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Starting on Empty

Last night I was turning my light off to go to sleep when my youngest child wandered up from her room.  I was like, okay I’m not even playing at this before I even try to fall asleep there is already a kid and a dog in my bed.  So I vacated the bed for the small single mattress we put on the floor at the foot of our bed (okay this happens with some regularity).  Having moved down to that mattress I forgot to plug my phone in overnight to charge.  I started the day with it already under 20% charged.



I have spent all day trying to grab quick charges from my car, from my computer, from my office manager’s computer… you get it. You have probably done it.  I am spending the whole day in catch up mode… and it doesn’t work.  You can’t start from behind.  I tell folks the same thing about surgery recovery from my days working in a hospital.  You can’t catch up to pain.  Take your meds, don’t cut back from what you were told to take, and keep taking it.  Because once your pain gets out in front of you?  It will take you a long, long time before you feel comfortable again.

So.  You guessed it.  This isn’t about my phone.

Its about starting on empty.  Its about remembering to find some me-time.  Its about getting a good night sleep.  Its about creating margin in our life so we aren’t overloaded.  Its about not starting out the day in catch-up mode.

Two weeks ago I preached on this and began my sermon with a favorite anecdote from Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:

“There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” I think that is our situation. We are riding many horses that we cannot control… Our lives are so busy.”

When we start on empty we are not at peace with ourselves and thus cannot be instruments of peace.  When we start on empty so much of what we do will be empty because we do not begin it with anything to give.  Oh, we fool ourselves into think we do.  And we may even be so talented that we actually manage to give something for a little while.  This is not a laudable talent.  Because sooner or later living on empty is going to have dreadful consequences.  For you.  For those you love.  For the world.

Get a good night sleep.  Have a slow morning.  Cancel appointments for an afternoon.  Let the dishes stack up in the sink.  Play hooky from work and call it a mental health day – because it is!

You owe that yourself.  You owe that to the world.

Because we all want a fully charged phone. (friend… I meant to say friend!) 😉

Diagnosis: take a year long break from Church

This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here

  • In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
  • To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
  • To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
  • To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
  • To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
  • In gratitude to God: see below
  • Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: forthcoming
  • Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”


In gratitude to God

You have heard it, somewhere and some when. If you are like me – you have said it. “I have to go to church meeting.” I’ve slipped and said it, but usually I try to catch myself and say instead, “I get to go to a church meeting.” I get to worship. I get to go to bible study. I get to witness resurrection in the midst of mourning the death of a loved one. I get to…

I’m amazed at how often we feel like faith or church or mission is a burden we carry. (Sometimes with good reason but often because we are approaching it from the wrong mindset.) And I don’t disagree. Having to wrestle with faithful ways of living in my life is more challenging that just… not caring. That’s not what I’m talking about here though, I’m talking about those times church has begun to feel like one more obligation in a week that is already over-flowing.

What does it mean to take seriously the notion that we “work with others… in gratitude to God?”

Our life together in faith is not meant to be an onerous burden. Strangely enough I have always found church fun. From choir and hand bells to Sunday school and confirmation – church feeds me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a community. And yes there are days it doesn’t feel that way, but mostly it does. However the moment it ceases to be that for a protracted amount of time… that needs to be addressed. I remember talking to Cynthia Rigby, professor at Austin Seminary, and she mentioned a time when she recommended a church member stop reading the bible for a whole year. She did this because that person had turned reading the bible into an obligation that was killing their spirit. They weren’t feeding abundant life with their reading – they were crushing it under the weight of “I ought to do this.” So she told this person to knock it off, to stop reading it, and I say: great advice.

We are called to serve – to work – together in gratitude. With joy. If we have lost the sense of awe and gratitude to be trusted with this work than an essential ingredient of ministry and calling is missing, and we have to stop and take pause.

Listen to the Psalmist in Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

The Psalmist is awed, humbled, and empowered. I am nothing. And yet God has entrusted me with everything. I have been granted the privilege of responsibility. This is to work in gratitude to God.

So… how do we get that?

Maybe you are in touch with that now – maybe you are living this phrase. In that case, let your let shine!

Maybe you are close, maybe its there but you don’t quite realize it. Would it help to just recall the ways you have been blessed by companionship in community, and the way you have been a blessing to others.

Maybe you are holding yourself back because you fear it, but if you just let loose a little you will realize how much joy you are experiencing from ministry together.

Maybe you are there – and you don’t even know it. Name it; claim it.

There is another response – a deeply faithful response. Maybe you need to knock it all off for a bit. Taking Cindy Rigby’s story a step further I have recommended that before. That someone just take a year off of church… or from leadership or from programs or missions or… whatever it is they are doing that has lost that sense of awe, privilege, and gratitude – and has instead become an onerous obligation. And you know what? It’s biblically faithful. (or at least I think so.) Right before the Exodus commandment to keep one day in seven reserved for Sabbath it talks about letting your field lie fallow one year out of seven (Exodus 23:11). Sometimes we are dried up and we need to stop and just abide and rest. We need to let the dust settle, scatter the structure to the wind, forget about seed and harvest and just wait… and see what comes up again next year. Maybe you need to take a year off of church.

There are many ways to gain that sense of gratitude in service. None are right or wrong except in so far as they are right for you, for this time. But what I am getting at – what I think our Statement of Faith calls us to attend to – is that our work together is meant to be work that feels like privilege, a joy, and a reason for gratitude to God for the opportunity – I get to do this. And if we aren’t there – it’s time to take stock and figure out how to, because this is all about abundant life: for you – for your neighbor – for all God’s creation.

Thanks be to God.

Addendum (the next day):
A congregation member sent this clip to me in response to yesterday’s blog post (which get emailed to the congregation as devotionals of sorts). Spot on: “we GET to play baseball today.”

Even more spot on with the idea of taking time away: I occassionally lament that Michael Jordan left basketball for that whole misadventure with baseball. What would his stats be, how many more championships we would have won if he hadn’t done that? But when your spirit needs you to “take off” and go on a misadventure that is the the RIGHT adventure for you, than that is what you have to do. Who knows, maybe those last three championships don’t happen without him taking his break.

The Giving Tree or The Taking Boy

Okay so now and then I let slip that I do not like The Giving Tree. People love it. I get it. So here you go, why I don’t. You will have your reasons why I’m over analyzing, but it’s what I do and… I really don’t think this is a reach but it’s right there in the story:

The message that we read in the story of the boy is that happiness is procured from money, working all the time so you have no time for play, a family (he seems to not to end up with), having a house, and going to far away places to find what you don’t have. All this at the expense of the life and vitality of your friend who appears to be codependent and lives only for the happiness of the boy who apparently has no thought of the happiness of the tree.

By the end the dead used up remains of the tree are, we are told, happy to have served the whims of the boy who appears to have never found happiness because here in the end he is sitting alone without friend or family on the stump of an old dead tree.

The end.

Yes that is harsh.  But I really do think this story is a damaging narrative cloaked as a sentimental and benign children’s tale.  So some further thought before you go to it’s defense:

Yes the tree gives. But the boy takes. This is the groundwork for almost every imperialist culture ever. Imperialists take advantage of generous people until it’s too late to change the dynamics of the relationship.

There is a reason Jesus’ death is said to be “once and for all.” It’s that we do not require sacrificial death from our neighbors in order that we might live… and yet, sadly that still isn’t true.

The hidden sadness of this book is that you cannot buy happiness. Happiness is not external and no amount of chasing after it will “find” it.

This book more than any other reminds me why I love the triune love commandment from Jesus: “love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” These three work in concert and balance. You can’t do one or two to the exclusion of the third if you are following in Jesus way. To love God but not neighbor? Misses the point. Self-love to the exclusion of others – no way. But also: to love neighbor without any care for self stands outside of Christ’s calling. In our care and service to one another we have to be able to care for ourselves as well. We live interconnected lives building each other up – not one at the expense of the other no matter that we claim the other “desired to make those sacrifices.” This is the way we defend imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, racism, and the subjugation of the environment, etc, etc, etc.

So there you have it, why whenever someone reads or mentions The Giving Tree, all I hear is The Taking Boy.

To Do or Not to Do: Over-Consumers of Time

This last Sunday I preached on the first temptation of Jesus in the desert as part of our Lenten series on the Temptations (yes I just lost some of you who are now singing My Girl in your head). This temptation is to turn stones into bread so Jesus, who is “famished,” can eat.

Along the way of wrestling with this temptation I ended up in the Genesis creation story.  In the second story of creation man is created first (it should be noted that in the first story man and woman are created at the same time so we probably shouldn’t make anything about the primacy of man) but is lonely.  God declares that being alone isn’t good and after the rest of creation was found not to be fitting partner God creates more humanity and Adam greets Eve with relational harmony, “you are bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.”

We are created for relationship.  We are created to relate in goodness with one another and with God.  But the story doesn’t continue like that.  Created for relationships we become over-consumers and our over consumption threatens balance.  We consume fruit, knowledge… and eventually (and not long at that) each other in the story of Cain and Abel.  Instead of recognizing our interdependent relationship with the world we see in creation and each other (and even in God) something to be consumed.  And fear that we won’t get to consume as much as the next person we became in competition for resources and predominance (because he or she who is predominant can command more).

Balance is lost, boundaries are lost… and created for inter-dependent relationships we instead become hoarders of more than we need to sate our desire to consume more than what would be enough.

This is what came to me as I stare – with Jesus – at the stone.  Would Jesus become a consumer?  Would Jesus take creation and turn it to his profit?  He could… “if you are the Son of God…” but he didn’t.

Jesus – identifying fully with humanity in his deprivation, need, and temptations has a different notion about what it means to be Son of God.  We know from his baptism that God has identified him as “God’s son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Son of God status is not up for grabs… but what it means to be Son of God is.  And the Son of God doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to make his primary identity be a consumer.  It is by his reliance on the “word of the Lord” that he lives.  I am not what I eat… I am who I belong to, and “body and soul I belong to God.”

Now I share all this to get to this point.  Because when I put myself into this temptation there are many ways I can talk about a temptation to over-consume, and a desire to know myself by the “things” I have and the “things” I consume.  But maybe because Genesis had already been on my mind where I feel pulled to hear this text challenge me is my desire to be an over-consumer of time.  Boredom is perhaps the hunger we in 21st Century America really wrestle with.  We dread being bored.  We dread being hungry for something to do.  Maybe it’s because we aren’t certain about who we are so we define ourselves by the things we do, and in constantly doing we don’t have to come face to face with our inner undefined selves.  Maybe it’s because we are so convinced that we need to be producers and achievers that we believe there is something selfish to doing nothing.  Maybe it is because we think there is a pride attached to being so “in demand” by the world around us that we don’t actually have time for relationships anymore, even with ourselves.

Our children do not get bored.  They play video games, watch TV programs (do you remember when there was only like 2 hours of the day when cartoons were on TV?  Our kids don’t… because its 24/7 now), go to club soccer, and karate dojos, and swim team.  Most of this is good stuff… but when we do all of it the one thing our kids don’t know is boredom.  And they don’t know it because I won’t let them; we won’t let them.  We are so busy doing we don’t even know the people who live on our own street.  It’s not the kids fault, it’s the parents who do it – tempted by society to believe that idle play is a waste and that boredom should be kept at bay at all costs. Tempted to believe that a productive adulthood must be achieved by programing our children like machines.  Over-programmed machines.

It is easier to see in our kids… but it is true of most of us as well.   We have turned the stones to bread, we have taken idleness and forced it to be productive.  Only from the beginning (yup Genesis again) God knew that wasn’t a sustainable way.  That way killed (consumed) relationship… and each other… and ultimately ourselves.  So God rested… and commanded that we rest.  God called for fields to lay fallow because even creation needs to rest, and God called us to let our livestock and slaves rest because… rest is a good in and of itself.  Its seems by God’s decree rest is a “right” and an “obligation” to be defended, protected, and obeyed.  Idleness is next to godliness.  Because even God rested.

So as you journey in lent – as you find yourselves led, driven even, into the wilderness by the Spirit – may this be a time when you can look into your own life and see where you have sacrificed relationships in the name of consumption – consumption of things but also of time.  And in that confrontation may you be guided to a way you might flip that script in your life.  That you might rest, relate, reorient, and be reborn by the Spirit.

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” –Genesis 2:31

Lent: Go Slow

While we often talk about what we are giving up for Lent I’m not always sure about the practice.  I guess it works for me if you can flip it into a positive statement about what you are taking on for Lent.  In my mind lent is about taking on the cross in a journey with Christ to Jerusalem.  This often necessitates some kind of “giving up” but only a giving up that deepens our journey.  The question then I get is: what is the gain in what you have given up?  If you give something up that leads to life – then you are most likely on target with Christ’s call to follow in his way.

We do not follow an acetic God for whom sacrifice is about self-negation for its own sake – at least I don’t think so.  I think we follow a God wants to bring a balance between our loves of self, God, and mostly neighbor.  This means we have may have to give up some fascination with our own convenience, privilege, entitlement, power, and glorification in order to do this on behalf of the other.  But what is more important is that second part… what it’s on behalf of.  Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he lauds those who pray and practice in secret rather than for all to see.  The ones who do it for all to see that he calls out are still actually about self-promotion.  There is no communal gain to their pious practices.

So for me I have to ask myself – what is the communal gain to what I’m “giving up?”


So here is what I’m trying to do this year.  It’s a practice I received from James Bryan Smith’s Apprentice Series of books which I highly recommend to any small group or pair of readers (Good and Beautiful God, Good and Beautiful Life, Good and Beautiful Community).  The spiritual practice is summed up as “choosing the slow lane.”  And that is really what it is.  He describes it as picking the longest line at the grocery store, driving behind that driver who is going 5 mph under the speed limit, intentionally scheduling a long meal with friends, making sure to arrive places early so we aren’t in a rush to get there.  (He warns we actually need to practice margin first – we need first to learn to schedule less in our day so we CAN go slow.  That is practice I have working at for a while now – I’m not necessary good at it, but it’s a journey.)

I’m going to practice at this during this Lenten season (and beyond, why stop a good thing) – not just doing it but doing so without the resulting rise in blood pressure.  Because my time isn’t so valuable that everyone else should get out of my way.  Because sometimes when we slow down we notice things we wouldn’t have seen before (a person hiding in a tree who wants to meet us, a nameless person who needs some healing recognition of their personhood, a person’s who testimony will become an encouragement to us for renewed ministry).  So if you want to name it as a giving up – I’m giving up the need to put my timeline ahead of everyone else’s.  I’m giving up the sense that I need to be in hurry.  But if you want to flip to a positive and life-giving statement: I’m taken on the practices of slowness so I might be able to find out what blessings I’ve been missing out on, what blessings I’ve been denying others, and what blessings God has in store for me… going slow.

What are you giving up/taking on as you journey in way of Christ to the cross… and beyond?

Stop, Look, and Listen: the call of an ashy God

Last year I wrote about the “imposition of ashes” (you can find it here).  This idea still is sitting with me this year – that the we are meant to be imposed upon.  Ash Wednesday (Lent, discipleship, Jesus, God… take your pick) is not meant to be convenient but is meant to be an interruption of our normal routines and responses.

So I’m sitting with this thought this morning even as I see and hear about friends, colleagues, and neighbors who are dispersing ashes to people on street corners.  The part of me thinks the church needs to get out from behind our walls loves this.  The part of me that is dwelling on imposition struggles with it.  What happens when me make our rituals convenient?  Are we simply hawking jewelry for people who have no interest in making time to be imposed upon?  I wish, in asking this, to wrestle with it for myself (but with you) so please don’t hear this as simply belittling those outreach efforts, by all means keep dispersing and reaching people where they live – the gospel desires to be preached and practiced in a myriad of ways.  I simply wonder where is the line of when the church places convenience as a greater priority to the depth and work of discipleship – which is entirely inconvenient.  Jesus’ calls to discipleship require people dropping nets, abandoning family, and leaving work undone.

And the church struggles with this.  Our desire to be relevant and our fear about declining numbers makes us think of ways to reach people who not otherwise be willing to engage in rituals of communal faith.  We recognize that small spirit led moments may lead to deeper engagement that would never happen without a chance encounter on the street corner.  We also feel the call that the church is more than a building and we cannot make everyone come to our home court and fit our cookie cutter images of faithful practice.

But when Jesus bids up pick up our cross and die, to drop our nets and follow… immediately, and to be one who walks in the way of him who has nowhere to lay his head Jesus is calling us to something radical and life-stopping: a full-on interruption of our way of being.  Such a stopping (I’m not saying pausing… I’m thinking full-on stopping) is about as counter-culture as you can get these days.  Our lives have no time for stopping.  I read an article recently about the side-effect of “convenience technology” thanks to my friend and colleague MaryAnn McKibben Dana (who has lots of life transforming things to say about Sabbath… another “stopping” moment that is life-giving) that speaks unexpected but wonderfully to this (you can read it here).  My summed up version is that when technology makes things faster we sometimes lose its deep fulfillment.  The best analogy the article offered is that we can hike up a mountain and get a wonderful view and a sense of accomplishment.  The same view can be had by driving – but do we really get the same sense of fulfillment when we eliminate the sense of journey, of struggle and experiences, that hiking to the view offers us?

What happens with drive up ashes?  I am not saying it isn’t significant… but I can’t help but feel it has lost most of its deeper meaning as the ritual beginning to a season of lent, of repenting (turning and re-orienting) and following in the way of Christ as he travels to the cross… and beyond.  Easter without Good Friday means nothing.  Good Friday without Palm Sunday is not nearly as unexpected.  Holy Week without the journey is – to me – lacking in its holiness. Christmas Eve is my favorite evening of the year, but Lent is my favorite season.  Something of its ashy somberness appeals to my soul.  My most profound understanding of God is one who brings life from death – and experiencing and engaging the death is as important (if not more important) than the life. There is so much death we cling to we must find ways to part with it.  And I believe this requires that we stop.  That we look the death in the eye and name it for what it is, and then we must let it go.  This is the way to abundant life.  And the way this ashy God invites… no imposes upon me to stop, alters my understanding of grace and connects me to resurrection life in a way that no triumphant assembly ever can.  It is entirely inconvenient, and that is well with my soul.

Thanks be to God.