Archive for March, 2012

The Donkey

It wasn’t just an impromptu, spontaneous procession that Sunday outside of Jerusalem in the year 30 where the supporters and fans of Jesus seated him on a donkey, cried “Hosanna,” and spread palm branches in his path as children cheered.

No, Jesus had planned it in advance, using the Jewish book of Jeremiah as his guide. Here it says that a king would be coming to Jerusalem “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It was to be a peaceful, procession, since Jeremiah also says that the king riding on a donkey will banish war from the land – no more chariots, war-horses, or bows.

Even more surprising is that there was a second procession that same day, at the same time, far different from that of the peaceful procession of Jesus and his enthuiastic supporters. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan tell us: “On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Ideuma, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. It was the custom of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the major Jewish festival such as Passover, in case there was trouble.

They go on: “Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city: A visual barrage of imperial power; cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun gleaming on metal and gold… The sounds of the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. Pilate’s procession was not only about Roman power but also Roman theology, wherein the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.”

So Jesus entered the city from the east, on a donkey, Pilate from the west, in a golden chariot. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession, brandishing all of the might and power of the Roman Empire. The confrontation between these two powers continues through the last week of Jesus’ life. Holy Week is the story of this confrontation.

We, too, are conflicted, torn. The pull of the world and its obligations, along with the power of structures that hold us fast – commitments we must keep, appointments we cannot break, obligations we must honor — challenges the invitation to walk through this week with Jesus, step by step. The confrontation of powers, of authority, of loyalties, plays out in the hearts and lives of us all.

This Sunday we will carry our palms and process from the garden on Holly Avenue down Kent Street to mighty Summit Avenue, and then back to church, identifying ourselves to everyone who sees us as followers of Jesus. Later that morning, the Passion will be read with full timpani – drums, cymbals, bells. It will be a day marked by drama and intensity, a high holy day indeed.

Poet Mary Oliver hints at what is expected of us, as she writes this about the donkey (“small, dark, obedient”) in the procession of Jesus:

“I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
As he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.”

See you in church.


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Be Still




Be Still


The window washers were coming soon and I needed to get the outside water turned on for them.  I pulled the lever on the valve in the furnace area and the water came on all right – all over the floor. This would be the new valve I paid hundreds of dollars for last year.  Hmmmm (not an exact translation of what I said).  Later, I notice two drain pipes had blown off the side of the house.  Problem.  You have to live alone and have zero repair skills to know how deserted you can feel at times like this.


Time to call the handyman, bless his wonderful heart, but there’s still the water to clean up.


In the evening, I find the attached on Facebook (thank you, Neil Elliott) and it makes all the difference.  I play it several times.  Comfort comes in many forms.


I send it to you with a hopeful, grateful heart.




Be Still My Soul with Lyrics Hymn עדיין הנפש שלי – YouTube


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I talked this past Sunday about our inbuilt and innate human desire for connection and belonging.  Like the song says, we want to be wanted and we need to be needed.  We need love.  Frederick Buechner describes it as a hunger.  He says:

We hunger to be known and understood. We hunger to be loved. We hunger to be at peace inside our own skins. We hunger not just to be fed these things but, often without realizing it, we hunger to feed others these things because they too are starving for them.

Something of this truth was at work on Wednesday night when St. John’s and Holy Apostles geared up and prepared to feed the masses on our first ever “Night Without Hunger”.  The invitations went out to literally dozens of agencies, phone calls were made to see how much dinner to make, volunteers were wrangled, food purchased, entertainment arranged, and tables set and the night arrived.  When the line did not stretch out of the building and around the corner, when the hungry starving hundreds of the Twin Cities didn’t darken our door, you could see the disappointment etched on the dozens of faces that had come to serve.  Heck, that disappointment was on my face or at least in my mind.  I wanted to help, wanted to serve, wanted to do something, anything, to alleviate the needs of the world if only for one night and for one meal.  And, we had done everything right.  We had prepared and planned and prayed and then…where was our opportunity to spread the love, where was our opportunity to welcome the stranger and serve those in need?  Buechner gets this aspiration too.

We hunger not just to be loved but to love, not just to be forgiven but to forgive, not just to be known and understood for all the good times and bad times that for better for worse have made us who we are, but to know and understand each other to the same point of seeing that, in the last analysis, we all have the same good times, the same bad times, and that for that very reason there is no such thing in all the world as anyone who is really a stranger.

And it began to sink in Wednesday night as I scanned our gymnasium, buzzing with St. John’s and Holy Apostles parishioners poised to serve.  Here we were, hungry and in need, thirsty and searching, hoping upon hope that we might be able to love just as we had been loved, to welcome just as we have encountered welcome, and to give just as we have been given much.  My disappointment flew away like a passing cloud.  I filled my plate and my cup and joined a table of the many hungry who had come to serve.  In the end each of us is hungry and thirsty and a stranger.  Only with this understanding can we truly and completely serve.


A genuine and heartfelt thank you is owed to all those who planned, prepared, and showed up for our night without hunger.  I was and remain touched by your willingness to serve.



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Falling Down

I fell today.  Hard.

There was nothing graceful or elegant about it.  It was a clown fall, a Charlie Chaplain, legs in the air, panic on the face, Oh-God-I’m-Gonna-Die fall.  I stepped on the powder covered frozen puddle on our back walk and for a split second I thought I was flying  – Brian Boitano on ice –  and then I was on my back in a bruising thump staring at the gray clouds and telephone wires overhead.

Not a great way to begin the day.

I wanted to laugh. I knew it was funny.  I pictured our neighbor behind the curtains debating laughter too, wondering whether he should call 911 or guffaw like a maniac.  It hurt too much to laugh.

After checking to see that nothing was broken I dusted myself off and went to the office wondering how I had made it all winter in one of the nation’s coldest cities without falling, and then on a week when temperatures were reaching past 50 degrees, I finally managed to slip on the ice.

“Never let your guard down.” I thought cynically to myself.  Not the most spiritually mature response to falling or failing.  As I’ve sat here today pondering my misfortune and nursing my bruises, I have circled back again and again to the reality that if there is any learning here it is that I am inescapably and undeniably human. I am mortal.  I fall. It hurts.

The season of Lent is riddled with this truth – we are dust, we are mortal, we are often weak and broken and we need.  And this truth is coupled with another – we can lean on and trust in the goodness of God when we are in any kind of want or need.  God is quick to pick us up when we fall.  God chuckles with us in our mistakes, embraces us in our hurts, and forgives and restores us when we fail.

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 It was kind of an academic piggy bank.  Each Wednesday morning, my fifth grade teacher at Dodd Elementary in West St. Paul handed out little envelopes with clip fasteners on them.  Our names were on the front, along with lines labeled “date” and “amount.”  We were encouraged to bring a nickel or a dime each week and put it in the envelope as a way to teach us about the magic of regular saving.

In the spring, each of us who contributed got a little check from the local bank for the amount deposited for the year, plus interest! (i.e. free money to us).  By today’s standards, these checks were tiny – probably between $2 and $5 (at least for those kids whose families could give them anything to contribute) but in the late 1950’s, not exactly peanuts when a Snickers was five cents. Of course, the amount wasn’t the point; it was the practice.

At the beginning of Lent at St. James Lutheran, my parents got “Lenten folders” which had slots for dimes to be inserted on each of the forty days (the wealthy would pick up more than one folder, of course – not us).  These folders would be brought to church on Easter Sunday as a special thanksgiving.  Since a dollar in 1958 had the same purchasing power as $7.95 does today, the dimes added up.  But it wasn’t the amount as much as the daily practice.  (You’re doing the math now, aren’t you?)

Those of us who grew up well-schooled in the importance of saving, did not have parents (and certainly grandparents) who swiped plastic at the drugstore for a $3 purchase.  Except for the mortgage and a car loan, they didn’t borrow unless absolutely necessary.  They saved for the new chair, lived within a budget, and taught their children about the deadly perils of the Demon Debt.

As we circle around from the “Great Depression” endured by our grandparents and even parents to the “Great Recession” of the past several years, some of these practices have recycled, like the importance of a savings account, and using cash.  Referring to the popularity of black clothing among New Yorkers and other hip types, someone observed that “Cash is the new black.”

Like saving money and resources, like learning a language or how to play the piano, practice makes things possible that aren’t possible without the necessary discipline.  This applies to the spiritual and religious life, too.  Practices of regular attendance at worship services, prayer, contemplation, reading, community, service, even fasting, have been promoted since the beginning of Christianity – in fact, in all major world religions —  as important means to the ends of spiritual clarity and growth. 

However, just as we learned things as children because of the variety of forces at play (the desire to please parents, pressure from the culture and from peers, our own curiosity), we may need to learn things as adults for different reasons.  To do this, Brian Mclaren tells us, we may have to “ trust the tradition itself enough to engage in practices we don’t completely understand.”

Practice may not make perfect, but often it makes things possible that we thought would elude us.  Things like playing the violin, speaking Spanish, knitting a sweater, or making perfect pastry. Things like faith, trust, hope, and confidence in “the faith that is within you.”   

Put the dimes in the Lenten pockets each day…. and see what accumulates by Easter.

See you in church.   


(Great book: Finding Our Way: The Return of the Ancient Practices, B McLaren).

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Elbow to Elbow








Elbow to Elbow


At least a half a dozen people have mentioned it to me this week, directly or indirectly.  Feeling disconnected, even at church.  Especially at church.  Not feeling “known.”  Forlorn, even in the midst of a crowd.  Or a relationship.  Or a marriage.  

Frederick Buechener writes (I know, I know, but this guy is fantastic), “To be lonely is to be aware of an emptiness that takes more than people to fill.  It is to sense that something is missing which you cannot name.”  The French philosopher Pascal called it “a God-shaped vacuum in every human soul.”  

Although there are things we can do about loneliness (call friends, have a party, scroll through Facebook – but that may make you feel worse, just “get out there,”) I think that loneliness may be a spiritual issue and, as such, not always receptive to secular remedies. Maybe loneliness is a God-given condition to remind us that, ultimately, we need to keep moving, searching, and attempting to satisfy the hunger for more than the material. 

Loneliness may make a full-blown attack at times of transition: a parent dies, a child leaves home, a friendship changes, a relationship breaks up, a job ends. However, sometimes it just appears, unbidden, and takes up residence for a while, no matter how well other things may be going in our lives.  

Our faith has traditions and practices regarding loneliness.  We regard the solitude that sometimes accompanies loneliness to be fertile ground for renewal and insight.  However, our faith also requires us to practice community, that is to regularly engage with other people spiritually, and not only socially.

Not easy for some of us, I know.

Writer Brian McLaren reminds us of what we are to accomplish as Christians who come together regularly: “Help each other to sustain hope; offer mutual encouragement; stimulate each other to do good deeds.  “Without these practices,” he says, “we would expect people of faith to become increasingly grim and apathetic – which is just what we all too often see, isn’t it?” 

The leadership at St. John’s is beginning an organized attempt to think about these issues, especially how we engage each other on a regular basis around issues of support, growth and faith.  Elbow to elbow.  One gathering at a time. 

Some of us have begun, as we sat at last night at five round tables with fellow parishioners and also with people from our “companion parish,” Holy Apostles.  It was rewarding.  It was hard work.  It required patience. It provided an opportunity to tell part of our story and hear others.  For some, this was easy.  For others, not.  Many of us left elated and, I would venture, all of us left  feeling it was worth the time and the risk.  It marked a new beginning that will, eventually, broaden in scope and form, and offer you all an invitation that you might seriously consider accepting.

We opened our gathering last night with words from the American poet, William Stafford, especially appropriate in our troubled country and world, where patterns of polarization, distrust and criticism rule the day, and yet we still have the power and obligation to speak our truth:   

“If you don’t know the kind of person I am

And I don’t know the kind of person you are

A pattern that others made may prevail in the world

And following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

See you in church.


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