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Coach’s Corner

Teaching is learning

Dear friends,

Parkview features prominently these days within the bounds of the Presbytery of Sacramento, our local church district.  One reason is our multicultural residency program. The second is our involvement in the planning of a two week training event for fourteen Indonesian Christian health care professionals, among them nurses, physicians, hospital administrators and chaplains from across that large country.  Both the residency program and training are about practical education. The first is about how to minister and communicate to a diverse congregation.  The second is about sharing insights and new developments in the care of traumatized, marginalized and vulnerable populations (e.g. the homeless, victims of PTSD, domestic abuse, injustice, human trafficking, ethnic and racial discrimination, Alzheimer’s).

Over the years when my primary vocation was teaching, I became aware that you learn a lot when you teach.  This is never truer than when you are starting something new. One thing you learn is that you need the support of others. I am grateful for the support of Kansha building donors and workers, our resident selection committee (Maurine Huang, Carol Sakai, Titus Toyama and Jennifer Nishizaki) and our supervisory committee (Irene Uno, Lois Van Beers and Maurine Huang) in making our journey systematic and responsible. I am grateful to Hach Yasumura for his faithful membership of the training organizing committee, to Herning Grissom for hosting and meal organization, to drivers Tak Fukuman, Jonathan Sakakibara and Hach Yasumura and to Eddie and Yvonne Fong and their Parkview crew for preparing a meal for the visitors.  It is amazing that because of these volunteers, the presenters who teach pro bono and the many volunteers around the Presbytery this group of visitors can learn so much on a small budget of only $5000 provided by the same Mission support committee that so generously supports our residency program.  We have learned a lot already in this process.  And when the participants arrive on Monday in San Francisco, the learning curve is bound to rise.

Chakrita Saulina, our first resident, has also become a teacher among you, teaching and learning through her four week New Testament class. You have also seen her creatively take on the task of sharing the Bible stories with our youth.  She has learned that this takes specific skills, especially when you don’t know who will come up to that table. She is also bridging the residency program and the training program in the administering of the visit of her fellow Indonesians. The timing of her presence here has been providential!

But we are learning more all the time.  Thanks to the diligent work of Maurine Huang we have just submitted the enormous religious worker visa application packet (with a mind boggling 27 attachments) for our second resident, Rola Al Askar, who is currently back in her home country of Lebanon.  The packet is now in the hands of the USCIS, the immigration agency and we do not know what they will decide.  In any case the process will take 3 to 8 months. We have learned about the challenge of handling the residency application and safeguarding the privacy of a seminary graduate who is already in our midst. As a result we are happy to announce that Ontonio Christie has been received as our third resident and he will start his one year term in October 1 of this year! You will have seen him, his wife and three children in their adopted pew on the east side of the sanctuary.  If you have not welcomed them yet, this is your chance!

Please join me in praying that our efforts as a small but compassionate and committed community will have great and lasting impact. Thank you all for you consistent caring and interest in being a congregation that seeks to teach and learn simultaneously. May God bless our ministry. Aart

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Reflection August 28

Published on September 25, 2016 by in Reflections

Psalm 81:12; Jeremiah 2:6; Luke 14:10; Hebrews 13:7

Doing the same dumb thing over and over again

We have four texts today, which is more than usual.  Again the Old Testament tells us how things should not be done and the New Testament offers clues about how not to keep doing the same dumb thing over and over again.  In a sense the New Testament passages offer an antidote to the mistakes of the Old.   The Old Testament, although it is made up of many fascinating and troubling stories, has one main narrative running through it:” God loves the people and does anything to help them, but in return the people must trust God and only God. The people invariably fail at this and God expresses the hurt God feels.” The verse in the Psalm highlights God’s disappointment. Hear the old King James’ version:”

So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust; and they walked in their own counsels.” “They walked in their own counsels,” it’s an understated way of calling them pigheaded, hard-headed, stubborn and selfish. In Jeremiah God is agonizing over the people forgetting God:”Neither said they, Where is the Lord that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no (hu)man passed through, and where no (hu)man dwelt?  All those books in the Old Testament, all those pages but that fundamental problem is not solved, despite the commandments.  Luke offers a new which is really old: humility.  Again here hear the King James: “But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.  “Can you the see the guest waving their big leg of lamb?  Lowering oneself is a clue here. “Then there is Hebrews:” Remember them ….who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith you follow… ” The message is becoming clearer:” remember God, be humble and don’t forget the people who taught you the faith.”

Friends, you and I have a fundamental problem.  We want to be blessed by God, but we also want to get as much credit as we can possibly get away with.  In addition, we want to be honored and celebrated by our community, but we don’t want to be beholden to that community.  We want to be seen as capable and confident, for our society requires that of us and in that process we lose our sense of gratitude and the acknowledgment of our flaws. David Brooks in his column this week in the New York Times writes:”the events in our lives are perfectly designed to bare our chronic weaknesses and expose some great whopping new ones.” Brooks as a Jewish person knows the Old Testament well. He goes on:”Sooner or later life teaches you that you are not the center of the universe, not quite as talented and good as you thought. It teaches you to care less what people think, and less self-conscious, to get out of your own way.”  Friends, when we get out of our own way, out of the way of our own ego, we may find doors will open up for us. Be aware of those around you. You are part of a family. You are not separate.  You have had those whose wisdom you have taken advantage of.

We have just been reminded of the concepts of ohana and kokua, aina and kuliana in Hawaiian culture.  But there are also the kupuna.  First, a kupuna is an honored elder who has acquired enough life experience to become a family and community leader. The term has been stated to be the embodiment of natural respect . . . . a practitioner of aloha (love), pono (righteousness), malama (caring), and spirituality. In ancient times, they were teachers and caretakers of grandchildren and that bond was especially strong. Even today, the kupuna is expected to speak out and help make decisions on important issues for both the family and the community.  Friends, Hebrews, in its way tells us about the kupuna.

Friends, we can choose “to walk in our counsel.”  Or we can pretend we are doing so.  But chances our lives are not going to be as deep and meaningful as they could be. We can choose to forget about God’s grace and pretend we did it all ourselves just so that when things aren’t going the way we want we can blurt out our wish list out to God.  We can try to stand out above others, but we will find people turned off by our arrogance.  We can discard the people whose insight we once depended on, but are we okay with the next generation doing the same thing to us?  No, we must learn that we are part of web of grace and a community of people in which we must play our limited role, a role that’s never quite what we wanted it to be, warts and all. Thanks be to God!

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Reflection August 21

Published on September 25, 2016 by in Reflections

August 21; Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Luke 13: 11

What makes you tremble

There is are a photo and video image of a young boy in Syria that have caught the imagination of people around the world, including mine.  They are of a five year old boy sitting down in an ambulance. He is covered in dust and blood, but he is completely calm.  I think that is what’s different about him. He’s calm.  Images of children in wartime crying unnerve us, but then a child crying is not an earthshaking thing.  You take away a toy from a child and they’ll cry.  Children cry occasionally.  BBC commentators were saying that it is possible that for a five year old child growing up in a four year long war in Syria that world would be normal.  But something in us rejects that: war could never be normal for anyone, let alone a child.  What troubles us that this child is so traumatized that he is beyond crying, beyond trembling, beyond being shaken.

In Luke we meet a woman who has been so troubled by a “spirit” that she is crippled by it. We can only imagine what that spirit it. This was ages before the birth of the DSM manual for mental disorders.  If people didn’t know what it was, they would often call a “spirit.”  Something is weighing on her that was so heavy that it “crippled” her.  Friends, perhaps this is what we fear for this cute little boy: that the sounds and the sights and the losses, the spirit of the war has so moved into him that he is beyond repair, beyond saving, beyond healing, that something shook him so fundamentally, that there is no hope. The aid organization Oxfam says on their mailing that:”we are shaken to the core by the image.” If that were only true, we would do more. We’re shaken maybe but not yet to the core.

Friends, our lectionary passages in the Old Testament and the New Testament in a sense finish each other’s sentences. It is as the Old Testament passage says: it is good to tremble and the New Testament says: but it is bad to shaken.  It is bad to be shaken and good to tremble. Here is the young Jeremiah who absolutely does not feel up to being a prophet and who trembles at the thought. In our discussion Chakrita came up with the term: “trembling moment.” Jeremiah has a trembling moment. He does not like it. Nobody does.  But then there is the woman with the crippling spirit.  She is shaken beyond the core. If it were not for Jesus she would be shaken beyond repair even.  Finally, Hebrews tells us we are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” meaning God’s spiritual kingdom because it is not rooted on earth. That which is not rooted on earth cannot be shaken.

Being shaken affects the foundations of our lives, essentially shifts them.  This is profoundly unsettling.  We don’t want that.  But we need to tremble, like a race horse trembles.  The famous Dutch soccer player Johan Cruijff once said that just before kick off his intestines were often in turmoil and then when the whistle blew the feeling was all gone.  Trembling like the trembling Jeremiah can serve a purpose.  It reminds us of the depth within us when we embark on something that truly matters.  Henry van Dyke writes : “A tear that trembles for a little while upon the trembling eyelid, till the world wavers within, its circle like a dream, holds more of meaning in its narrow orb than all distant landscapes that it views.”  Trembling is part of the condition of life. Juan Ortega (y Cassett) said:” Human vitality is so exuberant that in the sorriest desert it still finds a pretext for glowing and trembling.   In other words trembling is an expression of our life force.  Then there is Pema Chodron, who grew up in New York, went to UC Berkeley and after her husband betrayed her and asked for a divorce, became a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She now runs a temple at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  She writes in her book “the things that scare us:” A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Well, Jeremiah knew what was threatening him: a thin-skinned hostile king and the enemies Jeremiah would soon make with his words.

Friends, we all have things that make us tremble: the fear of people disapproving of us or not liking us is one; the fear of loss; the fear of physical harm or pain. The fear of failure is another.  The fear of a moral mistake and the excruciating guilt that would follow is another yet.  Sometimes it is the fear of disappointing ourselves.  I have not been watching the Olympics much, but what I did watch quite some trembling in it. Think about having less than 10 seconds to show you are the fastest man or woman on earth or the second fastest or a footnote to history.   Jesus trembled before His task. Perhaps God even trembles at the thought of not being loved by us. Who knows?  Friends, may we tremble when we need to, but not be shaken.  Thanks be to God for being unshakeable.

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Reflection August 14

Published on September 25, 2016 by in Reflections

Isaiah 5:4; Luke 12:54-56; Hebrews 11:39: 12:2

The mystery of the moment

There are a lot of talking heads on television these days, all trying to make sense of this present time in national and even world politics.  So many people who are insecure about their role in the world economy  that they want to keep outsiders out.  They feel driven to insular thinking, wanting to expel anyone that’s from somewhere else from their homeland.  It is a picture of what we can expect in the coming centuries: economic refugees pushed by wars and climate change desperately trying to claim a new life from Britain to France to Australia to the United States.  It is followed by this desire to draw back from the world, rather than engage in it.  But these people forget is that every bite we eat, every drop we drink and every piece of furniture or product we buy links us to other people around the world.

Even if understand some of the events that make our life what it is, we can’t say everyone completely comprehends our times.

In Luke 12 Jesus tells His audience that they don’t understand the times.  They may have a good grasp of nature. They understand crop cycles and weather patterns, they know what the winds mean, but they don’t know what is going in their time. What does it mean to have the Romans in charge and the Jewish king and the scholars trying to scoop up the scraps of power? What does it mean when the Messiah shows up in the middle of this?  Do they not see how this is a time of turmoil? How dumb can they be?

Friends, you and I try to figure out our times, but if even the talking heads cannot figure out our time, are we going to be able to really know what is happening and what is about to happen?  So we pay attention for a while, then we turn away and go back to the business at hand in our own lives.  Maybe we can’t understand the country let alone the world, but we can try to get a grasp of what is going on in our time of life.  Turns out that that is just about as complicated.  The moment in time in which we find ourselves is just as much a mystery.  We whisper to ourselves: ”why is what is going on in our life so confusing?” Why do I find myself right here?” Mark Yaconelli, a pastor in Ashland OR tells the story of how a church received a grant to reach out to students at Southern Oregon State University which was located across the street. So he applied for the job and got it. He was full of ideas and enthusiasm. This is what he says he did (“Failure to Launch” from Mark Yaconelli “The Gift of Hard Things,” Intervarsity Press 2016):”…I bought hundreds of candles, built and painted a six foot cross, collected baskets of river stones, and designed and painted song sheets. I recruited and trained a trio of local musicians in various chants from Taize, Iona and other contemplative communities. I found three elderly church members  to prepare a simple supper to serve the students after the service. I designed a logo, gave the service a religiously ambiguous title (“Thirst”), and put ads in the college newspaper.” And that is just part of it.  The night before he couldn’t sleep, imagining weary students coming to his service for renewal.  Well, the students never came.  Even the few older people who were there fell down.  It was a mess.  Yaconelli says that expectations in life often arise from two distracting energies: worry and fantasy. He also writes: “My life has never matched my expectations. Never.  Sometimes life exceeds my expectations, other times it falls short: more often life does something unusual, unexpected, unpredictable, something that renders my expectations absurd. I often find myself living in a world of expectations of family, pastors, neighbors and surrounding culture.” Friends, maybe our expectations have something to do with our failure to understand our life.

In Isaiah God sounds a lot like Mark Yaconelli.  God has built a “vineyard.” By this is meant the people. But the vineyard produces only wild grapes. In other words, the people do not behave the way they should. This frustrates God. God is asking why this is happening?  This is baffling to us.  If even God is disappointed and confused about the present time, how should that make us feel? Are we then doomed to failure to succeed on this world?  But maybe there is another way to look at this.  What is confusion and disappointment were actually built into our lives, into the world, into creation?  What if it was woven in so inseparably that even God could not extricate God’s own handiwork from it? What if the world in which we live has to be transformed and that it can only be transformed in our partnership between God and people together.  Wouldn’t that be something?  Maybe we should not expect to understand our times, just live within them to the best of our ability, with the most dedicated heart? May God give us insight.

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Reflection August 7

Published on September 25, 2016 by in Reflections

Isaiah 1: 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3

Invisible rather than visible

One thing I have always been impressed with at Parkview is how things get done and how they often get done without fanfare.  I find items or equipment inexplicably fixed or cleaned up or rearranged. Lots of times there is no one we can thank for that, as while their work is visible they themselves are not.  Much of religion over the centuries has been about grand gestures: giant cathedrals that have stood for up to a thousand years and were built over a century’s span; great rituals of fabric and incense and gold; great processions; the blending and blurring of the royal and the religious.  It began with the idea of honoring God or gods or in the least appeasing them.  But as the heavenly and the worldly became merged together, bad things started to happen and greedy people started taking over.  Events such as those gave birth to the Protestant Reformation of which Presbyterianism is apart.  The leaders, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox wanted to go back to the essence of faith, the faith described in our text in Hebrews: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Now the current Pope is sounding like an old Protestant: he is interested in the small kindnesses, like accepting people for who they are and washing the feet of Muslims.  He is unimpressed by the pompous.  At the same time many Protestants in this country are forgetting the kindnesses and giving in to prejudice and hatred. Isaiah decries the outward stuff in chapter 1: God has seen all the bloody sacrifices, all the outward displays of devotion and it has no meaning.  You see, you can make those sacrifices and do all the ritualistic stuff without a heart that is touched, without a heart full of devotion and love. There is nothing wrong with ritual as long as it is real, as long as it is an expression of our true devotion to God, not some smoke screen. If it is less than genuine, then to God it is meaningless. God can do without it. This is what verse 11 tells us. Verse 18 explains what God wants: a relationship with the people, an honest, deep relationship.  Relationships are invisible in themselves of course: you cannot see a relationship for what it is, you can only witness hints or signs of it.

We have talked about some of the great events that influenced world history.  It is those great, visible events that tend to be remembered.  We also remember the names of those who pushed events forward or backwards, depending on how we see it.  But what of all the small acts that when added up lead us to a wave of change that perhaps that leaders of change were merely riding?  These acts could be good acts or bad acts or a mixture of both. What is clear that to 99.9 % of the people those acts were unnoticeable, invisible even.

When we think of small acts that are bad, something that comes to mind is the concept of “micro-aggressions.” Derald Sue, a California psychotherapist who pioneered cross-cultural approaches to counseling speaks of micro-aggressions which are words and acts that somehow tell a member of an ethnic or other group that their group may be looked down upon.  We have seen a lot of macro-aggressions on tv lately. Nothing micro about them.  The whole idea of micro-aggressions seems to be lost even on the great actor and director Clint Eastwood who thinks “we should just get over it.” However, I am sure all of you here whether, no matter what your cultural background, can think of a time when you were subtly or not-so-subtly put down because you were a member of some group; micro-aggressions.  I also think we have all been at one point or another guilty of that.  Now there is a new book out entitled:”micro-aggressions in the Church,” published by our Presbyterian: Westminster John Knox Press.

Friends, communal and congregational life isn’t mainly about the big events that we remember but about the tug between the micro-aggressions and the small kindnesses that go on.  If the aggressions far outweigh the kindnesses you will be looking at an unhealthy community.  If the kindnesses far outweigh the ‘unkindnesses,’ there is a great chance of a healthy one. In other words it is the invisible kindnesses that are of enormous importance.

Friends, this brings us back to faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. The old Presbyterian Book of Common prayer speaks of God as “Thou Who Art Invisible.”  Our Christian faith is a faith of invisibility. That which is most real is least visible. That which is outward is often not real.  It has begun with our faith in that which is invisible and becomes real in the many small, mostly invisible kindnesses God’s work on our earth depends on.  And so our task is clear. Thanks be to God.

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Coach’s Corner

Published on August 4, 2016 by in Coach's Corner

Are we a happy church?

Dear friends,

Last month I wrote about “pressure balancing,” highlighting the challenges a small church like ours faces when it is required to face big projects. This month I want to emphasize the positive more by having us think about the “happiness” of the church.  This was a theme at the choir retreat at Zephyr Point.  They listened to the well known song by Pharrell Williams which has the following lines “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof, because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth, because I’m happy, clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”  The choir members and other guests learned that happiness had a lot to with gratitude. Happiness has always been an American preoccupation. The founding fathers made the “pursuit of happiness” a customary term by including it in the Constitution, citing it as an example of unalienable rights.  Unfortunately we are not completely sure how they would have defined it exactly.

While mindfulness is seen as a way to attain happiness for some, therapist and author Russ Harris speaks of the “happiness trap” in his book of the same title. He urges his readers to stop focusing on “the pursuit of happiness” but to be concerned about living life in the moment. In other words, through mindfulness.

Happiness has a lot to do with longevity too. For instance there are studies that indicate that loneliness will take year of a person’s life.  NPR recently aired a broadcast about the well known study of three groups with great longevity (people on an island near Okinawa, people in the mountains of Sardinia and Seventh Day Adventists in LA). A sense of community, a specific, healthy diet were important, but also the reality of “having something to get up for in the morning.”

The Bible does not really talk about happiness, but is interested in joy. Also, Jesus talks about “life abundantly,”(John 10:10) which is a spiritual, not a material state.

Now, if we take “happiness” out of the personal sphere to the sphere of our Parkview community, does Parkview make you “happy” and as a result are we a “happy” church?  That is a question only you can answer, although above we have some of the indicators: 1. is our church something that gets you out of a bed on a Sunday morning rather than a chore? 2. Are you grateful for what the church provide you? 3. Can you appreciate it for what it is right now with its familiar as well as new faces rather than as something that needs fixing? Can you experience a kind of joy and wellbeing there? If the answer is yes for a majority of you, then perhaps Parkview is a happy church.  Even the Founding Fathers might agree! See you in church and may God bless our ministry. Aart

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Reflection July 31

Published on August 4, 2016 by in Reflections

Hosea 11: 2,3,4; Luke 12: 21 

The idols of our time

What’s the deal with idols?  Do we really have an issue with that?  In the Old Testament that was a huge problem.  Hosea tells us about the relationship between God and the people of Israel. It is a story of disappointment and betrayal. The people of the Northern Kingdom known as Israel or Ephraim go are worshipping the idols known as the Baals.  It all seems of another time to us.  We don’t worship other gods. We try to respect the religion of others, but tend not to worship their God. The people then were very practical in their own way. They picked the “god” that offered the greatest pay-off for them.  If their neighbors had other gods and they seem to be pretty prosperous, why not give them a try? So we get this problem of clear idolatry. This causes God enormous heartache. God had “bent over and fed” Ephraim. In other words God had nursed and nurtured the child. Now Ephraim wants to try out other parents.  So the story is born about Hosea who must marry a prostitute to show that God thinks of Israel as a prostitute.  Going after the Baals is akin to prostitution, you see. Underneath the harshness of this story, however, is the tender beauty of God’s love for the people as the love for a child that can never be extinguished.  Still we see it as remote from us. It all seems of another time to us.

Jesus really takes idolatry in a different direction. It is a direction we are more able to understand. Essentially he says that trusting the material is a kind of idolatry.  Appreciating the material may be okay, but worshipping it is idolatry.  Okay, that we can get.

What’s the deal with idols, friends?  What’s the deal with idols in our lives?  Our issue isn’t having too many gods, our issue is having one at all.  I also believe that most of us do not idolize people so much anymore.  Too much information is available on the internet and cable tv to put anybody on a pedestal.  In countries where information is tightly controlled leaders can still turn into idols, but in a free and open society this is not the case. The moment someone raises a famous person to the level of idol, another person posts a video presenting that person as the devil.  But we do have our idols. They’re just not gods or people.  Jesus has already mentioned one:  Wealth or possessions. The moment the accumulation of wealth becomes an end itself, a greater value, that is where it is at danger of becoming an idol.  As Gordon Gecko played by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street” said:”Greed is good.”  Of course it isn’t. Another idol can be power.  If we idolize the power that well known people hold and hunger to be close to it, when power no longer exists for the common good, then there is a danger of idolatry.  Then there is status of position. If our place within groups and society starts taking on a life of its own, there is the danger of idolatry.  Beauty is another tricky thing.  We all need beauty to behold and to create, but if the beauty of ourselves and the people who want to be near becomes too important, then there is a danger of idolatry. Pleasure and enjoyment are fine in itself but if they become an escape through drugs or alcohol or an overconsumption of the wrong foods, it can become not only an addiction but an idol we worship. Knowledge is crucial for us to understand and manage our world, but if knowledge and education and always thinking we are right take us away from humility and compassion, there is a danger of idolatry.  Then there is admiration.  We all want to be admired.  Sometimes we will do almost anything o be accepted and admire. But if we worship the thought of being worshipped, then there is true danger of idolatry.  There may be a few people in the world who have all seven of these above, but I wonder how happy they are. Appreciating the things I just mentioned are in themselves not bad, unless they become worship.

Friends, idolatry is the worship of things other than God.  This always drives us away from God. God does not like this. It hurts God. That is the message of Hosea. But what takes us there, you think?

In the books of Moses the people build a golden calf to worship because they feel afraid or a vacuum with Moses away. There are people in this country who are on the edge of worshipping their weapons. It comes out of a kind of fear that gets whipped up into paranoia by those who wish to manipulate them for their own financial or political gain.   So emptiness and fear are risk factors of idolatry. Perhaps there is another. Perhaps when we are out of balance, when we focus on only one thing in our lives like our security or insecurity or our financial strength or weakness, or the attractiveness of our bodies or lack thereof, or our popularity or lack of popularity, when we lose perspective, there is a danger of idolatry.  It is then that we must remember Hosea and think not of God’s disappointment, but of God’s love. God is the One Who has been with us since before time, God is the One Who bent over to love us. There is no need for the worship of anything else. Only God should be worshipped. Thanks be to God.

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Reflection July 17

Published on August 4, 2016 by in Reflections

Psalm 52: 8,9; Luke 10: 40,41, 42

Who we are and who we ought to be

What is the problem that we run into our texts?  We start with one verse in Psalm 52 where the author says” I am like an olive tree…” describing it color and good qualities. The author is identifying with the olive tree.  It is true, in the Middle East the olive tree is of huge importance, but it is by no means a perfect tree.  There are limitations to its usefulness.  For one thing, it only produces olives and not oranges, lemons or figs.  The same is true of us humans. We are capable of producing certain benefits, but we are useless when it comes to others.  We wish we could do everything well and people rarely come close.  This is not only true of our abilities, but also of our accomplishments. There is always that one thing we weren’t able to do any given day.  There is always a gap between who we are and who we think we should be.  The way we get peace with that is by comparing ourselves to other people who perform even worse. But the problem remains: we may be like a great olive tree, but that’s all we are.  We are always stuck with the reality that we will always be disappointing God and, as a result, ourselves also.

In another form we find that reality in the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus is visiting Mary and Martha.  Mary sits at His feet and has full attention for Him, while Martha is so busy doing all the work of being good hostess that she forgets to focus on Jesus.  Jesus criticizes her for this.  The text says she is “distracted by her many tasks.”  The discussion starts out with Martha’s complaint of having to do everything alone.  Martha thinks Mary should be helpful like her and Jesus thinks that Martha could be more like Mary and pay attention to his teaching.  But in the end Mary cannot be Martha and Martha cannot be Mary completely.  In one way or another they both fall short. There is a gap between who they are and who they know they ought to be. Friends, this something you and I are always struggling with, this gap between who we are and who we should be, no matter how hard we try.  Lots of times this is a real moral issue for us: we feel guilty or even ashamed.  Something ails us.  One way we deal with this in our society, is to get counseling.  It can be very helpful..  One of the associate professors at our oldest son Daniel’s school, historian and Psychologist Philip Cushman wrote a book a number of years ago about the “cultural history of psychotherapy.” Its main title is: “Construction the Self, Constructing America.” (On p. 7) he writes: “Notice that I am treating psychotherapy as a cultural artifact that can be interpreted, rather than a universal healing technology that has already brought  a…”cure” to earthlings. As a matter of fact, nothing has a cured the human race, and nothing is about to.”  I think therapists of all kinds have come to this conclusion. Much of the treatment is more about coping and adjusting than about curing.  Psychotherapy is a lot more realistic these days. He also writes on (on page 9):”We have no way of developing shared moral understandings that would help us cooperate in using our newfound power for the betterment of human kind.” So even though therapists can make the world a better place, there is no moral compass necessarily other than trying to relieve suffering.  Each therapist has to operate from his or her own.

On his dedication page Cushman mentions Szmul Zygielbojm who fought in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, served on the parliament of exiled Polish government, was imprisoned, and then miraculously made his way to England to persuade the Western Allies to intervene against the genocide. But no one listened. On May 12, 1943, in protest and despair, he committed suicide on the steps of 10 Downing Street, the British Prime Minister’s residence, at 48.  Friends, is this an extreme example of a person who was caught in the gap between who he was and who he should be, between what he could accomplish and what he should accomplish?

Friends, we find a hint of the Christian answer to this gap, this discrepancy between who we are and who we ought to be in our lectionary reading from Colossians found on the front of your program.

Paul writes:” :”And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind…. He has now reconciled…., so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him.” 

The text is reminding us of what Jesus came to do: to reconcile us with God, so that we would be “blameless and irreproachable.”  What does this mean? It means that there is a cure for our despair. The burden we carry because of our disappointment in ourselves is taken on by Jesus. Yes, we still have to try to be our best, but we have to let go of our burden. Jesus’ message is: “let me carry that burden. Let go of that guilt.  I have taken that on.  Your shortcomings are not held against you.  What I will look at is your heart.”  It is a message of great comfort: our limitations and flaws are not held against us. Jesus is at peace with them. So should we be. Thanks be to God!

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Reflection July 10

Published on August 4, 2016 by in Reflections

Amos 7: 14, 15; Luke 10: 33-35

Risky relationships

Amos goes to the King to remind him God is not pleased with his actions.  God is patient, but God’s patience has its limits. As a poor farmer and Sycamore dresser Amos is not likely to get a positive hearing.  He may even be killed. So Amos’ relationship with the king was a risky one.  The Samaritan man is very low in status in the society. The Samaritans were considered inferior to the Jews because they were considered to be of foreign heritage and tended to mix faith practices. Ethnic purity was a big issue in those days. On top of it the Priest and Levite were high status people and considered purest among the Jews.  On that dangerous road they wanted nothing to do with what could be a dead body soon. They considered the relationship with the wounded man to be too risky.  The Samaritan man however “took pity.”  He engaged in the risky relationship. He did not hesitate to help people out.  Now he is the famous one from the parable. No one remembers the snooty men of the cloth.  I once worked in a hospital in Phoenix called Good Samaritan Hospital and there is now a “Samaritan” law in the US that requires people help out accident victims on our highways. On a dangerous road the relationship with the wounded man was still very risky for the Samaritan.

Friends, after this week of violence in our country, we are once again left raw and realizing that we are stuck in a situation where so many people are armed to the teeth.  It seems that it might lead to more violence. African Americans are sick and tired of getting treated unjustly by rogue cops and now the cops will be up in arms. We pray that the cycle of fear and anger and violence will be broken. A great deal of Americans now feel the relationship with the police is a very risky relationship. They don’t feel they will be treated equally under the law. At the same time more police will feel that their relationships on the most dangerous streets of this nation and there are many will be riskier than ever.  Nevertheless the relationship between law enforcement and the people they police is necessary.

I heard an interview with a woman with autistic spectrum disorder (NPR July 7, 2016).  Part of her disorder is that she has trouble reading the emotions of others. One of her worst experiences was that once during summer camp she was bound and gagged by her fellow campers and thrown outside the camp. She could not for the life of her understand why anybody would do such a thing. These people were supposed to be her friends.  It took painstaking explanation about how teenagers engage in bonding rituals before she could comprehend that the bad treatment of the young girls was a cruel bonding ritual.  Even with feel summer camp friends, relationships can be painful and risky. But in teenage relationships some risk may be necessary. Youth are hyper-social. They cannot grow up in isolation.

But risky relationships are not limited to the streets or to summer camps or even to schools, there is emotional risk even in families.  Siblings can manipulate each other or resent each other to the point that the pain of the relationship can be lasting. Marriage can be a source of intense hurt.  If you were to speak to marriage therapists you might find that one of the greatest threats to a marriage is contempt. Contempt is toxic.  Nothing breaks down self-esteem like contempt.  But ironically they say  ”familiarity breeds contempt” and who are more familiar than two people in a marriage. Yet the benefits tend to outweigh the risks.

Friends, risk in relationship even occurs when we are trying to help people with whom we no conflict.  Sometimes reaching out to someone in grief or despair or depression can carry emotional risk of some kind. The despair could be a bit contagious when we identify so much with the suffering person. But the risk is vital.

Friends, not all relationships are important or essential, but our lives are made up of relationships which are necessary.  They all carry some risk of harm or hurt. We all carry the scars of the relationships that went awry, that came apart no matter how hard we tried to maintain them or fix them.  I think those experiences have given us a certain weariness and wariness and caution about relationships. We like to exercise a certain amount of control over them.  But the Christian faith is a relational faith. The Christian faith is a faith of community.  It doesn’t function well as a faith of individuals, at least not for very long.  The whole Bible is about God reaching out in love and of people reaching back or failing to reach back and reaching for each other or failing to.  Jesus the Christ never stepped back from honest, truthful relationships with anyone and he thought His followers should not either. That is why Jesus told this parable. In that vein, the risk of relationship in general for a Christian and for the Church becomes a calculated risk, because we are called to engage with others. We are one-dimensional without relationship.  May God give us strength and wisdom.




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Reflection July 3

Published on August 4, 2016 by in Reflections

2 Kings 5: 10, 11, 12; Luke 10: 4

Acting outside the box

The element that unites both our texts today is that people are asked to do something unusual, something strange, something counter-intuitive. The first is Naaman, the Syrian military leader who is told by Elisha to bathe a number of time in the river Jordan.  He gets mad and grumbles that where he is from the rivers, the Abana and the Pharphar, are just as good to bathe in.  The whole thing seems silly to him.  It is very strange way to be healed that way.   The King of Israel isn’t happy about this either, because if the visit by the decorated military leader does not go well, there could be a war with the King of Aram.  In Luke Jesus asks the disciples to go out and witness for Him and orders to 70 to go out in groups of two. But Jesus gives specific instructions. They are to stay briefly with people, have no possessions, no sandals. Again it is counter-intuitive. Who would want to listen to paupers dressed like beggars? Sure these principles are popular in Buddhism and Hinduism now for instance but then they didn’t make much sense.  It was  strange now.  To us it still is.  One afternoon about four years ago-you may remember this- a young, Korean American couple rang the doorbell at Parkview and they told me that their church in Portland had sent them here with no resources; except they had a laptop so they could report their experiences by email. They said they believed God would take care of them.  I was a bit annoyed. They weren’t dressed like beggars. They probably just left their money at home.  Suddenly they were my problem, one I had never asked for.  Of course, their faith was rewarded and I put them up in a hotel on Alhambra and paid the cost. I said goodbye and wished them well. I never saw them again.  Odd, unusual, counter-intuitive. And in my view, they were taking this text in the Bible a little too literally.  Their view was different however.

So, friends, at first glance the texts are about Elisha and Jesus asking people to have faith and follow strange orders.  Okay, that could be the message here: be counter-intuitive sometimes, don’t always follow your instincts, do what’s smart, good people asks you today.  Dare to be strange.  That’s nice, but there must be more than that.  But believe me I had trouble getting there. When you peel off the layers of the onion, these texts may be about freedom? This is fortunate as this is Fourth of July weekend.  You see, Naaman wants to be free of leprosy, but he also wants to be free of strange cures and weird baths in unfamiliar rivers.  He doesn’t want to give Elisha as God’s prophet the freedom to act Elisha and God see fit.  The same is true of the disciples.  They love having the Jesus and the liberation of despair the Gospel offers the, but they prefer the comfort of good sandals and predictable meals. They’d rather not give Jesus the freedom to choose how they should serve Him.

Friends, the founding Fathers wanted their freedom from the British, just like the British now want to be free from Europe.  But a number of the signers were slaveholders.  They wanted their freedom, but the slaves wouldn’t get theirs for another ninety years.  This whole issue was lived out in the Spielberg film “Amistad” when a Spanish slave ship is taken over by the men in chains and the ship floats off to New England. In a trial the judge has to decide whether to give the men and women back to the Spanish or let them return home.

Friends, what we forget is that freedom is not a unilateral thing, because one person’s sense of freedom can be another’s oppression. I think this point is often missed in the gun debate: one person’s freedom to have incredibly lethal weapons can lead to another feeling a lack of freedom of movement.

This is true of the Divine-human relationship.  I think that over the centuries we have seen that relationship as one not of freedom, but of control.  God was seen as controlling our fate, keeping us in check through the commandments and in return we respond by trying to control God through our sermons and our prayers. God is seen as trying to control us we trying to control God.  But it looks to be a lot more than it isn’t a relationship of control at all, but of freedom.  We and all created things have the freedom to choose our path and God’s grace becomes part of our life in whatever way God chooses. Sometimes we have to take baths in strange places. This is true of Chakrita our first resident who had to take a bath in health club down the street the first ten days because the Kansha had no hot water.

Friends, freedom is not unilateral, it is mutual. Everyone wants to be free, including the people in countries where we engage our military. But their idea of freedom may be a bit different.  The text from Galatians on our cover ties it together.  It is about the good of all.  Freedom was never meant to be just an individual thing (that is a Western concept). It was to be for the good of all.

God above all is free. God’s grace in our lives moves freely and we will never know in what form and at what moment it will come. We may not even recognize it. Thanks be to God. Amen.



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