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Coach’s corner

Published on May 9, 2016 by in Coach's Corner

When things get real,

The most famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams” is: “If you build it, they will come.”  Of course that movie was about a farm field in Iowa which was being turned into a baseball field for the ghosts of departed ball players. Nevertheless what we have been doing at Parkview is building a field of dreams of sorts. It is a place where people can learn to minister from and to a unique and diverse group of people. This is a great opportunity. It is also a grand experiment. There are other residencies out there in the US, but not many and they are in large churches that receive funding from organizations like the Lily foundation. And there are no multicultural ministry residencies that I know of. In an earlier coach’s corner I talked about the Leicester City football (soccer) club in England and how they were doing very well with about 10% of the budget of the large, rich clubs. Well that club has just won the English Premier League watched around the globe and the season isn’t even over yet. They say it is the most stunning feat in a hundred years. Think of the Cubs winning the World Series with almost no budget. So small organizations can have a great impact.

We have gone through a number of stages in the development of our program since early last year. We began by floating the idea and asking for advice from people outside the church. We asked and got support from the Presbytery whose Mission Support Committee is an active partner in this project. We asked and got generous support from you for Kansha renovation.We contacted about twenty seminaries and I went recruiting around the US. We established teams: a selection committee (Titus Toyama, Carol Sakai, Maurine Huang, Jennifer Nishizaki), a kansha renovation committee (Stan Umeda, Barbara Hiyama Zweig with Bill Nagata working on the window bars), a decorating/furnishing committee(Carla Hart, Lori Hart, Donna Komure-Toyama, Cathy Nishizaki), we got a local Presbyterian Disaster Assistance team to come twice already to help us renovate, including creating a larger window to meet code. We had heating and air put in as well as a water heater.

But if we build it will they come? That question is being answered. The selection committee with the approval of the session had offered a position to two bright young women. The first is Chakrita Saulina, a woman from Indonesia (ironically no connection to the Indonesian congregation or me) who has just finished her masters of Theology at Yale Divinity School in Connecticut. She is slated to be coming from mid June to Mid September with a possibility of renewal The second is Rola Al-Askar from the Presbyterian Church of Lebanon who is finishing up her masters at Princeton Seminary and is to come in early October for a year. Application is still open as we can have two residents at time in the Kansha. So things are becoming real. We are excited about these residents-to-be as they are bright and motivated women who, undoubtedly, will have great impact wherever they serve in their life. It is great to think they will be able to do that with a dose of Parkview in their system!

Reality does come with side effects. It’s okay when the field is just a field, but when the players arrive it can happen that latent or new questions emerge and sometimes considerable anxiety. We may feel some of that, but that’s all part of blazing new trails. We may have a resident here in five weeks and there much to do still. Things may be a little frantic, even though we have been very deliberate in our process. Rola is still struggling with questions about visa renewal and there other issues we had not counted on that are particular to each resident. Experiments come with unpredictability. 

Now one question you may have: what will change with the coming of residents with regards to the way we go about things? The answer is: essentially nothing. The residents will not be here to take over the duties of any volunteers. They will be there to learn and coming alongside. We want them to create new energy, not to replace the energy the Parkview family has already created; to open up new opportunities and connections, not dominate existing tasks. Some of their duties will therefore be outside of our congregation’s bounds.

Thank you for your continued support.May God bless our ministry. Aart

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Reflection April 24

Published on May 9, 2016 by in Misc., Reflections

John 13:34, 35; Acts 11: 9, 17, 18

What it boils down to

We have all boiled pasta from a package before.  The hard, cream-colored pieces almost seem like plastic.  Only a fool would try to eat it like that.  No, it needs to be dropped into boiling hot water and after it boils down it becomes edible.  We have all forgotten to heat up water before (at least I hope so) and we know that ground coffee or tea leaves or honey do not do what they are supposed to do when the water is cold.  It has to be boiling or nearly so.   But maybe that’s not exactly what we are looking for here. In the different dictionaries, “boiling down” originally means reducing (or condensing) bulk or elements by boiling.

In Acts Peter has a dream about edible things. He is told to eat them, but he refuses.  When you boil it down all those things are foods he as a good Jew is not supposed eat and as a good Jewish man he refuses.  But then in that dream he is told in so many words that of God does not consider those things profane, why should he?  When you boil it down, it isn’t about following dietary laws.  It is about something much greater: the power of the Holy Spirit.  So Peter’s faith overnight goes from becoming a faith of rules and laws to a faith of Spirit.  He sees things differently.  Friends, these images Peter has of food boil down to nothing. Faith is not about laws about food or anything else.  It is about love that comes through the Holy Spirit; when you boil it down. Of course we need commandments in faith, but none can ever be greater than the commandment to love God and others. This is what Jesus is making abundantly clear in the Gospel of John. Now returning to the passage in Acts, things become a little complicated because it also seems to be about Jews and non-Jews. What it boils down to friends is that He affirms once more that the new faith is no longer Judaism. It is a whole new world faith where everyone is included. You see what unites people in no longer the religious law, but the love that comes through the Holy Spirit. Again this is what Jesus is talking about.  Actually in a Christian perspective the whole Bible boils down to the Jesus who calls us to love.  For Christians Jesus is the prism through which the while Bible must be seen.

Friends, let’s talk about Prince. Actually I can’t.  I know nothing about him other than what I have learned in the last several days. I was living in Asia when he was at his most popular. But the other day it felt more like I had been on another planet.  I could not have identified a Prince song even if my life depended on it.  I had to get from news shows what he and his music were all about.  They boiled it down for me.  I found out he was a few years younger than me, that he was from Minneapolis and never really left there, that he could play almost any instrument, that he battled with the powerful record companies and that you could never pin him down. His identity seemed to be elusive. Extreme creativity and freedom seem to be what he was most about. He was so creative that he could bring together many genres of music and as a result his fans were a mixture of races and ages and economic levels.   Even they could not be defined.

Friends, we have just seen Peter boiling down what is important to the brand new Church.  We have just heard Jesus boil down what the new Christians will be measured by: how they love one another.  Earlier we tried to boil down the life of well known people, but found that it was hard to do. In the light of this, what does your life boil down to? How would others boil it down?  Now, let me make it clear, this is not about image.  It is who and how you really are.  Two weeks we talked about the lives of Peter and Paul and how different they were and also so complicated and how it shed light on our own complexity.  Last week we talked about who the there is a tension between being a lamb and being a shepherd and how me need both to be wholehearted human beings.  Now if we through that in a big pot with all the things we say and what we do, what does it boil down to, friends?  There is so much that distracts us throughout our life, like: finding or not looking for a mate, financial security, family responsibilities, how well our children do in life and whether they are health and happy, the success of our careers, how well we appear in the eyes of others and above all the constant worrying we do about each and every one of those.  Each phase in our life seems to be preoccupied with one or the other.  So when we learn about mindfulness we realize it is a good thing: living in the moment as effectively and compassionately as we possibly can. However, friends, there is another layer to mindfulness and that is: at its core and beside all our worries, what is the deepest meaning and purpose that drives us, what does it all boil down to?  May God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit give us insight and vision.


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Reflection April 17

Published on May 9, 2016 by in Reflections

John 10:25,26,27,28; Revelation 7: 17

Between Lamb and Shepherd

Imagine you are a small farmer who rents from a landlord in ancient Israel or Palestine.  You work a few acres of rocky, infertile land in the hills. Rainfall is sparse. You have a few goats for milk, but no cows. The landlord has a few of those. You tend to two big fig trees and have a few rows of olive trees to work with. A few vines of grapes produce a minimum of grapes.  Other than nuts, your only source of protein are sheep.  Chickens are not your staple.  The kids in the family love the little lambs. They are cuddly, make funny noises and don’t mind being carried around.  So when your faith demands that it is time to sacrifice a lamb as a sign of your devotion to God, it is something very real to you. You are killing the family play mate on the altar, a playmate not old enough to be accepted pleasant meal for the children.  So when Christians talk to you of the concept of Jesus as the Lamb of God, you may contort you face in frown at first, but soon enough your face muscles will relax and the story will become real to you.

To us, however, friends, lamb brings associations of dishes we order occasionally at Middle Eastern restaurants.  The depth of the innocence and helplessness of the lamb does not really come to mind, so to us the image of the Lamb of God is one we accept, but does not reach us at much more than a digestive level.  I actually don’t even like the taste. But when it comes to shepherds, we can get the picture.  It’s not that far from Cowboy or Gaucho or Paniolo.  Lonely Basque and Peruvian sheepherders still roam the heights of Nevada we hear.   The shepherd’s role is clear.  So Jesus at the Good Shepherd (for there are bad ones) is acceptable to us.  We get it: we are the sheep and the lamb.  The shepherd has a staff with one end shaped to pull sheep in and the base to push them away to roam free.

Now our lectionary readings are a bit confusing for they force us to acknowledge to Jesus is both Lamb and Shepherd, both helpless, vulnerable and strong, protective. We are not used to thinking of Him in both those terms at the same time.  We are used to thinking in clear roles, because when people have clear roles it is easier to run families, companies, churches, armies and societies.  Is there some hapless mixed metaphor here?  How can someone be weak and strong at the same time, vulnerable and resolute? We don’t get it.

Plenty Coups was the chief of the Crow nation who helped his people survive the disappearance of the buffalo and the move onto the reservation. In a vision he heard a voice say that “he must be like the chickadee (a cute animal that is the state bird of Massachussetts and Maine and the provincial bird of New Brunswick)-listening, attentive, industrious, trusting, with a well-developed mind and body, tending to the work at hand.”  He decided he must lead his people to be “chickadee-people.” (Toronto Journal of Theology, Supplement I, 2015). But he didn’t tell them to be both Chickadee and Hawk. The role was clear.

Brenee Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston who focuses on human connection.  She is interested in learning which people are good at establishing belonging and expressing empathy.  After many interviews, and she talks about this in a TED talk, she concluded that vulnerability is important in establishing connection and belonging, that vulnerability also helped in showing empathy. Vulnerability is the ability and willingness to show our wounds and our weaknesses.   That was a surprise to her.  So if we take this to its logical conclusion we come to see that the Lamb which is vulnerable and the Shepherd who is strong need each other for us to become what she calls “wholehearted people” (Weavings, vol. 31, no.1). Perhaps this is what the text is showing us, friends.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Gloria Vanderbilt who is now 91 appeared together with her son, the journalist Anderson Cooper. They are each other’s only immediate remaining relatives.   Cooper said of his mother that she was not tough, but strong and that one thing he admired about her was that despite her many hardships she always remained vulnerable.  He presented it as if it were a key to her success.

So friends, Jesus is both Lamb and Shepherd, both the helpless one willing to be sacrificed on our behalf, but also The One Who looks out for us, pulling us in and pushing us along toward our work. Not one or the other, but both.  The two need each other for Jesus to be wholehearted. This is what we learn here.  We need to acknowledge both Lamb and Shepherd in us.  We cannot take care of others if we do not let others take care is us.  That is easier said and done I know. But if we are shepherds only of our loved ones and our friends and of those we are called to serve beyond those circles, we can become tired and resentful.  If we are lambs only, we become dependent and we become whiners. Not one, but both. We cannot always say : I am strong and you are weak so I will help you.” We can also not always say: “I am weak and you are strong so you must help me.” Just because we think those are the roles. Friends may we be wholehearted, allowing ourselves to become, both Lamb and Shepherd. Thanks be to God.




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Reflection April 10

Published on May 9, 2016 by in Reflections

John 21: 15, 16, 17; Acts 9:3,4

Between Peter and Paul

Dear friends,

What do you think of the following:  “There are two kinds of people, those who make your life easy and those who make your life hard;…., those who finish what they start and so on. — Robert Byrne …those who do the work and those who take the credit. He (my grandfather) told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition. — Indira Gandhi; …… — those who love and build and those who hate and destroy. — Jose Marti; … the ones that suck the life out of every day, and the ones that let every day suck the life out of them. — ; and.. those who want this country for themselves and those who want it for everyone. — Bill Purdin. … some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.– Robert Frost; ….. those who go ahead and do something, and those who sit still and inquire, ‘Why wasn’t it done the other way?’ — Oliver Wendell Holmes. …: those who love to talk, and those who hate to listen. — James Thorpe; ..those who walk into a room and say, “There you are” — and those who say, “Here I am!” — Abigail Van Buren; There are THREE  kinds of people in the world: those who can’t stand Picasso, those who can’t stand Raphael, and those who’ve never heard of either of them. — John White; … the have’s, the have-not’s, and the have-not-paid-for-what-they-have’s. — Earl Wilson; …. 1. Those who make things happen, 2. Those who watch things happen, 3. And those who wonder what’s happening. – Anonymous; ….. those that are immovable, those that are movable and those that move; — Benjamin Franklin; And then there are “four kinds”s of people.. ..cop-outs, hold-outs, drop-outs, and all-outs. “– Robert Schuller.

Friends, that list went on for quite a while. I wanted to make a point. This is how we humans are often programmed to think.   But I left out one….those who divide people into two types and those who don’t ,” Edward A. Murphy.  Let’s be honest, when we hear this list we thought:”yeah, that’s right. “ At least with a number of them. And that’s because there is SOME truth in them.

We have talked about Peter and Paul.  We have talked about complex their personalities were.  Where would they fit in each of those typologies?  It’s not that easy is it.  Or let me ask you: “where would you fit in?  You know yourselves pretty well, but even that’s not that easy.  It’s because we are complicated. We bring our personality, our personal history, our upbringing and the experiences of one day and what it has done to us and we act or do not act, we speak or do not speak.  And when someone pegs us as a certain type, we protest and we say:”that wasn’t really me. That was an exception.” Peter is the beloved disciple, the rock, both in Aramaic as in Greek.  He was passionate, sincere, cowardly, but died a hero’s death in Rome, supposedly crucified upside down. His faith was great and it was puny. He loved Jesus deeply, but he also betrayed Him.  He was a towering figure with glaring flaws.  Paul was tireless and tenacious in everything he did: persecute Christians and make converts.  He was articulate and humble, insecure and boastful.  He was Roman and Jew and a native of present day Turkey.  He did all his work at great cost to himself without ever having met Jesus in person.  Perhaps in response to my description, each would have said: ”that wasn’t really me. That was an exception.”

Friends, what makes us want to have a simplistic picture of people? Why do we have such a simplistic view of ourselves? The people who love us the most or who are closest to us can tell give us the full picture we don’t want to see.  The reality is that we all want some credit but we seldom want it all the time.  The reality is that sometimes we are ready to move and sometimes we are immovable. The reality is that the people who make our life easy can also be the one who make our life hard. The reality is that sometimes people are willing to work and sometimes they are not.  Seldom are all people lazy all the time.

Friends I like to think that who we are is like a jagged mosaic, not a glossy touched up picture. There are these uneven, sharp edged pieces of glass of different thickness and in varying colors.  They are pieces of who we are and who we have been.  We never quite put them together perhaps, but they exist in a panel of who we are, a small red piece next to a large blue piece etc. This is the true picture of who we are: this jagged panel, haphazardly glued together.  But you know what, when you hold that panel, and none is alike, up to the light, it creates a special, unique quality of light.  Peter is richer to us because of all the jagged pieces, some shoved in the corner and Paul is more meaningful to us because of his complexity.  The light of God’s grace through their lives has a unique quality. This is true of us also.  So, friends, when you look at yourselves, see the whole picture.  When you look at others you meet, see all of the light. May God give us vision.


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Reflection April 3

Published on May 9, 2016 by in Reflections

John 20: 24, 25, 26; Acts 5: 27,28

Shaky church

Dear friends,

I believe that we need an acceptance of God’s grace to compensate for inherent shakiness as believers. I once read that the famous British philosopher who was an atheist was asked how he would defend himself if he were to face God.  He claimed he would say:”You didn’t give us enough evidence!”  Russell wanted evidence before having faith.  Thomas, our doubting disciple, wants evidence that Jesus is alive by seeing and touching the wounds of the cross. Otherwise the whole thing is shaky.  In fact what his shaky is his faith. Rather we could say that he doesn’t understand what faith really is.  It is the conviction of something for which no evidence is readily available?  The great mystic monk Thomas Merton once said:” Faith is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven-it is not merely the acceptance of a decision that has been made by somebody else.” (The Opiniator-The Store- Richard Irwin/ New York Times-“God is a question, not an answer,” March 26, 2016).   Friends, sometimes we are too shaky to make that judgment without the proof we want.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on Thomas.  After the crucifixion and even after Jesus is no longer physically present with the disciples He nurtured, the church (which really wasn’t considered a church but a movement) was on very shaky ground.  It was in the hands of a few uneducated fishermen and low skill laborers. How could it go anywhere?  How did it then become the most widely spread institution in world history?

In Acts we are further along.  Pentecost has happened. The disciples have encountered the Holy Spirit, but they are in trouble with the authorities.  It is less an issue of shaky faith and more an issue of shaky power.  This group has no power and influence. They are not well connected.  They have to defy authority to preach the Good News of Jesus. Like so many groups they could be banned.  The church is still very much shaky.  As it then spreads in the coming years through the Roman world that shakiness remains.

Friends, in the past few weeks I have been working on building an enclosure in the back yard.  It takes calculating and visits to home Depot for three way post connectors and posts and planks and asking lots of questions. It is taking shape now, but it’s still shaky.  What I have learned is that once you start varying the lengths of the posts to compensate for uneven terrain, there are a whole range of other problems that can ensue and for which you then have to compensate again. Anyway math was never my strong suit.

Friends, when we see the great Cathedrals of the Western world that have stood for as much as eight hundred years, we ask ourselves how could anything be more solid and lasting?  Yet the church is shaky.  It is shaky in countries where the powers are allied to other religions. It is shaky in the Middle East, under siege from terrorism. It is shaky in the developing world in the midst of corruption and poverty.  It is the shaky in the West as it is undermined by consumerism and rigid fundamentalism.  In fact the church as the institution Jesus would have approved of is always shaky.

The key is God’s grace.  Look at this church. It’s a good building, designed quite well and it has stood for seventy five years.  When a building, especially a wooden building, gets that old, things go wrong.  And just the otherwise the heater in my office went out. That is understandable. It is an unknown brand and it has functioned for fifteen years.  If it isn’t one thing it’s another.  If that is true of the church as a building, it is true of the church as a community of people.  You have heard me say it before. Sometimes there is friction or a lack of energy and things look shaky for the future. Then sometimes a spirit comes out of nowhere connecting with God’s Holy Spirit.  Whenever I think I preach well, it has often fallen flat. Whenever I thought I swung and missed, it has often struck a chord.  It is the presence of God’s grace that is the necessary element and the humility that this is not our handiwork. We can only be open and ready to work.

Friends, there is a shakiness about Thomas and a shakiness about the apostle Peter. There is a shakiness to the disciples and to the early church. There has been a shakiness to the church ever since and there is a shakiness even today.  There is also God’s grace that can make people defy corrupt authorities and drive them to acts of incredible courage.  Friends, there is a shakiness to all of us, in our bones, in our muscles, in our nerves, in our emotions, our will and in our reasoning.  Shakiness all around.  Shakiness as a given.  It’s good for the supplements industry I suppose, all of us peppering ourselves with vitamins.  But there can be strength in shakiness, for once we realize there is so much we can do to shore ourselves up, there is God’s grace saying:”there is something I want you to do, something I want you to try, something I want you to strive for and when you do you will feel yourself straighten and gain strength!”  Thanks be to God. Amen.




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Coach’s Corner

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

From Mission to Vision

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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


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Reflection March 27

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

Easter;  Luke 24: 5 -12

Who is Mr. Banks?

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

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

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

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




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Reflection March 20

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

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

Celebrity status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflection March 13

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

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

What is your reference point?

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

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

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

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

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Reflection March 6

Published on April 1, 2016 by in Reflections

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

Citizens or ambassadors

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

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

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

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

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

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