Wednesday, May 28, 2008


We're starting to put together a praise band at the bigger church I serve, as well as install a new video system for projecting worship lyrics, art, etc.

The current line up of instrumentalists is from 2-5 guitar players, one bassist, a drummer who is pretty much using only a snare at this point, 4 singers, and me, who plays mandolin and sings. The thing is, I know the bassist would rather play straight guitar, and I think i've heard that one of the guitarsts would rather play drums. We're very much at the shakedown stage, getting to a place where we will have a stable lineup. Because it is volunteer, and the focus isn't making it big but rahter leading a worship service, these shakedowns can take a while.

I was talking about it with the musicians at my smaller church, both of whom have been session musicians, and they seemed to think that it would be a good idea for them, too.

So I am contemplating picking up the bass. I know I am not going to be any sort of prodigy, but I think I can keep a decent beat. I also don't feel like I am "leaving" the mandolin, this is just a way to be of service.

I have found out, so far, that you can get a decent one-box bass startup with guitar and amp for about $250. There are also used places around.

We'll see how the idea feels after some time.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Eggs in the Hand

Matthew 6: 25-34

There was once a monk in Ireland named Kevin. He lived in the mountains south of Dublin, at a place called Glendalough.

There's a story about Kevin. When you see pictures of Kevin, saint's icons and such, sometimes has a bird, or eggs, or both in his hand. It seems, the story goes, that Kevin could pray for long periods of time. Once, when he was seven years old, praying in the orans position (hands up in the air to his side about shoulder high) on the first day of Lent, he was there so long that a blackbird built a nest and laid eggs in it!

Kevin understood that God has created all things, and that man's dominion over nature meant that he was responsible to protect all things, was therefore stuck. He couldn't get the nest out of his hand without crushing it, he couldn't risk cracking the eggs, so, there he stood, one hand in the air, exactly like a tree, for the six weeks it took for the eggs to hatch. He was fed berries and nuts by the blackbird during that time.

Now you may believe that this story about Kevin is a little embellished, you may believe that stories of the saints are usually not reliable. In a 21st century sense of journalistic reporting and truth along concrete, tangible lines, it's probably not the way it happened.

But stories like this get at greater truths than mere proof can provide. Sometimes nonfiction can't tell the truth well enough, and that's why you need story. And this story about Kevin is about a lot of things. Our place in nature as human beings? yes. A metaphor of spiritual growth that happens in Lent? Yes. But what's more important for us today is the trust in God that God will take care of us.

Kevin knew, loved, and trusted in a God that would take care of him. If the lilies of the field aren't worried about how they will be clothed, he knew that he would be taken care of, too, as he did this thing for these birds. As he took this job on, the bird would be feeding him; just as he is putting on the persona of Christ in supporting the new life in those eggs, so the blackbird was acting like Christ in feeding Kevin what he needed while he was doing the work of God.

That is no less true for the rest of us. If we are doing the work of God, we receive enough to continue. We don't receive necessarily what we want, but then again, our wants are notoriously at odds with what is needed. We need food to survive. We don't need a double cheeseburger, fries and a shake (and folks, I am not telling you anything that I don't need to hear, too!)

God will take care of us. I hear, time and time again, that people don't believe that, and time and time again, it's usually because whoever it was that says that had an idea of what was needed, and it was usually different that what was truly necessary. I'm sure that Kevin, during those six weeks, wouldn't have minded an occasional bit of meat, or some ale, or some fresh bread with butter. But he could survive, and indeed thrive on what the blackbird brought him--berries and nuts.

So can we. God has a different idea about what we think we need than we do. We worry too much, and that is what Jesus is telling us in today's passage. Why do we worry about so much? It is good to have good fresh food, clean clothes, solid warm shelter. It is good to be able to make provision for your family should you die. It is prudent, I think, for a nation to have a group of people who are trained for it's defense, a group such as who we honor civilly tomorrow with a day off.

But prudent, for us, seems to go by the wayside so often. Prudent provision becomes excess so fast! Good simple food, what we need, becomes delicately cooked, exquisitely prepared cuisine, worthy of its own TV network, which is what we want. Clean and adequate clothing that protects us from sunburn, bug bites, snow and rain and the elements becomes Abercrombie and Fitch, Brooks Brothers and Chanel. A nice solid house, well insulated, good roof, becomes 30 rooms, 7 bathrooms, swimming pool and 30 walk in closets to handle all the clothes, toys, tools and book we have.

Simple plans to pay for things so your family isn't thrown out on the street, what we need, become plans and policies so complicated that they would make puzzle masters throw their hands up in frustration. A group of people organized for our common defense, what we need, becomes tools that are used to gather more than our share of resources, the defenders of a way of life that is itself outsized and out of proportion to what we need.

God knows our needs. God designed us, and knows our engineering specs. And we need much less than we take.

You've perhaps heard about the "simplicity" movement--the attempt by people to make their lives less complicated. It has already been co-opted and complicated by the culture, (there's even more than one magazine with simplicity as it's subject, each available to you for a yearly subscription), but it was a secular attempt to make our lives a little closer to what this passage means. We worry far too much about what we want, and forget that we need much less. Those noted prophets of the 20th century, the Rolling Stones, say it this way;
you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

All we really need is to trust God. Birds, grass and lilies seem to get that. If we're so much better than they are, so much higher on God's list, why can't we seem to get that?
Do not worry about tomorrow, Jesus says. Tomorrow will bring it's own worries. Be in today. Have joy for what you have, enjoy and acknowledge the person who is right in front of you, right now. Here's a line from a pop song, this one from Sheryl Crow: It's not getting what you want, it's wanting what you've got!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Of the Trinity

Matthew 28: 16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday. It's an odd little day, in this era of emphasizing what we have in common with everyone else, to have a day that is all about what makes us different. And in the world body of religions, the doctrine of the Trinity is the one that makes is stand out more than any other.

In short, the trinity is the doctrine of God the Father, God, the Son, and God the Holy Spirit being three, but also one. When we sing the Gloria Patri every week, we are reaffirming this basic tenet of the faith. Listen to what the words actually say:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, amen.

You may be interested to discover that the Trinity it self is not a Scriptural concept. Yes, it is true that passages like today speak of the formulation of the trinity we use, and there are other places where it shows up, and yes, there are even some old Testament passages that seem to place God in a setting where he is represented by three angels, or other devices, but Trinity as a word and a concept is extra-biblical.

It comes from one of the early councils of the church, from those early days when the church was trying to figure out what it was, and what it wasn't. Nicea, in 325, made the affirmation that the Father and the Son were of the same substance, which was an odd claim to make at the time, but was in response to a group of people called Arians who believed that Jesus was somehow less than the Father, more of a creature. Their belief was that there was a time when Jesus was not. The council of Nicea stated that he was of the same substance, that there never was a time when he was not. Further councils claimed that the Holy Spirit was sent by them, as well. This makes the Holy Spirit part of the same substance, as well.

All that being said, the church hasn't really ever nailed down how the trinity works. It's one of those declared "mysteries" of the church, the things that we claim to be true but can't explain. Most of the time, now, when we talk about it at all, we talk about it as a way to understand how god manifests God-self in the world. God the creator, God the redeemer of the world, in Jesus, and God the sustainer, in the person of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to the Christian faith to believe that Jesus, in his spiritual, original state, be seen as the same as God--then Jesus' sacrifice of himself on Good Friday lets us know that the love of God didn't just come from a nice, brave guy who seemed to have more of a spiritual connection, but that the Spirit of Jesus was the Spirit of God God-self, and he gave of himself.

But this is how the mystery comes in--Even though Jesus is seen to be of the same substance as God, and of one being with God the Father, God the father didn't die on the cross. There wasn't a three day period when there was no God. And that's part of why the Trinity is, in the end, a mystery.

Throughout Christian history, trying to picture God has been difficult. Some medieval paintings show the Trinity as a man with one head, but three faces. Most of the time, we try to do it by symbol. That's where the shape of a triangle comes from in Christian art. The symbol you see on the front of your bulletin is another attempt. That's called a Triskele, and is popular in Celtic symbolism, and you can see some pretty intricate ones. They all depict the concept that the trinity, no matter how you turn it, is the same, all the parts have the same value, and that it is all one thing, because it can be drawn all with one line. It is also a symbol that God and earth, humans and the universe are all of one substance.

There have been many other ways to try to symbolize the Trinity. St. Patrick's famous three leaved cloverleaf comes to mind, how the plant can have three leaves, but still be one plant. An author named Joseph Girzone, the author of the Joshua books some of you may know, talks about the Trinity as a light bulb, how you can experience it three ways--you can touch the glass, feel the heat, and see the light, but it is still one item. Others have used the fact that water is one substance, but can exist stably in three forms,--steam, ice, and liquid.

Some other folks talk about the trinity in terms of relationships. One article I read from a pastor in Illinois named Mary Anderson said it in these terms. To most of you I am pastor. To Joe, I am daddy, and to Donna I am husband. I am still the same guy, but all three experiences of me are different. Yes, it is true that there are others who have different experiences of me, as a son, as a teacher, as a friend, so the analogy does break down a bit, but what it does do, in the midst of the breakdown, is illustrate that the Trinity is a way of talking.

It gives us words to use about how we understand God working in the world. We do not believe in three Gods. We are mono-theistic, we believe in only one God. But we experience that God in three ways, historically. God created the universe. That's way one. God saved us from our sins, that's way two. God is with us, now, guiding us in our everyday lives, and that's way three. Because we believe those three things, we have to explain how that works. This is the claim we must wrestle with, the burden that passages like Matthew leave for us. And ultimately, it is beyond our comprehension. Even the most intelligent, bookish, highly trained theologians take the term "mystery" and tape it over the Trinity. It's true, we just don't know how. But our experience doesn't lie.

So we celebrate the Trinity, we think and write about it, and we continue to claim it as our unique calling card. Happy Trinity Sunday, in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Stories We Tell

Acts 2: 1-8
Deuteronomy 4:9

Today is Pentecost, and it is also Mothers’ Day. Also, today is the day the church honors those who have taken responsibility for their own salvation, which has been held for them until now by the church; today is also Confirmation Sunday.

This year there are five Confirmands. We, along with Debbie James, have been together, since last September, and we have told the stories of the Christian church, the Wesleyan movement, the United Methodist Church, the Center Moreland Charge, and the Center Moreland United Methodist Church. They have learned how we received the Bible, and what we mean when we say Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I commend to you that while they don’t know everything about the church (but then again, no one does), they are ready and able to join this congregation, the United Methodist church, and the universal body of Christ as full, willing members who are all seeking to go on to perfection (and that little bit of Methodist code is something they can explain to you, as well!)

The way we teach the young is to tell stories. I don’t mean teaching in the calculus/trigonometry sense, but in the sene that every child learns who they are and where they fit into th world around them. We tell stories about people who have come before them, in the family, which is why Mothers’ Day is so important, along with Fathers’ Day. They learn what it means to be a Rought, a Schoonover, a Venn, a Jenkins, a Lomascolo. Hopefully the stories have been balanced between stories of nobility and stories of warning.

My job as their confirmation teacher was to tell those stories of the church, in balance. They have heard the stories of Christ, the apostles, and others in the church who have made great changes or done great things. They already know the story of Pentecost, and we even have the hand motion that goes with it! They have heard about Martin Luther, and John and Charles Wesley. In January I played for them the I Have a Dream Speech of Martin Luther King. They have also heard the stories of the crusades and the separation of the Methodist church over slavery. We have talked about current issues in the church.

They have had the seeds planted in them. Certain seeds, some slow growing, but ultimately will grow into the vineyard that God will work in each of them. Two of those seeds were planted two weeks ago, when we took a trip to Washington DC. The morning was spent in the Washington National Cathedral, and the afternoon was at the Holocaust Museum. After that, It told them that I had taken them to those two places on purpose, and they had until today to find out what my purpose was. I invited them to try to figure out what that purpose was.

Now, they get to see if they were right.

When you walk into the National Cathedral, you are overcome by several things. First, the amount of people who are in it. I have yet to be in that Cathedral where there aren’t just crowds everywhere, and tour groups busily buzzing by. Second, you are struck by the enormity of the place. They tell you on the tour that the building is a tenth of a mile long, and the roof above you is about 10 stories high. Because of the way the ceiling is designed, and the patterns of the gothic architecture, it doesn’t seem that high. They’ll tell you that it is the 6th largest cathedral in the world, and the 2nd largest in the US. They talk about what cathedrals are, and the style of architecture that allowed walls to go so high and let in light. They tell you about the rose window over the main doors, and the moon rock that is imbedded in one stained glass window.

Cathedrals are places of celebration. They celebrate the joy of being God’s people, they celebrate the love of Jesus unleashed in the world.

On the other hand, the Holocaust museum can’t really be said to celebrate anything; more so, it’s purpose is to remember. In the lifetime of some of the members of this church, one of the greatest acts of inhumanity in the history of the world occurred, the attempt by Hitler to exterminate the Jews. In the main exhibition, you walk through four floors of information, roughly chronological from Hitler’s election as Chancellor to the repatriation of Jews worldwide and the creation of Israel. Pretty quickly into the story, you begin to hear bits and pieces of the role of the church.

The designers of the museum don’t lay it on thick, but it is clear that the role of the church was twofold, and while half was resistance (there was even a special colored triangle that dissident pastors in the concentration camps had to wear), the other half was acceptance of what was happening, and even active participation in the persecution of Jews and other minorities at times.

So, at the end of the day, they had heard two stories—one of joy and creation, the other of oppression and death. And the church was involved in both.

They, by becoming full Christians today, step into the cloud of witnesses who will, one day, have grandkids and be teachers and tell children in their churches about God, Jesus, the Holy spirit, the church universal, and the church they grew up in a little village. These are the stories they must tell. Being a Christian is one of the great parts of being alive, human and on this good earth, created by God. The Bible says we are to care for it, and everything within it. But Christians have made many mistakes, many of them in God’s name, and remembering those mistakes are also part of their responsibility.

This is the call for all Christians. To know their story. To know Christ, To know father, son and Holy Spirit, to know church universal, to know their church locally. To know that we are called not to lord our salvation over the world, but to be in service to the world in the name of Christ.

These are the stories we must tell. These are the stories they are now responsible for, and must tell.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Ergo Sum, Nole Tamara

This past weekend, I went to a theological seminar down at one of my favorite places, Kirkridge Retreat Center. I was going to feed my head a little bit, change my pace a little. in other words, to slow down while receiving a little education.

Well, that didn't happen. I went thinking it was a retreat, but there was nothing "retreat" about it!

What I got was mind-bending, challenging and exhilirating, I loved it, but I couldn't call it restful.

There are a lot of things to think about with regard to what I heard. But I do want to pass along this particular thought I was led to toward one of our meditations.

Kirkridge is down near Stroudsburg, Delaware Water Gap, and Bangor, in PA. They are up on a mountain, and they take pride in saying that they are in the oldest mountain range in the world. I think that's probably true, geologically, actually. The main center overlooks the Delaware river valley to the east, and there is a pretty sharp drop.

The retreat leader, J. Philip Newell, had just given us a bit of scripture to meditate on, and we had gone out into the sun to do what we were told. I sat on one of the rocks overlooking the drop, because the scripture we had been charged with was "It is I, do not be afraid." In Latin, he told us, it is "Ergo Sum, Nole Tamara" (any spelling errors are entirely mine).

So I am out on that rock, overlooking that drop of about 30 feet through brambles and brush, and I notice a chipmunk moving through the brush. And he isn't just moving. He's jumping from branch to branch, running down thin branches, all at breakneck speed. Sometimes he stops to check where he is, then he's off again, doing this amazing acrobatic show.

My eye is caught by a shape hurtling from above. I focus on a bird (what kind, I don't know, I'm not very well versed in birding. I know enough to be able to call this one an LBJ, or Little Brown Job). He flies straight earthward at what must be his terminal velocity, and pulls up and into the brambles, flying through them at breakneck speed, until he alights on one random branch.

If I was that chipmunk, I'd be testing the branch before I walked out on it, and then I would proceed carefully and gingerly. Leaping from branch to branch like some crazed pirate going from mast to mast would have been entirely beyond me. If I was that bird, I would have gently circled down to the ground outside the brambles, and walked to the nearest branch. None of this flying through the branches at top speed after a steep and long dive.

Somehow, the animals know Ergo Sum, Nole Tamara better than we do. There's an inherent knowledge and trust of ones' God-given abilities shown by nature that we have somehow lost, and yet we, the humans, are the "saved" ones.

So what does that tell us? Jesus said

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6: 25-29)

We are his people. He came to earth because he loved us, and wanted to be with us in the relationship that he had with humans in Eden. If we can really trust that, then we can also trust that he means it when he says ergo sum, nole tamara.