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Reflection February 7, 2016

Published on February 11, 2016 by in Reflections

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

As close as they can get

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

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

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

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

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Coach’s Corner

Interview with Rev. Gail Cullerton,

Aart: Gail, thank you for contributing to this coach’s corner.  I notice you always coach children and youth very well for special worship services. You also always say what’s on your mind and I take it you want to get something off your chest about children in church.

Gail: that’s right. To begin with, I think children are not the just the future of this church as people and you say, but they are the “now” of the church.

Aart: During last week’s discovery table I asked the youth if they ever felt like a stranger in this church and they said they never did. They seemed to think it was a strange question. I said we never wanted them to feel like a stranger. I have gotten pretty good feedback over the years about how we make children and youth feel important and special. But I guess there is more we can do? And come to think of it, there were times when we used to do more.

Gail: We look lovingly at these young people that surround us during Discovery Table time and social hour, but do we all know them by name and what grade he or she is in?   What is their favorite subject? Why do they come to church?  One young person said, “It’s just what we do!” Yes, family brings them, but how are they a part of this family? They bring special gifts to us. Young people look at worship with new eyes. They bring things to learn but they also bring things for us to learn. They bring to us a new inquisitives. Why do we do that which we do?  It causes us to reflect.

Aart: So you are saying that beyond making them less peripheral to worship, we need their input and participation?

Gail: Yes, they bring joy. It could be fun to worship…..lighten the ambiance.
Help us to see worship with new understanding. They understand the world differently from how we do.  What do they see and hear as mission and ministry?

Aart: People often say they like discovery table. The youth do bring new perspectives. They keep me off balance. I think the congregation kind of enjoys that. As a worship leader I think that means you give up control and I think that is healthy as worship is not about our control, but about God’s grace. The message isn’t always as tidy as we want it to be. Much like life.

Gail: Exactly, I think children and youth need to know that life and worship are not always a neat package. It can only work if they understand what moves us. They need to learn the rhythm of worship…..the prayers….the songs. They need to learn that we bring our happiness and our sadness to this community. We pray for people. They need to learn that they are part of the whole community of God and because we worship, we go out to serve?

Aart: I welcome your input. I am very concerned about Sunday school time for the littles ones right now, to make church part of the rhythm of their life. That’s s why I have been asking for volunteers to work with them once a month like Julie Chew does and so parents can relax in worship, but I see that you want children and youth to be more part of our own spiritual rhythm, that they learn that way. I’ll give you the last word.

Gail: May God bless our ministry. Isn’t that what you say. And “See you in church, Aart.”

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Reflection January 24, 2016

Published on February 11, 2016 by in Misc.

Nehemiah 8: 1,9,10; Luke 4. 20-24

Strangers in their land

Dear friends, There is a popular cartoon my kids loved when they were young called “Samurai Jack.”  It is about an honorable Samurai warrior who travels through time and finds that his skills are not necessarily sufficient in a modern time.  He feels strange most of the time and the viewer feels strange along with him.  In a recent interview on the BBC Henry Rollins, former band member of the punk band Black Flag talked about how he became a punk rocker. He said he was always angry. He couldn’t do anything right in high school: couldn’t throw a ball straight, couldn’t talk to girls, couldn’t get good grades.  He was asked whether he was still angry. He responded that he was, but now it was about political anger.  As you may know punk rock is probably the loudest rock, with the most shrieking.  There seems to be a lot of anger these days.  A lot of it is very vocal in this election year.  A lot of the talk is visceral.  There is a lot of shrieking.  So called “Establishment” candidates of both parties are scratching their heads.  Anand Giridaharadas in the International New York Times wrote about that people feel these days that “power is somewhere where you are not.”  That makes people angry.  It makes people feel afraid.  It makes people feel estranged.  It is a reaction to things being out of control:   Congress, the stock market, the Middle East, China’s economy. In reality no one can fix all that by themselves, but nevertheless there are these cries for fundamentalism (Cruz), authoritarianism (Trump) and realignment and restructuring of economic power (Sanders).

In the book of Nehemiah some leaders of the exiled Jewish people get a green light from the King of Persia to go west to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple which lies in ruins.   These people raised in a land where they were strangers go to a land that was theirs but where they are now strange.  They pray and read the old texts and they weep.  We are left to imagine what their tears were about.  We can guess. Maybe they themselves did not know. But here is a question: could it be that the experience of strangeness exactly made them more effective in their task?

Friends, in the Gospel of Luke Jesus goes back to His home region and He reads from the text in the synagogue and He tells people that this text has to do with Him.  You cannot blame the people for thinking Jesus is pretentious.  He gets it too: a prophet is never accepted in the prophet’s own land.   How often do we see that?  Could it be that Jesus’ experience of being rejected by His people made Him a more focused and effective leader?

Friends, how about you?  What makes you feel strange or like a stranger?  How has the experience of strangeness affected you? This leads me to a question: is it possible that sometimes strangeness allows us to push boundaries?  Let me give a personal illustration.  I assume that over nearly twenty years you know more about me than you care too, but try to pay attention with your own experience.  In the movie “The Jane Austen Book Club” two grown women are in the restroom.  One of them is crying and the other asks why? She explains that it is about relationships from high school.  The other says: ”But high school is over: “Says the first through her tears:”high school is never over !” There is some truth to that.  When I was in high school, in a suburb of Amsterdam, there were four things that caused me to feel strange.  First, my father’s health was frail because of severe heart disease and finally he offered to stop smoking if I would never start. I agreed.   Unfortunately almost everyone else in high school smoked which effectively took me out the circle of other teenagers rolling their cigarettes.  Second, I wore a mental and leather brace on my back for almost two years which kept my back straight all the time and when I bent a little, I either looked like a humpback or a purple faced patient with respiratory problems.  Third, I spent the summer of my sixteenth year in Texas with my sister at the time of the biggest revival conference in American history.  The theology was pretty main stream for the south but the religious principles I came home with kind of made me a freak in the Holland of antiwar protests and sit-ins and dwindling main line churches.  Finally, my best friend was of Indonesian descent and his parents indirectly introduced me to an exotic world of otherness and strangeness through their stories.  Now here comes the good part. When I graduated the back brace was off ( I snapped it cleaning office buildings) and I had snapped out of my hyper-religiousness, but because I had been independent and somewhat isolated I was perfectly positioned to leave the familiar.  So because of the experience of strangeness I was not tied to my hometown.  So I spent my professional life working among people who shared nothing with me but my faith tradition.  As a result, stepping into other cultures became a natural move.  I would not have done that if I had been the most popular kid in school.

Friends, oppression and discrimination are never good, but feeling strange can be.  It teaches us to find connections where we otherwise might not find them.  We see much of the bad side of people feeling strange in today’s political campaigns, bringing out the worst instincts in people. But there can be a good side too. Maybe feeling strange isn’t so bad.  So where do you experience the strangeness in your life and how can you use it to be a better human being and a better servant of

Our God?  May God give us wisdom.

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Reflection January 17, 2016

Published on February 11, 2016 by in Reflections

John 2: 9,10; I Corinthians 12: 4-11

Refining our talents

Today the New Testament texts in our lectionary reading are very well known but really have nothing to do with each other so there is no use forcing them together to become one message.  However, I would like to take the perspective of one text and take it together with the other.  In John 2 Jesus becomes involved in wine making against His own wishes. His mother basically wants Him to do magic.  He might have resented this, because His powers are for healing, not for tricks.  The steward or master of the banquet is very impressed however.  He tells the bridegroom that “you leave your best wine to the last.”  Of course the bridegroom is not responsible for this, it is Jesus.  I would like to take this idea of “saving the best wine until the end” and using it partially as a lens to look at the question of talents and gifts.
Paul has a problem of arrogance and competition.  There are certain people in the new congregation at Corinth who consider themselves superior to others because of the gifts that they have.  This is not an uncommon occurrence is organization, specifically churches.  It has to do with spiritual gifts for Paul: who is able to show that they are people filled with the Holy Spirit. This can show up in the way they can reach a level of spiritual ecstasy or do acts of healing.  A lot of these gifts you do not see valued much of in the Presbyterian church where the emphasis is on simplicity, order, democracy,  sound thinking and responsibility, not on ecstasy and flamboyance and excitement.   But still there are gifts and talents, things people are good at or achieve or contribute.

I was talking to a friend who talked to me about her church of another denomination and how a number of members think they are morally superior and of a leader standing up and saying to the congregation:” you know how the Bible says we are supposed to accept every and one not look down on them, well we don’t have that.”  It kind of sums up the thing that kills many congregations and organizations that is the feeling of superiority of one member over another.  Fortunately there isn’t much of that in this congregation. This was tearing apart the fabric of Paul’s diverse, multicultural congregation in Corinth.  Today I want to take a look at some of the misconceptions about talents and gifts and replace them with what I Paul might consider correct conceptions.  The first misconception is that gifts and talents in the church and elsewhere have a pecking order.  In other words, that there are certain gifts and talents which are more valuable than others.  We human beings are social and we have a whole range of categories we have to classify people: from race and ethnicity to education to where people live, to how they look and dress and how they speak. The list is long and you are all familiar with it.  Misconception number two states that gifts and talents only occur in the organizations and families we have been a part of, that somehow our experience is unique.  Just by looking at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we know that this problem is as old as interaction itself.  There have always been pecking orders among humans, including an order of talents and gifts.  The third misconception is that talents and gifts have a price on them.  People with certain talents and gifts are rewarded with a position within a congregation or with a high paying salary within another organization.  Position and salary give us an idea which talents are more valuable.  The fourth misconception is that talent is not like fine wine, that there is shelf life to it.  In another words: when you no longer have your position or your salary dries up, somehow you talents and gifts dry up too.

That brings me to the right conceptions about our talents and gift, whether they are officially “spiritual” or not:  The first right conception is that talent and gift are surprising: sometimes you see a person who has no position in any organization and has never been very high up in any organization and you see them operate with so much creativity or compassion or perseverance that you are just dumbfounded.  Gifts and talents can surprise the one having them and the one benefiting from them.  The second right conception is that the instinct to classify people and look down on them for their skills or gifts or talents or lack of them is an instinct the Bible time and time again tells us to overcome.  These classifications are tools of power and control, not of compassion and grace.  The third right conception is that gifts and talents are priceless. Remember that commercial for a credit card company a few years back where a price is put on several items, but then the experience is presented as “priceless.”  The idea is that the card leads the holder to something priceless.  If our gifts and talents are really God-given, then we cannot put a price or importance on them.  We have no right to do that.  We can only observe whether someone uses her or his gifts and talents or not.  Finally, the fourth right conception is that our talents and gifts can be like the best wine saved until the end of the party.  There are many things we can mention in the natural world that through a process of fermentation become better, from kim chi to wine.  Friends, may you value the gifts and talents of yourself and those around you,  allow yourself and encourage others to use those gifts and talents, fully realize the pricelessness of those talents and gifts God gave all of us for a reason and may you bring out the surprising best in yourself in the years ahead of you. Thanks be to God.

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Reflection January 3, 2016

Published on February 11, 2016 by in Reflections

John 1: 1, 2, 16,18; Ephesians 1:5

Getting to know God

Our youngest son Andrew had a friend from Ghana named Kofi.  Kofi’s parents were members of Capital Christian Centers and therefore Pentecostal. The mother, a very nice woman, wasn’t too crazy about Presbyterians, because she said that Presbyterians in Ghana (and there are a lot of them) were somewhat elitist in her opinion. But she liked to say and I remember this well:”people need a savior.” She didn’t say it in a way some American evangelicals talk about Jesus as “Lord and Savior,” often setting themselves apart from people who would not publicly say such a thing, but she said it with such compassion for human beings who so often feel overwhelmed and lost.  It didn’t sound mechanical and automatic, separated from the reality of life. It was fully genuine and out of love.

This is what our text in Ephesians is pointing at. Through Jesus the Christ we are adopted by God. This is perhaps the meaning or part of the meaning of having a savior.  In chapter 1 of the Gospel of John we are told of Jesus as the Word Who had made God known.  Jesus the man has made God known.  Friends, how do we know God? We have talked about different ways in which people think God is made known.  God is made known through the One we know as the savior.

I saw the most amazing biography of Marlon Brando by Stevan Riley (“Listen to me, Marlon” the showtime channel). It was built around the tapes of him talking Brando made.  For an almost obsessively private man, this was incredible revealing and enormously insightful.  I don’t know much about Brando other than his sending a Native American to accept his Godfather Academy Award as a way of protesting the treatment of the First Nations people.  I had only seen three of his movies: “On the Waterfront,” a “Street Car named Desire” and “Apocalypse Now.”  I knew he was brilliant and a recalcitrant actor who would drive directors crazy. I also knew he had married a Tahitian and had bought an island there and that his son had killed the boyfriend of his daughter.  The biography did not surprise me where it came to his civil rights activism, although he was quite courageous, or where it came to his constant womanizing and his objectifying of women.  I wasn’t even that surprised that he was a prankster who at the same time was also very serious and not all that humorous.

No the thing that struck me was his honesty, a brutal honesty.  This was a kind of honesty that stings and can make everyone hearing it feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to make anyone feel good.  I felt I got to know him. He talked about his sensitive, creative mother being an alcoholic who always went off to get drunk rather than take care of him, of his father who was a mean, philandering drunk who used to beat his mother, of the traumatic and failed military school experience. He said how he went from woman to woman because “if you have not known love you don’t know where to find it……” He talked about how acting was lying.  “We all act,” he says “to survive, it is just that actors get paid for it.” So I felt I got to know this mysterious man and saw him no longer as a caricature, but as someone authentic, at least later in life.  But I also saw the desolation, his despair and the lostness.  I was left with a feeling not just of profound discomfort, but with the conclusion that Marlon who once was almost a deity to people , that Marlon the recluse needed a genuine church family and yes, a savior, like all of us.

Friends, maybe getting to know a human being-and we are all mysteries- has something to do with getting to know God.  God introduced patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, leaders like Moses, Judges like Samson and Deborah, Kings like David and Solomon, covenants to bind God and people together, prophets to issue rebukes and proclaim visions of the future.  But people only really tend to learn things through people. This was the stroke of genius on God’s part.  The only way God, the great “I am” could be known to people was through a human.  This brings us back to John.  “No one has seen God,” he says, but Jesus has made God known.  Through Jesus we know what God is like. That is what Christians believe.  Getting to know God is so much harder than getting to know people and that is hard enough as it is already. Brando was right: people act all the time, put up fronts, deny their vulnerability, avoid uncomfortable situations. We act even if we don’t know we act.  “Acting is surviving,” says Brando.

No, friends, getting to know God is harder.  The Bible may be inspired, but many of the words betray the culture and the sensibilities and the knowledge of the people who wrote things down.  How could any of us ever say we know God?  That is so pretentious. But then we have the Gospels that tell of this man Jesus and the amazing things He is capable of and the honest, truthful things He says.  He does not act and does not lie.  That is where we need to go to get to know God.  Thanks be to God.

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Coach’s corner

The multiplication of goodness

Dear friends,

Happy New Year!   That is, if I haven’t wished you that already.  I hope you got everything done on your list before 2015 ended, including your New Year’s resolutions.  Like many of us you may have been trying to get your charitable giving out of the way before the ball dropped.  That is always a big question: which organization to give to.   Of all the envelopes for donation request we all get in the mail, how do we decide which organizations to support?  It seems it is impossible not to feel guilty. You are going to leave out somebody.  And more requests will come in.  And then there are those who send you pennies and nickels which wind up in the Salvation Army bucket at the end of the year.  For me the answer to this question changes almost every year.  Some years I thought immediate hunger relief was best, next I thought donating  goats that can provide offspring would be best.  Other years I thought that medicine in war and disaster zones would be the most useful. But then you think of the kids in the third world with a cleft palate.  Most of them will never live up to their potential and many of them shunned without surgery.   A couple of operations would be a game changer.  In poor countries curable blindness reduces you to begging for a lifetime.  And what about the cure to cancer?   At the heart of the question is “how do we most multiply goodness with our humble donations?”

A congegration stays alive and vibrant when the people believe that goodness is multiplied through the life of the church.  People feel cared for, they feel meaning, they feel moved and touched or nurtured (and in Parkview’s case “nourished” also).  Those who feel and believe that in turn pass on that goodness to others, whether consciously or not.  In our developing mission statement members of this congregation express a longing for multiplying goodness into the community even beyond the work we are doing now.   People want to plug into the community grid and create a greater impact.  That can be hard for a small church with a limited labor pool.  But then we are followers of the man Jesus Who in a period of three years in some dusty outpost two millennia ago made such an impact that His words and actions continue to reverberate around the globe and seep into the lives of billions of people.

Part of our philosophy with our residency program is to bring in new, idealistic graduates who might assist us in the multiplication of goodness within and beyond the church.  We are not looking to control but more to empower them.  I saw an English soccer match a week or so ago on television between Manchester  City and Leicester City.  The first team has a payroll of 409 million people supposedly, the second a payroll of 17 million. They are at the same spot in the table and they tied the game.  Sometimes it just takes the right players in the right attitude to change the game and make it flow. Leicester City came out of a lower division last year and now they’re near the top.  It’s all about how the defensive players, the mid-field players and the striker connect with each other and create the space to place the ball in.  Connection and cooperation lead to open space!  Please pray for your church and its leaders, its mission and its vision. May there be openness and flow and connection.  Without God’s grace we would have locked the doors a long time ago. Instead we are still vibrant and busy trying to multiply goodness. Thanks be to God! You see you in church. Aart

Thank you for your cards.  Again this year we didn’t send any. Sorry!

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Reflection December 27, 2015

Published on December 31, 2015 by in Misc.

I Samuel 2: 26; Luke 2: 47, 50, 51, 52

Tradition and innovation

Today is our New Year’s service and I want to talk about doing things in a new way. I want to talk about innovation.  Yet I am doing so in the setting of 2000 year old Church with a deep tradition.

Ivo van Hooven is a Belgian director directing Arthur Miller’s play “A view from the Bridge.”  Van Hooven understands the tradition of the theater and it is because he understands it that he seeks to change it.  The current play has some of the audience on the stage. There are no props: no couches, no tables, no lamps, no costumes, no shoes even. The actors are barefoot. The director wants the play just to be about emotions, about relationships, about honesty and also about energy.  Innovation comes out of the tradition of the theater.

We all have our taste in art.  Some like abstract art, some like impressionism, some like realism or romanticism. There is no right one.  A year or so ago I saw an exhibition in the Dali Museum in St.Petersburg FL.  It was a comparative study of Salvador Dali, the surrealist, and Pablo Picasso.  They were contemporaries and they were both Spanish.  It showed an early period in their art which was much more realistic.  Their paintings weren’t that different.  Those painting showed that they were both accomplished and skilled artists who could paint like the masters before them.  From there on, though, they went their separate ways. Dali remained in Franco controlled fascist Spain while Picasso refused to go back and he lived nearby in Southern France.  Picasso went into cubism and Dali into surrealism. Totally different approaches.  But what they did was go from the tradition to innovation. They didn’t start with the art they were famous for. No, they worked out of the tradition.  Innovation came forth out of tradition.

The singer Tom Jones was never a favorite of mine, but after I saw a late night interview with him, I appreciated him a lot more.  He grew up in Wales a Presbyterian. At age 12 he contracted tuberculosis and spent two years lying in bed recuperating.  At 16 he was married with a child.  When he was ill listened to the radio all the time. One of his favorite singers was Mahalia Jackson and his teachers were amazed that Jones sang the Old Rugged Cross not like a Welshmen but like an African American Gospel singer. Gospel and blues affected his popular singing career tremendously. He explained how similar things happened to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. They tapped into the African American musical tradition which came out of the church.  Tradition again led to innovation.

Friends, in I Samuel the young man Samuel comes of age in a kind of godless time when there were very few visions.  The family of his mentor Eli had behaved badly and there was a kind of moral wasteland.  Nevertheless Samuel followed the tradition that Eli in his time had followed.  Innovation happens as a result of the tradition, not separate from it.  The same is true of Jesus. Jesus first learns all He needs to learn in the temple from the experienced scholars who make studying the scriptures their life.  Time and time again Jesus refers to those scriptures and then He innovates. He questions the interpretations, he exposes hypocrisy in the way the people manipulate the text to oppress and exclude people. This is still going on today. People manipulate Bible texts to exclude and to oppress.

So friends, innovation comes out of tradition, but there are a few other things I would like say about innovation.  The first is that it is liberating.  There is something tremendously freeing about making a fresh start, doing things that haven’t been done before.  This is true of music, this is true of architecture, this is true of art, this is true of ministry, this is true of Samuel and of course of Jesus.   Second, it can be very risky.  If you have a way of doing things that sort of works, that has people’s attention and cooperation, then changing can be considered weird or dumb or downright dangerous

This is true of music, this is true of architecture, this is true of art, this is true of ministry, this is true of Samuel and of course of Jesus.   So innovation has to do with tradition, with liberation and with risk.

As a congregation we are taking risks. When it comes to this residency program, we are being completely innovative. Yes there are other church residencies, but one with a multicultural focus and on-campus living is new.  So there is tradition, yes it is freeing because we don’t just do things the same old way, but at the same time it is risky.  It’s the inevitable consequence of innovation.  Stephanie Paulsell writes (Faith Matters):”We need places to pray as if someone were listening, to study as if we might learn something worth writing on our hearts, to join with others in service as if the world might be transformed. Churches are places to learn to practice, with others, a continual conversion of life,  permanent openness to change.”  Friends, as the New Year comes upon you, how will you innovate from your own tradition, how will you free yourself, how will you take risks? May God give You guidance.

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Reflection December 20, 2015

Published on December 31, 2015 by in Reflections

Christmas service

Looking for Baby Jesus

We have talked about how Gail wanted the baby Jesus to be here all year round, not just at Christmas. And for months he was there in his little manger.  Then after about six months or so, He just vanished. Not a trace to be found. Gail has talked about what happened to Him: he had things to do,  places to go and a ministry to build up.   Gail took the literal route, now I want to take the metaphoric route.  I want to ask the question where Jesus literally went, but where Jesus went in our lives.

Friends, Josh Groban recorded the song “Believe” for the movie Polar Express. He sings of losing our way and finding ourselves again on Christmas day.  It sounds a bit simplistic perhaps, but let’s look at this.  Here are some lines :”Trains move quickly to their journey’s end.  Destinations are where we begin again. Ships go sailing far across the sea, Trusting starlight to get where they need to be. When it seems that we have lost our way. We find ourselves again on Christmas day. Believe in what your heart is saying. Hear the melody that’s playing There’s no time to waste. There’s so much to celebrate Believe in what you feel inside. And give your dreams the wings to fly. You have everything you need. If you just believe. Just believe.”

Friends, you and I go through the seasons of our life.  We do believe (the title of the song).  We have beliefs. Some stay constant, some disappear or fade.  Unless we have never experienced it, we all believe in love at one point or another, but perhaps not as naively over time.  We get more philosophical and we learn that love has a lot more to do with commitment and hanging in there than with a feeling of excitement and physical bliss.  We believe in hope, even if we have been disappointed time and time again.  Not to believe in hope is like not believing in life.  We believe in our fundamental self-worth as creatures of God, but that self-worth is often severely challenged.  People may not treat us with respect. People may look down their noses at us.  But then there are a few moments in life when we all are on top of the world, feeling like we are really something, when all the paths converge.  We believe we need people so we believe in community, although all of have moments when we can’t stand people or certain people.  It’s all perfectly normal.  So we are believers, even those that belief ebbs and flows.

We also believe in the Baby Jesus.  But theories on Him differ.  We may say we believe He is the Son of God, we may accept all the Church teaches about Him.  But where we have trouble is with what He means for us.  Maybe the Baby Jesus gets lost during the year. Maybe He fades into the background.  Maybe we don’t even know that Jesus is missing.  But at Christmas we feel we belong.  Our faith and who we are and our culture get wrapped up in this colorful ball which is bathed in bright light.  It is then we believe more in love, in hope , in people and in our own self-worth.  We are renewed in some way or another.  We find that baby Jesus again and He feels familiar and right to us as the familiar songs touch our heart.  We belong to all that.  It makes sense.  So Groban may not be wrong when he sings that:” we find ourselves again on Christmas day. “ In a way we do.

When I was 26 and newly ordained I preached in one of the largest and oldest churches in the North of the Netherlands. I have a postcard of it in my office.  It has one of those pulpits that float up in the air.  My cousin was we up in the balcony by the organ playing the oboe.  I started the sermon with:” Dear friends, Christmas is a nice time.”  I knew what I was doing, but the problem was: it was the Easter sermon.  Got their attention. So today I want to say: let’s forget about Christmas for a second. Christmas is that high point in the church year when churches are full and people are in the spirit. But it’s kind of like the winning touch down in the superbowl of faith, to use a worn-out analogy.  The stuff we don’t see is all the hard work going into throwing and catching that touchdown.  It’s the same with faith.  It’s the hard work of trying to believe and struggling to believe that makes believing so meaningful and believing is never easier than it is at Christmas. It’s trying to find that baby Jesus in our lives and holding on to it even when we can’t see it here in church,  that makes believing so important.

Friends, in the end only you and I can say where the baby Jesus goes in our lives during the year. Yes, I know, he pops up during the holidays, but where does He go throughout the year?  What is it that makes us lose the baby.  Is it just that we are chasing time, or is it that we need all the props of Christmas to prop Him up in our lives.  I hope not.  But I think we have to accept, you and I, that believing doesn’t come easy.  Faith comes from God, but we still have to work for it.  We have to make ourselves available so the Holy Spirit can find us.  May God help us with that. .




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Reflection December 13, 2015

Published on December 31, 2015 by in Reflections

Zephaniah:3:17-20; Philippians 4: 4-6

The verbs of Advent III

We are finishing up a mini-series on the “verbs of advent.”  We have looked at the verbs from our selected lectionary readings the last two weeks and we have clustered the passages into “theme” verbs.  We came up with five. The first three were “promising,” “attending” and “transforming.” A week later there were “preparing” and “straightening out.   Today we move to the minor prophet Zephaniah and the words of the Paul in his letter to the people of Philippi. The verbs we find are “remove, bear, deal, save, change, bring home, gather, restore, says, rejoice, be known.”  They are almost verbs that express a positive sentiment.  But the most important verb is “will.” God “will.”  God does not say “may” or “let me think about it or maybe.”  What these verses in Zephaniah are expressing is the verb “committing.” “This I will do,” says God.  But there is another verb here and that is “empathizing.” The verses in Zephaniah where we read what God “will do” shows empathy for the plight of the people who bear reproach, who are oppressed and feel like outcasts and feel shame.”  So these are the important verbs that sum things up for this Sunday: committing and empathizing.

Lauren Winner (The Christian Century, December 9, 2015, p. 20) reminds us how Malachi’s vision of the messenger was kind of dark and ominous.  But the message in Zephaniah is happier and more joyful. She writes:”It is something of a relief then that the readings for week three interrupt the dread with a cascade of joy.  With these reading (and with the pink candle), our imagination….is expanded to include not just judgment but also delight. No longer are we praying to escape judgment-now we are singing with gladness because, per Zephaniah, “The Lord has taken away the judgments” against us….; we are shouting and singing for joy.  No longer are we quaking about the Lord’s coming. Rather, per Paul, we are rejoicing in the Lord and practicing gentleness.”

On the Gold River bike trail near our house there are paths where you can find round rocks, shaved by millions of year, stacked neatly on top of each other.  There are usually five or so, with the biggest on the bottom and smaller ones on top.   You find them a few hundred feet apart.  Although I have seen them for several years, lately I heard that one man does that and that someone in the Community Association takes them down, supposedly to keep the path completely natural and untouched. Then early one morning about three weeks ago I caught our rock stacker in the act of stacking.  He was a large man with a little dog.  “So you are the guy,” I said.  He told me an article was about to appear in the local newspaper.  He explained that he was doing that in honor of a friend who had died and who was a naturalist.  I was touched by the commitment and by the empathy for his friend.

Friends, empathy without commitment is really just a feeling and commitment without empathy can be very cold and self-serving.  There have so many athletes who were completely committed to excellence but who showed no ability to empathize with others.  They may have been successful, but they weren’t loved.  It is the people who show empathy and commitment, with someone like Mother Teresa being the ultimate example, that really capture the imagination. We all know people around us that express those kind of ideals:  people that are committed, but also have the compassion to understand.

“Life is beautiful” is one of the greatest films of all time. It is about a Jewish man from Italy who winds up in a concentration camp with his little son and is so committed to keeping his son from emotional harm that he keeps making up stories about the war so that the boy thinks the entire war and the camp included is just a game he has to learn to play. The boy never catches on. The father’s commitment never to let on that life was cruel, always keeps it beautiful for him, because he always shows understanding for how the boy feels.  A film about the most tragic moment in the history of the twentieth century and beyond is full of humor and love. It is a very risky and courageous piece of art.  I think so often when we read stories or hear them and see them, somewhere there is an act of commitment and empathy, somebody staying with a concern for another person’s pain.  I think a church like this thrives on that and floats on that.  I know many of you love this church because you feel empathy and this makes you committed. It is commitment in combination with empathy that drives a church.  And friends, and let us be reminded that as we approach Christmas, that the life and suffering of Jesus was the ultimate act of empathy and commitment we can imagine. Thanks be to God.











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Reflection December 6, 2015

Published on December 31, 2015 by in Reflections

Malachi : 3: 1-3; Luke :3: 4-6

The Verbs of Advent II

In a recent interview on TV (Tavis Smiley, PBS) actor Ted Danson talked  with his interviewer about the horror that is presented on cable news all day long.  They agreed that it can kill our spirit or at least dampen it if we watch too much of it.  But Danson explained that today’s world is a mixture of so many things; so much doom and despair in our face, but also incredible discoveries that are making the world a better place for so many.   He said:” it all comes down to what story you tell.” Today we talk about verbs again.  The verbs from the lectionary readings we have looked at are: send, prepare, seek, come, delight, endure, stand, written, cry,  fill, make straight, low and  smooth.  There are two important themes here that can be expressed in verbs. These are “preparing” and “straightening  out.”  There are two versions of the story they present.  The first is in Malachi and the second is in Luke who quotes  Isaiah.  This part of the book of Isaiah was most likely written in about the sixth century BC and the  book of Malachi  not too long after that. They present of the Babylonian captivity which was ended by King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BC.  Malachi and Isaiah tell the story slightly differently.   They both have the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. Most Christians interpret that to refer to John the Baptist.  But Malachi’s is more a warning tone and Isaiah’s more poetic and hopeful.  It all comes down to what story you tell. Jay Busbee argues that people have told different stories about Tiger Woods over the years (“Tiger Woods is far more interesting as a person than as a golfer,”Devil Ball Golf, dec. 3, 2015). Several days ago he wrote a column about Woods: Time to admit the truth: we used Tiger Woods. You, me, all of us.  We spent the last 18 years turning Woods into whatever we needed him to be: Savior of golf. Battering ram against the sport’s inherent whiteness. Marketing juggernaut. Family man. Philanderer. Disappointment. Icon. Failure. There was an element of truth to all of these one-dimensional facets, but only an element. Tiger Woods used “Tiger Woods,” too. He knew the weight his presence carried in the clubhouse and with golf’s governing bodies. .. Through his handlers, he could stiff-arm media and strong-arm sponsors, negotiating the deals that made him a billionaire while showing only a carefully crafted, deliberately bland persona to the world. Now, though, Woods has nothing left to lose. And that means there’s nothing left to use. Friends, when it came to Tiger Woods, it was all about the story people chose to tell and what verbs they used to tell it.  He was a messenger for the sport, a kind of savior of golf, preparing and laying out new pathways. But what he change in the end? Austin Beutner, the former publisher of the LA Times talked about the importance of local journalism  in another interview. He thinks it is critical. There are two things it should accomplish he thinks: first,  ask the hard questions and 2. Celebrate community accomplishments.  In doing that, it all comes down to what story you tell.  So often journalism just goes for what people will watch, not what prepares them for the future and makes things right.Friends, what kind of story will we tell with those verbs, preparing and making right?  How do we do that in our day and age, when global warming and terrorism are the main issues that scare people.  People do all kinds of things to prepare: for hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, for vacations, for retirement.  The ISIS sympathizers think they are preparing for the Caliphate, probably the worst kind of preparation.   But what do Christians do?  Hoarding weapons is not an answer, hiding in a bunker isn’t either.  Moving to Bhutan is not a solution also.  No, we are to stand in this world with all its problems and do what the Prince of Peace would ask of us:   To cherish and include people of all imaginable backgrounds and to prepare for a next generation and the one after and the one.  Is it going to be a world awash in guns?  Guns are supposed to make us feel free.  That’s the line we hear.  But will all those psychotic people around with assault rifles, do you feel free? I don’t.   We must also prepare to leave a world for the generations.  The parents of my generation are often called the “greatest generation.” I sure hope our generation isn’t going to be known as the selfish generation who failed to act to keep climate change from going out of control.  We must prepare and we must set things right, the two things the text asks us to do in honor of Advent.   And then there are the poor.  They are getting lost in the conversation.   But let’s not get depressed. As the actor says: ”It matters what story you choose to tell.” Friends, Leave the story of doom to the cable networks.  Let’s make new good stories, of individuals and families and congregations, acting in small decisive ways.   Even if the news media don’t,  let’s  ask the hard questions and  let’s celebrate the  good news.  For this is what our passages also tell; the coming of the messenger who will prepare and straighten things out is good news. Thanks be to God.


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