Monday, January 9, 2017

Gathering Strength


My aunt Sheena, who lives in England - and who also happens to be a World War II concentration camp survivor - frequently talks about moments in our lives which are periods of collecting energy.  These are not necessarily always understandable or decipherable moments, but they are vitally important for the harboring internal reserve and power.  Without them, we could not do what we are being prepared to do.  She calls these periods -  moments of;

Gathering Strength

One of my favorite genres of writing are climbing novels and biographies of adventurers.  The best of these, from an American literary standpoint is, Into Thin Air by John Krakauer.   The book is about the fatal climbing accident that occurred on Everest in 1996 and that claimed the lives of several of his best climbing friends.  The book is about climbing, but really, it is about the human quest for greatness and summiting all kinds of things (our fears, our goals, our hopes, our dreams).  Krakauer talks about how summiting Everest is not really about simply shear strength and "daring-do", but it is also about waiting.  It is about waiting for the right moment to push for the summit.  It is about waiting for the clouds and the storms to part long enough for climbers and adventurers to make a big "push".  It is about simply lying in their tent and doing absolutely nothing [picture above of climber waiting at the base camp of Everest].  Krakauer talks about how days upon days were spent at the base camp, just sitting in their tent and reading.  And Krakauer is not alone in this.  Every climber ever to reach the peak of Everest has done the same.  In Krakauer's words; "While tent bound on Everest, Mallory and his companions would read aloud to one another from Hamlet and King Lear."  But really, what they were doing is;

Gathering Strength

I have a friend, named Dustin Stevens, who is an extreme athlete.  He has run countless marathons.  He has run the vaunted Iron Man triathlon in Hawaii several times.  He is currently training, amidst all of his other life actives, for the famous Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Wisconsin - the gold cup of cross country ski races in America.  Dustin tells me that athletes have a name for this notion of gathering strength.  It is called - "tapering".  Tapering, in Dustin's observation is the act of, "building your strength over a long period of time - but pairing back your training right before a big race, in order that when you are entering that race (in swimming, or running, per say), you have that, 'extra amount of strength' and endurance to compete really well."  Tapering is another way of talking about;

Gathering Strength

And so, I have been thinking about what gathering spiritual strength might mean.  What would it mean for God to offer a person a period of downtime or a lull in their life during a certain point, in order to prepare them (to gather strength, to taper) for the next leg of life?  What would it look like for a person to be able to go inwards (spiritually, physically and emotionally) in order to gather strength for what comes next?

There are many moments in Jesus' life when he seems to be intentionally pulling himself away from the group, or the crowds or the action in order to gather strength for the next big hurdle.  Right after John the Baptist is killed (Jesus cousin and friend in ministry), Jesus withdraws to a remote region of the Sea of Galilee (the Gerasenes), to pray and be by himself.  There are frequent examples of Jesus, "slipping into the crowd" in his ministry.  Where was he going, what was he doing?  What about the 30 years of Jesus' life that were lived before his ministry began that we know virtually nothing about.  Was Jesus gathering strength?  And what about the last three years of his ministry which burned bright and hot.   But even in these, Jesus drew himself away again and again.  The best example is when Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion to pray and to prepare and to;

Gather Strength

What time period are you in right now?  Are you in the midst of a metaphorical push to the summit of Everest, or are you in a time of gathering strength?  The summits of life will always be there.  But before they are attempted, because we are human, we must, all of us, draw inward.  Even the best of us only has a certain amount of energy.  So first we must be;

Gathering Strength

All For Now,
GB

Monday, January 2, 2017

What America Makes In 2017


Today is Jan. 2, the second day of the new year, and it also happens to be the day of four College Football Bowl Games.  Are you watching them, or are you headed back to work like me?  In case you are inclined to watch the Bowl Games today, while you are pretending to do your work at your computer, but are really streaming a game at your desk, here is the line-up:

*  1:00 - Outback Bowl
*  1:00 - The Goodyear (Cotton Bowl)
*  5:00 - The Rose Bowl presented by Vizio
*  8:30 - The Allstate (Sugar Bowl)

And if there ever was a sign of the change of America, of how it is moving its economic base from agriculture to other industries, it is how the Bowl Games that we watch are named.  Originally designed to promote the tourism regions of the places where the Bowls are held, and to promote the local agricultural mainstays, the names of the Bowls were chosen for the thing that that part of the country did best.

Hence, the Rose Bowl, the first of its kind - started in 1923 - was so named because Pasadena and Southern California had a huge flower industry that it was trying to promote.  The Sugar Bowl was chosen as a name in Louisiana because of the huge sugar plantations that existed there.  The Peach Bowl was named in Atlanta for the massive peach business there (Also the reason that Peachtree Presbyterian Church was named - Peachtree).  And so it went.  The Orange Bowl and the Citrus Bowls were in Florida because of the massive Orange and Citrus markets there.  The Cotton Bowl was in a part of Texas where cotton was grown.  But no more, (or rather, not as much...).

Shakespeare once said, "A rose by any other name is still a rose...."  But that may not be the case when it applies to football and what we name our games.

Today, the major industries in our country are no longer agricultural, but they seem to be (based on the names of our Bowls), fast-food and banking and insurance.  Consider the names of all the Bowls this year, and judge for yourself:

*  Chick-fil-A Bowl - Fast Food Chicken
*  Playstation Bowl - Video Games
*  Outback Bowl - Middle Range Restaurant
*  Goodyear Bowl - Tires
*  Allstate Bowl - Insurance
*  Gildan Bowl - Clothing
*  Raycom Media Bowl - Broadcast Television
*  Autonation Cure Bowl - Autoparts
*  R+L Carriers Bowl - Freight and Trucking
*  Popeyes Bowl - Fast Food Chicken
*  Lockheed Martin Bowl - Military Equipment
*  Dollar General Bowl - Inexpensive Merchandise
*  Quick Lane Bowl - Oil Change
*  Capital One Bowl - Financial Services
*  Camping World Bowl - Camping Equipment
*  Motel 6 Bowl - Cheap Hotel Rooms
*  Russell Athletic Bowl - Athletic Clothing
*  Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - Fast Food Chicken

Only the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, still played in Boise, Idaho has retained its agricultural roots and its original farming name of potatoes.

Notice that fast food chicken restaurants and financial services are popular names for Bowl Games.    No less than three of the Bowl Games are named after chicken restaurants.  If we are what we eat, as a nation, we must be a piece of fried chicken.

One funny name combination is the Allstate Bowl which is played in the Mercedes Benz Stadium.  I wonder if you can get your Auto-Insurance at the same time that you are buying a new car?

Maybe I'm just being sentimental and showing my age, but I do miss the days when the Bowls were named after fruits and vegetables.  Somehow they seemed more wholesome and innocent.  But perhaps college football sports has also, at the same time become less wholesome and innocent.  Perhaps the entire college experience has become less wholesome and innocent.  Perhaps our nation has become less wholesome and innocent.  One commentator yesterday applauded a running back from Alabama (Scarborough) who decided to refrain from joining the professional National Football League this year so that he could potentially make more money (a purported $20 a year) by waiting a year.  "Good for that young man, what a hale and smart young fellow:-)"

I better finish this blogpost, now that I look at the my watch.  The Outback Bowl is about to begin - and I am getting hungry:-)

All For Now,

GB

Monday, December 19, 2016

Cared For


Recently, our family has been investigating the possibility of getting a pet.  Because we are renting in Southern California, a "smallish" indoor dog seems the best option (Can you say - "Labradoodle?")  Our quest for a canine companion, however, has caused me to cast my memory back to some of our best pets we had growing-up.  We had a West Highland Terrier named "Macky" that had been sort of neglected by its previous owners.  Mack was a little bit "nippy" when we first got him, but after a couple of years of nurture, he became more docile, and good natured.  We had an African Grey Parrot named "Kiki" that had been tormented by its previous masters by hitting it with a broom handle.   Whenever we would broom the kitchen, the bird would go crazy for fear that it would be hit again.  So, we broomed less, but we nurtured more.  The bird calmed down after time.  In both cases, some of our best pets were animals that others had discarded, or mistreated for whatever reason, but made huge transformations simply by being:

Cared For

This notion of the transformative nature of being "Cared For" is true not just of abused pets, but it is true of a lot of other things.  It is true of houses, it is true of children, it is true of businesses, it is true of spouses, it is true of plants, and yes it is true...even of churches.

About ten years ago, I was asked to consult on a church near me that had declining growth in attendance over the past several years.  There was a lack-luster attitude, in general, about almost everything in the church.  In front of the sign to the entrance of the church were weeds that were growing up above the letters.  The church office was piled high with garbage from many years of disregard.  The church yard was unkempt and sprawling with weeds.  The large cross out in front of the church was weathered and paint was chipping off of it.  In short, the church just did not look cared for.

Not just the building, but the congregation itself seemed un-cared for.  Many of the shut-in members had not been called on in years.  When people got sick and went to the hospital, nobody followed-up or prayed for them.  Many of the staff at the church did not even have their own work-space or computer terminals to do their work in.  The congregation were not cared for.

When, I was asked to give my "expert opinion" on what steps this church could take to help it to grow and come back to life, I felt torn.  Because I was hired as the consultant, I sort of felt tempted to come in with some big theological concepts about how this church could grow.  I was tempted to talk about "Missionalism" or "Simple Church" or "Total Quality Management".  But I knew that none of these concepts was the "magic bullet" of what would help the church, at the end of the day.  What this church needed was to be:

Cared For

I said; "Ok, to start with, someone needs to get out there are pull some of those weeds in front of the church sign.  And then, we need to clean up this office.  And the cross out front needs to be re-painted.  And most important, we need to get to the nursing home and see some of those who are there, who haven't had visitors in a long time."  My advice was basic, but over the next several months it proved that it was helpful.  The church began to grow again, there was positive spiritual-energy in the church where there had been waning activity.

Caring for a thing (or person) that hasn't been cared for is not only about giving that thing (or person) long needed attention.  It is about that.  But it is also about giving that thing (or person), long needed worth.  By taking time and caring for them, you are helping that thing (or person), also to take stock in themselves.  You are causing others around them and say, "Wow, I never noticed you before, you are beautiful."  And what I have learned is that this worth-giving dynamic, of Caring For something or someone is what is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

All For Now,

GB



Monday, December 5, 2016

The Chartres Model


In north, central France, there is a cathedral that was built in the 12th century and that is one of the most stunning architectural achievements in history.  It is the Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France.  With flying buttresses, French Gothic masterpieces, hundreds of ornate sculptures surrounding the building, original windows that still survive intact, and 350 foot ceilings at the high point of the nave, it is truly one of the wonders of the world.

What many people do not know is that the central isle of Chartres Cathedral also has a very unique design.  One of these design features is that it has a slightly slanted central isle - slanted upwards from the back doors of the church to the altar.  In other words, when you enter the cathedral, there is a slight incline as the central isle moves towards the front.  Scholars have debated about this unique architectural facet for years.  Some think it was an intentional theological part of the original design, so that those who walk in the back of the church are literally walking upwards as they approach the altar up front.  Others think that the incline is simply due to years of sinking ground, and settling structures, from centuries of use.

But my favorite explanation for this architectural peculiarity is that the floor slants downwards towards the back door because years ago, animals were often brought into the church to be blessed by the priest, and for high religious ceremonies.  Sometimes those animals, while walking down the isle (or up the isle, as the case would seem to be), would leave behind traces of what animals do best - poop.  The easiest way to clean the cathedral, then, was to simply broom-push and wash the animal excrement downhill starting at the high point on the altar, and brooming it downhill through the back door of the church.

This image, of having a slanted door and washing out animal waste has got me thinking.  And I am wondering weather it wouldn't be a good idea for modern churches to have the same slanted floor-plan phenomenon - so that all of the bad things that sometimes happen in the middle of churches can then be easily washed out and washed away.  Consider this:

Every Sunday each of us brings with us to church, a certain amount of fecal matter that has collected in our lives from the week before (most people call this "sin").  We bring it to church, and during confession, we pray a corporate prayer of assurance of pardon.  And that usually does the trick.  But what if, instead, all of that waste product that is built up in our lives, could just be shot out the back door with a great power-washing of the central church isle every week?

How much easier would it be, for example, after a particularly difficult church board meeting, to just say, "Ok, a lot of hard things were said here tonight, before we leave, we are just going to broom/wash away all the crud that has collected over the evening."

All of the pain that is sometimes experienced in church - people letting us down, of hopes of the future not being fruited, of expectations not being met, of the unkind things that are sometimes said in church - they could, with one great washing and spraying, be sent right out the back door of the church.

What if the next time a church was involved in a case of abuse or graft and criminality (as sometimes happens), rather than years of working through painful and difficult legal cases, all of the awful raw waste product could just be shoved out the back door?

One of the things I love about the, and why don't we give it a name...

The Chartres Model

Is that it puts in place an expectation for bad things to happen in church, and for there to be a public and regular cleansing of those things.  One of the hurdles some churches face is that when bad things occur, there is sense of surprise or shock - "How could such a thing occur (I have heard people say)...in a church".  With the Chartres Model, there is a predetermined notion that bad stuff will occur there, and there will need to be a public washing.

I also like the notion that all people, whatever they have done, or might potentially do (and in this case, all animals), are welcome in church.  My favorite phrase here is - "No perfect people allowed".  Another way of saying this might be, "Come to our church, bring whatever you are, and whatever you will leave here, and we will wash it out the back door."  There, in church, they could then bring all of their "waste".  And then leave it behind, and then wash it out.

One last thing.  The Chartres Model brings new meaning to the lyrics of old church hymn, "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all..."

And then washed out the back door, whatever else was left behind:-)

All For Now,

GB


Monday, November 28, 2016

Grandpa and Fidel


As the world contemplates the death of one of the 20th century's most well-known dictators, Fidel Castro (dead at the age of 90), I wanted to share a brief snippet of how one of my family members interacted with Fidel Castro just as he was taking power in 1959.

It was the early Spring of 1959, and Fidel Castro had just marched into Havana and taken power from his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista.  Wresting control of the government from the previous dictatorship, Castro promised a new era of peace and prosperity for the bourgeoning island nation.  As doves were released at dawn, a hopeful symbol of the peace that would ensue, crowds cheered the new leader to loud shouts of; "Fidel, Fidel, Fidel!"

As it happened, right at that fateful juncture in history, my great-grandpa Jesse Baird, who was then President of San Francisco Theological Seminary, had been in Cuba on a visit to give advice to a struggling theological seminary named "Galicia Presbyterian Reformata Cuba".  The seminary was trying to raise money to build some new classrooms, and dormitories, and Jesse, being very adept at fund raising, had been brought in to help with the effort.  In 1959, international travel to third world countries was still less common than it is today, and Jesse would have stayed for up to a month or more of extended teaching time, and preaching time with the seminary and in the surrounding communities.

While in Cuba, Jesse had the rare chance to meet with the new leader of the country, Fidel Castro.  My own memory still recalls letters that were written between Fidel Castro and my grandpa (though I cannot seem to locate them at this exact moment).  The letters were filled with positive encomiums about a new relationship with Cuba and an exciting time for Christianity in that country.  Other Christian leaders from other denominations were also very positive about the new era of peace and openness that would accompany this new administration.

Upon their meeting, Jesse was initially quite impressed with the young military leader, who was, as always, donning green military fatigues, wearing a tilted beret, and smoking Cuban cigars.  Fidel Castro made promises to Jesse personally, that he would bring sweeping and positive change for this one time Caribbean back-water of a nation.  In Jesse's own sentiments; "I thought that Fidel would help to feed his people, and bring Jesus Christ to the Cuban people."

Less than one year later, in 1960, Fidel Castro would totally abandon both his promises to take care of the Cuban nation in terms of social well-fare, as well as his promise made to Jesse personally that he would support Christian churches and seminaries like the one that Jesse was visiting.  In fact, quite the opposite of his pledge to support budding seminaries and churches, Fidel Castro became a tyrant against all religious organizations.  Ushering in a new Communist era, Castro led a movement to oppress religious efforts, eject priests, and even execute pastors and their families.

In 1961, the United States would, of course, lead a failed effort to assassinate Fidel Castro through the misguided mission we now know as the Bay of Pigs.  Several subsequent United States Presidents after Kennedy, would try to lead equally unsuccessful assassination attempts.  Castro would go on to outlive most of his adversaries and hold the record for being the longest sitting Western leader (other than Queen Elizabeth in England), in recent history.

Years later, in 1974, while on his deathbed, my grandpa Jesse would relate to my father, Don Baird, how much he had felt that he was personally betrayed by Fidel Castro, and how deeply disappointed he was in his fabrications.  For Jesse, it wasn't just that Fidel Castro had lied to the United States, it was that Castro had lied to him.  Castro had given Jesse his personal word that he would develop a positive climate for Christianity there.  Still harboring an uncharacteristic level of bitterness toward the Cuban leader, Jesse looked at my father, as he leaned forward in bed and said, with steely determination and lingering resentment - "That man lied to me!"

Exactly what lessons can be gleaned from my grandpa's would-be encounter with Fidel Castro are hard to tell, and it is, no doubt, too early to say.  It is a testament to the strength of Christianity, in general, however, that dictators like Fidel Castro have always tried, but never succeeded fully in snuffing out the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dictators, potentates, kings, rulers and Caesars have literally pocked the pages of world history, but have always failed.  Whether they were named Pharaoh, or Nebudcadnezzar, or Herod, or Marx or Castro, they have tried un-sucessfully to suppress the faith.  Each time they have tried to stamp out the light of Christ, Christianity has come back even stronger.

And so it ever shall...

All For Now,

GB


Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanksians


This is Monday of Thanksgiving week.  And once again, we, as a country will be focussed on many important things (holiday travel, football, turkey dinner, and getting along with the in-laws).   Right at the end of all of our activities we will try to remember to be - Thankful.  If we are conscientious about it, some of us might even take a quick moment around the Thanksgiving dinner table to ask each other to say; "one thing that we are thankful for".  But for Christians, this holiday should carry more than a Hallmark Card's scant notice.  One of the things that has always defined us as people of faith is our consistent and persistent ability to be thankful at all times, through all circumstances and in all things.  In fact, if we were to rename ourselves - we might consider the name:

Thanksians

Now, bear with me for a moment, while you wonder to yourself whether Christians these days should possibly be given other names;

Complainians
Worryians
Angerians
Afraidians

Those names are blogposst for another day:-)

From the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible there are consistent examples of people lifting up gratitude towards God.  Here is a short-list:

·     *   When Abram is brought to Bethel, the place where his family would stop and build a life, the Bible says, Abram built an altar to God, and there he called on the name of the Lord (Gen. 13:4).  Building an altar to God, was a way of saying THANK YOU to God.

·      *  When the Israelites had been in the wilderness for over 40 years, an entire generation, and then they finally crossed over the Jordan River, being led by a young leader named Joshua, Joshua commanded the people; Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan.  Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder….In the future when your children ask you , ‘What do these stones mean?”  tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. (Joshua, 4:6).  And again, it may seem strange to us, but that pile of stones was a way of THANKING God for what He had done to deliver them.

·      *  King David, was probably the most prolific THANKER in the Old Testament.  He wrote 150 Psalms or (songs), and almost every single one of these has the word or the sentiment of THANKS in it.  Whenever in the Bible you see the words, PRAISE, or BLESS, it basically means thanks.  Psalm 138 is my favorite Psalm of Thanks: I thank you Lord with all of my heart.  I sing praise before you to the Gods.  I face your Holy Temple and bow down and praise your name because of your constant love and faithfulness (Psalm 138).

·     *   The New Testament is no less replete with examples of THANKS.  One of my favorites is right in the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus builds several pieces of thanks right into the Lord’s Prayer.  Our Father, who art in heaven, HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME.  calling God Holy is a way of thanking him. 
  
·      *  One of the last things that Jesus does before he is crucified is to have Passover meal.  The entire Passover meal is really a meal of thanks to God for delivering the Israelites from slavery.  But there is a part where Jesus adds an extra thanks, our communion Words of Institution: "And he took the bread and he GAVE THANKS, THANK YOU, and broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”

*  If you come from a more liturgical tradition, then you know the song the DOXOLOGY.  DOXOS is the Greek word for thanks.  The Doxology is a song of thanks;

            Praise God from who all Blessings Flow
Praise Him All creatures here Below
Praise Him Above the heavenly Hosts

Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost

Try changing this song from the word Praise to the word Thanks (eg: "Thank you God from whom all blessings flow.  Thank you God from all creatures here below...").

Here are three things that we can all do to improve our general sense of "thankfulness" this Thanksgiving.  They derive from the famous, "Prayer of Examen," a Spiritual Exercises book written by St. Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuit  religious tradition;

Thank Backwards
What are things that God has done for you in the past that you can be thankful for?  Here's an example letter of a pupil in school thanking a teacher and a teacher writing a thank-you note back to that pupil: "My Dear Willy, I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my 80’s.  living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind.  You’ll be interested to know that I taught in school for more than 50 years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received.  It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered me as nothing has done in many year."  Thank backwards!

Thank In the Moment
What is happening right at this moment that you can be thankful for?  For me, it is watching my five month old son swinging in his baby swing as the fire crackles behind him and my eight year old daughter plays with her miniature horses.  "Thank you God for this blessing!"  Thank in the moment.

Thank Forwards
This is the most fun form of thanks.  You will feel a bit like the famed Joel Ostein when you do it, but give it a try anyway; "Dear God, thank you for the great future that you have in store for me.  Thank you that everything that comes my way will be a blessing, not because I won't suffer some set-backs, but because you are a great God who redeems all things.  Thank you that my best days are ahead of me, because of you!  Thank you God!  Amen."  Thank forwards.

Thanking backwards, in the moment and forwards literally surrounds our souls with good feelings of gratitude and wholeness.

Before I go, I have one important thing to do.  I want to thank you! Thank you all for being such loyal blog-reading friends.  Thank you!  You make my life so much better.  I so love being a part of this internet community together.

All For Now,

GB