Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Church in Fifty Words

Awhile back, a person who has been regularly attending the church where I am pastor, and is also taking some seminary classes, shared with me one of her assignments.  Provide your definition of the church in fifty words or less.  She asked me if I would be willing to share my definition with her.
As someone who has done doctoral work in religion, my gut-level initial response to the question would be to do some research before offering a response.  There would be value in that, but I have thought enough about this and try to work out of some understanding of the church every day.  Instead of doing any research, I thought for a while and typed.  Here is the definition I came up with, and when I had finished it and checked for the number of words, it was exactly fifty.

The church is a community of people who have been touched by God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ and who are seeking to live in such a way, individually and together, that they grow in love of God and others, and witness to the grace of God in Jesus.

            So as someone who has a Ph.D. in religious studies, though ecclesiology was not my emphasis, I recognize that there are some things that could be added to this definition, some questions that are not answered in it.  At the same time, both theologically and pastorally, I think this definition has a lot to offer.  The church is about being touched and transformed by God as we know God in Jesus the Christ.  It is about living together in such a way that we grow in love and thereby witness, in word and deed, to the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus.
            There are more well-rounded and beautiful statements about the church.  I am glad to be working to help the church be more like the simple definition I offered.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, June 22, 2015

Remarks at a Prayer Vigil for the Charleston Shooting

These are the remarks I shared earlier today at St. Mark AME Church here in Duluth at a community prayer vigil.  I was honored to share the podium with other clergy: Rev Michael Gonzales (St. Mark AME), Rev. Kathy Nelson (Peace UCC), Rabbi David Steinberg (Temple Israel), as well as with others from the community.
I am pleased and honored to be here today at St. Mark.  Thank you, Pastor Gonzales, for welcoming us.  I have had the privilege of preaching and speaking from this pulpit before, and those were always joyous occasions. Today when my heart is heavy, and all our hearts are heavy, it is important to be here again.  Part of the poignancy of being here is that our churches, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church share some history, but it is filled with sadness.  We both have Methodist in our name, but the AME was created in 1816 because the larger Methodist tradition did not treat African-Americans well.
In Genesis 9, God’s covenant with humanity is symbolized by a rainbow.  A rainbow – not monochrome but Kodachrome, brilliantly colored.  It is our task as human persons to weave a beautiful tapestry, a multi-colored tapestry in the human community.  It is an on-going task.
Last Wednesday night at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC the fabric of our tapestry, of our community was violently ripped apart.  It was torn by hatred and violence – lethal hatred, weaponized violence.
We are here together to feel – to feel the tear in the fabric of our community, to feel grief, to feel sorrow.
I also hope that over time we will let sorrow do its work, let it seep deeply into our hearts and our souls to create tenderness and gentleness, a tenderness and gentleness that lead to action.
In tenderness and gentleness, let us find a way beyond racial hatred. The rainbow needs every hue, every cultural stitch.
In tenderness and gentleness, let us find a way to untie the knot between hatred and gun violence.  The struggle against hatred is a long, long struggle, but at least along the way perhaps we can avoid weaponizing hatred.

For today, though, perhaps feeling together, feeling together the tear in our community, feeling together our grief, feeling together our sorrow, perhaps for today that is task enough.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Not Quite Eugene Peterson

Where can I go from your Spirit, O God, or where can I flee from your presence?  If I head for my cabin every weekend from now until September, you are there.  When I leave for vacation, going near or far, you accompany me; your guidance I treasure, though I am still taking my GPS.  If I am on the golf course, even looking for my golf ball in the woods, you can find me (though the whereabouts of the golf ball may remain a mystery).  Even when I sneak away to my favorite secret fishing hole, I cannot escape you, though I trust you will keep the location a secret.

                                    Psalm 139, CNMV (Contemporary Northern Minnesota Version)

Just a little something that will be part of my upcoming church newsletter article.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Baseball season began this week, and I look forward to that.  I enjoy baseball, and I like the game for a lot of reasons.  Many of these are rooted in my younger days.  I played baseball as a kid.  I played Little League ball for a number of years, though I was never that great.  In our neighborhood, we often put together pick-up games in open fields.  I listened to baseball games on an old transistor radio.  Baseball is a great radio game.  I remember one year bringing that radio to school one year on opening day to try and listen to the game if I had the chance.  I collected baseball cards.  I can still smell that hard pink gum that came with every ten cards.  I can still feel some of the joy those simple cardboard pictures brought to me.  I played games with those cards, creating an entire world in some ways.
I admit that I went through a few years when my interest in baseball waned.  I was more interested in music on the radio, and thinking deep thoughts.  The cardboard cards became just cardboard.  I was trying to figure out some things about life.  I was exploring literature, psychology, philosophy, and theology.  I was reading things like, “Does time itself manifest itself as the horizon of Being?” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, final line).
I have made my way back to baseball, without leaving these others behind.  Baseball writing is not without its own profundities.  I can’t really imagine where a comparison between Martin Heidegger and Roger Angell would be helpful, but Angell can also write profoundly about time, with reference to baseball.  Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors.  This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers’ youth, and even back then – back in the country days – there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. (“The Interior Stadium”)
In fact, one of the reasons I really enjoy baseball is that besides all the simple pleasures of the game itself, so much writing about the game is quite exceptional.
No other sport, I think, conveys anything like this sense of cool depth and fluvial steadiness, and when you stop for a minute and think about the game it is easy to see why this should be so.  The slow, inexorable progression of baseball events – balls and strikes, outs and innings, batters stepping up and batters being retired, pitchers and sides changing on the field, innings turning into games and games into series, and all these merging and continuing, in turn, in the box scores and the averages and the slowly fluctuous standings – are what make the game quietly and uniquely satisfying.  Baseball flows past us all through the summer – it is one of the reasons that summer exists – and wherever we happen to stand on its green banks we can sense with only a glance across its shiny expanse that the long, unhurrying swirl and down-flowing have their own purpose and direction, that the river is headed, in its own sweet time, toward a downsummer broadaneing and debouchment and to its end in the estuary of October. (Roger Angell in Late Innings)
It breaks your heart.  It is designed to break your heart.  The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.  You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops….  Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times.  They grow out of sports.  And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts.  These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion.  I am not that grown-up or up-to-date.  I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles.  I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun. (A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind”)
How can I resist a game that people write so movingly about?  Play ball.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, March 27, 2015

Victor Frankl

            My younger daughter was home this past week for her spring break from graduate school.  She brought with her a stack of books that she thought that my wife perhaps might enjoy reading.  Included in that stack was a copy of Victor Frankl’s classic work Man’s Search for Meaning.
            I have read different parts of Frankl’s work over the years and find him engaging and insightful.  I was delighted, then, that during the first year of my Ph.D. program at Southern Methodist University, Frankl came there to lecture.  I still have the ticket stub and the page of notes I took from the lecture.  I also discovered the a clip from the lecture on the web: 

            Here Frankl discusses our need for both a depth psychology and a height psychology, and for both freedom and responsibility.  I agree that we need both a depth psychology and a height psychology, an ability to dig deep within to examine the fears, anxieties, traumas and triumphs that are there, and a recognition that we are symbolic, meaning-seeking, meaning-creating beings.  I agree with Frankl when he argues that in our society we need to balance freedom and responsibility.  Asking questions about the common good has become too rare, and we desperately need to find our way back to them.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, February 14, 2015


            I am not well-read in the philosophy of George Santayana (1863-1952), who was educated at Harvard and later taught there, from1888-1912.  I have a couple of his books and am familiar with the name, familiar enough to be interested in learning more.  So awhile back, in a used book store, when I discovered The Philosophy of Santayana, excerpts from his writings, I bought it.
            One of the joys of being a book lover is to stumble upon wonderfully penned words in such discovered books.
            Here are some beautiful lines from Santayana, lines which ring true to me.

The world is not respectable; it is mortal, tormented, confused, deluded for ever; but it is shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter; and in these the spirit blooms timidly, and struggles to the light among the thorns.

            I may choose some words differently, but the basic idea makes sense to me.  The world is not an easy place.  There is poverty, cruelty, destruction, terror.  Families, meant to be places of love and care and nurture are sometimes, instead, places of great hurt and damage.  Religions intended to foster the spirit are used, instead, to justify horrific behavior.  The world is often a tormented, confused and deluded place.  It is also shot through with beauty, with love, with courage, with laughter.  In the end, we choose how we will let the spirit bloom, even if timidly.  We choose how we will let it struggle to come to light among the thorns.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 6, 2015

Faith, Church and 2015

            Last fall in a post on (the Sojourners web page), Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest, wrote about eight things he thought the church needed to say.  It was an intriguing list.  It included saying the name “Jesus,” knowing that Christians may mean some different things in evoking his name.  Also acknowledging our diversity, he thought we should be willing to share why we believe in God, and tell stories about the difference God makes in our lives.  The church should not only speak, it should listen.  We should connect our faith with how we are leading our lives.  We should talk about what we see going on in the world.  Finally, Ehrich wrote that we should speak of hope and of joy.
            I like this list a lot.  Though the new year is already a month old, we might resolve to speak of such things this year and beyond.
            I would add some items to the conversation.  Ehrich framed many of the items he identified in terms of Christians talking to other Christians.  He was not precluding wider conversations, particularly as he discussed speaking of hope and of joy.  There were a couple of other things I read last year that also say something to me about what the church needs to discuss, particularly with those in the wider culture.
            For me, faith supports experimental exploration, imaginative conjecture, experiential probes (Michael Eigen, Faith and Transformation, vii).  How does Christian faith support that kind of openness and adventure in living, and why is it that for so long the church has given the impression that faith closes us off rather than opens us up?
            We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science (Gary Snyder, Back on the Fire, 70).  How does our Christian faith embrace nature and work with the findings of science?  Far too many people equate faith with a rejection of science, and it is often those speaking for Christian faith that perpetuate that view.  The church needs voices that embrace faith and science.
            One of my hopes for this new year is that such important conversations will deepen and widen.

With Faith and With Feathers,