Time to Breathe


Three and a half minutes of your day to get centred.  Blessings.

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The Good News Paradox


On a number of the social media groups I belong to, there has been long conversations going on since Friday’s massacre at Sandy Nook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  Almost all of them started with the question, “In light of today’s/Friday’s events are you changing your sermon this Sunday?”  Some asked wondering if we should further sensationalize an event that has already over saturated the media, our conversations, our emotions.  Some argued, why pick this one, hundreds of children die daily from hunger, disease, war, abuse – we don’t hear about them.  Some of those ‘news’ stories we, as Christians called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free the imprisoned, share our abundance with, are supposed to do something about.  Here was my answer to someone who asked that same question a number of times, finally in a rather provocative way (the question has since been removed – something to the effect is this story only important because it happened in the US to white, English speaking children, adding that teachers in our congregations wasn’t a good enough reason).

“Exactly some of the conversations being held during the coffee hour. It is important because we can identify with the story. Someone has a son with mental illness, we all have children, grandchildren or great grandchildren attending schools, they are predominantly white, they speak English. We have teachers in our congregations. Our children are not dying of hunger, our children are not dying of AIDS, or being blown up by suicide bombers, or stepping on landmines, or dying from diseases that could be prevented by immunization. Unfortunately those news stories do not resonate as strongly with us, unfortunately that ‘news’ is not covered by the major networks. Is it a travesty, yes. Does that mean we ignore what is right in our faces because some news editor somewhere decides what bad news we get to hear? Do we connect the news that is presented for our consumption to everything else that is happening in the world? We might if we preached the three hour sermon. Today’s focus was on ‘news’, the news that is set before us everyday, the good news of the Gospel, the questions and the reality that sometimes there are no answers. We struggle every week to arrive at the decision of what is important in the world and if and how it might influence our worship of God in community one hour of the week.”

Here was Sunday’s sermon, reworked Saturday, because of Friday’s horrible tragedy (with some words and thoughts gleaned from social media and news feeds).

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18            Responsive ReadingIsaiah 12:2-6

How was your Friday spent?  Were you deep in the preparation of the season, baking, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, spending money perhaps?  Were you listening to Christmas carols, planning the Christmas dinner menu, addressing Christmas cards, or getting all dressed up to go to a Christmas party?

Were you waiting,

Watching,

Weeping,

Horrified at the depths to which human activity in the world can descend?

Was the joy drained from your day?  Why did this happen?

The immediate answer is, I don’t know.  The eventual answer is, we may never know.  Life exposes us to horrible, confounding, disturbing events that we may never have the answers to.

Every day, the news of the world does not bring good news.  It is just news, political, economic, natural disasters, entertainment, trivial, now breaking, up to the minute, news.  Cascades of words that become meaningless after awhile until something extra-ordinary in the world happens and suddenly everyone is transfixed by their tablets, and radios, and televisions to get the latest news.

One day, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Ground breaking news, kingdom in breaking news, attracting people from all over, crowds of people.  You would have thought John would have been pleased.  High ratings for a guy shabbily dressed, living on locusts in the wilderness.  All these people, hearing the message, responding, coming out to be baptized, transfixed by John’s message.  If only today’s church could be so fortunate.  Crowds of people desiring to become part of the body of Christ.

John is not so impressed, or satisfied with THAT sort of response.  He chastises the crowds, calls them snakes, vipers, vermin fleeing impending wrath, rats abandoning a sinking ship.

Even today, to call someone a “snake” is to say something pretty serious about him or her.

“What a snake,” said an old lady when she discovered that she had been robbed by her nephew.

“He turned out to be a real snake,” said a local girl of the man who became engaged to her why he was still married to a woman in Ottawa.

“You vipers,” said the preacher.  “Why are you slithering out of your dens to me?  Who warned you that this is your last chance?” ***

John’s incensed, because he knows human nature, he knows they think that baptism is the key to salvation.  He knows they think that once they are ‘done,’ everything is good, they have made the grade, they can bask in God’s grace, ask weekly forgiveness, and not have to concern themselves with walking the straight and level path of righteousness.  He knows that the crowds are expressing only the minimum outward appearance of turning around and forgoing sin.  He knows they will take the path of least resistance, not the narrow way, not the way that Jesus will walk when he appears.

John tells the crowds outright that they cannot rely on the claim that they are the children of Abraham.  They cannot rest or rely on that identity.  Calling themselves God’s people, whether Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian does not make them so, does not make us so.  God is able to make children from the stones by the pathways, after all, being descendants of Abraham has nothing to do with living faithfully as God’s people.

Our inevitable question is the same one the crowds ask.  “What then should we do?”

John doesn’t mince any words.  “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.”  John is telling them to do something that reveals God’s love for the world.  Be part of the community.  Act with grace, and charity, and genuine concern for those around you.

“What should we do?”

“Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.”  John is telling the tax collectors not to line their own pockets, taxes are already a burden, it shows no compassion or concern for your neighbours if you increase that burden for your own benefit.

What should we do?”

“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  John knows the temptations that power brings, it becomes easy to threaten others to elevate a soldier’s position in society, to eliminate people who might encroach on personal realms of influence and wealth.

“What should we do?”

Do as you would have others do to you.  Love them as you would love yourself, as you say you love Jesus.  Be a light unto the world.  Feed my sheep.

There may lie the answers to why people perpetrate such horrible and unspeakable acts upon others.  Somewhere along the line, there was not enough love, somewhere along the line there was not care and concern for the oppressed, the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, the mentally ill, the ostracized, the different, the other.

Why is it that we can talk so freely about what we hate, and never say a word, even whisper a thought, on what we love, on who we love.

I am struck by the implication of a paradox of the last verse of today’s Gospel reading.  “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to people.”  With exhortations, warnings, admonitions, pleadings, insistence, spurning.  These are tough methods of getting the good news to sink in.  It doesn’t appear on the surface to be very good news if we are pressured to stop doing those things we have always done, or to start doing something we have never done.

Where is the good news?  There seems to be so little evidence of any good news in today’s world, particularly after the events of Friday in a small town in Connecticut.  The media feeds on bad news, bad news attracts advertisers, bad news attracts viewers, bad news and speculation seems to be the new drug for society.  There never seems to be enough of it to go around.  We are more than willing to share it with everyone who crosses our path, whether it is true or not.

Did you question, as doubtless many in this world did two days ago, where is God?  The answer might be found in a comment from Mister Rogers of all people.  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

That’s where God is in moments of unspeakable horrors.  “I don’t believe God willed this or wanted it.”**  And don’t you dare say so, to anyone, you are not God.  That is neither helpful nor good theology.  I don’t understand why things like this happen.  “What I do know is this:  God does not cause or plan violence.  I also know this:  God comes along side of us and we find him in the midst of our pain – ready to pick us up and carry us through the valley of the shadow of death.”*  God grieves with us, the Word became incarnate in Christ so that the depths of our losses and tears would be truly and intimately known by God.”

Pastor Rocky Veach, whose church has 75 members said, “In times like these, there’s no really good answer. Words really don’t express enough. Our approach is just that you have to show people love. You have to be there for them and be understanding, even though nobody besides the victims can really understand what they are going through. Instead of talking so much about Jesus, in this setting we have to try to be like him.”

God’s love reveals itself in the actions of people.  John tells people to go about their work, their lives, but to do so in a manner that revels they have truly repented of the dishonest and oppressive ways they previously practiced.

God’s love reveals itself in the actions of people.  A neighbour drops a casserole off at the doorstep of parents incapacitated by the death of their six year old, offers to watch the dead child’s infant sibling for a few hours while funeral plans are made, to allow for some solitary grieving.

God is revealed in the actions of people.  Trinity Episcopal Church on Newtown’s Main Street planned a service of prayers and music. Other places of worship also held services and vigils; more were scheduled for yesterday.  St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church holds a candlelight vigil within 24 hours, hundreds of people gather, spilling out into the darkness of a December night, some crowding around open windows desperately waiting for words of hope and peace and reassurance of God’s love, singing Silent Night through tears of grief.  Twenty six candles burned on the altar, as the priest reminded all that it is not our place to question, judge or condemn, and that it was important to remember all who died that day in Newtown.  Tragic the effects of isolation on a young man and now for the community in which he lived and died.

God’s love reveals itself in the actions of people.  Countless people change their Facebook pictures to candles bravely shining in fathomless black, posting prayers, words of outrage and comfort and hope.  Twitter users offered prayers, and support, and expressions of grief and love.

We need to show each other how much we love each other.  We need to tell others how much we love Jesus.  We need to live in hope, regardless of the broken, sinful, and dark world that surrounds us.

Where do we find hope?  We find hope in the promises of the Kingdom of God that is being ushered in even now as I speak this.  We find hope in the expressions of family, and friends, and neighbours.  We find hope in salvation bought through a cruel and suffering death.  Hope is in a life lived beyond self.  Hope is things unseen, questions unanswerable, lives unafraid.  Hope is a new heaven and a new earth, no pain, no tears, no suffering.  Hope is a glimpse of the glory of God at unexpected times, in unexpected places, from unexpected people.  Hope is a child in a manger, an innocent on a cross, an empty tomb, a Saviour returning on clouds of unimaginable brilliance.

We are called to love God and others.  It is difficult, to feel joy, in times such as these.  But we can be grateful.  We can give thanks that God’s love is revealed in the actions of people in times of grief and horror.  We can give thanks that the grace of God is always.  We can give thanks that we can find peace in Christ, a peace that surpasses all understanding.  And in all this, we can be confident and live in the hope that joy will again be experienced, for surely God is our salvation, we will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord is our strength and our might.  Amen.

*these are quotes from a number of sources, if yours I will be happy to give you credit, let me know.  I hadn’t expected to post this at the time and haven’t been able to successfully backtrack to recover them.

** http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/dealing-with-grief-five-t_b_2303910.html

*** The Master Storyteller Roy Sheldon MacKenzie pg 18

Nothing Ordinary About It


After the Advent banners came down many people in the congregation complained how plain the sanctuary looked.  The women asked for another project to provide focus for visual meditation.  The decision was to do something for Ordinary Time which is represented by the colour green.  They will be dedicated to God’s glory this Sunday in memory of Bill M.  His widow is known for her preference for green so these were the obvious choice.  All the blocks have biblical references.  The women did a fabulous job.

Guest Post: You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I am not Afraid of Schism)


Many, many posts ago, in a place far away and a time filled with learning into a new role I mentioned five amazing people I interned with.  I am so blessed and pleased to be able to share a recent post by one of them.  He is so wise and grace filled.  Check out his blog, it will be worth every word consumed.

http://streetpastor.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/you-can-go-your-own-way-or-why-im-not-afraid-of-schism/

You Can Go Your Own Way (or, Why I’m Not Afraid of Schism)

April 12, 2012 by J. Barrett Lee

It’s been a rough half-century for folks in the mainline Protestant denominations.  The numbers are undeniable.  We are smaller than we were in the 1950s and 60s.  Everybody seems to have a pet theory about why this is happening.

Extremists on one side are convinced that this decline in numbers is caused by fanatical adherence to superstitious dogmas that have been rendered irrelevant by philosophical, scientific, and technological advancement.  Extremists on the other side are convinced that the wrath of God is smiting our denominations with death because they have bowed down to the heresies of the modern world.  I want to say the same thing to extremists on both sides:

“Shut up and sit down.  This kind of talk isn’t helpful.”

While these voices tend to be the loudest, I find more often that they are in the minority.  Most folks in our churches identify themselves as moderates who tend to lean to one side of the spectrum or the other.

In spite of rampant conspiracy theories to the contrary, I find that most moderates on both sides are compassionate and intelligent believers who are essentially saying the same thing:

“I want to stay faithful to the core values of my faith, but I’m afraid that my denomination is becoming a place where I won’t be able to do that.”

We’ve all been through this before.  American mainline Protestant churches have split over the abolition of slavery, biblical literalism, the ordination of women, and (most recently) same-sex marriage.

My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which I will abbreviate as PC(USA), is currently wrestling with the recent creation of a group that calls itself the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  ECO is a group that has come together out of its founders’ desire to have a denominational community with shared theological values and a commitment to evangelical mission in the world outside the walls of the church.  They believe the PC(USA) has drifted from its core theological roots and become too inwardly and institutionally focused.  They see the PC(USA)’s recent decision to allow for the ordination of non-celibate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people and this summer’s upcoming vote on same-sex marriage as symptoms of the larger and deeper theological problem.

Just to be clear about where I stand, let me lay all of my cards out on the table.  Those who know me or follow this blog will already know this, but I’ll say it again for the sake of any newcomers and first-time readers.  I identify as a theologically liberal Presbyterian.  I am a vocal advocate for LGBT equality in church and society.  I am not a part of ECO.  In fact, I probably represent much of what they think is wrong with the PC(USA).

The PC(USA) itself does a fairly good job at holding the middle ground in this debate.  They follow the example of Karl Barth and other Neo-orthodox theologians of the 20th century.  How do I know the denomination does this?  Because it frustrates folks on both sides.  Liberals think it’s too conservative and conservatives think it’s too liberal.

Liberals and conservatives have their own unique ways of vying for greater power in the decision-making process.  Liberals tend to invest in taking hold of regional and national positions of authority in the councils (formerly known as governing bodies) of the denomination.  They, in the tradition and spirit of historic liberalism, tend to put their trust (too much trust, I would say) in the amendment of large-scale human institutions.  The heroes of this bunch tend to be Moderators of our General Assembly and professors at our denominational seminaries.  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the United Federation of Planets (Star Trek).

Conservatives, on the other hand, love to cast themselves in the role of the oppressed underdog.  They see themselves as heirs of the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation.  Their heroes tend to be the pastors of large and wealthy congregations.  They tend to idolize their pastors and demonize the denomination.  As one elder screamed (yes, screamed) during a recent meeting in our area, “The PC(USA) just wants more of our money so they can keep spreading their lies!”  In science-fiction terms, they see themselves as the Rebel Alliance, fighting the Sith-dominated Galactic Empire (Star Wars).

In reality, both sides are delusional.  The PC(USA) is not the United Federation of Planets and ECO is not the Rebel Alliance.  It’s pretty obvious to me that we’re essentially dealing with two different religious traditions under the roof of one denomination.  This leaves us with two options.  We can either: (A) Organize our denominational life together in such a way that leaves room for both parties to coexist, or (B) Peacefully part ways in a spirit that is consistent with our highest shared values.

As a liberal, I will primarily direct my critical comments toward the members of my own party.  But before I do that, I want to invite any conservatives and evangelicals to listen in and witness one liberal who is not a demon-possessed heretic that wants to invade your church, seize your building, fire your pastor, and force you into compliance with my wicked homosexual agenda.  Are you ready?  Let’s go.

I am a liberal who supports the creation of ECO.  My reasons for doing so are primarily biblical in nature.  I was reading Genesis 13 the other day, where the nomadic caravans of Abram and Lot are traveling together through the Promised Land, but have achieved critical mass in regard to the land’s ability to support both groups.  Conflict began to brew.  Abram then takes the moral high ground,

Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.

Abram even lets Lot have his first choice of the land.  There is a recognition that division is necessary, but a complete rejection of backbiting and contentiousness.  Here is an example of a person of faith who can declare “Separate yourself from me” and “we are kindred” in the same paragraph.

In the same way, our denominational landscape is being strained in the attempt to support both liberals and evangelicals.  It is clear that there are many among us who no longer wish for our caravans to sojourn together.  As heirs of Abram’s covenant, why can’t we do with each other what Abram did with Lot?  Who among us will take the moral (i.e. relational) high ground?

In this moment, I would call upon my fellow liberals to step up to the plate.  You have invested much energy in securing positions of power for yourself at the presbytery and General Assembly levels.  Use the power afforded you by those positions to walk like Jesus, who said,

You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.

I would venture to say that we should support the creation of ECO, let these congregations and presbyteries go their own way, and find a way to send them off with a parting blessing: their buildings, investments, and pensions.  Let’s leave a legacy that will provide an open door for reconciliation in some future generation.

Institutional division is not necessarily a church schism.  We can part ways and remain true to each other on multiple levels.  After Abram and Lot part ways, the relationship between them continues to grow faithfully.  Abram fights for Lot, rescues him from danger, and prays earnestly for his well-being.  Let’s learn how to do the same for each other.  Enough of all this backbiting crap.

Listen, we don’t really need their numbers and their money.  Their presence will not hold back the tide of mainline decline.  We are still shrinking, no matter what.  This is a subject for another blog post, but I see mainline decline as a good thing.

My point is that we might best guard the “peace, unity, and purity of the church” by allowing people to go their own way, even if we happen to disagree with where they are going.  We made a vow to guard the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church, not necessarily the denomination.  We should be careful to distinguish between the two.

Liberal Presbyterians: be ye not afraid of ECO.  Support its creation.  Send them off with a blessing.  Like Abram and Lot, let there be no strife between them and us; for we are kindred.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

J. Barrett Lee is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Boonville, NY.  He is also a member of St. James Mission, an ecumenical spiritual community in Utica, NY.  He is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Utica College.  He lives in central New York with his wife, two kids, and two cats.  In his off-time (when he has any), he likes to watch Star Trek, listen to U2, and play his guitar.

Psalm 144:15


“Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the LORD.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, surely, this play on the word fall.  It is the season, after all, the season of putting to rest, of cleaning up, of preparing for a time half a year into the future.  There is satisfaction, and blessings, in harvest and the change of colours within Creation.  The light is different, the days are shorter, sleep comes more easily and longer, there is this feeling of settling in.  Someone commented recently that it feels like she should hibernate, however that involves not eating, so the inclination was quickly dismissed.  The garden offerings taste amazing, too good to pass by.

The cabbages have once contributed to our favourite cabbage soup.  The others rest in the cold storage under the outside steps.  The carrots are almost gone now, chopped into tidbit treats for the Sheltie, or grated into premeasured packages for carrot cake and comfortable soups.  I attempted growing purple carrots this year, because, well, they are purple!  Same taste, deliciously sweet, just a different appearance.  Last night we had elk and barley soup with mushrooms, onion and carrots.  It was filling and fulfilling.  So musty and wildly tasty.  The meat was a gift from congregation members, greatly appreciated and enjoyed.

Fall brings one of my favourite scenes.  I am continually thrilled by the contrast of white barked aspens against a vivid blue sky.  I can almost smell the sharp sourness of the smooth, brilliant bark and the musty death of fallen leaves.  This was taken just on the edge of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta by the museum, a small rest stop with picnic tables and washrooms closed for the season.  It puts me in mind of a cathedral, natural architecture that draws the eye towards the arch of the skies, commanded by God, made firm when the fountains of the deeps were established (Prov 8:28).

Fall is not my most favourite season, but yet I give thanks for all the sights, and smells and tastes that God grants us at this time of year.  Blessings surely fall upon us and happiness results.

Start dates – August 2002 & Sometime in 2005


Began 2002 - finished 2011

Began 2004 - Finished 2010

Amazingly, since we moved here in 2009, I have actually managed to complete two large cross stitch projects that I began some time ago.  Both are by my favourite cross stitch designer, Marilyn Leavitt-Imblum.  As I indicated in an earlier post, photographs of framed pieces tend not to turn out very well.  I am quite pleased with the finished angels, regardless of the superimposed reflection of me standing on a ladder.  Having it framed the way I envisioned was difficult.  The framer did her best to dissuade me from the proportions, particularly the empty space above the angels.  I wanted the picture to be higher than wider, and initially wanted the space over the angels heads much greater, but the cost was prohibitive.  When the gallery owner insisted “That’s not the way it should be,”  I told her I was making a theological statement, not an artistic one.  I am still not convinced she got my point.