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Reflection March 16

Published on March 19, 2014 by in Reflections

Genesis 12: 1,2; John 3:16,17Romans 4: 3,13

Lenten identity

Dear friends,

I read the following on  the internet (The sideshow, August 29, 2012): “A woman who was reported missing from an Icelandic tour unwittingly joined a search for herself. According to the Reykjavik Grapevine, a woman described as “…. about 160cm, in dark clothing and speaks English well” was listed as missing Saturday near the Eldgjá volcanic canyon in southern Iceland. The  search continued through the weekend with reports saying she got off a tour bus and never returned. It turns out the woman merely changed clothes during the bus stop, and after she returned, those on the bus didn’t recognize her. When the description of the “missing” woman was circulated, apparently the lady who changed her outfit didn’t recognize the description of herself. So she joined the search party. About 50 people searched the area in vehicles and on foot, and a helicopter was ready to assist. Eventually it occurred to the “missing” woman that she could very well be the person everyone was looking for, and she promptly reported herself as safe and sound to police. The search was called off early Sunday morning.  Friends, the woman on vacation in Iceland didn’t recognize the description of herself.  She went looking for someone others thought she was.  Or wasn’t that others didn’t recognize her.

There is a rumor that Phil Jackson may become the coach for the New York Knicks. This is what the wall Street Journal wrote (march 11, 2014 D6):” …if Phil Jackson wanted to he could make the Knicks wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.  He could make them wait even when-and if-he takes the job. He could go to voicemail even as they pay him. Because he could. Because they need so badly the credibility he offers. ..Phil Jackson has the best type of leverage. He should use it. He could tell the Knicks he intends to be around or be around a little. He could coach never or a lot or a little. He could coach just in April…He should be creative, humorous with his asks. He could handpick the audience every night at Madison Square Garden. He could organize a Knicks game each season that is played entirely before cats. He could ask for a chauffeured blimp…He could get these things because he is Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson knows he is. He knows because he is a reflective guy. He knows what he can do and so does everyone else. As unclear as the vacationer and her travel companion in Iceland were, that is how clear Phil Jackson and everyone else are about who Phil Jackson is.  The apostle Paul writes a letter to the Romans. As we have seen his audience is made up of different people.  Some are Jews who live in Rome. Some are new Roman Christians. The first group can claim Abraham as an ancestor. The other can claim to live in the capital of a huge powerful empire.  What a difference in the way these young Christians see themselves. Both are proud of what they bring to the table.  It was quite a task for Paul to address both groups.

Talking about Abraham.  Childless Abraham the old man gets the call to leave his land and become the father of a whole new nation in a new Promised Land. What a complete change of identity, what a totally way of seeing himself this is for Abraham.  Friends, as Christians we are supposed to have a clear identity. We are supposed to be saved people and act like saved people.  This is what John 3: 16 and 17 say so clearly. We are forever renewed by our faith. But it turns out there are all kinds of ways to feel like and be a Christian.  There is the way we were a Christian when we were in Sunday school. There is the way we were a Christian in adolescence. There is the way we were a Christians in our twenties and our thirties and forties etc.  It changes with our life experience, it changes with what people teach us, the changes with what we read or the sermons we hear.  But the pieces of our past Christian life always stay with us. Part of us will always be that kid in Sunday School. Part of us will always be that new Christian or that doubting college student.  It’s like all those pieces of who we were make us a colorful, jagged mosaic or a modern stained glass window. Light breaks through the pieces in different ways. But the pieces are all fused together. They make the stained glass window of our personal life together.  Maybe we could say the same about the Church year. This is what occurred to me as I thought about this text. When we are in Advent we are Christians who anticipate and then celebrate at Christmas when we are in party mode.  At Epiphany we look for insight. On Transfiguration Sunday we are in awe of the possibility of transformation. During Lent we are following the painful journey Jesus needs to make. It is the time that we see the vulnerable Jesus, the Jesus full of dread. This is when we become companions, or at least when we are supposed to be.  We go with Jesus on the road and we ask ourselves what the suffering of Jesus means for us?  At the same time it reminds that we must be companions on the road for others who suffer.  Friends, the identity of the Christian at Lent is that of one who humbly and compassionately accompanies. May we be worthy companions on the journey. Thanks be to God.

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Reflection March 9

Published on March 19, 2014 by in Reflections

Genesis 3:22,23; Matthew 4: 1-4, 7

The need for letting go

It is the first Sunday in Lent.  Lent is about refocusing, cutting out the non-essential and giving up something so we can be closer to God.  In a sense it is about letting go, letting go of the things that keep us from being spiritual. We have talked about Jesus and His temptation in the desert and we are reminded of the Creation story where Adam and Eve are thrown out of the Garden of Eden.  Friends, at the beginning of Lent we are supposed to go into that desert with Jesus.  The beauty of the desert is stark and simple and harsh.  It is a place of extreme temperatures and also a place of few distractions.  You can really survey the landscape in the desert, it isn’t obscured  by trees.  Every scar in the land is visible.  That kind of landscape does just not expose nature, but it has a way of exposing the people in it. It can make them reflect on life that is unobscured, make them see what really matters.  That is one reason why there were so many hermits and contemplatives in the desert. In the desert Jesus comes to terms with His desires and His power and He lets it go.  We who, in a metaphoric way, must travel with Jesus in Lent, are also asked to let go of something.  Traditionally, at least in the Roman Catholic tradition, that meant giving up some food or some favorite activity, but maybe that’s just a distraction for letting go of something in ourselves.  Adam and Eve are examples of how not to do it, as is the case with many of the stories in the Old Testament. They have it made but they want more. No letting go for them, until they are forced to give up everything they knew.

Idina Menzel won the Oscar for best song last Sunday. The title is –surprise-“Let it Go (The Disney Corporation):”  The snow glows white on the mountain tonight,not a footprint to be seen.Let it go, let it go! Can’t hold it back any more. Let it go, let it go! Turn away and slam the door….. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway. It’s funny how some distance, makes everything seem small. And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.  I am one with the wind and sky. Let it go, let it go. You’ll never see me cry. Here I’ll stand, and here I’ll stay. Let the storm rage on. …. And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast I’m never going back; the past is in the past! Let it go, let it go. And I’ll rise like the break of dawn. Let it go, let it go That perfect girl is gone.  Here I stand, in the light of day. Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway… “   The singer knows she has to relinquish something to grow, but she has to overcome something in herself to be able to do it.  Earlier we talked about movies and how so often the most beautiful are the ones where the main character has to find some strength within him or herself to give up the one she or he loves in a chaotic  situation.  In her 1862 poem entitled “after great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson writes:” This is the hour of Lead, remembered if outlived, As freezing persons, recollect the Snow-First-Chill-the Stupor-then the letting go.”  “the letting go.”  The kind of letting go we are asked to know is not quite that dramatic or tragic, but maybe for Jesus it was.

What we should think of letting go perhaps is ego or a little bit of it or a little bit more of it.  It seems Vladimir Putin has just decided that he might want to risk another Crimean war. In the Crimean war of 1853-1856, the British and the Ottoman Turks and the French fought the Russians.  Russians wanted to protect their Orthodox subjects from the Ottoman Empire they said.  At the same time it was about the conflict between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Russians living in Palestine.  Russians always want to “protect” their people, because they are ethnically Russian.  But it is really an excuse.  Russia as the largest country in the world is 90% covered in snow for 8 months of the year, but like Sochi, the frozen Russians have always loved the Crimea.  It was a kind of Russian Riviera.  Leonid Brezhnev had huge dacha there.  It  was the Soviet Union’s south coast.  There is a huge nostalgic dimension here. Vladimir Putin is not singing “let it go,”or “The cold never bothered me anyway.” For the winter Olympics he chose one of the only Russian cities with palm trees!  There is a lot going on here. It is about resources, location, history, identity, but also ego.  And he is not going to let go of his ego.  It’s as big as his country.

So, friends, what about us? Can we come alongside Jesus a little and let something go, perhaps not insist so much on our own right or righteousness, perhaps not hold on to a grudge as long as we have, perhaps accept the fact that we didn’t get as much recognition as we thought we should have, perhaps not expect from God what was not or could not have been delivered.   So often ego sits there like a big ugly boulder in the driveway of our lives.  Maybe we kind of like it there. It gives us an excuse for not moving on.  Friends, where could your ego use a little trimming? May God give us insight.

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Reflection March2

Published on March 19, 2014 by in Reflections

Genesis 1: 26,27; Matthew 17:1-9

A moment of brightness

We stand a week away from the beginning of Lent.  We find ourselves on top of a mountain, reading a story we don’t quite know what to do with.  Peter and James and his brother John go up with Jesus. They are about to get a vision of Jesus that will scare him and will fill them with wonder.  They see Jesus in a dazzling light and hear the voice of God acknowledging Jesus.   But then just as quickly the moment is gone and when Jesus touches them they look up and only see Jesus.  Now with a text like this it is better to take a more poetic approach.  I was listening to a song by Don McLean called Crossroads and although it is not a religious song at all, I imagined that it could verbalize what Peter who had been at Jesus’ side, might have felt like at the time of this new dazzling experience: “Then lay your hands upon me now And cast this darkness from my soul. You alone can light my way. You alone can make me whole once again. We’ve walked both sides of every street, through all kinds of windy weather. But that was never our defeat As long as we could walk together. So there’s no need for turning back `cause all roads lead to where we stand. And I believe we’ll walk them all No matter what we may have planned.”

The three disciples experience a moment of brightness, a moment when they looked at Jesus and everything lit up for them. It’s like when there a bright bolt of lightning and you can suddenly see the landscape around you.  More often than not, friends, life is not like that at all. It is not like that at all.  Life can be a lot like the life of an anesthesiologist: long periods of sameness and even boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.   That light that the disciples saw was more like a flash in the pan.  Life is so mundane and often very difficult.  I think I am pretty correct in assuming that few of you today I have seen a bright vision of Christ just before coming to church this morning.  Visions like that are few and far between for most people.  Even going to church can be part of a routine.

Frederick Buechner (The Hungering Dark) recalls an evening many years ago when he was watching the Italian film La Dolce Vita in a small theater with some students. The movie starts with a helicopter flying over Rome, piloted by a couple of hot shots.  Underneath the helicopter a statue of Jesus with outstretched arms is dangling at the end of a rope.  The young men are on their way to the Vatican to deliver it. But on the way out they see beautiful young women in bikinis by a pool.  So they circle the building and try to set up a rendez- vous with the girls.  Buechner says that the students were laughing at this odd scene.  The acts of the young man seems so inappropriate and yet so funny.  But then the great dome of St. Peter’s comes into sight and the camera zooms in on the bearded face of Jesus which fills the screen and this is what Buechner writes:”…at that moment there was no laughter at all in that theater full of students and their dates and paper cups full of buttery popcorn and La Dolce Vita college-style.  Nobody laughed during that moment because there was something about that face, for a few seconds on that screen, that made them be silent-the face hovering there in the sky and the outspread arms. For a moment, not very long to be sure, there was no sound, as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before but that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.  I think that is much of what Christian faith is. It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face and being still; that is all.”  Friends, for the three disciples, they saw that face in a whole new way.  And as a result they saw themselves in a whole new way.  Only in that moment did they fully understand the Lord they were serving.  And that raises a question about us?  How are we different, how are we changed, how are we transformed by the fact that we belong to that face, that face on the statue, that face lit up on that moment, that face on all the thousands of paintings, drawings, icons and statues made of Jesus.  How are we different because of it?  There is a poem by Yagi Jukichi, a Japanese poet (shared by Frederick Buechner in “the Hungering Dark)), about a face:” I first saw my face in a dream…I had gone to sleep paying to Christ and a face was revealed, not of course a face nowadays nor my face when I was young nor the face of the noblest of angels as I always picture in my mind…. And I knew at once it was my own…The next day when my eyes opened…in my heart was a strange calm.” Jukichi sows us a bit of hat divine light that is in all of us, as our text in Genesis so clearly says.

Friends, the story of the transfiguration is about how we are changed by our faith, how we become different people by belonging to the face of Christ.  Now you probably want me to say exactly what that should be for you, but for each of us that is a little bit different.  Being touched by Christ and by seeing the light is unique for all of us.  So think about this question:”How are you changed?” Thanks be to God.


Explorations X: asking powerful questions

Dear friends,

For nearly eighteen years the title of my contribution to our newsletter has been “coach’s corner.” So it is appropriate that I talk specifically about “coaching” in the Church.  In the last decade “coaching” of pastors and congregations has become increasingly popular. Rev. Tobin, the newly retired pastor of the Davis Community Church is planning to get certified as a “coach.” She wants to make it her retirement calling. At Presbytery she gave a little introduction about what she was learning at the moment and she quoted the work of Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie in Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 1997) and in their book Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).  They distinguish between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges.”  This applies to many organizations. It made me think that at Parkview, as we go through our period of exploration, we can also make a distinction between “technical questions” and “adaptive questions.”  A technical question would be:” what material should we use to fix the roof” or “how can we safely increase seating during a concert” or ”how can we increase our income without asking for money and doing too many fundraisers” or “should we do a rummage sale this year?”  Adaptive questions are of a different nature. Those questions, when phrased correctly, make you sit up and wonder.  They push to a new perspective, a new way of doing things, such as “what is the cost of continuing as we are” or “how committed are we” and “how do we show our commitment?”  Another good one is “what would you do if you could not fail” or “what would success look like” or “ what is your vision for the next ten years” or “where do you see yourselves in twenty-five years“ and “what is God saying to you?”

Technical solutions are easily identified, can often be implemented quickly and require just one or two people to make a decision and are often reasonably well-received.  Adaptive question often lead to a change of values, beliefs, roles and relationships, there is more resistance to the answers and they often lead to required experimentation.  They are harder to identify, more emotionally taxing, but also more powerful.

It is these powerful, adaptive questions I think we should ask in our next exploration/ reflection meetings. The facilitators of your groups (and some other Parkview family members) will be meeting to formulate a few key adaptive questions on April 6 and we welcome your input before that.

Thank you for participating! May God bless both our questioning and our answering. See you in church.


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Reflection February 23

Published on March 19, 2014 by in Reflections

2014; Matthew 5: 39-44, 47, 48; I Corinthians 3: 18,19, 20

The Pursuit of Foolishness

We take it for granted that the people of the United States should have the right to the pursuit of happiness.  But when you think about it, it is quite astounding that the founding fathers would put these words in a constitutional document two and a half centuries ago.  Isn’t happiness a feeling or a consistent series of feelings?  Perhaps this why they said” pursuit,” because we never quite get there.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that “the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.” What he means by the “world” are the things that people care about most: power, sexual opportunity, money, fame.  These often lead to abuse, promiscuity, greed and cheating.  Some of the attitudes of the world are mentioned in our call to worship.  We see that most clearly in what is happening in Ukraine and in Syria, in Venezuela, in Thailand and countries in Africa.  Power and greed are all interconnected. Now if the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God, then the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. It works both ways.  The commandments mentioned in our call to worship from the book of Leviticus still make sense in the world, but Jesus goes way beyond that: “If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone asks for your coat, give them your cloak.  Give to anyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “ And then the zinger: “ Love your enemies.”  Now I don’t know about you, but I am feeling pretty inadequate up here.   Our response at best is : “yes, but…. What if the person asking for a coat is severely mentally ill and has three coats in his shopping cart under the cotton wood tree in Discovery Park? What if the coat he wants is the one your grandmother bought for you at Christmas at full price from her fixed income?  What if thirty people in a row in a five minute span ask for money on Market Street in San Francisco?  How will I have money for gas and  toll to get home?” Believe me, that’s not a stretch. “What if your enemy killed your most beloved relative?”  Jesus calls for an ideal world where the common sense of the times is turned on its head.  Transformation is what Jesus is after.  Now there is one thing that probably needs to be mentioned and that is the Jesus’ followers saw the coming of the kingdom of heaven as something that could happen at any time.  Nevertheless we cannot reason away Jesus’ call to extreme compassion. Yet in terms of the “world” as I just described it, what Jesus saying is complete nonsense, total foolishness.  So, friends, is in fact Paul calling us to a pursuit of foolishness?  Again the word “pursuit” is appropriate, because we will never be as “foolish” as Jesus is asking us to be.

Friends, the Winter Olympics has just concluded. Many of the athletes, whether they won or lost, were motivated to get into a sport because they idolized someone when they were growing up. There was a time when I was young that I idolized Albert Schweitzer who was born in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  He was a famous pipe organ virtuoso from the Alsace, a region on the French and German border that was always going back and forth between the two nations as a property.  Schweitzer was also a New Testament scholar.  When he wanted to become a missionary to Africa, the French Evangelical mission board thought he was too liberal and turned him down. He then went to medical school (which was not at all where his talents were) and found a way to be sent to the jungles of what is now Gabon.  He founded a hospital there just before World War I, then was put in an internment camp in France during World War I because he was a German citizen and after becoming a French citizen returned to his hospital many years later. He found everything in disrepair and had to start over again.  He died in the middle of the last century in his beloved Lambarene in Africa, holder of the Nobel Peace Prize.  It is said that toward the end of his life he was criticized for his old fashioned paternalistic way of thinking and for running a broken down hospital with bad management.  Nevertheless, he left behind his fame as well-known organist and theologian to go, on his own expenses initially, to Africa as a jungle physician.  It was perfect foolishness.  Albert Schweitzer pursued foolishness and in his foolishness he found his measure of happiness.

Friends, for those who think Jesus was just a wise teacher with deep insight or who think God is a figment of the imagination, a church such as this is foolishness.  For can you imagine every week, with clockwork, for a hundred years, organizing a party where the guest if honor would never show up? There are songs, there are speeches, there are prayers, there is food, rain (mostly not) or shine, in cold or hot weather. Of course we believe otherwise.   Could it be friends that Paul does not just acknowledge that the life of the Church is foolishness to the “world,” but that he actively encourages us to embrace foolishness?  “Go ahead,” he’ d say. “Be foolish. Have faith. Believe.” Thanks be to God.

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Reflection February 16

Published on March 13, 2014 by in Reflections

Deuteronomy 30: 19, 20; I Corinthians 3: 2-7

We have talked about our verses about the week. They bring us the words of Moses who says goodbye to the people of Israel as they travel on without him.  He has spent decades of a nomadic existence with them in the desert. We have talked about today’s Bible passage where Paul is referring to his relationship with the congregation at Corinth. Paul has not spent that much time with this diverse community of new Christians as he spreads himself pretty thinly across the whole of the northern Mediterranean.  He talks more to his followers as if they were children. Both Moses and Paul have pulled their hair out over the behavior of their people.  We get fascinating insights into leadership and stubbornness and communication.   This leads me to ask the question: what do we tell the next generation of leaders in the Church? How does the Church keep on going?  Now there are a certain percentage of young people that find a way to stay within a certain Christian culture. A former pastor of the Trinity West Sacramento Presbyterian Church shared a link on Facebook about two young men doing Christian talk. There was a whole Christian lingo about prayer and dating and names of mega churches.  Those young people who find a way to stay within that culture, and this is easier to do in the South of the US and in Southern California they can live in a world of Christian music and talk radio, the Trinity Broadcasting Network and mega churches. Although I was heavily exposed to this world when I was a teenager and my nieces are still part of it, most of my experience is outside of that Christian culture.  I grew in a Europe where church attendance was falling at huge rates, more so than here today.  The youth within a Christian culture have a huge list of pastors they can choose anyway. The majority of pastors want to serve that demographic.  I am more interested in the majority of young people of the next generation (“millennials” they are called).  What would you say to them as their uncles, aunts, grandparents or parents? What would your speech or epistle to them be? Let me take a stab at it.

First, you might say that if they were raised in Church or exposed to the Church and if that was a pretty good experience but they rarely go these days, no matter what the Gospel is in their bones: the joy of Christmas, the togetherness at church events, the songs they grew to love, the mission projects they did, the games they played and the crafts they put together will have made sure that the Church will always be part of them and they may want that for their children.  Second, you might want to say that after studying other faiths they are likely to conclude that Jesus Christ presents about as clear picture of what God is like that one could imagine.  Some of His sayings may still remain confusing, but God’s love is clearly shining through Him.  Third, you might would say that the people who are the loudest about their faith may not necessary be the truest. There are many people who dwell on their Christianity who hate and exclude and support violence.  Their truth is more important to them than their compassion and without love there is no God.  But this does not mean that everyone is like that. The “world” needs to know that.  Fourth, you might want to tell them that it is all right to have questions, that there are Biblical truths that seem to contradict scientific findings.  We drive cars but most of us cannot explain the internal combustion engine. We fly in airplanes and most of us do not understand how lift happens around the wings.  We go in sailboats and not understand why wind in the sails can move a boat in all directions at any time when there is wind except dead straight into that wind. We use computers although we do not understand how so much data is contained on just a tiny chip.  We will soon print three dimensional objects on big printers even though we do not understand how lasers can turn solid into liquid and vice versa.  So we can have faith and not have an answer for everything all the time. Fifth, you might want to tell them that it is important to distinguish between the true and the factual.  Certain Bible stories may be true but after having been told a thousand times, may not always be completely factual any longer.  This does not mean God cannot speak through them.  Sixth, you might want to tell them it is okay to have doubts.  Even Jesus had one occasionally.  Having faith means that you have struggled with the possibility of not having faith.  Believing in God means having wrestled with the possibility there is no God.  Having doubts is a bad excuse for putting faith in a jar in the basement.  Seventh, you might want to tell them that pastors are human beings just like them with all the flaws and potential of others and that they are bound to have it wrong sometimes, because God will always remain a mystery.  Eighth, you might want to tell them that entertainment and fun are overrated and that that at one point or another they will tire of it and will long for meaning and depth.  Ninth, you might want to tell them that to be happy they will have to be part of a healthy, healing community.  Finally, you might want to tell them that, although they currently believe perhaps that they are the center of the world they are in fact not and that in order to be happy they will need to dedicate a fair portion of their life to the selfless service to other.  Friends, may God bless the next generations.

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Reflection February 9

Published on March 13, 2014 by in Reflections

Isaiah 58: 1-9; Matthew 5: 13,14

The properties of salt

Dear friends,

We are talking about salt today, what the properties and characteristics of salt are and about how Christians are supposed to be “salt” to the world.  This is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5.  So we have done some reflecting about that.  We have talked about the verse in question and we talked about the Old Testament lectionary reading in Isaiah for today.  Isaiah does not mention salt at all or any other ingredient for that matter, but he does talk about food or rather the withholding of food for religious reasons, namely fasting.  Isaiah questions the sincerity of those who do the fasting.  He thinks it’s just for show. It is an act of blandness.  These people fasting are not the “salt of the earth.” Isaiah says :” Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…?”  In other words, Isaiah is accusing the people of not connecting to life and the suffering of the people around them.  It’s almost as if they going through the motions of the ritual of the fast, floating above the world in a way and not connecting with it.  They are detached from the suffering world in which they live.  This is unacceptable to God.

Friends, could the same be said of us, that we are disconnected, detached from the world, that we go through the rituals of our faith and do not connect with the blood and guts of the people around us.  Is it because we are so desensitized by tv and film, by news shows on all the different news networks, when we are told on a daily basis that “some of the images presented will be disturbing to some viewers.”  Are you and I really engaged with the world around us?

Sacramento born Richard Rodriguez (Darling) quotes William Saroyan, the Fresno Armenian American writer who has kind of been forgotten. Saroyan calls all of us human beings to an engaged life. This is what he said:” Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.” It as Saroyan’s advice to a young writer.

Friends, I think Saroyan as Isaiah gives us a clue about how to be salt to the world.  We have talked about the properties of salt and about desalinization, about the vital nature of salt in the human body, about Gandhi’s long walk to the coast to make salt to tell the British that his people were alive.  And there are a number of things about salt that speak to how we should live.  First, salt gives taste. It fights the blandness of food.  To a lot of people today life is bland, it has no taste. They live lives without meaning, focused only on themselves and how to meet their every day needs and wants. They are bored and they feel irrelevant.  They feel no one needs them or that they don’t have the skills to help someone who needs them. Or they don’t want to do anything unless they get paid for it.  Jesus, Isaiah, and yes William Saroyan want to shake us out of that, stick our nose into the mud and the manure of everyday life and let us smell it.  This is what Jesus did beyond compare, completely enter into the suffering of others and taking it on as His burden.  When we taste it we may get angry, but it will be real, justified anger, not the fake anger our preferred news channel is trying to make us feel.

This also has to do with traction. On icy freeways, salt can give traction.  Even when we are not detached from the lives of others, we do not feel we have much traction.  It’s as if we cannot firmly plant our feet on this world, make a difference, or change where it is going. Even Presidents seem to be able to do so little.  But as a larger Church that we are a part of, we can start making a difference.  I know we could never have worked overseas if there had been no Church.  But as a congregation, this means we have a responsibility to get traction and to move in this world with purpose and compassion.

Then we get to preservation. This is another way salt contributes to our lives. Salt helps preserve.  When we are salt in the world, we preserve the tradition of thousands of years that proclaims God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.  Leaders of the Church face enormous criticism these days for bad behavior and so they should.  Nevertheless much of the blessings of culture have come through the church: from printing, to music, to philosophy, to literature, to compassionate service.  It is a tradition of engagement and involvement. Without this tradition, the message of God’s love will disappear.

Finally, salt purifies. It cleans.  We gargle with salt, we ease sore throats with salt water.  We chemically rebalance ourselves with salt. Sometimes we need to put salt in the wounds.  As the Church we must touch the wounds of people, acknowledge they are there, name them.  So all of us will be more fully alive and healthier.

Two T’s and two P’s, friends, tell us how to be salt to the world, salt of the earth. May God help us to give taste to, to find traction on, to preserve the faith in and to touch the wounds of our earth.


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Reflection February 2

Published on March 13, 2014 by in Reflections

Micah: 6: 1, 6, 8; Matthew 5: 3-7, 10, 11,12

Roughly a billion and a half people celebrate the Lunar New year this weekend.  Envelopes of lucky money are being passed around.  Family members are on their best behavior. Great movements of people are taking place.  The stage has to be set for the New Year.  Luck is an important concept, luck and how to guarantee it.  This made me think about the relationship between luck and blessing.  “Blessed are those who….” Jesus says. “Blessed are those who are lucky,” say the Chinese.  Linda Schiphorst McCoy (sermon notes)writes: “Happy are those who have lots of money and can go anywhere, do anything, have anything they want. Happy are those who are successful and well acclaimed in their businesses or professions. Happy are those who are healthy, or those who have good marriages, or who have perfect children. (Linda Schiphorst McCoy writes) “Happiness is, in John Powell’s words, an inside job.” If we stop to think about it, we are all smart enough to know that happiness does not come as a result of money or material possessions or from any external source. Sometimes we let ourselves believe that having all the outward looks of happiness actually means we’re happy. However, happiness doesn’t have anything to do with external circumstances. In the movie, Cool Runnings, John Candy played a former American gold medalist who became coach to the Jamaican bobsled team. As the story evolves, the coach’s dark history comes out. After his gold medal performance, his competitors discover that he broke the rules by weighting the U.S. sled. By doing so, he brought disgrace to himself and to his team. One of the Jamaican bobsledders didn’t understand why someone who’d already won a medal would cheat, so he asked Candy to explain. The coach said, “I had to win, but I learned something. If you are not happy without a gold medal, you won’t be happy with it.” In some ways, that’s what Jesus is trying to say in this familiar passage that we call the Beatitudes. If we were to take these sayings literally, we would get the wrong idea. The point Jesus is trying to make is that happiness is not found where the conventional wisdom of the world would have us believe. In essence, Jesus turns things upside down, and offers the reverse of what we might expect. Happiness is found in some unlikely places, and is a byproduct of our manner of living and our attitudes toward life. Part of the assumption here is that God wants us to be happy. That’s God’s intent for our lives. Jesus knew that unhappy people tend to be self-focused, and look on the gloomy side of things. Happy people, on the other hand, have different characteristics, and tend to be more energetic, decisive, flexible, and creative. They tolerate more frustration, are more forgiving, and tend to be more willing to help those in need.”

Friends, when I was still a member of 24 hour fitness in Rancho Cordova, there always was this nice looking young man with a walker working out in his undershirt.  I would always ask him how he was and he would always answer: “Blessed every day, blessed everyday.”  It always made me feel a bit guilty, because physically he was struggling to keep his balance. He told me one day that he was shot in the head and suffered great brain damage. But he had learned to count his blessings.  Blessing and happiness to him was an inside job, not something you can buy or that the world provides. It reminds me of when I was working in the hospital in Central Java and I would talk to a farmer who lost a leg and I would ask them how he was and he’d say:”I’m so lucky I still have my other leg.” I still can’t relate to that.

Friends, let me be very clear, friends, we should never ever talk to a suffering person and tell them they are blessed in disguise. There is something banal about that. Tasteless.  On the other hand we should not prevent them from seeing a blessing where we would not be able to see one.

Today is Superbowl Sunday.  With great interest we will watch a bunch of testosterone driving guys trying to knock the living daylights out of each other.  Earl Campbell was a good hearted football player who played for the old Houston Oilers, an African American, country music loving, Texas country boy who had a stellar career but never made it to the Superbowl.  He is so humble that never even talked to his sons about his football career.  He was amazing. Earl Campbell spent a decade just running over people. He also suffers from a spinal abnormality that leaves him in excruciating pain. I saw a documentary about his overcoming an addiction to pain killers and finding the blessing in disguise.

Friends, in the beatitudes Jesus teaches us to find blessings where we least expect them. He transforms the entire idea of what it means to be blessed.  He puts blessing into a spiritual and eternal light.  He reminds us that the experience of blessing is an inside job. This leads me to ask a question that has to do with your life: “friends, where are you blessed in disguise?” May God give you insight.

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Coach’s corner

Published on March 13, 2014 by in Coach's Corner

Explorations IX: maintaining equilibrium

Dear friends,

I am continuing to receive feedback from the first meetings of our exploration groups.  In last month’s coach’s corner I talked about a concern expressed about the future of our congregation’s outreach to the community beyond our walls.  Do we have people willing to take on leadership in this area? If we are to be the body of Christ in the literal sense, we need to have heart and soul, but also use our hands. I would like to extend the discussion about the church as “body” by emphasizing questions I have heard voiced from among you.  It has to with what we do together as a congregation outside worship hour and the refreshment time.  Is what we do together sufficient to strengthen our community and is it balanced?  Using  physical terms, are we utilizing all our muscles as a congregation or are we overdeveloping some or under-developing some, to the point that some muscles may grow weaker or atrophy? To be more specific, I have heard it said that a lot of our activity, our flexing of muscles together is more about the raising of funds rather than the fellowship of fun.  They are both important of course. An organization cannot sustain itself without the ready availability of funds, but at the same time no successful organization can maintain and deepen relationships without informal, unforced activities.  Most of you might agree that the two should be balanced or rather they should have equilibrium.

We need the muscles of our arms to help the Church, but at the same time,  we need our laugh muscles.  Now Parkview is very fortunate to have fundraising leadership (primarily the Fongs) that combines efficiency with humor and the joy of togetherness.  Nevertheless the question of equilibrium is an important one.  We have to keep things in balance: develop activities that generate funds with activities that are just plain fun.  They kind of bring two of the main question of a culture to light, namely: “did you have fun?”  And “how much money did you make?

We must of course remember that both questions are not an end to themselves. They are in fact a means of strengthening the total body of Christ.

May God strengthen the total body of Christ. May God bless all our activities.  See you in Church. Aart

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Reflection January 12

Published on January 15, 2014 by in Reflections

Matthew 3:  16,17 ; Acts 10: 34-38, 47,48

Shattering the pecking order

We all live with pecking orders in our lives.  The idea of “favorite” is something no culture has been able to get rid of.  As much as we try to, it rears its head.  People are hardwired it seems to want to be the favorite, the one that people notice.  It begins in families where children spar over parents’ attention and approval.  And it never stops after that.  Parents do their best to remind children no one is favorite, that they have nothing to worry about.   We talked about James, most likely the brother of Jesus who is only mentioned a few times in the Bible and has a small letter toward the end of the New Testament (not everyone agrees that he wrote it) which the great Reformer Martin Luther criticized as a “little straw of a book.” He didn’t think it amounted too much!  Can you imagine competing with Jesus as a brother?  Oh come on, that’s just torture. And you could say that James lived longer and was not crucified, but let’s face it, he was stoned for his faith! Not exactly pleasant either.  He later on held a powerful position in the early church, but even though James was well respected, his point of view most likely lost out to that of Paul. It was about the whole issue of favorites believe it or not. Peter, in Acts 10:34 says:” I know that God has no favorites.”  This was about the whole issue of the participation of non-Jews in the Church. There is reason to believe that James saw it as a Jewish movement above all, even though he did not exclude non-Jews.   The decision made by the young Church as described in Acts made sure that the Christian Church would spread around the world, but also left Jewish people wondering if they belonged.

Friends, the world is crazy about Downtown Abbey, a period piece set between 1912 and 1925 in an enormous country manor in England.  It is in its fourth season and the whole world is watching what will happen to Lady Mary.  For those of you who missed the whole thing so far, it is a PBS series about a Lord who marries a rich American to save his estate and they have three daughters. Daughters cannot inherit the estate so much time was spent on who would be the heir.  World War I intervenes and things get complicated.  But at its heart the whole series is about pecking order.  In last week’s episode the man who runs the downstairs comes to Mary to give her advice about her life and she blasts him for crossing class lines to tell her what to do. Later on she comes to his office, apologizes and cries on his shoulder.  It exposes the relationships between the upper class and the lower class, between the upstairs and the downstairs, between master and servant.  Critics have been wondering why this program is so popular, is it because everyone longs for the British monarchy or is something deeper?  It is perhaps partly because people want to take a look at what the aristocrats were thinking and doing and how they could be just as petty as anyone else.  They were in fact the favorites in that society and maybe then people were thinking those rich were God’s favorites.

William Willimon when he became Mehodist Bishop in Alabama asked an Alabama historian to orient him to the people there.  So the historian told him a story:” This ole boy drove down from Birmingham to buy firewood. He stopped at a rundown house in the country that had a sign out front: “Firewood 4 Sale.” “Friend, I would like to order a load of firewood,” the man said to the patriarch who was dozing in a rocker on the front porch. The old man roused himself and sneered back, “You can’t order me to do nothin’. (Christian Century, January 2014) “  Friends, like the Alabama country man none of us like pecking orders when we think we’re at the bottom of the heap.  But I bet Alabamans are watching Downton Abbey also. So what is about Downton Abbey?  Maureen Dowd, the Irish American opinion writer who is not fond of the English aristocracy had an insight.  She said that in a way when the man who runs the downstairs approaches the Lady, he has power. The people that run the house have power.  Their decisions impact the masters who are often a lot more naïve about life than the people who work for them.  The show makes the view realize that the lives of all the people in that house are tied together and that the pecking order is not quite as simple as it seems.

Friends, our passages today remind us that God has no favorites and that pecking orders are a result of human insecurity and selfishness. Pecking orders appear when people’s worst instincts take over.  In Baptism we are all equal.  It is when we truly accept that we are all equal before God, that God has no favorites, that we are transformed.   We can walk with our head held high, but at the same time we become  truly aware that others are never below us, that with God there are no pecking orders. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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Reflection January 5

Published on January 15, 2014 by in Reflections

Genesis 1: 1-3; John 1: 10-18


We have talked about the first three verses about the Bible and the first chapter of the Gospel of John.  We saw that while Matthew, Mark and Luke in their Gospels really ground the story of God with people on earth.  John has more theological and mysterious approach.  John really has a sense of the holy.  And as we try to bridge the story of creation with the story of the coming of the Messiah, probably John strikes the right tone.  We have also seen that one way of bringing these two stories, both of which are about new beginnings, together is by talking about “energy.”   I was having a skype conversation with my cousin at Christmas.  He is a musician. And I asked him where he was with the whole religion thing. And he said that he thought a lot of it was about energy. Now that sounds a bit New Age perhaps, but it is really not far off the mark I think.  Anything that happens pretty much requires energy. Energy is applied. It flows from one place to another.    There is a Far Side cartoon that shows a cave man with a stone cart and under the stone cart are four stone wheels.  The only problem is that the wheels under the stone cart are square! The cave man says something like this to his buddy: “Do you ever have the feeling you’re on the verge of something groundbreaking?”  Friends, the cave man is applying his energy to the invention of a cart, but unless he applies that energy to making round wheels, he is never going to make that cart move. Energy is always being applied. Today’s texts really force the issue.

Now imagine we were in a courtroom and were to make the case for the statement “God is love,” what would we say?  As Christians we should say: “Jesus.” Jesus is how God shows God’s love.  This is what John 1 verse 18 really says: no one has seen God, but Jesus is the way God shows Who God is, what God is like.  But then we would have to come up with exhibits: exhibit A: Bethlehem, exhibit B the sermon on the mount, exhibit C the way Jesus welcomes children, exhibit D the resurrection etc. etc.  The judge might ask: but how does the Creator of the Universe wind up getting involved in love of human beings. We are talking about billions of planets and millions of years.  Isn’t the creative force of the universe too impersonal to be involved in our lives? This is how I think it works.  Of course because science is always coming up with new discoveries, this is always going to be a work in progress. For instance astronomers have identified enormous black holes in the universe where things can just disappear. But they cannot agree on whether there is matter in those black holes or whether there is nothing.  Now, hello, if you guys can’t make sense of that, how can a minister? But we do our best.  Friends, what if unconditional love was the most sophisticated, purest, most advanced application of energy there is?  What if all life forms when they evolve can never get any better than when they are loving another unconditionally.  This kind of love in its purest form is rare. I think we all know that.  Love comes with strings attached in most situations.  Love involves give and take.  But this is the romantic leap of the Christian faith: that the creative force of the universe ultimately seeks a loving relationship with creation and that this love is unconditional.  To believe that is a leap for sure.  But the alternative is pretty horrifying and that is that we are just byproduct and soon enough waste products of a cold impersonal universe.  Jesus shows us Who God is ultimately and deeply.  Jesus is the purest application of energy imaginable.  He loves His enemies, He welcomes everyone, His anger is about injustice and hyprocrisy, He asks for nothing for Himself and sacrifices Himself.   Once in a while, we see that in a human being, if only briefly in someone like Mother Theresa, or in the jailed Nelson Mandela, or in someone imprisoned for their faith, or in Gandhi or in the acts of people whose name no one knows  who do something heroic and selfless.  Unconditional love, a spiritual embrace of another human being pushes through as the purest form of energy.  Yes it is rare, but also it happens everyday, somewhere, perhaps this very moment; perhaps in Tacloban in The Philippines, or on the Syrian border or in South Sudan. I wish I were more capable of it.  But these acts are not from us or about us, they come from somewhere else.  They come from spirit,  perhaps even the Holy Spirit. It is sad but what mostly we see on television is energy applied badly and dysfunctionally and yes in an evil way.  But the story of Jesus is our hope that unconditional, selfless love can push through and find its way through.

Friends, John 1: 18 I think says that Jesus is the ultimate exhibit of God’s unconditional and selfless love, energy perfectly applied in a messy world where energy floats and bashes around chaotically it seems.  That that energy will be victorious is our abiding hope. Thanks be to God.

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