Saturday, June 8, 2013

Looking Good

Fabulous Sandals (photo by Sherry)
I was in a local art store today and ran into a couple that I haven't seen since the 90's. I spotted them first and introduced myself. The husband told me that he didn't recognize me because I look so young.  Both of them agreed that I looked younger than I did the last time they saw me. That means, according to their enthusiastic assessment, I look younger now than I did over 15 years ago.

Is it the hair, the expensive face creams I buy at Ulta, or the fabulous sandals with pedicure? I suspect it was the lighting in the store. Whatever the case, the encounter has me thinking.

First, it has never been my goal to look any particular age, especially younger than I am. I am very comfortable owning all of my 54 years. I have graying hair at my temples and I can already tell my aging, thinning hair will not come in snowy white, like billowing waves. I am fine with that. I have lines around my eyes and mouth and my chin(s) sags. It's the price of smiling daily (except for the chin). So, to be told I look younger is like achieving something without trying. Not bad for no work at all.

Second, I wonder if the meaning of "looking good" is to look younger? A youthful look is certainly what women are encouraged to strive for in this society, to the point of surgical modification. But is that all there is to looking good? I like looking at faces, and I have found "looking good" at all ages. I especially like men and women who have "grown" into their faces, faces that never quite fit on a child's body. I like the look of deep lines brought on by a lifetime of work outside and the powdered cheeks of a grandmother who still uses the same brand of makeup that she did when she was 40. I think "salt and pepper" hair looks as good as the tangled, springy mane of youth.

The third thing I'm thinking about has to do with self-awareness. When I look people over (and I do), and am looking for things like the amount of energy in their posture, the mood in their eyes, and what they do with their hands. I haven't considered how people are looking at me.

In fact, when I am having trouble deciding what to wear, I try to remember what everyone else I met the day before was wearing. Because I recall very little, I assume the same lack of attention applies to the clothes I choose.

I think that looking good doesn't have as much to do with how we adorn ourselves or care for our hair. The best kind of looking good is an activity; it is the way we look at others. If we "look good", we see what is important to others, where they are empty and where they are full. By looking good we see youthful hope and the experiences earned with age. And if we "look good" in this way, people who have achieved an arbritrary standard of beauty, are as striking as those who are far from it. People are lovely and amazing and wonderfully made when I am "looking good".

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I visited a husband and wife this afternoon. They had asked if I would come to their home and talk with them about their funerals. They are both in their mid-eighties and were waiting at the door when I arrived. They had the coffee on and a fresh chocolate cake on the counter waiting for their pastor. So, we sat at the table with cups of coffee and plates of cake and talked about their lives. And we talked about death.

The hospitality was not only in the food, but in their openness to share the blessings and struggles of 63 years of married life. I accepted their hospitality completely.

I'll admit it was a challenge.

I have been counting my daily intake of calories since February. I am using an app called Lose It. This discipline is working for me. I set the app for how much weight I want to lose and how many pounds per week I would like to lose and the app tells me how many calories I get per day. I record the food I eat and the app totals the calories.

I have been losing the weight despite the challenges of pot luck meals, restaurant meetings and travel to conferences. I am faithfully keeping within my daily calorie count and rediscovering the blessing of fresh fruits and vegetables, with just a little bit of meat and dairy. Today, I was confronted by cake.

I could have left the lovely piece of chocolate cake on the plate and not felt any discomfort or craving (I am not a big chocolate fan). However, I knew that the cake and coffee had been prepared for their guest and so I enjoyed it with them.

After I left, I took my weight loss app out and added my piece of chocolate cake to the calorie count. I have 21 calories left for dinner, and I do not regret my choice to accept their hospitality.

Often we think of the Christian life as a call to be hospitable, to have an open door, a ready invitation, a compassionate heart. But Christian hospitality moves in both directions. We are called to both give and receive.

Years ago I would fight against compliments, offers of help, and words of encouragement. I wanted to be the one who offered. I've tried to set that behavior aside, because if I insist on staying in the position of helper, I am protecting my position of power.

True hospitality, authentic and deep giving, come when we are willing to be vulnerable, to be the helper and the one in need.

Our relationship with Jesus Christ depends on reciprocal hospitality. We hear a lot about welcoming Jesus into our hearts, as if Jesus is out in the cold and we choose whether he comes in or not. That is a step of a faith, but true connection comes when we enter the heart of Jesus in humility, stillness and need.

I cannot say that I am in full reciprocal hospitality with Christ, but I do know that practicing both gracious giving and receiving in my life prepare me everyday to be in deeper relationship with God.

I will take the cake when it comes my way and I will humbly thank my host.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Message for Graduates (and other people, too)

I could be mistaken. I will admit that. However, I heard a whole lot of "Jesus and me" theology at a recent high school baccalaureate service and I'm worried. Young adults stood and spoke earnestly of their faith and offered Bible verses. Their consistent message to the class: "Jesus has helped me through difficult times and Jesus will continue to help you and me."

I was one of three clergy who spoke. The other two offered great words of wisdom, using memorable images meant to encourage the graduates to find their strength in the faith and not to leave the church behind.

When it was my turn to offer my "wisdom", I'll admit that I was a bit agitated. I refrained from pounding the lovely Catholic pulpit at which I stood, but I did lean into the message, staring down at the black-robed graduates. I do not believe that one of them checked their phones while I spoke.

I gave them some advice from the 2013 University of Michigan commencement address of Richard Costolo, CEO of Twitter. Go bigger than what is expected of you and take courageous risks. Then I told the graduates that I wasn't going to talk about their future, but about the present.

I didn't pull out any Bible verses of comfort or reassurance. Instead, I went to Mark and Luke and talked about the Kingdom of God. Jesus declared that the reign of God was close when people were healed, when people loved God and neighbor, when they lived out the good news.

I told the young people, set to start out into the world for new adventure, that our soul is not "saved" to be set aside and preserved for a the future kingdom. We're not offered the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ so that someday we can simply exchange the black graduation robes for the white angelic robes of Heaven. We are saved to live out the reign of God today.

I agreed that the graduates have a lot of decisions ahead of them, but the decision to live in God's kingdom is one that they have to make everyday starting now. And they do not have to go to Live-Like-Jesus school or get a degree in Talking-Like-Jesus or read the Bible (like they've already tried and gotten as far as Deuteronomy). What they need to do right now is listen to the voices that go unheard and look to people who hold no power. Today is the time to commit to compassion and care for the least among us.

Yes, I was wound up. God's present in our past, present, and future. God does offer strength and comfort and guidance. And our response, right now, is commitment to kingdom living.

As I left the sanctuary, a young priest leaned over and said, "Your message was a nice counter-point to the other messages." I'm going to get to know that guy.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Last night at youth group (First United Methodist Church of Brighton) was "stump the pastor night". One central topic for the evening was the existence of hell. While I was not stumped when it comes to how we are informed by biblical and extra-biblcal sources about hell, I was a bit stumped by the question. I have an opinion on the existence and character of hell, which I shared. But more interesting to me than the question was why the youth asked.

Living in the reign of God is challenging and intentional discipleship takes daily work. Why, with all the complexity of being a Christian in our society, would youth wonder about the possibility of eternal punishment?

When I asked them about their vision of hell, it was clear that many had been informed by media, fantasy authors and video games. And the picture they described was not biblical, but based on Dante Alighieri's "Inferno", from the Divine Comedy (15th century)Their idea of satan reflected the influence of Christopher Marlowe's play "The Tragical History of the life and Death of Doctor Faustus" (16th century). None of the youth present had read either of these works, but it was clear that these works inform popular culture more than the biblical understanding.

We could guess that they wondered about what would become of them, but I do not think that is true. No one asked about the existence of heaven or what it might look like. I didn't get the impression they perceived themselves as hell-bound. Instead, they were concerned that it would be God's will that anyone face enteral punishment.

Could it be that our nation has become so polarized, politically and socially, that the possibility of a place of punishment must exist for the "other", those who are wrong? For these youth, thankfully, they cannot accept a God who arbitrarily offers mercy only until one takes one's last breath. They see God as creator and caretaker of all people, even those who are not like themselves.

I worry that our youth are coming of age in a time where it is tempting to be "hell-bound". I don't mean bound in the sense that one is headed for flames and the smell of sulfur. We are bound by a notion of hell, when we begin to separate us from them, winners from losers, the saved from the damned. We are bound to be diminished when we lose sight of God's powerful grace for all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Feel It

By Jana Haemels (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Just across the parking lot trains pass two to three times a day. If the train goes by during a worship service, we can hear the warning whistle and the rumble of cars through the stained glass windows.

I like it best when I'm working in my office and the train passes. I hear it and I feel it. The desk top vibrates and the cement, carpeted floor trembles slightly underfoot. If I am talking to someone or walking in the hall, I don't notice the movement. It is only when I'm still.

We just celebrated Pentecost and we enter a season of recognizing the movement of God's Holy Spirit. Encouraged by the story from Acts 2, we look for a sound like the rush of a mighty wind and the appearance of flames above the heads of Jesus' followers. This is how the Holy Spirit will come. Those who followed Jesus were suddenly able to speak in languages that a diverse people understood. There was commotion and joy. At the end of the day, 3,000 came to believe in Jesus Christ.

The train passing by as I read quietly in my office is my reminder that God's Holy Spirit is not that predictable. Sometimes God moves with a roar, dancing flame and commotion. Communities in worship and in service experience the power together. Other times God's Spirit moves in more subtle ways. Things underfoot just tremble a little bit. A conversation blossoms into relationship or tender compassion reaches out in unexpected places. 

Anyway that the Holy Spirit comes is remarkable, but I like it best when in stillness, I can feel it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Our True Self-Interest

Joanna Macy, famous for her work in deeply reconnecting humanity and the environment, suggests that when we reconnect with the earth, we find our ethical selves. She says that moralizing will not keep us from acting in our own self-interest. What we need is to become more aware of our true self-interest.

I was introduced to Macy’s work through a lecture I recently attended by Michael Dowd, author of The Gospel According to Science. While Dowd has much to say about finding spiritual truth in the “authority of natural evidence”, I find myself coming back to Macy’s observation.

In my context this means that I can preach morality all day long, but people are going to continue to act in their own self-interest. This is absolutely true and it is a truth that continues to disappoint those who know the “right way” and those who are endeavoring to live the “right way”.

This truth reflects the personal struggle of the Apostle Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

Macy’s conclusion that we need to become more aware of our own true self-interest is the answer, but a challenging task. If we’re to change our behaviors, then our self-interest is bound up in the self-interest of others. What is good for another person or group of persons is good for each of us.

John Donne said it well way back in the 1600's: 
No man is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, apart of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know for whome the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

While connectedness may be understood on the micro level of a family or a small community, the larger group is, the more difficult it is to see self-interest served by caring for others. This is reflected in those who call for the end to food, housing, and medical assistance for “those people” who are in need of it. It is reflected in the ease with which residents in a community, the state of Michigan or the nation work to diminish our educational institutions by reducing funding.

I have been giving thought to how this idea influences my preaching. While I would not call myself a preacher of morality, I am in the habit of suggesting a way to live that reflects Christ’s presence. Macy’s observation has me thinking differently.

What if preaching or spiritual teaching emphasized becoming more aware of our true self-interest. Where would that take us as a community of faith?

There is competition to name self-interest. We live in a society where professional marketing and social pressure for achievement are more than ready to guide us in what is best for us. For many, the world is a place of scarcity and it is in our self-interest to “get ours”, before someone else does.

What are our true self-interests? How might they connect us with one another and with all creation? If we know them, how will it change our walk with God?

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Is Worship?

One of my favorite definitions of worship comes from Don Saliers' book Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine. According to Saliers worship is two things: it is prayer and an act of eschatological hope. To worship is to be in conversation with God, to be fully aware of God's presence. Worship is also an act of hope, trusting that God is breaking through now and forever. (Of course, Saliers takes an entire book to say this.)

If this is the case, then what do we need for worship? Through the tradition of the church, we have discovered that there are worship practices that can be acts of divine conversation and hope. They include music, both sung and heard, communal silence and prayer, baptism and communion, Bible reading and preaching. A worshipping community might also dance, shout, embrace, weep, laugh, wash each other's feet or share a meal.

Through the centuries, we've taken these practices that have opened us to prayer and hope and we've tamed them. We've chosen Sunday morning and fit several worship practices into an hour or perhaps an hour and twenty minutes if there are no big sporting events that day. It is our assumption that the brief time that we spend with each worship practice might give rise to prayer and hope. 

The attendance at the church I serve has been declining for the last five years. It declines much more quickly than the number of people who call this their church home. People are not attending worship on Sunday morning as often as they used to.

Interestingly, just because people are not in worship on Sunday morning does not mean that they are not an active part of the worshipping community. We have members who spend hours each week in outreach and service groups and study classes at the church. We send mission teams into the city of Detroit, across the U.S. and out of county. We have a team of trained persons who offer the ministry of listening and companionship for those who need company at a difficult time in their lives. Individuals tell stories of helping neighbors, caring for the sick, and visiting prisons.

This Saturday was "Change the World" Day for our church. Teams went out to perform community service. I was with a team that cleaned out flower beds at a local middle school. As I knelt digging in the dirt, listening to the conversation and laughter of fellow servants, I started thinking about worship. Could this activity on a cool, spring morning be worship? 

Wasn't Christ by the Holy Spirit present as we worked together in his name? And what better act of hope than reaching out into a community, not because we had to, but because we were called to by a God who moves us forward.

Could it be that worship is happening in surprising and profound ways everyday of the week? Individually and as community, people of great faith and commitment are active in prayer and in hope. 

Sherry worshiping on a Saturday morning.