Tuesday, December 12, 2017
I wanted to take a bit of a pause from the terrible news of the fires in Ventura County, and now the entire Los Angeles region, to reflect on something more mundane, but perhaps helpful.
After preaching last week at Burlingame Pres. a member came up afterward and asked me how it was possible for me to offer a 25-30 minute Sunday message without notes. I explained to my friend that it was not really as hard to do as it may seem. Here are my ideas about how to deliver a long talk without notes. So, this blogpost is for anyone who does public speaking, preaching, or other forms of declamation in a classroom or a work-room or boardroom.
* It is always easier to recite your own material from memory, rather than someone else's. If I had to memorize Shakespeare rather than my own self-generated material ("Et tu Brute?") it would be much harder.
* The great preacher Mark Labberton, President of Fuller, and also someone who speaks regularly without notes once told me to see a message as a "quiver full of arrows", rather than a fixed set of ideas that had to be communicated in a certain order. A good speaker comes to the platform with a bunch of arrows. Not all of them have to be shot in one message. They don't have to come out of the quiver in any particular order.
* A good message should be a conversation. Each week I try to have a conversation with the congregation that I am speaking with. Just as I don't worry about what to say when I am having a conversation with my 5 year old, Sheena, or my 9 year old, Haley, I don't worry about just having a conversation with a congregation of 600+.
* I always write my outline out, with one word that would remind me of my point, if I forgot it, on a tiny little envelope sized piece of paper at the back of my Bible. The goal is to have one word that jogs your memory, if you need a memory jogger.
* The more you speak, the easier it is. The best stand-up comedians do monologues in night clubs every single night of the week. You can only gain a real sense of fluidity when speaking when you do it A LOT.
* The best advice I can give is the title of this blogpost:
Internalize Don't Memorize
Memorization occurs at a surface level, and comes and goes almost as quickly as it enters our brains. I knew friends who were good at cramming for an exam in college who could quickly memorize reams of material, and then dispense it into the called for exam, and then forget all of that material by lunchtime. Internalization occurs at a much deeper level. When you internalize something it finds a way into the recesses of your heart and soul. When something is placed in that space of our consciousness, it is ours for the keeping, and for using in any public setting.
All For Now,
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Many of you may have heard by now that my family and I have been impacted, but not (fortunately) touched, by the fires in Ventura County. By way of giving you a feel for the past 24 hours, let me relate to you the past day's news in a series of bullet points:
* At 12:30AM last night, I was lying in my bed in Burlingame (where I just preached my first sermon as that church's pastor), dozing off to sleep.
* At 12:32AM, I was alerted by text that the school that my girls attend in the Foothills of Ventura (Ventura Missionary School), would be closed due to fear of, "smoke inhalation" health issues.
* At 12:35AM, I texted my wife Star who told me the power was out and that the heat was off and the Ventura was going up in smoke and that Ewan (our 16 month old) was crying uproariously.
* At 7:30AM, I learned that Star's place of work, Vista Del Mar Hospital had burned to the ground, that several of our best friend's houses had burned to the ground, that 30,000 people were on mandatory evacuation, our children's school, Ventura Missionary School might burn to the ground. Our worship leader's house might have burned down.
* At 8:30 AM, I jumped in the car, and instinctively drove straight home. I asked my very capable church Executive Director (Joan Cleary) and my very capable personal assistant (Heather) to cancel all my meetings, and help me through it. They pointed me in the right direction and got me on the road. "Get home," they said, "we will take care of things at the church."
* At 11:00AM, 3.5 hours of driving time later, (it is a six to seven hour drive from SF to Ventura), I started to become aware that I was a part of a cavalcade of fire trucks that were driving southward from Northern California to help out with the fires in Ventura.
And this is really the major content of my blogpost, except for the very good news that my family is safe and they are sound here on the cusp of the fires (as I write this tonight at 9:58PM on Tuesday).
I have never felt prouder to be a Californian or to be an American. As I drove down, I kid you not, I was flanked by no less than 50 fire trucks driving down from Northern California to meet the inferno head on. [Enclosed above is one of the pictures that I took while driving of one small flotilla of fire trucks]. These young men and women and trucks came from cities like Los Gatos, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Francisco, San Mateo, Concord, Fresno, Merced, Madera, Red Bluff, Corning, Redding, and Sacramento. Truck upon truck were driving south to fight the fires. The closer we got, the more the impending doom of fires seemed ominous and foreboding. But they drove headward and onward into the inferno. As I passed each truck, I gave the young men (20 year olds) a thumbs up and a thank you. They smiled back. It brings a tear to my eye to think about it.
* At 12:00PM, as I was heading into Santa Barbara, I saw thick plooms of smoke billowing through the entire city and area. This was no small fire.
* At 3:00PM, I rolled into Ventura to find, and I am not writing hyperbolically, a total WAR ZONE of decimated houses, neighborhoods and hillsides. Where apartment complexes and middle income homes and grand estates had once stood, now ashen heaps and withered hopes and dreams lay in smoldering piles of soot and sunder.
* At 3:30PM, when I rolled into my driveway, I cannot tell you the joy and elation that I felt when I picked up my 16 month old son, and held my two daughters and wife in joy and relief that we were all safe and together. And we are safe here tonight. Though we are leaving on Thursday, moving away sooner than planned, to evade the potential for personal harm.
But not all have been so fortunate. My dear friends Bashar and Gada lost their house. And their parents lost their house. And others. Too many to count! And the numbers are rising. Ojai is in trouble.
This is not over.
Not by a longshot. The big winds are forecast to pick up on Thursday at a speed of 70 miles an hour.
But for tonight, I am
All For Now,
Monday, November 27, 2017
This morning is my first official day as senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame. I must admit that I woke up this morning with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and hopefulness - "afoot and lighthearted" as the poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "I take to the open road."
Another reason that I am excited about this morning is because today we will launch one of the first and most important ministries at Burlingame. We will begin a prayer ministry!
All great movements of God always begin with prayer. Let me repeat that. All great movements of God always begin with prayer.
The first church in history, the Acts 2 church, began with prayer in the upper room. Jesus' own ministry began with prayer and reflection and discernment in the wilderness. Paul's ministry began with prayer as he sat, still blinded by God's light, in the city of Damascus, awaiting what God would instruct him to do. Every Billy Graham crusade always began with prayer. Countless successful churches in history have had as their focus the essential need to pray.
Now, this may seem like an obvious point for any Christian ministry. However, as a fourth generation Presbyterian minister, I have, until recently, and quite unfortunately, sometimes seen prayer as more of an appetizer on the plate of life rather than the essential meat and potatoes that it really represents. "Oh sure, it is important," I always said. I have learned that it is...IMPORTANT.
When my brother and I started Highlands Church about ten years ago, we were blessed at that time to have a large number of Charismatic Christians join the church from another church in town that was struggling. This group, perhaps more than any other, taught me the essential importance of prayer. I will never forget how every single Sunday morning, in the movie theater where we met, a handful of people would meet in the theater manager's office, amidst popcorn droppings and Sprite covered carpets, and pray for that morning's worship service. After this, many of them even went around and prayed over each seat in the theater, that the would-be occupants of that seat, an hour or so later, would be touched by the power of Christ.
One of my favorite stories about the power of prayer happened in the city of Seattle at University Presbyterian Church. UPC, as it is called, had long been a very successful downtown church. However, one very important ministry outreach eluded that church - college students. Nestled right on the cusp of one of the most thriving state universities in the country, there were, sadly, very few college students who connected with the church. A prayer ministry was formed that met in a nearby hotel, called, "The Inn". Each week, a handful of moms of college students, got together to pray for a thriving college ministry. It didn't happen over night. In fact, it would take about 20 years of prayer, and hard work. But eventually, one of the most successful college ministries in the country developed - so-named "The Inn" because of the name of the prayer group's initial meeting place.
This coming Thursday, and every Thursday that I serve as pastor of FPCB, a group of talented, thoughtful, spiritually-wise, kind and compassionate people will meet in the senior pastor's office (my office) to pray for the needs and concerns of the church, the community and the world. I am so grateful that my new friend Susan Siciliano has agreed to lead this group. Susan has such a warm and down-to-earth spirit, that will bless this ministry so much. Other equally fabulous members of the group will include, Louise Arata, Tiffany Daily, Karen Preston, Marjan Wells, Jodi Lowery, Marilyn Nicholls, and Debbie Trevithick. Others may join the group over time, but initially this core group will coalesce and discern and bond. While these women are meeting to pray, I will simultaneously be in my home office writing each weeks' sermon (no pressure:-), so they will quite literally have the place to themselves:-)
If anyone who is reading this blog post has any prayer needs, please don't hesitate to send them to me, or send them to Susan Siciliano, or any members of the prayer group. We will diligently pray for you!
Oh, and one last thing, this prayer group is also dedicated to the concept of having fun, in each other's company, while praying for others. No one ever said that prayer needs to be drudgery. But rather, to lift another line from Walt Whitman, "The long brown path [of Christ's joy and fellowship] will be before them, leading wherever they choose."
And wherever God leads!~
All For Now,
Monday, November 13, 2017
Most of you know by now that after a wonderful three and half years with two churches on the Central Coast of California (Mission Street Church, Goleta Presbyterian Church), in the Santa Barbara Presbytery, that Star and I and the family have been called to be the next senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, in the Bay Area, near San Francisco. Our last Sunday at Goleta will be Nov. 26, and our first Sunday in Burlingame will be the next weekend on Dec. 3. We will always be thankful for our friends and experiences on the Central Coast, during this recuperative time in our lives, and we will never forget the kindness and love that we experienced here.
Some have asked why we decided to accept the new call in Burlingame. The short answer is because God called us there. The longer answer, and the one I want to reflect on in this blogpost, is that First Pres. Burlingame is one of the greatest church...
that I have ever known.
All churches have unique and special cultures. And the unique cultures of specific churches determine what kinds of outcomes those churches have. For example, Highlands Church, a church that my brother Jamie and I started in Paso Robles, is a uniquely capable outreach (evangelism) machine. No church that I know of (in the PC USA) is more welcoming of outsiders to the faith, and consistently works to reach out to them, than Highlands. Goleta Presbyterian, where I have served for the past 1.5 years is particularly capable and being a "safe place" for people of all theological backgrounds to come and worship God. In this way, Goleta has the wonderful quality of never judging people who come to church. People from all faith backgrounds are welcome there (and it must be stated that this is a very good thing). Perhaps you might reflect for a moment on what the uniquely special culture of the church that you attend is.
What is the uniquely special culture of First Pres. Burlingame? It produces great leaders! Some of the finest pastors I know, people who are mentors of mine and that I look up to, have come from First Pres. Burlingame. Dan Meyer, who was recently rated as one of the best preachers of his generation, and now serves a church of 6,000+ members near Chicago in Illinois, served as an Associate Pastor at Burlingame. Steve Schibsted, who is now serving as the Interim Pastor of First Pres. Berkeley, is one of the best turnaround pastors I have ever known. Steve turned First Pres. Chico around from a struggling 200 person church to a bourgeoning city center church. Steve served at Burlingame as an Associate pastor. Jeannie Cavender, who is a Commissioned Lay Pastor at Goleta Pres., is one of the best congregational prayers I have ever met. Jeannie grew up at First Pres. Burlingame. Tom Gillespie, who served as First Pres. Burlingame's third pastor, went on to become the President of Princeton Seminary. Under Tom's leadership, the seminary was able to develop the largest financial endowment per-capita of any other institution of higher learning, at that time. You get the picture. First Pres. Burlingame is and has always been a...
So, why is it important for me to be a part of an institution like Burlingame, that is so capable at producing great leaders? Well, in short, the world needs a brand new crop of great church leaders. Perhaps like no other time in human history has the gap between the world's needs and the kinds of leaders that the Christian church is producing been wider. And, in my opinion, for whatever reason, seminaries, churches, and other institutions of higher learning just aren't producing the kinds of leaders today that will be required to meet the world's needs going forward. It is not a statement of hyperbole to say that nearly an entire generation of millennials, and post millennials (the so called "i-generation") are now not only saying "no" to church, they are saying "no" to God. Things have to change! So, I am excited to be a part of a church that will help to make those kinds of decisions, and to mold those kinds of leaders.
Secondly, what I have been most proud of in my ministry, up to this point, are the leaders that God has allowed me to help to develop and mold in the churches that I have served. To create a list of these great leaders would take up an entire blog post of its own, but a short list would include: Mickey Fenn (pastor), Katy Griffin (pastor), James Baird (pastor), and Joe Baugh (worship leader). Again, this list is not exhaustive by any means, and I don't take credit for their innate leadership gifts, but it does reflect some of what I am proud of in my ministry.
The last reason that I am excited about working for a church Leadership Factory, like Burlingame, is because, let's face it, I'm not growing any younger (:-). At 45, I figure that I have about another 20 years to help make an impact for the kingdom. That's not to say that God won't be able to use me at 65 for some other great purpose for the kingdom, but that after a lot of prayer and discernment I have decided that this is the best use of my gift set and the time that I have left.
So, if you are a great leader and want to become even better one. Or you want to learn some new leadership gifts, or you just feel that God might be calling you to something different than what you are doing right now, I want to welcome you to the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame. Because it nothing less than a...
All For Now,
Monday, October 30, 2017
My family and I just returned from a great Fall Break trip to Hawaii. For all of us, it was a refreshing vacation and a wonderful time with the family, centered mostly around the north shore of Oahu, at Turtle Bay. While there, my father, who came along on the trip, decided to go scuba diving. Because he has done scuba diving around the world, he brought his own equipment along with him. He lugged onto the plane his own flippers, mask, regulator, and most importantly, his own scuba diving computer. A scuba diving computer is an instrument that all divers use today that lets a them know how much oxygen they have left, the direction to the boat, how deep they are, and which direction to swim. So, one morning dad went on a dive. He found himself in a sea cave about 100 feet down, when the worst possible scenario happened. His scuba diving computer went dead. Within the belly of a big dark cave, 100 feet beneath the surface of the water, my father was basically lost, blind, and unknowing about how to escape. Fortunately, by sheer instinct, he made his way to the surface safely, though he said upon arriving back in his hotel room that it was one of the scariest experiences of his life. The next day, my dad summarily bought a new scuba diving computer!
My dad's brush with danger involving his scuba computer recently caused me to think about the idea of conscience. Our consciences are like a well functioning (or not so well functioning) scuba diving computers. They tell us what is right and what is wrong. They remind us of when we are getting too deep into something in our lives for our own safety. They help us know where the shore is, and how to get to safety.
As so happens, the concept of "conscience" was a seminal idea of the Protestant Reformation (The 500th anniversary of which we just commemorated yesterday). Of all the contributions of the Protestant Reformation in the world (the concept of free health care, public education, separation of Church and State, a free market economy), the notion of conscience is, in my opinion the most important contribution to humanity.
In the mid 1500's, The Reformers had a bold and big and new idea. This was their idea. That all people have a conscience. ALL people. This conscience that we have, which is a God given gift is not related to our education, or our economic background, or our cultural background, or even whether or not we are Christian. All people, the Reformers believed, have a conscience. Our consciences are informed and directed by God (for history buffs, this is what the framers of the Declaration of Independence meant, when they said, "All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.") This conscience works within each of us to help us know what to do in our lives, which direction to move, what kinds of decisions to make, when we are in danger, when we need to get help.
Here are some of my favorite quotes about conscience:
* John Calvin, a Reformer, said; "Conscience, instead of allowing us to stifle our perceptions and sleep without interruption, acts as an inward witness and monitor, reminding us of what we owe to God and convicting us of departure from duty."
* Shakespeare wrote a lot of his plays around the concept of conscience. In the play, Richard III, Queen Margaret says of conscience; "Conscience...the worm...that be-gnaws the soul."
* And Will Willimon, my favorite professor in my Dmin program with Fuller said; "Our consciences help determine what we will look like when we are 65. That's the question, because your decisions will either reinforce your development into that person or weaken it. So, your choices make a difference, not so much in what we do in the world, but in what they are doing in us."
This past week, we have seen a number of people not only listen to their consciences, but act upon them in heroic and courageous ways. A US Senator from Arizona departed from his own party and president to say that in his opinion, President Donald Trump is an, "indecent person, and a danger to democracy." Asked later why he made this landmark speech, Jeff Flake said, "It was in direct response to what my conscience was telling me to do. How could I look my children in the eye in future generations, and not say what I said on the floor of Congress?"
Rose McGowan, an actress who was sexually harassed and abused by a powerful Hollywood film producer said recently that her decision to speak up came from a place of wanting to stand up for what's right, and to stop the corruption that she experienced at the hands of an abuser - Harvey Weinstein. Rose McGowan listened to her conscience.
These are just two examples of people in the world recently who have listened to the God given consciences that they possess, and then had the courage to act upon their consciences.
I can say that in my 45 years of life, that my conscience has saved me many times from situations that I should not have been in, of relationships that I needed to end, of people I needed to separate from, of jobs I needed to leave, of denominations I needed to separate from (ECO). In short, I am who I am because of the conscience that God has given me. The strength I have as a person comes from the decisions I have made when my conscience went off in my heart like a five alarm fire, warning me to abandon what I had once thought was a good and safe situation, and quickly swim to the surface and find safety.
One of my favorite writers, Fred Buchner, put it this way; "The main question is what we are going to BE when we grow up. Not what we are going to Do, what profession we are going to follow, what niche we are going to choose for ourselves. But what we are going to BE inside ourselves, and among ourselves."
Our world needs more people who, like Jeff Flake and Rose McGowan, and the Reformers before them, who not only listened to their consciences, but courageously acted on them, and in the process, attempted to make the world a better place.
All For Now,
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Dear Blogpost readers,
I wanted to let you know that my family and I are all taking about 10 days to get some R&R while the girls are on Fall-break, for a bit of a family vacation. I will write again in this space on Oct. 30.
In the meantime, I wanted to share a great quote from C.S Lewis I found tonight while reading to Haley before bed. I was reading, "The Horse and His Boy" from, "The Chronicles of Narnia", to Haley, and this quote came along;
[Of the main character - Shasta]; "He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed, your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one." (p. 155)
From this great quote I take the idea that God gives challenges to us commensurate with the good work that we have already done. If a person hasn't done anything particularly good, God won't give that person more. However, if a person has done good things, more is coming...
All For Now,
Monday, October 2, 2017
Last week, at the Christian private elementary school where my two youngest daughters attend, there were a series of theme based days where the pupils were encouraged to dress up according to the fashion ascribed for that day. So, Wednesday was "Wacky Day", and Friday was "Sports Day" (I can't remember what Monday and Tuesday were, possibly "Normal Day" and "Mix and Match Day"). However, I do remember what Thursday was - "Spiritual Day".
Now, you would think that because I am a "man of the cloth" that helping my kids to figure out what to wear on "Spiritual Day" would be easy. It wasn't. What does a person wear on "Spiritual Day?" What do "Spiritual Clothes" look like? In earnest I checked my closet for possibilities. They could wear one of my clerical stoles that I sometimes wear in church...I suggested helpfully. No way! Smart girls. They could wear the clerical collar that I wore when I first started the ministry (sometimes known as a "dickey" or a "tabs"). Not on your life! Very smart girls. They could wear the tartan Yarmulke that I was given by my cousin when I helped perform the ceremony at her Jewish/Christian wedding. Nope.
Wisely my two daughters opted for something much more understated - a simple gold cross on Haley, and a skirt featuring the "flowers of the heavens" by Sheena.
But the arrival of "Spiritual Day" did make me think about what it means to dress spiritually in a modern context. As Protestants, we have mostly seen the garb that we wear on the outside as less important than the clothes we wear in our hearts. But not always. On the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the "Complaints" on Wittenberg's All Saints Church Door, we should remember that Luther dressed as a monk, even after he broke from the Catholic Church. Shakers women, an off-shoot of the Quakers in England, were known to wear white head coverings and white triangle shaped fabric around their necks.
The Puritans, who basically founded America, probably were the Protestant group who embodied the need to dress-up in a spiritual way more than any other. Puritans emphasized moderation in all things. They emphasized "inward ornamentation of the soul". In 1634, Massachusetts General Court banned the use of lace and some other adornments such as beaver hats. Interestingly, the color black is often associated with the Puritans, but most did not actually wear black, because of the expense of the black dye.
As I kid, I can still remember looking forward to getting dressed up to go to church. Before we left the house, my brother and sister and I would put on sports jackets and ties and Laura Ashley dresses. For us, "Spiritual Day" meant looking forward to looking our best.
Today, most people who attend church see it as a time when, on their day off, they want to wear whatever is comfortable. And good for them. For as the book of Proverbs says, "Those who do not study, are only cattle dressed up in men's clothes" (Prov. 94). Moo!
All For Now,
Monday, September 25, 2017
The Church Bells of Cholula
One resident, while reflecting on the loss of the bells themselves this past week said, "Without church bells, Cholula just isn't the same." Because of the earthquake, all but ten of Cholula's churches have been closed. Parishioners have been forced to meet outside in city squares or in public parks until the churches can be safely inspected. Hand held harmoniums have taken the place of pipe organs, card tables have replaced church altars.
In ancient times church bells served more of a function than simply offering music to residents of the city. The church bells would ring during times of natural disaster, to warn residents to find shelter. Church bells would be "peeled", as the English would say, to announce the wedding of a local couple, or "tolled" when a member of the church had died (Hemingway most likely got the idea of the title of his famous novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" from the church bells that he heard in Spain, during the Spanish Revolutionary War). Church bells would offer joyful "bings" and "bangs" and "bongs" on Christmas day, to announce the birth of the newborn Savior to the world. I will never forget hearing the tolling of the church bells of Notre Dame in Paris, ring for the death of Pope John Paul II. Not anymore.
The Church Bells of Cholula...
...do not ring.
In her book, "The Nine Tailors", novelist Dorothy Sayers (a friend of C.S. Lewis) used the bells of a local British congregation to determine the perpetrator of a murder, discovered by the Lord Peter Whimsey. The bells, in this case, were rung in an English fashion by a talented handful of local residents who saw their duty to ring the bells as important a job as bringing in the wheat sheaves during the harvest. The same ardent attention to the ringing of bells in Cholula must have been carried out by generations of local farmers.
It is difficult to say when the church bells of Cholula might eventually be refurbished and deemed safe once again to ring out in that city center. There are, surely more important tasks at hand in the rebuilding of all of Mexico's infrastructure once again. Schools have to be rebuilt, workplaces have to be renovated, and most sadly of all, the 300 people who died in that earthquake have to be laid to rest. For those who have died in this tragedy, however, no church bells will mark the toll of their death. Because,
The Church Bells of Cholula
have, for the moment, gone silent...
All For Now,
(background research for this blog has been provided by Carrie Kahn of NPR news)
Monday, September 18, 2017
Sometimes the best Christian songs are not intentionally Christian at all. This is a truth that I recently rediscovered when I was speaking at a church in San Luis Obispo (Midstate California), and had to drive home to Oxnard where I live (essentially the north rim of LA). Normally this driving trip would only take three hours, but because of traffic and other factors, it took me five to six hours to drive home. However, none of these hours were in the least bit wasted or unpleasant. The reason is because of a song I heard by one of my favorite popular singers, Alanis Morrisette. I played this song, and this is no hyperbole, repeatedly during this trip at least 100 times in a row. The tune is mesmerizing. But what I am most transfixed by are the lyrics of this song. Here they are:
That I would be good even if I did nothing
That I would be good even if I got the thumbs down
That I would be good if I got and stayed sick
That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds
That I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
That I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
That I would be great if I was no longer queen
That I would be grand even if I was not all knowing
That I would be loved even when I numb myself
That I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
That I would be loved even when I was fuming
That I would be good even if I was clingy
That I would be good even if I lost sanity
That I would be good
Whether with or without you
For me, this song embodies a central truth of the Christian faith. And, tempted as I am to not try to explain the lyrics in Christian terms, because all great pieces of art should speak for themselves, let me offer a few examples of the Biblical parallels.
At the beginning of creation, God creates the heavens and the earth, He separates the water from the dry land, He creates all living things, and God calls them all, "good". And then, God creates Adam and Eve in His own image, that is, God puts a little bit of himself in all human beings, and He calls them, "very good". So, this song lifts up the intrinsic "goodness" of all people.
And, then, of course was the Fall. And because of things we have done, or things that have been done to us, or because of things that are left undone, all of us is "Fallen". All people feel, as Alanis Morissette does in this song, that somehow we are not "good". Whether because of, as the song goes, "gaining ten pounds," or "bankruptcy", or, "not being all knowing," or "numbing ourselves" with any number of the panoply of the world's body numbers, we do not feel "good".
And yet, "goodness" is the promise of the cross. What we believe is that Christ returns "goodness" (and I like the word "goodness" better than "greatness") to all who believe in Christ's "goodness". That by believing in Christ's great sacrifice, we can all, once again, become "good", no matter what happens to us. We believe that we can, once again, call ourselves even better than "good", but "children of God".
But, as I said, better to let the song speak for itself.
All For Now,
Monday, September 11, 2017
It would be hard to mark the exact moment when a current event becomes a piece of ancient history. However, this morning, at the Christian school where my two daughters were celebrating "Patriot Day" (the picture above is of my 5 year old daughter Sheena wearing red, white and blue on "Patriot Day") I think I recognized that juncture regarding 9/11. Sept. 11, 2001 is, of course the day when, 16 years ago, two planes were intentionally steered by a handful of religious extremists into two of the tallest buildings in the world, killing 3,000 people. For those of us who are middle age - I am 45 - this date will always be seen as a current event. But for anyone born on or after 2001, all of my kids for example, 9/11 is ancient history.
When I asked my daughter's excellent kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Graham (no family relation, that I know of:-), how she would explain the events of 9/11 to her class, she smiled and said, "I think I will stick to the story of Cain and Abel this morning, that will be easier to explain." Fair enough, they are only kindergarteners!?! And are the two stories really all that different?
Recognizing this rubicon of 9/11 moving from a current event to ancient history has made me think about the number of other important dates in history, either tragic or victorious, that have made similar transitions.
On Oct. 14, 1066, the Norman-French leader, William - the Duke of Normandy (known to every English prep school student as "William the Conquerer"), vanquished the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson at the famous battle of Hastings. That date will, to paraphrase the American President FDR, "live on in infamy". But here's my question for the morning. What about 16 years after the battle of Hastings in 1082, did children who lived in England still remember the battle of Hastings as a current event, or did it become ancient history?
On May 8, 1945, as returning GI's to the United States stood in the streets of New York, kissing their war-brides in a moment of joy and elation, the West officially celebrated the end of World II in Europe. For those who were there on that day, and there are still some people alive today to tell the story, it was a current event, and always will be. But what about 16 years later, in 1961, did the children of war survivors still feel the same elation, or had the moment passed into ancient history? My own father, who was in high school at the time, remembers his friends all beginning to grow their hair long, and wear bell-bottomed pants, and listen to music of Joan Baez - all whipping up a head of steam about another looming American war - the Vietnam War.
On May 28, 1972, the day and year I was born, my mother still remembers watching the Nixon Watergate trials on their Sony black-and-white TV in Laguna Beach, California. The fall of the Nixon administration under the weight of corruption and scandal of that epoch will always be, for her, a current event. For me, however, I see Watergate as ancient history. I was just a baby. And, 16 years later, I was sophomore in High School, in 1988, listening to Bobbie McFerrin sing, "Don't Worry, Be Happy", on my walkman cassette radio.
When does a current event become ancient history?
When does 9/11 become 1066?
The answer is simple! The moment the next generation comes along. And that, as the poets would say, is a good thing. Each generation defines for itself what its focus will be. In this way, the movement of history, from one event to the next, has a kind of healing and palliative effect. Today for my kids is just a day when they wear "red, white and blue to school" on - Patriot Day.
For for me, and I suspect most of those reading this blogpost, this will always be...
All For Now,
Monday, September 4, 2017
The other day my wife Star was heading out the door to work when she said to me, "By the way, the dishes in the dishwasher are clean. Love you, Have a good day." After I dropped the girls and Ewan off at their respective schools, I continued to mull the information that Star had given me before she had left the house that morning. "By the way, the dishes in the dishwasher are clean..." Was Star telling me that the dishes were clean as a kind of practical bit of data for the day (like, the weather's going to be sunny and overcast, the 101 freeway is closed)? No, not likely. Was she telling me the dishes were clean because she didn't want me to put new dirty dishes in the dishwasher? Possibly, but there seemed more to it than that. Finally, it came to me. She was telling me the dishes were clean because she wanted me to unload the dishes in the dishwasher. It may have taken me 17 years (we just celebrated our 17 year wedding anniversary on Friday), but I have finally begun to understand the subtle codes that define a healthy marriage. Star was giving me;
Information that Required Action
After I unloaded the dishwasher, I began to wonder how many of the statements of Jesus were possibly also examples of:
Information Requiring Action
Most of Jesus' large proclamations are, on their face, just informational tidbits. "I am the light of the world," "You are the vine and I am the branches," "I am the resurrection,""The kingdom of God is like a mustard-seed,". These can be read simply as descriptions of the nature of Jesus as God or the nature of the kingdom. But what if Jesus was saying them to require a sort of action in anyone who heard them? What if when Jesus said, "I am the light of the world," He was really saying, "and so go spread my light, and your light to the rest of the world." What if when Jesus said, "I am the resurrection," He was not just giving us information about who He was, but that He expected all who listened to Him to go and live resurrection lives? Sometimes;
Information Requires Action
To add to my theory that most of Jesus' informational statements were calls to action, think about the often repeated phrase that Jesus says again and again after he makes these informational proclamations. After making pronouncements, He almost always would say; "He who has ears, let him hear." The word HEAR in Hebrew is an essential component of faith. It comes from the word SHEMA, which refers to the most important text for the Hebrew people, "HEAR (Shema), O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Debt. 6:4-5). The word HEAR (Shema) is directly connected to the command to love. Hearing is a call to action to love. The person who hears acts!
So then the question in my mind becomes, why do we sometimes give other people information when we are really just requesting action. Why, in Star's case, didn't she say, "Hey, would you please unload the dishwasher?" One thought is that it is a kinder more subtle more dignifying way of asking for help or action. Rather than saying just, "Do it!", by offering information it allows the person hearing it to have the option of acting or not acting. It gives the one who is being requested the action a sense of autonomy. When Star gets home later today, I might just say, "Hey, I didn't know if you wanted me to or not, but I unloaded the dishwasher." And she just might say, "Wow, thanks, you read my mind (wink, wink)."
And God does the same for us. When on a cross, Jesus looked down upon the world and said, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they are doing," Jesus was also making one last informational call to action for all of us. We are also supposed to forgive. But it is up to us. God won't make us take action. But He will give us the information.
All For Now,
Monday, August 21, 2017
Like many of the rest of you, I have been captivated for the last couple of hours at the partial solar eclipse. From our house in Oxnard, California, which is usually overcast with coastal fog in the morning, there has been a rare break in the clouds so we have been able to see the intergalactic wonder with all of its "finger-nailed" splendor. What I have been equally interested in is the split/screen television coverage that has taken place simultaneous to the 99 year annual event. On all of news stations covering the event are other news stories that are taking place that seem of equal, if not greater importance (an Afghanistan troop buildup, a US Navy ship that has broadsided an oil tanker, a terrorist in Barcelona has been shot, an American Presidency that seems to be in peril). And so, the world turns...
The message seems to be that as the skies have a miraculous event taking place, as a once in a life time event occurs, so does life move on.
As the World Turns
Of course it wouldn't be the first time that people on earth are more caught up in the regular day to day events, than the spectacles that have lit up the skies.
* One wonders if in 1,500 BC, in the land of Egypt, as frogs were leaping out of people's bathrooms, and locusts covered the skies, and blood ran red in the Nile River, if there weren't people at beauty parlors getting their hair done for an evening dinner party that would take place. People had things to do, and places to be.
* In 3AD when an odd, and out of the ordinary "star" appeared on the horizon in the small town of Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, historians tell us that the emperor of Rome, Octavian (Augustus), was vexed by Germanic troops (terrorists) that were coalescing on the northern edge of the empire, in the Teutoburg Forest. Augustus was, at that moment, of Jesus' birth and the star's shining, planning for a Roman troop buildup in an unruly part of the world
As the World Turns...
* In 79AD (though Tacitus records the event as having happened in 63AD) when people in the small town of Pompeii, at the base of Mount Vesuvius, were finishing their morning breakfasts, plooms of smoke and ash began to emerge from the huge summit that dwarfed the city, and later covered it with molten lava. People had things to do, places to be.
As the World Turns...
No matter what the cosmic events of our lives, the main theme from those who live on the planet earth has always seemed to be that life moves on, events continue, time moves forward, the activities of our lives commence. But will they? But do they really?
I do not think, as some of my religious friends do, that the full solar eclipse is an omen of the end of all things. Eclipses have come and eclipses have gone. But who knows?
As Robert Schuller, the late pastor of the Crystal Cathedral once said, "I always bet a million dollars with my friends who say that the world will end. If I win, the world goes on and I am a million dollars richer, if they win, the world comes to an end, and who cares, I am in heaven!"
But for now, the world continues to turn!
As the World Turns
All For Now,
Monday, August 14, 2017
Like many of you, my family and I have been watching our television screens about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia with a mixture of grief, anger and outrage. It simply boggles the imagination how anybody could espouse the kind of hatred and evil that the White Supremacists who are marching there, and marauding there, have within them. Most of the television news coverage of this event has boiled down to political analysis. This problem in our country does have political dimensions, but the roots of it, the seeds of White Supremacy, are much more nuanced. What has been missing from this national conversation so far, has been the recognition that this kind of evil (White Supremacy) exists all around us, and how we as a society and a country must address it and stamp it out whenever it emerges. To this end, I wanted to share in my blogpost today about one young man who got caught-up in the White Supremacy movement in one of the churches that I grew up in.
In the late 1970's my father was a pastor of a wonderful church in Boise, Idaho. The church was an incredible family of faith and body of Christ, and one of the most Holy Spirit-filled church experiences of my life. To this day, I still look fondly back on my years growing up in Boise and attending that church. Church Potlucks, Bible Studies, Family Camps and All Church Barbecues were the mainstays of that church.
Like most churches, the church had some of the most amazing and Godly people in its membership. Also, like most churches, it also had one or two of the attendees occasionally had some emotional challenges, and mental problems. One of the young men, who had emotional challenges, and mental problems, and who sometimes attended that church, was a teenager named David Charles Tate. "David only occasionally attended", my Dad told me once, and "often when he did, would sit at the back, by himself". He was a loner.
Around ten years later, (and it should be said, nobody knows the exact chain of events) David moved to Northern Idaho, near Hayden Lake, and got caught up in a very sinister group of people known as "The Order" [The picture above is of young men doing a Nazi salute in Hayden Lake, Idaho in 1989]. The Order was a group of "Christian Identity" followers who were led by a very nefarious man by the name of Richard Butler. The Order's so-called theological underpinnings stemmed from a very twisted, evil, and wrong-headed view that, "white Americans and Canadians are the real tribes of Israel", and that, "Jews are descended from an Asiatic tribe of people known as the Khazars". (from researcher Nicole Nichols, an expert on far right racist groups in America - 2003). David, it is assumed, found a personal-identity in a group of equally emotionally deviant and mentally challenged people. Soon, David found himself the subject of a national manhunt and on April 15, 1985, after he and a handful of members of his cult killed a fellow member of "The Order". David found himself in a stand-off with two Missouri State Troopers, who were conducting a random vehicle and license plate check. David killed one of the troopers and critically wounded the other. The state trooper, Jimmie Linnegar, only 31 at the time, was one of those killed by David. Tate was later convicted of assault and murder and sentenced to life without parole. One silver lining to this very sad story, is that, "Federal authorities used the Tate incident, and Tate's testimony, to arrest many other members of the White Supremacist cult in Hayden Lake."
News reports of the profile of the young man who is being charged with the crimes in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Fields, sound similar to the accounts I heard of David Tate. He was confused, misdirected, had mental health issues, deep-seeded misplaced hatred, and perhaps most of all, found a group of equally broken and misguided people, to affiliate who were members of a religious cult. A medical health professional recently told me that many of the patients that he sees, have personal associations with hate groups. This is not to say that all people who face mental health challenges are racist, but that psychological stability is one important component to understanding this form of evil.
I am sure that as the weeks and months emerge, more information will come out about this very sad incident in Charlottesville. Suffice it to say, though, on this Monday morning, after the weekend of violence in Virginia, that White Supremacy exists, it is very sinister, very dangerous and very evil. And right-minded people in an advanced society like ours must stand against it at all costs!
All For Now,
Monday, August 7, 2017
I am reading a lot of Karl Barth for my doctoral dissertation. Wait! Before you close the link to this blogpost, let me try to convince you that Karl Barth may not be the preaching dogmatist that you have considered him to be (if you consider him at all:-). I grew up with a father/pastor who clung to the theological mainstays of Barth's theology like a dryer sheet clings to laundry. "Karl Barth saved Christianity against the Nazis", I grew up to think. And then, when I went to seminary, Barth was taught by so many theological hardliners in classes with titles like, "Church Dogmatics", and "Systematic Semiotics" that it nearly drove me away from his writings entirely. But I have just rediscovered what a poetic person that he was, and also, frankly, a non-systematic thinker in many ways. Here are some of his great poetical phrases;
"At some point, the fellowship of those who hear Scripture's voice, again finds itself on solid ground, WHEN EVERYTHING SEEMS TO TOTTER." (Church Dogmatics, IV, part 2, p. 673).
Is that not a good definition of our world today? A place where everything around us is seeming to totter?
"The Bible will become more and more mysterious to real exegetes. They will see all the depths and distances. They will constantly run up against the mystery before which THEOLOGY IS LIKE TRYING TO DRAIN THE OCEAN WITH A SPOON." (Homiletics, p. 128)
I love this! The Bible is a mystery, not meant to be understood fully or dissected entirely. And theology, I have always thought, had the tendency to systematize ("mathematicalize") the most vast concepts in the universe. The God's truth is an ocean, deep, mysterious, complex and vast.
One of my favorite pictures of Barth is the one above with the late great Martin Luther King Jr. MLK actually criticized Barth, in his own doctoral studies, about Barth's view that, "God is the unknowable and indescribably God." But MLK loved the idea that, "man is not sufficient unto himself for life." The above picture was taken in 1962 at Princeton University just six years before MLK's assassination.
This past week I emailed my friend, Will Willimon, writer of one of the best books on Barth, Conversations With Barth on Preaching, to ask if he thought that Barth was a kind of Samuel Johnson (Dr. Johnson) of his era. Both thinkers were so widely read, ubiquitous in their thinking. Willimon had never heard this formulation about Barth, but agreed that, "it fits".
So, the next time you hear Barth's name spoken from a church pulpit, think of him less as an old religious stalwart, and more of a poet, and imaginative genius. He was less the man that modern theologians have wanted to create, and more of the man that he really was.
All For Now,
Monday, July 31, 2017
Recently, I heard a podcast that has caused me to do some major thinking. The podcaster, and I can't remember who it was right now, said that the basic philosophy of all good parenting has two basic parts. Ironically, these two parts of parenting would seem antithetical to one another, but they are actually inter-related, and sometimes inter-twined. All good parenting involves two basic actions:
Embracing and Separating
From the moment a child is born a parent does everything they can to provide a child with as much nurture, love, encouragement, tenderness and compassion as possible. This is the embracing side of parenting. Sometimes this embracing takes the form of encouraging a child when they fall down or get discouraged; "Come on, you can do it, Mommy is here to catch you. Try it again." Other times this embracing is more basic. My own kids say to me almost every day, at some point in the day, "Daddy, I love you." And, of course, I say, "I love you too." I take these gestures of love to be both a sense of how they are feeling at the moment, sometimes a desire to get something from me (like a snack), but most of all to simply check-in; "I'm here Daddy, are you here too?" It is Embracing at its best.
And yet, at a certain point in a child's upbringing, a healthy parent must prepare every child for separation. Some day, the child will grow up, and move on. In most cases, and especially in the millennial generation, this moving on happens in stages (college, move back, first job, move back, second job, move back, marriage...hopefully not move back:-), but you never know!). A healthy parent needs to offer children the opportunity to do things on their own - take walks, do sleepovers, go to summer camp, take jobs, have girl friends or boyfriends - have autonomy in particular areas of their life. This is all preparation for separation. An unhealthy parent, obviously, does not prepare a child for this stage of separation, and then when the time comes, there is sometimes an unhelpful attachment or "enmeshment".
What I have been thinking about is how leading a church also has a similar;
Embracing and Separating...
dynamic. A healthy pastor embraces a congregation as much as possible. When a congregation is in a time of crisis, like Goleta Presbyterian Church has been recently, where I now serve, in the midst of a major forest fire, a healthy pastor embraces them, prays for them, makes visits with them, loves them. When a congregation experiences a joy within a community, like a wedding or a baptism, or a member accomplishes something fantastic, there needs to be an embrace; "Great job! I'm so proud of you. You are incredible! I love you!"
And yet, a healthy pastor must also prepare a congregation, at a certain point of maturity, for separation. Sometimes this separation occurs when staff members come and go from a church. Sometimes separation occurs when members decide to leave a church and go to another church, for whatever reason. Other times the separation is about sending people out into the world, to serve where they live, from week to week. Churches that offer constant mid-week programming for members sometimes do not prepare their members for an adequate level of separation. Still other times this separation takes the form of a member deciding to go into full time mission ministry in a foreign mission field. Some of my best leaders over the years have gone on to great ministries of their own.
Jesus epitomizes this embracing and separating dynamic in his last official pronouncement before ascending into heaven;
"Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!'" John 20:19 - (Embracing)
"As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." John 20:21 - (Separating)
"And with that, he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." John 20:22 (Embracing)
"Therefore, go an make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Matthew 28:19 - (Separating)
"And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:20 (Embracing)
This double bind of embracing and separating is such a hard balance to keep. For parents, it is so hard to have children who they have embraced for nearly 20 years leave the house. For pastors, who have invested so much love into a congregation, it is so hard when they leave for various reasons. And yet, that is what is necessary, in the end, to be both a healthy parent and a healthy pastor.
Embracing and Separating
But for now, speaking for just myself, I am going to go give my kids one more hug for the morning!
All For Now,
Monday, July 24, 2017
Recently I discovered a book that was given to me by my fourth grade Sunday School teacher named Mrs. Richlin in Boise, Idaho. To be honest, I had never read it before, and it has remained on my shelf, and in packing boxes for the better part of 40 years. The book is entitled, Heroes of the Cross and is a story of the great 19th century missionaries in Africa. In a frantic search for something to read to my own budding fourth grader, Haley, I found it, and have been reading the stories within it about the great adventurers of faith. One of these stories is about the great Scottish missionary - David Livingston. By an interesting twist, I also happen to be reading about David Livingston at the moment for my Doctoral dissertation.
You remember David Livingston, I presume?!? He was the pith-helmeted missionary who worked for the London Missionary Society in eighteen hundreds. He was the one who, "opened" the continent to Africa to the west. He was the one who pushed further north on the continent of Africa than any other white person. His writings journals have been the thing of legend since they were written. Who can beat lines like; "The great God had an only Son and He was sent to the earth as a Missionary-Physician." Livingston discovered the mammoth waterfalls on the Zambezi river, and named them after his queen - Victoria Falls. His most famous exploit was a conquest of the origins of the Nile river. It was on this trek that he was feared to have died, and where H.M. Stanley found him in 1873 and declared, with a stiff British upper-lip; "Dr. Livingston, I presume?" Livingston did all of this. And yet, did you know, that Livingston also lived with a deep and abiding personal regret. This was;
Livingston's One Regret
Livingston confessed to his dying day that his one regret was that he had not taken an hour a day to play with his children! A wikipedia article on Livingston's family says it best, "While Livingston had a great impact on British imperialism, he did so at a tremendous cost to his family." Livingston had six children, Robert (who died in the American Civil War), Agnes, Thomas, Elizabeth (who died at two months), William Oswell and Anna Mary. For whatever reason, Livingston sent his family home to live with his wife Mary, for most of his missionary career, even though the family could easily have stayed with him in Africa.
Having been the product of many previous pastors, I can say that not spending time with kids can be seen as an occupational hazard. My great-grandpa, Jesse, who did so many great things (moderator of General Assembly, president of a seminary, many books), never spent much time with his kids. My grandpa, a church builder and denominational leader also never spent much time with his kids. I can remember my dad saying wistfully to me once that, "My dad never even came to one of my swim meets." My own dad was considerably better than his progenitors and did spend time with us. But he still did attend a lot of night meetings.
It is probably unfair to lay the blame for dads not hanging out with kids solely at the feet of pastors and missionaries. A recent Pew Research Poll found that most dads today spend less than an hour a day with their kids, and less than seven hours a week in total. This is actually a positive trend, since similar statistics from the 1940's show that most dads spent less than four hours a day with their kids.
My own ministerial career has recently taken a bit of an unexpected turn in trajectory since I stepped down as senior pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. While I was pastor of that church, however, I can say that I almost never saw my kids throughout the week. The first year of my daughter's life are an erasable blur to me. My previous call of founder of Highlands Church in Paso Robles was better on the daddy front, as I spent more time with Haley. But not much more! In my current call, I have been able to spend more, "quality time" with my kids than ever before. And the blessing has been all mine. I have learned that it is possible to both be a good pastor and to be a good dad - simultaneously. But it does require several hours a day in commitment to my kids.
Garrison Keillor, the great writer and story teller, who has also, often been obsessed with his career to the detriment of his family, has said, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." Livingston, if he were alive today, would surely agree with this sentiment. And perhaps, at the end of his life, he might not only have been able to point to a great water-fall as his primary legacy, but rather to an even deeper reservoir of love, connection and relationship. Who knows for sure. All I can say for certainty is that;
Livingston's One Regret
Will not be my own:-)
What about you?
All For Now,
Monday, July 17, 2017
A few weeks ago, NASA's spacecraft named Juno did a quick fly-by, from 2,000 miles away, of the largest planet in the solar system - the planet Jupiter. Jupiter being 89,000 miles in diameter is over 1,000 times larger than the planet earth. Most scientists think Jupiter is more of a swirl of gas than it is a solid planet. But the size of Jupiter is not what Juno's cameras were focussed on, nor was its gaseous nature. What Juno was focussed on was the iconic and ever-famous "Giant Red Spot" that swirls upon the surface of that planet like a gargantuan, red Christmas tree ornament. "For hundreds of years scientists have been observing, wondering and theorizing about Jupiter's Giant Red Spot," said Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. In my own elementary school studies of the solar system, I can still remember my teacher discussing the "Giant Red Spot," and I remember wondering in my own developing young mind what that spot exactly consisted of. I remember my teachers telling me that "The Spot" as it became known is 10,159 miles wide and 1.3 times larger than the earth.
But the question I want to ask in this morning's blogpost is more basic than the dimensions of this planetary anomaly. What I want to know is, why does anybody care about the spot? What is it that attracts us to the spot? Why are we obsessed with the spot? There are other spots in the universe, "bullions and bullions of them," in the innimicable words of the late astronomer Karl Sagan. What is it about the Giant Red Spot that caused NASA, with its dwindling federal financial support, to send one of its spacecraft a long way out of the way to see the SPOT? And what I have concluded is that there is an obsession in the human consciousness with SPOTS. It is;
The Power of a Spot
Yesterday after church I was eating at my favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara, Via Maestra 47, a tiny but delicious Italian eatery on State Street. My oldest daughter loves the homemade spaghetti and marinara sauce. As I hoisted a forkful of the glorious stuff into my mouth, by some happenstance, and it always happens, a flick of red marinara sauce landed on my best Sunday shirt. For the rest of the afternoon I was obsessed with the red spot. It may not have been planetary in dimension, but it occupied a "Jupiteresque" space in my own mind. Whenever I looked down, it was staring me right in the face. No body else seemed to notice it much. But I saw it. I knew it was there. The rest of my shirt was pristine with perfection, but all I could focus on was the SPOT. Again, it is,
The Power of the Spot
For my Doctorate I have been reading a lot of theology lately, trying to determine how some of the great people of the faith (John Wesley, George Whitfield, CS Lewis, Augustine) came to the Christian faith. For many of them it was an understanding of God's "prevenient Grace". God's free gift of eternal life. But before the discovery of eternal life through Jesus Christ, there was always the SPOT. For John Bunyan, writer of the great book, Pilgrim's Progress, "Wherefore I began with all seriousness to examine any former comfort, and to consider one that had SINNED as I had done, might with confidence trust upon the faithfulness of God." There it was, the SPOT. Almost every one of the great people of faith have been consumed with focus on the blot, the sot, the sin, the SPOT.
The Power of the Spot
What's really interesting about the Giant Red Spot on Jupiter is that at least in cosmic terms, it really isn't that big. At 10,000 miles wide, it is only 10% of the size of the entire planet. And, of course, Jupiter is a tiny spec of dust when compared to other planets in other galaxies...far, far away...
Who knows what draws the human eye to the things which aren't perfect over the things that are? Why do we enjoy the evening news? It seems often to be a highlight of all that is wrong with the world? Why does our eye and focus go to the tiny bit of marinara sauce on an otherwise white shirt. Perhaps, that is really the power of sin, to make large the things in our own own minds, that are really not that large at all. And, perhaps that, in the end, is one of the great powers of the cross. To wash clean all the SPOTS of our lives. The prophet Isaiah said, "Though your sins are like scarlet (GIANT RED SPOTS), they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." (Isaiah 1:18).
All For Now,
Monday, July 10, 2017
I want to take a break from my usual blog that focusses on theological topics, to write about a person who embodies so many of the great attributes of strong character. He is a person who is easily one of the most exciting professional athletes in the history of athletics. I want to write about Rafael Nadal, or "Rafa" as he is called, tennis player extraordinaire!
Just moments ago, Rafael Nadal was in the "Final 16" of Wimbledon (the famed grass, tennis -tournament set in Great Britain, the birthplace of sport). The game that Nadal and Muller played against one another lasted for over 4 hours, and it went five sets. The match went on so long that the next match that was scheduled to follow it (Djokovic), had to be cancelled. The final set, being played as the evening sun cast an orange glow on the beleaguered green court, and even more beleaguered players, was won by Gilles Muller, a 36 year old left hander from Luxembourg.
Not to belabor the point (no pun intended), but the overall set score for the match was:
Nadal 3, 4, 6, 6, 13
Muller 6, 6, 3, 4, 15
If you don't play tennis, you may not know that the usual match lasts just 4 sets. Rarely does a match go to the 5th set, and if it does, it almost never goes 28 extra games! As you can see from the score, Nadal was behind by two whole sets to begin the match. But, one of the keys to Nadal's success has been the simple fact that he:
Never Gives Up
If Nadal is behind, he seems to be able to dig down deep and find some source of inner strength which tells him that even though he is behind, he can still win the match. It's not over till its over!
One of Nadal's mantras is: "Playing well or playing bad, I have to play aggressive. I must play aggressive."
Plays With Passion
Nadal is one of the most passionate players in the history of tennis. His tennis stroke is famous for its wild swing, and his loudly audible grunts as he hits the ball. When Rafa wins, he pumps his fist, when he loses, his face has a grimace upon it.
Of his own passion, Nadal has said, "I play each point like my life depends upon it."
Plays With Courage
There were so many times in this match, and many others that he has played before, where Nadal was about to lose the match if he made one bad tennis stroke. This game, like many others that Nadal has played, went to 5 match points (that means that 5 times during the match, Muller was about to beat him), But Nadal would come through with a huge, strong courageous shot, nonetheless.
With regard to his personal courage during tennis matches, Nadal has said; "Losing is not my enemy...fear of losing is my enemy."
Coolness Under Pressure
When large matches are played, the game is, of course, not the same as if it were two people batting a ball around on a neighborhood court together. There his huge pressure. And this pressure increases all the more when there is a big point. Again and again, Nadal would run to the ball, and hit it with total poise, when he was under pressure.
Again, Nadal has said of his coolness; "The only way of finding a solution is to fight back, to move, to run and to control that under pressure."
Of course, in the end, Nadal lost the match. And he wasn't around afterward to comment on his play, which is already being dissected by the back bench tennis literati as I write this post. But the truth must be faced - Nadal lost! And that is just the point. He will be back. He never gives up. In Nadal's own words; "When one player is better than you, at this moment, the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time. I'm going to wait and I'm going to try a sixth time. And if the sixth doesn't happen, a seventh. It's going to be like this. That's the spirit of the sport."
And that's the Gospel of Nadal!
All For Now,
Tuesday, July 4, 2017
My Favorite Thing About America
We just moved into our new house in Oxnard, California (Oxnard has been described as being a "little LA" with almost every culture and ethnic group under the sun). We had been here about two weeks, and still I had not yet met my neighbors. To be honest, I had felt a little bit guilty about it. Today being "Independence Day", it seemed like the ideal opportunity to rectify this wrong. Plus, my neighbors were sending incredible smells wafting over the small dividing wall that separates our two houses. They had a bounce house for the kids, and around 25 people just lounging around the lawn. American flags wafted in the wind, as their miniature poles stood proudly around the back yard, saluting forward as if honoring the country by their presence. So, I ventured over to meet my neighbors. Plus, my own flank steak preparations, having been marinated since 10:00 this morning, were looking a bit tired and worn, even before they hit the grill.
It turns out that my new neighbors are Vietnamese. This is their story:
Forty-two years ago, they were living in Vietnam, near the border of Thailand. The country had already weathered a long series of wars in previous decades (the French, the British...). And now, they were living in the wake of the American police action there. Then, in 1975, Vietnam came under the control of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRVN). The capital was, of course, Ha Noi, the government was communist, and the regime was quite brutal to its citizens. Some of those who were brutalized were my next door neighbors. My neighbors were, by a miracle of God, able to flee Vietnam in 1978. From Vietnam, they absconded to neighboring Thailand, but because of similarly oppressive forces in that country, were forced to move to Malaysia. There in Malaysia they were interned as refugees for three long years.
Finally, in the early 1980's, because the United States was open to accepting "victims of foreign wars", and refugees from many different countries, my next door neighbors were allowed to come to the United States, under an amnesty program set up by the Reagan Administration. Today, all four children and parents live within a short distance from one another in Oxnard, California. Today, they are mostly all successful business people, and all of the family (totaling around 200) live in the northern Los Angeles city rim.
This family's story definitely has many more avenues of interest and intrigue. The grandfather, who I also met, named Lee, worked at one time for the FBI, as an undercover agent for the West against the communists.
Here's the thing that will remain with me. They told me that the biggest holiday of the year for their family will always be the Fourth of July. Let me just repeat that. The biggest holiday of the year for their family will always be the Fourth of July. The reason for their love of Independence Day is because, and I quote, "This is the holiday that celebrates the country that allowed us to begin again with our lives, and to start anew."
[The picture above is of my 5 year old daughter and her new friend who is a third generation Vietnamese American who goes to elementary school in Ventura].
So, My Favorite Thing About America....
Is the way that our country continually remakes itself. That, through acceptance and openness towards people from other cultures around the world, we find new ways of being "American". And what I most love is the way that our country improves when it is enriched by others - when the freedoms that we all enjoy - are extended to those who are deeply in need of them.
That's the American Dream!
All For Now,
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
I have been thinking lately about how most people tend to see God as a kind of a reflection of themselves. This "self reflection" of God takes many forms. It ranges in everything from the image that we have of Christ, when we think of the person of Jesus (I used to live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and many of my friends who are from the major religion of that city used to see Christ as a blond haired, blue eyed super model), to the clothes that God wears (There is a cathedral in France that I visited once that features a statue of Christ wearing a full suit of medieval armor and carries a sword). But most of all this tendency can be seen in the way that we sometimes see the challenges that we face as not just a mere hurdle that we must overcome, but a challenge to God - the creator of the universe.
You can also see this tendency in the names that people use to address God. When I hear people pray to God with the phrase, "Jesus, we JUST want to thank you...", I often think that there is an attempt to bring Jesus down to be JUST a pal or a friend. When I hear people pray, "Dear God," I sometimes wonder if there isn't a small part of them that wants to sanitize God, or antiquate God a bit. As in, I wouldn't say to my wife, Star, "Dear Star, can I ask you something?". If I did that she would think that I had done something really wrong. All names for God, of course, fall short. I often pray to "Father", which I am sure means that at a deeper level, I am in need of a comforting, strong, steady (and sometimes severe) figure who is God.
In Greek mythology, the figure of Narcissus, was, of course, a great hunter who was known for his beauty. Greek myth tells us that Narcissus was the son of the river god named Cephissus, and a nymph named Liriope. Narcissus was full of pride, and he shunned those who tried to love him. Another god named Nemesis (and that is where we get the word for an arch-enemy - "nemesis") noticed how Narcissus pushed away all the people in his life who tried to love him. So, Nemesis attracted Narcissus to a pool where, while looking into the water, he saw his face in the reflection, and instantly fell in love with that image. Narcissus did not realize that what he was looking at was really only a reflection, and not a real person. So entranced was Narcissus by his own image, that he was unable to leave the water's edge. Eventually, so the myth goes, Narcissus lost his will to live. He kept staring at his own reflection until the day he died. And, of course, Narcissus is where we get the psychological term, "narcissism", which is a fixation with oneself, and ones appearance.
Where am I going with this blogpost? Just this - the hardest thing for humans to do is to get beyond ourselves. While we may not be so obsessed with ourselves that we decide to die beside the reflection of our own image, like Narcissus, most of us just have a very hard time moving beyond ourselves. As Christians, we believe that the only way past ourselves, is not to say, "I'm not going to think about myself today." That is an impossibility. The moment we say this, we are thinking about ourselves, and it makes the problem worse. The only way is to know and love a God who is different from us, who is bigger than us, who is stronger than us, and most of all is not - US. If we make God into an alter-image of ourselves, we can find no ultimate salvation beyond ourselves.
The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote the lines, "Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us" (from, "To a Louse"). What we believe as Christians is that our God has the power to not only see ourselves as others see us, but more importantly, to see ourselves as we see ourselves. And to see beyond that. And to love beyond that.
Every Sunday, I close the worship services that I lead in Goleta with a simple Benediction; "Go in the name of the God who loves you, even more than you could ever love yourself. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
And, at least in my own case, that is sometimes saying something:-)
What about you?
All For Now,
Monday, June 19, 2017
This morning, as the family was rushing off to their sundry summer activities, I was given the job of keeping an eye on Ewan, our 11 month old son [pictured above]. In case you haven't spent much time with toddlers lately, let me tell you, this is no small feat. The moment Ewan is engaged with one project (the overtipping of a dog bowl, for example), he is off to another activity (the eating of dog food, for another example). Basically, my goal as a parent is to keep Ewan engaged in some kind of activity for;
20 Minutes at a...Time
And so the morning goes. One activity after the next. 20 minutes of block time. 20 minutes of crawl time, 20 minutes of eating time, 20 minutes of door stopper inspection time. In a way, breaking the day up into smaller segments makes the whole thing easier. If you are watching an 11 month old for 9 hours, all you have to do is come up with 24 different activities.
20 Minutes at a...Time
I have been reading a book on preaching by Will Willimon entitled, Undone By Easter. In it, Willimon gives extensive thought about the ramifications of being human and the implications of living within a world that is bound up in small increments of time. In his lecture delivered at Duke University, Willimon reminded me that the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said that; "everything in life is only for a moment." After that moment passes, everything is simply, "it was", and no longer, "it is". The fleeting moment alone is "real", everything else passes away. Willimon also observed that the Gospel of Mark's favorite word is, "immediately" (Euthys - in Greek). In the writing of the book of Mark, and it should be noted that that took place around 40 years after the resurrection of Jesus, John-Mark (the author of Mark), seems to think that everything to do with God is immediate. Everything to do with Jesus is instantaneous. Everything is momentary. With Jesus, it was also;
20 Minutes at a...Time
One of my favorite commentators and speech writers, David Gergen, who served as an assistant to four President's of the United States, said that the most ideal length for a speech is 20 minutes. "People's minds begin to wander after 20 minutes," said Gergen. "And usually, that wandering of the mind goes to thoughts of [dare I say it]...sex". This chestnut of wisdom from Gergen has really helped me to try to pair my Sunday sermons down to a more manageable length. I would hate to cause people to sin, by the mere preaching of a longer sermon than necessary:-). The human mind seems to be able to focus best in increment of;
20 Minutes at a...Time
The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that; "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens... a time to plant, a time to uproot, a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance." And perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, those activities only last for a short season.
20 Minutes at a...Time
I would, of course, write a few more paragraphs here about the nature of time, except that it has already exceeded my 20 minute framework, and Ewan is onto another activity.
All For Now,
Monday, June 12, 2017
Dear Fellow Blogpost Readers,
Its been a couple of weeks since I wrote a blog post. Sorry about that!
I've been juggling many things lately, not the least of which is a move to another house which our family now finds ourselves in the middle of. Also, I'm beginning the writing of my dissertation for my Doctoral project, and my book proposal (WITH) has now been submitted to the publishers. Oh, and did I mention that school is now out for the summer. To say that we are busy, in the Baird household, would be an understatement.
I was thinking about taking a couple of weeks away from my blog, but decided, that I missed not writing it, and several of you have contacted me that you have missed not reading my post. Also, I did want to take a moment in the middle of all of this bustle to relate a real story of grace and kindness that happened to me recently.
About 10:00 in the morning I heard a knock on the front door. I wasn't expecting any visitors, Ewan had just gone down for his morning nap, and so the knock on the door was a bit of a surprise. When I answered the door, a man in a green jump suit with a patch that said, "City Sanitation Services" was standing there. "Do you live here?" he asked. "Yes, I do." "Did you lose your wallet?" I quickly frisked the outsides of my pockets and found that my wallet was, in fact, not there.
"Oh my goodness, yes I did," I said in a concerned voice. "Well, here it is!" said the man standing in the door. "I found it right next to the garbage cans outside, on the street and I wanted to bring it up to you." The man in the green jump suit extended his huge, dirty, mitt-sized hand with my black wallet inside of it. "Thank you SOO much," I said. I couldn't believe my eyes. Instinctively, I reached inside my wallet to offer the man a tip for his kindness. "Oh, no, that's fine," he said, "I'm just glad you got wallet back. I've got to run! I'm late in picking up the garbage cans today." As the garbage man ran back to his truck which was idling on the curb, I yelled; "Ok, well thank you again, I can't thank you enough."
I was dumbfounded at this man's, this - "garbage man's"- kindness to me. In a move of caution I quickly looked in my wallet to see that everything was still there. Now, here's the thing. As a child of my generation, I never carry cash. But because I did a funeral the weekend before, and a generous parishioner had given me $100 for a funeral that I conducted, I was carrying a very large bill. Incredibly, all of the money, my credit cards, and other personal items were still there.
Ever since the occurrence, what I am now calling "wallet-gate", I have been thinking about the immensity of the act of kindness that this kind garbage man had bestowed upon me. Here is a man, I thought to myself, who was behind the ball in his morning duties. He probably doesn't get paid more than $10 an hour. And yet he took time out of his schedule to bring a wallet to the door of a person he had never met. How easy it would have been for him to just take the $100 bill, and throw the wallet back on the ground. How easy it would have been for him to ring the doorbell, leave the wallet, but not wait for me to answer.
And I confess that I have sometimes looked at people who perform the more menial tasks in our society with a slight heir of condescension and superiority. But no more! Whenever I see a "Sanitation Engineer" working hard at what he does in another setting, I will remember the extreme act of kindness that this perfect stranger showed me.
And I will also remember that no matter how busy I get, I should always have time to offer a simple and graceful act of kindness!
All For Now,