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Coach’s Corner

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Coach's Corner

From Mission to Vision

Dear friends,

Last November 6 the (for now) last exploration group meeting took place.  The task before the group was to distill the results of the earlier exploration group meetings into a working mission statement for the years to come. There was recognition that in fact we are now a multicultural community and that we should continue celebrating our multicultural identity through the love of music, food, children, and the arts.  We also should support each other as we take our journeys of faith with God and explore different facets of ourselves and faith. The group also concluded that we should endeavor to be more multi-generational as we adapt and evolve in relation to the community around us.   We can boil down what was most important in the eyes of this group for the future as: “providing thought-provoking practical sermons that nurture our learning family and our individual searches for faith while we integrate ourselves with our surrounding community to provide service.”

When I presented the results of the exploration group meeting to the session at the annual session retreat on February 8 so that they could crystallize into a mission statement, the result was surprising.  They saw the result of the exploration group discussion more as a vision statement for action than as a mission statement. They said that the current mission statement was still valid. To refresh your memory, here it is (with some suggested edits in italics based on the discussion above): “We, the members of Parkview Presbyterian Church, seek to honor our (church’s) Japanese American heritage wrought out of the unique blend of communal and Christian values, immigrant experience and the suffering of internment. This heritage has shaped us to become a unique family of faith, imbued by a spirit of tenacity, loyalty and genuineness, compassion and solidarity. Rooted in, and committed to the welfare of our Sacramento community, we wish to share this spirit with others in efforts to build (having built and wishing to strengthen and expand) a new (strike:new) multi-cultural (and increasingly multi-generational) community of believers  committed to their faith in God through Jesus Christ and to the service of God and suffering humankind. “So what the session was in fact saying was that what the exploration group came up would be more a manifestation of the mission statement rather than the mission statement itself.

In summary, our multicultural Christian family keeps evolving and adapting, opening more and more to the city community like a flower while becoming more inclusive in all ways, with sensitivity also to those who have a faith other than ours.

Our commitment to a residency program is already a sign of our opening up to the world around us, for strengthening our bonds with the local community will be one of the tasks of the residents .  At the same time we add a new dimension: we become not only a learning but also a teaching community.  As our selection committee is about to interview two candidates in the next two weeks we might gratefully acknowledge that the vision of opening up is already being implemented.  May God bless our ministry. Aart

 

 
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Reflection March 27

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

Easter;  Luke 24: 5 -12

Who is Mr. Banks?

The psychologist James Hillman claims that what the human soul really longs for is “healing fiction.” “Healing fiction“is the title of his book. We don’t like the word “fiction” in church much because we don’t want to create the impression that things we believe in are made up.  Let’s just say that, if Hillman is right, that what you and I really want are healing stories.  With today’s movie “Saving Banks,” we have a whole bunch of stories packed together. There is the story of Mary Poppins the musical, the story of Saving Mr Banks, the story of the life of Walt Disney, the story of the life P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins.  Then this message is followed by a story in traditional dance of a woman in Japan going from agony to rebirth.  The most important story of course is the story of the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ which is most healing of stories, one that ties together past and present, heaven and earth, hell and hope.  It is the story that defines all happy endings.  In the light of what has just happened in Brussels we can say that we have just been reminded of hell in human life.  The wounds of the victims and the terrifying pathology of the perpetrators are confirmation of how much we need the healing story of Easter.  Healing and wounds come together and the fact that the wounds of the resurrected Jesus remain visible and tangible are even more powerful and healing for all of us.

Friends, who is Mr. Banks? Literally it is the preoccupied father of the children in Mary Poppins.  That is the Mr. Banks at the surface. The one who realizes he must be there more for his children and that he must lead a more joyful life.  But on a deeper level is he is Travers Goff, the failed Australian banker, the charming and imaginative alcoholic.  He is the man who makes the childhood of P.L. Travers magical and ultimately destroys it, leaving her permanently wounded.  “Mr. Banks is going to be okay,” we learn in the movie.  Walt Disney himself guarantees it. P.L. Travers is trying to save Mr. Banks, i.e. Mr. Goff, even though of course she cannot.  She can try to save his memory, his legacy, however. She can write an ending to the story that is good and right.  Of course until the end she believed Walt Disney was going to mess it up, the way Americans always did according to her. Although Travers behaved awfully and was a severe woman, she was not an awful person.  She adopted a child at 40, whom she raised faithfully. She knew the literary giants of her day.  She did research among the Hopi, Pueblo and Navajo people.  She didn’t like Hollywood at all however. Yet we get the sense that Disney’s own harsh childhood is at some level healed by this story and he desperately wants to keep his promise to his daughters of making it into a musical. In a deleted scene from the movie I found on the internet, Travers says something like this to Disney:”you must not make promises to children.  It’s like poison.”  The point she is making is that broken promises pile up in children’s lives.  Travers’ Mary Poppins story, so fictional yet so full of truth, helps us come to terms with the flaws of the people we love and our flaws as people others love.  It intimates that people can learn and change and be redeemed.  This we know to be true on a gut-level.  When we capture glimpses of the carnage in Brussels we think maybe this is an illusion, but when we witness the love and beauty and harmony expressed by the people of the city afterward we can be amazed by the human spirit.

Friends, we tell stories to save others, but we moreover we tell stories to save ourselves.  Travers did that and Disney was trying to do the same. For all of us there is someone in our lives we would have wanted to save, someone we loved dearly and even after they are no longer with us that wish continues.  So on another level we too have our Mr. Banks like Walt Disney did, someone we couldn’t hold on to or someone we could not reach because they wouldn’t listen or something was keeping them from listening.  But ultimately we too are Mr. Banks. Ultimately we know we don’t have it all together, as much as we pretend we do.  Ultimately we think are flaws will catch up with us.  We need saving.

This is the beauty of the resurrection story.  God wants to save us and will go to any length to do so.  What better story than this to get our attention?  The powerful God becomes weak and powerless and goes through pure hell to come out wounded but alive forever.  How can you beat that story?  Americans keep making movies about that story.  Let me be Mrs. Travers here for now and say that perhaps they shouldn’t, because the book and what we can read there between the lines is always going to be better than the movie.  But what we can say is that the story does save us, saves us from hopelessness and despair, from meaninglessness and pointlessness.  It has the story ending for all stories.  Jesus is no Mr. Banks. He can save Himself.  That makes Him unique. Or should I say that the story saves Him and rescues Him.  Jesus is the main character of the story for our sakes. Its happy endings makes our endings happy. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 
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Reflection March 20

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

Isaiah 50:7-8; Luke 19 36,37,38

Celebrity status

Ben Affleck plays Superman in a new movie pitting Superman against Batman.  He is supposed to be this darker, more realistic character.  It took many years for Affleck to be taken seriously as an actor, but these days are behind him.   But what is a celebrity to do, now he has trouble being taken seriously as a husband.   After his dark role as husband in “Gone girl” now comes the breakdown of his marriage with the American sweetheart Jennifer Garner.  While Ben is embracing his dark side, the increasingly wholesome Jennifer is starring in a religious movie about a miracle and I heard she is the focus of Vanity Fair.  I heard that in the article she talks how hard it was to live with Ben when his career was not going well.

Dear friends, it is hard to be a celebrity.  Now you may think I am being terribly sarcastic, but I bet it is not that always easy to be a celebrity.  I have done about 19 sermons on Palm Sunday for you now and I always try to find a new angle.  Celebrity is this year’s angle.  Jesus is a celebrity and it the celebrity He is representing is the worst kind of celebrity.   You see, Jesus’ celebrity like all is temporary, but for Him it is super short and He knows it.  It is just a moment of glory in the people’s eyes to fulfill the prophecy of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant.  In addition he is a celebrity without money or power.  Friends, wouldn’t that be the worst kind of celebrity to be: one without money of power?  This would mean you could no longer fly on the private Lear jets, go to the fancy parties with other celebrities,  hide in a tree lined mansion or penthouse.  But everybody would know you.  You would have the ride the bus and everybody would know you. You would fly economy and have to sit next to people who would analyze your accomplishments.  You would be sit in fast food restaurants with people who know you but think you are not as good looking in person or who think you have aged.  The cover verse says: “Jesus is set on the colt.”  There He is, celebrity with the lifespan of a dragon fly, being cheered off toward His inevitable painful death.  First mockery is right around the corner.  There isn’t much he can do.

Friends, whether we would amid it or not, we all would want to try being a celebrity for a little bit, because celebrities are remembered. They are less likely to be out of sight, out of mind.  And with being remembered comes a kind of immortality.  Perhaps that is what we really want.  But I think celebrity comes with a curse, because everything you do is amplified: the good you do of course, but also the bad.  Every word and action has extra weight and can easily be distorted.  And you get branded. So you have these actors whose fame is not enough for them: they want the Oscar, they want the respect.  They crave that even more than they used to crave the fame and the money.  They don’t compare themselves to us. They compare themselves to the better actors.  It is true of writers, athletes, musicians etc.  It is relentless.

Friends, what do we want from celebrities?  The crowd wants to be associated with Jesus. They want to be able to say that they saw Him, that they were there when the “King” came by.  They also want what He could do for them.  But the danger is lurking.  The crowd also want the celebrity to fall. They love the fall just as much as the rise; because people resent the perfectly happy celebrity.  They resent that they themselves are on the sidelines and out of the news. And Jesus’ fall is just hours away.

Friends, a culture needs people who are better at something than the rest of us, people that sing better, dance better, talk better, lead better, paint better, write better, help us imagine and dream better.  They give us something to aim for.  What we don’t need is celebrity. Celebrity is pathetic.  But that is what Palm Sunday to a large extent is like for the crowd.  And that is what makes it so dangerous. It is what makes them turn against Jesus at the drop of the hat.

Friends, there is something you and I are better at than anyone else. It does not make us a celebrity, but then I just said we don’t need that.  We are best at being ourselves. That may sound corny, but it is true. Or should I say:” we are best at being the person we are meant to be.”  You see, no one can play the role God wants us to play better than us.  No one is able to make the contributions we are supposed to make better than us.  No one can serve people and God better in the way we are supposed to serve them than we can.  The trick is finding out what are best self is best at. That takes time and patience that can last much of a life time. It also takes a willingness to look for God or at least a willingness to have God to speak to us.  Friends, following celebrities is entertaining, but it is irrelevant.  Our focus should be on finding the excellence inside us. May God give us insight.

 
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Reflection March 13

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

Isaiah 43: 18, 19; John 12: 3; Philippians 3: 12-14

What is your reference point?

The theologian Peter Marty (Christian Century, March 2, 2016, p. 3) writes: “When the train I was taking into Chicago’s Union Station stooped about 500 yards short of the platform, most of us on board took it in stride. We thought it was a momentary delay. It turned out to be 15 minutes long, which is the rough equivalent of eternity for a frantic commuter. A cheer went up in our car at around ten minutes.  We thought we were finally moving. The joke was on us, however, when we realized that it was only the train beside ours that was moving in the opposite direction. It is a strange sensation to discover you are going nowhere when everything in your brain is telling you otherwise.  What tipped us off to our foolishness was a reference point: a large brick building that came into view after the other train had passed. ”

Friends, whatever we observe in life, we always need to get our bearings.  This is visual, or through our hearing, or by smell, or in our thinking or through feeling.  We always have a reference point for everything.  For the people on the train that reference point disappeared for a moment. We all have had similar experiences.  In Isaiah 43 the people find themselves in a time of exile, a time when the people’s reference point was the past, a past that was starting to fade beyond memory, but nevertheless a past that they always referred to.  So when Isaiah proclaimed that “God is doing a new thing,” and that the past is no longer, he offers them a whole new point of reference.  In Philippians chapter 3 Paul “presses onward” to the future.  He does so only after pointing out how much confidence he has as person accomplished on earth to make him a credible and acceptable religious leader, but then unexpectedly he makes it very clear that credentials are all “garbage” to him.  What matters is the future and his heavenly prize.  So Paul shifts the point of reference both horizontally (forward to the future) and vertically (upward to the heavenly).   But the most significant change in point of reference comes in the lectionary text in the Gospel of John:  Mary is honoring Jesus with expensive oil and Judas objects: the oil is too expensive and the money could be used to help the poor.  Jesus sets Him straight: “the poor you will always have with you.”  Jesus Who is already wounded emotionally feels ministered to by Mary and that moment of attention helps him and strengthens Him for the awful things that are about to come.  What all three of these texts have in common, friends, is that the point of reference changes in ways the audience does not expect.  Isaiah’s audience is used to the past or the terrible present.  Paul’s congregation in Philippi expects him to show them all his diplomas, but instead he hurls it all out the door.  Judas and other disciples expect Jesus to say the morally correct thing, but instead Jesus rebukes him.   And this is one of the things that make the prophets and Jesus and Paul so powerful in their message time and time again: the people expect their train to be moving, but it stands still while another train is moving.  The point of reference is different.

Friends, much of our life is like this.  We have our eye on one thing, waiting for it to move, but then something else moves.  We have things we count on and we have gotten used to counting on them and then suddenly we can’t.  We lose the brick wall as our point of reference and don’t know which train is moving.  We think we have it figure out.  We accept the well known words of the French writer Alphonse Karr: “the more things change, the more they change the same.”  But maybe that is wrong and that ancient saying:”the only constant in life is change.”  Things can be the same for decades and then there is something with our work, our money, our health or our relationships.  It can be bewildering.  The Bible is interesting that it is always challenges our point of reference, it is always calling stability into question.  Theology also changes.  For instance now that we know that our star, the sun, will burn out one day in the far away future,  we know that our earth as we know it will not always be there.  This changes how we view life as Christians.  Now that we know how much we contribute to global warming as the human race, it changes how we view God’s creation all around us.   YET, at the same time the core message of the Bible remains the same:  Jesus Who shows us the degree to which God loves us.”  That is unchanging.  That point of reference is firm.  “Jesus loves me this I know so the Bible tells me so,” is another way of saying that.  It is a firm point of reference.

Friends, I know faith is not an easy thing.  I know understanding a book as old as the Bible is not an easy thing.  Our views on parts of it and what they mean changes over our life time, whether we like to admit it or not, but the suffering Jesus is the point of reference that remains.  And much of the ultimate meaning of our lives is determined in reference to that point. Thanks be to God.

 
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Reflection March 6

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

Joshua: 5: 9a, Luke 15: 15 and 2 Corinthians 5: 18- 20

Citizens or ambassadors

Sometimes the lectionary readings prescribed for a Sunday are a like piece of rock someone gives you to sculpt and you have to walk around it and see if you can imagine shape in there somewhere. Today is like that.  There is the celebration of the Passover, commemorating the liberation of slavery in Egypt; there is the story of the Prodigal Son Jesus tells and there are the words of Paul that remind us that we are ambassadors for Christ.  When the Passover is celebrated it is a reminder that people are coming back to the land that has been in the memory of the people for generations.  In Egypt stories were told of this place which none of them has ever seen.  And they remember the hardship of forced labor and of the journey home.  But would this land still be there? Would they be welcome? Would they be strangers?  Were they the rightful citizens? Would they be chased off the land or would they be able to chase others of their land? These are the exact same questions alive in that part of the Middle East today.  It involves the question of citizenship, about the rights of citizens which is kind of the stamp or official seal of belonging in a place. It comes with responsibilities too of course, but we like to sweep those under the carpet a lot of the time.

Then there is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is about salvation and God’s love.  But as many times as I have preached on this subject, there is one thing in that text that never jumped out at me before.  It says: “he (the prodigal son) hired himself out to a citizen of that country.”  There is an echo here of the Israelites going into Egypt and bowing to the rulers there.  He is not a citizen there, but is hired by one to feed the pigs, the worst job in the Middle East. There are echoes too of undocumented workers.  And then we jump to the idea of ambassadorship.

Friends, what ties citizens and ambassadors into one tapestry is the idea of a nation of a people that we become a part of?  The only thing is that the idea of citizen is more attractive than the idea of an ambassador.  What drove the Founding Fathers of the United States to that State House room in Philadelphia in the seventeen hundreds was the outrage that they were not treated as full English citizens.  The move toward independence was not at all popular but as a bunch of gentleman farmers, firebrands and intellectuals they pushed for it.  Not long after, however, a number of them became ambassadors for their new nation in Paris.  Still the idea of ambassador is not popular now. At most it is ceremonial. Paul might have been horrified by that because as a Jew AND Roman citizen born in Turkey he was diverse in his thinking.  It paled in comparison to his excitement about being an ambassador for his faith.  As a Dutch citizen that resonates with me.  I have felt like a foreigner for much of my life.  The idea of being an ambassador has always been important to me.  But then we do not think much of ambassadors do we? Ambassadors have to deal with leaders of foreign nations who are often corrupt and cruel and repressive and they have to deliver messages they often do not agree with.  So we think of ambassadors not as leaders but as messengers at most.  Who wants to be the UPS guy all the time?  Can ambassadors really be principled people, we want to know.  In a country as powerful as the US we do not value diplomacy very much.

Fortunately to be an ambassador of one’s faith is different; and very important.  What ambassadorship does is three things:”it forces you to be open to the culture and values of the people you live and work among; 2. it makes you embody the message you believe in even though you may not be able to win people over. 3. It makes you less arrogant about where you came from.  Each of these three things we can find in the writings of Paul, friends.

Wouldn’t it be something if we were less concerned about citizenship than we are about being ambassadors? Right in this country, as in Europe and Australia, the social discourse is exploding about who gets to be a citizen and who does not.  It’s a lot easier if you bring in a lot of money.  We have had that kind of thinking a lot for a long time about our faith.  Do I get to be a citizen of heaven? Who does and who doesn’t?  We don’t talk much about this ambassadorship for Christ that Paul is talking about.  Maybe because it’s a lot harder to be an ambassador.  But we are, friends, whether we like it or not.  If you are out there and tell people where you go to church and what you think about it, like it or not you are an ambassador.   It is something I am always aware of.  Friends, let’s do a little less citizenship talking and little more ambassador doing.  May God help us in that effort.

 
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Coach’s corner

Published on March 3, 2016 by in Coach's Corner

The intersecting of lives

Dear friends,

One of the things I enjoy most as a pastor is when I see people who have met at our church develop bonds and relationships outside the confines of our fence.  Of course sometimes people have crossed paths before and seeing them renew their acquaintances and strengthen them is also very meaningful.  In any case I am happy to see that our humble church campus becomes the venue for the intersecting of lives and sometimes these lives converge for a while and go in the same direction. There is energy in these intersections and God can work mysteriously in them.  It always strikes me how much they are out of pastoral control. They just happen.  In fact, except for those who have committed themselves to coffee hour or parking or PA duty or piano playing or Sunday school, none of those who will come this Sunday are guaranteed to be there, although some are quite probable attendees. Also we never know which new person might blow in on any given Sunday.  This intersecting of lives, as random as it may seem at times, can result in powerful moments when a hidden truth is shared or a day suddenly becomes bearable and light when it seemed hours earlier it didn’t have a prayer.

On February 2nd I sat in a community worship service at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and the preacher whom I did not know suddenly mentioned my name.  It turns out he had been in a youth group at the Carmichael Presbyterian Church where I had once served during a difficult time in the church’s history, in 1988. He drew a direct line between that youth group experience and his current ministry in Illinois. It was touching, but it also made me feel flawed, since for the life of me I could not remember ever having met him.  Lives intersect in one place and then they do again.  Usually we do not know what impact they will have.

The day before I had had interviews with two seminary students In Princeton NJ who were very interested in our residency program and eager to know if they stood a chance. They were both about to graduate. They were from totally different sides of the globe, both far from where they were studying. In the hours you spend with them, you become aware of the intersecting of your life and theirs.  You ask questions and you listen to their story and you start caring about that story. Yet you cannot control how it continues.  Maybe your story and theirs will converge for a while, or maybe what is important is that moment when you were present for them and encouraged them and affirmed their value.  Maybe others are searching somewhere else and you must find where they are.  However, I was sure that afternoon about the importance of what our congregation was offering to them and also conscious of how complicated students’ lives are.  You see them struggle with the questions of their professional future that is about to begin just as they try to convince you what a good candidate they are.  As I learn more about the students and their needs and we continue our preparations for hosting them, I wonder which lives will intersect with ours on that familiar church campus to create new points of energy and new connections beyond them. It looks like we will be ready.  May God bless our ministry. Aart

 

 
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Reflection February 28, 2016

Published on March 3, 2016 by in Reflections

Psalm 63: 7,8; Isaiah 55: 6,8,9

Finding God in the city

Jesus’ destiny is to find His end in the city, in Jerusalem. Salem, shalom, salam, it is all the same word. It means peace.  Salem is a name of towns all over the US. Cities often have idealistic names.  Think of Philadelphia as “brotherly/sisterly love,” a city once the second largest in the world after London.  Then much of California is named after revered saints and this city after the Holy Sacramento.  But here is a question for you:”Can the city be a godly place?” As I have told you, I have been reading a theological book called “Spirit in the Cities, Searching for Soul in the Urban Landscape.”  Theologians write about city spaces.  I shared what Mark Lewis Taylor writes about Philadelphia, a city founded on idealism and where now the politicians want to turn it into a hub for historical and utopian tourism. He talks about “degenerate utopia” created by the forces of a harsh manufacturing culture in the past and wonders whether there could be a “regenerative utopia” where cities could be a place of ideals where God has a place.  Sheila Briggs rephrases the question and asks:” can the city be God-bearing” as she travels through LA county by train.  Mark Lewis mentions the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich by noting the two main threats of the city: first: the alienation of people from nature and second, the alienation of people from each other. We can add a third: the alienation from God.

It is interesting to look at church buildings in cities.  Some feel dark, except for the light through the stained glass windows, you get the idea that the architect wanted to shut out the city scape,  creating  an otherworldly place of mystery. Many older catholic churches are like that. But then some of the contemporary Catholic churches are the opposite, the world is brought in.  One great example is St.Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco and even more modestly St. Anthony’s on Florin here in Sacramento.  I like the Georgian style churches were there are just simple windows through which you can see the life outside.  My favorite are the churches in the tropics where the windows are open and you can hear singing from the street and honking of cars from the pews. At Parkview we are sort of in between. We get the light from the outside, but we cannot see the world until we open our windows.

So, friends, can God be found in the city?   Maybe Jesus wasn’t sure Himself.  We see Him active outside the city, preaching and healing.  The city is a place of filth and inequality and squalor, full of hypocrites.   When we think of the word “pastoral,” two things come to mind: 1. The attitude of the pastor and 2. a rural scene.  If you take them together pastoral work is better done outside the city.

But you and I are in this city. It is not a really big city, but all the important buildings are within walking distance from here.  Can this be a godly place?  Psalm 63 says:” my soul clings to You (meaning to God).” But how is that done in the city? Isaiah 55 says: ”Seek the Lord while God may be found, call upon God while God is near. “ But how do we know when God is near in the city?

Are God and cities enemies? Many church people think so, even though they too enjoy the joys of the city.  I am one who does not think so.  I think a city as this one has hope.  It is small enough and people want to live in its center.  However we ever seem to strike a balance between the poor and well-off. In city neighborhoods it’s often one or the other.  A shift is happening here and a neighborhood such as this is transition from a place that used to be full of drugs and half-way houses to high-end living.   Remember the first of the three threats: alienation from each other.  That is what we must avoid; second, alienation from nature:  there must green places where people can come together and finally alienation from God.  There are plenty of things that happen in this city that aren’t religious or Christian but express a positive spirit.  There is spiritual art in this city. It is not necessary an enemy of faith, although perhaps a distraction.  Friends, we have to keep the windows open to what is around us.  At the same time we must be confident that the message of the suffering Christ who goes into the city still rings true.  It is possible to be pastoral in the city, but it requires that sometimes we are a little uncomfortable.  I do think people are spiritually hungry.  Art may gives us wings for a while, enthrall and excite us, but it does not root us.  We are not a hundred percent sure that we have a place here on earth and that we are relevant.  We always long for the unconditional love that only God can provide. We long for the knowledge that the power of our universe is loving to us.   Nothing tells that story better than the powerful God Who chooses to become a powerless human. That message will never be old.  Thanks be to God!

 
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Reflection February 21, 2016

Published on March 3, 2016 by in Reflections

Genesis 15: 5,6, 12; Luke 13: 33

Questionable timing

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Norwegian novelist living in Sweden.  He is a bit of a phenomenon because he is writing in the smallest detail about his rather everyday life in a series of four novels entitled “My Struggle.”  I am almost done with part I, but I may stop after that one.  What makes him special is that he does not seem to filter himself. He says the kind of things about his inner life that most other writers would not dare to say.  It is refreshing, especially if you have had some of those thoughts before.  He is only in his forties, so you wonder how much he will write by the time he is ninety.

Friends, what if we had had Martin Luther King into his nineties, or JFK or Mozart or Mama Cass or some of the great thinkers and artists?  James Taylor just released a new album in his late sixties/ early seventies that he says is his best ever. There are some great songs on it that keep getting better the more you listen to it.  Tony Bennett is doing some of his best work and he went to school with Thomas Jefferson, at least that’s what young people may think.   So when in our passage for today we hear Jesus talking about “Herod” as a sly fox and referring to his own end as a very young man, the thought occurred to me:” what if He has been on earth longer?  What if instead of a very limited record of his acts and saying in a very small part of the Bible, we had had a life time’s worth of wisdom?  What we could have learned!  Think of Jesus as Shakespeare on steroids! Wow.  And then Abraham, what if he as a young man had learned that he would have been a father of a great nation, would that not have made a great difference?  What if we could have switch Jesus and Abraham or at least in terms of the length of their life.  But of course this is silly thinking.

Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological seminary (sermon, February 1, 2016) talked about gravitas.  He explained that gravitas is something a person who has really lived has acquired.  He talked about how people who have had wounds in their life that have never healed or have not healed well are traumatized, but gravitas happens when a person’s wounds have healed well.  Jesus, well, because He was Jesus had gravitas from a very young age.   He did not need to live a long life to have gravitas.  Abraham did need a long life to acquire that kind of wisdom.  It took the shape of obedience and relinquishing to God’s grace.  Nevertheless when we look at the text in Genesis and the text in Luke closely and in comparison, we could come to the conclusion that the timing is all of.

Friends, what is about God’s timing or to be more exact, God’s time? Well, to be clear, most what looks like bad timing is just people getting in the way with their selfishness and impulsiveness and insecurity.  People’s bad sense of timing is not God’s fault. Then there is the timing of the body, like disease imbedded in our DNA.  They have their own time release.  So in a way there are three kinds of timing that affect our life: the timing of our bodies or nature, the timing of others and the timing of God.  And there may still be others.

Friends, you put all of these together and no wonder that our lives can so often feel disjointed and out of whack.  I have heard it said that for a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder it can feel like there are three clocks in the child’s mind and they are all turning at different speeds.  But at the moments those clocks line up, get in sync, the child makes huge progress.

Remember Marlon Brando’s famous line in “On the Waterfront:” I could have been a contender, I could have been someone.”  The timing wasn’t right.

You and I experience Lent and hear the same stories again about the inevitability of Jesus’ suffering.  We know what’s going to happen.  We know that there is nothing we can do.  We don’t question it. We don’t question the time of the whole thing.  Was the timing off? “Could it have been avoided,” we don’t think about that.

Friends, God’s time, or as they call it “kairos,” has its own drumbeat, its own rhythm.  Like us it has to deal with the timing of nature and the timing of people who often make disastrous decisions. God is not responsible for the decisions of people.  What we do know is that God is working to make all the good things happen: reconciliation, peace, compassion, joy, community, forgiveness, justice.  Think of God’s timing like the sun trying to burn through a thick grey cloud cover.  So what does this mean in your lives today?   It means that when you wonder about what God is doing in your life, remember that God is not some puppet master pulling strings, but that God’s love is trying to burn through the clouds and bring light and warmth.  And when it comes to time or the time of your life, God’s clock is always ticking. Thanks be to God.

 
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Reflection February 14, 2016

Published on March 3, 2016 by in Reflections

Deuteronomy 26: 5, 9-11; Romans 10: 12, 13

The wanderer in us

We are into the season of Lent already.  It seems ridiculously fast.  Christmas is still in the rear view mirror. The only thing is that supports the early season is that during the last week we have had warm Lent type weather.  Lent among others things stands for a spiritual re-centering, a shedding of things and habits and foods and attitudes that are redundant in our lives.  This is done by imagining ourselves on a journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, tagging along with Him as He swerves through the pitfalls and dangers of His ministry. It is also about facing ourselves in the mirror.

In the past months or so we raised several themes about who we are as human beings and Christians that come out of our lectionary readings.   One is the idea of being a stranger, the idea that it is important to admit that at points in our lives we can feel like a complete stranger, even among the people we are supposed to feel most comfortable with.  Then last week we talked how we are kind of stuck between being comfortable in the place we call home and we like he routine of things while at the same time striving to have great spiritual experience, stuck in a sense between heaven and earth.  The realization of those two themes I believe is crucial to our spiritual growth. Today the theme is “The wanderer” and the point I want to make is that admitting that there is a wanderer in each of us is also necessary to becoming spiritually complete.

Friends,  the American West is a very large canvas, a very large canvas not just for Americans, but for the world.  Film makers over nearly a century have used it to paint the images of wanderers.  Because of its sheer size and the imposing nature of its multicolored landscape we have seen people wander through, on foot, on horseback, on covered wagons and in stage coaches and on trains, in silence, in black and white, in technicolor and in Dolby surround sound.  The latest one is the Revenant.  But there have been the Searchers, the Unforgiven, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, the list goes on and on.  Someone scours the land for revenge, forgiveness, redemption, oblivion, escape or a lost loved one.  Somehow we think of the East and South of the US as a place where immigrant communities came and got rooted and where the nation fought itself.  Of course this is not entirely true.  This nation has always been in constant motion. Even the Native Americans who came here first were almost always on the move.  We forget that most of the African Americans in Chicago and Oakland came from the South as far back 1916. Oakland has a lot of people from Louisiana. Emmitt Till was from a transplant family and so were some of the young people killed in the Midwestern city recently. They were trying to get away from the oppression and hardship of the post civil war south.   For whatever reason, people have always wandered, trying to get way from something and going toward something.   Even if there never was the necessity to do so, people still did it.  Somehow inside of us there seems to be a wandering soul.  The Bible text says very clearly: “A wandering Aramean was my father.”  This is an important phrase in the Jewish faith.  “A wandering  Aramean was my father.”  And no people has wandered more than the Jews.  They are saying that wandering is in the blood, in the DNA.  In Romans Paul reminds us that there is no difference between Jew and Greek what it comes down to us.  “Greek” here can be seen as an umbrella designation for all who are not Jewish.

Friends, think what you will.  Think you are here in this place and this place is yours and will be forever.  Of course you know this is true.  But this thinking gets us into trouble spiritually, because it is an illusion.  It gets us into this anti-immigrant thinking.  It gets us into this anti-refugee thinking.  This idea that others wander, but we don’t or we at least have stopped wandering,  that we are set.  And being set means being set in our ways.   I have seen so many times:  seniors who are set, thinking they are never eve going to move who suddenly find themselves, because of their body’s limitations, in a new situation that breaks their heart, at least initially.  Just because we plant ourselves, it doesn’t mean we stop wandering.  Wandering is part of the human condition.  One text we did not read today but which included in the lectionary readings is that of Jesus wandering into the desert and finding Himself tempted by Evil to become someone  Who is eternally powerful.  He refuses and He wanders on, through the landscape of the Mideast, into the hands of the ruthlessly powerful, onto the cross and then into our lives and into our hearts.  Because Jesus wanders on, we never wander alone.

Friends, this leads us to the church.  Because congregations to a large degree think of themselves as buildings, there is this static idea, there is something immutable and permanent.  This of course is also an illusion. There are a lot of beautiful, old church buildings across the Western world that stand empty.  No, the church can only keep vital if it keeps moving, keeps wandering, restless and searching for the next new mission. Thanks be to God!

 
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Reflection February 7, 2016

Published on February 11, 2016 by in Reflections

Luke 9: 31-35; 2 Corinthians 3:14

As close as they can get

We just talked about an old movie not too long ago called “An affair to remember” with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.  It is not art, really, except for the last scene which is quite moving really. The woman and a man who meet in an ocean liner fall in love when they both suppose to marry someone else. They go back to the ones they are promised to, but leave the door open to a rendezvous six months later. If they love each other, they are supposed to meet on top of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world.  They both look up at it and call it “the closest thing to heaven.”  That is best place for them, rooted in the world but on cloud nine at the same time.

I was never too crazy about classical music.  For a long time it reminded me of dreary drizzly winter Sunday afternoons in Holland.  My parents loved it however, especially Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Another piece of music they loved I actually liked a lot too.  It is still my favorite. It is Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony for the New World. On the cover of the vinyl record was a 1950’s picture of downtown Chicago, of the magnificent mile.  Pulling my bag across the Chicago River at night from the L train last several days ago I looked up at the lit-up towering buildings shrouded in fog and it occurred to me that when it comes to it, the only mountains in the Midwest are the skyscrapers of Chicago.  What is it about the great American center cities? Until recently, in most places around the world they build up because they have to, but they just build lower, but then a lot more of them.  A city like Chicago has low buildings all around it and this towering downtown like a small mountain range.  Could it have something to do with wanting to touch the heavens, while remaining rooted on earth? Come to think of it, isn’t that what we really want, friends:  we want to be close to the heavens, but at the same time, we want to be rooted, at home, on earth.  Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus as we do every year. It is the event where Jesus goes up the mountain and He is literally “lit” up and the disciples have this great vision, but they are terrified.  They mention Moses and Elijah. The Old Testament lectionary readings have Moses with a veiled face as he comes down the mountain. People cannot see his face because it has been lit up by God.  Paul in II Corinthians talks about the veil that hangs between people and God.  The disciples come as close as they can get to see beyond the veil that separates them from God.  They get as close as they can get as mortals to heavenly  power.  But maybe they almost are allowed to a little too far. They are terrified. Maybe you and I are also fascinated and attracted by but lies beyond, but at the same time we are terrified.  We like being rooted in earth, comfortable with the sights and sounds and smells and feels of home.  We don’t mind that veil that separates the worlds.

Friends, whether people consider themselves religious or not, they look for that meeting point in their lives where the line between heaven and earth becomes blurred.  Sometimes that is in athletic achievements,  sometimes it is in climbing high peaks or seeking the mystical peace of nature. Sometimes it is, stupidly, in dangerous chemical substances.  Sometimes through religious practices it is the experience of ecstasy.  As the presenter of the American Top One Hundred Casey Kasem used to say every week:” keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” The feeling people are after is really joy and peace, isn’t it?   That joy you find in small children who still believe in the world and in adults and in the future, the peace you see in the eyes of someone who lived a good life and is satisfied with it.  It is hard to find exactly.  So often we are troubled by loneliness, irritation, resentment and anxiety.  Most of which we hide quite well.   But as we talked about already, what is behind the text is the love God has for Jesus and through Jesus for all people.  It is possible to overlook that in reading the text.  It is all the key to our faith and to our life.  The only way to bridge heaven and earth is through the love that comes from God.  The rest are just temporary experiences of bliss that come few and far between.  Compassion is the glue between heaven and earth, the bonding agent, but also that which can break through the curtain between God and people, between the Holy and the Profane, between the forever and the everyday.  Had the disciples understood that, they might have been a little less terrified.

Friends, if we do not understand that love thing, that compassion thing and how crucial it is, we miss the point of Christian faith and we actually miss the point of God.  Love is the portal between this world where we feel so at home and rooted and the world beyond that we know nothing about, a world shrouded in clouds and fog, enthralling and scary at the same time.  Thanks be to God!

 
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