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The idea of an author leaving their publisher because, “he had sold too many copies of her books,” is about as believable as an alcoholic leaving his bartender because she didn’t water his drinks down enough. But that is exactly what Susan Howatch did. That alone makes her worthy of a second look, but for me the reasons why I have read and reread her books cuts much deeper. She is the first novelist I have read who portrays clergy in a way I could appreciate, and in most cases, relate to. Too often clergy are portrayed as odious hypocrites (Elmer Gantry, Obidiah Slope) or as saccharine sweet, like Father Tim Allen in the Mitford series, which I tried to read, but finally had to put down, thinking, “No one is that good.” (Maybe that says more about me than about the books.)

But Howatch gave me a parade of clergy that I could relate to, men (and unfortunately all of her clergy characters are male) who love God and believe they are called to serve their Creator, but who wrestle with what it means to be an authentic servant of God. Her ministers are deeply flawed in many ways, but at the same time they are devoted to God, and working with God to overcome their failings. They are heroic in some ways, but all of them have feet of clay. And they are unlike in their devotion to God. Some are church bureaucrats. Some are mystics. Some are charismatic personalities. Some are Anglo-Catholic, others are Liberal modernists, and some are conservative. Monks are scattered in with bishops, archdeacons, deans and healers.

She wrote two series of books concerning the English clergy. The first, the Starbridge  series, centers around the goings on around the Starbridge Cathedral, based loosely on the cathedral at Salisbury. Each novel centers on a specific time and issue, theological and/or social, facing the Church of England. The first, Glittering Images, is set in 1937, and deals with the issue of divorce. Glamorous Powers is set during World War II, and centers around the mysticism of an ex-monk.  Ultimate Prizes follows a Liberal archdeacon, who is at odds with Anglo-Catholicism and Neo-Orthodoxy, as represented by Karl Barth.  Scandalous  Risks is the only one of the Starbridge series narrated by a woman, who is not of the clergy, and portrays the church in 1963  just after Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God came out. Mystical Paths follows the son of one of the main characters in 1968 as he tries to solve a mystery, and shows some of the worse sides of Christian mysticism, and of the idealism of the early 60s.  The final book in this series, Absolute Truths, as the Bishop of Starbridge tries to cope with the death of his wife. It portrays a church caught between the need to adapt to its time, but also which needs to hold on the the absolute truths of her tradition. Each of the books is loosely anchored around actual theologians and clergy in the Church of England.

Her attention to detail is fascinating, from the way she portrays accurately the misunderstanding of Karl Barth’s crisis theology in 1940s England, to her knowledge of monk’s underwear. She takes the writings of the various theologians who influence each particular book, and places it in hurly-burly of real life in the Church. No one theology is adequate to address the actual needs of the characters who espouse them, and one of the underlying messages is that the Church needs a variety of approaches to faith. But more important to the stories are the development of her characters, who all have to deal, in some way, with their flaws.  In the end most find ways to integrate the various parts of their personalities and their calling, into a healthy whole. I found their struggles encouraging for me, because most ministers have some sort of split between their public persona as clergy, and their private lives, some elements of which are not for public consumption. By fusing Jungian psychology and traditional Christianity, she shows how an ancient faith can adopt new language to help deal with modern issues of personality.

The second series, the St. Benet’s trilogy, still maintains many of the themes in the Starbridge series, but takes place in London, and many of the central characters are not clergy. Many of the Starbridge characters make appearances, but many new characters are added, including a frumpy cook, a high flying lawyer, and a male prostitute. The trilogy takes place in 1980s and 1990s and is less theological, and more psychological.

All of these novels are about redemption. Almost all the characters find salvation, but not the simplistic way of “accepting Jesus as their personal savior.” They find wholeness and healing.  Yes, many of the characters in her novels engage in bad behavior, but Howatch in more concerned with the whys rather than the whats of their sins. The people in her books are just forgiven. They are redeemed.  They find new life, and the freedom of not being bound by the things that caused their sins.

I have only two criticisms of her books. Sometimes the dialog comes off as very contrived, but that might be because I am not English, and many of her characters are stereotypical English. The other is the absence of female clergy. In the St. Benet’s trilogy we do see a wider variety of female characters. In the earlier novels many of the women are fairly helpless in the face of male dominance, but in the later novels they place a more central role.

I once spent a summer reading through Trollope’s Barchester novels. It was time well spent, but it was shame I had to go back to the 19th century to find literary clergy who I could identify with. Howatch gives me an updated version, people who are closer to my time, and to my issues as I wrestle with what it means to be a minister and a man of God.


Bibliography (taken from Wikipedia)

Starbridge series

  • Glittering Images is narrated by the Reverend Dr. Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recover, and to realize the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.
  • Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow himself as he leaves the Fordite Order at age sixty following a powerful vision. He then must deal with the problems of his adult children, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings”.
  • Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a lower-middle-class background in the north of England. After being widowed and marrying again, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.
  • Scandalous Risks follows Aysgarth to a Canonry of Westminster Abbey and back to Starbridge, where he becomes Dean of the Cathedral and Ashworth becomes Bishop. It is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend. The relationships, and Aysgarth’s family, closely echo the relationship of H. H. Asquith and Venetia Stanley.
  • Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of Dean Aysgarth.
  • Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much older but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we originally encountered him in the first of the books.


St. Benet’s trilogy

  • A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow twenty years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London, where he runs a centre for the ministry of healing. His own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after he meets Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result.
  • The High Flyer narrates the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who “has it all”. Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur, which reveal that things are not what they seem.
  • Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Graham and Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.
Posted in Church, Novels, Religious Literature, Susan Howatch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The One About Faith and Flags

flag and church

My current church does not have an American flag in the sanctuary. It is the first church I served that does not have one.

I like that.

I have a firm and abiding conviction that the Church, every church, is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. Our first priority is to that Kingdom, and we are servants of that realm. Whatever country we happen to live in is an more often than not, an accident of birth, and while we should honor our countries, our love is for the Kingdom. So, the flags of a particular nation do not belong in the space where we worship the God who is above all nations. I did visit one church that had the flags of many nations in their worship space, and that seemed appropriate. But to display one flag, the flag of one’s own nation, confuses the issue, especially since the spirit of patriotism can run deep in many people.

It is already too easy to believe that God just confirms our own likes and dislikes, and just because I like my country, which I do, does not automatically mean that God holds us in a special place.

Over the years I have many colleagues and parishioners who agree and disagree with me on this. I know of at one person who left a congregation because the minister refused to have an American flag in the sanctuary. (Ironically he ended up in a congregation where there is no flag, and from what I have heard, he seems to be OK with their lack of patriotic reverence.)

The sad fact is, when most people say “God and Country,” they have often reversed the order of the two.

On the other hand, I don’t think it is a big deal. One of my colleagues alienated a family because he refused to allow a flag over the coffin of the father, who was retired military. “That’s just a line I cannot cross,” he said, and I thought to myself, “You have at least one too many lines.” What kind of pastoral statement was he making in his refusal, other than being obstinate? While I believe the appearance of our sanctuaries do affect how we worship in them, I also believe that is not where we should place our focus.

So, I did vote once to put a flag in the sanctuary of a church I served. We were building a new sanctuary. The old one had no flag, and an elder in the church wanted to donate a flag for the new worship space (along with a Christian flag). Although I have a vote when I meet with my elders, I normally don’t exercise that privilege. But this time I had to. The vote on the donated flag was a tie. Everyone looked at me to cast the deciding vote. I voted to accept the gift.

Why, if I were opposed to flag in our house of worship? It just was not a hill big enough to die on.

Every day I walk into my office I am faced with a wide variety of issues, most concerning either the state of our 80-year old sanctuary, or our complicated finances. Some are important in terms of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Most are not. They may be important in the administration of the organization we call our church, but they are not matters of faith and practice.

As to those, what gets decided is not as important as how they get decided.

If having a flag, or not having a flag becomes a central issue for worship, then we are focusing on the wrong things. I can preach just as well in front of a flag as I can without one. I can pray just as devoutly standing in front of a flag as I can with no flag in sight. If the flag affects how I do those things, then I am focusing on all the wrong things.

Question: How can we best make sure we are focusing on the right things when it comes to our worship space?

Posted in Global Christianity, Pastoral Ministry, Patriotism, religion and politics, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Praying the Psalms in Detention

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Every morning, when I do my morning devotions, I read from the Psalms.  About every two months I work my way through all the Psalms at least once.

Psalms are prayers, so when I say I read through, I am actually trying to pray my way through them.  I say I am trying because many of the Psalms have little or nothing to do with my own situation. I have a hard time relating to many of them, especially the Psalms that pertain to God destroying our enemies. Like most people, I don’t have a lot of enemies, and the few I do have, don’t need to be struck down. Or the Psalms where the psalmist cries out it deep despair. I have better and worse days, but nothing like what I see in some of the Psalms.

But one morning I did something different. Instead of praying the Psalms for myself, I wondered, “Who could pray this Psalm? If these words are not relevant for me, who could relate to them?” The answer came quicker than the question–migrants in detention centers.

I imaged I was a typical person in a one of the centers.

I have fled my native country because I had no other option. I am a widow, my husband killed by paramilitary police. Gangs are running my city, and if I stay, I will be raped, and/or murdered. The gangs have threatened my children. My oldest is 12, and the gangs want to make him an involuntary recruit for their brutal activities. There are few jobs in my village, and I have no hope of keeping my family fed. It is a hard decision to make, but I decided to make the long trek to the United States, to apply for asylum.

Now I am sitting in a holding cell, along with more than 80 other women, a cell that was designed for only 41 people. There is a shortage of drinking water. I have to sleep with a thin rescue blanket on a cold, hard floor. The food is spares, bologna sandwiches three times a day. They are making me sick. The guards taunt me and the others in my cell. Worst of all, they have taken my children from me. I have not had a shower in weeks.

I have no idea how long I will be held here–perhaps another three days, another three weeks, another three months, or maybe another three years. I am surrounded by the sounds of other women crying for their children, by the stink of unwashed bodies, and by the despair of our situation.

I prayed with this woman, as I read through, as I prayed through Psalm 10. Maybe she did not have the words to pray, and as I thought about her, I know that I did not, but the Psalm did.

As I prayed the words of Psalm 10, they suddenly made sense. It was a prayer I could resonate with now.

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?

    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I prayed them as if I were that woman locked up, as if I were the one feeling the absence of God. As if I were locked in, and God was locked out.

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor–

I knew who the Psalmist was referring to when he talked about the wicked—those who have put me in this dreadful circumstance. Maybe they are not my enemies, as I pray this from the safety of my bedroom, but they were for the person I was praying with. And now this is her prayer, not mine.

And as much as I wanted to love her enemies, because, you now…Jesus, the next words flowed easily from my lips.

    …let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

Why would we cage people like this? If we are going to detain would-be asylum seekers, why would we not do so in a humane way? The simple answer is that we have other priorities for our resources. We cannot afford to treat humanely because the desires of our hearts go in a different direction. We are not concerned for her well-being. The desires of our hearts have nothing to do with human dignity, for the “least of these.”

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,

    those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

But there is a deeper issue. How could one human treat another human being like this? How could they laugh and mock at detainees? How could people get on TV and act as if they were proud of what we are doing? How could they see the degradation of people on their TVs, feel a small tinge of pity, and then go eat a full dinner? How can we as a nation do this, and not feel the slightest sense of guilt?

4 The wicked are so proud that they care not for God; *

    their only thought is, “God does not matter.”

They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken; *

    no harm shall happen to me ever.”

11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,

    he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

As I am praying this, I see myself in the cage with this unidentified woman, I see the world from her perspective, and the words of the psalm continue to form the prayer I am praying with her. I see the world from her point of view, and the psalm leads me to some really uncomfortable places–uncomfortable for me at least, but if were really the woman in the cage, these words might flow easily from my lips. She may be praying about the gangs in her homeland, or the people who have locked her up, and taken her children away.

7 Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression; *

    under their tongue are mischief and wrong.

 8 They lurk in ambush in public squares

and in secret places they murder the innocent; *

    they spy out the helpless.

 9 They lie in wait, like a lion in a covert;

they lie in wait to seize upon the lowly;

    they seize the lowly and drag them away in their net.

10 The innocent are broken and humbled before them;

    the helpless fall before their power.

Who could blame her for such a prayer? Who could blame her for looking at the people who put her there, and taking these words of the psalm to heart? She is helpless, and she came pleading for help, pleading for an escape from the hell she has endured, and instead of finding help from the hands of the most powerful nation on earth, they have thrust her into a new hell.

But the prayer does not end with her in despair. She, and I, continues to look to God as our savior.

12 Rise up, O LORD;

lift up your hand, O God; *

    do not forget the afflicted.

 13 Why should the wicked revile God? *

    why should they say in their heart, “You do not care”?

14 Surely, you behold trouble and misery; *

    you see it and take it into your own hand.

I have never had to pray these words for myself. Any afflictions I have suffered were small, and manageable. I have never been in the kind of trouble that I could not get my own self out of. In other words, I have never felt the blunt oppression she feels. But when I pray this with and for her, the words have new meaning for me.

There is a sense that in prayer, we are supposed to get out of our own heads, and somehow enter the heart of God. I have religiously prayed the Psalms, but this is the first time I have ever prayed them for another person like this. There have been Psalms that touched me personally, at times when I did have troubles, or at times when I felt remarkable close to God, but this was different. I have probably prayed this Psalm more than 50 times, but never as I prayed it that morning. I realize now that I am not praying these just for myself, but others as well. As I continue to pray through the Psalms, a new cast of characters will join me. I am no longer praying just for myself. I am now praying for the world. Psalms that I used to utter mindlessly will take on a new meaning for me, and I hope and pray, through God’s Spirit, that these prayers will bring me closer to God, and to all of God’s children.

And it makes real convictions that are in my heart, but only in theory. So now I pray the final words of the Psalm with new hope, because I know more about who I am praying with now.

17 The LORD is King for ever and ever; *

    the ungodly shall perish from his land.

 18 The LORD will hear the desire of the humble; *

    you will strengthen their heart and your ears shall hear;

 19      To give justice to the orphan and oppressed, *

    so that mere mortals may strike terror no more.


Posted in Compassion, Current Events, Devotional, Evil, Immigration, Lament, Mission, Old Testament, Prayer, Psalms, religion and politics, Social Justice, Social Ministry, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Persistence of Memory



Memory and the Magic of Music

A few years ago I was relaxing on the Saturday night before Easter. The sermon had been written and rehearsed, the service was all set to go, and I could just sit back for the evening and take it easy. I had the public radio station on, and as I was sitting there, I heard the familiar strains of the overture to Jesus Christ Superstar. I had not heard that in years, decades. But suddenly I was transported back the early 1970s, when Superstar was all the rage, and to my high school youth groups, and especially to a church camp I attended, where we used the soundtrack as background for a skit we did for the final night. I found myself singing along, remembering every word of the whole rock opera.

Have you ever had that experience? Where you hear a song, and it brings you back top another time?  Its funny how music can do that. Since I listen to a lot of music, that happens a lot to me. A song will evoke strong memories of high school or college, of people, of places, of things I was thinking and feeling at the time. I hear Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and I am back in 11th grade, trying to figure things out. I hear Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy, and I am in an old Ford Fairlane with Jimmy Fredrickson and Charlie Elberson, running around town. I hear Grooving by the Young Rascals, and I am back in the summer of fourth grade, lying by Bolton pool on a hot summer afternoon. I hear Amy Grant’s version of O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I am back in Germany, cooking the kitchen of our dorm, talking about Christmas traditions in America and Germany with friends.

Music evokes many memories, almost all of them very good memories.

Sometimes, when I feel down, I’ll put on some music from a particularly happy period in my life, and more often than not, I feel better.

The Psalms and Memories

In the Psalm we heard today, the Psalmist is doing the same thing. He feels down.

1I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, that he may hear me.

2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted.

Like the author of last week’s psalm, this guy has the blues. He is downcast, and tired. He has troubles.

But we are not going to focus on his troubles this week. We are not going to focus on how badly his life is messed up. We are not going to focus on what has him down and why. We are going to look at what he does to deal with his difficulties. What does he do?

Memory. He remembers.

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD;

I will remember your wonders of old.

12I will meditate on all your work,

and muse on your mighty deeds.

He knows that he is down and out, but that God is a great God. He may feel that he is cornered by adversity, but he knows that God always roams free. He may feel that he is powerless, but he knows that God is powerful.

The more he looks at the world around him, the more depressed he gets. The more he looks at God, the more hope he has. When he looks around, or when he looks the future, he feels afraid, but when he looks to the past, to what God has done, he feels confident.

14You are the God who works wonders;

you have displayed your might among the peoples.

15With your strong arm you redeemed your people,

The Psalmist remembers how God called Abraham, how God led the children of Israel out of bondage, out of the slavery in Egypt. He remembers the times when God acted in a powerful and decisive way, and when he remembers that, he knows that God can act again.

Remember the Story

There are other Psalms like this, and many of them, after recounting their woes, immediately recount the mighty acts of God. In fact, that is why we have most of the books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy are all mostly stories–stories about God and how God interacts with the Hebrews. If the legal parts, what you have to do to maintain favor with God, were all that were important, then why have the other stuff? Why the stories of Abraham, or Moses? Why the stories of Samuel, Elijah and Elisha? Why the stories of David, Saul, Solomon, and the other kings of Judah and Israel? We don’t need those, do we?

Of course we do. Think back on how these stories have been important to people over the years. African-Americans, ripped from their homelands, enslaved, often in brutal conditions, read the stories of the Hebrew children enslaved by the Pharaohs, and they know they are not alone. They read of Moses liberating the people, and they have hope. When Martin Luther was seeing what his platform for reform was doing to the church, setting Christian against Christian, he read the story of Abraham, who answered God’s call, even in adversity and he was comforted by God’s continual faithfulness to Abraham. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was standing up almost alone against Hitler in Germany, he was able to take comfort in the story of Elijah, who thought he was standing alone as a prophet of God, but who learned that there were multitudes who stood for truth and justice, and he was not alone.

When churches go through hard times, when they feel they are out in a desert, wandering around, not making any progress, they can remember the children of God in the Sinai, who were also wandering, who were also a bit lost, who were not where they wanted to be. And they can take comfort that God was with the Hebrews in the desert, and they can know that God is with them as the wander in the desert of the modern world.

When people today feel the brunt of oppression, they too can read the story of Moses, and they can hope that God will hear their cries, and will deliver them from the brunt of poverty, from homelessness, from depression, from illnesses, from grief, from loneliness, from overwhelming doubt.

The Psalmist knew that we all go through through hard times, and wisely called the people to reflect on God’s gracious acts in the past, as they struggle with the adversity of the present. They encourage to look at what God has done, so we can hope in what God will do.

Communion and Memory

It is too bad that this text comes this Sunday in the lectionary and not next week, because next week is communion. Every month when we gather around the table, we do this, we repeat the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Again, we are called to remember. Again, we are encouraged to think back as we look ahead. Again, we are called to consider what God has done, as we look ahead to what we hope God will do. But this calls us to look specifically at Jesus, and more specifically at Jesus sitting with the disciples the night he was arrested, the night before he was crucified.

Remember. Remember that Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, the Word of God, Jesus, the full revelation of God in human flesh, the King of Kings, the prince of peace, this Jesus suffered too. Jesus suffers with us. Early in his life, Jesus was a refugee, having to move to Egypt because of political repression under Herod in Bethlehem. By the time Jesus was in his thirties, he lost his father. He was an itinerant preacher, who, as he said, had no real place to lay his head. His closest followers were constantly misunderstanding his mission and message. On a couple of occasions, his preaching caused him to lose followers, and few times, his listeners tried to kill him. He lost a good friend, Lazarus, and wept at his death. (OK, he also raised him from the dead, but he still shed tears before hand.) Finally his most trusted adviser betrayed him, and all of his followers deserted him. He was brutally whipped, and then executed with the most brutal form of execution known to human beings.


And remember that God raised Jesus from the dead. Remember that God did not leave him in the tomb. Remember that the third day God glorified Jesus, he vindicated his death, not by punishing the people who had him killed, but by raising him from the dead, and then offering that new life to all his followers. Remember that he was left for died, is risen to new life. Remember that  while he was alive, Jesus taught us a new way of being, a new way of living, a way based on love and service, based on a radical connection that we all have with our fellow human beings, a new way based on God’s never ending love for us.

In My Life

And remember what God has done in your life. The works of God did not end when the last words of the Bible were written–they continue today.  God is at work in this church. I think of changed lives, I think of countless little acts of grace, I think of worship, and how God connects with us through the Holy Spirit, and how that connects us to God. I think of the baptisms that have occurred here, those I did, and those that happened before I got here, where we formally recognize that someone is a child of God. I think of communion, where we gather around a table, a common table, eat from a common loaf, drink from a common cup, in recognition that we are all bound together in love by God.

I think of the mission of the church, this church, how we reach out to a wide variety of people, from the homeless to receive food, and acceptance here, to the visitors who happen to wander in here on any given Sunday morning, to Jazz lovers, who appear here on Sunday evenings, to each and every one of you have who made this your church home.

And remember what God has done in your lives, how God has changed you over the years, how God has touched you, how God has intervened in your lives. God is not a distant being who dwells in a galaxy far, far away. God, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, dwells with us here. God is here with us, in the building, at this time. God is with you as you drive home today. God is in your homes. God is in your hearts.

I was at Presbytery this weekend in Ashland. I saw a lot of people I have not seen in a while, and of course when you see someone like that, you ask, “How’s it going?” I had a hard time answering that. If I had been truthful, I would have said, “It’s actually been kind of hard. It started when our dishwasher leaked all over our kitchen floor, and now we are in an unplanned remodeling project. Then I ended up in the hospital for a couple of days, under observation. The day I got out, one of our cars had to go the shop with transmission problems. After we took care that, I sat down to write a sermon, and my computer died. Dead. Totally. I got a new computer, but the hard drive was smaller, so they could not put all music on it. I have a very significant music library on my computer, one that I have been working on for twenty years, and while I was connecting my external hard drive to the computer so I could play music, I accidentally deleted it. All of it.

At one point I was feeling sorry for myself, when my wife intervened. “Look at what you have! Yes, you were in the hospital, but it turned out to be not as serious as it could have been, and you were released with a clean bill of health. The car is under warranty. Insurance is covering part of the kitchen remodel. And you can afford a new computer. Do you think God has abandoned you?”

She was right. As it turned out, the computer people were able to recover all my music. God has blessed me in so many ways. I have the natural ability to do the work I love doing, and God led me here, a town I love, and a church I love. God led me to a wife I love, and who loves me. I look back on my life, and I realize just how blessed I am. A song rises in my heart. Several songs.

Joyful, Joyful, we adore, God of Glory, Lord of love.

Hearts unfold like flowers before thee

Opening to the sun above

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;

Drive the dark of doubt away.

Giver of immortal gladness,

Fill us with the light of day!




Posted in Communion, Community, Hope, Joy, Lament, Psalms, Relationships, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Shall Know the Blues–and the Blues Will Set You Free



The Delta Blues

If you leave Memphis, Tennessee and drive south, you run right into the Mississippi delta. The Delta takes in parts of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that lie between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. This area contains the richest soil in the country, yet is home to some of the poorest people. Before the civil war, there were five slaves to every free man in the region. Starting in the early 1800s cotton was king there, and slaves were imported to pick it. Unfortunately the agricultural methods they used depleted the richness of the soil, and eventually the rolling hills and swamps of the delta gave way to flat, harsh soil. After the war, it was home to sharecroppers, and remained so through much of the 20th century. This was one of the last areas in the country to get electricity, or indoor plumbing.

It is also, as best as anyone can figure out, home to one of the unique forms of American music–the blues.

The blues are clearly rooted in African music, but no one has quite figured out quite how. Musicologists have done a lot of work trying to make the connection, but all they can find are traces.

One of the major differences between the blues and traditional African music is the nature of words, and the role of the singer. In African music, the songs connect the people to their past. Most of the music centers around the griot, the village bard, who is the keeper of the history. Often the griot is more respected in his village or tribe than the elders and leaders of the tribe. It was his job to be the keeper of the flame for the stories that nurtured the village, and they played a role that was closer to that of a Celtic bard, or of Homer and the Iliad and the Odyssey, than to blues singers of the Mississippi Delta. African music was the music of kings, and tribal leaders, of the many success in the history of the tribe. The blues is the music of slaves, prison work gangs, and share croppers, who live in some of the poorest regions of the country.

When Robert Johnson sings about walking to the station, with her suitcase in his hands, you know things are not going to turn out well. Indeed as the title of the says, it is Love in Vain. When Son House sings, “I woke up this morning, feeling ’round for my shoes,” you know he is not waking up from a peaceful sleep. He was sleeping alone, missing the comforts of love.

“Don’t a man feel bad the Good Lord’s sun go down?/He don’t have nobody to throw his arms around” 

And then he sings to his listeners,

“The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown, shaking chill/If you ain’t had them, I hope you never will.”

Ted Gioia, author of the book, Delta Blues, says “the delta blues has closer affinities to the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century than to the minstrel song and medicine show ditties that are so often seen as anticipating its arrival on the scene.” It is a universal music, and yet it comes from places like Itta Bene, Lyon, Teoc, or Hazelhurst, Mississippi, homes of BB King, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, or Robert Johnson, respectively.

When this music, the music of sharecroppers, most often performed at fish fries, working in the fields, or on the street corner, was first heard by the world, in the 1920s when the phonograph made it possible to hear recordings of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Tommy Johnson, it took off like wildfire. W.C. Handy first heard it sung on a train, by a young man with a guitar, and while he was drawn to it, he felt it was too primitive for polite society. At the time Handy had a traveling show, and one night he opened it to local performers. Three young men came up and did a blues number, the kind of music Handy heard on the train. Handy felt the music was beyond contempt, and was waiting for the audience to boo the performers off the stage. He was surprised at the end of the number when the audience showered the performers with silver dollars, “more,” Handy realized, that what his whole nine piece band would make the night for a full show. That is when Handy decided to become the Father of the Blues, and wrote The Memphis Blues and the St. Louis Blues.

Of course the music became popular. Who here has never had the blues? Who here has gone to bed missing someone you love? Who here has been in an airport, or train terminal, wondering if you will ever go back to a place you love? Who here has loved someone who did not love you back? Who has been in a relationship where you thought to yourself, the thrill is gone? Who here has sat in the ER, or by a hospital bed? Who here has heard bad news from doctors? Who here has looked at the world, and felt it was just overwhelming?

Who here has ever felt that God was somehow absent from your lives?

If you have ever felt any of those things, then you have had the blues. You may not like the music, but you can resonate with the feelings behind it.


Ancient Blues

I bring all this up because the Psalmist who wrote today’s Psalms certainly has the blues. There is a song in our hymnal that is loosely based on this Psalm, As the Deer.

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you. You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you. It is a song about someone who loves God so much, that they want to be closer to God, and the melody of the song is hopeful.

But the Psalms, 42 and 43, are not upbeat, hopeful songs about people who love the Lord, and just want more of Jesus in their lives. If the author of this Psalm ever set it to music, it would be the blues. Think about what it is saying. Think of a deer, out in the desert, thirsty, with no water in sight. Sure, that deer hopes for water. It is gonna die without it. Look at verse 3.

My tears have been my food

day and night,

while people say to me continually,

“Where is your God?”

The Psalmist remembers going to the house of God with joy–he even remembers leading others in a grand procession to house of God, “with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.”

But now?

“Why are you downcast, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?”

Later on he says

Deep calls to deep

at the thunder of your cataracts;

all your waves and your billows

have gone over me.

The abyss of his life reaches out and finds only more empty space, and the waves of adversity crash over him, not like the gentle waves of the beach, but with hurricane force. Why?

I say to God, my rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?

And this is not just a personal sense of agony. He is not alone in his misery. He has companions, but they are hardly the time of companions anyone would wish to have.

As with a deadly wound in my body,

my adversaries taunt me,

while they say to me continually,

“Where is your God?”

The Psalmist is looking for hope, but things are spiraling down. Instead of finding comfort from friends, he is surrounded by adversaries, who taunt him. In the word of Mississippi Fred McDowell, “I asked for whiskey, and she gave me gasoline.”


Psalm 42 and 43, which most scholars think are really just one Psalm, are a lament, a cry to God, a cry for help. Laments are found throughout the whole of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament. The book of Job and Lamentations are both laments, from start to finish. There are many Psalms of lament. Laments are found throughout the works of the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, and much of the book of Romans harks back to laments in the Old Testament. When Paul says, in Romans 7, For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? he is singing a lament, as he is in Romans 8 where he says, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

A lament is just an ancient form of the blues.

Most laments have three things in common. First, The person lamenting is in bad shape. Maybe he himself is suffering, or maybe he is recounting the sufferings of the nation. But someone is suffering. Second, the person feels an acute absence of God. In fact, it is often the absence of God that has caused the suffering. OK, enemies have overtaken our city and burned it to the ground, but that is because God did not protect us. OK, I am sick and suffering, but that is because God turned away from me. In other words, in biblical laments, the people crying out to God are often saying it is God’s fault they are in the trouble they are in. The third thing that most laments have in common, is that God will rescue them.

As the Psalmist says, Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, and again,  For you are the God in whom I take refuge.

Although the person who wrote Psalm 42/43 feels lost, and distant from God, he also writes,

O send out your light and your truth;

let them lead me;

let them bring me to your holy hill

and to your dwelling.

And the Psalmist knows that whatever his condition is, it is not permanent.

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

Or, in the words of Mississippi john Hurt, Ain’t nobody but you, God.


I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know why we

I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know why we get the blues. Part of me would love to live in a world where the blues made no sense at all, because no one was hurting. But that ain’t this world. We do hurt. We do suffer. We do get the blues.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann breaks the Psalms down into three separate types. The first he calls Psalms of Location. They tell us who we are. The 23rd Psalm, for example, tells us that we are sheep in God’s pasture, and that God looks after us. The second he calls Psalms of Dislocation. We wandered away from the shepherd and now we are hopelessly lost. The third he calls the Psalms of Relocation. Once we were lost, but now we are found.

We live in a healthy state. That is our location. Then we get sick. We experience dislocation. What is our relocation? It may be not always be that we get healthy right away. It may be that we learn to live with whatever is making us sick, and we come to grips with it. We become stronger and wiser. We learn new skills to adapt. We learn our limits, and we learn to live to the fullest within those limits.

We are in a relationship. That is our location. The relationship ends, maybe because one or the other moved on, or maybe because someone left, or maybe because someone dies. That is dislocation. Then we learn to deal with the loss. We learn from our mistakes, if we that was the reason for the end of the relationship. Or we learn to live with ourselves in a new way. The dislocation stops being the major thing in our lives, and we learn to live a new life.

We are a successful, large church. Then, something happens. The neighborhood changes, maybe there is a series of disasters that occur in the church, maybe we lose some important members. We find ourselves dislocated. But then we work our way through it. We learn news ways to exist, new ways to minister, new ways to be the people of God.

In the that is what it is all about. We are in a relationship with God. Things are good in our spiritual lives. That is our location. But then comes the dislocation, and we feel far from God. We feel that God has abandoned us, or maybe we feel the shame and guilt that comes when we walk away from God. But the dislocation is never the final answer. Never.

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

We find ourselves in a new location, we find we have a new relationship with God. Yes we sing the blues. But those who sing the blues are saying that the blues will not get them down, no matter how down and out they sound when they sing. Singing the blues is an act of defiance against them. If we cannot name our troubles, we can never control them. They will control us. The psalmists, the prophets, the evangelists of the Bible know that, and they sing and write laments. Not so that they can admit defeat, but so they can celebrate the eventual victory of God. We celebrate the new place we will be, in God.


Posted in Blues, Delta Blues, Lament, Preaching, Psalms, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A new, improved portrait of Hubble's deepest-ever view of the universe, called the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, in the constellation Fornax


The Universe and Us

I want to start this by asking you to look at the photo here.  Few years ago some scientists pointed the Hubble Deep Space telescope into what looked like an empty part of space. This is the picture they got from it.

It looks like a lot of stars, but actually there are only a few stars in that picture. The rest are galaxies–ten thousand, give or take a thousand. One of these galaxies is the furtherest away from us–13.4 billion light years away. You probably know this, but a light year is the distance a ray of light travels in one year. Now just to give you an idea of how fast that is, imagine you could shoot a bullet that would go all the way around the world, and hit you in the back after it made its trip. (Obviously this is an accidental shooting.) Now if the bullet were traveling at regular speed, around 17,00 mph, it would take it about 14 and half hours to get back to you. At the speed of light, it would go through you eight times before you could fall to the ground. So it took the light from that galaxy more than 13 billion years to get here. In other words, when we look at this picture, we are looking at light that is between a billion and thirteen billion years old.



Now each of these points of light in the picture is a galaxy. Our galaxy is the Milky way, which contains between 200 and 400 billion stars, and maybe as many as 100 billion planets. This small area of space that the Hubble Telescope photographed, contains around 10,000 galaxies.

Our minds really cannot grasp that. If the sun were the size of a basketball, then Mercury, the closest planet, would be the size of a pin, and 12 yards away. That is about right here. Venus would be 22 yards away, still the size of the head of a pin, and earth would be 31 yards away. Mars would be 47 yards away, about half the length of a football field. Jupiter would 162 years, a football field and a half. Saturn clocks in at 297 yards, three football fields. Uranus is a third of a mile away, Neptune is half a mile away, which is the distance between here and the I-5 bridge over Hawthorne Park. Pluto, which is no longer a planet, would be about three fourths a mile away, which is the distance between and the Tinsel Town Cinemas (or Butter Cloud Bakery, whichever you prefer.)

The nearest star would be 4,300 miles away. That is about almost a thousand miles more than the distance between Medford, and Key West, Florida.

This is the universe we find ourselves in. Does it make you feel small?

Well, let’s stay on the earth. Scientists reckon the earth is four and half billion years old. Imagine if we could scrunch all that time into a 24-hour day. The very first life would appear around 4 am. Between four am and the 8:30 pm, almost nothing happens. At 8:30 we get the first microbes, followed 20 minutes later by the first jelly fish. Around 10 pm, we start to get plants, and by 10:24 we get trees. Dinosaurs show up around 11 pm, and have their fifteen minutes in the sun. We start to see the first mammals around 11:39. The first human appears one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight, and all of recorded human history takes place just a few seconds before midnight.

We are a blip on this earth, compared to mountains, seas, and the first vestiges of life.

As wide as the universe is, and as old as it is, what are human beings? We are an insignificant speck.

Trinity Sunday–the Ineffable complexity of God

And what if we bring God into the picture?

Today is Trinity Sunday. We get to sing Holy, Holy, Holy, and I get to wax eloquent, or incomprehensible, and about Trinitarian theology. We sang Holy, holy, holy, but I am not going to go into the theology of the Trinity. All I will say is that compared to the universe, God is infinitely more complex. Just like we cannot really wrap our heads about what 13.4 billion light years is like, nor can we wrap our heads about the Triune God of creation who formed the universe.

This universe we live in helps us understand God, and the glory of God. As we reflect, as best we can, on the vastness of creation, we are quickly reminded that God is more vast than the universe. As we reflect on time, and how long the universe has been in existence, we are reminded that our creator existed before the universe, outside of time, which is also something else we cannot wrap our heads around.

Listen to the words of Psalm 8,

O LORD, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

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?

So who are we? To quote this Psalm in the Old King James, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

Given all I have so to this point, what is our role in creation? Given what I have said about the vastness of creation and of God, where do we fit into the picture? What is our place in the universe, and in the eyes of God?

Psalm 8 gives us that answer:

…you have made them a little lower than God,

and crowned them with glory and honor.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

You may know that thought activity in the human brain is composed of neurons firing in our heads. There are more neurons in your head than there are stars in our galaxy. Each neuron is connected to other neurons by synapses, and each neuron has around 40,000 synapses. There are more connections in your brain than there are stars in the universe! The activity in one brain alone, your brain, is more complex than the workings of the universe. Each one of you has a universe of activity in your heads.

The Psalmist says we were made just a little lower than God. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is lambasting some members of the church for bringing lawsuits against other members. And in the middle of his screed, he says something very strange: Do you not know that we are to judge angels–to say nothing of ordinary matters?

We are extraordinary beings!


What does that mean for us?

Well, first it means that the most important thing in our lives are relationships.  Every time I preach on Trinity Sunday, I always say that one implication of a Triune God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is that the Christian God is defined by relationships. Without the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, the God of Christianity disappears. God is essentially a series of relationships.

We share the image of God, which means we have a kinship with one another. You are intimately related to every other human being, whether they are the person sitting next to you in the pew, the person sitting in city hall and other halls of power, the person sitting on a bench in Alba Park, the person sitting in a prison, the people sitting around your table at home, or the person sitting in a detention center in Texas or Arizona. We are all one, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.


Now only are we in relationship with one another, we are also in a relationship with all creation. And we have a special relationship to creation. Most beings live within creation. God has put us over creation.

The Psalmist says, when talking about human beings:

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet,

This is just not a theological assertion. You can see it as you look around the world. Humans are capable of mastering many, many aspects of creation. We are the only species that is able to take two separate elements of creation, and mix them together to make a third thing. We do that in everything from cooking to metallurgy. But the theology gives us a context for our dominion over nature.

The Psalmist uses language here that is very specific. The Hebrew words refer to the role of a king, and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the translators use the Greek word “crowned.” The Psalmist is not saying we have power over nature. That is a secular understanding. The Psalmist is saying that we are like kings and queens over nature. This is different from saying we have power over nature.

What is the difference? If the Psalmist were just saying we have power over nature, that implies our power is rather unlimited. There are natural boundaries to our power. We cannot go faster than the speed of light, we cannot go back in time, we cannot turn lead into gold. We have to obey the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. But other than that, our power is limitless.

But a king or queen–that is different. Royalty does have power, and that was especially true when the Psalmist wrote this. But a king or queen also has a strong sense of responsibility for their subjects. In the biblical sense, that means they are responsible for the general welfare of the people. If the people suffer, it is the sovereign’s job to alleviate that suffering. If the people are under attack, is it the sovereign’s job to defend them.

The king or queen also has a responsibility to God. The Bible actually rates the kings of Israel and Judah according to their faithfulness to God. Some of the kings, who led their people to economic prosperity were ranked very low on the scale of the biblical standard, because they were not faithful to God.

So what is this biblical standard? It was actually pretty simple. First, to worship no idols themselves. Second, to keep the people from worshiping idols. For the third, I am going to read a part of another Psalm, Psalm 72. This Psalm was written when Solomon became king after David, and was a prayer for the success of his reign.

Here is part of it.

8 May he [the king] have dominion from sea to sea,

    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

9 May his foes bow down before him,

    and his enemies lick the dust.

10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles

    render him tribute,

may the kings of Sheba and Seba

    bring gifts.

11 May all kings fall down before him,

    all nations give him service.

Why is the king receiving all these accolades?

12 For he delivers the needy when they call,

    the poor and those who have no helper.

13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,

    and saves the lives of the needy.

14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

    and precious is their blood in his sight.

This is the kind of king God seeks. And when the Psalmist says we have dominion over the earth, that we are kings and queens of creation, this is the kind of rule God desires. As kings over creation, we will worship no idols, and we will care for our subjects, especially when they are powerless and need someone to care for them.

What does this mean for us, as we exercise dominion over creation?


Creation Needs Our Care

Currently there is an island of plastic floating in the Pacific that covers an area of 617,800 square miles. Now to put that in perspective, the state of Oregon is 98,466 square miles. This island of plastic is 6 and quarter times larger than Oregon. It is almost four times the size of the state of California!

On Thursday of this week, in one day, 2 billion tons of ice melted in Greenland. The 20 warmest years since they started measuring this occurred in the last 22 years. The last five years have been the hottest five years on record. When I lived in Alaska, we could see it getting warmer year by year. The year before we left they had a record number of 70 degree days. The next year we had a record number of 80 degree days, and the next year was a record number of 90 degree days, and now they are having record numbers of 100 degree days. In Fairbanks, Alaska!

It is natural to have one to five species go extinct every year. That is to be expected. That is a natural baseline number. But these days species are going extinct at 1,000 times that rate. Now the species going extinct are not elephants, or lions or other big animals, although many of their numbers are falling. They are much smaller species, the ones we do not notice. But when the smaller species go extinct, that affects the whole food chain.

In other words, the earth is hurting. Creation is hurting. That is the bad news.



But remember who we are! We are just a little lower than God! We are kings and queens of creation! We have the capacity to be benevolent rulers. There are things we can do. Angelee and I are looking for ways we can reduce plastics in our lives, ways we use less energy, ways we can lower any negative impact on our creation. The church has replaced all our florescent lights with led lighting. The education committee is working on a way of talking about Earth care, so we can all learn more about what we can do. Right now Angelee and I working on a home Bible study for ourselves, that gives some ideas for how we can better exercise responsible sovereignty.

Some we can do are easy. Some take sacrifice. But that is what it means to be a sovereign. We are not powerless. We don’t have to just let all this happen.

“…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

That is a quote from the comic book Spiderman, but it is one of those sayings that resonates far beyond who said it. We have great power. Let us also exercise great responsibility.



Posted in Climate Emergency, Current Events, Psalms, Sermons, Social Justice, Social Ministry, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Theology, Trinity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Out of this World



Sailing Ships

About ten years ago I started reading the novels of Patrick O’Brien. If you are familiar with his work, you know he writes about the captain of a sailing ship in the early 1800s. He writes about the ship as if you already know what a mizzen, a fighting top, or fo’c’sle is. Now I have done a little sailing in my time, in small boats, but his books sent me to the Internet so I could know what he was writing about when he says the foresail ripped, and slung around the top, tearing the stay, and pulling the bowsprit.

But the thing that really impressed me when I read his accounts of sailing ships in the 19th century was how much work and knowledge it takes to run one. Every one of the crew has responsibilities, and if they don’t carry them out to a T, the ship will be one heckuva mess. It won’t go anywhere, and will just circle around in the harbor. Many of the men on the boats have been working on ships since they were children.

On the other hand, the men can work all they want, they can do everything perfectly, but if there is no wind, the ship will move. Oh they can row it, and sometimes they did have to row boats out of a harbor, but wind was what they needed if they wanted to sail the bounding seas. A ship could be making its way to the New World, making excellent time, but if the wind died, they were dead in the water.

When I think of the mission of the church, I think of sailing ships. There is a lot to do. Running a food bank, a Wednesday Night Live program, Jazz Vespers, or a housing program is as complicated as getting a sailing ship from one place to another. People have to know what they are doing, and there is a lot of work to do. But without the Holy Spirit, we have no wind in our sails, and eventually find ourselves dead in the water.


The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. If you remember when I preached on this in Lent, I said that the King James Version of the Bible uses the words “Holy Ghost,” but the reason they do is because back then English was much more dependent on German for its vocabulary. The German word for Spirit is geist, and they refer to the Holy Spirit as the Heilige Geist, whereas the Latin is Spiritum Sanctum, and over time the English word Ghost become used more for creatures like Caspar, while the word Spirit began to refer more and more to God’s Spirit, or the spirit of people.

The Holy Spirit is found all over the Bible, not just the New Testament. In the Old Testament, at the beginning of Creation, the Spirit hovered over the waters, and was said to come upon prophets and kings throughout the Bible.

In the New Testament, we see the work of the Spirit from beginning to end. In the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, we read that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and at the end of the Gospels, promises the Spirit to his disciples. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” he tells them. Meaning the Holy Spirit will be the wind in their sails as they do ministry and establish the church. The last few verses of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, says, “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

That is God’s final promise to us in the Bible, that the Spirit will call us to the waters of life.

And in between Genesis and Revelation there is a wealth of material on the Holy Spirit, and how the Holy Spirit works in humanity. Paul writes of the gifts of the Spirit, which include wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. He also talks about the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If you want to know if the Holy Spirit is at work in a church, look for these things, not the size of their building, or the number of people they get into the pew every week. If you want to know whether God is at work in a person, or a ministry, look at these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.If those things are absent, then so is the Spirit.


I have heard and preached sermons on Pentecost

I have heard and preached sermons on Pentecost where it was asked, “If the Holy Spirit were absent from your church, what would you miss?”

Imagine a world where we lost all our knowledge of music. We had not instruments, we did not know what singing is, even things like drumbeats were unknown to us. And imagine that we found a treasure trove of music scores that survived whatever caused us to lose the knowledge of music. On the back of the our musical appreciate list is a small part of the score to   Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony. Look at it. Can you make heads or tails of it? Some of you can, but for those of you who cannot read music, these are all just squiggles on a page. If you had the whole score, you could discern patterns and repetitions. You might even appreciate the order of the marks on the page. But you would know nothing of Beethoven’s Sixth.

A spiritual life without the Holy Spirit is something like that. It is like notes on a page without any appreciation of what the music those notes represent is really like. I have met pastor in my time, and fortunately not many of them, for whom preaching was an exercise in motivational speaking, or a source of entertainment, or even just something they had to do every Sunday morning. They had little understanding of the Spirit behind it. Sometimes some of my sermons may come off that way. Because you cannot control the Holy Spirit.


No Three Point Program

I wish I could give you a three point program on how to get the Holy Spirit into your life, or into the life of this church. I wish I could give you some kind of formula on how to pull the Holy Spirit into you. But it doesn’t work that way.

When I was still in graduate school, I was a part of a singles group in a church. It was a great group, full of people who I would say were spirit-filled people. Our program was going strong, and the leaders of the group decided we would plan a weekend retreat for the group. We found a place to hold the retreat, and we put down a deposit for a weekend we had chosen. Everything was going great. The church supported us, and the group was excited about the retreat.

Then the leadership team got together to plan the program for the retreat; to choose a topic, and a speaker. And that is where it all fell apart. We could not agree on a topic. We could not agree on a speaker. Our meeting was not contentious. It was just frustratingly unproductive. We. Were. Stuck.

So we ended up doing something that surprised everyone, including ourselves. We decided to cancel the retreat. We paid the deposit for the camp back to the church out of our own pockets, which was a pretty big sacrifice for us. We realizes that, for reasons we could not understand, the Holy Spirit was not with us.

So we waited. About six months later, at one of our planning sessions, someone brought us the idea of the retreat again. We all kind of groaned inside, or at least I did, but the conversation went incredibly well. Ideas flowed easily, and before we knew it, we had all agreed on a topic, as well as a speaker. We put another deposit back on the camp. We announced it to the group, and every bunk in the camp was full. The speaker was all we hoped for, and the retreat was, by all accounts, a smashing success.

What changed? The presence of the Holy Spirit. Our first, failed planning session was like trying to row a canoe upstream a terribly swift river. The second time it was like flowing down the same river. It took none of our energy. We depended on the energy of the spirit. We had not done anything wrong the first time. But the spirit was not in it. The second time we felt the Holy Spirit guiding us.

The same can be said of ministries here. Many have flowed as easily as canoeing downstream. Others have been a struggle.

Now that is not to say we should not work hard at everything we do. Remember the sailing ship I talked about earlier? But it does mean that when God is in it, when the Spirit is present, we can feel the difference in our work. You still have to paddle when you go down stream. But the paddling is a lot easier!



There Are Three Things

That said, there are three things we can do to make sure we are working with the Spirit. The first is to pray. If we are not praying about the ministries we are engaged in, from our music program to our social outreaches, we are going to find it hard slogging. Prayer will ease the way. Prayer invites in the Holy Spirit, it makes a place for the Spirit to work.

We can wait. God’s timing is not always our timing. Sometimes we get all excited about something, or we caught up in the latest emergency, and we act before the Spirit is involved. I am especially prone to that! But there are times when we just have to wait.

And then we act with all boldness. Just because the Spirit is involved does not mean we will have success by the standards of the world. In the Gospel lesson this morning we heard Jesus say that the Spirit is “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The world will not always understand or appreciate what we do. That is because we are led by a power that is out of this world.

The world thinks of music as entertainment. For us, it is a special type of worship. The world values prestige and power. We value the worth of every human being, especially those with no prestige or power. The world values things that produce tangible results. We value relationships before results. The world values people who have a lot. We value people who give what little they may have.

The Holy Spirit is the basis for all we do. Without the Holy Spirit, we are a musical score, without the actual music, we are a ship that is dead in the water.


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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 20

The one where Qohelet talks about work.



18 Look, I have seen what is good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our share. 19 Also all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.



Finally! Qohelet tells us what is good!

Actually he has mentioned this before and now he come back to it. Eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your work.

I am pretty sure he is on to something important here. We spend close to the majority of our adult lives working. Our work is one of the most important things we do. It is central to who we are, as I have mentioned before.

A long time ago I decided that I would never choose my career solely based on how much money I could make. No one can really pay me what I am worth, and since I am spending much of my time at work, it is better to enjoy what I do rather than how much I make. I have been blessed in that I have liked or loved almost every job I have had, even my summer jobs in college and graduate school.

About ten years ago one of my parishioners came to me and said, “After I heard your sermon last week, I decided to quit my job.” To be honest I was scared. I could not remember what I said, and I knew this man had a family to support, and I was afraid I might be the cause of much suffering for them. But he went on.

“You asked us, ‘What would you do if you had a million dollars?’” I remembered saying that. “And then you said, ‘Why are you waiting for the money? If it’s really worth doing, then don’t wait for something that may never happen. Just go and do it.’ When you asked that question, the first thing I thought was that I would quit my job. I realized how strongly I felt that, and how much I hated my work. Then I realized I would never get a million dollars, but I can start looking for a new job.”

I was relieved he was not going to quit his job that very day, but he started the search on the Monday after the sermon. And within a month he found a new job, one he really liked. He moved up in that job, and became the head of his department. He continued to move up, and became in charge of the whole division. He ended up moving twice, and each time was a large promotion. He was moving up because he loved what he was doing, and other people could see that.

He realized what Qohelet did—one of the secrets to a fulfilling life is to enjoy what you do.

At the end of this section, Qohelet says that when we love what we do, we become preoccupied with it, and don’t have time to brood over the things we don’t have, or about what the future will bring. There are few things as fulfilling as a hard day at working doing something we enjoy.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. This is well and good for most people, but what about people who cannot find meaningful work? Someone has to pick up the garbage and clean the sewer systems. Is it possible that there is a meaningful job for every person? Is it possible that all jobs can be meaningful or enjoyable for someone?
  2. I have focused this discussion on work, but I don’t think that Qohelet is limiting what he says to paid labor. Can we do this in retirement?
  3. Are you enjoying the things that you do on a daily basis? What do you find enjoyable? If not, what you can do to change that?
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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 19

The one where Qohelet talks about money and wealth 



13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their own detriment, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.


In Mexico a group of kids were playing in a dump, and found some interesting metal balls that resembled marbles. They took them home, and over the next few weeks played with them. They and their families started getting sick. Soon their neighbors were getting sick.

It turned out that the marbles were radioactive pellets from a local medical center. The people who were supposed to take care of the waste cut corners, and threw it in the local dump. The shiny marbles were, in the end, instruments of death.

Qohelet looked in the lives of people around him and saw a different poison—wealth.[i] People were hoarding wealth, which had become an instrument of harm rather than of good. The Bible is consistently clear on this point—money, in and of itself, is not bad. But it can lead to great evil. The love of money, as Paul says in Timothy, is the root of all evil. Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. The Old Testament prophets, especially Amos, warn people that there money is going to separate them from the good things that God has for them.

As Qohelet sees it, the problem gets worse. A person accumulates great wealth, and then they lose it. The only thing worse than not having something is having it and losing it. Not only do the rich suffer when they lose their wealth—their children suffer as well.

The real tragedy here is when a person loses that very thing that gives their lives meaning. Remember, in the grand scheme of things, Qohelet sees all things as havel havelim—mere breath. Nothing is permanent. Everything is transitory, and can be lost. The tragedy of life is when we put too much stock in things that cannot sustain us. Again, this is not to say that money is bad. But it cannot sustain us over the long haul.

Now Qohelet is talking specifically about wealth, but this could apply to other things as well—family, a house, good health, pets, hobbies. All is, in the end, transitory. Anything we hoard, anything we value above all other things, has the ability to then poison us.

St. Augustine, after losing a very close friend, found the grief too much to bear, and decided he would never love another person again. That is also a mistake. The point is not to avoid all loves, but to love appropriately, knowing that in the end, all is havel, havelim.


Thoughts and Questions


  1. If you lost almost all your money, how would it affect your life? What would you be left with?
  2. In an episode of The Twilight Zone, a man loves to read, but is constantly thwarted by all the people around him—his wife, his boss, his co-workers. To make a long story short, there was a nuclear blast and he is left all alone. The only other intact building in the city is the public library, which for him is better than a gold mine. He is overjoyed, and makes stacks of the books he is planning to read. Finally he can read in peace. Just as he is picking up the first book in the first stack, he trips and breaks his glasses.


Breaking glasses would be a tragedy in any case, but in this case it is almost the ultimate tragedy. Why is the fact that he broke his glasses worse than the fact that he was the sole survivor of a nuclear blast?


[i] Israel was a cross roads for traders, and there were plenty of opportunities for at least some of its citizens to become very prosperous. Ecclesiastes was written in time when there was great wealth in the country, as well as inequality, and that forms part of the backdrop of Qohelet’s musings.


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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 18

The One where Qohelet says that satisfaction is hard to come by.  

Screenshot from Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher one, and there are yet higher ones over them. But all things considered, the gain of land is everything: a king is subject to a plowed field.


10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is mere breath.

11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.


Every day when I walk to work I go through the park across the church where a lot of our town’s homeless people hang out. I wonder if this is the best we can do for them. But I wonder what we can do for them. I’m afraid that one day I will get so used to seeing them that I will no longer really see them. They will just fade into an inevitable part of the landscape.

We may be so used to seeing the oppression of the poor that we don’t even notice it anymore. But in the Old Testament the treatment of the poor (in those days that meant orphans, widows and foreigners) was the hallmark of how successful and righteous the king was.[i]

Perhaps that was because people took care of one another in ancient Israel. (Many small towns in America used to be like that. When there was a need, people just pitched in to help.) And the king would set the example. But here Qohelet talks about seeing a place where the poor are not taken care of, and where there is little in the way of justice, and assumes that people would be astonished at that sad state of affairs.

“You shouldn’t be so surprised,” he says, and then gives a universal political rule. For every person in power, there is someone, or something, that has more power than they do.

In the song Badlands, Bruce Springsteen sings:

Poor man wanna be rich

rich man wanna be king

and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.”


But there are things that even a king cannot rule.

It may look like a king has ultimate authority, but even a king is subject to the law of the harvest. If the crops don’t grow, the king’s wealth and power diminishes. From there Qohelet tells us that the chasing after wealth is like chasing the wind. You things, and it is not long before you have more things than you can use. Either you are so busy working that you have no time to enjoy your things, or you have so many that you never get around to using them all.  Of what use are the things that you cannot use?

I look around my library as I write this. I have more books than I will ever be able to read, and yet I buy more. What good are they? They are good to look at, but that is about all. On my computer I have 112 days’ worth of music. I could listen to music, night and day, for 112 straight days! Who needs that much music? I don’t have time to go through a 112 day playlist. All I can do is look at the status bar that tells me I have 112 days worth of music, and then play the same 30 or 40 songs I usually listen to.

Mick Jagger was right. Getting satisfaction, true satisfaction, is hard.

The only good of many things is that we can see them with our eyes. They are like exercise equipment we never use. And of course, as Qohelet says, this is all like trying to herd the wind. It does not bring us any real fulfillment.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. It’s almost a tired cliché that riches do not bring us ultimate happiness, and yet we stubbornly cling to that notion. In Fiddler on the Roof, Perchek says, “money is the world’s curse,” and Tevye replied, “Then may God strike me down with it! And may I never recover!” What does money do for us? What does it not do?
  2. Qohelet says that if you look closely at a powerful person, you see someone even more powerful behind them. Who are the more powerful people (or things) that are behind you?
  3. Rabbi Shapiro writes, “The powerful protect their own, and there is no point getting worked up over this. Time spent trying to change the system is time wasted. Better to let the system consume itself through its own madness and folly while you focus on living well and wisely.” Do you disagree with this? If so, why?


[i] See Psalm 72. The king will know he has God’s favor because he treats the poor with justice, and the king will be acclaimed by the nations for the same reason. If you want guidance on how to pray for our political leaders, this is a good start. I pray this every day.

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