Disturbing Presence

Reflections on the Way of Jesus

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Prayer for Resurrection

Renewal requires opening yourself up to new ways of thinking and feeling.  Deborah Day


I felt the shock of the Boston Marathon bombing last year. I will remember it for the rest of my life.  Not only was I greatly disturbed by the carnage and grieved by the loss of life, I was in lock down on my birthday when the Governor ordered all residents of Boston to stay inside and off the streets.  And for months afterward, I walked by Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in my neighborhood where many victims came to convalesce and learn to use their new appendages, many walking or wheeling themselves around the beautiful harbor-view property.  It was as if a pall was hanging over the hospital even though many were experiencing new life. I stopped to talk and hear the stories of some.  I prayed with two of them.  And I donated to the One Fund that was initiated to help survivors.


In the days and weeks following the bombing and arrest of the surviving suspect, I was proud to be among the “Boston Strong.”  But as the year wore on, the media hype did not diminish to the degree that it usually does.  This act of violence somehow surpassed the violence that affects Bostonians everyday.  Maybe it was because there were so many people hurt.  Maybe it was because it was near the finish line where so many people had narrowly escaped harm.  Maybe it was because it was in the Back Bay where some of the city’s wealthiest residents live and shop and play.  I don’t know. 

What I do know is that the local radio call-in shows were unrelenting in their coverage of the Marathon bombing.  The interviewed every possible hero, every possible victim, every politician that may have had some opinion on the subject, and public officials who vowed that the city was never safer – as if speaking such a thing made it so.

It was not and is not so.  Two hundred and thirty-five people (235!) were shot in the City of Boston since the Marathon bombing, including 35 deaths.  The sad thing is that most of those acts of violence barely got mentioned in the news, and if they did the coverage was rarely more than one news cycle.  It just so happens that an inordinate number of the shootings occurred in neighborhoods like Mattapan and Dorchester where people of lesser means live.      

I wonder how much more coverage a single shooting on Newbury Street in Boston would have garnered.  I wonder how much more the public would have expressed outrage.  I wonder how many funds and how much money would have been raised for that victim.  What we do know is that the public was largely mute about the violence that occurred since the Marathon Bombing, neither raising their voice, ire or any money … except for a few politicians who made it part of their campaign.  

I raise these issues not to diminish the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing.  All preventable loss of life is heart-breaking and should be mourned.  I lift up these issues to highlight the fact that we are not “one Boston.”  We are a prosperous, mostly white Boston where real estate prices have virtually driven out working class families from all but a few neighborhoods.  And we are a lowly Boston that struggles with poverty, high school drop-out, drugs, and desperation.  The media grieves losses in privileged Boston and shrug their shoulders at the second-class Boston with little regard for the trauma that a single act of violence causes throughout the community.


In a recent talk with the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, church historian and Christian writer Diana Butler Bass, said that the church cannot afford to be an isolated tribe.  We must care about and engage the other tribes near us.  She said that we need to create new neighborhoods without imaginary boundaries created by differences of class, color and politics so that we live up to our belief that we are one body, sharing one baptism, and serving one Lord. 

Today, the Boston Marathon is receiving more news coverage than any other event of its kind in history.  I am delighted by the witness and resiliency of the organizers and the marathoners.  But I am also yearning for a proportional reaction to the resiliency of the other Boston where death and devastation are far more common. While the world is fixated on what happened last year and what might happen this year in Boston, perhaps we can pause, take a look around our neighborhood and reevaluate the question of the age, “Who is my neighbor?”  Or the question for the season of Easter, “Where is the Risen Christ?” 

What difference does the Resurrection mean if we are not trying to help our neighbors realize it here and now?  Please join me in praying for the day of resurrection, when our prayers and actions help all of our neighbors renew the promise of God in Christ, that love triumphs over death and devastation.


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Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  John 11:25-26

Last Tuesday I went to New Hampshire for an UCC Interim Ministry workshop.  It was a very worthwhile event.  I got to network with colleagues and hear different perspectives on the state of churches in transition and “the changing landscape of ministry.”

The last part of our day was dedicated to sharing titles of resources that are useful for congregational leaders.  While rattling off names of resources, one person said, “Anything published by Alban Institute,” and there was almost unanimous agreement that Alban Institute was the crème de la crème of interdenominational church vitality.


Almost exactly 24 hours later, I received an email from the Alban Institute stating that, as a member since 1996, they wanted to alert me to the fact that they would make a public announcement their intent to cease operations and liquidate the capital of the organization.  Within the letter they touted the accomplishments of the organization in its 40 years of existence and then basically said, “Mission accomplished!  We helped change the church and curb the tide of decline for churches who were willing to do the work.  But now we are low on cash and feel it’s time to put the ministry to rest.”

This email surprised me for a number of reasons.  First, that they are a religious institution who would be so bold to stop doing business.  It seems so un-American to say, “We did what we came in existence to do and now we are closing shop.”  But it seems so very Christian, especially if you believe that the promise of resurrection is as viable for an institution as it is for mortal beings.  The other thing that surprised me is that they are still solvent and have enough money to endow a significant program at Duke Divinity School, which will continue to share the excellent resources that Alban contributors created these last 40 years.

This is a great lesson for struggling churches and healthy churches.  God help us if we think that we will live forever!  As with all living bodies, there is a life cycle for ministry and death is part of it.  But death does not have the last say.  Our faith boldly proclaims a resurrection, a reordering of life as we know it so that God can do something new with the old – something beyond our imagination.


While I am not advocating for euthanasia, I also think this is a lesson for human life.  So often people fight hard to keep living only to delay death … and resurrection.  While I believe in the power of prayer and medicine in extending life, I think our culture’s unhealthy relationship with death tries to defy nature only to experience undue suffering on behalf of patients and those who love them. 

Sometimes it seems that the most faithful and healthiest thing to do is to accept death gracefully and turn ourselves over to God for whatever resurrection miracles come next.  But that takes faith and courage. 

As I think about Alban’s approach to death and individuals I have seen end life in “healthy” ways, it seems to me that we need to rethink death.  There are worse things than death, after all.  We also need to rethink faithfulness. Alban took time to imagine what it would take to live and to pray about the blessing of death.  We can do that with others, too, when it comes to our own death and theirs.  But we have to stop making death so private and such a sign of defeat.  Our Christian faith says that there is victory in death and we are rejoined with the Source of life, in the Spirit world, where peace reigns supreme.


I pray for the day when we can start celebrating death as just another step on the journey toward God and eternal glory.  Life is wonderful and should be cherished, but death has more perks than we can imagine – especially when we understand that, ultimately, resurrection trumps life!

Filed under resurrection Alban Institute church Christianity death life cycle health healthy death Keeping the Faith

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“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”   Socrates


They did it with lightning speed!  That’s what everyone was saying last week about the pace with which the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law so that “upskirting” is now illegal in the Commonwealth.  Just a two days prior, the Supreme Court decided that, according to the way voyeurism laws were written, it had been legal to look up a woman’s dress in public.  Obviously, lawmakers saw the foolishness of such a law and without haste corrected it with unanimous support from both chambers.


I’m writing about this because just the day before, as I led the Ash Wednesday service at church, there was visible flinching among the gathered congregation when I spoke these words: 

“In confessing, let us name though sins which separate and distort: sins of pride, self love, and resentment; since of hatred, bitterness, and jealousy. Let us also name our connection with humanity sins: sins of poverty, war, hunger, injustice, neglect, and discrimination.”

Those words make me flinch, too!  And they are confusing and confounding – so much so that I felt the need to elaborate and speak about personal and political willfulness regarding poverty.  I said that we are guilty of allowing systems that bolster power and support laws for the wealthy while creating laws and systems to maintain poverty and hurt the poor. 

Imagine if the legislature and the citizens of the Commonwealth were properly shamed over sins of poverty.  Within a short period of time, they would focus their efforts to create equity for all and it poverty would be eradicated, especially if citizens and businesses worked in consort with lawmakers.

I confess that I am ashamed of our society that allows these travesties to perpetuate.  I am embarrassed by friends who speak about people “using the system” and taking advantage of laws for their own benefit, even as they take advantage of tax breaks for mortgage interest, having dependent children, and more that bolster their comfort and status. 

To not see ourselves as part of the problem, and thus part of the solution, for social ills depends on ignorance.  The legislature of Massachusetts proved this week that moral outrage of an informed citizenry can produce legislative miracles.

When are we going to become indignant enough over poverty to demand action in changing the laws that promote it?

Rampant poverty is a threat to our very existence as a culture and speaks volumes of our morals and values. But maybe it’s more tolerable to have people sleeping on the streets in all sorts of unbecoming appearances than it is for a man to look at others’ body parts without their permission.  


Filed under upskirting morality Massachusetts Legislature poverty Christiantiy homelessness hunger injustice discrimination

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"Lent offers us an opportunity to slow down, to meander rather than to rush, to allow life to sink in a bit, to find ways to go deeper and not always stay on the surface. A time to observe, to pay attention, and then to act — and in so doing provide the space to move from rush to replenish. When we take this practice seriously, we plant its blessings so that they benefit not only us in our lives for this season, but also extend to the world around us."
~Erin Dunigan (from "The Induced Meandering of Lenten Season")
Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff 

Slow down to meandering speed!


"Lent offers us an opportunity to slow down, to meander rather than to rush, to allow life to sink in a bit, to find ways to go deeper and not always stay on the surface. A time to observe, to pay attention, and then to act — and in so doing provide the space to move from rush to replenish. When we take this practice seriously, we plant its blessings so that they benefit not only us in our lives for this season, but also extend to the world around us."

~Erin Dunigan (from "The Induced Meandering of Lenten Season")

Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff

Slow down to meandering speed!

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Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Matthew 7:1-2

I have an acquaintance who is relentless with the word “should.”  If there is something wrong in the world, she responds, “Well, he should have done it this way and that never would have happened.”   Lorraine knows best – for everyone. She shoulds all over everyone with whom she comes in contact.  Only the older she gets, she finds herself more isolated because there are very few people who can live up to her standards. 

Divorced twice, Lorraine has given so much marital advice that her married friends steer clear of her – the ones that are still married.  “He should just be home every night for dinner,” was her advice for her friend whose husband sells financial products – as if all his customers should be home during the day to do business with him.   

To her friend whose child was failing the fourth grade, she said, “She should stop gymnastics on the weekends so she can study more.  Kids who study should never fail.”  In her shoulding, Lorraine, the expert on all things children, didn’t understand that the fourth grader was traumatized over the summer by a softball coach.  If Lorraine would have found out, her friend knew the response would be something like, “Well you should have seen that coming from a hundred miles away – the way he treats those girls.  He never should have been allowed to coach.”

Every once in a while Lorraine switches things up and throws in the words ought and must.  “David ought to be able to pay his mortgage.  He just needs to work harder.”  Oh, add needs to her list of imperatives.


I’m a person of faith, some might even say a religious man, so I understand Lorraine and her mindset.  I use those words on occasion - if Jesus or the prophets used them, but try to avoid them when I can. It would be a wonderful world if platitudes became reality, but they don’t very often.  Life is challenging and most of the hard-set rules don’t work for everyone all the time.

It’s informative that a recent study has shown that the most vocal and supposedly devout Christians have a higher than average divorce rate – even higher than non-believers.  Their strong family values seem to be shoulding all the way to dissolving their marriages.  In fact, one comprehensive view of highly religious conservative Christians found that “whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.”

I’m all for following the way of Jesus, but it seems like grace is missing from the equation in too many Christians’ lives.  I wonder if should has anything to do with it.  Or ought, or must.  My friend Lorraine uses these imperatives way more than Jesus is reported to have spoken them.  In fact, more of Jesus’ teachings are in the form of parables.  He says, “The kingdom of God is like …” and then he illustrates, but rarely mandates, especially when it comes to all the things so many Christians think people should live.

Filed under faith Christianity evangelical christians liberal christianity divorce racism Bible should materialism abuse born-again matthew 7:1-2

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The problem with taking offense is that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it after you’re done using it. Better to just leave it on the table and walk away. Umbrage untaken quietly disappears.

~Seth Godin

Somehow the timing of this is impeccable after reading my morning emails. *grin*

(via beingblog)

Oh, that I had learned this 30 years ago!

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So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  2 Corinthians 5:17-20



Last week, at the local Interfaith Clergy Association meeting, I expressed something that came to me years ago in prayer -  that faith communities should be working now for the inevitable.  I am neither a climatologist nor a prophet, but the writing is on the wall.  Within the next decade, the Eastern United States will have tens of thousands of homeless refugees due to the devastation of houses, cities’ infrastructure, and large landmasses being swallowed up by rising tides. 


I know, in the midst of this cold, snowy summer, that many ridicule the idea of climate change because so many people have called it “global warming.”  The fact is that, even as we get more snow and the temperatures remain well below freezing, the globe is warming and the seas are rising.  2013 was the 37th consecutive year that worldwide temperatures were above average.  And there was only one year in the past century that was warmer than last year.  

California is running out of water.  The nation is experiencing unprecedented tornado activity and subsequent human catastrophe.  Climate change has caused dramatic losses for farmers and ranchers throughout the country and the world.  And, did I mention that expanses of the East Coast in on the verge of being swallowed by the rising Atlantic Ocean – even in my front yard which is right on the edge of Boston Harbor. 

I believe that the church is called to help reverse the effects of climate change by modifying our lifestyle – particularly churches in the USA.  I believe that a new definition of patriotism should include conservation, energy efficient living, and zero landfill contribution. 

I also believe the church throughout the world, especially where the effects of climate change are making life so volatile and vulnerable is called to refocus our mission priorities.  Churches in our area need to retool and refocus to plan for that inevitable day when Cape Cod residents swarm greater Boston for safety and sanctuary.


I started talking about this idea almost a decade ago among colleagues when this issue first came to me in prayer.  It seems that the Federal Government now understands the imperative for this.  I read an article last week that said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wants to train church leaders so that houses of worship can help them coordinate emergency responses to natural disasters.   They’ve seen the power, resiliency and faith of religious communities in the wake of countless disasters.  We still have churches in New Orleans serving as command and control for post-Katrina neighborhood rebuilding.   Churches, synagogues and temples have been the pillar of strength in the wake of many recent natural disasters.  But we are not prepared for something as massive as hundreds of thousands of refugees.

It seems that Jesus’ model for mission engagement works really well for a number of things, including disaster response.  Maybe there’s more to his teaching that could help us retool for the inevitable “great disruption.”  I think we need to talk about this as a church – sooner than later.    

We keep praying about our mission and purpose. Could this be it?  Could we become the new creation through a new ministry of reconciliation? 

My idea may seem too lofty, but as we were leaving the meeting the rabbi in our group quietly said to me, “I think we should start by figuring out where we can store a thousand cots.”


If not now, when do we prepare for the inevitable?

Filed under hurricane climate change refugees church faith disaster response FEMA Christian mission new creation reconciliation

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Good, better, best

“How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?  Four.  Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”   ~ Abraham Lincoln

It takes a lot to shock me.  It takes even more for me to get upset into a prolonged sullen state.  But I can remember being stunned into a sadness and I’m still wrestling with the issue.  This situation to which I refer occurred during a church meeting.  A group was sharing during a time of Bible study, I think about the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 where the apostle Paul speaks of faith, hope and love.  I asked the group about their hopes for their lives and the world.  One person talked about her hope for ending homelessness in the US.  Another talked about his hope for an end to war.  One person talked about his hope that it’d be a while before we had another Democrat elected to the presidency.  And the person who shocked me said she hoped that her children would have a better life than she has had.

Whoa!  This was someone with an excellent education and great job, a loving husband, wonderfully bright and beautiful children who were gifted beyond belief - over-achievers like she and her husband.  She lives in a lovely home, has a supportive family and church community and she loves her friends.  I’m still not able to fathom how life could be better.  She was not someone who is easily impressed by people with lots of money or swanky homes. 

I still don’t get it.  I love my life, my family, and my vocation but I am not an icon in the community like she is.  She is so deeply loved that people see her in a restaurant and they fawn over her.  Her kids are loved just as deeply.  Granted, I’m not in their home to know what goes on.  Maybe she has a problem with drugs or maybe she’s a compulsive gambler, but I don’t think so. 


What I think she was saying, because she took a few minutes to describe her concerns, is that she didn’t want her kids to have to work hard and she didn’t want them to be exposed to death or illness or social troubles like she has witnessed throughout her life.  She wanted them to be so prosperous that they’d be shielded from anything other than goodness and love.

I know that’s a wonderful ideal, but I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.  Kids need to experience some hardship or they have no aptitude for real life when it happens.  They need to struggle with money or they never learn to manage it.  Woe is the one who has everything given to him on a silver platter.  Kids need to know how to cope when they are suffering from illness or sadness or compassion fatigue.  If they don’t learn those things as a young person, they will struggle as an adult … and likely always have to rely on Mommy to rescue them.


I should qualify my remarks: I’m speaking here as a pastor, a citizen of the world, and someone who loves kids.  And someone who has experience with rotten kids and precocious adults.

Last week I read an article about a college class whose assignment was to design a religious system to suit the new generations.   It’s a good read and insightful.  What stuck out for me is that there was nothing in the religious system to help cope with suffering.  Hardship was completely absent from the students’ lexicon or understanding of what it meant to be a citizen of the world.  Also absent from their thinking was the concept of discipline.  

I’ve not dedicated my life to raising a family, so I really am not speaking from a place of authority.  Please forgive me if I am missing something.  But when and where did our culture make this shift? 

What system is going to replace the school of hard knocks?  Who is going to rescue the adults who are still like children in their emotional and spiritual development? 


I’m praying and reimagining the transformative power of God’s grace. 


Filed under Christianity enough hope faith parenting abundance american culture children atelophobia