“I have labored in vain,

 I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my cause is with the Lord,

and  my reward  with my God.”—Isaiah 49:4

With something akin to total recall I remember the time, place, and the event quite vividly. It was November 1997 and I was at a junior high youth gathering in Bemidji, MN. Now, if you have ever attended such an event you know that sleep is only optional. Being a part of the youth organization board which hosted the event, after a few days I was beyond simple fatigue. Hence, the defenses were already down a bit, and the unsettled portions of my life bubbled to the surface.

About 1:30am I retired to my hotel room and had a few quiet moments to myself. Back home life in the parish I served wasn’t bad, it simply appeared that my calling there neared its end. The direction I thought we were headed together turned out to be vastly different from my expectations. The feeling was of complete failure. How could I misread things so badly? Why didn’t I do this or that differently? What about my leadership was so terrible?

At this period in my journey I knew God was stirring something new for me, and really, I didn’t like the sensation. The unknown, all that was uncertain, every bit of new possibility was filled with fear, not excitement. So, back in that hotel room I plopped down in a chair, grabbed my bible and prepared for a bit of devotion and prayer. In an oddly providential manner, the pages of the Holy Writ opened right here, Isaiah 49, and my eyes landed on verse 4. “I have labored in vain…”

Like the rush of a violent wind these words swept over me. You try so hard and yet there appear to be no fruit to your labor. So it often goes when working in the kingdom of God. As the sower in Jesus’ parable one can only cast the seeds of love, compassion and the Gospel’s power and then pray for the Holy Spirit’s work.

I re-learned this valuable lesson once again on a recent journey to Ethiopia. For the past five years our church connects with ministries in Addis Ababa. The first few years involved a difficult project in a government-owned orphanage. Challenges prove to be nearly insurmountable and may be unsolvable. However, our recent connection is with a child development group called Onesimus, working with street kids. Estimates are 100,000 children living in the streets. These talented and faithful workers get the kids off the streets, hook them up with family if possible or find other housing means, get them into school, and basically give them a better shot at life.

We first visited in May 2012 and saw some wonderful pieces of this ministry. Our congregation and its members now provide sponsorship dollars for the program and make personal connections with the children. What we witnessed this last month was miraculous—we are privileged to participate in a ministry that is truly fruitful and really works. What Christ does through this program is transformational and genuinely changes lives. It is humbling and rewarding to partner with Onesimus.

Once again God smacks me in the back of the head as if to say, “See, I told you so.” Surely, when our cause is with the Lord the rewards are manifold. One must trust the Spirit is at work, even when our human eyes see something different.

God is faithful, and that is enough. Maybe it’s just enough encouragement to keep this poor soul faithful, too.

Today I stand with bothfeet in some different worlds. Last Wednesday, December 25, I left with 19 other adventurers for a two week trek to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We connect with a ministry called Onesimus Child Development Association, which provides a structured environment for children living in the streets to restored family situations, housing, education, and most of all, hope.
Today we Americans are ready for a new year, yet in Ethiopia, anticipation is of another sort: Christmas here is not December 25, but January 7. Today we are between Christmas for part of the Christian world, while others under our Tent-of-Faith are yet a week away from their celebration. We travelers place bothfeet in both worlds, as our relationships are what really count, not arbitrary numbers or dates.
A few of us tossed around this type of wonderment yesterday. It is hard to explain to many people why we make this journey. A great number ask us, “What will you do there?” The reactions are priceless when you respond, “Nothing.” In general, we don’t build anything, remodel, paint, fix or construct. We play with children. We learn from this ministry’s staff. We hear of hopes and dreams. We forge and foster relationships. That is what we are going to do on this journey; we are going to be.
This is so difficult for the majority of folks in the Western world. In the past I’ve told potential explorers that if they wish to go on an adventure such as this so that they will get something out of it, stay home. If you would like such a journey so you can go and save someone, stay home. So why go? If not for me, and not to save them, why? This stuff befuddles so many back home. Part of the confusion arises from the West’s colonial and missionary past, as we’ve not viewed the relationships as equal but rather lopsided. Something like, “We have so much great stuff, and aren’t we wonderful bringing it to the ‘Dark’ Continent.” Yes, there is much to learn, much to share for both parties in the relationship. Yet, if those pieces are goals of the relationship, we now successfully objectify the other. And that is not cool.
You go for the journey’s sake, not an outcome. You go for the love and joy shared. You go because to not go is not an option. In this instance you go for the flesh and blood incarnational encounter. The encounter and the relationship are the focus, not the outcome or what anyone ‘gets’ out of the deal. This is the place where true joy finds us. Truly, this is where God finds us as well. Not for either of us to come out ahead on a transaction but to fully enjoy an abundant life in relationship.
Sure, we live to praise, love and serve God through love and service to our neighbor. But this all flows from the fullness of encounter. Perhaps living with bothfeet in such places may enrich our sojourn on planet Earth.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIf given the options of either a time of celebration or contemplation of deep, dark places, which would you choose? I would certainly look for the party. There is far too much darkness in this world, why give it any more of our time? Still, there is a fine line between looking away from the dark and plain, simple denial. Moments arise in our days when we must take a good and honest look at what is wrong with the world and our lives, even come to terms with our own mortality.

People who identify themselves as Christian are inching toward the week to end all weeks. By most identifications we call the week “Holy”. The drama begins Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem carried by a donkey. Events then unfold in the happenings of Maundy Thursday, (Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest), Good Friday, (trial and crucifixion), and of course Easter Sunday, (resurrection). We mark our remembrance of these events as they are central to our faith.

Each year I’m a bit surprised, however, with the ratio of worshipers on Palm Sunday and Easter, and those who arrive on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Certainly I understand that mid-week services are not our norm, and people are certainly busy. Given that this is our big week, however, I can’t help but wonder if a big part of the vastly greater numbers on the two Sundays has something to do with our aversion to the real difficult parts of faith. Death? Betrayal? Arrests and beatings? Give me a good celebration any day.

A number of years ago a friend made the powerful Holy Week observation in his comment, “Well, this is the week we live for.” How very true. He died much too young on an Easter Sunday not long after this statement. He lived fully and knew how important it is to observe this Week and contemplate the deeper issues of faith and life, perhaps even that which makes us uncomfortable.

Check out the full events of this week to come. As one of my favorite restaurant proprietors often says, “You give it a try; we’ll see what happens.”

Storytellers always have a perspective, a slant, a certain viewpoint from which to tell their tale. It’s with this in mind that my viewing of the History Channel’s “The Bible” is rife with disappointment. Although I absolutely love viewing the images and stories come to life, I’m afraid these storytellers missed the point. The production value is top quality, but they’re telling the wrong story.

The storytellers in this series tip their hand in what they choose to tell as well as with the tales they omit. Last weeks installment spent an inordinate amount of screen time on Samson, and the most recent episode gave us way too much time on the Babylonian Exile. Specifically disturbing was the telling of the tale through the perspective of Daniel. “The Bible” provided far more material about Daniel than could ever be squeezed from the Holy Writ. (Seriously, the Book of Daniel was not written until 400 years after the Exile. It was also offered as an apocalyptic vision of hope for 2nd Century B.C. Judeans persecuted by the Greek-Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes). We are shown nothing of King Solomon, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, nor the tremendous importance placed upon the Jerusalem Temple. Wow, astonishing.

We’ve also not gained the true perspective of why the people endured the Exile in the first place. All the biblical prophets agree it is for one reason and one reason only; unfaithfulness. Repeatedly we’re told of empty and meaningless worship, going through the motions, ignoring the poor, the widow and the orphan, and worshiping the pagan gods of their neighbors. Indeed archaeology supports the fact–90% of Israel worshiped pagan deities 90% of the time when the Exile occurred. How did this shows producers miss this? We’re only given the perspective that the enemy is always from the outside, not from within the hearts and minds of the people. Good God, even the angels are decked out in military regalia.

Greatest of all the faux pas of this production is the portrayal of humanity’s standing before God. Both individual and nation, we are led to believe, we receive blessings if only their faith is strong enough. This could not be further from the biblical witness. Time and again, both individual and nation are shown to lack, to be full of flaws, shortcomings and foibles. Yet through it all, God is one who remains faithful, even when the people come up short.

Folks, it’s always best to read this for yourself. I mean the whole thing, not just bits and pieces, but take the biblical narrative as a whole. Without this, you’ll probably get the wrong story.

Ferris Buehler stated, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around every once in a while, you might miss it.” Ferris is right, even if he is a fictional character. Life is too fast, and we need to slow down and absorb our surroundings. We are trained and conditioned to instant pleasure, satisfaction and gratification, and all to seldom do we take the time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, let alone dig into the more important parts of existence. Fast food, fast cars, fast love…we want what we want and we want it right now.  This gives me concern for “fast faith.” If this is how we want our faith, we must be prepared for what we get.

Hence, back to “The Bible, part 2”, History Channel’s mini-series. It was about what I expected. As I wrote last week, I greatly anticipated this series as I am a fan of visualizing the stories and seeing them come to life. I’m still disturbed. Each story we’ve witnessed thus far portrays the character’s as somewhat troubled, yet they come up light when reviewing their faults and shortcomings. Even more so, beginning with the portrayal of Abraham, we discover they are blessed because of their faithfulness. In other words, this series would have us believe that the more faithful we are, the more God will bless us. Sounds good, but it is oh. So. Wrong. Indeed, when we read through the fantastic and sometimes confusing biblical narrative, we’ll discover this perspective to be quite the opposite. Bass-ackwards, in fact.

Some difficulties from last evenings chapter in the saga–there were too many troubling puzzle pieces, but I’ll offer these; A full half-hour on Samson? Seriously?! Sure, we need to gain some perspective on the period of the Judges, but a full quarter of last night’s installment? Then we move to the tale of David, which is of course so very rich and colorful, yet I’m irked at some blatant omissions. The Robin-Hood-type display with David on the run from a loathsome King Saul was wonderful, yet we continually find David with Uriah at his right hand. Where did they get this? Not even close. The only reason the show’s makers must have written this in is to heighten the well-known story of David’s adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Which of course, is horrible. Yet, David’s myriad other sins are conveniently omitted.

Here’s a list:

Number One) We gain insight into David’s marriage to Saul’s daughter, Michal. What we don’t see is David locking her in the palace, to ensure she never has a child, who would then have a claim to Saul’s lineage.

Number Two) Saul’s next son, Ishbaal, (or Ishbosheth), claims his father’s throne for the northern tribes. He is assassinated by David’s men. David then executes the assassins, hangs their bodies outside Hebron and cuts off their hands and feet. The message to the northern tribes is this, “Look what I did to the those who killed the king’s son. I brought justice!” The result is that the northern tribes take David as king. He’s shrewd, yes, but let us not diminish or white-wash his brutality.

Number Three) The taking of Jerusalem is a marvelous story, one in which we again find a very brutal, vain and bloodthirsty David. They do indeed enter the city through the watershaft, (sewer), but not before the city’s inhabitants taunt him, screaming they could defeat David even if their army consisted on the blind and lame. It’s a scene reminiscent of the French taunting King Arthur in Monty Python, “Holy Grail”. At David’s command, his forces slaughter the blind and lame as a message to his detractors, “Don’t mess with me”. When Solomon builds the Temple it is law that the blind and lame are not allowed in the Temple, a long-standing reminder of David’s hubris and cruelty. No mention of this at all in History’s showing.

Number Four) Saul’s son Jonathan has a lame son named Mephibosheth, whom David takes in to his own home. Now, this sounds altruistic at first blush. Be not fooled. The young man has a claim to Saul’s throne, and is therefore a threat to David. Our new king can now once again make certain that Saul’s line will die into legend.

There is much more to come, but we’ll see what next week’s installment brings.

All this brings me to my thoughts about “fast faith”. There is cause to wonder how many of “The Bible’s” millions of viewers will take this as the story of the Bible. After all, it takes months, years maybe, to read the biblical narrative in its entirety. Why not get the whole thing in ten hours or so of very entertaining television? Not to mention the very sanitized picture of these biblical characters, and their faith that appears supersized and greater than normal. This places us in the position of figuring that we either can’t measure up to the folks in the Bible, or we’ll only gain God’s favor by what we do. This gives me the same feeling I get about a half an hour after eating fast food. Ick.

Oh, I’ll keep watching. I love the cinematography, the images, the stories and the wonder of our spiritual ancestors. Just don’t wrap it in styrofoam and put it in a paper bag.

Characters Wanted

Posted: March 4, 2013 in Mind Over Matters

So, I watched the premiere of the History Channel’s series, “The Bible”. With much anticipation I awaited this showing. As pastor of a congregation there is always a thrill when people are interested in the full biblical narrative. The story, and stories, are rich and alive, filled with interesting characters and always, the movements of a wondrous and gracious God. Hence, “The Bible” is a welcome addition to the body of material telling the old, old, story.

The task of such an undertaking must have been daunting. Even with 16 televised hours, how do you choose which stories to include, what characters must appear, how do you shape this into a full, life-sized story. With my great anticipation, I must say I’m so far disappointed. The portrayal of the biblical characters is too clean, too neat, they’re too good. This couldn’t be further from the biblical witness. Let’s take Abraham for starters. The show sets him in the light of a strong-faithed individual, always urging other to trust God, have faith. The biblical accounts prove our faith-ancestor to repeated doubt God’s promise, several times placing the covenant in serious jeopardy. Our spiritual ancestor was a flawed and broken as the rest of us.

Next, Moses. The visual of the burning bush was stunning. However, we get very little protest from this great emancipator. The Book of Exodus shows him to continually try to talk his way out of God’s call. Excuse after excuse spews forth as Moses tries to convince God, “You’ve got the wrong guy.”

I think what the world greatly needs are portrayals of our biblical characters as simply that…characters. We tend to revere them, sometimes at the expense of revering the One who calls them in the first place. In fact, they’re just like you and me; broken, wonderful, flawed and trying-to-be-faithful-children-of-God. Noah’s strong fortitude in the show is countered by the biblical account of his actions upon reaching dry land. He plants a vineyard, makes wine, and gets drunk to the point of passing out. That scene must be lying on the editing room floor. Although, I’ll have to admit, his Scottish Highland accent was kind of cool. What a git!

Point is, let’s not venerate these folks to the extreme of missing the point. Although humanity continues in all our assets, gifts, brokenness, and flaws, God remains faithful and loving through it all.

Even so, I’ll be watching the next seven episodes! As I said in a Facebook post, if you think this show is great, you really should read the book!

12.21.12 and Still Kickin’

Posted: December 21, 2012 in Holy Stuff
Tags: , ,

Well, we’re still here.  Neither the end of days nor the new epoch seem to have entered on this the shortest day of the year. It looks to me as if the Mayans were wrong, or at least we’ve misinterpreted what they meant.  I’m all for a new day, a new time, new season. There is much that is wonderful in this world and existence, and it doesn’t take much of a look around to see the horror as well. For those anticipating or perhaps worried about the Mayan new-age, it could be that today is a day to reevaluate what brand of newness we may desire.

Serving as a Christian pastor, now is certainly a time when we lift up the newness the Christmas season may hopefully bring.  In this vocation it is also a time when the deepest of human hurts are elevated as well.  I’ve spent, (and I know my colleagues have as well), a great deal of time in the last few weeks tending to people with deep concerns, and none of them seemed too worried about 12/21/12. Kids and parents try to make sense of senselessness in Newtown, CT. The poor in our communities are becoming poorer and the ranks of those in poverty levels are on the rise. Young and old alike deal with medical needs, many facing their own impending deaths. We have much more immediate needs than all the wasted time worrying about predicting and prepping for the end.

Lately I’ve been watching TV programs and reading articles about all the “apocalyptic” end of days stuff. It’s fascinating and because I am one who studies, scours, and holds dear the Bible and its message, I want to know what the world is saying and who is buying into all the fear. What I notice is that I’ve seen less bullshit cleaning out a dairy barn. This is dangerous stuff for those who believe it and let it rule their days. Followers of such tenets have extremely lost focus on what is important in this life, this world, this moment.

Maybe Christmas and One whose birth we celebrate can bring us a newness and refocus our efforts to genuine peace on earth, goodwill to all. May we all be purveyors of hope, compassion, charity, justice and love.  It is time to live faithfully, not fearfully. After all, tomorrow the days become longer, and hope just may be on the rise.

A House United

Posted: November 7, 2012 in Newsy Happenings

I love it when someone asks me, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” My immediate answer is always, “No, I’m not.” The quizzical looks are priceless. Frankly, the way each party has moved further from the center, “moderate” position in recent years sickens me, hence I do not identify with either. Polarization occurs, every issue gets dragged through so much mud the meaning gets lost and all you see is the crap. Our country is better than that. When I voted yesterday, just for funnsies I tallied up the number of candidates from each party who is now the proud recipient of my vote.  Even split. Some might classify this as “Independent”, and I’ll grab that moniker if it means one who identifies with certain positions and will support like-minded candidates regardless of their side of the aisle. I don’t want to be in an independent party, thank you, not any party at all. Politics is yet another realm in which I live with bothfeet in two worlds. Some find this refreshing; many times this is sufficient enough information to simply piss off everyone to the left and to the right. Oh, well. It’s who I am.

Now, this gorgeous autumn morning brings the post-election reality of a nation deeply divided. National elections see unprecedented happenings in terms of who won, by how many votes, certain demographic changes, etc…  I just scrolled through my Facebook News Feed, and my hunch of division is confirmed. There is much, much rejoicing, as well as a huge amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Yesterday, in the midst of the election, my seventeen year old daughter and I talked about these very things. We talked about what would happen if these certain candidates won, and what may occur if others proved victorious. The conversation led us to the realities that whomever prevails the victor we are all still Americans, there is yet much work to be done, we should do it together, and we continue to strive and struggle for the things we believe are right. We need to find common ground, for, as it was once said, “A house divided against itself will certainly fall.” This nation contains immense privilege, opportunity and wealth. The world continues its gaze to us, looking for leadership. How will we present ourselves?

My starting point in this quest is my faith. I’m not sure I have much faith in elections and campaigns, but I do have faith in the American people, the American Dream, and certainly faith in the One who calls me as God’s own child. Looking at Jesus’ life, ministry and death, he wasn’t necessarily apolitical, but someone who calls leaders to a higher order. He railed against and power that became corrupt or abusive, both the powers of religion and politics. Lead humbly, serve always, look for the good of all, put away self-interest. 21st century special interest groups would likely send Jesus over the edge.

Here’s where I start; to what does my faith call me in relationships, my job, my friends, family, at the voting booth? Today, we see deep divisions across this land. So my question is, “Where can we discover unity in the middle of division, lest the chasm be deeper and wider?” Think I’ll jump into that with bothfeet.

Trick or Tweens…

Posted: October 30, 2012 in Kids

Walking the line with bothfeet in the worlds of faith and life means making some hard decisions. Preparation for the really tough world decisions starts with the smaller ones; which are still very important. Let me offer an example.
My church offers confirmation instruction on a weekly basis for 7-10th grades. We meet on Wednesday evenings, as this still works as one of the very few weekly moments not deeply affected by the monstrous schedules our young people keep. Well, guess what? Halloween falls on Wednesday this year. Hence, we had to make a decision whether to keep our weekly schedule or cancel. The question for me is, what message does this send both to our young people and their parents?
If we cancel, we succumb to a cultural craziness for a holiday, (which isn’t even a holiday, just a day we have some fun). If we keep our schedule there’s pushback that we’re insensitive, out of touch, that sort of thing. Not a great situation.
Here’s what we decided: We’ll keep our schedule but have our youth out in the community doing service projects from 6:30-8pm. The overall sense is that kids these ages aren’t of the trick-or-treating years. If they do have a party, they could certainly go after some service to our community. If some of the younger ones are still in the trick-or-treat mode, great! Have fun! After all, I’d be the first to be there, too.
Thankfully, the issue only arises every 6-7 years. No easy decisions, here. What parent wants to make that call when their daughter or son grumbles about confirmation on Halloween? These are the tough pieces if we live with bothfeet, especially in the realm of faith and life. Again, the real struggle for me is wondering what kind of message we send to our kids. Our decisions matter.
When the big decisions and issues come our way, we hope our smaller decisions prepared us for such events. So, I’ll live with bothfeet. I just hope they’re not tied to a cement block.

Why bothfeet?

Posted: October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

Perhaps you’ve heard expressions such as, “living with one foot in life and the other in the grave.” It is a somewhat morbid sentiment, but I kind of like it. You see, I’ve lived my life in the in-between places, one foot in one world, one foot in another. Yet, bothfeet and both worlds make up the whole person. We live in a world where the divisions run deep; city–country, conservative–liberal, Democrat–Republican, church folks–non-church people, etc…you get the point. I see in my own experience an average person who traverses many worlds and discovers the joy and blessing of it all.

For instance, both of my parents were farm kids and their family farms were only about 15 miles from the city of my youth, (small city, but city nonetheless). Hence, I grew up in town spent half my time on the farm. Am I a farm kid or city kid? The answer is yes. For another example, at one point in my life I was a member of both the NRA and the Sierra Club. Both of whom uphold some ideals I value. (I’m no longer a member of either group). Politically, I hold some values in the Republican Party platform. Some on the Democrat’s side of the aisle are dear to me. In matters of church and faith old traditions bring deep meaning to my heart and soul. Conversely, some new thoughts, discoveries and worships styles stir my faith into action.

Now, I realize the armchair psychologists may read this and suggest intensive therapy. Yes, I’ve spent some very productive hours searching these realities for who I am and what it means for the living of my life. At the same time, I’m not always so sure my experiences are that far off from much of America. Four years ago, the presidential race introduced us to Joe the Plumber. This time around both candidates fight for the middle class, claiming their respective administrations will offer the best for us in the middle. Interesting.

So now, bothfeetblog is born. Here is a place where ideas will be shared about common occurrences, where ideas about faith and everyday life will arise. Living with bothfeet, even if alone they seem to be in opposing worlds, can be a great place to ride through this existence.