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Good Friday – What An Old Church Cemetery Taught Me About Life

I was invited to read, play and tell stories for a congregation of people just outside of East Lansing, Michigan. Parking my car in the lot adjacent to the old, white church building, I had to pass by the tilted and worn headstones of the town’s main cemetery, hosted on the property of this old church.

I used to think cemeteries were cool and creepy.
I don’t anymore.
I know too many people whose bodies are buried in the ground.

A fiend of mine used to be the pastor of a church in downtown Berkeley, CA. It’s a hip, young church in a hip, young town with hip, young congregates doing hip, young things. He told me he missed the presence of a cemetery on their property. He believed the presence of “the dead” among a church family completed a kind of life-story each gathering of theirs told. When that family came together, he said, the entirety of earthly human experience was enacted and represented. Newborns and their older siblings, carried and collected by their parents whose parents and grandparents were often also in attendance. The presence of those they’d lost in their process of life together, completed that story.

It also made death part of the human story, rather than simply the end of it.

This Good Friday, my tribe pauses to meditate on the crucifixion and death of Jesus. We see this moment as one in which God frames Death in the context of Life, proclaiming Life as stronger and more resilient than death. In the glimmering shadow of Resurrection Sunday, Good Friday asks us to give death its own moment in the process of life, believing all the while that death is only a part of this glorious process… not the end of it or even a defining characteristic.  

Like my friend from Berkeley, my church family meets in a building without a cemetery. Our building in downtown Concord was once a thriving movie theater. Over time, the theatre didn’t quite make ends meet. It became an adult movie theater which, in its turn, failed and was then was purchased by First Presbyterian Church of Concord. First Presbyterian turned it into a community center and, as the Presbyterian church population tapered off, the community center saw less and less use. Now, that space is rented out and used by Concord Vineyard Church, Lighthouse Church an an Evangelical Covenant Church called Shelter.. where I am an associate pastor. Two days from now, in that building, we will be celebrating new life by dedicating a truckload of kids, some of them newborns, with more dedications to come in the later spring.

All that to say, even the history our small building, in it’s own way, reminds me that failure, darkness and death are rarely the actual end of things. Just as often, they are doorways through which other life (or other kinds of life) enter in.

Walking to my car after that show in Michigan, I was fairly certain I saw headstones bearing the surnames of folks I’d just met inside. And while I generally think of friends and loved ones who have passed with a sense of sadness, the proximity of those headstones to the living members of their families framed my sadness with the broader perspective I think Good Friday calls me to have; That Life does not just go on after death. Instead, a good life carries death with it on the way… because Life is stronger and more resilient.

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SUNDAY REFLECTION – I Don’t Audition Any More

I used to audition all the time. And not just when I was hoping to make a career in theatre. My first few years traveling and playing shows was all about auditioning. Every show, if I nailed it, might get me another show, etc… 

But doing that makes me like that guy at a party who keep shifting his focus away from the person he’s talking to, scanning the room for the next (potentially more valuable) conversation. As if the value of the conversation he’s currently having is that it might get him another one… with someone else. 

Or, maybe more accurately, treating every opportunity like an audition for another opportunity makes me like the friend who befriends a friend because he wants to be friends with that friend’s friends. Ew. 

As a performing singer-songriter, I want to be exactly where I am and with the people I’m with. Those people, be it 7, 70 or 1700 are entirely worth my focus and effort; if I’m only there in part or in passing, it makes me less worth theirs. 

“… do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus taught his followers “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” 
Amen and amen.

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Sunday Reflection: LENT – Changing Toilet Paper and Changing My Heart

This is a re-post from a previous Lent experience.

A few months before Amy and I were married, I received one of those “out of the blue” pieces of marital advice I’d been warned about. I was in the car with an older gentlemen, who was driving me from a venue back to my hotel. During a brief conversation, I mentioned that I would be married soon the driver immediately said to me. “Son, you be sure to change that toilet paper before she asks you.”

I nodded and said “You bet” as if that made all the sense in the world.I’m serious, now.” He went on, “you gotta do it.” 


I can tell, man. Thanks.” I hoped that would be the end of it. 

But it wasn’t. 

No, you don’t get it. I just lost mine. I shoulda changed the TP. It would have made a difference.”This man had recently lost his marriage and was attributing at least part of it to his having not changed the toilet paper. He was right; I didn’t get it. But I remembered that conversation (for its weirdness if nothing else) and have been an avid, spontaneous toilet-paper-changer throughout the course of my marriage.Come to find out, being on TP duty has never been so much a matter of toilet paper as it has been a matter of living in a state of readiness; readiness to change the toilet-paper, of course, but more generally ready serve my wife.  It has been about fostering a posture of service.


In marriage I’ve learned that the little things don’t add up to a healthy relationship; they are symptomatic of it.  If I am unable or unwilling to do the small things, it is likely that my willingness to more fully serve my wife, especially if it meant my own discomfort, is compromised.  TP duty serves as a reminder of where my heart is at as well as a way to practice living in the correct posture towards my wife.
Lent is a way to practice this same kind of posture towards the whole of my world.

The practice of “giving up something for Lent” can seem a lot like changing toilet paper; it’s an action that can seem loosely associated with the larger issues of life  at best. But practicing sacrifice readies a heart to make more urgent sacrifices when sacrifice is necessary. One of the great gifts religious practice offers is that it is a practice.  Good religion provides a focused attendance to those things in the human experience that are most vital or essential and the further step of places and ways to concentrate on, celebrate and better live out those vital and essential aspects of life.  

This is part of why each Lent, my church community directly associates our Lent practice with the redemptive work of organizations like the Blood:Water Mission, who builds and maintains clean water wells for the millions who still lack it. We are doing so again this year. Join us if you like – we’d be happy to have you. Our simple act of “going without” has a direct impact on providing for those who lack.  We are reminded that sacrifice is almost always necessary for long-term change, progress or redemption. Lent is a season to practice the kind of sacrifice characteristic of healthy relationship with our world.
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Advent Reflection: Bill Gates, Rosa Parks and Hopeful Expectation

In the Christian calendar, Advent is a season of expectation and hope. My Advent season began this year with the most recent edition of WIRED magazine. It’s a thrilling edition, edited by the outstanding Bill Gates himself, who uses the opportunity to highlight innovations he believes are making the best and deepest impact in areas like extreme poverty. In the edition, Gates writes..

A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Harber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia. Polio cases are down more than 99 percent in the past 25 years, not because the disease is going away on its own but because Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk invented polio vaccines and the world rolled out a massive effort to deliver them. Thanks to inventions like these, life has steadily gotten better…

and then he says something I even more deeply resonate with: “But it’s not as good as we wish.

I love that, especial coming from Gates: “…we wish.”

Yes we do.
All of us do.

We wish things were other than they are – better than they are. We hope. And the season of Advent is exactly about embracing this hopeful aspect of who we are; the aspect of our humanity that, in my eyes, is the better part; “better” because even a man like Gates, who has everything he could ever need, is unsatisfied because kids he doesn’t know don’t eat or have access to education, medical care or clean water – he hopes and wishes.

I believe this expectant longing and hoping is what drives us, moves us, motivates us and carries us toward innovations like the ones Gates celebrates. We want better than what we have and we want it for people we don’t naturally belong to.

English essayist William Hazlitt wrote that “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought tot be.”*

In a similar tone, author/philosopher Allister McGrath writes “We seem to have an inbuilt realization that things are not what they ought to be. We feel the pain of the tension between what we observe and that for which we hope.”

No one has seen a world without poverty. Yet we dream of it.
No one has seen a world without oppression and violence. Yet we long for that, too.
No one has seen a world without racial or gender inequality. Yet, we want this, even when we are on the dominant side of that particular inequality.

During the season of Advent, we are invited to attend to these better, more human and more glorious wants, longings and dreams.

And in our better moments, our dreaming, longing and wanting well up and spill into action. Advent is a season in which we are invited to attend to these better moments.

On Dec. 1 1955, Advent in America started with an act of expectant longing and hope when Rosa Parks got onto a bus in Montgomery Alabama and sat in the “white’s only” section, where she was not supposed to sit. In her mind, the world ought to be other than it was; black women and men ought to have the freedom to sit where they want without fear of being removed or beaten. Rosa Parks longed for a world in which black men and women were fully recognized as human and granted the same basic rights as whites.

Her expectation and hope welled up and spilled into action. Thank God.

May my hope be more than wishful thinking.
May I live in expectation of a world made whole.
And by “expecting” tomorrow to be that way, may I live out TODAY, the principles and patters of life I want to see tomorrow.

… and may tomorrow be a day in which none go hungry, none are enslaved, none are left behind and all know they are valued and loved by their Creator.

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*I was certain that my friends dogs found me funny. Looks like I’ve been wrong. 


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Sunday Reflection: My Daily Bread?

Jesus seems to have taught his disciples to pray for/about provision in the light of their belonging together and their mission in the world. I am learning to see that the prayer he taught them is a communal and “missional” prayer.

I tend to think of my needs as mine, individually. But I don’t live in a vacuum – I belong to other people as a husband, father, friend, neighbor, pastor, artist, child sponsor…  and my “provision” effects, sometimes deeply, the lives of others.

When I pray about my own provision, I want to keep in in mind those I belong to… “give us today our daily bread…”

And before I note the plurality of this prayer, I note its over-arching framework: Before he taught them to pray “give us today our daily bread,” Jesus taught them to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s a prayer framed by God’s desire and design for His world.. by God’s mission to restore and reconcile the world to Himself.

And I sometimes have a hard time making the connection between that grand hope and some simpler questions, like…

How many pairs of shoes do I need?
How many jackets?
How large should by home be?

What decides these things? By what standard of living do I determine what I actually need?

And this is where the prayer Jesus taught leads me to a prayer of my own:

May I recognize my needs, not as determined by some semi-arbitrary, semi-suburban “standard of living” but largely in light of the Mission of God and the part my community and I get to play in that. 

File picture of British comedian Russell Brand, who was deported from Japan on Saturday

SUNDAY REFLECTION: Russell Brand, Revolution and the Heartbreaking Pace of Justice

The idea of picking up a well-hit ground ball and accurately firing it to first base doesn’t get a ball to first base. It’s the act of picking up the ball and firing it that does the job. Learning to do that well takes years of practice. It’s a very long process. And even then, perfect execution of that practice is hardly guaranteed. Ask RedSox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

This analogy is what I though of while reading Russell Brand’s article on revolution and watching clips of his conversations around that same article. I enjoyed the essay. I enjoyed the essay overall.** Brand is an intelligent comedian in the vein of Eddie Izzard (whom he mentions in the piece) and is highly entertaining. He’s also clearly moved regarding issues of human flourishing.

The ideas in Brand’s essay, while hardly being novel or new, are as generous and attractive as they ever are; compassion, equality… justice. These are almost universally valued ideas. But just like there is a huge difference between the idea of playing shortstop and actually playing shortstop much less playing shortstop well, these ideas are ghosts until they are practiced… until they are embodied. 

And there’s this frustrating “problem” that comes with bodies; bodily change happens slowly – much slower than a change of minds. In fact, even once I’ve settled on a new line of thought about health, it can take “the rest of me” quite a while to actualize the decision I’ve made to act differently. The pace of real, sustained change among whole groups of people is even slower. Painfully so.

“The planet is being destroyed.” Brand said during an interview. “We are creating an underclass and exploiting poor people all over the world. And the legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political powers.”

He then goes on to make the actual call for revolution:

To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately … Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone. 

It’s an inspired call. But he unfortunately loses me with his next line:

The Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years, the Technological Revolution took tens, the Spiritual Revolution has come and we have only an instant to act.

I do wish it were the case that Justice was swift in It’s arrival if not immediate. But that’s simply not been my experience. In fact, I’ve often noted that change that happens in a flash tends to last about as long. The work of (or toward) Justice, Equality, Fairness etc…  is often awe-inspiring, moving and thrilling. But at least as often it is also disappointing, paralyzing and heartbreaking, even if it’s just the pace of things that makes it so.

A decade ago, when I started partnering with Compassion International, I would tell people that more than 30,000 kids died every day from hunger-related causes. That was true then. But when I refer to that ratio today, I say that it’s closer to 18,000. That’s still (clearly) 18,000 kids too many, but it’s (also clearly) far better than 30,000 or even 40,000, which was the case through much of the 1990s.

Brand calls the needed change a Spiritual Revolution. And I know full well that he has a somewhat different framework than do I for what “Spiritual” means. Yet if I’ve learned anything about the ostensibly “Spiritual” facet of human life, it’s that change happens at roughly the same rate in spiritual matters as it does in physical matters. It’s a slower process than any of us, and particularly the excitable among us, would like. 

Dr. King is often quoted as having said “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I think that beautiful line works in a different order as well.  “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it is long.”

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** I do have one fundamental difference with Brand. While I agree that the political system is ‘broken’ in many ways, there is no way in which the political system is more broken than in the absence and non-participation of voters. 

Please…
Read bills and measures,
learn who your state and local candidates are,
and vote.
Please.

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Sunday Reflection: 4 Liters

I recently participated in ‘s 4-Liters campaign by trying to live on only 4 liters of water for 4 days. I wasn’t particularly successful, to be honest. Besides being pretty bad at math and therefore not always sure where I stood in my measurements, I also cheated a couple times and went over my usage knowingly. Of course, that was part of what the Dig Deep people had in mind when they ran the campaign. They designed it that way intentionally because how I do what I do matters, particularly when it comes to works of compassion and justice.

Instead of asking us to live like those we’re helping for a short season, Dig Deep could simply ask for folks to make donations from their followers. And that might do some good as the money would end up doing the same thing; provide clean water for those who lack it. But on our end, the end of those supplying the need, I think we’d miss something vital. It’s hard to live on 4liters of water but that’s how the folks live who will be helped by the campaign. By sharing, even briefly and voluntarily, in the trying circumstances of those I am wanting to help, I’ve grown to see them as human beings living in trying circumstances rather than defining them entirely by their circumstances.

And we don’t want to provide clean water because of a general lack of clean water… The whole point is that there are people who lack clean water. In other words,..

It’s not that there is a problem worth solving.
It’s that there are people worth helping.

Check out the 4Liters video below and keep up with the ongoing campaign.

 

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SUNDAY REFLECTION: Critiquing, Building, Creating, Fixing

“If you need someone to blame” says the lyric, “Throw a rock in the air you’ll hit someone guilty.” It is the easiest thing in the world to find fault, making critique the easiest form of cultural engagement. I don’t think the ease of the task makes it any less a part of culture-making; it is a part… just a lesser part of a larger process. So, if most of what I’m doing is being critical, that’s fine… so long as I know that somewhere else, someone is doing the harder work of building… creating.. fixing. 

This has been a key part of my process as a pastor. I came in from the outside, not growing up around church, and upon entry into the world of christendom, I quickly made a rather long list of things I found odd, uncomfortable, weird, off and even flat out wrong. I felt a kind of empowerment at having such a list; like I’d been granted a special insight into the brokenness of “The Church” …a kind of magical sledgehammer with which I could tear down the things I knew needed tearing down. And then, when I began to air my grievances publicly, I found myself in a sea of women and men who not only had similar lists as mine but often longer ones. And the difference between me and those folks was that most of them carried more than just a sledgehammer. They had more tools on their belts than the ones used to tear things down.

I spent the morning yesterday with a group of pastors from 30+ church communities. You couldn’t find a room of people more keenly aware of the problems their communities face or people more critical of their role in those problems.  The reason their critique is so keen is that they are the women and men who are building, creating and fixing those churches. They’re not just annoyed by the brokenness of things around them – they are dead set on making it right.

A fair share of Jesus’ public work consisted of very pointed critiques of his his own religion. And while Jesus’ criticism of religion clearly plays heavily in his work, it is also clearly framed by the larger, more vital work of his life: the establishment and revelation of what He called “The Kingdom.” The dominant religious culture around Jesus had developed a narrative in which some people were either flatly excluded or made to go through such a maze as to be excluded by degree of difficulty. In other words, Jesus’ criticism of religion as it was came to bear when religion got in the way of the good thing he was building, creating and fixing.

In fact, before Jesus went about publicly critiquing that system, his first public act was to symbolically became part of it. Baptism was, in part, a way to declare oneself a religious and cultural tribes-person. At his baptism, Jesus placed himself within the religious and cultural tradition he was about the turn on its head. And I think that, perhaps more than anything else, is what made his critique powerful and meaningful.

So, if you’re like me, and you have a pretty serious critique of The Church, that’s fine.. get in line. And notice that a lot (if not the majority) of the folks in line before you are women and men who consider themselves integral parts of The Church. They’re there to say many of the same things you will say because they see many of the same things you see. But then, once they’ve aired their grievance, they set to work on the areas they consider compromised or broken. So, if you’re going to get in that line, I hope you plan on doing the same.

Of course your critique of The Church may be far more sweeping than that. Maybe you sincerely feel that the whole thing’s a sham and a waste. That’s fine. I just hope you’re part of building something better.

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SUNDAY REFLECTION: My Dad’s Hook-Shot And Learning That My Life Is Not My Own

I had a portable basketball hoop growing up. My dad and I built it, ostensibly, so that I could drag it to the street in front of our house and play basketball with my friends. As the years went on, I’m fairly certain I discovered my father’s hidden agenda for building that thing with me — so that he could dominate me on the court.

And that he did.

My dad’s hook shot was entirely beyond my ability to defend, especially at the end of a game when I was worn out. I could out-quick him most of the time, shooting from beyond the taped-off line we considered three-point range or driving to the hoop. But toward the end of the game, I would be sucking wind like I’d run a marathon. That’s when Dad would go to the hook shot. And that would be the end of things.

I return to that memory often. Most often when I’m working out. You see, my son is going to be a teenager someday. And when he is, I want to be able to play ball with him. That’s the main reason I work out these days. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy exercise and jogging in particular (there is no high in the world like runner’s high). But enjoyment is not enough to keep me running, sitting up and burpee-ing.  As much as I enjoy working out, I equally enjoy ice cream, donuts and single-malt whiskeys (rarely in the same sitting). But the vision of playing (and keeping up with) my son in a one-on-one basketball matchup… that keeps me inspired to stay in shape. My health, it seems, is not my own. It is a gift I get to offer my son. And I think that’s probably true of the best parts of my life in just about every area.

-My time is not “my own.” It is a gift I get to offer my wife and friends, etc…
-My money is not “my own.” It belongs to Caesar.. wait.. that’s a different blog…
-My gifts and talents are not “my own.” They are gifts I get to offer readers and listeners and congregates.

Last night, during my church’s evening service, I had about as much fun as I’ve had playing music in a while. I played backup guitar and watched three long-time friends lead songs, lead the band and lead our congregation in singing. They did so using tips and skills I’ve had the privilege of passing on over the past few years. It was as satisfying as nailing a song or story during a performance of my own.

I think I’m only now beginning to grasp the real-life way in which “my life is not my own.” And it’s not just about my role as a father, passing along wisdom and whatnot to my boy… it’s broader than that. Whatever else might be true regarding “life after death,” I do believe something of me will live on in the impact I have on my world, and particularly my primary relationships; the people to whom my life also belongs.

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Sunday Reflection: Thinking Spiritually

A  young man came to his priest, saying “I feel like something is terribly wrong in my spirit. Please help me.”

The priest replied “Can you describe the feeling?”

“It happens every night” The young man began. “I lie down and begin thinking over my day when a terrible feeling comes over me; a burning in my heart, like the kind the disciples felt when meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Only, when I feel it, I can tell something is wrong; it’s more like a pain… as if God is trying to tell me something. Please, father. Help me. What does it mean?”

The priest bent forward from his chair, reaching into his satchel. Thinking the priest was retrieving a rosary necklace, the young man knelt on the floor, bowing his head and extending his hands, palms up, to receive the priest’s prayer of blessing. But into the young man’s open hands, the priest lay a single antacid, saying “You’ve got heartburn, son.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do regularly pray… but sometimes I just need an antacid…
and sometimes I just need to eat better…
and sometimes I need to sleep more…
and sometimes I need to see a trained, professional therapist…
and sometimes I need to change the shoes I’m running in..
or read better books.

In the past I might have summed this up by saying that “not everything is spiritual.” But I’m no longer fond of that expression. Instead, I wonder if it is actually inaccurate to consider one aspect of my life “Spiritual,” and leave all other aspects of my self similarly divided, as if I were a segmented into different functions, reactions and purposes. Now I wonder if learning to think spiritually means learning to see my whole life (emotional, psychological, physiological, religious, economic, social, familial…) as singular. Perhaps learning to think spiritually means seeing my whole, interconnected, interdependent life as exactly that: whole… and learning to believe that my Creator is concerned with “every inch” of my whole self. 

I want to see that way.

Because I don’t believe it is at all unspiritual, much less un-christian to see a therapist. Just as it is not at all unspiritual to see a physician. I do think, on the other hand, that it is distinctly un-christian to separate the physical or financial parts of my life from my “spiritual life.”  God, whose greatest revelation of Himself was to become fully human, has great concern with all of me.