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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Welcome to Joanna’s first blog with a known audience. Like many who want to exercise their expressive skills, I wrote a “trial run” blog just to exercise my need to talk about the human experience. That is my favorite subject—understanding, or attempting to explain something about something rather inexplicable—our humanity.

Both the Buddha and Anne Lamott talked about paying attention, that life is about paying attention. Buddhism speaks of Right Mindfulnes or paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, but not to “do” something about them, merely notice them. Anne Lamott says in order to develop as a writer, one must pay attention to the world around them.

I have known of mindfulness since 1997, not that I have exercised it all these years on a continuous basis, but I certainly have thought about it. Mindfulness has been tagged as many activities—noticing one’s thoughts, looking at the world as an observer, noticing one’s breath, being in the moment. Mark Epstein, who wrote “How to go to pieces without falling apart,” talked about not being afraid of what we think or feel, to get into them, to dig in and ride along the wave.

I constantly have thoughts. They bombard me. They want me to pay attention. We all believe we are our thoughts—the pounding, relentless call to action, to do something. Doing something for the good of others is the Christian way, the way of humanity, but out of what frame of mind are we doing something?

In 1 Peter, one of the lectionary texts for Sunday, it says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” In another translation called “The Message” it has a more contemporary view, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.”

In the midst of thoughts and emotions that as human beings we feel on a regular basis, just pay attention to them. It may be difficult, but I believe God is bringing these experiences to help us refine what it means to live spiritually, to live from the Spirit of God. We just may not always know it at the time of the thought bombardment.

I told you in my piece in the May Pace that I was not one for small talk. This is an example of bypassing small talk and going right for the good stuff—life as spiritual refining process. Can’t get closer to God than that.
May peace be with you.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, I Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21 I just finished eating my sandwich and apple for lunch. While eating I was watching “The Talk” on TV. Yes, I admit that I enjoy hearing this wonderful group of women comment on people in the news and offer their views on all sorts of relationship issues. Today one of the topics was “confidence” and where it comes from, triggered by the news report of a speech given by Gabourey Sibide. The star of “Precious” was at an 80th birthday celebration for Gloria Steinem. Here are the words that captured the attention of “The Talk”: “One of the first things people usually ask me is, ‘Gabourey, how are you so confident?’ I hate that. I always wonder if that’s the first thing they ask Rihanna when they meet her . . . They ask me with that same incredulous disbelief every single time. ‘You seem so confident! How is that?’" The subtext is that people find it incredible when someone “like her” seems so confident. So---where does confidence come from? Where does faith come from? How is it that some people keep on believing when it seems incredible, given their history and experience? This week’s lectionary readings took me on a journey into that question. There’ve been a few times in life when I’ve been sorely tempted to throw in the towel, and other times when persisting in faith has seemed a bit incredible, but what about times when faith might look like a perfectly “normal” response? When I peel back the layers of habitual response and easy answers, I find myself incredibly asking, “Where does that persistence come from?” After I’ve peeled and peeled and peeled, I find myself in the heart of mystery. Beneath everything, even in the moments of most severe doubt, I know that there is another layer that continues to buoy and sustain me. It comes from life itself. I live in a cosmos that is in the business of giving life. If I look at the people around me, I see a spirit at work that gives me hope---something that springs from the very depths of being. I acknowledge that there is all kind of evil at work in this realm as well. How could anyone deny it? Turn on the news any evening. Read today’s newspaper. I continue, however, to believe that there is more good than evil, that good is stronger and has more sustaining power than evil. Maybe I “choose” to believe, but my confidence is somehow deeper than that. Some would say that we have a genetic predisposition to believe or not to believe, that we are born optimists or pessimists. When I dig around in the roots of life, I never arrive at a definitive answer. I don’t know where it comes from. I could say it comes from God, and that would be true given my definition of God, but I’m fine about leaving it a mystery. I certainly don’t know how to explain it nor am I able to identify the mechanisms that activate such confidence, but I move through life sustained by a great unknown---even an “unknown god.” Which brings us to this week’s scriptures. Paul speaks of an “unknown god” while visiting Athens. (Acts 17:22-23) In this city full of sculptures of Greek gods, he notices an altar “to an unknown god.” He is going to tell them, he says, about that unknown god. I’ve been inspired by this scripture over and over again during the pilgrimage of my life. Mostly I’ve thought of it as Paul telling them that the god they call “unknown” is not unknown at all. There is a bit of that in the story, but it hit me this time that maybe he is also suggesting that god is always a bit “unknown.” So often humans are looking for a god that can be defined and contained, even “groped” for and held, captured in our images of some manipulative, and manipulatable, power on high. The god of whom Paul speaks “does not live in shrines made by human hands . . . he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” (vss. 24-25) People, Paul says, “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him---though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (vs. 27) Is that the rub? We don’t understand the workings of this “unknown god” because we are looking in the wrong places? “We ought not,” Paul says, “to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” (vs. 29) In the middle of this is what I consider one of the most powerful insights to all who would live a life of faith. Paul, of course, is not, at this point, offering something original. He uses words from their own tradition when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (vs. 28) Whatever the source, he applies it to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. He directs our eyes away from the heavens (as did Jesus) to the very air we breathe. You want to find God at work? Look at the people around you! The writer of I Peter lifts up those who suffer for “doing what is right.” (I Peter 3:14 & 17) Hope is expressed in acting “with gentleness and reverence.” (vs. 16) There have always been such people. They offer inspiration for many---people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and many who have functioned on a smaller scale, maybe even members of our own family. There are people who have sacrificed for their children, people who have lost jobs because they stood up for principles, people who have taken up the cause of oppressed peoples, etc. My youngest son attended Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. A young woman, Rachel Corrie, from that school was killed standing her ground against a Caterpillar, under orders of the Israeli military, that was trying to demolish the home of her Palestinian hosts (the Nasrallahs) in Rafah, Gaza. Another son in Olympia became acquainted with Rachel’s parents, and through them hosted and traveled (creating a video documentary) with the Nasrallahs on their tour of the U.S. Rachel and her parents are among those who have inspired us and others as they have stood for what is right. The greatest of these, Paul tells us, is Jesus, whose unwavering commitment to the things that make for life took him to a cross. (vss. 18 and following) “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” The Gospel lesson speaks of this power at work in our midst as “the Spirit of Truth” which “abides” with us and “in” us. (John 14:17) John’s Gospel has Jesus saying, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (vs. 20) Sounds a lot like those words quoted by Paul to the Athenians, “In him we live and move and have our being.” It is that mysterious Spirit at work in life that gives me confidence. The Psalmist may be a bit exuberant---even overconfident---in Psalm 66. He worships a God “who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip . . . truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” Confidence, in my book, not certainty. One speaks of it with care, not arrogantly. Someone once wrote a book with the subtitle, “Evangelism in a subdued mood.” Confidence is, perhaps, best expressed in a “subdued mood,” recognizing that life, goodness, the continuation of life are great mysteries that sustain us beyond our understanding. Yet, every morning that we find ourselves “among the living,” able to stand for what is right, and not “slip,” confidence is renewed. One of my friends met me this morning on our way in to the lectionary breakfast. Both of us are in our seventies. We acknowledged the “miracle” that we were both up and about this morning, among the living. “I woke up this morning,” he said, “and I didn’t have any new aches or pains.” It may not seem like much, but some days it is enough to give rise to a new sense of confidence. Some have so much more reason to find confidence because God is at work in their lives or they see what is right happening near to them or in some distant place. For me, the little things are enough, and from the conversation outside the little cafĂ© where we meet, we walked into a table lined with faces and stories which, while sometimes discouraging, were enough to confirm the confidence in life. We were saddened by the news of the destruction of entire fields of grapes, apples, apricots, almond, fig, and olive trees (1500 trees in all) as Israelis invaded the Tent of Nations farm of Daoud Nasser, a devout Christian. We marveled at how people suffer through such things and still have the confidence (faith?) to go on living. The stone at the gate of the Tent of Nations farm says, "We Refuse To Be Enemies.” “In him we live and move and have our being,” even in times of trouble, perhaps especially in times of trouble. May it be so now and forever.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-4 The writings of the New Testament were composed at a time when early Christian communities were trying to figure out who Jesus was and how that shaped their identity. That may not always have been their stated intent. Some were letters sent to encourage those young communities, but, even then, some of those letters deliberately tried to communicate a theology about the meaning of Jesus. Some are attempts to summarize the life and teachings of Jesus, a kind of “history” called “Gospels.” Each of the Gospels, including the ones not included in the final collection, however, seems to have a little bit different take on who Jesus was and what it all meant. In the church year, we are now in the season following Jesus’ resurrection. The physical Jesus is no longer on earth but something ---some spirit---is keeping this young community alive. What does it mean? Who are we now? Recent readings have been following The Acts of the Apostles, the second “book” of the writings of Luke’s community. Some have suggested that it might be better titled “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” (See Acts 1:1-2) It tells the story of people encouraged and empowered by a living Spirit through whom they know Jesus in some form beyond the physical. I’ll come back to the reading from Acts, but I want to frame my reflections around an odd image that came to me as I was considering the reading from John’s Gospel. Nearly half of the 21 chapters of this Gospel are devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. Chapter 12 begins “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1), and quickly launches into an account of Jesus’ “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” (John 12:12 & following) Chapter 13 introduces a version of Jesus’ final meal (Passover) with his disciples, a version which has Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. (John 13:1-20) From there through chapter 16 we seem to have what some have called “Table Talk” as Jesus and the disciples sit around the table. My odd image is that of a retirement dinner. Jesus is leaving “the company” and they struggle with what that means. This week’s Gospel reading is part of that discussion, but let’s hop over it for a moment. During the “Table Talk” John’s Gospel has Jesus making numerous references to the “Holy Spirit.” The Gospel opens a window on one of the early Christian communities as it begins to talk in terms of a “Trinity,” although probably not using that word. Jesus offers the image of a vine and branches, encouraging his followers to “abide in me as I abide in you . . . As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (See John 15:1-17) Throughout the “Table Talk” Jesus repeatedly declares, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:18-20) He promises a “Spirit of truth” who will guide them “into all the truth.” (John 16:13---See also John 14:16-17 &26, & John 15:26) Like Acts, you see, John emphasizes the Holy Spirit as the way Jesus’ presence continues to be active in this community of believers. At the end of the “Table Talk” Jesus prays for those whom he will be leaving, as well as for those who will come to be part of the community as it moves into the future. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . .” (John 17:21) Then we read that “he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden . . .” (John 18:1), where his betrayal and arrest occurred. The passage selected for the coming Sunday is right in the middle of all that “Table Talk.” It begins with words that many of us have heard at funerals about many houses or “dwelling places” prepared for us. (John 14:1-4) That concept alone would be enough for us to ponder, but the disciples’ quickly turn to wondering how they’re going to know the way. (vs. 5) We didn’t get into the structure of John’s Gospel around a series of statements by Jesus, “I am . . .” (Bread of Life, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, etc.) Now we are introduced to Jesus as “the way, and the truth, and the life.” (vs. 6) Many have struggled to make sense out of the words attributed to Jesus, “No one comes to the Father except by me.” (vs. 6) The center of the whole interchange, though, is the unity of Jesus and the Father, that unifying Spirit that is at the center of everything Jesus was trying to say that night. “If you know me, you will know my Father also . . . Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (vss. 7-10) I’ve already spent too much time trying to “explain.” In the end, it is a great mystery. Pastor Rick has been trying to encourage us to read scripture with a greater sense of awe, of standing on holy ground in the presence of mystery. It is the mystery that kept that early community going. Does it still seem “awesome” to us? The passage ends by suggesting that if we cannot grasp the theology, at least we can get on with the work, even do “greater works” than Jesus, instructing us to call upon him for the encouragement and help we need. Who was this guy anyway? Who does he continue to be in the midst of our daily living? And who are we when we happen to notice that mysterious presence? Now a quicker look at the other three readings: Acts gives us the story of the stoning of Stephen. One should go back to the moment when Stephen was chosen as one of those (called “deacons”) to help distribute food to the widows. The seven men so chosen were described as “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) Stephen himself is said to be “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), “full of grace and power,” who “did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) Charges are trumped up against him and he is arrested. (Acts 6:9-15) Stephen is not to be intimidated. He launches into a long review of the history of the people of Israel (of whom he is one), ending with this indictment: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53) The verse just before Sunday’s reading says, “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” (Acts 7:54) Stephen became the first “Christian” martyr, a mode of death that was given high esteem, sometimes pursued, in the early days of Christianity. It’s interesting how the story echoes what had been passed on about Jesus’ death. Stephen cries out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He dies crying out “in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:59-60) Who are we? One answer in the early church is that we are those who literally follow the example of Jesus in our self-sacrifice. While we may not literally be meant to die in this way, the story might ask us to consider what would we sacrifice our life for? Perhaps most importantly it asks whether we are ready to die (or live) with words of forgiveness on our lips for those who attack our very being---literally or figuratively. Psalm 31 was used as a reading during Lent and Holy Week, so we’ll add nothing now except to note that it contains the words Jesus is reported to have cried out from the cross, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” Psalm 31:5), words echoed by Stephen. That leaves us with I Peter. Many images helped the young church in its search for a way to talk about their identity. They were “newborn infants” longing for “pure, spiritual milk.” They were growing. (I Peter 2:2) The words in verse 3, which speak of those who “have tasted that the Lord is good,” sound strange to many of us. Like the reading from the Gospel According to John, they probably are connected with an interpretation of the Communion meal, an experience of “tasting” Jesus. The central image of the passage is of a community which is like a living building, with Jesus as the living cornerstone. (vss. 4-8) The writer then heaps image upon image. Any one taken individually and literally can lead to abuses, leading to a prideful, perhaps exclusionary, approach to church life. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people . . .” (vs. 9) Many in that early community did indeed feel a special closeness to God’s love. They felt like they were part of the long history of God’s people, a history not limited to one tribe. It include Gentiles as well as Jews. Whatever the words used, they experienced the continued presence of Jesus as a Love which engaged, surrounded, and enabled them. The passage ends with words which hark back to chapters one and two in Hosea. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (vs. 10) They were all trying to figure out who they were now that Jesus was no longer physically present. The conversation, the questioning, the “Table Talk,” continue into our day. How do we talk about what it means to follow Jesus? How do we live it?
Thursday, May 08, 2014



Lectionary Scriptures:  Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23:1-6, I Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10


I lived in Maine for a few years.  An old slogan in that state is “Life the Way It Should Be.”  In early adulthood I began to shake off, or at least view with suspicion, statements that included the word “should.”  Who is the one who does the defining?  Too often someone, or some group of people, decide what they think life “should” be and try to impose their answer on everyone else.


This week’s readings did set my mind to thinking about the nature of our life together as human beings and as congregations.  They might, if fact, call us all to think of the kind of communal connections we find attractive and fulfilling.


When we entered seminary, I and my classmates were organized into small “support groups” that met together weekly, with the guidance and encouragement of an older student.  One of the books our group examined Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, lived from 1906 to 1945.  He was a staunch resister of Hitler’s dictatorship and abuse of human life, most specifically his treatment of the Jews.  He was a founder of The Confessing Church in Germany which opposed government-sponsored efforts to nazify the German Protestant church.  Eventually Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed by hanging.


Much of Bonhoeffer’s writing focused upon what it meant to be, and live as, the church.  Probably his most well-known book has been The Cost of Discipleship, which was an exposition on what it means to live according to the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Many have been drawn to his Letters and Papers from Prison.  His doctoral thesis, The Communion of Saints, attempted to relate sociology and theology to one another and to study the church from the standpoint of sociology.


The Communion of Saints was much too scholarly to have become popular, but the short (122 pages) more meditative Life Together, the title of this blog entry, has stirred more than one seminarian to see “community”, as the center of ministry.  Written while he was teaching at an underground seminary in Germany, Bonhoeffer reminds us that community is not something to be taken for granted. detailing the necessity of the church functioning as a living and vibrant organism, what he called a "community of love".  Consider these short Bonhoeffer observations from Life Together.


“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”


“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.”


“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”


“The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ . . .”


There’s also much to critique in Life Together but it is a stirring reminder that how we live together is central to understanding what faith is about.  I was ordained an American Baptist and for years served as a pastor and leader in that denomination during years of heated controversy.  I recently met with a small group of American Baptist clergy in a discussion with an old friend, Dr. Roy Medley, now the executive of the denomination.  His repeated emphasis was upon “community” and relationship as the essence of American Baptist life together today.  I’ve found that to be true in the United Church of Christ as well.


So, what do we find in this week’s readings that can be part of our thinking about and acting like “community”?


The reading from Acts depicts the early Christian community as those who gather to learn, worship, pray, eat, and share.  At times, especially during the Cold War years, the vision has seemed more radical and threatening than many wanted to face.  “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  (Acts 2:44-45)  It speaks of a community “with glad and generous hearts.”  (vs. 46)  A similar description is repeated at the end of the fourth chapter of Acts.  Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.  (Acts 4:32-35)


Such practice did not seem to last long.  The fifth chapter in Acts, in fact, tells the disturbing story of one who resisted such sharing.


There is indeed a strain of radicality in parts of the Bible.  The Jubilee year (every 50th year---see Leviticus 25) was a time when slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.  Jubilee seems to fade into the background as the years passed, but the vision found in Acts and in the Jubilee continues to spark response here and there from time to time.  Such visions can inform any discussion of “the way life should be,” of life together.


The other three readings all involve sheep and shepherds.  Some of us may have an idealized vision of the relationship between sheep and shepherds, but sheep are dirty and unruly.  I don’t much appreciate being compared to a sheep, yet, for many, Psalm 23 has presented what they have thought of as an idyllic picture of a community of faith.  Without getting into a critique of the shortcomings of shepherd and sheep imagery, particularly in the modern technological world, I offer a couple of observations.


First, the shepherd usually was not out front dragging the sheep along.  The shepherd usually walked behind, encouraging and recovering those who lagged or stumbled.  Second, Psalm 23 does not depict a life without problems.  Community is made up of those who need their souls restored, those who have enemies, those who walk through dark places, etc.  Our dreams of “life the way it should be” often are looking for a life in which everything goes perfectly smoothly.  I’d rather be part of a community where we take care of each other in the midst of troubles as well as rejoice together in times of celebration.  Our breakfast discussion this morning confirmed that we experience Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ as such a community.


The reading from I Peter presents us with the image of suffering even when one is innocent (following the example of Christ).  It is a form of bearing one another’s burdens in our life together.  The reading ends by connecting with the sheep and shepherd image.  “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”  (I Peter 2:25)


The Gospel According to John is strong on sheep and shepherd imagery (read on from today’s portion adding John 10:11-17), as well as vine and branches imagery (another take on our connections in “community”---John 15:1-17).  The reading for the coming Sunday draws my attention to the leader of the community.  These sheep are not guided by a threatening voice from outside.  The leader is part of the community, known to them.  “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”  (John 10:3)  It reminds me that my vision of life together is one in which the pastor is not a dictator, but one who encourages and enables us as we seek ministries that grow from the passions of God’s Love at work within us.


Notice in this reading from John that the shepherd leads the sheep “out.”  Life together is not something contained and experienced only in the sheepfold.  It is something we are called to find, recognize, participate in, and celebrate as we move about our daily living.


I leave you with an excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church, memoirs in which she reflects upon finding her way as she moves from having her life almost entirely defined by priestly working within the church.  I think her words speak of community beyond the confines of the sheepfold.


“Encountering God in other people is saving my life now.  I do not look for angels anymore, although I have nothing against them.  The clerk at the grocery store is messenger enough for me, at least if I give her a fraction of the attention that I lavish on my interior monologue.  To emerge from my self-preoccupation long enough to acknowledge her human presence is no mean feat, but when I do I can almost always discover what she has to teach me---and not only she, but every person who crosses my path.  While it is generally more pleasant for me to encounter people who support my view of reality, I am finding that people who see things otherwise tend to do me a lot more good.  Like quantum physicists, they remind me that reality is more relational than absolute.  Every time I am pretty sure that I have some absolute truth all worked out, a human being comes along to pose an exception to my rule.  Over and over, the human exceptions prove to be more revelatory than the rules.”


Ah!  Life together.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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