Friday, February 24, 2017

Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers), a man who inspired millions of children through his PBS television program "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", once said, “The space between my mouth and a child’s ear is holy ground.” That certainly raises the bar on how adults speak with children!
Holy Ground—those are also the words of God to Moses when he stood before the bush that burned, but was not consumed by fire: remove your sandals, for the ground upon which you stand is holy. 
Holy Ground. 
Sacred Space. 
A Place Set Apart. 
What makes a place holy?  Or a particular time sacred?  For me, the answer to these questions is: God’s grace.  But God does so through the heart we bring and the words we choose to hear and share. God's grace redeems me and causes my heart and head to shift into a posture of gratitude and humility, and my eyes see that everything shines with God's touch. 
In our media-saturated, information-soaked, twittered world, words are flung around casually, carelessly, hurtfully, insensitively.  Words are powerful and yet we sometimes overuse them or misuse them so much that they lose their power.  Words are sometimes like weapons used to cut another down and diminish the sacredness God instills, but they can also be used to reveal holy space, to convey love and blessing, to share Good News. 

A cliché we’ve all heard and perhaps used is “walk the talk”.  In other words match your actions with your words.  Perhaps it’s an impossibility—especially for those who are claimed by grace but are still weighed down by sin.  Yet it is something to which we should aspire.  No matter how difficult it may be we are to bridle our behaviors (and all those feelings that motivate us to act in critical, harsh, anti-redemptive ways) in order to rise to the life of the Word that was and is and is yet to be, the Word that transforms even hypocrites into the real estate of holy ground. 

I encourage you to let the space between your mouth and everyone else around you be holy ground.  We are stewards of our words.  We can use them carefully or carelessly.  And using words as weapons because others do so, is no excuse for those who confess to be reconciled by the One Who is The Word. 

© Stephen Carl

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Face to face is a loaded expression. It could be followed by details of a confrontation, or of deep intimacy, or a great deal in between those two. I was considering how many people I've been privileged to be face to face with in a way that never would happen if not for being a pastor. I have been face to face in counseling sessions, in worship, in weddings, in baptisms, in moments of heartache and grief, in moments of truth, in moments of confrontation, and moments of earnest hope.  I cannot begin to calculate the number of people I have been face to face with in ritual events, such as healing services or Ash Wednesday services or communion by intinction or in prayer at the side of their hospital bed. Though I have fallen far short, I have always tried to say the person's name and make eye contact. In a flash, in a micro-second, in a timeless moment, I have often felt a deep and mysterious connection--not just between myself and the other person, but also of another who brings us together. It's as if, without expertise or planning, we are taken to a place beyond our capacity to discover, and in that place the heart is laid bare. None of the garbage of our lives, for which we are ashamed and remain guarded, is there. It's not that it is undisclosed, it's more as if it simply doesn't exist.
It is a holy moment that occurs in spite of us. It is in such moments that I have looked into the eyes of people whom I know do not like me, who have been critical of me, who have hurt me, and I am forgiven of all the feelings I have had because of my own fears and insecurities and spiritual immaturity. It's a humbling experience to not feel the razor sharp indignation toward the other, but to experience the power of forgiveness in the most indescribable and incomprehensible way.
It is in such moments that I realize that being a pastor isn't mostly about having answers or being theologically astute or even being a leader. Instead it is about being a child who is loved and given the privilege of letting other children know they are loved too, but not in any way that we can earn or even understand. Rather, it is a love that frees us to explore the meaning of love, even in our messy, broken-down ways.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, February 16, 2017

To speak ABOUT God is to aim a bottle rocket at the sun. It never comes close to leaving the earth's atmosphere, let alone the earth's gravity. Our words about God are weighted with the mass of misunderstanding and ego-centrism.  Besides, speaking about God is academic.  It addresses more of human conceptions of God, human constructions of God, than it does revelations of God.
Speaking about God is not speaking OF, let alone speaking TO, WITH or FOR God. As for speaking for God, one must be cautious since misspeaking for God is blasphemy; lying and portraying the lies as coming from God's lips.  Not a wise thing to put words or the misinterpretation of words into God's mouth.
To speak OF God requires first speaking WITH God.  To speak of God should flow from the rich river of fellowship one has with God, fully aware that God is GOD and we are creatures of God.  We are created in the image of God and we are loved, but let us not construe this into a chummy notion of a friendship, as if we are on equal terms.
The rich fellowship of being in relationship with God is beyond articulation since words will never explain or capture the truth of being in this relationship.  To even say "relationship with God" is to use a pale shadow to illustrate the bright sun.  This relationship and the One with Whom we have fellowship defines us.  To speak of God is to speak of meaning and the meaning-maker, to express joy and fulfillment and one's beginning and completion.

To believe and speak about God's disapproval is to step upon the sacred ground of judgment, ground upon which Jesus walked to the cross.  To point at anyone and say "sinner" is to elevate oneself above Christ the victor who came not to condemn the world, but to forgive.  Casting blame or judgment is to stand exposed to the brilliance of God's love and say that someone is beneath God's favor when God loves the world.  Who has such privilege and righteousness?
I do not and I know of no mere mortal who does.  For me, my debt to God exceeds any righteous work I can muster.  And it is my debt forgiven that fills me with humility and compassion.  Any judgmentalism that still stirs in my heart is enemy ground not yet surrendered though the war is over and the great defeat has occurred.

© 2017 Stephen Carl

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"The Church of Never Do That"

The members of "The Church of Never Do That"
Never speak in worship or allow idle chit chat
We've posted "The seven last words of church" on our door:
"We've never done it that way before"

The children who wiggle are thumped on the head
"You were told to sit still" the parents all said
Since church is an exercise of will o'er desire
Motivated by images of hell's burning fire.

The purpose of worship was long ago lost
On bottom line decisions of financial cost
So the people who come all dutifully obey
The tradition of praying the same prayer each time they pray

The praying is practiced with ne'er a mistake
A stutter would be tragic for heaven's sake!
And the order of worship has never changed
Since John Calvin approved how it's arranged

The ushers tuxedoed are stationed and trained
To keep out the coffee so the carpet's unstained
The hymns were written in catacombs long ago
And sung sans enthusiasm lest it become a big show

New music or clapping is never allowed
There's plenty of room since there's never a crowd
But the pews are assigned, so stuck in a rut
Each cushion is shaped like it's member's butt

The argument seems airtight for anyone who can see:
"If it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me."
When the Bible is read with the Thees and the Thous
All feign engagement with deep furrowed brows

And the preaching is done with an emphasis on sins
All remain silent with no shouts or "Amens"
New people they want to sit in the pews
To hear their dull version of the Good News

But strangers are a terror, utterly feared
Especially the one with long hair and a beard
But just such a one came every week
To find the lost hearts, his kingdom they seek

Lost hearts aplenty he found in the nave
Hibernating spiritually like bears in a cave
So Sunday after Sunday he'd head down the street
To see who he'd find and who he would meet

Though meet them is really not what he would do
For their name, heart and hurts he already knew
Some members of "The Church of Never Do That"
Wanted what he offered but their courage was flat

Too worried to look religious, too worried to look weird
So they kept their hearts shut to the guy with the beard.
A meeting was called and a motion was made
Where a political ploy was skillfully played

To change church policy to eliminate...change
Since stability is preferred to the new and the strange
The vote was unanimous, well...minus one
That long-hair bearded guy some call God's Son

Some shouted "Democracy rules! There's nothing more to do"
Isn't that Gospel? Somewhere in Matthew?
You may be a member of "The Church of Never Do That"
If you'd defend your preferences in ecclesial combat

And use words like "my church" as if were true
That you atoned and ransomed it with your blood and sinew
The long hair bearded man still comes to that church
Expecting some may begin (heaven forbid!) a spiritual search

Beyond the traditions, the hymns, and their by-law
Where the deepest of hungers and the questions still gnaw
Perhaps they will look through the stained glass scene
Of Jesus declaring the leper was now clean

Where outside the window the world buzzes by
Too busy to slow down, too frightened to cry
The empty expressions and the desperate need
From the diet of death on which they all feed

If "The Church of Never Do That" opened wide
And the people in the pews ever ventured outside
They would find something amazing, too powerful to contain
The message so simple, so pure and so plain

The life and the blessing, the Good News and grace
The people inside forgot in their unchanging place
God never, no never said "Thou shalt not Change"
Nor never has God ever left us estranged

Except when we grip tightly our fear and our pride
Strangling and suffocating, our trust slowly died
Our concrete and mortar so carefully maintained
Our coffers and endowments are slowly being drained

To paint and repair, replace and update
We fret and we fight as we carry the freight
Of deception in believing that we're faithful and true
As we honor our ancestors from 1802.

The buildings we build are not the Church of the One
The church is the people who work till the work is all done
Telling each person regardless of race,
No matter their language or color of face

Showing them kindness and lifting them up
Sharing the bread and offering the cup
So change will happen no matter the rules
For doing the same thing forever is only for fools

Come be part of "The Church of Never the Same"
For it’s filled with the people given a new name
They're grateful and giddy and filled with good news
Going beyond the doors, stained glass and the pews.

They find its a mystery as they let go
When they love their neighbor they're filled with a glow
When the give up their treasures they are blessed and renewed
Something that never happens when we fight and we feud.

And the long-hair bearded man looks on with a smile
As cheeks are turned twice and we go the extra mile
For no one is judged, since that's losing the game
Only loved by the Church of Never the Same

© 2017 Stephen Carl

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I am intrigued by and compelled to write about, try to illustrate or describe, something untouchable and undisclosed, something between or beneath that which is evident. This space or place or truth is just out of reach, but is still possible to grasp, not by our own power or effort, but as a whimsical gift. We brush against it at times and feel it nudge us, whisper to us in a breeze or the drama of colors and movement in a moment never to be repeated. Though it is very close to us, rarely do we see it or know it is there.
A challenge is that language is the way in which we experience life and consciousness. Without language, or the manner in which we explain and express our experience, we are unmoored and unable to know what we are experiencing, even who we are.
Language also, however, limits what we experience by its structure and word-boxes. Language is like a road that is at times well defined and solid, with curbs and guardrail and lines, wide with many lanes; at times it narrows and meanders through neighborhoods of homes that are filled with laughter and light and other neighborhoods with empty houses and broken windows, dark with danger and despair; then at times it is like a gravel or dirt road winding through a forest or off into the countryside or nearly disappearing in a dry and open landscape, perhaps becoming only a single trail threading its way into a wilderness until it fades away altogether and leaves the sojourner standing among a grove of tall trees, light shining through the branches, gentle breeze stirring the leaves, and a whisper of a voice that is strangely familiar as it echoes in the heart; or it leads us over sandy dunes where we hear breaking waves until we step upon the shore and look out over an ocean that stretches beyond the horizon. There we can go no further unless we strap together a few timbered words with poetic twine and let the currents carry us where we cannot know, into mists of imagination past islands of brief substance and then further, further, further to where no words, no boat, no vessel will carry us and we sink into the depths of the wordless from which words arise and into which words disappear and we breathe beneath the water where words cannot be spoken for they mean nothing and yet we now are known as we sought to know.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Advent, we are reminded, is about waiting. Faithful waiting. Keeping hearts and lives chaste in a world of instant gratification and hyper-impatience.  Oddly, it isn't surprising that we aren't good at waiting, but we are very good at being distracted.  Distraction helps us ignore waiting.  There are a lot of theme parks that have discovered that the wait in line is experienced as less long when people are distracted, so various means of entertaining people in line have been developed.  It helps, but no one in line forgets what they're really waiting for: the ride.  We know this since no one chooses to stay in line when they reach the ride.  This same thing isn't true about our lives and world.  The distractions we've adopted work so well that we forget that for which we are waiting.  In essence, we become addicted to the distractions and choose them over or instead of that for which we are created.
A minor, but real Advent experience would be if on December 25 we woke up and discovered that Christmas had been postponed indefinitely.  If by April or June we are still waiting for Christmas then we would qualify as having a hint of understanding about the Biblical experience of Advent of a promise made by God with no set deadline, but also no expiration date.
Of course, Advent for those who call themselves Christian isn't about waiting for the promised Messiah, instead advent for the past two thousand years is really about waiting for the consummation of the kingdom. In the first century there was an expectation that the kingdom was immanent, and as things got worse, especially for the small community of those who were disciples of Jesus.  With two thousand years of waiting we are less certain of the immanence.  Indeed, we may even may think that if current events and attitudes in our world are any indication, then it would appear we have a long wait ahead of us. The posture toward history and the events which may point toward the timing of the eschaton has shifted.
It used to be that, for Christians, war had to be theologically justified and even then it was a moral stretch to do so.  Militant faith was applied to the spiritual world, not one's neighbors or enemies.
It just struck me, however, to consider Advent from a heavenly perspective.  I wonder what God thinks of waiting for us to settle down, to show that we really receive love by demonstrating it, not with the lovable, but the unlovable. That's what Jesus challenged anyone who would be his disciple: love those who do not love you in return, since it's no big deal to love those who love you. Heck, who doesn't do that?
Obviously God doesn't have the same experience of Advent as we do.  We are bound in time, stuck in the present, with a litter of tragedy in our wake and a questionable future around the corner or over the next rise.  God isn't bound in time, therefore waiting isn't an issue.  Still, there are passages that indicate God's patience with the chosen people ran out.  Just read nearly any of the prophets.  And in the Gospels Jesus is recorded as expressing exasperation with the disciples and others who were slow about grasping his kingdom message.
If you're a praying person and furthermore familiar with the Lord's Prayer, then you may recognize the Advent contained therein:  "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" and that's not just an eschatological petition since its followed by "on earth as it is in heaven."  In truth, though it is considered a petition, perhaps we might consider it also a promissory statement as well, that perhaps we should move beyond the sound of the words and be a demonstration of the Kingdom ON EARTH as it is demonstrated in heaven.  On this side of the pearly gates, the standard practice of repentance is a good place to start.  Acknowledging one's own failures in faithfulness is a good Advent activity.  Humanity has always been easily duped by its own "better-than-you" aptitude, but it seems lately we are even more eagerly  trigger happy with our index finger as we point out blame and accusation.  Lord knows we have the same damned issues plaguing humanity for centuries, just a new set of people: racism, sexism, beliefism, ageism, nationalism, greed, fear, etc.
And following repentance, we should have a healthy dose of righteous impatience, but impatience for the correct things, like the garbage we have no problem ignoring while we're pointing out everyone else's faults.  When it comes to certain things, patience isn't a virtue we have time for, just as MLK, Jr. advocated in his "Why we can't wait" book.  Some things are way past their spoil date and the fear we harbor in others who are different than us is one of them.   Yet, MLK demonstrated an INCLUSIVE impatience.  He was impatient for everyone to know justice, not only those experiencing the sharp, jagged edge of injustice.
Advent is a season we don't have time for, it seems.  Yet it is a timeless season.  We reluctantly grant it four weeks, but we fill it with a super-size-me Twelve Days of Christmas. It's all quite ironic since those days are meant to follow Christmas Day, not precede it.  We now follow Christmas with a deflating of the season, a collective sigh of relief that all the sugar-coated, hijacked meaning of Christmas is through.
I won't suggest we crater to the strong current of the cultural river, but for me it makes sense to start Advent in August when there's a wasteland of Liturgically ho-hum Sundays.  Then quit the wrangling with folk about not singing Christmas carols during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  It may be good theology, but there are more important battles to fight.
No matter what, though, let's get inclusively impatient with the real challenges. Let's get active with the kingdom work.  Let's quit bickering over the marginal matters and focus on the issues that are genuine.  Otherwise, like the Israel of old, the words of the prophets will no longer be simply an inconvenience.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Saturday, November 12, 2016

When we step back from the fray of all responsibilities, obligations, distractions, activities, and busy-ness we discover beneath all these engagements there is something that binds our lives together and provides our lives with meaning. This binding agent is stories: family stories, fictional stories, stories of heroes and heroines, stories of saints and sinners, stories of history, stories of love or hope or hardship or comfort or strength.
Can you imagine life without "once upon a time" or "in a kingdom far, far away" or "there once was a" or "he spoke to them in parables" or “did I ever tell you about the time” or “your grandfather and I once were fishing when…” or “my first kiss was with…”?
My boys are always asking me to tell them about some event in my life and they'll even sometimes just ask me to tell them some unknown story from my life that they haven't heard before.  I recall my daughter, when she was a youngling often asking me to tell her a made-up story.  She was demanding too.  She wouldn't settle for any stories that didn't have excellent detail and infused with deep meaning.  We are a storied species, as much story as we are cells and sinew, perhaps more.
Stories are powerfully archetypal, they're emotive and sometimes disturbing; they're able to open our minds and hearts to lessons we may prefer to ignore or have difficulty accessing ourselves.  They teach us things that cannot be explained any other way than in a story, things that cannot be put into an equation or formula or list or even a statement or rule.
Some stories are make-believe, which is different than untrue.  They may not be factual as we might consider fact, but that does not mean they aren't true.  Truth has to do with something far more powerful and significant than facts.  Facts are important, but truth teaches us about the life for which we yearn, the substance that we seek, the purpose for which we live, the love for which we are willing to die.
We are shaped by the stories of our lives like clay is shaped in the hands of a potter; shaped by the stories we have heard and the ones onto which our souls cling.  Sadly, we live in a culture bereft of substantive stories.  We live by tweets and posts and blogs and five reasons this or that and fifteen second commercials and thirty minute comedies with problems, crisis and resolution neatly packaged in irreverence and disrespect we've been sold as humor.  We live by the news stories of scandals and black and white/good and bad dichotomies without the grays that challenge us.  Few of us wrestle with angels like Jacob; few of us are visited by strangers we take in and protect; few of us would know what to do if we saw a valley of dried bones rattle and begin to come to life.
The dreams we have in our sleep are our deep need for stories speaking to us in mystery and metaphor.  And they affect us the way stories affect us—following us throughout the day like a shadow.
And so I am thankful, grateful for stories; for the stories I heard from my parents about when they were kids, the stories I heard of my great-grandparents and grandparents, the stories of family secrets whispered, the stories of my mother selling acorns to her neighbors when she was five, the stories of my father working on building homes with his father, the stories of my siblings, the stories of me when I was too young to remember, the stories of my father during the war, the stories of distant peoples and distant lands and distant hopes and dreams, especially the story that I'm living.
What stories define you?  What family stories do you remember?  What stories will you tell?  What stories do you long to hear?  Ask someone you barely know to tell you their story and then listen to them.  And see what happens to you and to the other and to your stories.
Furthermore, realize you are a storyteller and as such you are empowered to do amazing things by shaping your story as it weaves in and out of the stories of others and the little wiggle of space and once-upon-a-time you are granted.

© 2016 Stephen Carl