Enough

Adventures in Thanks-Living

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Enough! Enough already! Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy! What’s going on, people?

This is not the way I would normally start a blog post, but these are the thoughts running through my head against the backdrop of this week’s Revised Common Lectionary gospel (Luke 10:25-37) and my social media newsfeed. Basically it’s a verbal mash-up of who’s my neighbor and who’s acting like a neighbor versus brutal public murders of black men and police officers, anger and hate-filled rhetoric flying willy-nilly in all directions, and competing claims about what will make America great again. Lament seems the only viable response.

And yet…

Jesus calls us to action. He calls us to show mercy, to go and do likewise. Sure, Jesus wept and grieved and mourned for the brokenness of the world in which he walked; however, he was not stymied by the enormity of it all. Sure, he wanted…

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Whatever Shall We Do?

Whew! June has been quite the month in the social media and news world. There’s been more than enough of tragedies, disasters, political posturing, and hateful rhetoric, and we still have four days to go. Summer is here, tensions are rising, anxiety is growing, economic disparity is widening, and our elections in the U.S. are less than five months away. What’s a person of faith to do?

Public faith in actionHow about starting with a book discussion this summer? Released last week from Brazos Press, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, is a wonderful new resource to stimulate discussion and provide additional study and resource suggestions.

I just finished reading the book and have already found it useful in sermon preparation, in conversation, and in challenging me to think outside of my own preconceived notions about how the world ought to operate. Volf and McAnnally-Linz make it clear from the start that the book is framed from this basic commitment: “Christian faith has an inalienable public dimension” (3). They argue that Christ must be the center and norm not just of our religious/faith and family lives but also in every aspect of the public sphere in which we move and breathe. Importantly, they encourage readers to see the book as a call to action, that of following Jesus and patterning the entirety of our lives after his example. Jesus was definitely a public figure; as his disciples we, too, are called to be active in public life to work for justice, top seek the common good, and to be God’s hands, feet, and heart in the world.

Public Faith in Action will appeal to a wide range of folks from theological thinkers to folks in the pew who are trying to make sense of the craziness they perceive all around them. The book is divided into three parts: Commitments, Convictions, and Character. The core of the book explores current issues—ranging from wealth and poverty to borrowing and lending, and from life and aging to marriage and family—and identifies relevant Christian convictions while also faithfully exploring ambiguities. Woven throughout are stories that illustrate the markers of character and convictions.

Whatever shall we Christians do about the current state of affairs? We can begin by recognizing that our response is a matter of stewardship, of being responsible for our actions and choices, of spending our time, resources, and talents wisely. It’s about stewarding relationships as we work together to knit the fabric of community through conversation, fellowship, and sharing.

Now get your hands on a copy of Public Faith in Action and read it post haste. But whatever you do, don’t stop there. Engage others in conversation and reflection, ponder what you as a person of faith are being called to do, and then commit yourself fully to act on your convictions for the sake of this beautiful, broken, and beloved world.

Click here to be redirected to the book website. Click here to watch a short YouTube video of Dr. Miroslav Volf discussing the book.

(Image: Courtesy Brazos Press)

How’d all that STUFF Happen?

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I kid you not; STUFF multiplies like dust bunnies under the bed. I’ve been working toward greater simplicity for several years now, and I still have too much stuff. For the second year in a row I participated in “The Month of 100 Things.” This Facebook group pledges to rid their lives and homes of 100 unnecessary things during the first month of the calendar year. It never  fails to amaze me how much can be gotten rid of in 31 days!

From cleaning out a drawer in the office to my closet, it was pretty easy to eliminate 100 things that weren’t either necessary or perceived as beautiful and essential. And then tonight, on my way home from a meeting, I hear The Minimalists on WITF-FM (NPR) say that the average American home has over 300,ooo things in it. Goodness! How much do we need to consume to be happy? How much do we have to hang on to “just in case” we might one day need it? Hmmmmmm….maybe I’ll go clean out another drawer.

What are your ideas for avoiding the consumption of excess stuff?

Check out this blog post from embracinghomemaking.net aptly entitled “200 Things to Throw Away” to get  started (if it doesn’t exhaust you just by reading the list!). I really like the Oscar Wilde quote “There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid others would pick them up.” There’s that “fear” thing again! Remember there’s enough if we all just do a better job of sharing.

(Photo: Kevin Utting, Creative Commons. Thanks!)

Popcorn Please

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Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make all the difference in a day. For the Blezards almost nothing spells comfort like a big bowl of popcorn made the old-fashioned way: on the stove in a big pot with just a splash of oil, some sea salt, a little curry and red pepper powder, and a good upper arm workout. This simple treat is a Sunday night staple in our house and go-to weeknight comfort food after long meetings.

The simple pleasure of a big bowl of popcorn is much more than food to fill the belly. The taste, smell, and texture are infused with memories of childhood family television nights, memorable movies watched on the big screen, teen sleepovers, and making sticky-sweet popcorn balls for the holidays.

During this Lenten season, I am giving thanks for the simple things in life. Popcorn on a cold winter night is one of those simple pleasures that might easily taken for granted but is oh so worth savoring.

What are the simple things in which you take delight?

Oh Ashy Day!

Ash Wednesday Snow Day

Ashes and snow. Black and white that melts into shades of gray. When our bishop made the ashen sign of the cross on my forehead today I was both reminded of my mortality, of my foolish and sinful nature, and of the amazing hope of real life–eternal life–that I have in Jesus. Yes, this prodigal love and unmerited grace that Jesus extends reminds me of the pristine, sparkling snow that covers the dull, dingy landscape of this Pennsylvania winter. The love of our Lord makes everything new and clean and brightly hopeful again. Nothing, and no one, is beyond his gentle reach.

We live in the already and the not yet, in the gray area between yesterday and eternity. We are no longer forsaken but truly forgiven. Still the ash cross reminds me that my days here are numbered. I came from dust (really stardust if you want to be accurate about it) and to dust of the cosmos and beyond comprehension.

So Lord, teach me to number my days. Instruct me to amend and consider my ways. You do not desire pithy piety or rusty religiosity. You desire a real fast from my earthbound self, a radical reorientation and returning to your way. Yes, Lord, this cross on my forehead and the snow all around remind me of your glory and your goodness. I am so thankful that you love my dusty and imperfect human being self and that you are constantly reforming me to reflect your light and love. Ashes and snow. Dust and stardust. Grace and mercy. And above all love. Oh, ashy, snowy day!

 

Bittersweet

BensonKua.cc

We were on the road at 5:00 a.m. today. Let me be clear that there is not enough caffeine in the world to make that hour palatable to my taste. But there was a plane to catch–at Dulles. So the daughter and I headed out into the fuzziness of night breaking into morning to send her back to the Twin Cities where husband, dogs, work, friends, and her life are located.

If roadtrips were ascribed gustatory characteristics, then this early morning sojourn would definitely taste of bittersweet. I’ve done it twice in one week (it being putting daughters on planes), first to BWI and now to Dulles, one to London and the other to the heartland. Both trips have left a dual taste of sadness and gladness in my mouth.

I am glad that both daughters have launched into “adulthood” (for what that’s worth) and continue to develop into unique and amazing individuals. I am sad because each time I send them from the safe arms of home into the hum and pitch of this beautiful, broken world I am reminded of the fleeting and precious nature of life and relationship.

Yes, bittersweet is the flavor of the day. I can own that reality. I can drink that cup of co-mingled joy and sorrow. And, I can truly say that I am grateful for every minute of their precious, wild, and wonderful lives. I send them into this world knowing that they do not “belong” to me but rather to the Creator of all that was, is, and is to come, to the cosmos and the grand human narrative. They are meant to live their own lives, make decisions, face consequences, craft their futures. And that is as it should be.

How thankful I am to be part of their that journey, to be connected to their stories, to hold them in my heart. I raise a glass of bittersweet tears, and I suspect some of you will understand this toast all too clearly. Here’s to holding loosely and to letting go. Here’s to drawing wide hopeful margins with myriad colors. Here’s to love that lets love take flight.

Photo: Benson Kua, Creative Commons. Thank you!

Practice. Practice. Practice.

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Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Practice. Practice. Practice. If you want to write, you have to make like a Nike commercial and “just do it.”

I write almost every day; most of it is work-related, but I probably average about about 1,500 words. I write mostly about stewardship, discipleship, and faith. Some days I craft articles or draft profiles. Other days I write sermons and blog posts. Once a week I write a reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary. Social media posts are a regular complement to the longer pieces. When I have the opportunity and luxury of choice I write poetry and dabble with fiction. Other writers are far more prolific than I am–and decidedly more disciplined, too. Still I write because it’s part of who I am.

When I don’t write I become cranky, slightly out-of-sorts, a bit moody. It’s the same as with physical exercise. Our bodies need to be active, to move, to stretch, to be strengthened. The same applies for our writing muscles and creativity: Use it, or you just might lose it.

What you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write (at least this is my view) at our age, so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on. — C. S. Lewis

Here’s the thing: writing requires regular, everyday effort. I don’t know of anyone who simply sat down, faced a blank screen or clean sheet of paper and wrote a best-selling novel or a Broadway-bound play on the first go. So I’m grateful for C. S. Lewis’ reminder that every word written carries one further on, and I agree with him that craft matters, that every effort should be keen and thoughtful. Whether it’s fiction or poetry or feature articles or even a letter to a friend (perhaps particularly a letter to a friend), it’s a worthy effort and deserves to be treated as such.

This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say. — Brenda Ueland

It is easy to become discouraged. Some days it seems that no words will come or that those that do spit themselves out are facile or nonsensical. On those days, remember this quote from pioneering writer and free spirit Brenda Ueland in her book If you Want to Write (Greywolf Press). In fact, she felt so strongly that everyone has something important to say that she titled a chapter in the book with those words. If you are not familiar with Ueland or this book, by all means read it.

Don’t be discouraged dear fellow writer. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and keep those words coming. Read good prose and poetry. See excellent plays. Listen to good music. But most of all, WRITE. Every day. Yes. Every day.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts and strategies for hammering out those words. Please share your wisdom in the comment section. Thanks!

Photo: Ramiro Ramirez, Creative Commons. Thanks!

 

 

Happy “No Fear” New Year

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The year just passed was a real “doozy.” Yes, there were many good things to affirm and celebrate, but 2015 was also a year marred by fear, hate, violence, and nasty political posturing and rhetoric. We wrestled with (or avoided) legitimate concerns about climate change, poverty and income inequality, safety and security, homelessness and the plight of refugees, racism (and a host of other -isms), and the continued slaughter of black men and youths. Yes, 2015 is better left behind, and I pray we’re wiser for having lived through it.  Continue reading

Jesus and the Stewardship of Self

Cross and Starfish

It’s tough to be good stewards of our time, our relationships, and our finite resources. I’ve been reflecting on this topic a lot lately, especially in light of the wonderful Rostered Leaders Wellness Retreat our Lower Susquehanna Synod hosted with support from Portico Benefits (our insurer), Thrivent Financial, and Lutheran World Relief.

We spent a wonderful two days at the Hershey Hotel with wonderful food, great collegiality, worship, Bible study, and time for yoga, meditation, and financial stewardship workshops. We were also treated to chair massages and a prayer labyrinth. Just having time to see colleagues from all parts of our synod and to treat ourselves to a lovely setting that most of us would never consider going otherwise was a lavish gift.

Even better, our keynote presenter, Dr. Mike Brown, explained healthy living through a heart healthy diet and exercise. His presentation was fun, engaging, and humorous. My husband and I have  been comparing labels ever since and are committed to being attentive to “what goes in our mouth and what we do with our feet.”

Here’s a link to the reflection I wrote this week on the Narrative Lectionary reading for February 8, 2014, posted on the Stewardship of Life Institute website. Seems our Lord Jesus Christ knew a lot about health and wellness and provides a wonderful model for stewardship of self. Thank you, Jesus!

Secret Church Shopper Sunday: Epic Fail Edition

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I’m convinced that all churches need “secret shoppers.” Here’s why. Almost every church I work with describes itself as friendly and like “one big family.” It’s easy to feel that way when you’re part of the regular life of the community, but it can be a different story when visitors come ‘a calling.

As a vocational church worker, I hear the laments of congregational leaders and pastors who see dwindling numbers and shrinking offerings. It’s easy to blame such decline on changing culture, on competing congregations with better programs, contemporary worship, modern facilities, and any number of other rationalizations and excuses, but human nature is pretty consistent. Our base needs are the same. We want relationship, we want meaning, we want to be a part of something that makes life better, and like the old Cheers television theme song said, people want to go where they know your name.

Today was one of those rare days when I wasn’t leading worship and/or preaching, so I decided to be a “secret church shopper” and visit a congregation where I could be “incognito.” Unfortunately, what I experienced is pretty typical of declining, dispirited mainline churches. Even sadder: it simply doesn’t have to be this way because we have the best message in the entire cosmos!

Problem:  The first hitch was finding the time of worship and address of the church to plug into my GPS. The congregation that I chose is a small one(mainly because I have a real heart and deep love for small churches). It did not have a website or Facebook page. My iPhone (thank you Siri) found the phone number, and thankfully the worship time was included on the pleasant recorded message.

Solution: Any congregation can have a web presence these days. A Facebook page or group is free, and a simple website can be easily designed and hosted thanks to tools like Weebly, Wix, and WordPress. People rarely use phone books, so save the money you used to spend on a YellowPages ad and get your congregation on the web. Do you want to be found? Do you want to share the gospel with people? Make it happen. No excuses.

Problem: The next problem was simply getting into the worship space. The congregation worships in a beautiful old building–without parking, at least none that I could see. I parked on the street. No problem there. I’m a big girl. There were quite a few options for doors, and I inevitably chose the wrong one. Once I got into the worship space I didn’t see the proverbial greeters proffering bulletins. There were only a few people in the place, and worship was supposed to start in about five minutes. I had to ASK if there were bulletins. Once I asked, I was quickly redirected to the correct entrance where the bulletins were laying on a table. The woman I asked was nice enough, but she didn’t offer to engage me further in conversation.

Solution: If you want to encourage new folks to come in, make it clear where to go. Make sure you have someone to say hello and provide a bulletin or handout if you have them. Make sure the restrooms are clearly marked. Make it easy for guests to become oriented. Smile. Say hello. Act interested that someone new has darkened your door.

Problem: A first time visitor may be leery about where to sit. What if you sit in someone’s personal pew, and they come and shoot you a dirty look or worse ?

Solution: Show hospitality and make sure guests are comfortable. If someone sits in your personal pew–get over it. It won’t kill you to have a different view of worship. I’m bold. I asked if I would be taking someone’s pew before I sat down.

Problem: When there’s less than 30 people in worship on an average Sunday a visitor sticks out like a sore thumb.

Solution: Welcome guests. Say hello. Introduce yourself. If you’re sitting nearby and they look lost in the liturgy, try to help. I had to initiate almost every conversation. You usually get only one or two shots with guests. Make connections. If your community is friendly then show it. Do unto others as you’d like to have someone do unto you. This isn’t rocket science. It’s God’s house, and God wants us to love our neighbors–even if it stretches us outside of our comfort zone.

Problem: After worship, NEVER let a guest stand around looking awkward. Today, I walked out without anyone providing an invitation to return. Not even the pastor asked my name or invited me to come back again.

Solution: Invite them to your next fellowship opportunity.Give them a copy of your newsletter. Invite them back to worship next week. A guest should never walk out of the door without a reason to come back. If you can get their name and address, write them a personal note. (Note: I did put a check in the offering plate, so I’ll be curious to see if someone snags my name and address from that and writes a note.)

I don’t want to be totally down on this congregation. The facility was clean, although a bit worn. In its heyday it must have been quite stunning.  The organist was better than good, albeit a bit loud for the almost empty nave. The pastor’s sermon had some solid points, was pretty easy to follow, and offered a solid challenge to listeners. The hymnody was varied, but there wasn’t much singing going on. They did have communion, and the usher did a nice job of providing me with instructions. The baptismal font, a classic old style, had been retrofitted with a fountain. I love the sound of running water in a font! It always makes me sad to see an empty baptismal font.

Secret Church Shopper Overall Score: One  star out of five.

Even for the seasoned-churchgoer and loyal Lutheran, this congregation exuded little hope and energy. Had anyone invited me to return again, I would have been willing to give the congregation another shot. After all grace abounds, right? Everybody deserves a second chance, and I need Jesus in word and sacrament on a regular basis.

Sadly, I had a better, more meaningful interaction with a lady on the street while I was trying to figure out how to enter the church building. She asked me if I could spare 50 cents. She was gracious, she looked me in the eye with kindness, and in her I saw the face of Christ. True, worship is about God and not about what we can get out of it, but if a visitor has no clue why our gathering as the Body of Christ is any better or different than what can be gotten at the local pub or  Lions Club, then we aren’t doing our job as disciples.

It’s all about relationships, folks. If you want your worshiping community to thrive, it has to be about more than a one hour transaction on Sunday morning and keeping the doors open. It’s about the good news. It’s about God’s love for a broken and hurting world. It’s about radical hospitality, prodigal love, and selfless service. It’s about a different way of living and being in this world.

Here are three words times three to get you started: Welcome the stranger. Welcome the stranger. Welcome the stranger.