Sunday, July 27, 2008

Commitment, Abby!

Genesis 29: 15-28a
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-45

The summer I was Joe’s age was the summer of 1976. In Boston, visiting relatives, I was introduced to a movie that has been my touchstone for American Revolutionary history, for better or for worse since, the movie of the musical 1776. It’s fascinating to have learned over the years how much the authors of the show quoted directly from historical documents, working things into actually song and dance numbers.

Specifically, there is a long solo number by John Adams character, in which he is writing to his wife, Abigail, about what the Continental Congress has done in approving the Declaration of Independence. The lines of the song come from actual letters John Adams wrote to his wife back in Massachusetts. The quote is:

"I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom I see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth all the means." – John Adams

. . . and then, in the song, he follows that up with a stage-shouted “Commitment!”

He probably didn’t do that in real life. The shouting bit, I mean. I don’t know, he was known as a rather hot-tempered guy. But what he writes on the day after the Declaration was approved, the day before it was signed by John Hancock, is true of anything worthwhile.

Jesus, speaking of the kingdom of heaven, compares it in a parable to a pearl that a merchant sells everything he has to be able to buy. He also compares the Kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field that someone knows about, and sells all that he has to buy the field.

In both, the Kingdom of God is worth all we have.

The Story of Jacob today, speaks of the same thing. Through seven hears of toil, being tricked by Laban into marrying Leah, and agreeing to seven more years, Jacob’s pearl, his treasure in the field, is Rachel.

When we commit to causes, ideals, when we truly commit, what we are doing is opening ourselves up to change. We are saying “this is what I believe. This is what I want. This is what I need.” The pursuit of it may very well change me, but I believe that those changes will be, on the whole, positive”.

My cousin Kris, whom I just reacquainted myself with last weekend in Colorado, is involved with an event that takes a good chunk of commitment. Every female in her mothers’ side of the family has experienced either breast or ovarian cancer. She, her sister, her mother and their aunt are all that is left of all the women on her mothers’ side; the rest have all died of cancer. Her father, my uncle, died of cancer. Her aunt has fought it and has been in remission for 8 years. Kris and Lindsay’s commitment is to participate in the American Cancer Society 3 Day.

You’ve heard of the Relay for Life, I am sure. Well, this is the extreme relay. Rather than one 24 hour period of people walking, in teams, it is 3 days, it is 60 miles, and each person cannot get on the track unless they have $2200 in commitments from others. Individually. They have to train, they have to get into shape to even do the event, which of course changes their bodies. They have to raise funds to a deeper degree than the regular Relay for Life, an event which is hard enough already. Kris and Lindsay have made their commitments, and participating in these events, like yeast through dough, over time has changed them.

As Christians, we are called to commitment. We are called to submit ourselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We are called to build the Kingdom of heaven on earth, or more powerfully, to let it be built in us. Like the merchant, we must sell all we have to follow. Like the man who hid his treasure, we must give everything to be able to buy the field the treasure is in. And the way we sell everything is through committing ourselves. All in. All the chips to the center of the table. Football players talk about leaving it all on the field, and that is what we are called to do as Christians. Our tiny little bit of faith, totally committed, grows. That’s the lesson of the mustard seed. Yeast is small, but powerful. Two cups of the wee beasties, mixed with warm water, will ferment 13,000 gallons of grape juice into prime Pinot Noir in two days.

Commit all that we have, even though it is small, and stay committed, and watch what happens. It takes a long time for something worthwhile to come to fruition, but it is sure and worthy of full acceptance to say that that without commitment, nothing worthwhile happens. It took 14 years for Jacob to finally earn Rachel. It has taken 232 years for the United States of America to develop to the nation it is today, and many believe that the nation is not finished yet, that that particular mustard bush hasn’t yet realized it’s full potential.

It takes a long time to become mature in the faith, for the Kingdom of heaven to grow within us, and through us to the world.

Jesus calls us to commitment. If you are not already, commit to regular prayer. If you are already regularly praying, commit to regularly reading the Bible. If you are doing both of those, commit to fasting. If you are already committed to all three, find another way to up your commitment to the Kingdom of Christ. Give yourself time, and be patient with yourself, as you adjust to the new commitment in your life. Jacob, in pursuit of his goal, nevertheless spent 14 years just getting up and working.

Give it all, every day. When you go to bed at night, ask whether you have given your all to build the Kingdom in your heart and in the world. If you have, you will get up and do it again tomorrow. If you haven’t, forgive yourself, for you are already forgiven in the eyes of God, and get up and try again tomorrow. You will see, to use John Adams’ words, that the end was worth all the means.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


This past weekend, I was in Beaver Creek (and environs), Colorado. My sister and my mom also went, and we were all there to attend the memorial service for my Uncle Tom. My cousin Kris was the organizer of this impromptu family reunion weekend. He died back in October (click here for that blog entry).
The memorial service was last Sunday, at a place called Piney Lake Ranch, 11 miles up a dirt road from Vail. It's at about 9300 ft. Kris and Tom used to camp there a lot when Kris would come visit him in the summers (she lived the rest of the year with her mother and stepfather). The main part of the "service" was planting a spruce near where Piney Lake flowed back into a creek. Then Kris, her husband, and a few of Tom's friends went further upcountry to deposit his ashes. I know where, but I think they said it was federal land, and such memorializations are illegal for some reason, so I'm not telling.
Tom wasn't the most religious of guys. He wasn't really sure how to talk to me after I became a minister, I think. We didn't talk enough to really even know that we couldn't talk. But it was clear that the usual words used in a United Methodist funeral would be wildly inappropriate. It was Thomas Merton, however, that wonderful monk of the 60's who was mystic in all the good ways that transcend all manner of religious cultural identification, who gave me the hook to be able to think and speak last Sunday. It was his belief, in New Seeds of Contemplation, chapter 8, that "If you go into the desert (monk-speak for anywhere of solitude) merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils."
Instead, one goes into solitude in order to remind oneself of all that is good in the world. I think Uncle tom got this. It was views like the first three photos up top that he shared with his most trusted friends and with Kris his child. Later, he probably shared them with Kris' two daughters, too. Everything that was good about this world had been to this spot on the earth.
I am pretty sure that Uncle Tom wasn't a Christian in any institutional sense, but I don't think he was an atheist. He would probably understand what John writes in the 14th chapter of his gospel: "In my father's house there are many dwelling places. . ." I think I've been to the place that Uncle Tom's dwelling place resembles, and it is in the photos above. Oh, and the ribs and chicken are pretty good, too!

Pictures from Colorado

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Under a Watchful Eye

Luke 13: 1-5

One of my favorite movies is Finding Nemo. There’s a scene in it, about 2/3 of the way through the movie, where Marlin, the father clownfish has joined in traveling with a group of sea turtles using the East Australian Current to travel faster. At one point, Marlin, who is wound rather tight about his one remaining son, sees one of the baby turtles fall out of the current. He predictably gets very agitated about rescuing the baby, but is held back by the turtle’s father, Crush. “Wait”, Crush says. “Let’s see what young Squirt will do.”

Squirt finds himself outside the current, analyzes the situation, and swims back into the current, all on his own. He is greeted by his father, who praises his skills, but the bigger lesson is for Marlin, who realizes that people cannot grow unless they learn for themselves.

I have had occasion this week, through two funerals, to think about God and the way in which we die.

There was not much in common between the two men. Not even their church was the same, and neither attended either church in this charge.

When we get to a certain age, we have seen death. We have seen circumstances that have been heartbreaking, we have perhaps been glad, in our secret hearts, to see others die. We have seen those whose passing has been a blessing, for they have been in pain, and death releases them from that tyranny. We have seen car accidents take the lives of young and old alike. We have mourned the passing of national figures such as astronauts, presidents, and movie stars. We’ve seen family members pass on. I won’t say that we’ve gotten used to it, but it is true that there is a certain familiarity we have with the emotions of loss, the etiquette of funerals and memorials.

But we often can’t answer the main question that we ask at such times; why? Why do people get cancer? Why did that person need to speed through that corner? Why did the mine collapse just then?

We are shocked. We are stunned. And it is inevitable that would ask “why?”, and “why them?”, and “why that way?”

We’ll never know why. And to decide that we do know why can sometimes cause damage to our own faith, makes us make assumptions about God that aren’t true. I would encourage us all, me included, to not spend a lot of time or energy on such questions, because we will not get an answer. Our comfort lies elsewhere. It doesn’t lie in answers. It lies in God.

It lies in a God that gave us the will to make our own decisions. He created free will in us so that we would choose Him freely, so that we could be true companions to Him, and not just pets on a leash. It lies in a God that still seeks us, and wants us to choose him freely. It lies in a God that does not always act the way we would have him act.

Because we can choose, and have innumerable opportunities to do so each day, he permits things to happen that we, in our limited understanding, feel he should prevent. The choices must have consequences, or they would not be true choices. When he permits us to suffer from our choices, we are left angry, disappointed, sad. Sometimes we feel like we can’t believe in God anymore. He did not do what we expected him to do, what we were taught that he would do from Sunday school on. Jesus saves? So where was Jesus when my family member needed saving from emphysema?

The kind of saving that Jesus does is not of that kind. Miracles do happen, I believe, but mostly, Jesus saves, God loves, us in the midst of our enmeshment in a fallen world, a world not of God’s original intent. Sometimes the way we are saved isn’t the way our loved ones expect, or even want. Sometimes, like the baby turtle, we’re saved not by help coming in the nick of time, but by being allowed to choose correctly, under a watchful eye.

We know from scripture that God is faithful, because he stayed with the Israelites, even when they rejected him. We know that God loves, because we Christians believe that he sent his son to earth so that he could save us from sin. Save us from ourselves.

I don’t believe that the love of God is a love that would willingly take people from this earth. This earth was created by God, is good, and it just doesn’t make sense to me that people would need to be rescued from it on the whole. There are times in which people’s lives have become so filled with pain, so limited by their failing bodies that we pray, in the depths of our souls, that God would take them home. Generally, however, that is not the way of things. The world is good. It was created by God. But in this world is death. Our story of Adam and Eve tell us that death was brought into the world by the choices of humans; and that through our choices, this world is no longer what God intended it to be.

God, even in the midst of an imperfect world that is different than what he designed, has stayed with us. If nothing else, our scriptures tell us that story. What is true is that God is here present with us now, crying as we cry, mourning as we mourn, dancing as we dance. He has not left us alone.

Jesus once asked his disciples about who was deserving of death. He used the example of 2 recent events in Jerusalem area. A group of people who were unfortunately sacrificed as (scholars assume) political prisoners by Herod, and an accidental collapse of a fortification on the south side of Jerusalem. The common belief at Jesus’ time was that those who suffer, or die unfortunately must have been greater sinners than those around them.

Jesus disagreed; he asked them: did any of them deserve to die? The answer, of course, was no. It still is no.

None of us deserve to die more than others. No one ever “needs killin’.” We are equally at fault for the damage done to the world, to the earth, to humanity. But we do know that the God who loves us, that sent his son so that we might understand what God meant by loving us, is with us now, in the midst of whatever mess we’ve made. God will be with us through every step of our lives. And will greet us when we die, whether it is our time, whether we arrive earlier than God expected, or whether God shows mercy and rescues us from our suffering.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Ockham's Razor

Romans 7: 15-25a

Romans is a difficult book to read. While it is the deepest of Paul’s letters, and while to also covers the most territory, it is definitely a letter, and a letter that was taken in dictation. How else to explain how the letter sounds so much of the time!

Imagine the scene: Paul, in prison in Rome, paces around his jail cell, while Timothy or Barnabas or someone we don’t know sits outside on a little stool, scribbling furiously, dipping his quill pen into the pot of ink as fast as he can so that he can get the words Paul is speaking down as quickly as possible. That’s how I think Romans was written, and why it sounds so much like it needs an editor.

Paul, in Romans is trying to give his complete argument for the merits of living a Christian life. It isn’t an overview and survey of Christianity, other than it’s insistence in the divinity of Christ. The church is too young at that point to have much more than that. What Paul is doing is trying to explain what he has found to be useful, what he had thought about why a Christian life is to be commended.

In that light, today’s passage is a discussion on the problem of knowing what is right, and doing something else. Paul stays away from concrete examples, because what he is describing is to important to be misunderstood as merely a daily living lesson.

It’s easy enough to say that Paul means we want to take the carrots and celery at the party, but we grab the cookies instead. It’s easy enough to say that we want to pick up our Bibles and read a chapter or two, but end up getting sucked in to a movie on TV, instead. Yes, he means that, but he also means things much deeper.

What he’s saying is that it is much harder to choose the things that are of God, that are who we really are, deep down, created in the image of God. It is much easier to choose the things that we construct ourselves as, that stuff that buries who we really are under a pile of earthly expectations, unhealthy attractions, advertising that has gotten under our skin and made us feel inadequate, the scars of resentment of people’s sins against us. It’s all the stuff that has piled up over the image of God we were originally created as, and is still down there under it all. It’s just easier to choose the stuff over top, because it is easier to get to, and choosing it helps us get along in the world.

But Paul encourages us to not choose the easy path. Paul knows what other Spiritual giants know. There is no quick fix to a life with God. There is work, and time spent, and time taken away from the shiny and the spiffy and the new to concentrate on the digging through the muck to get to that glowing, rich center of who we are.

Paul would say that the law he was raised in, the law of the early Pharisees was given to us by God to be able to find that original God-dwelling inside. That was the purpose of the law. But that law, shown to have been corrupted by imperfect, post Eden beings, has now grown harder to use. A new tool, a new shovel, is now necessary, and that is the image of someone who has taken law and used it properly—not as a weapon, but as a series of signposts to point down through the mire to the God-dwelling place. He writes: “For I delight in the law in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

Then Paul names the saving law, the law of his mind. Who will rescue him from the body of death that surrounds life? God through Jesus Christ. The Jesus Christ who also had a body, but lived a Godly life within that body, proving to us that the earthly body is not sinful as a matter of course, but that it is our will, exercised apart from the will of God, that makes our bodies imperfect. Our bodies are not evil. How our imperfect wills use them is.

Paul seems to have at least figured out that much. But I ask then, How do we return to the perfect will of God, having spent so many years exercising our will imperfectly? How do we stop piling the wrong kind of material over the image of God at our center?

Well, I think that part of it is by trying to live a simpler life. I think part of the problem is that we allow our lives to be over complicated. Some stuff can’t be avoided, like having to take two kids two different places at the same time. But that’s all that is. To add to it by feeling inadequate because we should have been organized enough to see the time crunch coming adds to the problem. To add to it by blaming ourselves and someone else for an issue that no one could control adds to the problem.

Sometimes, things just happen at the same time.

In science, there is a term: Ockham's Razor. This definition comes from the American Heritage Science dictionary: A rule in science and philosophy stating that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known. Occam's razor is named after the deviser of the rule, English philosopher and theologian William of Ockham (1285?-1349?).

Entities should not be multiplied needlessly. If you’re late, then you are late. There is no character flaw. Paul’s law of the mind, the law of God, isn’t in judging someone else’s’ timeliness, or in punctuality, it is in the grace of knowing that that person tried to be on time, so there must have been a reason. If you grab the donuts instead of the granola, God’s mind isn’t endlessly creating entities of judgment, guilt and death, God’s mind is on simply making the better choice next time.

Never mind the big stuff, like God’s mind being on Darfur, on the struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Oh, never fear, God’s mind is on them too, but God’s mind, the image we were created in, is concentrating much more on the individuals involved. Encouraging minds to know more than what they “know”, which is a mass of distrust, fostered by stories they’ve been told, icky stuff that has been piled over their core selves, that which was created in God’s image. Deep down, they know what God knows—that mind of God that Paul describes--that lived simply, people are just people, doing their best.

Here’s another way to think about it; Two monks are walking down a road. They are the regular type of monks, that have pledged the usual vows of obedience, poverty—and chastity. They come to a river, and there is a woman trying to get across. The older monk puts the woman on his back and helps her across the river. At the other bank, she goes her way, and they go theirs.

Ten miles later, the younger monk says “I can’t believe you touched a woman!” the older one replies: “I put her down ten miles ago. Why didn’t you?”

Yes, it is true that we do what we do not want. But we have within is the ability to do what we do want, in the image of Jesus. And we also have the forgiveness of God when we fail. No need to multiply the entities needlessly.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Staff page: Getting to Know You

I recently found a info page for a fellow novice Benedictine Oblate in Florida. I thought it was a nice little page to have available to introduce yourself internet style, so I am stealing it. Thanks to Kim Uchimura, St. Andrews' UMC, Brandon, FL.

Full Name: William Andrew Cottle, Jr.
But Please Call Me: Drew
Position: Pastor
Born where: Napa, CA,
Family Facts: Wife, Donna. Children: Josiah, 8. My mother, Sandy Williams, also lives with me.
Education: A.A., Napa Valley College (CA), 1991; B.A., University of Delaware, 1995. M.Div., Perkins School of Theology, SMU, Dallas, TX, 1999.
How I became a Christian: I was baptised in 1991 at Morningstar church in Napa, CA. I found a religious home with the United Methodist church the next year at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Delaware.
How I ended up on the Center Moreland Charge: I was appointed in July, 2007.
The most important thing I do around here is: Try to stay ahead of both congregations!

U2, Billy Crockett, Irish/Celtic music, Iona, Springsteen, African-American Gospel.
Movie: Field of Dreams, Dead Poet's Society, Stealing Home.
TV Show: Top Gear, Grey's Anatomy, Anthony Bourdain No Reservations, Ace of Cakes
Food: Chocolate, seafood, chicken.
Place to vacation: Cape Cod, Jim Thorpe.
Place to eat: Romano's Macaroni Grill, Katana and Thai Thai in Wilkes Barre.
How I spend my free time: playing mandolin, going to movies, naps, reading brain candy, walking, riding my bike.
Best books I've read recently: Eat Pray Love, Christ of the Celts, Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels.
Prized possessions: my mandolin, my family, my library.
Nobody knows that I . . .: would love to be a chaplain for NASA.
Hero I'd most like to meet: Story Musgrave, astronaut, and the whole band of U2. Bono's great and all, but I am also interested in having a pint with Adam Clayton, someday.
My vision for the future of Center Moreland UMC is: for the church to be its best self as a Methodist church, accepting all as our open communion table testifies, and making disciples for Jesus Christ. To continue to grow through the formation of the praise band and younger adult ministries.
My vision for Dymond Hollow UMC is: to do more than just exist; to thrive through our unique ministry of our open table, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to continue to be distinctive through our music ministry.
Ways folks can pray for me are: to pray for my health, that I keep a proper perspective and balance between family, self, and work.