Thursday, March 22, 2018

Second cup: "Bread and Forgiveness"

3/4/18 FUMC
Third Sunday of Lent: “The Lord’s Prayer”
“Give us this day, our daily bread

I grew up in a rich and eclectic musical culture: classical, jazz, of course, the hymns and gospel songs of the church, popular—even country western; my born in England father loved country western music. One of the songs that has reverberated through my memories this week, is from my childhood called “That Lucky Old Sun,” written by Louis Armstrong, yes, that Louis Armstrong; it goes like this….

Up in the mornin'
Out on the job
Work like the devil for my pay
But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do
But roll around heaven all day
Fuss with my woman, toil for my kids
Sweat 'til I'm wrinkled and gray
While that lucky old sun has nothin' to do
But roll around Heaven all day
Good Lord up above, can't you know I'm pining, tears all in my eyes;
Send down that cloud with a silver lining, lift me to Paradise
Show me that river, take me across
And wash all my troubles away...

That resonates a little, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite memoirists, Madeleine L’Engle, said, as if commenting on this song, “The problem with life is that it is just so damn daily.” The reality of simply putting one foot in front of the other. There’s so much to do. Places to go. People to meet. Chores to be accomplished. Church to go to. Prayers to be prayed. Lists to be checked off; bank accounts to be balanced. Into this damn dailiness comes Jesus, bursting out of his tomb and into ours saying wake up! Breaking up routines and the dominant powers of his day, calling us to look at the people we bump into; inviting women into his work; working on the Sabbath; raising dead men; forgiving those who deserve to be stoned; even suggesting to at least one person that he should go sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him; asking us to consider how we spend our money and our time—and telling us there is simpler way—not less demanding but simpler. He calls rewards and compensations into question, calls tax collectors away from their work and then has dinner with them; he overturns nearly everything. He says again and again, “You have heard it said of old, but I say unto you….”

I think we have to hear the words of this familiar prayer in this radical spirit. When you pray, Jesus says, pray like this: “The bread of us daily give to us today.” This day; not for the month, week, even for tomorrow; he says, our daily bread for this day. Where is this going? As I said last week, the world Jesus invites us to live in is a paradoxical world, an in-between world; it has come, Jesus ushered it in, yet it is to come; yet we are in it. Like all of this prayer, the part we consider today is about how we live in such a world as followers of Jesus.

Here’s where we eat and live and move, right? We are called to be kingdom people who have to live and work with other kingdom people and with people who are, by choice, not kingdom people, in the damn dailiness of our lives.

How do we deal with this reality? Perhaps reflecting on L’Engle’s statement, Joan D. Chittister says, “I begin to understand as never before that holiness is made of dailiness, of living life as it comes to me, not as I insist it be.” Daily, Jesus says. We pray for this day; in other places, he pushes the envelope, as we say; he says not to worry about what we eat or wear—the Parent to whom we pray will take care of us. Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures where they can be stolen or corrupted or rust away. Live daily; the kingdom, Jesus seems to say, is a one day at a time kingdom. So, we live in the now even as we understand that our now is a kingdom now—a Kairos now, an eternity now.
As if this isn’t enough, Jesus adds, also we should pray like this: “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…,” which seems to say forgive us in the present as we have forgiven in the past.

Forgive our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us: in other words, forgive us for refusing to go where we should go and forgive us for going where we shouldn’t. Where should we go: the way of forgiveness; where should we not go: the way of unforgiveness. To the extent that we forgive others who trespass we will be forgiven. So, how do we live in the kingdom? We live as forgivers. Now we tend to ask God for forgiveness for our trespasses, but many scholars agree that debt is probably closer to what Jesus had in mind. Not economic debt, but another kind of debt altogether.

St. Augustine calls this part of the Lord’s Prayer the “terrible petition.” Augustine says if you don’t forgive you are building a prison of debt. A self-constructed debtor’s prison. When we don’t forgive, we are praying to not be forgiven. We are to live in the kingdom in an active state of forgiveness. Jesus seems to take this forgiveness stuff really seriously. It seems to be a thing; the waiting father and the prodigal son; 7 x 70 times, which some commentators suggest is about forever forgiveness, not about keeping count. Immediately at the end of this prayer, Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus, on the cross, prayed for the forgiveness of those who lied, connived, and colluded with Rome to bring about his death.

Ultimately, I think these words about dailiness and forgiveness are pleas for freedom. L’Engle says, “It’s hard to let go of anything we love. We live in a world which teaches us to clutch. But when we clutch we’re left with a fistful of ashes.” What we seek is freedom from ashes; freedom from bondage. Bondage to the largely self-inflicted demands of the day and bondage from the tyrannical prison of unforgiveness. We are bound to each other for good or ill. We are bound to the one we choose not to forgive; we are bound to the anger, resentment, and dis-ease that accompany the lack of forgiveness.

So, how does this prayer invite us to live in the in between kingdom? As persons free of the false demands of dailiness and as persons who are forgiven because we have forgiven—this is how the kingdom defines itself; this is how the kingdom comes. The world right side up kingdom. In Galatians 5:13, Paul reminds us that we “were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Second Cup: "Thy Kingdom Come"

The second in a series on the "Our Father" taught at
Fremont United Methodist Church:

2/25/18 FUMC
Second Sunday of Lent: “The Lord’s Prayer”
“Your kingdom come;
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven”

I’ve titled this reflection “The Hope of Life.”

There is a scene at the end of The Return of the King that never fails to move me to tears. The wars are over; Mordor has fallen; the brave dead have been honored; and the true king sits on his throne surveying all who contributed to the victory of light over dark. Aragorn speaks: “Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.' And as the crown is placed on Aragorn’s head, Gandalf speaks these words: 'Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!'

Why does that move me so? I think because it is, first, a picture of something that I and most followers of Jesus look forward to--the second coming of Jesus when God’s rule will be made perfect and all will be set right; second, I think, it moves because it is a picture of hope fulfilled. It is the fulfillment of ancient messianic prophecy when, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
We live with hope. We hope that all we believe is true; we hope that one day it will all make sense. We have a calligraphy hanging in our dining room that says “Hope is believing in God’s kingdom now; faith is dancing to it.” We hope for this kingdom every Sunday; some of us pray it more, even daily, when we pray:

“Your kingdom come;
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven”

Have you ever wondered what you are praying for when alone or we together we pray, “Let it come the kingdom of thee”? Do I really want it? What dance might we dance? What if I don’t like the music or the words? What if I don’t know how to dance? Proud in our representative democracy, we Americans tend not to like kings—except for the ones we watch on the telly. But we don’t want one here; so in recent years we’ve changed the kingdom language to rule of God or reign of God—both of which amount to the same thing; perhaps it’s a little more generic and not so gendered.

Yet, to understand what we pray for, we have to think about kings and kingdoms. KING DOM—that is, the king’s dominion—it belongs to the king and reflects the king, the king’s character and values. Even though today monarchs are more symbol of power than real power, still they reflect a tradition, a world view, a way of life. But in the days of absolute monarchs, the kingdom was expressly what the king said it was—the place where the will of the king was paramount. And if you didn’t like it, well, in the words of the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, “Off with their heads!” In Jesus’ day, that reality of that ruthless power radiated from Rome and was in the hands of the Caesars and his minions which, sadly, included the puppet king of Israel and colluding religious leaders. Scholars tell us that Rome was remarkably tolerant of other religions so long as they included Caesar in their pantheon. Which, of course, is the sticking point for Jesus and his followers. While Rome and its minions chanted there is no king but Caesar; Christians said, there is no king except God and God’s son, Jesus.

But this prayer does more than ask for the kingdom, it defines it and explains how it happens: “Let it come the will of thee, as in heaven also on earth.” So, the simple and challenging answer to the original question is that the kingdom we pray for is the kingdom we bring into being when we do the will of the king: the kingdom comes when and where God’s will is done, in the places where we live.

In the gospel reading this morning, Jesus says to Peter: “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” This kingdom is not geographical; it is not national; it is not material; while it is a political statement, it is not the property of political parties. The kingdom is where God’s will is done. Richard Rohr wrote, “Pax Romana creates a false peace by sacrificing others; Pax Christi…works for true peace by sacrificing power, prestige, and possessions.” Whatever governmental philosophy, political party or denominational affiliation we may belong to, God’s kingdom trumps them all.

Jesus announced the kingdom; ever since, followers of Jesus live and work in the kingdom now even as they seek the kingdom yet to come.

So, we must ask, I think, how do we know what we pray for; what do we look for? We affirm Jesus is God; we have been known to sing about King Jesus. The answer lies here; we look to Jesus to define the kingdom you and I live in and are to help bring in. Who was Jesus? How did he live in the world? How did he relate to others? Remember, he said that he and his father were one. What Jesus is God is; God’s kingdom, then, is the Jesus kingdom where followers of Jesus live out kingdom values as defined by King Jesus: Compassionate, healing, self-sacrificing, rule breaking, obediently disobedient, cross carrying, risk taking, death defying, friend of sinners, hanger out with prostitutes, the sick, and the other—the very, very human. If the kingdom reflects the king and if you and I are followers of the king, desiring to please the king, we have our orders.

There is also a threat somewhere in all of this. I remember, years ago a pastor saying to me, “Be careful what you pray for, you may receive it.” We pray Sunday after Sunday for the kingdom to come—it is a personal prayer (let the kingdom come in and through me) and a communal prayer (let the kingdom come in and through us). How does the kingdom come? It comes when we dance, however well or awkwardly, to the tune the Savior plays. It comes as we pray and as we live our prayers. I think we should pray, with St. Richard of Chichester and the cast of Godspell:

Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Third Cup: The Lord's Prayer in Lent

This is the first of a five Sunday series I offered at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. It's been a while since I posted--over a year. I think this may be a good time to reenter the blogosphere.

First Sunday of Lent: “The Lord’s Prayer”
“Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy Name….”

I am often lost. I often live without a sense of clear direction. The times we live in are particularly confusing and decentering. But I have been truly lost only twice. One was in a village in the mountains above Ensenada, Mexico; the other was in Red Bluff, California. The first involved a work camp, high school students, and being left behind in the middle of the night because of an emergency that took all the staff away to the hospital, leaving me alone and responsible for the 30 students. I was in charge and alone. My high school Spanish was hardly useful, and I couldn’t even find the North Star.

The other involved the death of our second child just hours after he was born. I was completely alone again. Joel, our first born, was with grandparents. Judy still in the hospital; the phone calls were made. While this was undeniably harder for Judy than for me, I was home after a harrowing day and completely lost. Lost and alone.

In nearly every respect, these represent the human condition. We have all experienced what “lost and alone” means.

Such times are disorienting. The world shifts under our feet and nothing is as it seemed. In Mexico the sky was larger; the sounds louder; my heart could be heard for miles; and the distances vast; I felt very small. In Red Bluff, the world hadn’t just shifted; it had turned upside down, I was free falling, and God seemed a bit careless. We are thrown out of balance and confused because what we thought was true—suddenly, seems not so.

In these times, ritual matters; in these times, we can do little but put one foot in front of the other and pray that somehow sense and meaning will be restored.

Into such times, the prayer we call “The Lord’s” comes. A prayer that provides the ritual and the re-orientation we need—a North Star.


Jesus teaches us to pray to the "Our Father"—not just any father, but the one “the heaven.” The one whose name is holy; the one who assures and orients. The true north star. This invocation locates us; whenever and wherever we pray this that space becomes sacred. We begin all of our conversations with a greeting because greetings provide welcome and focus. As does this greeting; we open a door and invite God in—and God shows up.

Not just any God. This is not my God; this is our God—personal, yes, but not private. We don’t own God. This is a holy God—the God who is beyond what we may imagine. This God is to be revered and worshiped. This God has a name; in fact, this God has many names—Jesus teaches us—in his time and space—to call God father, but God is beyond gender, so we call may call God mother. God is “The Mother of us, the one in the heavens.” Our divine parent. Jesus, who knows this One best, called God “abba,” that is, daddy; as can we so long as we remember that this one is also Yahweh, meaning I Am; I am who I am; I will be whom I will be; I am becoming who I will become. But the meanings that flow from this are many: all Kairos; no chronos; no beginning and no end; so holy to the orthodox Jew that it must be substituted with Adonai, simply “Lord.” This is the ground of all being; the one on whom everything depends but who depends on nothing; yet desires our friendship.

We often say that Jesus came and turned the world upside down—which is how our world often feels; I think the truer statement is that God comes to turn the world right side up. So here’s what I think matters and what we must remember as we journey with this prayer through this season: you and I are invited to pray this prayer, which means you and I have access to God, personal, communal, and direct. This prayer and the One to whom it is addressed, transcendent and beyond, is available to us in the extremis of our lives when we feel more like praying, “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small”; then, we pray


—it’s a door opener; not a closer; it’s not the end of a conversation but the beginning of one, a true north star even in the darkest of nights and the stormiest of seas—invoking the Source and sustainer of life, the One who does, after all, show up as God did for me in Mexico and Red Bluff.


Monday, August 7, 2017

MORNING (although late in the afternoon) Joe: Yokefellows

The second of three sermons (edited for my blog), preached at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon, 7/23/17. This one is based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

My son and I recently traveled in northern New Mexico and parts of the Oklahoma Panhandle in search of my mother’s family history. It was a great trip through beautiful high desert country, and we actually found the marked graves of my great grandfather, William O’Donnell Cochran, his wife, Nancy, and a couple of my granduncles, Achilles and Doc. They are buried in Kenton, in OK, home to about 18 folks—but once a thriving ranching community where my great grandfather and grandfather lived, worked, raised horses and cattle, and tilled the earth. Thanks to the records of the Bureau of Land Management, we found their homestead. Along the way we visited a few museums, searching for information; one common display in those museums is a yoke. I always knew what a yoke was but I guess I never realized how important they were. Most of our trip paralleled, crossed and re-crossed, the Santa Fe Trail—still visible to the eye. My vision of the west was formed largely by Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians. Contrary to that vision of horse drawn Conestoga wagons racing away from the bad guys, most of the wagons were pulled by oxen.

Have you ever looked at or touched a yoke? We used to have one in a meditation garden where I work. A lovely symbol, but they don’t look very comfortable; they are heavy and many are quite rough. But the technology is really simple. A carved, contoured beam that fits behind the ox horns laid over the necks of oxen. There are actually several different kinds of yoke but the one we are most familiar with looks like this. They have two U-shaped attachments that fit around the necks of a team of oxen or other draft animals, with a central ring for hitching the team to a cart, plow, or other load.

In one sense, the early history of the US, perhaps even the world, can be linked to this technology. Yokes were pervasive in Jesus’ day; while in this Matthew passage, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, no one in Jesus’ crowd needed a photograph. Most of his listeners understood what one was and how it worked. But Jesus’ listeners also understood yoke in an oppressive way—the yoke of slavery and oppression. In the Bible yoke is usually a metaphor for slavery and the hardships people must bear. When the yoke of bondage or slavery became severe, it is termed “a yoke of iron upon your neck” (Deut 28:48). Sometimes the term is used to describe the burden of a person’s sin and its punishment: “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck” (Lam 1:14).

But they would also have understood it in terms of liberation and hope—at least a broken yoke. Isaiah states that the Messiah will break “the yoke of his burden” (Isa 9:4) for all. “The yoke will be destroyed from your neck” (Isa 10:27). When God delivered Israel from Egypt, God said, “I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect” (Lev 26:13).

So, what’s going on here? What’s Jesus doing? In the early part of this reading—and in the Matthew passage from two weeks ago—Jesus is discipling his followers about living faithfully in a complicated, often perplexing and oppressive world:

“But to what will I compare this generation?” He asks. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”

Some suggest that Jesus seems perplexed here. They rejected John the Baptist and are rejecting him—two very different men who went about ministry in very different ways. He seems to ask, How will they hear that God wants us to live differently? To live with gentleness and humility. I like this idea that Jesus might have been genuinely perplexed. Certainly, he seems sad and maybe even a little or a lot frustrated.

But we might also paraphrase these words this way: You’re never going to make everyone happy—no matter how hard you try. Then, he says, again my paraphrase, if this is how it is, what can be done about it? How can we live as disciples in this setting? Well, his first answer is: Stay focused: “Remember who I am and stay focused on that”: I am God’s son and God loves me, and I reveal God to you. I reveal to you as loving parent.”

Typically, Jesus turns the metaphor of work, bondage, and oppression upside down and says, “Take my yoke.” At first glance, not a pleasant offer and one that begs the question: What kind of yoke are we offered? He describes it for us: it will provide rest; it is a teaching yoke—yoked to Jesus we will learn what we need to know to live in the world. What does this teach us about Jesus? We need to consider that there are two sides to this yoke. We are not only yoked to him; he is yoked with us. Jesus is not driving the oxen; Jesus is not walking alongside the oxen, goading us on; Jesus is not pulling us forward by a ring through our noses; Jesus is yoked with us. He not only wants to be with us, he wants to be joined with us, which is why St. Clement called this “the yoke of grace.” So, to be yoked with Jesus is to be in relationship with him but this also begs a question: Who is this Jesus we are yoked with? Everything hinges on this question. Who is this Jesus with whom we are to be yoked?

At the heart of both the health and unhealth of all of us—and the church—is the image of Jesus we carry in our hearts. Who Jesus is; how Jesus relates and cares; our unhealthy and non-biblical pictures of Jesus—each of these contributes to our own sense of esteem, how we relate to others, and how we relate to God. If we are yoked with a Jesus who is judging, angry, and finger pointing, our yoke will be anything but easy and light. If our view of Jesus is of one who is excited to be with us, who is, welcoming, accepting, encouraging, compassionate, embracing, and yes, lovingly confronting Jesus, then our lives and our ministry together will be connected, healthy, compassionate, and open to God and others.

This yoke means this: We are not alone; we don’t have to live alone; we don't have to work alone; we don’t have to do anything by our own strength. It is grace. It also tells us something about the kind of relationship we are invited into because, Jesus says, my yoke is easy [good, helpful, kind, profitable], and my burden is light. A well-made yoke, evenly distributes the burden; there is an equality about a yoke; each ox is worthy and each ox is necessary and each ox eases the burden of the other.

I grew up in a church where we sang the following with some regularity; I wonder now how true it was for those folks and how true it is for me. (It was written by D. S. Warner and published in 1893.)

The words matter and I remember the music as light and fetching:

I’ve found my Lord and He is mine,
He won me by His love;
I’ll serve Him all my years of time,
And dwell with Him above.

His yoke is easy, His burden is light,
I’ve found it so, I’ve found it so;
His service is my sweetest delight,
His blessings ever flow.

No other Lord but Christ I know,
I walk with Him alone;
His streams of love forever flow,
Within my heart His throne.

He’s dearer to my heart than life,
He found me lost in sin;
He calmed the sea of inward strife,
And bade me come to Him.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

First Cup: "Fighting Words"

“Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers”
Matthew 10:24-39

Recently in conversation with my friend, Bill Dobrenen, he asked me why I’d quit blogging. Well, I said, hadn’t really quit; I just sort of stopped. But the real reason is that I am basically a dialogical person. I love being with people and I love conversation—and, nearly completely, my blogs are answered by silence. I know that people are visiting this site—and another friend complained that the blog site rules made it difficult to respond—but I don’t know if what I offer has any value beyond the value that I receive from thinking things through in this manner. But he encouraged me; even sent me a response. So, once again, into the fray, hoping that the words I write are words that help someone on life’s journey.
The following is a modified for blog “sermon” I preached recently at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon.

If you’re like me, you prefer spending your Bible study time with the happy news passages—the reassuring ones that tell me how much I’m loved, cared for, and known. Sometimes I think Thomas Jefferson had the right idea: Let’s just cut out the hard passages and the demands; you know, like the Matthew judgment passages; let’s just keep the parts that talk about when we do the good things, it’s as if we are doing them to Jesus and ignore those parts that talk about how uncompassionate behavior is mean spirited and in some important ways directed at Jesus. Sadly, but for the better, we don’t get to do that and must pay attention to the hard texts.

They are so demanding; they are so “in your face.” They make us uncomfortable because we see ourselves in them—well, I do. They make us think about how we live our lives, individually and collectively, in the light of Jesus’ call. As he so often does, these passages remind us that it’s not all about us. At the same time that they make us squirm and hunt for rationalizations, they invite us into an ancient conversation. What we call the early church had a problem—one we share with them. They may have felt it more particularly because it was so close to them—so on top of them, but it is still one we struggle with. I call it the Now what problem.

Jesus showed up; Jesus died, Jesus rose; Jesus left, sending something called the Holy Spirit to inspire his followers to figure it out—no blue print provided; it’s something more like a one of my mother’s recipes: a pinch of that and a bit of this. In important ways, Acts and the epistles are extended conversations about the how what; I think the history of the church is the history of people trying to figure this out. Matthew 10:24-39 provides words that challenge us on so many levels, it’s hard to find a starting point, but it is essential to that quest. Since those days, the followers of Jesus, aka the church, has turned to these hard passages asking now what? How does a group of Jesus followers live in a confusing world that provides so many conflicting answers?

There is a context that must be considered before going further. The context always matters and, I think, the context that needs to be considered is the largest one. The central figure of the Bible is God; God self-defines as love; God desires to be in relationship with us. God is love and we are loved, and we are to be like God as lived by Jesus in plain view. We, too, need to be with others, which is especially true with faith because there is no private faith. It is personal, yes, but also communal. So, we are not alone; we live in a world as Jesus followers and with others—others who think as we do, live as we do, believe as we do—and who mostly don’t.

The Bible is full of the loving words we love to hear and read and talk about; the Bible is full of the hard words and challenges that we’d just as soon ignore. Matthew 10:24-39 is one of those hard texts. I’ve given this blog entry the title “Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers.” I don’t think Jesus was always fun to spend time with. He was a revolutionary. He drew lines in the sand.

Sometimes it feels as if we are standing with Colonel Travis at the Alamo: “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” You are with me or not. No one lukewarm welcomed here. This good news doesn’t feel much like good news, does it? Even though Jesus could be amazingly tender—and thank God for those tender words—these difficult words fall from those same lips. It’s hard to make them palatable, isn’t it?

My growing up years were spent in a holiness congregation that defined Christian more by what we didn’t do than by what we did or who we were. There was a long list of don’ts. This made things pretty easy; to be a Christian, toe this line. The whole-hearted life commitment that Jesus calls us to is so much harder because it has more to do with who you belong to and how you live as a believer in a difficult world. It feels more like living in the gray interstices and palimpsests than in the bright glare of unequivocal day. Yet Jesus does draw a line in the sand here. Jesus does say you are with me or not. Jesus does say to pick up his cross and follow. Jesus does say, if you are my disciple you should expect what I received—and perhaps more. He even says that if you care more for family than you do for me, you are not worthy of me. Finders losers; losers keepers. Whew! This is hard stuff; hard to read; harder to practice; harder to write about.

Where is the positive in all of this? Well, I hope I can find some this is going to be one big downer of a blog. I think Jesus is simply recognizing that—no matter what—we are going to serve somebody—it’s our DNA—even Bob Dylan says we can’t escape it. We don’t get to say no; we are going to serve somebody even if it is ourselves—and we all know how well that works out, right? Where is the hope in this?

In two places; first, right in the middle of all this hard stuff Jesus says, in The Message paraphrase:

What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?
And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.
He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—
even numbering the hairs on your head!
So, don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.
You’re worth more than a million canaries.

So, first, we are known and we are loved—we are counted and named and have more value than canaries. God is love and we are God’s. The hard stuff must be heard in this context—or all is lost.

Second, we are not alone because we are with others who are also trying to figure it out. That’s one of my definitions for the church: a bunch of Jesus followers, sitting at his table, trying to figure it out.

Some have correctly suggested that this passage is part of the commissioning and discipling of his disciples and that he is urging them to boldly proclaim a new way of living based on peace and love. Verses 37-39 sound challenging but are really saying “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” But this doesn’t really let us off; the Great Commandment is pretty challenging as well. Furthermore, we cannot escape into the that was then, this is now argument. The Bible is the church’s book and its authority and relevance still informs all that we are, think, and do. So, while these teachings of Jesus are addressed immediately to his disciples, we, too, are disciples of Jesus and so he says it also to us.

Shane Claiborne, in a recent tweet, said this: “This is the church: a bunch of imperfect people falling in love with a perfect God…and trying to become more like the God we love, every day.” So, where do we end up with this? We choose. Life is all about choice, isn’t it? It is what we do–we choose. We choose to follow Jesus, and we choose to embrace the consequences of that choice. In some respects, we choose every day; perhaps, every moment. We do not choose by ourselves, hiding in a closet, if we know what’s good for us. In the open light of day, we choose with others who are also choosing to live this way. And we ask, what now? So what? How, then, shall I live? Who we choose to serve and how we live out that choice, empowered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, in the company of others who share (and some who don’t share) the same choice we make—herein is the answer. As Christians, as Jesus followers, we choose Jesus in all his revolutionary, line in the sand, stance, we watch him and listen to him and to others who also choose him; then we stand before him and invite his Spirit to open us up and travel with us on the journey of living into this choice.  

Many years ago, Helmut Thielicke, in response to a question about how Christians are to answer questions when the Bible is ambiguous. What do you do when the Bible does not give us a clear “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”? His response never left me and has been one of the formative guides on my own journey. He said, “You stand before the question.” I take that to mean that you do not jump to conclusions; you do not immediately build a fort (or draw a line in the sand) to defend your conclusion. I take it as another way of saying what Rilke said to a young poet even longer ago: “You learn to love the questions and live into the answer.”

The older I get the more questions I have than answers; I always thought it would be the other way around. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard for a teacher who necessarily spends more time with students’ questions than most. Maybe it’s just a curse or even borne out of fear of answers and what they might mean for my life. Yet, I have found that while The Answer List has gotten shorter, it has gotten more certain and more determinative. At the heart of that certainty is this ever-deepening conviction that Jesus lives with me as I stand before the questions of my life, that I trust his presence in my life, and have faith that daily I move forward with greater hope and charity.

Friday, April 14, 2017



As I was driving to pick up my great granddaughter this morning, I was praying for these poems. It occurred to me, as I prayed, that I really don’t know where my poetry comes from. I desire to be a poet, yet in some odd way I feel more like a transcriber than an originator. (I do not mean by this to say that these poems are written by God or carry some special godly authority. I do mean to say that these poems are the result of a nearly life long conversation with God about God and me—and, in that conversation, suddenly, often without expectation, as a kind of surprise, a poem emerges, as it were, “out of the blue.” Lewis was “surprised by joy”; I am often surprised by poetry.) I rarely sit down to write a poem; I am often compelled to write a poem. An idea or turn of phrase occurs to me and, then, there it is. These that follow are the result of that conversation and have been in some sense brewing for quite a while.

[Crucifix by Will Johnson]


These are not the last words;
He has much more to say along the way:
Next to the beach over a cooking fire,
Walking along a road after Jerusalem,
In locked door rooms; in a garden
outside a tomb. Ascending. These, instead,
are his dying words.

People once listened and carefully recorded
Last words; it is possible to find collections
Of famous last words. I’m told persons,
Thoughtful about their deaths, once composed
Such lines in anticipation. A legacy of famous words.

These seven words are spoken by a dying man, hanging
From a cross. These words are from a used cross
Rooted in bloodied rock. These words, not his last,
Ring a surprising tone of compassion.
For all others; perhaps, even for us; for his mother’s
Well being; for a repentant random other
Crucified alongside him. Human words.
Words you might expect from a dying man—
Abandonment, thirst, yielding. Ordinary words
For the most part made holy by
Circumstance and speaker.

Word 1. “forgive”

This is no execution looked away from, locked
Away and seen only by a few official witnesses.
This is no lethal injection administered with
Clinical correctness in a sterile room on a gurney.
No chair wired for quick startling death.
This is public death. Officials and passersby can
Chat as they watch and lay odds about the certain,
If eventual, outcome. Not odds on if, only when.

Nothing hidden here. No modesty. The pain.
The blood. The nakedness. The anguish. The blood.
Thirst. Death displayed in front of God and everybody.

Then, this word—“forgive.” It must have silenced the
Noise momentarily, at least. Passersby stood, perplexed,
Mouths open. (Such perplexing irony. The one unlawfully
Condemned—a victim of power politics and privilege—
Says “Forgive them.”) Yet, unwilling to consider what this
Word means, too quickly return to idle chatter
And easy mockery, missing this cosmic moment
when dying God intervened
For mercy on those who have accomplished his death.

Word 2. “paradise”

A conversation on crosses.
A conversation in extremis.
Straining for breath, rasping out words,
Like after a hard run or a steep climb.
Parched words. Hoarse.
Straining muscle to pull up, to take a breath
To expel words with one who speaks words
Of anger and escape and one who
Speaks words of hope and release.

As they hang dying, they discuss their fates.
One, at least, regardless of the obvious, senses
Something more here, something else and begs.
Asks to be remembered. Re-membered.
Remember these bones. Remember me.
You will be remembered, the One says, and it
Will be paradise. A garden. You will be remembered
As you were…no, as you were intended. As we all
Were intended in that place of rivers and peace,
Of beauty and order where all was as it was meant to be:
“with me.” Today. With me. In paradise. As once
I walked with the father and mother of us all
In the cool of the evening, so we, today, in paradise,
Will walk.

Word 3. “Behold”

What do you notice when you are dying? A fly?
An unfamiliar noise? The smells of dying?
In moments of anguish, what do you hear
While other friends and family hide?

Two are near, a woman and a man.
One you call mother and one you call
Beloved. You notice, in midst of your pain, they
Are alone. Bereft. Your cross, your death, creates a
Welcoming space where two alone can meet
And embrace and find connection in face of
Such anguish.

Anguish shared is anguish borne and loss
Is found begins to fill:
Mother, your son; beloved, your mother.

In the midst of such startling pain, such desperate ache,
Such dangerous despair, two meet and secure a
Sacred space and begin their journey to peace. The
Sword piercing her heart is slowly released and
Healing begins.

Word 4. “forsaken”

He begged to be spared this.
He begged to avoid the deep pain of deeper loss.
He begged for another way to sidestep this valley.
This well of loneliness, a lightless hole that sucks
All light and life leaving more absence of light
Than dark. He begged and bled through his pores.
He tasted this tasteless bread and drank this flat wine.
No surcease. Nothing. Absence. Forsaken. Abandoned.
He, once one with his father, is now alone, alone, alone.
All, all alone.

Yet, still, he calls on the abandoning father to
Understand why such despair is necessary.
What does he learn in this absent light?
What we all know as existential loss—
An untethering from the source. Anchorless.
An unreachable pier. A severed rope to which we
Clung. A rootless tree.

Word 5. “thirst”

The incarnation in a simple sentence. Subject Verb.
In the midst of a cosmic-everything-changing-moment,
This essential human need. Stretched between
Heaven and earth—never more human.
Never holier. The word made flesh
And thirsted among us. We are 60% water.
An ocean flows in us, yet
We know thirst. Headaches. Muscle aches.
Dizziness. Dis-oriented,
Thirst focuses our attention more than any
Other need—all consuming thirst.
We die more quickly from thirst
Than hunger. The body drains and must be


He who said I have food you know not of as
He sat by Jacob’s well; he who spoke and
Bound the sea that covered the world,

Word 6. “finished”

In every beginning, there is an end. Death has
Stalked this one since the age of two. The end arrives;
Death closes in. Eagerly. But why? What is needed?
A fulfilled sacrificial ritual to satisfy and pay off
An angry, hurt God demanding ransom? There are
Those who say so. Is it nothing more than
The end of a life, well, yes, it is that.

But is there more to this word?

I have done all I know to do.
I have been all I know to be.
I have loved courageously, even recklessly.
My heart has bled and my pores as well.
I’ve given sight; I’ve straightened limbs;
I’ve settled spirits and made mad men sane;
I’ve brought the dead to life—after days
Of stinking flesh. What more might I have
Done that I did not do? What more can I have
Been than I am?

Nothing, I think, nothing more than this:
That I lay down my life for my friends—
And foes. Why? Because I love you with the fierce
Love of my Father and want the world to know,
To see the wild beating heart of God.

Here it is—I show it to you even as it slows and stops.
This is God’s heart broken for you—all of you
Who hate me and who love me. The father’s
Heart for you. It is enough.

Word 7. “reunion”

A God has one son and sends him away
To a far country where the son works
Hard on the God’s behalf to help all see
The God’s heart. The son walks and walks.
Talks and loves; heals and feeds multitudes
And individuals. The son goes far and
Wide and says, pointing to his heart,
“This,” this is the heart of God
And not that bloody temple.” The son loves
Recklessly, at risk and in danger, always
Misunderstood, because the God had been
So misunderstood, more feared than respected
And more feared than loved.
What God wanted was to love and be loved.
The son wants all to know the God and to see
God’s wild beating heart.

Yet fear instead emerged; a fear so great of
undermined position and loss of power and
Prestige. And fear kills: Either the one who fears
Or the one who causes fear—or both. And, so,
Here we all are, at the foot of a cross watching
The agony of the Son, who only wants freedom to
Love, dying for love. Love of God; love of others.

Finally, this son sent on a long and dangerous journey
Goes home. And as we stand before that cross, at
Last, we see it—there on this particular cross
At this particular time and particular place, we see it.
The passionate, wild, beating
Heart of God who risks all for us and invites us
Home, back to the garden.

Prodigal God.
Prodigal Son.

Together in an embrace wide and strong enough
To hold each of us and all of us—the whole
World of us.

World without end. Amen. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Morning Joe: Fifty Years and Counting--Part Two

Well, I am sorry. I meant for this to follow more quickly upon the heels of my first entry in this new exploration. But time and the beginning of another academic year intruded and I am just now getting to follow up. I should say that the academic year has begun--actually into the fourth week already!--and has brought its usual supply of old and new challenges. As I have made a practice to share my classes this year, I'll do that now and then get on with "part two":

Rel 320: Spirituality, Character, and Service
EN 95: Writing and Grammar
EN 200: Advanced Composition: Argument
HUM 410: Senior Thesis

And I'm also teaching an adult on line class right now:HUM 310: Faith, Living, and Learning.

So, yes, obviously, I've got a bit of a load. Glutton for punishment? Nope: Glutton for the pleasures of teaching.

Now, back to 50 years ago and to...

Sally Hrdlicka. I want to begin with the story of Sally. I hope it is okay to tell this story; it is mostly about me and a little about her. But it is a crucial story for me. I want to tell this story because it marks an early conversion point for me. Perhaps baptism is the better word. But this moment started my life long journey with the question that has dominated most of my life as a teacher: What is this really all about? I am an English teacher; is that where it begins and ends—or is there something more to all of this? The context for this story is a deep desire to be a good teacher; I really wanted that. To be honest, I also need to say that I wanted to be a popular teacher, too. I think what I meant by popular is liked; I wanted to be liked. And, yes, I know that sometimes those two desires are in conflict with each other. Sometimes I had to choose to be disliked, although in the long run, I think I’ve been liked more often than not.

To be clear, I had no idea what it meant to be a good teacher. Outside of ideas like classroom management, following the adopted curriculum plan, providing well-planned lessons and grading carefully and fairly, nowhere along my journey as a student aspiring to teach did anyone ever suggest to me that good teaching is about more than those kinds of things—in fact, I came to learn that good teaching is often about sacrificing those things. Since teaching is an art more than a craft and a classroom is often more about surprises and serendipity than a well crafted lesson plan, my experience is that the lesson plan is often tossed out the window in favor of something far better and, usually, more important. (At least it is in a constant state of rearrangement.)

What does all of that have to do with Sally? Sally was sophomore student in my first year as a full time teacher; she was blond, with what I thought of as Barbra Streisand looks. I wish I could post a photo of her, but would do so only with permission and since I don't know how to reach her... She was a good student, but my story with Sally is about something more than being a good student. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. I’d like her to know what a life changer she was.

The particular story I want to tell begins on Friday because Friday meant spelling and vocabulary day. The students had a list of words they were to master each week of the year. On those days, I honored the traditional spelling test mode: Say the word, say the word in a sentence, and repeat the word. Wait a short time and move on to the next word. It was an easy day for a teacher. In addition to that, the time-honored process also required that I wander the classroom to discourage cheaters. I remember the admonition to be random in my selection of rows to walk on—and to walk quietly. Always best to walk from the back of the room to the front—I actually was taught that. It felt like a hunting expedition. Stay out of sight and downwind so they neither see nor smell your arrival. I think the idea is that it would be a good thing to catch your prey.

Well, I did that; remember I wanted to be a good teacher. I caught Sally pulling a small cheat sheet out of her left sleeve. And I remember my panic because, honestly, I really hoped to never catch a cheater. Now, the prey was in my sights; do I pull the trigger? At the moment I was about to make her an example, she sensed my presence, turned her face toward me, great tears in her eyes, and silently begged me not to say anything. Please! I can still see her face.

I didn’t pull the trigger. I didn't want to say anything anyway; I’m the hunter who intentionally makes a noise so my prey will escape. (What a horrid metaphor, by the way: “prey.” Student as prey. Sad and even shameful—but it was what I was taught. Oh, no, not explicitly; but it is an apt metaphor.)

I didn’t say anything. We met after class and I asked Sally what that was all about. Tears and tears and real remorse. (She was not a student who cheated after all; I knew that.) “Last night,” she told me, “my parents told my siblings and me that they were getting a divorce—and our lives came undone. I could not think to study and really didn’t remember that today was spelling day until I sat down in class.” Nothing more came of that moment; I mean I left it and reassured her that we would get beyond this. She was grateful.

But I learned something in that moment that never left me. Sally is one of my most important teachers. I learned that there is more going on in the lives of our students than we can possibly know. I learned that the person sitting in front of me has a life outside the classroom—that is, outside of my frame of reference. I learned that I’d better be aware of that fact. A student is a person with a life. With family. With friends. With lovers and spouses and partners. I learned that sometimes I may get a glimpse of that world and when I do I’d better pay attention to it. Because in those moments real teaching happens—or might happen.

I should have known that, right? I mean I’d lived through all those years of schooling and certainly carried my own secrets and struggles with life, but I think I thought I was really the only one. Everyone else seemed to have life figured out and knew how to work it. I didn’t (still working on that as a matter of fact). Sally didn’t see it coming. She was blindsided. She was reeling from the loss of certainty and from the need to figure out how to live in the reality of that lost certainty.

I hope she walked away from that moment feeling cared for and understood; I walked away certain that I’d done exactly the wrong thing and fearful that once the word got out my teaching career would come crashing down around me before I’d reached the end of my first semester.

Beginning that day I began to pay more attention to the connection between life in and out of the classroom. While it would take me years to realize just how important that connection is—and for it to change how I hope and try to be in the classroom—this is the beginning of a journey with students to discover what I eventually came to call relational teaching.