As if any of us needed to be reminded of how quickly a year can fly by, it is now roughly four and a half days until the beginning of Advent.  And though that realization does initially make me wince a little bit, I’m finding that I am also excited.

Growing up, I always loved the season of Advent:  the colors, the mystery, the swelling sense of expectation.  I loved lighting the candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday, watching the tiny flames wriggle out a dance that seemed to mirror my own anticipation.  Even as a young child, I knew something big was coming – something that went beyond the presents under our tree – and that knowledge was thrilling.

Now I am thirty-two and a minister.  Consequently, I’m one of the folks who plans out the season’s events weeks and months in advance, the one with intimate knowledge of every little detail from the brand of oil inside the Advent candles to the complaints about which carols should be sung when (and by whom).  As ministers, in some ways my colleagues and I are like the Wizard of Oz, directing from behind the curtain with high hopes that the focus of the festivities will never be on us.

This, of course, changes things to a certain extent.  Some of the anticipation is lessened when you know precisely what is going to happen next.  Sometimes that sense of expectation can get watered down and Advent can become more work than wonder.

So this week, in preparation for both the first Sunday of Advent and a Divine Details essay for Fidelia’s Sisters, I am spending some time thinking about where we clergy-folk find the Divine in the details of this season.  What can we do (what do you do?) to keep our eyes open to the holy while we arrange a hundred or so poinsettias in the Sanctuary or edit the bulletin for the eighth time?  How can we have hearts awash with wonder while we manage a calendar stuffed with parties, worship services, potlucks, service projects and festivals?  Friends, when do you feel most full of anticipation during this busy, busy time?

I’ll be reflecting on these questions during the lull of Thanksgiving.  If you come up with anything you’d like to share, please let me know!


Autumn Wonder

The day I have impatiently waited for has finally arrived:  It is now consistently autumn here in the Kansas City metro area.  Daily highs are in the low sixties and upper fifties…the trees are slowly changing from green to gold to amber/orange and on to brown…the townie-geese are receiving their annual out-of-town visitors, many of whom will make this their residence throughout the chill of winter…  Yes, it is Autumn.  Thanks be to God!

Autumn has always been my favorite season.  Much of it has to do with the trees – the way they put on such extravagant dress for a few brief weeks before baring it all in the name of winter.  There are so many other things that I love about the fall – and in the name of gratitude and joy-centered living, I think this is the time to list them:

In the midst of Autumn, I love:

  • the crisp, clear quality of the air.  It is as though one can see farther and with more precision during the months of October and November.
  • pumpkins:  small, big, round, misshapen, knotted, orange, white, yellowish-green, squatty…I love them all!
  • autumn leaves, especially those from the many varieties of maple tree.  The bright burnished reds are my favorite.
  • autumn clothing:  sweaters and jeans, boots and jackets, leather and wool…all are snuggly and wonderful.  I’m also a fan of tweeds.
  • autumn colors, filled with brightness…as though the world is steeling itself for sharp austere winter with wild displays of extravagance and warmth!
  • autumn flavors:  buttery squash, nuts, pumpkin, cinnamon, chocolate, mocha, spiced apple (especially the juicy honeycrisp!)
  • soups.  All of them.
  • chili.  Any variety will do, though I particularly love the white chicken chilis of the world.
  • the way that leaves leap from the trees and swirl down towards the earth – flurries of foliage covering everything in their path.
  • the way that our dog, Shelby, seems to gain energy and puppy-ness in the fall.  She scampers and prances through the leaves, picks up the scent of squirrels and is transformed into a tracker, chases the cats with renewed vigor…
  • squirrels throwing acorns, hiding acorns, taunting the dog, peppering our windows and cars with a barrage of oaken projectiles…
  • college football, particularly glorious purple and white TCU football!  Go Frogs!
  • crisp sunny days followed by chilly nights.
  • concentrated celebrations:  Halloween, Thanksgiving and Advent all packed into a tight succession of festival joy.
  • children living out their fantasies, transformed into ninjas and heroes, princesses and rock stars, fairies and animals galore.
  • warm beverages… particularly coffee, but also cocoa, tea, hot cider, hot spiced wine – all transforming the night’s chill into something magical.

My goal this autumn is to be present to the wonder of the season.  Many an autumn-past has slipped by without my full attention, and I have suffered for it.  Many a Fall I have been so engrossed in worry or work or worthless pursuits that I have missed out on the joy that attends this season.  So, this year, I will notice.  I will celebrate Autumn in all of her fullness, all of her transformative glory.

This year I will let my eyes see the presence of God in the season, and I will be grateful.

In the Flock…

Usually when I think about flocks, I think of sheep.  Wooly, bleating, earth-bound sheep.

And with all the time I’ve spent steeping in religious literature and imagery, when I think of sheep, my thoughts quickly turn to the Shepherd.

The Shepherd was/is definitely not a sheep.

I mean, if we stick with the sheep/shepherd metaphor, where sheep are the people (us) and the Shepherd is Jesus… well, I can’t help but notice that the Shepherd is not merely a sheep with leadership responsibilities.  The Shepherd is an entirely different species.   On his two legs, the Shepherd leads – and the sheep, on four, follow.  The Shepherd discerns and the sheep trust.  And, most importantly, the sheep don’t aspire to be like the Shepherd.  After all, how could they?  No matter how good they are, they will always just be sheep.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I think that there are plenty of ways that the traditional “Good Shepherd” image of Jesus works well.  Knowing how frequently I have been lost in the darkness of my own doubts, sins and self-loathing, I find it both heartwarming and astounding to think that the Good Shepherd loves me enough to search for me and bring me back into the light.  When I am worn out and scraped up from the brambles and thickets that pepper a day’s journey, it is a relief to know that I can look to the Shepherd for direction.  And if I lived in an agrarian culture, I’m sure I might find more useful insights via the metaphor.

But I don’t.  I live in a city.  And as a pastor (a title that has its roots in a more agrarian time and place), I need to know that Jesus thinks I really can be more like him – that I am more than just a sheep.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that I need a new metaphor – and this winter I may have found it.


This is my first winter in Kansas City, and it has been very different from those Texas and Arkansas winters I had come to know.  It is colder.  We’ve had a ton of snow.  Everything feels grayer and the air has a salty bite to it (as a result of some complex equation involving wind and road salt).  But the biggest difference – at least the one that has struck me the most – is the geese.

I was aware of geese before moving to KC.  I’d seen an occasional flock pass high overhead in Fayetteville, and I touched a few at petting zoos in my childhood.  But those experiences pale in comparison with the blustery goose-filled wonderland that is a Kansas City winter.

They are simply everywhere.  For the past three or four months, a day has not passed that didn’t contain the majestic, fluid “v” of a flock in flight.  And the sounds!  Oh, the sounds!  Harmonious honking precedes each “v” – building in volume until the formation finally comes into view through the trees. And then, there they are!  Soaring as they honk, one to another – keeping every member of the flock informed of progress and direction, encouraging and checking in, and, periodically, calling a new leader to the front of the ‘v”.

If there is a goose in the flock that leads more than the others, that leader is still a goose.  That leader keeps the flock safe and focused with the sound of its voice, while also teaching and encouraging the others to communicate.  That leader periodically moves to a different position in the “v” – and trusts one of the followers to lead for a while.  And the flock soars!

The more I watch the geese, the more I wonder if Jesus is better described like a goose – rather than a Shepherd…

…Jesus in the flock instead of Jesus separate from it.

…Jesus honking out encouragement and direction when we need it.

…Jesus equipping and trusting us to soar!

This week, at least, that metaphor works for me.

Composting our Hurts…

I’ve thought a great deal about forgiveness lately.  As a topic of discussion, it comes up in churches all the time.  We pray each week that we will be forgiven our debts (or sins/trespasses) as we forgive those in need of our forgiveness.  One of the women’s groups does a book study on how to forgive.  A sermon series stresses the need to forgive ourselves as well as others.  We talk all around the edges of it, but rarely get down to the hard work of actually forgiving.

Why?  Why all the talk and so little action?

Because forgiveness is hard.  And messy.  And a process.

In a way, it’s a lot like composting versus throwing something in the trash.  Many of us don’t like to compost.  It’s a lot of work, the process sounds kind of gross, and there is real possibility that the compost heap is going to stink.  It seems far cleaner and more sanitary to take that banana peel or that wet filter full of coffee grounds and put it in the trash.  While it might stink up the kitchen for a day or two, ultimately a team of sanitation workers will whisk the neatly tied trash bag off to the landfill, at which point our trash is gone.

Or is it?

While it is certainly easier to send something off to the landfill (out of sight, out of mind!), the structure of a landfill pretty much ensures that your trash will stay there forever.  Forever.  As in, everything is so tightly packed and oxygen deprived that it will never go away.  In a landfill, your trash becomes immortal.  And when we put hurts off to the side, or stuff them deep down inside ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with them, our hurts become immortal too.  Without light and air and attention, they will never truly go away.

In contrast, the messy process of composting helps the same stuff get broken down.  Moisture, oxygen, repeated stirring and mixing – all of these things break the peel or the filter down into nourishment for new life.  And when we face our hurts, our pain, our failures, and put them in a safe place (where they don’t dominate our lives but  can still be revisited) – they too begin to break down and provide nourishment for new life and new ways of being.  Instead of some vampy immortality (where there is no death but there is also no growth), our hurts take on a very organic immortality where death is not avoided and growth is guaranteed!

When someone hurts us or betrays our trust, a wink and a handshake or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.  Each and every day we have to sift through the hurt and choose to forgive all over again – until the day comes when we don’t have to because the hurt has dissolved and slipped away.

And therein lies one of God’s many mysteries – in the middle of the hard, messy work of forgiving, we miraculously become that which we seek:


The Un-Holy Bible??


Ministers tend to have odd habits.

One of mine pokes its head up every time I set foot in a major bookstore.  Regardless of my purpose for entering the establishment, whether it be the need for a new cookbook or a fluff-filled sci-fi paperback, I inevitably end up staring at the shelves upon shelves of religious fare.  The racks of Bibles are of particular interest to me – in part because of my turbulent relationship with the Book, but mostly because of the various and sometimes sundry ways that the Book is marketed to a wide array of readers.

There is the “Duct Tape Bible” – an edgy-looking tome presumably intended for teenagers and some young adults, “The Green Bible” – for burgeoning environmentalists,”The Life Application Study Bible” – for those who want to bring the Bible into conversation with their day-to-day living,  “The Extreme Faith Youth Bible” – for young people who need scripture that goes beyond the normal, boring faith of their parents,  “The Apologetics Study Bible” – for Christians looking to defend the reasonableness of their faith,  “The Oxford Annotated Study Bible” – for the more academic of believers, “The Good News Bible” – for those who didn’t enjoy reading the Bad News Bible… the list goes on and on and on.   And then, of course, there are dozens of varieties of “The Holy Bible” to choose from.

This bizarre (and VERY abbreviated) list brings me back to the habit I came close to describing:  I am very nearly obsessed with watching others select Bibles from the shelf.  

Some walk up knowing exactly what they are looking for.  They scan the shelves, irritated by the various other Bibles present – and when they find the “right” one, they snatch it and leave with satisfied, victorious expressions on their faces.  Others pace in front of the shelves, obviously overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options at their fingertips.  Still others walk up, see the plethora of Bibles and stiffen as though they have abruptly encountered a brick wall – these folks usually leave the section empty-handed with a slightly glazed expression.  And every once in while – very, very rarely – someone peruses the shelves with wonder, his or her face backlit with the whimsical joy of discovery and love for the written Word.

But, more often than not, the individuals I’ve watched don’t come looking for a new version, a new perspective, a new twist…

Instead, they come looking for “THE RIGHT” version. 

During  one of my people/Bible watching sessions, I gave in to the temptation to help someone find what she was looking for.  When I asked her which version of the Bible she was trying to find, she snorted at me with contempt and disbelief:  “I’m looking for the HOLY Bible.”  She then snatched a slimline leatherbound copy of the KJV off the bookshelf and stomped away.

I’m still trying to figure out which Bibles are holy – and which ones are not.

And I still watch people select scripture from the stacks.

And while I don’t know the answer to the “un-holy Bible” question, there is one thing I do know:

The holiest of those people-watching moments has never depended upon a particular translation, version, endorsement or binding.

Instead, the most sacred of those moments has invariably come in faces awash with wonder, resplendent with joy — the faces of people thrilled to discover that there is more than one way to know God, more than one way to  interpret the Word, and more than one way to share that word with others.

That love.  That joy.  That energy…

That’s what keeping something holy is all about.

And in that regard, they are all holy.  Even if “holy” isn’t printed on the spine.

Sometimes, the most profound and theological thing we can manage to say is: “God, this sucks.”

Things were supposed to get better in 2009.  After the chaos of 2008, we had such high hopes…

And now, here we are.

I don’t know about you, but things haven’t improved.  If anything, things have gotten worse.  The economy tanked, people are despairing to the point of self-destruction, marriages are falling apart due to stress and worry and financial woe, depression rates are soaring… the list goes on and on, and I’m intentionally only describing the happenings in our small Arkansas community.  I imagine that things are very much the same around the country and in your churches.

I’ve been trying very hard to keep my spirits up, and the effort was proving mostly successful – at least it was until the “C-Bomb” dropped.


Damn, I hate cancer.

Three weeks ago, my aunt was a perfectly healthy middle-aged woman.  She felt fine and her energy level was up, which is a good thing when you need to chase your 2 1/2 year-old grandson around every day.   When she went in to have a cyst removed, the doctors sent it off for tests as a matter of course even though they were certain it would prove to be benign.


Three weeks after that little outpatient surgery, our lives are upside down.  As it turns out, the cyst was merely the tip of a much larger iceberg.  Cancer has taken up residence throughout her body – liver, lungs, pancreas, brain – and fear has taken up residence in all of our hearts.  Just as the systems of the body are tied together and affected by the disease, ripples of terror have swiftly spread through the family.  She is a mother, a daughter, a sister, a grandmother, an aunt… each role points to another person grieving this bitter news.

And we each grieve in our own way.

One, the classic midwestern stoic, keeps a stiff-upper lip in public and breaks down into puddles when she is alone.  Another, rooted in a very particular religious background, plows forward with cheerfulness – certain that any display of grief is a sign of unfaithfulness.  My cousin grieves publicly – and feels crazy because “no one else around [her] is grieving”.  And here I stand in the middle, like a multifingered sign at a cartoon-crossroads, directing everyone towards the truth that we all grieve differently – AND THAT IS OKAY.

As for me, I am angry.  Angry that family members have to deal with this horrible reality.  Angry that we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  Angry that I can’t ball up my fist and shout at the heavens because, as the minister of the family, it is my job to be that aforementioned road sign.

The good news is, its okay to be angry.  Just as it is okay to cry or hide (for a while), it is okay to be mad as hell.  God can take it.   Sometimes, in the face of tragedy and loss, the most profound and theological thing we can manage to say is:  “God, this sucks.”

Why is that profound?  Because it is true.  This does suck.

And why is it theological?  Because it acknowledges that God knows this sucks and that God cares enough to listen to us in our anguish.

No matter what we deal with, no matter how we grieve, God knows our pain and hurts with us.  The Good News of the Gospel is not that God will whip out a magic wand and fix everything with a wrist-flick and a little “presto-chango.”  Instead, the good news is that when things hurt so bad that all we can do is cry, or hide, or scream, God is there with us.

Sometime this week I will probably take a moment to go outside.  As the sun shines down upon my face, I will thrust my fist into the air.  With all my breath, I will shriek out my theodicy:


And when I’m done – when my breath is gone, my throat is tattered, and all I can hear is the exhausted rasping of my lungs – I’ll sit down on the curb, wrap my arms around my knees like a child, and rock in time with the Holy who whispers in return:

“I know, and I am here.”