Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Stations of the Cross, week 2

We'll do three stations this week. I hope you are finding the paintings and the prayers meaningful.

Third Station:
Jesus Falls the First Time

In my fear of failure, I abandon difficult projects, people, and problems. I procrastinate, and I finish tasks haphazardly. Buttress my soul with your strength. Help me to see that I can accomplish anything with you by my side.

Fourth Station:
Jesus Meets Mary, His Mother

In the midst of a hectic world, I am thrown. I turn my head this way and that, seeking solace in the mess. Guide me to those who will nurture me. Lead me to those who will lift me up out of the mess so that I might find that peace that passes understanding.

Fifth Station:
Simon of Cyrene Is Made to Carry Jesus' Cross

Sometimes I am frightened to give of myself to others. Peel the caul from my eyes so that I might see when I give part of myself to help another, I will gain ten times ten what was given. Show me that there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.


Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 10

This parable is the companion to day 9. In it we saw a prophet so beautiful that the message was rendered invisible. In today's parable, the role of the prophet is played by an old priest, deeply loved and respected by all for working tirelessly on behalf of the poor. The rich ruler's son, who hated the Church, decided to discredit the old man by offering him a huge amount of money to publicly confess his hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of his church. The confession would be printed and distributed to all across the land.

After thinking about it, the old an agreed on 3 conditions - the rich prince would leave the priest and his church alone, any who had been imprisoned but were innocent of any crimes would be released, and that the prince would give the old man enough time to raise the 10,000 rupees.

Obviously the old priest had misunderstood the prince and thought he was to pay the huge sum of money to the prince because he saw the public confession as an opportunity to become transparent to the good news of the gospel.

How often do we/I do the good things we/I do, expecting to be recognized for them? And are we really willing to become invisible so the good news of the kindom can spread?

Friday, February 26, 2010

healthcare yet again

Last night I was searching for a radio station as I drove home and found a right wing talker, disparaging Obama's meeting with congress. A caller made a statement that I found completely true and critical for the discussion. He said, "If health care is a right, then it doesn't matter what it costs, we must make it available to everyone. If healthcare is not a right but a choice, then government should not be involved at all."

I think he is correct. If healthcare is not a right then we should do away with medicare, with public health insurance for children, with any government programs. Let the elderly who consume too much medical care to ever be able to afford any health insurance die. Let families provide for their children or let the children die. If it is not a right, government should not be involved. If it is a right, then the only discussions should be regarding how to pay, not whether we pay.

Having said that, it is important to realize that every industrialized nation in the world has decided that it is a right except the United States. Think of that... Every other industrialized nation has said it is a right.

I cannot understand how anyone, especially people who call themselves followers of Jesus can justify any other position. Healthcare is a right and it must be guaranteed as a part of the commons.

I have said before that there are a variety of ways to do this. My personal preference is for a truly socialized system like in Great Britain, but that is not the only option. Most of Europe uses private insurance that is highly regulated and given to all and the providers are likewise part of the private sector. Canada's system is not a national system but is province by province and is essentially socialized insurance while the medical providers are private businesses. Whatever option is chosen, I believe we must provide insurance for all and don't really care how we do it.

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 9

Today's parable takes a new tack... the devil has learned that God has sent one of the greatest prophets of all time to earth and wants to make sure that her message is not heard. The devil makes her incredibly beautiful, her words incredible poetry, her voice like honey. The people swarm to her, but are so distracted by the beauty that they never hear the content.

Marshal McCluhan said that the message is the medium... and sometimes that is true... but sometimes the medium gets in the way of the message. Someone else has said that hollywood is expert at taking that which is not true and making it believable while the church is expert in taking that which is true and making it unbelievable. I'm not sure what all of that says to us, but I'm sure there is a message in there somewhere.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 8

Parable #8 examines the way we codify teachings in the Bible and often miss the point. In the story, a group of disciples heard Jesus teach that if a Roman soldier asked them to carry a pack a mile, do so 2 miles and took the words literally. They became known for carrying packs 2 miles and even began to build positive relationships with the soldiers who enjoyed their cheerful help.

When Jesus learned of their discipline, he told them they had missed the point and that if a soldier asked them to carry the pack 2 miles, they should go 3.

Of course, this same group would turn the 3 mile teaching into a requirement and would continue to miss the point. How do we tease out the real meaning of the words of Jesus and live as followers of Jesus rather than as followers of sets of rules?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Interfaith Conference

I just learned about this interfaith conference being held at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. Looks wonderful!

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 7

Parable #7, Great Misfortune, takes us in a new direction. The story is of a man who has suffered incredible pain and who has a friend who has stood with him through the misfortunes. At one point the man goes to see his pastor for some advice as to how to make sense of his life. The pastor tells him that the misfortunes were merely the price required to build strength of character. The man shares this with his friend and tells the friend that perhaps he won't be needed as much now that he understands the reason for his pain. The friend responds that if building strength of character was the purpose behind the misfortune, the man is even more unfortunate.

I'm struck by the need for people of faith to put "purpose" behind everything and generally to attribute anything that happens to God's plan... which we cannot understand. This parable reminds me that sometimes things happen without meaning and without positive purpose. As I heard William Sloane Coffin once say, "I can't imagine God looking down and saying, 'it will be good for these two children to have their mother die of breast cancer...'" Sometimes things make no sense and have no sense... Sometimes things just happen... and then comes the important part... standing with the other, putting flesh on the love of God.

You Get What You Pay for

Remember that little piece of wisdom? And we believe it don't we? Nobody expects to get a good reliable car for $1000. Nobody expects a $5 pair of shoes will last more than a few days. A cheap tool will be made of inferior materials and won't do the job. You can't get a good guitar for $150. The list goes on. You get what you pay for. Now, I know there are exceptions, but they are rare. In any given situation, you can count on that little aphorism being true.

Why then do we expect anything different when it comes to government? We have this crazy (and I mean that term) movement called The Tea Party that wants to cut taxes and cut government spending... screw the common good. They aren't asking what will happen to roads, to schools, to the elderly, to children, to the poor, to those who for whatever reason live on the margins of life. Maybe they don't care. They say people should be responsible for themselves and they should, but we live in a society where all of us depend upon the commons just to stay alive. Unfortunately, the benefits of the commons are not equally distributed. Those of us who are doing well, in large degree do well because of an infrastructure that has been provided for us by others. They say that government is inept. To some degree, that is true, but to the degree that it is true, it is because it has been the agenda of many in the Republican Party to make it inept and weak so they could "drown it in the bathtub." They say we should trust the free market. Indeed, our market has produced the most affluent society ever to exist, but when allowed to run free it has also shown that it has no compassion and no commitment to anything beyond the bottom line. They say they don't trust government bureaucrats but forget that at least they are supposed to have the public interest at heart. Corporate bean counters often have a very different fiduciary responsibility. Public interest and common good are irrelevant and may be in conflict with their shareholders' interests and those interests always come first. And they say that those who are most productive should be able to keep all they have while the least should fend for themselves. I would argue that those who are most productive owe that in significant measure to the schools, connections, opportunities that the greater society has afforded them and that they owe those taxes to the society that makes their wealth possible.

You get what you pay for... there are no shortcuts when it comes to building a civil society with opportunity and possibility for all of its citizens.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 6

Parable #6 turns another story of Jesus around - the story of the Pearl of Great Price. One member of the audience truly gets the story. She replies to Jesus, "All I know is that if this kingdom you speak of is like that priceless pearl, then the sacrifice needed in order to grasp it does not make one rich but rather will reduce the one who has sacrificed to absolute poverty. For you are saying that one must give up everything for the pearl, yet the pearl is itself worth nothing unless you find someone to buy it. And if you do find someone then you will no longer have the pearl." She realizes that to own the pearl means the buyer won't even have the resources to feed himself, yet if he sells the pearl, he no longer has it.
Jesus replies that one must give up everything simply because you are captivated by its beauty, not to become more rich.

How often we hear "evangelists" making promises of heaven, of a richer fuller life, of meaning... offering a trade that gives the convert more than they began with. They turn the gospel into a transaction that gives us something. This story shows that when we go into the kingdom expecting to get more, we miss the entire point.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 5

The 5th parable is a story of impossible hospitality. A demon arrives at an old church known for welcoming anyone and asks for welcome. After destroying much of the church, the demon asks the priest to take him home and the priest continues the welcome. After making a mess of the priest's home, the demon asks to be accepted into the old man's heart. He extends yet another welcome and the demon leaves empty handed. It had come seeking to rob the old man of his kindness and generosity and was able to take neither. The old man went to bed wondering what guise Jesus would take next.

This story reminds me of an experience I had while doing Clinical Pastoral Education at Haverford State Mental Hospital. One day I arrived for my appointment with my supervisor - Bob Cholke. A patient was coming out of his office. I can still see him over 30 years later. He was dirty. His clothing was soiled and torn. He smelled bad. His face was swollen and bruised from a fight. He had tardive dyskinesia, a side-effect of major tranquilizers used to treat schizophrenia that causes uncontrollable movements of the fingers, toes, and tongue. I found myself backing away when Cholke reached out to the man and embraced him. I saw nothing redeeming in the man. Cholke saw the face of Jesus. That moment was one of the most important ones in my education and formation as a pastor.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stations of the cross

Did you know that the 40 days of Lent does not include Sundays? Blogging through The Orthodox Heretic leaves me with Sundays off... so I thought I share the Stations of the Cross from our church with you. They were painted by my daughter, Alexis, who also wrote the prayers. There are typically 14 stations although she also added "Resurrection." So each Sunday I'll share a few up until Easter.

The Stations of the Cross is a meditative exercise. I believe this is enhanced by the abstract images Alexis made. Let the image sit in your heart for a few moments and imagine the experience of Jesus during those final days of his life... then read the prayer Alexis wrote as she reflected on that station...

I hope you find the stations meaningful.

Opening Prayer:

Dear Creator – Thank you for your greatest miracle, and your greatest gift. I walk now, remembering your walk two thousand years before. My heart meditating on the world’s most awesome power, your love.

First Station:
Jesus is Condemned to Die

Some will accuse and some will attack. When words come at me like swords, I pray for understanding of hurt hearts and of frightened minds. Give me strength to be wise, still my heart of confusion, give me clarity to see, and grant me peace to forgive.


Second Station:
Jesus Takes His Cross

Along my journey there will be obstacles. Give me the strength to pursue my path. Give me courage to persist in life’s problems. Allow my eyes to be opened to the world and the communal struggles your people face. Give me courage to join together with my sisters and brothers to take up our communal crosses.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 4

Again today, Pete's parable begins with a scripture passage. Jesus is speaking to the masses of the poor and the marginalized, telling them to turn the other check, give their cloak, carry a burden... and then he turns to us and says, "These words are not for you. You will strike someone and they will turn their check, take a shirt and they will give you their cloak, order them to labor and they will do more... these people are my message to you."

Some years back I interviewed at a church in a very wealthy community. I spoke with the interim pastor who advised me, "the up and outers need good news too." I wonder what is the good news to those of us who often by our lives contribute to the pain and oppression of others? What do the words of Jesus say to me when I am the one at the center of power rather than the one on the margins?

ahhh... Santa Barbara Wines

We had to run some errands today in Lompoc, a little town north and west of Santa Barbara just west of the wine area known as the Santa Rita Hills. There are a few small wineries in Lompoc, mostly there because they can't afford the real estate prices in the sexier places like Solvang or Los Olivos. They tend to make wines that grow well in the ocean breezes of the Santa Rita Hills like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

After the errands, we decided to stop and do a tasting at two wineries we had heard great things about but never visited - Ampelos & Dragonette. They share a production facility and only do tastings on the weekends - Wonderful wines and great people. We had Pinots we loved at both wineries and bought a few bottles.

As a teaser for those of you who've never visited the greater Santa Barbara area, while tasting, Morena Baccarin from the television show, "V," came in with a friend/significant other for a tasting while we were there. Seemed to be a very cool person and knew her wines.

Tasting with an alien? Just another day in paradise...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 3

Translating the Word
This parable is based on an old Buddhist tale. A woman named Sophia is called by God to translate the Word of God to the people of her country. She began to raise money for the task but had to distribute the money to help with a disaster which had struck her community. This then happened a second time. It wasn't until the end of her life that she was actually able to finish what she understood to be her task. In telling her story, the people of her community said she had completed the task to which she was called three times.

I'm reminded of a saying which common wisdom says came from Saint Francis - preach the gospel at all times, when absolutely necessary, use words.

How do my actions preach the good news of God's love? Indeed, do they at all?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 2

Before I go further, I should say that I met Pete a few years ago at an emerging church event called Soliton. We had a meal or two together and a few beers and I found him to be a delightful person with a keen mind, willing to both ask and struggle with the truly difficult questions. He does delight in pushing the envelope a bit, but I think it is a labor of love. I expect that these little parables pushed him as much or more than they push me.

The 2nd parable in Pete's book is a difficult one. It is a re-write of the feeding of the 5000. In his story, Jesus and the disciples gather a huge amount of food from all of the people gathered and then rather than sharing it among the crowd, they eat all of it themselves, leaving not even a crumb for the hungry masses. In his commentary, he acknowledges that ascribing such selfishness to Jesus is a controversial move and then he reminds us that the Church is the incarnation of Jesus in the world today. To the degree that we ignore the needs of the marginalized around the world, we reenact this parable.

I am struck by the difficulty I have in looking at the resources I have and use and waste and discerning how much is enough and how much is too much. I am more struck by the fact that most of the time, I don't even think about it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Blogging through the Orthodox Heretic, day 1

As part of my Lenten discipline this year, I will be reflecting on a little book by Pete Rollins called The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. It is a collection of 33 parables, written to push us to think more deeply about what it means to follow Jesus. The publisher, Paraclete Press, has offered to send 7 additional parables from Pete to fill out the 40 days of Lent for anyone willing to blog trough the book... so here we go.

The first parable is of a person arrested and tried for being a Christian. In spite of records of church attendance, a well read Bible, Christian CD's and even a diary, the person is found not guilty. When asked why, the judge replies that any true follower of Jesus would be involved in changing the world. As the suspect is not, that individual must not truly be a Christian.

It is a hard parable... but one which certainly sets the tone for Lent. It raises multiple questions... If I was to truly give myself away, what would that look like? Can I follow Jesus while also benefiting from the status quo? What does it really look like to follow Jesus where I live? and the questions go on...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Californiazation of politics

There are lots of things to love about life in California... the weather is great, the scenery is breath-taking, the fresh produce and wonderful wine is amazing. Politics on the other hand just, for want of a better word, suck. Polarization is a characteristic of California and nowhere is it more evident than in politics. Because politicians are always running for office, they are always courting votes for primaries. Primaries always attract the "true believers," i.e. the least centrist of a party (myself included) so the politicians tend to move towards the extremes. This trend is much stronger among conservatives where there is a stronger consensus on the hot button issues than among progressives, but it is present in both camps. Add the disintegration of civil discourse and suddenly the political process grinds to a halt. Legislators are afraid to compromise for fear of alienating the fringe that votes in the primaries and there are no long term relationships or proclivities to civil discourse to push them to work together.

Of course, there are other issues in California - the initiative process is a huge one - that contribute to the dysfunction, but this is a central one that we are seeing effect our national politics as well. Yesterday I learned that Evan Bayh had announced that he is retiring from congress saying that our system is "dysfunctional," riddled with "brain-dead partisanship" and marked by permanent campaigning. He went on to recommend that we throw out all of the current legislators and get new ones who are willing to work together to actually govern.

While I appreciate his thoughts ad certainly understand his frustration at the current situation, I don't think his solution would work. Indeed, it is the newer legislators who are most likely to act in a completely partisan way and are least able to talk across the aisle. Also, I do not think it is unfair to call the Republican party out on this one. That party has become a party that only seeks to impede governing. When Sarah Palin asked how that "hopey changey stuff is going," she forgot to mention that a significant reason that nothing was changing is because the Republican party has refused to allow anything to come to a vote, essentially requiring any legislation to pass by a super majority rather than the majority required by the constitution. Look at this chart from wikipedia...

Clearly, they are using this legislative tool in a way it has never been used before and it has paralyzed our government. Is it any wonder that the electorate is frustrated? Imagine if the Democrats were able to muster the same kind of unanimity. No bill would ever pass again. No judge would ever be appointed. Nothing would happen except posturing and spending of obscene amounts of money.

Throw them out? Perhaps, but not indiscriminately. If we're going to send a message, let's send one telling our elected officials to govern rather than just obstruct. To those who are only obstructing, on either side of the aisle, get rid of them. To all of those left, tell them to work together for the good of the people rather than working to appease fringe constituencies or corporate masters.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

lessons learned

I have to begin with a disclaimer. I was glad that the Saints won the Superbowl. Now, I don't have a particular commitment to the Saints. I'm a Steelers fan through and through. And in general, I don't dislike the Colts, but this year they really got under my skin. There they were, well on the way to a perfect season and they threw it away. They saw themselves as unbeatable and weighed the risks of a key player getting hurt while chasing after a perfect season vs. winning the Superbowl. They chose to win the Superbowl... only they didn't.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I have always been a Steelers fan but I have never seen them play. Tickets are virtually impossible to get and if you can get one from a scalper, they are prohibitively expensive. I found myself imagining the die-hard Colts fan fantasizing about the perfect season, finding a scalper with a seat for sale way up in the nosebleed section for $500. She buys the ticket thinking she will see history... and the team decides not to play. The best players all sit on the bench and the game is way less exciting than the high school game she watched on Friday night. Indeed, the cynicism of the Colts' management removed any joy there might have been. Multiply that lone fan by hundreds or thousands of others and you can begin to see why I'm disgusted at the Colts. I understand the strategy... but it didn't work. You don't play it safe in football. Players get injured. It is part of the game. So, either play football or don't. Do what you can to make the game as safe as possible but either play or don't. And if you aren't going to play, don't charge the fans to watch it.

Then look at the Saints. Nobody expected them to win. Manning's offense is just too good. They went in though and let loose. They took chances - going for a touchdown from the 4 yard line and not getting it when a field goal was a given; kicking an on-side kick to begin the second half which did work. They took chances and went for it all while the Colts had characterized themselves as a team that took the safe and easy path. The Colts lost.

Growing up in the Steelers Nation, the football metaphor is as natural as breathing. This one is clear. Take the chance, go for it all, and you may just get it. The Saints did. Play it safe, allow what is in your grasp to fall away while looking to something that may not materialize, and you end up with nothing. The Colts did.

I'm not entirely sure how to apply that metaphor to my life or to my church's life, but it sure feels important to wrestle with it. I know it easily could have gone the other way and folk would be talking about foolish risks vs. sound strategy. I prefer the outcome we have.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


A friend dropped me a note yesterday that he discovered a doppelganger out there... not in the sense of an evil twin, but of a double. And not for me, but of my blog. Another person has a blog titled Thin Places and she even used the same stock format from blogger that I used.

So... if you got here looking for Amy Julia Becker's blog... this ain't it. And if you want to find it, you'll have to search for because I'm not helping. ;-)

At first I was a little miffed. My blog has been up since '05, trying to build an identity on the web, a "brand" if you will. I almost felt like my "brand" had been stolen. Of course, it wasn't, but it might be confusing for someone actually looking for my blog. And if they have been to my page before, opening her page, they may still think they got to mine with just a cursory look. Then I was hopeful... maybe someone looking for hers will find mine by mistake and I'll pick up a few more readers. While I sense we see the world a little differently and certainly write differently, there is enough commonality that some of our readers could overlap. Then I wondered if there is some way to make the whole thing easier - to differentiate between the two blogs - and who is responsible for doing that, she or I? Then I searched a bit more and found yet another blog titled Thin Places and one called From a Thin Place. There may be even more out there. Of the ones I've found, mine is oldest but I'd guess those other folk never searched for the name and saw there already was a blog with that title...

So... I'm having an identity crisis... wondering how I differentiate myself and wondering whether the blog is a helpful contribution... whether it is worth my time and energy...

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Faith & Doubt - Fraternal Twins

In common usage, the antonym for "faith" is "doubt." Certainly that would be true in most churches. I think the reality is different. I think the word, "certainty" is a better antonym and that faith and doubt are more like fraternal twins... not exactly the same but very, very closely related.

Let me explain. Both faith and doubt require a bit of humility that says, "I'm not entirely sure." Faith, the book of Hebrews tells us, is "the substance of things not seen." That is to say, it is the things about which we cannot be 100% certain. We've looked at the evidence and at our experience and everything points that way. We've wrestled with the question and have come up with the best possible answer, but we don't have all of the data and there is no formula to get a scientific provable answer. Any answers we do have are written in pencil as they are subject to change. We have faith. We aren't sure. Likewise with doubt, we have wrestled with the questions and looked at all of the available data and it just doesn't seem to point at the commonly accepted answers. It doesn't feel like the answer that is presented to us is the best answer and maybe there isn't an answer at all... but we still aren't sure. We have doubt. There is room to revisit the questions.

Both leave room for more growth and more possibilities. Both imply that the questions are more important than the answers and the wrestling is more important than reaching conclusions. Indeed, as soon as a permanent conclusion is reached, we are no longer in the realms of faith and doubt, but of certainty. That is not a good thing. Certainty has no room for any other possibilities. There is no wrestling. There are no other possible answers. There is no room for discussion. There is no growth yet to come. All humility goes out the door.

If my analysis is at all correct, it has huge implications for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. We are not called to certainty, we are called to faith. The journey of faith does not come to an end because there is no end. Instead we move back and forth between doubt and faith, struggling with the difficult questions of life. Sometimes we are strong in our faith. Other times we are full of doubt. Both are essential steps on the path. Certainty takes us off the path, impedes our progress and our growth, and keep us from knowing the wonders we have not yet seen or experienced.

So hold fast to your faith... and your doubt. Both are positive steps along the journey to which we're called.