Waiting, looking for hope

Advent greetings friends,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written.  Lots and lots going on including selling my house (not for the faint of heart!).

Advent this year finds us standing in difficult and unsure times.  As I write this, I’m listening to a podcast from the new Facebook group Make Advent Great Again.  (Yes, that name is intentional.)

Make Advent Great Again

Folks are gathering in that group from around the world, all of us seeking community as we strive to keep Advent.  The podcast is offering suggestions for staying grounded in the divine as we journey to Bethlehem, albeit in our 21st-century context.  It’s also exploring Advent texts and concepts via questions submitted by group members to the moderators.

The moderators are John Pavlovitz, pastor and author of A Bigger Table, Tripp Fuller of HomeBrewed Christianity, and Mike Morell, co-author with Fr. Richard Rohr of The Divine Dance.  Yeah, they need a female voice.  Next year?

As I’ve been revising my resume, searching for a call, I’ve decided to do additional reflections that will be made available to congregations.  The first question in that set of reflections asks what you do to prepare for your ministry each day.  And so through this Advent season, I want to offer suggestions of places and practices that have offered me good and healthy space for preparation to enter daily into both the pain and the hope of this world.

And each week, I’ll also supply a link to the Advent meditations I created a few years ago.

Today, I offer to you an app that I learned about from Bp. Jim Hazelwood of the ELCA New England Synod, called Headspace.  Here is the website, with links to download the app:  Headspace

It’s free and offers lots of meditations for a variety of time slots and situations.  I participated in one 10-minute time with other church leaders at a conference and found it to be a great tool.

For the first week in Advent, here is my Advent Meditation #1:  Among the Poor

May your Advent journey be one of peace, prayer, and promise.


Mattress Mack and the Art of Welcome

“Welcome!  Come on in!”

My pastor told a story this past Sunday about the furniture dealer who opened his showrooms to evacuees from Hurricane Harvey.  It sounded too good to be true.

So I checked out ‘Mattress Mack’ – Jim McIngvale, who runs the Gallery Furniture chain in the greater Houston area.  I was surprised to learn that these stores carry high-end furniture and mattress lines.  I had made an assumption that because he makes wacky TV commercials, he sold lower-end goods.  I couldn’t have been more wrong; I think he just likes to have fun!

As the storm hit Houston, Mattress Mack sent his delivery trucks out to go find folks who were stranded with nowhere to go and no hope.  He told his drivers to bring them back to his stores, where he threw open the doors and welcomed them warmly.  Mattress Mack stands against a lot of assumptions when he says “this is just what you do.”  He also mirrors more than one passage of Scripture.

Mattress Mack’s story is a story about evangelism – spreading the good news.  The Greek evangelii means “good news” and I’m certain those furniture showrooms were plenty good news for folks who had been standing terrified in waist-deep water.

We tend to be a little scared of the word “evangelism,” associating it with hard-sell techniques that sound more like come-to-Jesus-or-else.  But what if we take that word at its face value?  What does “spreading the good news” look like?  Let’s start with Sunday morning.

When we come to worship, we know what to expect.  We know who to look for, where our friends usually sit.  But if you are a visitor, none of these things will be known to you.

Put yourself in a visitor’s shoes for a moment.  You’ve made the decision to check out a church.   Maybe you heard that a local church is a welcoming community, and you want to see for yourself.  You walk up to the doors a bit before the 9 AM service.  Here are the questions that might be running through your mind:

*Will they even notice I’m here?  If they do, will they smother me or give me a little room?

*Will the building and the worship be accessible for me if I have a physical disability?

*Will my kids be welcome?  If I’m a single parent, are there changing tables available whether I’m the mom or the dad?  If my kids make noise will I get the stink eye?

*Is there assigned seating, or can I sit anywhere?  Is someone going to bug me to “move on up” even if I’d rather check it out from the back?

*If I don’t look like most of these people, or if I don’t have anything for the offering plate, will they shun me?

*Will folks respect my wishes on whether I want to be introduced or not?

*I don’t know what “communion” is, but it looks like there is some kind of food.  Will there be any for me?

*If there’s a greeting time, will they insist on hugging even if I extend a hand for a handshake?  (This can be extremely anxiety-inducing for some folks.)

*Will anyone want to get to know me, or will they just see me as another income source?  Do I matter?

If these questions are met with authentic and respectful engagement, that’s some good news.  If none of these questions get answered because no one even talks to the visitor – they aren’t likely to return.  I wouldn’t.

It can be very easy for us to slip into our usual circles, gravitate to our friends, and so on.  But Sunday morning is our weekly open house.  Sunday mornings are when, like Mattress Mack, we throw open the doors and say “welcome!  Come on in!”  and then follow it up with the kind of caring welcome that he gave to every person who came through his doors.

What would happen in our churches if we were to step outside our comfort zones and find someone on Sundays we don’t know?  It’s pretty simple; introduce yourself and extend a welcome, and if they are a first-time visitor, ask them if they’d mind if you introduced them at the welcome time.

Now, there are risks involved with this, but that’s the nature of following Jesus.  One of those risks is that we’ll introduce ourselves to someone who’s been a member for a long time.  (Awkward!)  Remember: grace abounds.  None of us can possibly know everyone’s name!  But making the effort makes all the difference.  Your pastoral leaders are not the only representatives of your community; it’s a group effort.  Spread the love, y’all.

Here are some examples of ways you might welcome folks.  Many of you are seasoned experts at this – if that’s the case, find more folks to join you.  Each one, teach one.

*If you are outside the church as folks are arriving, make a point of greeting people.  A quick “good morning!” is always good.

*If you serve as an usher, decide as a group how best to extend welcome in your ministry.  How will you help folks with mobility issues?  Parents with small children?  Folks who look different?  Your acceptance and welcome will help set the tone for the rest of the congregation.

*How are you welcoming families with children?  Are you accepting of ALL family structures, including single folks?  Are you ok with kid noise?  Do you have “busy bags”, children’s bulletins, or other ways for children to be active participants in worship?  There’s a ton of material out there on ways to do this.  I love the pew cards that say in bold letters across the top “CHILDREN WELCOME!” and then have a set of tips for parents on how to help their children worship – as well as tips for members to be welcoming, such as don’t glare at parents when their kids make noise.

*You notice someone come in and sit towards the back on the side.  You don’t need to overwhelm them, but as they settle in, go over and introduce yourself.  Might they be open to sitting with you?  Look for body language signals; this will take some practice.  “Would you like to sit with us?” is safer than “Come sit with us!”  If they would prefer not to, that’s their prerogative, not yours.  Make sure to seek them out after worship and introduce them to someone else.  This applies to literally any visitor.  When my son and I visited Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Atlanta, we were 2 of maybe 5 white folks in attendance.  We were welcomed warmly and authentically, long before the pastor (a friend of mine) introduced us to his congregation.  After he introduced us, it was like we were long-lost relatives!  That left a deep impression on my son.

*Ask a friend who doesn’t “do church” to attend and give you honest feedback about your facility and your welcome patterns.  My first job was in a fast-food restaurant, and the corporation sent around “secret shoppers” to give the managers a real-time evaluation of the customer experience.  This can be SUPER helpful in a church setting as well – take your friend to lunch afterwards and have them share their impressions.

People today are seeking community, more than anything else.  But they are also seeking community in places that are welcoming, authentic, and committed to justice – the qualities that comprise community.

May your faith community be such a place – like Mattress Mack’s furniture showrooms in the storm.

Mattress Mack tweet


Are we having fun yet?

I hope that y’all can understand where I’m coming from when I post this article:

Not here to have fun

It’s utterly brilliant, and it finally gives a name to the frustration I’ve felt for years and years over the direction of worship in so many places. By blurring the line between R&R-type fun and worship of the Triune God, we do both a grave disservice.

“Making church fun” is making it like everything else in our lives: consumer-driven. Market-driven. It leaves no room for us to confront and engage with the dark sides of life. And that means it leaves no room for us to be truth-tellers about the dark sides of life, and about the glimmers of hope that persist in spite of the darkness.

Most of the people I talk with don’t come to church to have fun, but are looking for Jesus. For the divine. That doesn’t mean that some parts of the morning WON’T be fun – but it also doesn’t mean that some parts won’t be painful, or sad, or introspective, or thoughtful, or really really uncomfortable.

When worship can incorporate and encompass ALL of human experience, then it is most authentic.  Different seasons, days, times, events  – all will call for a particular combination of those aspects of the human experience.  But worship that sits only in one place or another, blinds its participants to the assurance that God walks with us in the suffering just as much as in the joy.  It perpetuates our society’s utter refusal to deal with death in any healthy way.  And it robs our people of knowing that this church is acutely aware of the roads we walk, and is committed to honest and respectful accompaniment on those roads – not pretending they don’t exist.

No, I’m not here to have fun.  I’m here to meet Jesus.  But I don’t think that’s a either/or – I think it’s a both/and.  Maybe it’ll be fun today, or maybe not.  But what I do know is: it will be full, because our encounter with the risen Christ is full.  Embracing the breadth of human experience together with others in worship has the potential to shape us all for service in the world – the real world, not a fake one.

In these difficult times, that is good news indeed.


Change for good – or not

Changing elements of worship can be refreshing, if they reflect the characteristics or themes of a particular church season – or if they speak to a common concern, a particular observation, or a crisis of some kind.

But change in worship can also be unsettling, and has a long history of causing conflict.  I think I’ve lived through at least three iterations of the so-called “worship wars” – arguments in the last 30 or so years that have really revolved around style instead of substance.  These arguments have even split congregations.

I’m really fortunate to work with people in my synod (geographical area of organization in my ELCA Lutheran church) who ascribe to a variety of style preferences, but who all agree on some basic guidelines: our pattern of worship is generally Gather-Word-Meal-Send, we begin with Scripture, context is EVERYTHING, and so on.  We don’t change things without good and compelling reasons.

Sometimes in my church-musician identity, I get bored.  I feel like changing things up in liturgy simply because I’ve heard it a zillion times.  But that’s the time I need to remember, more than ever, that it’s not about me but rather the assembly – the folks gathered to worship.

What are their joys, sorrows, concerns, hopes?

How can our worship together give voice to the voiceless, and call us to the love of God that transforms?

As I talk to younger people than I – say, the 18-40 year-olds – they aren’t necessarily impressed by what in the theatre we called “production values.”  Smoke and mirrors, fancy lighting, and other technology ring very hollow for them if there’s no substance.  The questions these friends ask are more along the lines of “so what kind of difference do you seek to make in this neighborhood?”

Such questions remind me of the great advice given by Kelly Fryer and Dave Daubert at a conference some years ago.  They feel that the essential formula for being church is simply:

Be Who You Are – Use What You Have – Do What Matters.

Don’t try to be the big church down the street.  You do you.

Don’t bust your budget accumulating stuff (example: expensive sound & video systems) that will only incur an ongoing maintenance budget and will cause more headaches than they’re worth.  We actually have more to work with than we realize.

Direct your energy to the things that need to happen, the things that matter, both in your congregation and in your neighborhood.  Don’t undertake service projects with a subtext or ulterior motive of thinking you’ll “get them” to come to your church.  If there’s a need, meet it.  End of discussion.  (Otherwise, it’s not a gift but a bribe.)

Change for the sake of change is inward-facing.  But change for the sake of the world that God loves – that is outward-facing.

Change is never easy.  But we all have stories about how some kind of change was ultimately a precious gift.

THAT’S the story to share.

Blessings as we enter Holy Week.


Changes in worship…..but not the ones you might expect

This Sunday is the Third Sunday in Lent, and perhaps you’ve noticed that worship in your community is a little different these last couple of weeks.

I hope it is.

When worship takes on a different look, feel, or sound – or taste or smell, to include all the senses – it naturally piques our interest, and we sit up and take notice.

A change in the church year’s seasons is a good time to experiment.

(Side note: my laptop’s “o” key sticks so it typed “god time.” Very appropriate.)

Here is how the senses are shifted for my congregation’s Lenten worship this year:

LOOK (sense of sight) – some of the dried palm fronds from Palm Sunday last year are in a large glass vase in plain sight.  Different banners are up.  We’ve added a descriptive paragraph for the day to the bulletin.  But we also see the signs of spring beginning outside a little earlier than usual, because we’ve had so much rain.

FEEL (sense of touch) – this was most present in our Ash Wednesday service, when we felt someone’s touch making the sign of the cross with ashes on our forehead. We also can feel the thick grass under our feet, if on a sunny day we kick off our shoes and tread our grassy area that is a “neighborhood park” welcoming those around us.

SOUND (sense of hearing) – we are using silence intentionally this season, in our confession and at other places in the order of service as well.  Outside of worship, the birds seem to have renewed voices this spring.

TASTE (sense of taste) – this will likely have to wait until the Vigil, when our wine will change from the usual dry red wine.  But we may also be treated to spring fruits after worship – the strawberries are already turning up fully ripened in the stores.

SMELL (sense of smell) – we don’t have a shift in smell in worship, but as soon as we step outside after worship, the explosive scents of budding springtime are all around us.  And those strawberries smell great!

I think of the Lenten gospel acclamation, “return to the Lord, your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  That steadfast love is manifest in these markers of Lent, lodged amid the ever-returning spring.  While we observe a season of reflection, at the same time all of creation is bursting at the seams.

And so we mark the time of Lent, enjoying the Wednesday evenings spent together in food, fellowship, worship, and learning.  Even though today is the first day of spring, we’ll take time to savor a different rhythm and different ways of engaging our senses.

Blessings on your Lenten journey.


Ash Wednesday

For the rest of the Lenten season, I’m committing to blogging once weekly on the topic of change in worship – and yes, I’m defining that broadly.  Worship is something that shifts within a contextual reality but at its core stays the same.

This poem comes from a friend of a colleague.  It made me think about how I will spend this Lent, which is coinciding with a time of great transition for me.

Blessings as you begin this journey – again.


Ash Wednesday     by Cheryl Lawrie

So the day comes around again
and we find ourselves surprised
by the truth
that we are mortal

The stuff of dust and ashes.

Our egos and esteem are held up
to the brutal mirror of the finite:
Know that you will end.
The world will continue without you.

And it’s only with our vision so narrowed
that we are again
able to see
all that lies beyond us:
Know that you are not God.
Know that all the things that make heaven and earth
reach way beyond you.

Live today with faith in your humanness
and let that lead you to life.

Welcome to Lent.

God-flavors and God-colors

Sermon from February 5, 2017 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.

Text:  Matthew 5:13-20

Welcome to the second installment in the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew.  Today’s message is brought to you by the Morton Salt Company, and by the Knorr Candle Factory in Del Mar.

(Just kidding.)

So we began last week with the Beatitudes, one of the best known passages in all of scripture.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, and so on.  I’ve been working on tweeting those this week; I’m an amateur at it, so it’s been a little sporadic.  If you’ve been tweeting, I hope that has gone well for you!

I love how Jesus begins this teachable moment, this Sermon on the Mount, in a rather unorthodox manner.

He doesn’t start with a syllabus, or an outline of any kind.  No due dates for ridiculously long papers – footnoted, of course – or requirements for web forum postings.  Office hours – who knows.

No, he starts elsewhere.  He starts by validating and lifting up not only his listeners’ existence, but their experience.

He calls them blessed.

As I considered this story, I thought about the great teachers I had throughout my school years.  I thought particularly of Clayton Liggett, who for years was the drama teacher at San Dieguito High School.  The performing arts center at San Dieguito Academy is named in his honor.

Mr. Liggett didn’t operate by the model Jesus uses.  He ran his classroom with discipline and order.  We were all a little afraid of Mr. Liggett.  But boy, if you got an A in his class, you knew you had earned it.  When he was ready to give praise, you knew it was authentic.  And so in spite of our fear, most of his students would say today that he was the single most influential teacher they ever had.

And that’s the model we’re a little more used to, isn’t it?

So this story might seem a little off.  Jesus AS USUAL is going against the grain.

But it’s not against the grain in our Lutheran theology.

No, this is a perfect example of a core tenet for us: GOD MOVES FIRST.

Let me repeat that:  God moves first.

We don’t choose God.  God chooses us, ALL of us.

So Jesus’ telling the disciples and the others gathered that they are blest, and that they are salt and light, is an endorsement of their worth as beloved children of God BEFORE THEY’VE EVEN HAD A CHANCE TO DO ANYTHING TO EITHER EARN IT OR PROVE IT.

If that isn’t being set free, then I don’t know what is.

They are set free to be the people God has created and called them to be.

I’d like to re-read this passage, but from a different translation.  It’s really more of an adaptation or paraphrase than a translation.  It’s called the Message, and was put together by scholar Eugene Peterson.  He figured it would be helpful to have a version of the Bible that was instantly understandable and accessible.  He says, “when the prophet Isaiah was writing, the Israelites in exile didn’t have to go to the library to research what he said, they just understood it.”

Here is the salt part.

Matt. 5:13   “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.”

Salt-seasoning.  He writes it as a hyphenated word.  It’s kind of like those blended sea salts you can get at Trader Joe’s: you get the good sea salt in the grinder, but you might also get garlic.

Now, you put a little of that with some harissa and rub it on your chicken before grilling or pan-frying – I guarantee you that will bring out the God-flavors in that chicken.  And we are called to do the same for the world.

One thing that intrigued me about this reading was this whole idea of losing saltiness. I’m all, pretty sure that’s not a thing.  So I went to my kitchen and pulled out my container of MarkenSalz, which I purchased in Salzburg, Austria in 1987.  Yes, I still have it and no, I haven’t used it.  Don’t judge.

I tasted it, and believe me, it is just as salty as the day I bought it.  Turns out salt doesn’t lose its saltiness and remain salt.  So why does Jesus say this?  This is long before the era of alternative facts.

I wonder if Jesus is speaking from a place of knowing full well that salt doesn’t lose its saltiness – rather, he is subtlely making the point that God’s covenant with God’s people doesn’t LET anyone get thrown out or trampled underfoot.  God has created us for this purpose – God has made us “salt” – and God isn’t going to abandon us in the midst of that purpose.

Throughout human history, salt has been an essential element for seasoning, for preserving, and for a host of other things.  If each one of us is the salt of the earth, then we are indispensable to the carrying out of that covenant relationship with God and with God’s creation itself.  If we never open that pour spout and let our saltiness bring out those God-flavors – if we don’t spread that salty love – then we are, as Paul says, just a noisy gong.  Losing our saltiness is actually bottling it up tight.

Peterson has this to say in his paraphrase of the passage about the light:

Matt. 5:14   “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.  15 If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand.  16 Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

“Going public.”  That has got to be one of the best ways I’ve heard to explain what it means to live our life in and as the light of Christ.

You see, dear friends, the gospel is not good advice.

It’s not a “Dear Abby” column to be read with detachment and considered with indifference.  No indeed.

The gospel is not good advice.  The gospel is good NEWS.  It is the factual reality that God loves us no matter what.  And it is also the factual reality that because of that love, Jesus calls us to go public.  To keep open house.  To be generous with our lives.  To open up to others.  To live into the implication of our baptism:

“Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

 I like these words.  We repeat them at every baptism as a commissioning of sorts to the newly baptized.  But I’m afraid that my default setting isn’t quite so noble.  I would like it to be, but I seem to mess up pretty regularly.  Perhaps you find yourselves in that place sometimes too.

Our default setting leans toward comfort, conformity, and complacency.  Deep down, we know that if we are the salt Jesus needs us to be, what it REALLY might do is sting.  If we are the light – it just might expose what we do not want to see.  We might have to get uncomfortable.  We might have to rise up and follow where God leads.

We hear Jesus’ next words about the law, and we might feel that sting a little more.  But I wonder if what Jesus is really doing here is beginning his distinction between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law.  If what he’s doing is challenging that default setting.

Here is how Peterson brings it:

Matt. 5:17   “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama.  18 God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.”

A vast panorama.  What a great image for the fulfillment of the law.

You might remember that elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, and he replies that there are two: first, love God; and second, love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s like the story of the rabbi who refers to those commandments as the essence of Torah.  “The rest,” says the rabbi, “is merely commentary.”

What if Jesus’ intention is for us as disciples to imagine and live into an attitude of the heart, a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible?

What does such imagination and living-into look like?

Our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, tweeted a prescient observation earlier this week.  “In the Good Samaritan story,” she said, “the lawyer asks, who is my neighbor.  But Jesus asks, who ACTED as neighbor.”

Perhaps this is the key.  Maybe here is where our imaginations are ignited, where our living-into begins making God’s peaceable realm possible.  It begins with Christ’s “attitude of the heart”, his righteousness, given to us in God’s grace, whereby our attitude of the heart is activated and enlivened as we then act as neighbor.

Instead of sitting passively, just acquiring knowledge about who is our neighbor – which, by the way, is full of judgmental overtones – we are called to be actively seeking out those to whom we might act as neighbor.  No vetting required.

It is knowledge accompanied by action.  In other words – discipleship.

You see, knowledge without action is a barrier wall against the Kingdom of heaven.  Knowledge without action is what perpetuates the existence of racism in our world.  Knowledge without action keeps us quiet about sexism and ageism.  Knowledge without action overlooks the hungry and keeps folks in the margins.  Knowledge without action is also against the grain: against the grain of God.

But I think we know a little bit about knowledge WITH action.

Remember our stewardship chair’s slide presentations on stewardship?  When we saw all the ministries of Bethlehem appear one by one in a word cloud?  And he then said, “thank you for your stewardship”?

That stewardship, those ministries – this is knowledge coupled with action.  It’s not only stewardship, but discipleship.  Together with the Beatitudes’ blessings, Jesus begins to lay out the blueprint for building the Beloved Community – the way of discipleship.

There’s a reason that this particular Isaiah text was chosen several decades ago to be read alongside this Matthew gospel lesson every three years.  The Isaiah text is before us today because it is the essence of that vast panorama of fulfillment of the law.  It is the most flavorful of all salts, it is the brightest of lights.  It is the way of discipleship.

As we heard read:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…..and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; …..you shall…..be called…..the restorer of streets to live in.”

Knowledge and action.        Salt and light.

Dear friends:  Be that salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this world.

Be that light that brings out the God-colors in this world.

Go public.  For this gospel is not good advice.  It is good NEWS.

 May it be so among us.