This is a big weekend for stories.
This afternoon, the biggest advertisers – or at least the ones with a sizable enough marketing budget – will try to tell us a story. Or maybe I should say, they’ll try to sell us a story.
The story they’ll try to sell us is a story about who we should be, or the kind of life we should have … and how their product, be it yogurt or cars or beer or the latest gadget for the home, will help you give your story a happy ending.
Stories are important. They are vital to the way in which we understand ourselves as human beings, and understand the world in which we live. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories that resonate most deeply with us, help shape the way we look at the world.
It’s a commentary on our society that too many of our stories have been reduced to either a 30-second ad spot or 140-character social media post. In an age when the Internet makes sharing stories so much easier than ever before, I feel that perhaps we have not yet quite harnessed the power of the technology for the good of our culture.
Today, I encourage you to pay attention to the stories that others are telling you (or selling you). Listen to the difference between the stories you hear in worship, the stories you read on social media, the stories you see on television.
Choose to surround yourself with stories that matter.
Choose carefully the storytellers to whom you give you attention.
Choose courageously the stories that you will tell to others.
That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again. (from Saving Mr. Banks)
Tornados on Wednesday morning.
The aftermath and outpouring of support.
The show of love and concern by all those who got in contact to check on me and my family.
And another round of storms today.
It has been an emotionally-charged and physically-demanding week. I have been grateful, heartbroken, exhausted, disappointed, relieved, anxious, worried, frustrated and frightened.
But today, I was moved to tears.
Having grown up in Harrisburg in rural Southern Illinois, I have lived many years with an awareness of the gulf between the sensibilities of the big city (Chicago) and the small town.
Today, the Chicago Tribune reminded me that there is nothing so powerful as standing in solidarity with another, there is no action more meaningful than standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone to silently convey, “You are not alone.”
How much more significant is that act when offered by a brother or sister with whom you don’t always see eye to eye. The silent tears on my face are a testament to that fact.
Thank you, Illinois. You ARE Harrisburg.
‘Tis the season to tap maple trees and invite them to share some of their delicious bounty.
Unusual winter weather does not seem to have affected the harvest; I taste-tested some of this year’s “crop” this morning at the Maple Festival at Touch of Nature (on Little Grassy Lake, south of Carbondale) and it was more than satisfactory.
To be honest, I almost didn’t go to the festival. Ash Wednesday, my first full week in a new church community, a lot of planning for Lent, a broken clothes dryer, and dogs with upset stomachs … it has been a very long week.
But at 7:45 this morning, I got the text from wonderful friends with whom I was anxious to spend time … so despite the urge to take a cup of tea and my journal and curl up somewhere quiet, I loaded up the dogs and headed for the woods.
The dogs burned some energy at Giant City State Park prior to our visit to the festival, and their mania at the sun and the smells and the water and the woods made me laugh. After they had worn themselves down, I let them nap in a warm and sunny car while I ate pancakes and sausage with local maple syrup and then learned the ins and outs of tapping trees.
I was sure that my greatest need today was to putter gently around my house, rather than spend one more day this week driving around Southern Illinois. But it turns out that I was wrong.
Laughing with friends, learning something new, and bringing pleasure to the critters whose care is entrusted to me was what my spirit needed most. As it happens, I only discovered that truth in the doing of those things.
In honor of the season, here are a couple of photos:
Between several thunderstorms and a significant amount of work on this week’s three worship services (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday), I managed to get one of my blueberry bushes planted today.
I was kneeling over a large hole in the ground (sporting my garden chic overalls) and mixing peat moss and amendments in with the topsoil, when it occurred to me: blueberry bushes have something to teach me about being a pastor.
But first, we need to understand the blueberry bush.
A blueberry bush prefers an acidic soil with good drainage, a lot of sun and at least six weeks of near-freezing temperatures in the off-season.
Can a blueberry bush live without these things? Sure. But a blueberry bush won’t thrive without them. And when I say “won’t thrive,” I mean that the bush won’t produce fruit.
Every time I preach on John 15 (the vine and branches passage where Jesus challenges us to bear fruit), I remind those who are listening that bearing fruit isn’t something the plant decides to do (or not do). And an apple tree doesn’t sit around discerning whether to produce plums or pears.
Bearing fruit – as illustrated by the blueberry bush – is the natural result of a thriving plant. (As well as some very helpful bees.)
I know what it takes to create the conditions for my blueberry bush to thrive: some organic additives that increase the acidity of the soil, some peat moss, and some mulch.
As a pastor, there are also things I can do to create conditions that will encourage the parishioners I serve to thrive.
I am neither naïve enough nor prideful enough to suggest that I have control over another person’s ability to thrive … but I also do not underestimate the pastor’s (or teacher’s or parent’s or sibling’s or spouse’s) role in nurturing and encouraging such flourishing.
We each have the ability to help create conditions (in whatever setting in which we find ourselves) that will help others – and ourselves – thrive. I suspect we don’t often recognize our own ability to do so.
Are you thriving? Are you encouraging others to flourish and bear fruit?
In a phone call yesterday, a friend shared some exciting news: he has decided to keep chickens.
His suggestion – since he knows of my excitement about the garden I am planting this year – was to suggest trading some of the eggs from his chickens for some of my tomatoes.
(I’m flattered by his confidence in my ability to actually keep a tomato plant alive long enough for it to produce a tomato!)
My response was: “This is country living at its best!”
As I give the matter more thought, though, I am forced to retract that statement.
This desire to trade isn’t a trait born or developed only by folks who inhabit rural areas. I’m convinced that it’s a trait that is born in each of us.
Don’t believe me? Sit down at lunch with some elementary-age students and watch the mealtime bartering.
Need more proof? Check out a flea market sometime.
Human beings seem to have an innate need to pass on the things they no longer want or need, or the things which they have in abundance.
The great number of flea markets, estate sales, food swaps, thrift stores and consignment shops around the country seem to indicate that, in addition to the need to pass on, we also have inherited a willingness to receive those items that have been offered.
I suspect this is our survival instinct showing itself. Somewhere deep inside us, our cells remember (even if our conscious minds do not) that we were made to live symbiotically.
In modern America (although, probably not limited to here), it seems that too often, symbiosis is disdained in favor of individualism, living simply and interdependently is dismissed in favor of hoarding and stockpiling, and talking heads seem to suggest that the attempt to live more cooperatively is somehow insidious, that it somehow undermines the “American spirit”.
But those attitudes cannot negate the fact that, whether we accept it or not, we live in a web of connectedness. Embracing that web leads to richer fuller lives for all of us, while attempting to disengage from the web diminishes our common life.
But it’s not easy. Living in such a way requires that we live honestly, offering up both our gifts and our needs to the larger community.
Sometimes, I’m not sure which is more difficult: claiming the knowledge of our own gifts so that we might offer them up without hesitation, or admitting to our need or weakness, so that others might have the opportunity to support and sustain us.
Either offering requires courage. And there are days that I just don’t have it.
But I think I can at least start with a tomato.
Tonight was the second week of our series on food ethics at FPC. Those who were gathered made up quite a good group: large enough to spark some interesting conversation and plenty of diverse opinions.
At some point, a lightbulb went on over my head and I thought: this topic is a landmine. It’s not the kind of issue that is so controversial that it comes with it’s own red warning light that flashes “DANGER” to pastors who would approach. But it is still very much an issue that can stir up controversy; it just does it subtly.
So, why bother with it? Why have the difficult conversation about food ethics? And what would I say to those in any congregation, anywhere in the country that might prefer NOT to be more aware of how their food choices affect people and animals and ecosystems and economies around the world?
As you might imagine, I’ve given this issue a fair bit of thought. For me, it comes down to one answer: because we are the people of God.
The God we serve has commanded his people throughout every age to tend to those in need: the widow, the orphan, the least of these. As the people of God, we do not have the option of ignoring the consequences of our actions, even actions that would be easy to take for granted (like our food choices).
When it comes to eating ethically, there is no easy answer.
No one way of eating (organic, vegetarian, etc.) will eliminate every ethical dilemma.(For more on this topic, watch to Michael Pollan’s brilliant lecture at Princeton University’s conference on Food, Ethics and the Environment available on iTunes.)
But because we are given the responsibility of stewardship of creation – and of care for one another – we are commanded to take our choices seriously: to eat with our eyes open and to be willing to bear the weight of the consequences of our actions.
Recent discussions with new parents about baptism have given me a lot of time to reflect on the meaning of baptism, especially the language that the Presbyterian Church (USA) uses to express its theological beliefs about baptism.
Even though the PC (USA) affirms infant baptism while some other denominations do not, that hasn’t been the focus of my conversations of late.
The focus of my most recent conversations has been on baptism as the beginning of a covenant relationship with God, rather than a liturgical or spiritual act that stands alone, apart from the gathered community of disciples of Jesus (the Body of Christ).
Presbyterians believe that baptism marks a covenant between God and the people of God. When pressed to explain the term covenant in a way that is easy to understand but still reflects the depth of its meaning in the Reformed tradition, I usually explain that we can think of a covenant as a promise that begins a relationship.
In a wedding ceremony, two people make some promises (also called vows) and those promises mark the beginning of their life together. In that way, marriage is a good example of a covenant. It is a covenant between two people and God.
Baptism is similar. In baptism the covenant is between God and the person to be baptized and the whole Body of Christ.
The baptized person promises to follow Jesus, the congregation promises to nurture the person in their faith, and (of course) God has already promised God’s faithfulness, love and grace to the person.
When we’re talking infant baptism, of course, we know that an infant can’t make any promises. To me, that’s what’s so precious about infant baptism: before we can promise anything or understand the theology of baptism or even focus our eyes fully, God has already claimed us as God’s own and promised to be faithful to us.
That’s powerful stuff.
That’s not to say that there aren’t promises made in infant baptism. The parents make promises on behalf of the child. They promise to not only teach their child about God and about the life of faith … they also promise to be role models, allowing their child to see their own life of faith and to learn from their actions what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
In that way, these promises mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship.
The congregation (as representatives of the whole Body of Christ) makes promises, too. The congregation promises that they will be the vessels of God’s grace and love to the child, that they will provide instruction so that the child can learn ways of drawing near to the God who has already claimed her or him, and that they will make opportunities (when the time is right) for the child to profess a faith that is their own in response to the God’s grace given in their baptism.
Again: the promises are only the beginning.
Baptism is the way we mark the beginning of an ongoing relationship with God and with each other. (Although, we can never fully mark the actual beginning of our relationship with God, since God is present with us long before we are ever able to recognize it!)
It is the way we celebrate God’s love and care for us and the way we enter into relationships of love and care for one another.
It is the way we commit our lives and our children’s lives into the hands of the One who knows us best and loves us most, recognizing that our life with God is inextricably woven in and through the lives of others.