09 February 2015

"Preacher Man"

Every week, I preach.

On Sunday morning, I stand before my congregation. I take a shaky sip of water and then a deep breath. I pray the same grounding prayer every time: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of each one of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.”

And then I preach.

I am burdened by it. I am blessed by it.

The sermon is always on my mind. Ruminating and pondering is not a 9-5 activity. The longing for an angle, an insight, a point of contact never disappears. It ebbs and flows, rises and falls, day and night. Imagery and analogy swirl ‘round my heart and mind, like tendrils of early morning mist, hiding as much as they reveal, as I run 5 miles, as I wash the dishes, when I stare out the window, as I lie awake in the pre-dawn hours.

I didn’t become a pastor in order to preach.

I do not enjoy having 175 (or 50 or 300) pairs of eyes on me. After many years, I still am gripped by the anxiety of “public speaking.” Except, when I preach, it’s not just the speaking in front of people.

It’s the vulnerability.

It’s the self-disclosure through personal stories and cherished ideas and deeply held convictions—where it all touches me (whether said with words, the visible lump in my throat, or the catch in my voice).

It’s gotten easier, but it will never be easy. The responsibility to offer grace-filled words that bless, that heal, that challenge…it is unrelenting.

And yet, when I have a Sunday when I do not preach, why does it feel as if something is missing? And not in that vague “I-should-be-doing-something-right-now” way, but in a way more deeply connected to my own spirituality?

Weekly preaching, when I am faithful to it, invites my deep engagement with scripture, wrestling with Biblical stories of grace and love and pain and devastation and forgiveness and sacrifice and compassion. Preaching that isn’t superficial requires my full engagement with the joy and the tragedy of the world around me. To preach, I need to observe, listen, experience, feel. I need be aware of the implications of the pulse thumping in my neck. I need to be fully alive and fully human.

I want to be alive. I want to be human.

Preaching calls forth the creativity within me. Not always. Not predictably. I’ve preached more than my share of clich├ęs and clunkers. And yet, in the chaotic throes of the process, the creative impulse will offer her gems—a metaphor, an image, a story, an insight…the Word for this moment.

In the vulnerability is an indescribable experience of the Holy Spirit at work. My words? Not exactly. In that sacred space between the movement of my lips and the meditating hearts of the people, she does something marvelously and mysteriously thrilling. I am merely the instrument.

Preaching keeps my ego in check. Every Sunday, before I enter the sanctuary, I pray as honestly as I can, “It is not about me. It is not about me. It is not about me. Help me get out of the way, O God.”

Preaching strengthens my sense of self, my confidence, my God-given identity. For at least the first six years of weekly preaching, my Bible was open to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

God said to me, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” I said, “Oh, God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But God said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you…

There are many negative stereotypes of preachers: Bible-thumpers, judgmental hypocrites, divorced-from-reality geeks, know-it-alls, egotistical, money-grubbing, self-important narcissists, or perhaps worst of all…deadly boring.

I hope that I am not stereotypical.

Every week, I preach.

I am burdened by it. I am blessed by it.

04 December 2014


Every Advent I go away for a silent retreat at a nearby Trappist monastery.

The fall is an especially busy time of year for me personally and as the pastor of a church. By December, I am tired, ragged around the edges, and definitely feeling scattered. And yet, for the season to be truly meaningful, Advent demands that I intentionally create space for silence…to simply be…to allow God to be at work in mysterious and marvelous ways.

So I go away for three days to hang with the Trappists. Because, you know, they are really, really good at being quiet.

When I show up at the monastery guest house, they tell me which guest room is for me to use. I carry my few belongings to that simple, little room with a bed, a desk, a lamp, a wardrobe, and a rocking chair and then…

… “quietude.”

That was a new word to me when I first encountered it at the monastery. It comes from a little pamphlet I found in the desk of my room. It reads, in part:

“For this time of retreat…you have separated yourself from your usual daily pace and activities; they will make no demands on you while you are at the Abbey. You are free to enter into quietude! Our society has ingrained in us that we find success only when we put forth effort. A retreat, however, is a little different from that. When we ‘go apart’ for a spiritual retreat, we are seeking to make ourselves available so God can work in us and speak to us. [God] is not able to do so if we keep ourselves continually occupied and busy with doing things…

We need to be quiet.

We need to convince ourselves that it is perfectly all right to be quiet… that quietude is not a copout but a state of receptivity. If we allow our mind and body to be quiet, they are free to be open to God…Although you could no doubt take advantage of this retreat time to think-out and resolve many matters for yourself, you stand a much better chance of having them resolved in much more meaningful ways…if you leave all this work up to God. [God] won’t let you down. [God] asks that you be quiet and receptive so [God] might have the opportunity to ‘get a word in edgewise.’” (emphasis added)

This invitation to quietude is exactly why I return to the Abbey year after year. I step out of the swirl of activities and words and responsibilities and demands and tasks of everyday life so that, for just a few days, I can be quiet in a special way. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath for months and finally now can take a deep, full breath of deliciously crisp, clean air.

It’s like running madly along a path and then suddenly stopping to sit quietly by a little stream. And while sitting silently, expectantly, slowly I awaken to the sound of burbling water and I notice the tadpoles darting around in the shallow pools and I appreciate the smell of the fresh, cool air. All of which I completely miss when I hurriedly rush by.

I happen to think that most people would benefit from a little “quietude” so that “God might get a word in edgewise.” We live in such a noisy, distracted, busy world—which only gets more so in the weeks leading up to Christmas—that a little quietude would go a long way.

Especially during Advent.

Because during this season, without quietude, we may just overlook the inconspicuous, yet marvelous way, that God’s love is born among us.

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given…”

04 November 2014

Reflections on Home

“Make your home in me, as I make my home in you.” Jesus

“Within the house of love, relationships are characterized by mutual vulnerability, gratitude, peace, and celebration.” Henri Nouwen

Dear Friends,

When we moved to Tigard from Dallas, we sold the house we had lived in for seven years, the first (and only) house we have ever owned.

This little place on Woods Lane wasn’t just a house. To us, it was a home in the deepest sense of the word. To those not emotionally invested in it, it may not look like much. But to us, it was the place where we shared in the fullness of our life together as a family. It is where we laughed and cried and argued and played and celebrated and ate and rested. In this home, we felt safe, secure, known, respected, valued. One day, we left this home as a family of three and the next day returned as a family of four. We opened the doors of this home in hospitality to friends and family who through their loving and gracious presence helped to bless the space we inhabited. At the end of a long or difficult day, it was to this home that we returned to take refuge. 

I’m on the brink of getting hopelessly sentimental and sappy, so let me also say that this house was a royal pain in the backside. I spent countless hours painting it, rebuilding the deck, and erecting a retaining wall out back. We discovered a water issue under the house, and so I had the “pleasure” of wriggling around in the crawl space getting filthy and up close and personal with spiders and other critters. The heating system died, which was only one of the major repair expenses we had to dig deep to pay.

And still we loved it.

For me, leaving our home was one of the most difficult parts of our move last summer. I remember returning from a run one spring evening before the move and, as I walked up the gravel lane to our house, finding myself unexpectedly in tears at the thought of leaving our home. It had been filled with so much life. I felt like I should do what Jacob did—erect a stone pillar and pour oil on it to consecrate the place for surely God had revealed Godself to us at that place.

In every change life brings to us there is, of course, an opportunity. Yes, we human beings are drawn to place—to those sites where significant events have transpired, to the buildings that have witnessed the drama of our existence.

But the opportunity for me is to remember that my true home is not made of 2x4’s or drywall or composition shingles. My true home can’t be found on a map or with GPS. While the address of our life’s events is important, we all know that loving, caring relationships are what make any edifice a home. For me, those relationships—particularly with my family—continue to be my place of refuge and safety. Those relationships are the place where I am known and valued and respected. Those relationships hold me and protect me. Through those relationships, I can be at home anywhere.

The spiritual growth opportunity for me is to make my home in these loving, caring relationships that can hallow any patch of earth, any dwelling. This is what I think Jesus means when he says, “Make your home in me, as I make my home in you.”

So as I continue to adjust to life in a new community, living now in an apartment, my address has changed.

But in a sense, I’ve never left home.

02 October 2014

Six Feet Under

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

--Natalie Sleeth

Dear Friends,

After presiding at a grave side service a few weeks ago, the family of the 95 year old woman who had died did something I had not seen before.

They stayed by her grave until the casket had been lowered into the grave and the lid of the vault had been placed into position. It was not an easy task, taking the cemetery workers about 20 minutes and requiring special machinery to maneuver the 250+ pound metal casket into the vault and the 1,000+ pound vault cover into place.

Over the 13 years I’ve presided at graveside services I can’t remember another time when the family of the deceased person stayed to watch the casket lowered into the grave. In my experience, after the short graveside service, the family will linger a bit longer to shed more tears and share a few more stories before making their way back to their cars. It always struck me as odd to drive away from the cemetery with the casket still positioned above ground over the grave with artificial turf placed around it to mask the fact that it would be placed into a hole dug into the earth. I remember feeling guilty, like I had abandoned the deceased without ensuring that they actually made it to their final resting place.

The very first graveside I ever did was in Suffolk, England. After the funeral at the church, I rode in the funeral coach (aka the hearse) to a tiny village where there was a cemetery alongside a little Anglican church that was probably hundreds of years old. The simple wooden coffin was carried on pallbearers’ shoulders to the grave, a dark rectangular hole in the ground that smelled of damp, fresh earth. There was no artificial turf to mask the grave or hide the soil excavated. There was no concrete vault into which the coffin would be placed, no 1,000+ pound vault cover that needed to be positioned with special equipment. The pallbearers simply lowered the plain, wooden coffin into the grave using ordinary woven straps. 

And then, when I came to the line in the graveside service, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” without being told to, those around me each scooped up a handful of earth and solemnly cast it into the grave onto the coffin. And that was it. She was in her final resting place and eventually her body would be turned back into the dust from whence it had arisen.

When I die—which I expect to be many years from now, but who knows?—I hope my loved ones stay with my body until it is lowered into the ground or slipped into the crematory fire. 

If I am cremated, I don’t want my “cremains” (yes, that’s a real word) to sit in an urn on a mantel. Scatter my ashes in a wildly beautiful place, a serenely tranquil setting, or a place where I was bursting with the goodness and vitality of life. 

If I am buried, I don’t want to be sealed away from soil and water and worms in a vault or metal container. Place me in a wooden coffin in the same outfit I was wearing the day I entered the world and return me to the elements that gave rise to my flesh and bone in the first place. 

Please, no artificial turf or shallow platitudes. Cast earth into that deep, dusky grave as a sign of hope that we can indeed consign our loved ones to the earth (or fire) knowing that the story is not over, not even close, and that the love of God flowing through us in indestructible.

Peace be with you,


P.S. Burial or cremation? At one point in my life I thought I knew. Now I’m reconsidering.