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Reflection February 8

Published on February 13, 2015 by in Reflections

Isaiah 40:21, 28-31; Mark 1: 29-39

Reaction to Reality

We have talked about the words from Isaiah and have been reacquainted with the stressful ministry of Jesus.  When we consider both lectionary readings, one of the common denominators we find is the importance of hope.  Isaiah encourages people to believe that a powerful energy awaits those who put their hope in the Lord God.“  In Mark Jesus is the only hope for the sick and the hopeless.  The demands on Him are so great that He cannot catch a break.  “Hope springs eternal goes the saying.” In Shakespeare’s Richard III we hear :”True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings.”  The seventeenth century English poet and clergymen George Herbert wrote in his “outlandish proverbs” :”He that lives in hope danceth without music.”  But there are other ways of seeing hope. The nineteenth century poet Christina Rossetti wrote “the hope I dreamed of was a dream, was but a dream; and now I wake.”  In the wildly popular TV series Downtown Abbey the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet, probably the best character in the while program, quips: “ hope is a tease constructed to keep us from facing reality.”

Hope, friends, is one of the three greats mention in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, along with faith and charity.   We have talked about a father’s commitment to find an answer to his son’s medical condition by inventing new technology.  We have talked about the huge problem of lack of jobs in a society dominated by internet technology, but we also see some glimmers of hope in the sharing economy.

Last weekend Carolyn and I visited the New Orleans, Louisiana area.  I had only been there once on a Greyhound bus nearly forty years ago.  I tried very hard to wrap by head around the life and history of that region and I learned so much I didn’t know. New Orleans was until recently always the biggest city in the south and it was also the place with the most free people of color.  It is a mixture of French, Spanish, Native American, descendants of refugees from an independent Haiti and Cajuns who were of French descent and had lived in Canada’s Maritime provinces for a century until the British kicked them out.  All these people mixed and in the food like gumbo and jambalaya it is hard to figure out who influenced who. At one point there were 250 sugar cane plantations along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They all had their digs in the French Quarter just like the Downtown Abbey crowd does in London.  So after the harvest, they’d go there and party and match make in the winter.  Even though the sugarcane plantations continue, it feels quiet and country there, but in the old days they lived along the United States’ main highway, the Mississippi river. The hated “Kaintucks” or Kentucky people (i.e.Anglo-Saxons) would float down it for a piece of the action in the crazy bustling city. For many year these plantations lived under the  “Code Noir” or black code of French colonial rule, not just a race but a class system of pecking order.  We heard stories of tragedy and deceit and jealousy, of yellow fever and other diseases of the family, but also of the cruelty of the plantation owners who sometimes would burn their plantation brand into the forehead of an escaped slave.  Yet the slaves lived with a hope that their owners would let them go if they were older when they were of less worth and would be cheaper to release.

Friends, as you get the sweep of the history in the bayous and on the sweltering banks of the river you get the picture of unfathomable suffering, oppression, resilience, creativity and complexity.  So out of this region not only does the richest food emerge, but also the music of America. On the Mississippi state line the traveler is reminded that it is the birthplace of America’s music.  It is perhaps true, but it is so because of the suffering that one group of people imposed on others.  For this is how the blues was born, out of the deep misery and suffering.  Somehow in the midst of oppressiveness and oppression a people found a voice in their music, they found the hope that kept them laughing and hoping.  It was a hope that was spiritual in nature.  It was a way of releasing the sorrow and making way for peace, joy and hope.  It is this spirit that musicians around the world still play with and search for.  In some ways Americans still look for their soul in the south I believe, both its worst demons and better angels.  It is not the soul of glib southern tv evangelists who like to convince people that God desires them to be rich. No, it is the soul of those without economic and political power who found a spiritual power of hope deep inside of them in a place they could only access through their pain.  They would certainly grasp the words of Isaiah when he said that those who hope in the Lord God “will not grow weary” and would find a way to “soar like eagles.” Thanks be to God.

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Coach’s corner

Finding the excitement

Dear friends,

Last month I underlined the six great ends of the Church as a frame of reference for finding our mission as a congregation in the years to come.  Again these are 1. The proclamation of the Gospel, 2. The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, 3. The maintenance of divine worship, 4. The preservation of the truth, 5. The promotion of social righteousness and  6. The exhibition of the kingdom of God to the world.  On February 7 there will be an exploration group meeting for everyone at 10 am at the Hill’s house (please sign up in the social hall).  This coach’s corner serves as a way of stimulating the imagination for the discussion about our mission there.  Hopefully it is helpful.

I gave myself the tedious task of going back almost two years in reading over my coach’s corners, especially with regards to the exploration process.  One thing I found worth reiterating is that exploration is not about problem solving. It is more about perspective adjustment. Our church is what it is. There is no particular problem that needs fixing.  That would be missing the point.  The process is about finding where the (spiritual) energy is and where the Holy Spirit is doing God’s work.  Visitors to churches are not attracted to churches because it has fixed problems so much as because of the energy they find there.  Now you have said in your exploration groups that you appreciate the energy in our congregation which you find in an attitude of welcoming, diversity and inclusiveness, warmth and friendlessness, in the lack of judgmentalism and ‘guilting,’ to name a few.  Now let’s see where those intersect with the great ends of the Church.  In other words, if we put the great ends of the church on the top of the page across and these things we believe and like about ourselves from top to bottom on the left, what can we put down to fill in the blanks? Now it is important not just to make a tidy list of what we could do, but to note also what you could get excited about.  If there is no excitement possible then it will fall flat. Let me try to translate this into some practical questions:

Great end 1. Are there new ways for us to share the good news of Jesus Christ in our more subdued, low-key, more ‘show’ than ‘tell’ way that neither alienates us nor visitors?

Great end 2. a. Are there ways of helping provide shelter to the homeless that are practically possible for our small congregation?  b. Are there ways to nurture our young better; with all the sharp people in our congregation could we teach young pastors/seminarians what it is like to do ministry in our welcoming, multicultural community through internships so that they in turn could help us nurture our young people? c. could we find innovative ways to foster community, even with people who are  not or less church-inclined?

Great end 3. Even though we keep fine-tuning our worship, are there ways in which it could be made to express Parkview’s uniqueness even more?

Great end 4. Are there ways in which we could be more actively involved in truth-telling/advocacy about world and local issues related to the suffering of people and the threats to the world we inhabit in ways that are consistent with our values as the Church?

Great end 5. In the Parkview tradition of immigrant legal aid work, Redress, our partnership with socially active churches in the Philippines and our work with organizations such as My Sister’s House etc., are there ways we could be more involved in bringing about social justice?

Great end 6. Are there new ways we could show God’s deep compassion for humanity consistent with our strengths as a congregation?

Let’s ask:” where does the excitement lie? May God bless our ministry. Aart

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Reflection January 25

Published on February 13, 2015 by in Reflections

; Jonah 3:15; Mark 1: 14-20

Stepping into the moment

A rancher in Texas had a bull named Chance.  One day Chance went out into the pasture and didn’t come back.  He had died and the rancher and his wife were very sad.  They had heard about cloning and they decided to go to Texas A and M University about an hour and a half away and convince to clone the bull. It took some convincing and the university took the bull’s tissue and DNA and at last a very similar looking bull was born.  They had to think of a name and they came up with the most obvious one: Second Chance.  The new bull had the same mannerism as the old bull, For instance. He would eat with his eyes closed.  So the couple assumed that their old bull was back, as much as the scientists told them that this was not the case. The bull might make very similar choices as much as bulls can make choices.  But he was much more a twin than the same animal.  Nevertheless the rancher and his wife felt that they had another chance at the relationship with their Bull through Second Chance.

Much of the book of Jonah is about someone evading his responsibility.  He runs off in the other direction.  He doesn’t want to deal with God gives him a task of warning the people of Nineveh to change their ways.  He doesn’t see how that is any of his business.   But all kinds of misfortune befalls him and he finds himself sitting under a withering tree feeling sorry for himself.  But then Jonah gets a second chance. He gets a second chance at his task and today’s passage, he grasps the second chance, he steps into the moment and the great city is saved. A beautiful story.

Hillary Clinton has some thinking to do. Does she want to run another campaign.  She is the Democratic frontrunner.  Mitt Romney is thinking of running too again and he is throwing his party into disarray.  His party is trying to dissuade him. There have been second chances in campaigns. But there is only one moment that it is going to work.  The media want another showdown between a Bush and a Clinton.  There’s a lot of money in that for them.  Like the Yankees and the Braves.  They may be able to engineer that.  Friends, whose moment is it to step into?  Who can ride the momentum?  Only time will tell.  Have Romney and Clinton missed their moment or is it still ahead of them?

The disciples had only one chance at following Jesus. Mark is pretty matter of fact about it.  Jesus comes, the disciples follow.  Mark was probably interested in conveying whether they were eager or doubtful.  He wanted to tell the essence of the story of Jesus the Christ.  But these disciples stepped into the moment. They took their one chance of following Jesus.

The film “Selma” is all about moments, crucial moments, horrifying moments, graceful moments.  It has become controversial because former members of the Johnson administration are disputing the portrayal of the President.  This is unfortunate in a way and healthy in another.  A historical film has to be accurate, but there is always an interpretation also.  Did Johnson step into the moment or was he dragged into it?  Did he want the voting rights act or did he think it was too risky and as a result he would endanger his own agenda of poverty relief?  The truth is not yet clear. That Martin Luther King, who is portrayed very humanly, stepped into the moment is abundantly clear, however.  It was a time of great turmoil: the assassinations of John F Kennedy was not far behind them and Malcolm X was gunned down in the middle of all this. King and Robert Kennedy were to follow.  One of King’s great insights was that not just doing something was a choice, but so was not doing anything. The whole American society had to make a point and step into the moment.  Moments like that are not always as clear and as urgent.  But there are always these moments: whether to go to war or not with a whole bunch of countries in the US, whether to support Gay and Lesbian emancipation, whether to step into the combat of global warming we are now feeling so clearly in California, whether to speak out against the cozy relationship between big government and big business.

But recognizing the moment, friends, isn’t always something massive or macro.  It isn’t always about saving a whole city or country or the whole world.  Sometime it is about caring for a single soul.  For if we as Christians really believe that human beings are souls, how great the burden the task of caring for them becomes.  How sacred our relationships become.  How urgent stepping into the moment becomes.  We can never underestimate the impact we have on people’s lives.  We may be going through life missing one moment after another, living our life as if in a fog.  May God give us the wisdom to discern and recognize the moments we must step into. Thanks be to God!

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Reflection January 18

Published on February 13, 2015 by in Reflections

I Samuel 3: 4, 8-10; John 1: 43-45

Being available

Samuel is available. He is available to his master Eli. He is one of those young people who is eager to learn, eager to please and ready to be mentored.  He is so attuned to serving his master that it does not occur to him that he has a straight line to God.  His master  is  not surprised by that as he directs the young Samuel with the words:” when you hear God’s call, say ’speak Lord for Your servant is listening.’”

There is something so powerful about these words and when we think about it, it is perhaps because the speaking of God is connecting to the servant listening.  God  does not need our permission or our goading to speak of course.  God speaks whenever God wishes to speak.  But it’s the power of the listening servant that makes God’s speaking more meaningful.  Fast forward to the New Testament and there is Jesus calling to Philip and Nathaniel.  Nathaniel is disdainful. We would flinch at his words:” Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  Can you imagine that? Think of Jesus coming from Burney and we say about Jesus:”Can anything good come from Burney.”  We’re talking about Jesus here! Next Nathaniel is blown away by what Jesus notices and knows about him.  Where Jesus comes from suddenly doesn’t matter anymore.  Nathaniel goes from barely available to enthusiastically available, because Jesus is so present and available to him.

I saw an interview by Charlie Rose with Bill Murray, the comedic actor, one of the most deadpan people in film.  He starred as a flirtatious scientist in ghost busters, a charming patient with a personality disorder in “What about Bob?,” a washed-up actor who does commercials in Japan in “Lost in Translation,” a business man who hates his entire family in Rushmore, a repentant boyfriend of many women in “Broken Flowers,” and a traveling salesman who by missing a train in a movie, misses the entire movie in “The Darjeeling Express.”   Bill Murray is not a guy has not been very good to women in real life either, but he does appears very involved with his six sons.  Charlie Rose notes about Murray: “that your life does not seem very well-planned, “ and that Murray does not seem to put much thought into it.  And then they get into a discussion about availability.  Murray says he does not want to plan much, he just wants to be available, to movie directors, to his children, to people in general.  He quotes the pastor of the African American church he sometimes attends in Charleston, South Carolina where he now lives who exclaims:” Lord, what do You have for me today?” Murray likes that idea: be there, be present, be available.

Parks and Recreation, now in its final season, is probably the best sitcom on television, although that isn’t saying much these days.  Lesley Knope, city council woman and enthusiastic city bureaucrat in small town Indiana and Ron Swanson, libertarian city employee who hates the government and who only puts steak and whiskey in his mouth, are good and loyal friends. Lesley is the democratic government do-gooder and Ron wants to get off the grid, shrink the governments and make custom chairs. They don’t agree on anything but their loyalty to each other.  They are convinced of each other’s core decency and kindness, even though she wants to turn a local site into a national park and he wants to turn it into a growth zone for environmentally indifferent businesses.  They are there for each other when the rubber meets the road.  Despite their incompatibility, they are true friends.

Friends, availability is an idea we take for granted. It seems so each to attain: being available.  Yet this is not the reality in our society.   People are said to be “romantically unavailable.” I heard a woman minister complain that it is always impossible to find a romantic partner who both listens and picks up his socks.  I have heard it said that for children to flourish, there needs to be one “consistently available parents in their daily lives.  I do believe, friends, that availability is a very important concept in the Church today.  Congregations where people are available to each other are congregations that are more likely to be healthy.  I believe that.  We all need that relative or friend we can call in the middle of the night.  It is people such as these that help keep our faith in God’s grace healthy, for God’s grace works through them.  But are we available to others?  This is different from partying with them, but are we really there?  There may be more than one answer to that question in each situation.

Finally, are we available to God?  Are we ready to hear and to be guided and to pay attention between the lines?  Are we willing to say: “speak, Lord for Your servant is listening.”  Friends, there is a connection between God speaking and our being ready to listen.  “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening,” paying attention, minding the signs, the opened doors and the closed ones.  May God show that way. Thanks be to God.






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Reflection January 11

Published on February 13, 2015 by in Reflections

Mark 1:7-11; Acts 19: 4,5

The mark of the Holy

Jesus comes to John to be baptized.  It is an act of purification, but also an act of humility.  The Great One is baptized by an eccentric prophet.  It becomes a moment of deep spiritual meaning as those gathered there here the voice of God affirming Jesus.  The Spirit of God and the Baptism of Jesus so become associated.   However, we cannot completely blame the first converts to the new Christian faith for being a little bit confused.  They were baptized in the name of John and Paul has to rectify this by re-baptizing them in the name of Jesus according to the book of Acts, for with Jesus comes the Holy Spirit.  Friends, as last week we saw how Jesus was part of creation from the beginning, now we see Jesus and the Holy Spirit as inseparable. So here we have the concept of the Trinity even more clearly.

That people get confused about Baptism is not a new thing.  In certain traditions baptism and salvation cannot be separated, thus the baptism of premature infants.  In the Presbyterian tradition Baptism is important but not necessary for salvation.  Salvation is a gift from God through our faith.

Howard Mumma who served as visiting pastor at the American Church in Paris for a number of summers in the fifties recalls conversations with a visitor to his services by the name of Albert Camus (page 190, Conversations with Camus, Best Spiritual Writing 2001, HarperSanFrancisco). Camus was one of the most famous Frenchmen of his day and one of the prominent non-religious voices for existentialism.  He was the author of the book “the Stranger,” about a man who feels alienated from life in the French colonial town of Oran in Algeria.  (As an important footnote, this last week the French have been feeling very alienated from their own society after the murder many of the staff at a satirical magazine, supposedly carried by Algerians. The French are used to living in a country where there is complete freedom of speech.)   Camus asks a question about Baptism:”What is the significance of this rite?” Mumma answers:”Baptism is not necessarily a supernatural experience….The (MOST) important thing is not the heavens opening up or the dove or the voice.  Those are the externals…Baptism is a symbolic commitment to God…  Camus says:”…The reason I have been coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage-seeking something to fill the void that I am experiencing-and no one else knows.  Certainly the public and the readers of my novels, while they see that void, are not finding the answers in what they are reading.”  Friends, these are startling words from one of the most famous writers of the twentieth century.  He is attracted to Baptism as a mark of the Holy.  He is hungry for being rooted in the Holy and to belong to God.  But intellectually he doesn’t know how to make sense of it. This is true of many of us in a science and technology dominated society.  The soul is starved, but the mind is confused.

Simon Winchester is a geologist who wrote a book about the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa.  What he wanted to be however was a Navy Officer.  He went to the Britannia Naval College in Dartmouth in southwest England for his medical test and thought he had it made. Instead it turned out he was ineligible because he was suffering from Daltonism,  i.e. colorblindness.  This what he writes (Best Spiritual Writing 2001, A True Daltonic Dandy, p. 267/8): “I was destined…. to be so supreme a success that…by the age of fifty-five, ..I would be the commander of an aircraft carrier… I saw myself in crisp tropical whites, my cap heavy with gold braid, my manner calm and reassuring, issuing quiet orders for the mighty vessel to turn this way and that through the crowded seaways of some faraway tropic strait…I would bring order and style to troubled, distant waters.”   But he is shaken from his dream. He writes that “this reverie had come to an abrupt end. It had done so in an entirely unexpected way-with the loud thwack of a suddenly-slammed-shut spiral-bound book and an evil laugh from a cruelly amused naval doctor.”

Friends, Winchester had this idea of the mark of a man he craved: a naval officer’s uniform and command of a great ship in the great British maritime tradition.  He desperately wanted to belong to that fraternity of patriotic sailors, but this was to no avail.  He had to find his way somewhere else and did t so happily in the end. He found out that colorblind people are not distracted by camouflage and notice all kind of things that general population doesn’t.   Friends, at one point or another we all desperately want to belong to something we can never be a part of. In my case for a while, it was the medical profession.  For others it may be the cheerleading squad or the football team, or the freshmen class of a certain university, or a chamber of congress or a place called the oval office or some job others always seem to get.  But thanks to Christ we always belong to the saints, to the family of God.  We will always be a part of it.  And while there are many marks of accomplishments we crave that will never be available to us, Baptism, the mark of the Holy is available to us whenever we wish it to be.  And isn’t that the greatest mark of all according to our faith? We ALWAYS belong. Thanks be to God.

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Reflection January 4, 2015

Published on February 13, 2015 by in Reflections

Genesis 1:1-3; John 1:1-4

Beginning once more

At the start of each year each of us give ourselves a brief chance to think about where and how we have been in the last 365 days.   News media do the same for us in thinking about our world.  At this time, even though it is largely artificial, the human condition seems a little bit more palpable, a little more touching and a little more fragile. We talked about the lonely fifteen-year old Guatemalan boy who is about to be dropped off in the desert to try to make it into the US on carpet slippers.  What suffering he is leaving behind and what danger awaits him?  Perhaps there are people with that history right next door us at the Guadalupe church this very minute.

Genesis talks about beginnings in the ancient primordial soup that was to be our world and the writer imagines how it all might have happened so long ago.  The writer acknowledges the power of God in that creation.  Then we jump to the text in the Gospel of John and there is another beginning, not of the World, but of the “Word.”  Jesus is the Word that was always part of creation, but comes into the world as a human being, to live as human, to love as a human and to suffer as a human.  So today we have the two main texts in the Bible, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New Testament, that are all about the word beginning.  Of course there are many new beginnings in the Bible, think of the stories of Abraham and Moses and the return of the exiles, and the beginning of the church in Acts. In fact you could you say that the whole message of the Bible is about new beginnings.

Friends, new beginnings is also what we humans crave.  We don’t like having to do things over again because we haven’t done it well or we failed, because that makes us and others think badly about us. But we do like the idea of clean slate, an empty palette to write or paint on. This we do like.  We have so many words for beginning again: refreshing (as in internet use), rebooting (as in computer hard drives), recharging, re-boosting.  When it comes to our faith we are more used to the word” recommitting,  as in “recommitting our lives to Christ,” or “reaffirming our vows.”  We love the idea of new beginnings.  We like to have new “start-ups” in our lives, it makes us feel young and gives us a sense that much of life is ahead of us.  We embrace stories of new beginnings.  Not long ago there was a movie called Begin Again about a young woman musician who goes through a break-up with a rising star.  She connects with a failed music producer and together they create a new album with musicians in public places, reaffirming what music was all about in the first place: a way of making spirits soar instead of a huge money making business.  They offer their album for free on the internet. It becomes a new beginning for her and her self-confidence, for him and his sense of self-confidence and for music. It still doesn’t make it a good movie, but it does have a good message about beginnings.

The art historian Robert Hughes wrote a book about the convict past of his native Australia entitled “The Fatal Shore.” In May 1787 a ship sailed from Southampton in England by way of islands in the Atlantic, Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in Botany Bay, near present day Sydney in January of 1787.  It was a ship full of petty convicts, part of what the English considered the “criminal class,” which they considered a separate species of human being.  These were people who had not been more than ten miles of their home and they suddenly had to make their home in a world of eucalyptus tree, strange animals and intense summer heat.  They had no idea what beginning again in this land would mean.  In the years since the founding of a convict nation, Australians have tried to distance themselves from their convict past.  Unlike Americans trying to trace their roots to the Mayflower, Australians wanted to do the opposite: begin their history again and wipe away the past.  Ironically Australia is now one of the most law-abiding nations on earth.

Friends, you and I live in the tension between having a past and a history and wanted to begin again.  In a great immigrant nation as the US beginning again is a great sport, that’s what we are apart.  Yet sooner or later we realize we cannot escape who we have been, for better or for worse.  So here is a question: “as you look at your life a little more deeply during these first days of the year, what parts of yourself are you at peace with and which parts of yourself do you want to improve.”   And related to that: in which area of your life, especially your spiritual life do you want to “begin again.”  This question we can pose to our this congregation too: where lies the challenge for this church to begin again?  May God give us wisdom.

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Coach’s corner

A framework for mission

Dear friends,

This year we will be trying to catch the momentum of our exploration group meetings by taking the next step in your discussion (first meeting will be February 7 at the Hill’s house).  You have affirmed the blessings you experience and participate in as part of our church family and expressed concern for youth and young people and the future of our facilities, to name a few things. Now it is time to translate that enthusiasm and these concerns into a mission statement.  Our old mission statement (which you can find in the front of our last picture directory) focused on the Japanese American heritage and the commitment to a multicultural future.  Since we are now a congregation made up of about ten ethnic groups, that multicultural dream has become a reality (although our commitment to total inclusiveness should remain at the forefront).  Our new session will be made up of two Japanese Americans, two Chinese Americans and two European Americans! So as we have evolved, so must our mission statement for the next five or ten years.  That mission could be as simple as “maintaining what we have now for the foreseeable future,” as long as that statement comes from reflection rather than out of complacency.

It may be helpful to remind ourselves of the six great ends of the Church according to our Presbyterian (PCUSA) denomination.  They form the theological framework for our congregational mission. They may sound a bit daunting or even frightening for a small congregation such as ours, but nevertheless they are our reference points. These are 1. The proclamation of the Gospel, 2. The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, 3. The maintenance of divine worship, 4. The preservation of the truth, 5. The promotion of social righteousness and  6. Exhibition of the kingdom of God to the world.  Our job is to have these goals in mind as we consider and live our mission.  Let me explain a little.  The first end is about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. This is done through preaching, Christian education and the way we live our lives. The second end has to do with providing a safe place to prepare the young to become a believing community, but we are all the children of God.  (If the word was “nourishment” rather the “nurture” with our good food we would definitely be hitting it out of the park!) The third end is what we try to do every Sunday and that is prepare and organize a worship service directed to God in gratitude.  The fourth end is about the truth.  This refers to Biblical and theological truth, but also to genuineness and humility in the way we live our lives and treat others and in the statements we make about our society.  The fifth is about social justice, about how the church participates in making our community, society and world a more just place.  There is a real tradition of that in this congregation.  There are many ways to do this, from advocacy to helping the abused to helping empower those who have less opportunities than most of us.  Finally we are to give the world a ‘little slice of heaven,’ e.g. through empathy, compassion, hospitality, generosity as ways of sharing God’s unconditional love for us. So a tall order; but a good question for your discussions is: what is our “piece” as a congregation in all this?  May God give you insight and bless our ministry. Happy New Year and see you in church. Aart.

P.S. Thank you for your Christmas cards. We appreciate the thoughtfulness. If you did not receive a card from us, it is because no one did!  Ministers’ heads tend to be a bit overloaded this time of year. At least mine is. Our apologies!


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Reflection December 28

Published on February 13, 2015 by in Reflections

Isaiah 61:10 and 11; Luke 2: 33,34

New light

We talked about misconceptions earlier.  Our minds and our culture are full of them.  Whenever we get rid of some, we find some new ones.  Great architecture has a way of adjusting our misconceptions of space.  It breaks open the whole idea of what a building can and should look like and what it is supposed to be made of.  It lifts the spirit if done well.  One of the most exciting architecture firms these days is called Sanaa and they are based in Japan.  It stands for Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates.  They are responsible for buildings around the world and they are particularly loved in Europe.  They designed a branch of the Louvre Museum in Northern France.  They are known for opening spaces up. They do this in different ways: in the art gallery you can technically see all the art pieces, but they are hung against small walls or obstacles. The walls are made of a kind of glass that is neither see through or mirror but reflects back dimly, leaving the figures and the objects to your imagination.  They are masters of light and breaking open the divider between outside and inside. Open spaces are made appealing by various contraptions that change height and depth perceptions.  Sejima and Nishizawa are a woman and man team who challenge misconceptions of building.  As modern and groundbreaking as they are, they stand in the Japanese building tradition that can turn a wall that closes off into a large opening that invites nature in just seconds.  Some of that tradition is found in this church.  One thing that makes our social hall such a great space, other than the wood are these tall windows that open up the downtown office buildings.  At one point there was a plan to break down the east side wall of this sanctuary and put in glass door that open up to the courtyard.  It is the same concept that both celebrates the ancient and challenges misconceptions about what a church can look like.

We looked at the text.  In a way it does the same with the message.  It is the art of poetry.  It does with the message what architecture does with space and materials.  It lets us know that the reign of God can be like the most lovely and desirable things in life like jewels and gardens.  The poetry of Isaiah brings out the full lushness of God’s blessings.  It challenges the misconception that religious life is drab and boring.  Mary and Joseph, as Luke describes it, have not really seen what is so special about Jesus and they are amazed at what Simeon sees in the little boy.  It breaks open their conception of childhood and parenthood.  Both Isaiah and Luke both shine brilliant new light on the message of the reign of God and the Messiah.  As the song “In the Bleak Midwinter” says so eloquently:”Heaven cannot hold Him nor can earth sustain, heaven and earth will flee away when He comes to reign.”  The poetry, although it may not accept the exact claims the words make, it does widen our conception of our faith.

Friends, our faith changes our conception of life.  It puts the moments of our lives in a greater perspective of meaning.   If life is moments that come one after another and we have no faith, then they are just separate and not part of a greater picture. They just become moments of joy or sadness or exhilaration or accomplishment, the ones people put on the screen when they remember their loved ones during a memorial service.  As the baker’s wife sings in “Into the Woods:” if life is a series of moments, how do you know you had them at all?”   That’s a good question.  Is our life just a string of moments of different colors put together or is it a part of something greater.  If God’s grace is indeed at work in the world, then every thought and every act and every helping hand has a place within a greater structure of meaning. It can be used and is used by God.  So it may not seem that your faith changes what you have for breakfast or which clothes you will buy at the Macy’s after Christmas sale or that great tie you found to your surprise at Marshall’s, but in its own way it changes everything. It lights it up.  It takes all those moments, connects them and sticks them into a light socket and suddenly your life looks like Union Square in San Francisco which at Christmas time is probably one of the greatest places on this wide earth to be.

So today as we are the Church or a little part of it, let us look at these old walls of this comfortable building and wonder how we can open up this place even more than we have.  How can we let more light in, how can we make it light up more, so that people can get light from it?  This is something you will be talking about in this important year to come.  In order to do so, we will have to challenge our conception of what the Church is and who you are within this church.  It can’t be just filling in the blanks. We will have to think differently. May God bless our congregation and our mission in the New Year.

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Reflection December 14

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Isaiah 61: 1,4; Luke 1:51, 52,53

Not business as usual

Dear friends,

Last week we talked about roads, about flattening and straightening out the road of society and leveling the playing field. We also talked about the potential crookedness in our soul.  Today we talk about texts that do not straighten things out, but turn them on their head.  It is a different way of looking at things.  They are both valid.  When you work on a piece of land you have to worry about the contours and the grading, but you also have to stir and till the soil, plough it in such a way as to bring what is hiding behind the hardpan to the surface.  Isaiah speaks of good news to the poor, about building on ruins.  Old “devastations” will be raised” again.  Mary in her song brings out how she is a lowly woman who becomes powerful.  The passages for today echo with a deep hunger for turning the world upside, a hope that things won’t be business as usual.  After the fall of the United Kingdom of Israel there has been nothing but suffering for centuries, exile to exile, occupier to occupier.  There is a huge hunger for change that gets poured into the joy over the Messiah.  If we read the texts over again we can find ourselves.  We can sense our own helplessness.  In this country alone there is plenty of that and the frustration is experienced in different ways and gets directed to different people, just look at the news in the last few weeks:  there are people crying for legal residence status (as well as against it),  there are people yelling in distrust at the government, there are people raising their arms in protest at police brutality, there are people livid about abuses of the CIA and of there are people up in arms about the new  perks for Wall Street in the congressional budget, Wall Street that always seems to win, partly because we all put our money on it.  A sense of helplessness is common ground for all of us.  But then comes the story of Mary who is a lowly woman who carries in her the divinely fertilized hope of all helpless people.  Hope grows inside of her.  Just two days ago the Feast of Guadalupe as celebrated next door.  As you may know our neighbor church is a National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  On December 9, 1531, a farmer called Juan Diego outside Mexico City had a vision of the Virgin Mary.  She gave him Spanish roses that left an image of her on his tilma, or cloak.  This happened in a town where there used to be an Aztec goddess worshipped.   Novelist Carlos Fuentes said that :you cannot be a Mexican and not believe in the Virgin; Judy King said that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the rubber band that ties together the diverse peoples of Mexico.  Writer Octavio Paz said that Mexicans all believe in only two things: The Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.(see Wikipedia)  The Virgin has become the symbol of the helpless and the hopeless in all of Latin America.  Miguel Hidalgo and Emiliano Zapata in the war of Independence and the Revolutionary war both rode with Virgin of Guadalupe flags into battle.  The Virgin reminds Mexicans that hope will rise again, the lowly will rise and the order of things will be turned upside down.  And if you think you’re helpless, just look south.

A mining tycoon from Australia by the name of Glasheen lost all of his millions in a stockmarket crash.  His family fell apart. He retreated to some island off the tropical coast of Australia and now lives in a shack, wears no shirts and lives from fishing and growing some simple crops.  He still believes in the stockmarket and is eternally optimistic. The actor Russell Crow stopped by on his boat and had dinner with him.  Poor and lowly he has become a much more interesting character.  His world was turned upside down.

Friends, as Christians we often like our world to be nice and tidy, organized and predictable, but we live in a world where economic and now even climate forces are in constant upheaval. In fact those who want to save our planet are fighting those who want to save the economy. It’s ironic.  The Bible has always known that. The only way to get to greatness is through lowliness. We cannot become great people of character unless we are willing to be lowly.  We have to get in touch with the lowly inside ourselves. None of us are mighty very long. Our texts say that loud and clear. Ancient Chinese thinker Lao Tzu wrote that” he who wants to shine will not shed light, he who wants to be valued will go unnoticed.”  Friends,  we can only get to God through an awareness of our lowliness, becoming one with all those who feel helpless in world.  We all get our appointment with helplessness at one point or another.  God loves those who are helpless, not because God enjoys our suffering, but because they see life without the distractions and the pretense.  Mary has it figured out. So does Isaiah.  Friends, we spend so much of our life trying not to appear lowly, but lowliness is our true condition. In the awareness of that lowliness we can encounter God. God will transform it into greatness. Thanks be to God.

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Reflection December 7

Published on December 31, 2014 by in Reflections

Isaiah 40:3-6; Mark 1:1-3.

The road to here, the road to there

In the film “Wild” which is about to open in theaters,  a young woman driven by her past walks along the length of the Pacific Crest Trail.  By moving ahead the trail she tries to leave the road before behind.  At one point she has an epiphany and says:” What if I went back in time and I would not do a single thing differently?  What if all the things I did were the things that got me here?” Friends, before us are the Advent passage that bring out images similar to the ones evoked by the movie trailer.  They are poetic, beautiful words about crying in the wilderness, about making road and paths straight, about people being like grass, blending into a landscape that will finally swallow them up.  The American West is blessed with these images and landscapes.  The more time you will spend in it, the more it will surprise you.  Last July Daniel I made a circle through part of the West, through the Wild Owyhee River Country. One of the stops was the town of Owyhee, on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border.  It was the first place I served after I was ordained.  The Owyhee river continues northwest into Idaho and into southeastern Oregon.  This is region is one of the most unspoiled regions in the United States.  Driving across the Idaho border into Oregon I had expected dry land and ranches, but this was my surprise.  Between the Idaho border and Bend in Oregon there was pretty much nothing. It was as if people just went around it or over in at night so that they didn’t notice this land of stark, arid beauty.  It is the kind of land that you could easily get lost in and never be found.   

The Bible texts for today really bring home that vision of wild land that needs to be tamed.  High places need to be flattened out and roads need to be straightened.  This is what often we have done in the US, put a straight interstate down and blown holes in mountains just to make them disappear, great feats of engineering. We have even allowed oil and car companies to destroy the train and tram culture of the great American cities in the first half of the twentieth century so that there could be more highways,  in the process separating us from our neighbors. But it’s the meandering and curving back roads that may be treacherous, but also more beautiful.  Of course we understand that text is using these images as a metaphor for the political and spiritual life of the people.  Isaiah and John the Baptist know that the hilly, craggy, rocky desert country of Eastern Judea will not ever be leveled nor will there be straight roads.  The words are about straightening out the human soul.  It seems that the film “Wild” has an understanding of that.  It appears to be more about how the land reflects the soul of the person walking.  This is the message: that we need to straighten out what is crooked and shifty in the church, in our society and in our soul.  Doing that is what we need to do to face the Messiah as a child.  That is how we wait and anticipate.  In the movie trailer for “Wild” a man who gives the main character a ride, says he has left behind a lot things in his life just as she is trying to do and she asks him:”do you regret any of it.”  He answers:” I didn’t have any choice, there was never a fork in the road for me.”  Of course that’s whole other discussion: how much we control our destiny, how many choices we truly have. The American in us says we control our destiny, the Asian in us says we don’t, the mature and realistic Christian in us blends them and says: you are responsible for your choices, but there is also God’s mysterious grace at work in our lives. Amen.

But, friends, in the final account, do we want the road in our lives to be straight or do we want it to be crooked?  In some of that we have a choice, in others we don’t.  I have talked about the things that need to be made straight already, like racism in American society that bubbles up in Ferguson or Staten Island or attacks on the Presidential daughters, exposing the racism and classism and sexism and agism and arrogance in all of us.  In other words, we must level the playing field for all people.  We have talked about the evil and violence and endless wars. We have talked about how we must give our earth’s atmosphere and its rivers and oceans a break, how we must flow with nature more than subdue it.  This also means flattening out the obstacles in ourselves to compassion and straighten out our ego and wipe out the destructive side of our competitiveness.

Yet there is also the crooked road of life. No matter how old we are, we can look back and see something that’s a lot more like mountain paths than it is like flat , straight highway 80, say,in Eastern Nebraska.  As much as we all want to be on cruise control, none of our lives follows a clear, straight, flat path.  We get blown off course, to mix the metaphors.  The future will not be any different.  Life is a series of twists and turns that we try hard to manage, but never completely have a handle on. So to summarize in a bringing the two roads together: God’s grace meets us on the twisting road of life and in response we level the playing field so peace and justice can one day reign. May God bless our journey.

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