Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Your past makes a difference in how you face the future

In the past few weeks our little congregation has been seeing congregants who reap the fruits of decisions they have been making, little-by-little, over the course of their long lives, whether for good or ill. Some have put off making financial plans for the future. Some have neglected caring for the relationships of their families and friends. Some have difficulty facing the fact that we all will die.
It really does make a difference, those ways we choose to live, that benefit the future. Lives and communities are built up or torn down, small action by small action. Kindnesses done, or hurts nursed? What decisions are we putting off because we don't want to think about them? What choices are we making because we think that we can avoid death? Facing our future lives requires courage. And God is the one who alone holds the future.
When we acknowledge our limits and face the future with courage, grace can and does abound. Peace be with you.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Little Church with Big Mission suffered the loss of one of its iconic marks last week. The large tree that graced its front door collapsed. The weight of its canopy couldn't be sustained by the hollowed out trunk whose inside rot became apparent when it was exposed. As a result, the front door has a lot more sun, and we can see more clearly inside and out. No one was hurt and no property damage occurred, except for some of the azalea shrubbery and another plantings in the area. The large machinery necessary to cut up and haul away the huge branches couldn't help but trample the ground. Some parishioners are mourning the fact that we couldn't harvest the wood for other uses. We Presbyterians are a frugal bunch and don't like to see anything go to waste. It's our Scot heritage.
Now we have to face our loss and look to what opportunities are in front of us. The large empty trunk is now a focal point of the circular drive garden. It's beautiful in its own way. What is God inviting us to see here now? A huge jagged edge flower pot? A pedestal? What possibilities abound for re-planting in the spot? The space is now wide open, just like the future of the church.
Losses are often catalysts for re-imagination. I don't have any doubt that the Little Church gardeners will replant with gusto. They all care deeply about the environment, the beauty of the church settings and they are all amazingly good gardeners, in service to a Master Gardener--the heavenly one.
The message of the Cross is simple: what looks like a tragedy is not the end of the story. The resurrection of Jesus is God's message to the world that life triumphs over death.  It's our hope and life. Let's get busy replanting!
the tree prays

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Rotting from the Inside Out

I don't know how long big tree has stood in front of the "little church with a big mission." It had grown huge, with a trunk diameter close to 5 or 6 feet. On the day I returned from Charlottesville VA, it collapsed. A quick acting elder arranged for the huge pile of debris to be cut up and removed. The fallen trunk exposed the open decaying center. It was obvious that the trunk had rotted on the inside and couldn't any longer hold the weight of branches. Over the past nine or ten years, large limbs had been trimmed to reduce the weight of the canopy and prevent them from falling on people or property. That proved too little too late. What prophet or pastor could overlook the spiritual metaphors! A hollowed out core of any organism cannot withstand violence.
In Charlottesville I met with pastors who had had their own moral core tested by the white supremicists and neo-nazi groups assembled in that town to instill fear. The clergy, clearly calling upon their moral cores (and corps!) of faith, stood up to the threats, but they were shaken. Confronting violence with peace and resilience was what they had trained for. Many didn't realize the toll it would take on them, including the tragedy of three deaths. The communities of faith in Charlottesville hold together so far, but the events of last weekend will not be easily forgotten, nor should they be.
Many in the church continue to struggle with the legacy of racism that we all inherit and that still benefits our European-descended churches. If we don't confront our own inner spiritual rot it's only a matter of time before the arc of justice bends to cut us down. Will we learn from the tree?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Speaking Up and Out

Two messages in my email today. One from a clergy group in my county, the other from the staff of my church's collective governance folks, both responding to the violence in our state, in Charlottesville. The whole incident has me dismayed, at the lack of leadership displayed by so many, maybe even by me. This is a call to all of us to speak up and speak out.  Good words are not hard to find. Here are some:

"The images of the violence in Charlottesville – physical as well as ideological – remind the Church that there is work that needs to be done.  The sin of racism is not new, nor does this pervasive form of idolatry exist solely outside the church.
As followers of the Christ, let us be clear where we stand.  We are all formed in the image of God.  The Confession of Belhar calls us to remember that we are to be ‘the salt of the earth and the light of the world’, therefore, as a Presbytery, let us be that beacon of light.  Encouraging one another to live into a ‘new obedience’ we urge our member churches in both word and deed to actively confront racism that exists in our pews, and our communities. " 

I'm proud to stand with the church of Jesus Christ on this one.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Newsfeed or Good News?

Facebook Prayer
I've given up Facebook. I started this Facebook fast at Lent, and haven't been back, except to see some of my son's posts on his own site about the business he's in--3D printing. Since most of my Lent time would have been away from internet connectivity anyway, I stopped visiting this social media site on the 1st of February. It's been a big revelation to me, how much of my time was spent in reading my "newsfeed"--the cumulative activities of all my 300+ Facebook 'friends.' It's a time I've recaptured for prayer, before bedtime and upon waking up.
Still I'm torn. Many of my clergy colleagues are habitual posters and I've missed seeing what they're up to. However, for me, it was too easy to substitute looking at their newsfeeds for personal contact, and to fool myself into thinking we had a real relationship. We didn't. It's a lot harder to invest in real people and takes a lot more time.
My sabbatical time gave me lots to think about the time involved in investing in real contact with real people. Just knowing about someone's activity is a poor substitute for a real relationship.
So it is with God. Sometimes I think that our bible study can be a substitute for a real relationship with God. It's the default position for us intellectual types that we read the bible like God's newsfeed--a kind of long description--so we don't really have to spend time with Godself. How odd! Back at work this week, I'm prioritizing contact with real people and the real God who doesn't want us to be lonely.  That's the Good Newsfeed I need for today.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Venice April 3&4

What an end to our cruise! Empires of the Mediterranean, indeed.
By the end of our two days in Venice, I am now understanding more about how the shape of ancient Western civilization has led to our own. This was a big picture learning for me. I have both a new appreciation for the Venetian empire and some new examples of civil religion run amok.
When I was first learning about the religion of Ancient Greece (and subsequently Rome) it was easy to dismiss the society as "pagan" i.e. unenlightened. But in the religion of the Venetian Empire which was Christian, I found a fascinting example: the Christian appropriation of ancient Greece's civil religion. It was as if the Venetians picked up the religion that Greece had formed and translated its symbols into Christian ones. The stories that Venice told about itself were clothed in the iconography of Christendom and served to justify their accumulation of wealth and power for over 1,000 years.
When I put together a presentation about this trip, I will use that thesis to tie it together.
The wealth of Venice is amazing. Even in its decrepit current state it is easy to imagine its former glory. Our boat tour of the grand canal took us by palace after palace, all built by the people who ran the interlocking structures of religion, government, and business. It was all the same thing. That accumulation of wealth and power was no accident, but a well-honed structure designed for stability and control. The unifying figure of the doge--elected for a lifetime by an incredibly complex process--was simultaneously the head of the church, the government, and the economy. An even more complex system of rules and protocols kept him from exploiting that concentration of power too much. In this way, the Venetians constructed a society that lasted from the 9th to the 19th centuries.
It was an amazing accomplishment. Yet, included within it, were the seeds of its own destruction, as with all empires. We who live within the succeeding empire of the Western world should take heed, lest we think our own empire can last forever.
In any case, Venice was an amazing place to experience. After checking into the hotel, we took the hotel water taxi to St. Mark's square and did some exploring on our own. I tried to find the shop where I remembered purchasing a set of crystal wine glasses over 40 years ago. There were many beautiful shops selling expensive glassware as well as lots of other luxury items, but I couldn't find the one I remembered. The square was mobbed with people, including lots of school groups again. We did a bit of shopping, and then ducked into St. Mark's cathedral. We did not have to pay to visit the main chancel, but did pay to see the reliquary, the area containing the most valued saints relics and gifts to the church from centuries of pilgrims who offered their prized objects to the doge's church--gold cups and plates, reliquaries containing parts of saints' bodies. The lateness of our start meant that we had to plan for a next day of sight seeing. Rol did a really smart thing and bought us a full day's worth of experiences for the next day: a gondola ride, a guided tour of St. Mark's and the Doges' Palace, and a guided boat ride along the Grand Canal.
The gondola ride, put us into a traffic jam of gondolas weaving in and out of narrow canal spaces between buildings. I even recorded some gondoliers' singing. Ours didn't sing, but he warned us to sit still and not move about the boat. He steered and pushed with his oar and sometimes his feet pushed off buildings on the side. Every building is on a water front on at least one side, and the most important buildings are along the Grand Canal. We met up with some folks we had seen on the cruise, and had some snacks and coffee before seeing St. Mark's again (with a guide, this time) and the Doges' Palace, now a museum. Both of these buildings and their contents told the story of the way the Venetian Empire was maintained with the aid of Christian symbolism. They were decorated with stories from the bible, but definitely built to impress. St. Mark's holds the purported body of Mark, the evangelist, stolen from Alexandria Egypt by Venetian merchants who brought it back to Venice to "protect" it from Muslim raiders in 832. It lies under the altar, where it has been protected ever since. Hence the whole church is the reliquary. It is decorated with stories to tell the Christian gospel, from the Hebrew scriptures and stories to the Gospels and the Book of Revelation.
In the Doges' Palace, we saw art collections and items to take your breath away. In one room, a whole collection of coins, coins minted by centuries of Venice's economy. But a small collection of coins seem to have come from 1st century Palestine.
One was a coin from the Roman empire, with Caesar's image on the front. I can imagine that a powerful nobleman from Venice had it in his collection, and used it to illustrate Jesus' answer to the religious authorities in Jerusalem in the Temple: "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
Jesus answered, "Whose image is on that coin?" The image on the coin says that it belongs to Caesar. The image on a human being is the image of God. So render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God, what belongs to God. Other amazing sights: reconstructed apartments of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Elizabeth, the same "Sissi" who had constructed the resort home that we visited on Corfu; an 18th century library with bookshelves, precious volumes and a large globe; samples of all kinds of luxury goods from Venetian merchants from the 10th to the 19th centuries. The collection is so vast and so varied, that I can imagine centuries of museum curators' working to preserve the items and catalog them.
After our overwhelming walk through the Doges' Palace, we had one more amazing tour--a narrated ride along the Grand Canal, where more sights and displays demanded our attention. Writing about all the things we saw would take up more time than I have to describe. Suffice it to say that the cumulative wealth is still amazing. We strolled some more around the area of the secretive shipyards, where the Venetians protected their shipbuilding expertise by hiding it. The compound is a navy installation now.
The hotel that we'd been staying in is a converted pasta factory. It is on the Guidecca island, across from the main area of the city. The next day, we took another water taxi to the airport for our flight to London.  From there, I would be going on to Scotland while Rol returned home.
[Note: I'm finally posting this near the end of my sabbatical, April 24, on events that happened near the beginning of the month.]

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Final Day, April 2 in Koper Slovenia

[Posting note: The ship has had very slow internet connections and so I am posting several days' worth of notes all at once.]
A very smooth ride last night brought us to our final port of call, the town of Koper in Slovenia, our third country of the six making up the former Yugoslavia. This is an amazing set of circumstances: who would have thought ten years ago that we might visit these countries and not be able to visit Turkey. This itinerary was supposed to have started in Istanbul. When we booked it nearly 18 months ago, we thought to start there, and were disappointed that Viking changed the route to start in Athens. But there are so many amazing sights to see wherever we go.
Koper is another port city, the only port in Slovenia which has an Adriatic coastline of only about 30km. The port is both for passengers and freight and the Viking Sky pulled up right next to the freight port.
Since this was our last day, we confined our excursion to a brief guided walk in town. As this was Sunday morning, it was a busy day on the waterfront with many people and families out taking advantage of the weekend sunshine.
Koper was once an island and walled by the Venetians, of course. It used to be called "Goat Island" and a person in a goat costume met the passengers on the dock. Because it is the northernmost of the south Slavic countries, Slovenia also has influences from Hungary and Austria. Triest, Italy, is right around the corner and the town of Koper speaks two official languages--Slovenian and Italian.
Our guide was a bit unsure of her English, and apologized for groping for a few of her words. She was charming, though, and also a native Slovenian. Someone asked about Melania Trump, whether people were proud of her. She answered "It depends on who you ask."  Good answer! She told us that she lived in the country nearby, with her husband and a rescue dog. They are renovating a house that is more than 200 years old and want to live close to nature and simply. She said that Slovenians like the outdoors and are fortunate to live in a county where within the same day you can go skiing and scuba diving.
She led us through the main square of town, with a bell tower on the church with bells cast in the 14th c. They were striking the hour as we arrived. Not many of the town shops were open, but several cafes expecting tourists were open. Our guide took us to a shop that specialized in sea salt and we partook freely of the samples of salted chocolate.
After leaving the rest of the group, Rol and I strolled around the old town, had some refreshments and admired the waterfront activity, including the cleanliness of the water. We watched all the families with children on their roller blades and scooters and bikes, and heard Italian being spoken. This waterfront on a sunny Sunday was clearly the place to be. This waterfront had a beach of sorts, but without sand, just stones. It was too cold for people to be in the water yet, but the shore was equipped with a swimming pier, changing rooms and playground equipment, and clean!
Since this was our last day aboard ship, we decided to take it easy in the afternoon, except for a tour of the ship's bridge. It was a techie's dream place. Our cabin has been right below the bridge on the port side and every once in a while we've been able to look up and wave from our balcony at some of the crew. Rol took advantage of a final rest on the balcony today.  On to Venice tomorrow!