not so different. For although Ash Wednesday focuses on our sin and mortality, it also is a day to remember the eternal God who loves us with a love surpasses all human understanding. So we could rightfully say that Ash Wednesday = Love.

That’ll preach.

I have been thinking about death…

Light in the end of the tunnelLately, I have been thinking about death. Last week I presided over the funeral of a father, a mother and a son who died together in a house fire. It was a very sorrowful situation. Yet as I said in my sermon, these were three loving, wonderful people. They cared for others, respected their neighbors, loved their children, took in many foster children, and died being loved by many, many people. Even as they grieve, I said to the family, I hoped they could also find a bit space for rejoicing at the gift of having had such people in their lives.

I have been thinking about death. It is hard to fathom that a person who is utterly unique in history can suddenly cease to exist. The idea that someone who occupied space in the world and in the lives of others and who is irreplaceable can be forever gone. People of faith trust that at the end of this earthly life, the essence of who we are (the soul, the spirit) continues to exist in some sort of eternal life. However, if we believe Jesus, he says that eternal existence is unlike our present existence (cf, Mk. 12:25). We will be “like angels in heaven.” And in spite of millions of attempts to do so, we really have no idea what an “angel” might be like or what the life of one such might be like. The word “angelos” in Greek means “messenger” which is perhaps a rather different idea of angelic existence than may immediately come to mind. So whatever eternal life might be, it is something wholly other, something completely outside our human experience.

Nevertheless, when I speak about deceased loved ones in a funeral sermon, I do so using human imagery because it is what we understand. I talk about the beloved dead doing the same things in heaven that they loved to do on earth and I tell the families that their loved ones are whole and well and restored. And I tell them that they are peace and resting in the arms of God. All these physical descriptors are my poor attempt to offer comfort to a grieving family, but they are also an acknowledgement that we simply do not know the nature of eternity with God.

Here is what we do believe and trust: that what awaits us after death is of God; that God is a God of love and mercy and grace; and that eternal life—whatever that means—will be good, even if we cannot fully comprehend what that goodness might be like.

I have been thinking about death. I confess I’m not looking forward to it with joy, but I do think that when all is said and done, it will be good.