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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Living in the Law of God

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
- Psalm 1:3

The psalm singer is pointing out the rewards of the virtuous, those who follow the law. The law is the law of God and the Bible talks about the law of God in some distinct ways. 

There are the laws of myth, where trees, birds, night and day follow the word of God. Note that everything follows this kind of law, e.g., "Let there be light!" except for Adam and Eve who in choosing to do what they please have not considered how God will feel about it or the consequences.

There are the laws that aren't spelled out but were apparently obvious to God who in Genesis 6 is grieved "to his heart" at the wickedness of people. Later, some laws will be spelled out and the first ten are pretty memorable. Those commandments multiplied over time (613!) and it is likely that these are "the law" that the psalmist was thinking of. Then there is the distillation of all the law that I, probably like you, first encountered in a couple of public conversations Jesus had a few centuries afterwards.

Deuteronomy 6 - You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Leviticus 19 - Love your neighbor as yourself.

The variation of divine law that has been most powerful for me is found in John 15, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." 

These words are spoken by Jesus and, so, in order to figure out what this kind of loving one another would look like, one has to study Jesus, imagine Jesus, use Jesus, invite Jesus, challenge Jesus, grieve Jesus, hope Jesus, and, as our communion liturgy sometimes says, "allow oneself to be loved by Jesus."

Another way to say this is that one has to live in the presence of that which transcends our lives, that which is divine.

I just want to emphasize that in all things that we do, I hope that you and I are operating in an ancient context of myth, story, commandments, arguments, song, prayer, praise, and lived experience of the holy. It is that sense of the virtuous life, that sense of following the law which I commend to you. It is in living that way that we become like the trees the psalmist held up, nourished by streams of living water, bearing fruit in our season. 

Peace and Blessing,

Monday, March 30, 2015

Open to the new thing happening even if it is not so simple

For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. - Matthew 7:14

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5, the writer places Jesus on "the mountain" where he begins to teach. The next few chapters contain some of the most moving and important parts of Jesus' ministry and ours. "You are the light of the world." "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." "Pray then in this way: Our Father, …." They also contain a few chestnuts, like the one quoted above from chapter 7. Perhaps you will recognize it a little differently if you read it from an earlier translation, "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." That's right. This is the source of our ideas about sticking to "the straight and narrow."

Is this important in your life?

Maybe it is not. Maybe you would never try to live a "narrow" life. After all, you are no Puritan!

Finding the one set of lessons from parents, lessons from your faith tradition, lessons from school, from literature, from culture, from philosophy, from history can be complex and incomplete. In response to the complexity, some of us collapse the whole problem and grab onto something simpler. Because we've grabbed on, we also have to claim that we've chosen correctly. If you've followed this path, you may find relief from the difficulty of complex and incomplete rules to stay on the straight and narrow. You may also have a tendency to dismiss or denigrate other sets of rules; dismiss or denigrate those who follow truth that is not the truth you have chosen.


Don't do this.

The faith tradition I claim in the United Church of Christ, is one that tends to broadening and deepening – not one that tends to narrowing and completeness. We look to all those sources for inspiration and guidance I mentioned above and we remain open to God who is still speaking, still creating.

Biblical examples are often told to show how the most faithful, the great paragons of our faith story, were true to their root story, their covenant. To read some modern works based on this concept is to read how a church can't go wrong if it emulates the practices of the early church, revealed in the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul and his ilk to the new Christian communities of the eastern Mediterranean. Or one can read how if a modern church leader or pastor will just follow the leadership lessons of Moses, then all will be well. Also, in this style of narrative, Jesus makes no mistakes and God is perfect.

That's not what the Bible says, though. The early (and later) churches twisted away from the teaching of Paul & Co. Paul himself got a number of things completely wrong. Moses stumbled, David did vile things, and in a couple of instances, Jesus was, shall we say, a little slow on the uptake. …and there's that whole divine "oops" called the flood where God ended up having to promise never to do that again. What the stories really capture is how God is open to us and our positive and destructive twists and turns. God remains engaged with us in this complicated life. The people who told all those stories in the Bible made sure that we would see that even a powerful prophet like Elijah would visit despair and that there, in the midst of despair, God remained engaged. God did not leave Elijah alone.

That is what forgiveness looks like. In practical terms, forgiveness is remaining engaged with someone when there's every reason to turn away. That's who God is in these stories; the one who stays, the one who is there.

That, beloved, is the way you are called to be as well.

No, it is not always possible for you or me to forgive. You should make no mistake about it though, it is what God is hoping for from us, it is what Jesus recommended to us, it is the true north of our moral compass.

Let our longing be to find a way to live life that is connected to the deepest meanings of life. Take up this compass and head on out!

Friday, March 06, 2015

By the Oaks of Mamre and Your Front Door

Dear Ones,


He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, 'My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.' –Genesis 18:2-5a


I have always been charmed by stories of travelers in certain parts of the world who encounter hospitality in ordinary households. I hear some recurring themes in these stories. The visitor is shown to the most comfortable place to sit, be it a nice chair or the better pile of skins. There is some bustling around, perhaps the assembly of something to eat or the heating of a pot of water for tea or coffee. Conversation is pleasant as both host and visitor without anxiety allow the time to grow and flower in conviviality. The food and drink are served and more pleasantness is sustained. At some point, the talk turns to whatever business has brought this meeting into being.

The fascinating and inspiring book of a few years ago "Three Cups of Tea" drew its title from the measurement of that point at which conversation could turn more purposeful in some households of Pakistan.

Have you encountered a practice like this yourself?

Do you have a habitual way that you handle visits, perhaps learned when you were little? I confess that I don't. I kind of make it up on the fly. It depends on who the visitor is, what else I'm doing, is this an expected visit or a drop-in, the time of day, and, perhaps most importantly, what the purpose of the visit is. I don't necessarily have to get down to business right away, but often enough, that's the most significant aspect of the visit for me and the strongest determinant for what hospitality I will offer.

That is very different from the stories of hospitable hosts that I find so charming.

Where does my habit come from? Where does yours? Do you consider your habits of hospitality to be Christian?

With that last question, you can hear me asking whether your habits mimic the practices of Jesus. We have very few images of Jesus' example or idea of hospitality as such. One that we should remember, of course, is the Breakfast on the Beach, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 21. Another story is the powerful moment, when in response to the query, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?" in Matthew 25, Jesus shared this startling and eternal insight, "…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

Do you root your practice of hospitality in those stories?

I am asking another question too. Are your personal habits of hospitality informed or drawn from the rich history of hospitality in Christian communities, such as churches, such as homes? Some of these are revealed in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters at the back of the Bible. Consider this instruction from The Letter to the Hebrews, in Chapter 13, "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

The anonymous author of this book of the Bible is referring to the story excerpted at the beginning of this Note. That story is about Abraham, who is sitting outside the tent where he and Sarah are resting.

That story is the foundation of Christian hospitality, of Jewish hospitality, and, it turns out, of Islamic hospitality. The Pakistanis whose practice included those three cups of tea? Their cultural practice of hospitality is instructed by the hospitality of Islam. That hospitality of theirs is further illustrated by a story about one of Islam's heroes.


Abu Talha welcomed a hungry traveler into his home even though there was very little to eat. So he instructed his wife Umm Sulaim to bring whatever provisions they had and give it to the guest. As the guest ate his fill, these two devout Muslims pretended to eat in the dim candlelight.


Perhaps we should have a conversation about what practices we think are best, most welcoming, most nourished by the tradition we claim, and most holy. Holy? Why holy you ask? Well, here is the first line of Genesis 18, omitted earlier. It is a good verse to memorize today!


The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. – Genesis 18:1


Peace and Blessing,



Saturday, February 14, 2015

Finding Strength in Winter

Dear Ones,

In the human struggle to understand the nature of truth, winter has landed in New England. There is no falsehood in the depth of snow I see outside my window, or yours I suspect. From one perspective, the snow just is. "The Teacher," the voice we hear in the book of Ecclesiastes, might regard the snow and the cold with wisdom's gimlet eye. The snow is neither good nor bad, it is just what is there.
How about you?
A ramble through the internet encounters reasons why people say winter is not just winter – winter is a drag. Here's a list:
Winter is cold, dark, one is trapped indoors, there is snow shoveling, hazardous driving, slush of uncertain depth, winter seems to last forever, walkways are slippery, nature looks dead, New England heating costs, chapped, heavy clothes, and banging heat pipes.
Then there is a list of why winter is excellent. Consider:
Winter air is crisp, sunrises are viewable at a civilized hour, skiing, sledding, tubing, etc., hot chocolate, quilts, snow days, no mosquitos, poison ivy, ticks, or grass mowing, winter has much of Advent and Lent and all of Christmas, cozy clothing, snow on trees, snow on houses, snow on mountains, snow sculptures, snow falling.
How does it change our experience of this day and tomorrow to see winter as the second list rather than the first? Both lists contain truth so this question is not about what is true or "truer." My question for you, beloved, is about how you let various truths live in your speaking, your emotional response through a winter's day, and your prayers at morning and evening.
Perhaps, pastor is here advocating the theology of Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Parker's optimistic heroine in her bestselling 1913 book of the same name? Maybe. Or perhaps I am suggesting that you observe, as Masha says in Anton Chekov's 1901 play, "The Three Sisters," that, "Happy people don't notice whether it is winter or summer."  Well, no, I would rather you notice winter (and summer when it is summer.) No, I am not trying to judge you or give you cause to judge yourself for the way you approach winter. I have something else in mind.
I am advocating your morning and evening prayers; that you stick to them, never missing a day. And here is a way you can try to pray your way through winter. First, accept the challenge of praying daily, when you wake up and when you are about to close your eyes to sleep at night. Second, make it your intention to summon or acknowledge or provisionally accept that you are praying in the realm of the holy. You can even say to yourself, "Okay, now I'm orienting myself to the holy, toward God, in the direction of what means most to me." This is one of the reasons people get down on their knees, put their hands together, and bow their heads. It is a purposeful act to enter the outside and inside posture of prayer – even if for you it feels silly or "just an act." Do it anyway.
Third, review what you have seen of life since you last prayed. Look outward to the people you have encountered, the events, and the weather too! You are looking at the truth of life. 
Fourth, look inward at how you feel about those things and if you are anxious or grieving or puzzled or angry or whatever, let yourself name those feelings and see the truth that way. Tighten. Lament.
Fifth, look again and find your feelings of joy or humor or pleasure or accomplishment and let yourself see the truth that way. Open. Honor.
Finally, say, "Amen," and move on to your day or your sleep. Let me know how it goes if you like.
I have the feeling, or at least the hope, that this simple practice of prayer will realign you, return you to yourself, and make winter winter again. I have the certainty that the source of all we know and see, the infuser of life and grace, will be strengthened by your practice – and then you will feel how strengthened you have been in return.

Peace and Blessing,
Pastor Brad

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


"… and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them." Luke 4:40

Have you unplugged from Christmas?  What's that mean to you?  What stories do you tell at Christmas that you don't tell at the beginning of February?  I'm not suggesting that you should be telling stories about shepherds and annunciations and leading stars.  I'm just wondering if you have been able to keep the best impulses of Christmas alive in your life thus far into the new year.

One of those Christmastime impulses led a bunch of us to go caroling in December.  In case you haven't heard that story, here's one part of it.

Terri Taylor is attending Andover Newton Theological School and one of her classmates is now a chaplain in Wrentham at the Wrentham Developmental Center, a community for adults with developmental disabilities.  Chaplain Liz Brimm invited us to come caroling.  We went in three or four carloads!  The building we visited had two apartments on each of four floors.  Each apartment was home to three to five adults and each apartment had three or four professional caregivers.  Few of the residents speak or move easily.  The apartments were warm and decorated for the season.

We were a little shy and a lot curious.  I was certainly curious.  The "cottages" of which we were visiting one are the remnants of the state school at Wrentham where people with certain disabilities were housed, put away.  That history is not ancient or happy.  So I, at least, felt the weight of that history and felt some tension about our visit.

We were greeted and ushered into the first apartment where our first sight was a woman in a wheelchair with wide eyes and strong, gesticulating arms.  As we shuffled into the apartment, we kind of hung together – mostly because we were looking for where to stand to sing our carols – except for Susan Spaulding.  Susan walked right over to the (somewhat startling looking) woman in the wheel chair and took her hand and said, "Hello, dear, hello!"

I'd like to tell you that the woman calmed right down or that all the people we saw that afternoon were healed, amused, or even knew we were there.  Well, no one began to walk suddenly or speak in full sentences and many of the residents seemed unaware of us.  But we sang a ton of songs in the cottage that afternoon and there were some folks joining in and smiling that we were there.  The staff seemed glad and that helped us grow bolder as we went apartment to apartment.  Some of us grew as bold as Susan and reached out a hand to hold a hand or touch a shoulder.

I don't mean to sentimentalize our caroling visit.  We sang some carols!  The apartments were warm and bright!  We were glad to go and we stuck with it through the entire building!  Clearly the residents are being cared for competently and kindly.  Chaplain Liz  said that, "There's nothing but love in this building."  We should go again!

I just wanted us all to remember that Jesus laid hands on people to heal them and just to make his presence tangible.  I also invite us to find gifts in each other and honor those gifts.  There are some of us who are not likely to use a keyboard to update a spreadsheet.  There are some of us who may be unlikely to sing a solo.  But each of us has moments when our gift of song, of conversation, of building repair, of crafting, of foam collecting, of garlic planting, or of approaching an intimidating/frightened stranger and reaching out to reassure and say, "Hello, dear, hello," makes our strength and gift clear.  So look for the gift in yourself, look for the gift in the people around you, and give thanks and praise to the one who gave us the gift and is giving still.


The story of Jonah is another Bible favorite! The reluctant prophet, the ship's crew in fear for their lives, a tempest, "man overboard!" a great fish, the prophet acquiesces, a land journey, a wicked city with a wicked ruler, a prophetic voice, a repentance and mending of ways, a temper tantrum, and a prank by the creator of the universe. Maybe you remember it as Jonah and the Whale. It's an epic tale and lends itself to child's drawings, costume dramas, puppet plays, and stained glass windows.

Which part of that story is about you? Is any part of that story like you or like part of your life?

Let me suggest a few places where you might see moments of your own journey in the journey of Jonah.

Have you felt compelled to take on an onerous or dangerous task? God compelled Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to shape up. Jonah really didn't want anything to do with such a fool's errand. The embarrassment would be huge. He clearly would have no effect on the wicked. His reputation as a prophet would go down the drain. It was a long and difficult journey. They might just throw him in jail, or worse. Jesus, faced with this kind of task, asked to be let off, although if that was not possible, he said he would complete his destiny. Jonah just got out of town.

How about this one? You might have realized that you were the one messing things up. Or you violated your relationship with someone; being too controlling, being unkind, losing your temper in a hurtful way, grabbing a moment of selfishness. Jonah knew that he was the one who was the cause of the tempest. He comes to a dramatic moment of truth, don't you think?

"He said to them, 'Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.'"

Have you ever given Jonah credit for this moment in the story? He will sacrifice himself for a bunch of strangers, people he just met. It is extraordinary! And then something else extraordinary happens. They refuse!

"Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them."

So, over he goes. Can you relate? Have you ever cast your fate upon the uncertain or dangerous path in a way from which there is no turning back? Or perhaps you can relate to what must have happened after he hit the water. Jonah knew he was finished. Nothing is stronger than an angry sea and he was right in the middle of it and beginning to sink. There are images stuck in my head from the end of the movie, A Perfect Storm. One is Bobby Shatford, played by Mark Wahlberg, who is overboard and floating. He is completely alone in the vastness. Another is Billy Tyne, played by George Clooney, who is still in his boat, underwater, staring up as all is lost. Have you been there beloved? Have you been in a place where there is no more help coming, no hope at all?

Then maybe you have found what Jonah found. Even in the most devastating, hopeless chaos, something comes swimming as if it owned the place. The great fish swims to the rescue and Jonah is saved. God's child, leviathan, whale, giant beast of the sea, water angel, comes and saves the drowning prophet.

When you are in the place of chaos and pain, beloved, may you find the very hand of God to hold you and see you through.