Hidden Within

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As I mentioned in my prior blog, the shells along Pompano Beach in Florida were stunning.  Each day as I walked I would take my time, looking down to spot the most beautiful shells.  I wanted a wide array of colors and sizes and shapes, even different textures… but I also wanted beauty because… well, who wants an ugly seashell, right?  Sometimes I would pick one up but, looking at my current collection, realize that I already had one that bore a striking resemblance.  Sometimes a shell would be partially buried in the sand or was being washed over by the waves.  I would reach down to grab it but, as I pulled it out and examined it more closely, I would notice cracks or pieces broken off.  I was flying back on a plane so I had no interest in taking up precious carry-on space with redundancy or imperfection.  (You can probably see where I’m going with this!)

One morning I noticed a shell upside down on the shoreline.  Its underside was bright and vivid… beautiful!  I thought, “If that is what the underside looks like, I can’t wait to see the beauty of the outside.” I turned it over and my spirits sank.  The outside of that shell was drab and ugly; a blah, grayish shade with random bumps.  Instinctively, I throw it back into the ocean.

But as I walked in silence along the shoreline, my knee jerk rejection of rejecting that shell caused me to reflect:  how often do I fail to notice the interior beauty of people because they don’t match my initial expectations?  How often do I allow first impressions to stop me from engaging more deeply with people?  Had I seen the outside of that shell first, I would have never stopped to examine it.  I would have kept moving along, just ignoring it.

Now, it’s not a big deal when it happens with a shell.  I’m pretty confident the shell I threw back didn’t cry tears that mingled with the waves.  It’s an inanimate object.  But I am also pretty confident that there are times when my judgment of what I see at first glance prevents me from seeing deeper, hidden beauty in people.

I now regret that I didn’t bring that shell home.  I could have put it on the table in my study where I do my morning prayers.  It would have been a really helpful reminder to me to focus more intently and seek out the beauty hidden within regardless of what first meets the eye.

Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]20200201_122640

Lessons from the Sea, Part 1

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I recently was able to spend a week in Florida.  I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder so a boost of warmth, sunshine and ocean air helps me make it through these dreary Indiana winters.  My long, renewing walks on Pompano Beach yielded some beautiful spiritual insights…

I did a lot of shell collecting.  The shells along Pompano Beach are amazing.  I grew up in Pennsylvania and spent time on the Jersey shore on vacation.  It was rare to find a stunning seashell.  But at Pompano, they are abundant.

My first morning out, I noticed a woman whose pace seemed close to my own… mostly impressive because she was clearly quite elderly.  She had a Ziploc bag in her hand.  I was mostly focused on my shells, mostly looking down to spot beauty and keep an eye out for jellyfish!  Looking up, the elderly woman was approaching me with bag in hand.  In English still laced with a strong accent, she offered me her bag of shells.  She was super excited about it.  She pointed out some of the more beautiful ones.  She told me about the artwork she does with shells, some of the things she makes, where to buy the best glue for gluing shells.  I thanked her.  She asked me where I was from… Thankfully, because I was curious to learn where she was from.  “Russia,” she said.  She had immigrated 30 years ago.  She’s now 80.  I asked her what part of Russia she’d lived in – Moscow.  Honestly, she didn’t seem super excited to discuss her life in Russia, so I didn’t push the topic.  We continued our own walks.  Later, she doubled back to offer me more shells she’d collected.

Perhaps it is because Washington has become such a nasty, partisan place in recent years and xenophobia seems to be skyrocketing…. But, like my many experiences on my sabbatical journeys last spring, I was so struck by such kindness and generosity from a complete stranger.  She was observant enough to notice something that brought me – a complete stranger – delight: collecting shells.  And she wanted to be a part of it.  She wanted to contribute to my joy… The joy of a complete stranger.  In a certain sense, she showed me hospitality.

I’ve thought a lot about hospitality in recent years (in part because of my time spent with the sisters at Benedict Inn in Beech Grove).  We tend to define the word in such a narrow way.  But the foundation of hospitality is an opening of our hearts to others.  True hospitality springs from the desire to contribute to another – to add to their joy, their peace, their comfort, their wholeness.

As I rush through my days, can I slow down enough, as that elderly Russian woman did, to notice what it is that brings others joy – even complete strangers – and to find ways to contribute to their joy, their peace, their comfort, their wholeness?  Certainly, it is worth the effort.


[Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]

Take a Deep Breath

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This Sunday is Pastry with the Pastor at http://www.trinitylafayette.org  It’s an event designed for people who are new to Trinity, new to church, want to find ways to engage, or just have questions.

Here at Trinity, I’ve begun to open these events with the second verse from Ecclesiastes which, in English, often reads, “Vanity of vanities… All is vanity.”  In English, that might seem like an odd choice.  But it is – as sometimes occurs with scripture – just a victim of bad translation.  The Hebrew word there is hebel.  It’s a word that can mean a puff of air, a breath, or a vapor.  With those words, the writer reminds us that life and the things of this world can be fleeting.  Seasons come and go; flowers grow, blossom, and wither.

But there’s more to it than that.  Every day, more times than we can count, we breathe in and breathe out.  And, unless we have a medical condition, we generally don’t even think about it.  Yet, without that constant, automatic exchange of oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, our lives would end.  So the fact that each breath is fleeting doesn’t diminish its value.  In fact, things like deep breathing can lower blood pressure, anxiety, and provide a host of long-term health benefits.

I pastor in a university community in a medium-sized city.  A big adjustment has been that people come and go on a pretty frequent basis.  Sometimes, it’s professionally discouraging and personally sad.  Just this summer, we lost an amazing young couple, Evan and Morgan, after she completed her Masters.  They moved to Alaska, a time of adventure in their lives.  We all rejoiced at their new adventure, but also grieved that they are no longer with us on a regular basis.  They served in so many ways and brought joy and energy to every situation.

Sometimes people are reluctant to plug in to a church because they’re not sure they’re ready to become members; they’re not sure it’s the “right” church for them; they’re not sure they want to be tied down or make a commitment; they don’t expect to be around for long.  That’s when I think of that word hebel.  Just because something – or someone! – is fleeting does not diminish their value and their worth.  My church will be forever richer and blessed for the 20+ months Morgan and Evan spent with us.

We all have a chance to offer our best to one another, every day, right where we are.  If we waste time worrying about how long we’ll be in one place, how much we want to commit, how hard it will be to break away, etc., we’ll never get around to doing anything.

Is there a place in your life where you’re hanging back, afraid to jump in and commit?  Just give it a try.  Life really is too short to hold back on offering our best to others in whatever time and space we share with them.

Interested in finding ways to serve others through the ministries and events at Trinity?  Join us for Pastry with the Pastor this Sunday, October 6, at 9:15 a.m. in the church’s GREAT Room.


Speaking Up and Speaking Out

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I still have a scar on my forehead from a fall I took in the first grade.  It was recess and my class was the first to hit the playground.  I was really tiny but I found someone to lift me up so I could grab the Maypole (if you don’t know what it is, Google “Maypole playground equipment” for a pic).  But within moments other classes poured out on the playground and some big kids grabbed hold of the Maypole.  With their weight and momentum, before I knew it, my feet were flying through the air and my little arms could hardly hold on.  That’s when I made a really poor decision.  I let go, tumbling to the asphalt and splitting my forehead open.  To this day, I wonder, why didn’t I say anything?  As best I can recall, I said nothing to try and get the big kids to stop and let me down from the Maypole.  Did I think they just wouldn’t listen to me because I was so small and young?

It’s important for people to have a voice.  To have a voice means we can express our needs and longings to others.  Our voice matters.

In the ancient Middle Eastern world, people associated “zones” of the body with particular human activities.  The ears and mouth formed one “zone”… which makes sense.  For that reason, it’s not uncommon to read of Jesus healing someone who is both deaf and mute.  The “zone” of mouth and ears is associated with listening and responding… the building blocks of relationship.  While today cell phones and other technology allow us to engage with the deaf or mute, there would have been no such options in the ancient world.  When Jesus heals those who are deaf and mute, it symbolizes much more than a restoration of hearing and speaking.  It provides restoration of relationship; they are restored to their social place or context.  They are given back their voice.

Join us at Fusion (https://www.facebook.com/TrinityFusion/, http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html) Monday, August 19 at 6 p.m. in the Great Room when our guest story teller will be Indiana State Representative Chris Campbell who will share the story of her call to serve her community and be their voice so they can be heard.
Trinity Fusion is a space to bring you and your story so that, together, we can connect, discover and grow.

Sabbatical Thoughts

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Right now, I’m on sabbatical… which means I get to pop in and out of whatever church I want whenever I want.  It’s a weird feeling; being a “religion consumer.”

As a pastor, people “looking for a church” sometimes share with me their process.  Often, each church gets one shot.  (Church leaders, if you have one shot, let’s hope you can bring you’re “A Game” that morning and that nothing “human” happened.  You know, like you had insomnia the night before or one of your kids was sick and kept you up all night or your organist called one hour before worship to tell you she was in the ER with her sick kid… cause then you may be assessed as low-energy or unfocused and crossed off the list.)

Many times people are looking for a church made up of one specific demographic (read here for example: “I want a large group of middle-schoolers because my kid is in middle-school).  I get it.  Life is a lot easier when the people around us look like us, think like us, act like us, value what we value.  It definitely makes parenting easier.  It makes life easier.  No worries about contradiction and complexity.

But here’s the thing:  Jesus didn’t hang out with people just like him.  Jesus, holy as he was, hung out with people who were judged and rejected by the religious establishment.

One of the things I’m discovering during my sabbatical is this: that I miss the church I pastor even though it’s anything but simple.  It’s full of complexity with people whose lives are filled with challenges.

So here’s some interesting data (since I’m a “data geek”):  Statistically, young people are far more likely to stick with church through their adult years if their adolescent church experience is the opposite of what most families look for, i.e. a church with tons of other kids that provides all of the whistles and bells that put the spotlight on their interests.  Now, I’m not suggesting we make the gospel (or church) boring for anyone of any age.  Jesus kept things lively for sure.  But when young people grow up in a church where they are mostly segregated, i.e. most of their interactions are with other youth or with adults whose passion is to serve them (and not to mention people who are “like them” economically, socially, racially/ethnically, even theologically), they reach their adult years expecting that is how Church “works.”  Then, they join a church committee or leadership team as an adult and experience someone disagreeing with them and not supporting their idea and they’re out, they’re done.  Note: I also recognize that, sometimes, these are just adults being contrary and fearful and resisting change.  But sometimes the mere differing of opinions – a very normal human thing – becomes more than they can bear and “they’re out.”

But, going back to my prior paragraph and putting it in simple terms, I’d like to suggest that Church, discipleship and compassion aren’t really things you learn about; stuff you’re taught.  Rather, Church, discipleship and compassion are something you “live/mature into,” something you come to comprehend because you are experiencing it.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a church that provides you with a great softball team, coffee shop, bookstore, etc.  But the bigger, more important question is this:  does your church provide you with a chance to learn how to see the presence of Jesus in people that are not “like you”; people who may even annoy you, offend you, or make you feel uncomfortable; people whose political or theological views may be very different from your own.  It’s such an easier and personally gratifying thing to go serve a meal at a soup kitchen in a nearby city or build a handicap ramp for someone in rural Appalachia or go on a mission to a poor African or Central American country.  And then you get to return home, put your feet up, relax, feel that you’ve “accomplished something” (one might even say fixed something), and get on with your life.

But if your church is comprised of people in addiction recovery, people struggling with mental health disorders (and struggling to navigate the healthcare gauntlet), those living in poverty, or struggling to discern their gender identity in a culture that prizes conformity over honest discernment, you’re never “done.”  People are people, not projects, and there’s no simple fix for the challenges that any of us face.  (Note that “any of us” is in italics because being in a church where people acknowledge their own struggles makes it harder to hide your own and pretend they don’t exist.)  Church is about relationships; not easy, simple, superficial relationships but real relationships that demand something of us and challenge our stereotypes and assumptions.  The ministry of Jesus was all about relationships.  Jesus engaged with people in open, honest and authentic ways.  He wasn’t afraid to talk about anything.

One of the most interesting features of our gospels – especially the gospel of Mark – is that Jesus spent more time “fixing” the mindsets of the disciples than he did “correcting” the sins and shortcomings of the people in the crowds that followed him.  (Not to mention how frustrated Jesus was with the “religious establishment”… which, I might note, is now US!)

(I know this blog is getting long so thanks for hanging in there with me!)

But here’s what I notice about many churches and Christians today:  for as much as we talk about valuing diversity and issues of justice, many of us would prefer that kind of church to be a romantic notion/fantasy and not the reality we live in because a truly diverse church is messy and challenging.

And yet, if we can find the courage to step into that messiness, we – incredibly – discover what Christianity is really all about: faith or trust.  Because trust in Jesus isn’t about believing in Jesus’ existence or adhering to orthodox precepts.  Trust in Jesus is about recognizing and accepting and even finding ease with the reality that there is quite a lot about the lives of others and our own lives that we can’t ultimately control or fix; but that’s okay because the love and grace of Jesus abides within us and among us and God’s abiding presence is really all we need.

Where Church is revealed as authentic Christ-centered community (as it is at my church), it is because we have learned to live from a place of trust in God’s grace and to honor the presence of the risen Christ in one another.

Put It In Writing Please

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Have you ever wondered what the Church might be like today without the writings of Paul?

Across the centuries, I doubt anyone’s mail has been held in as high esteem as Paul’s.  What I find most interesting is that Paul likely never imagined that his letter writing would be canonized.  How could he have possibly guessed his letters would be elevated to the status of Scripture?  Now, I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be Scripture.  But I am suggesting that we’d do well to remember that they started out as letters to particular faith communities – living in a particular time and place and dealing with some very specific challenges.  With the exception of Romans, Paul wrote to congregations that he’d established and knew well.  These were relational documents.  It’s clear that sometimes he was writing to address specific questions they’d asked or settle disputes.  Sometimes he’s writing because he’s heard through the apostolic grapevine that trouble is brewing and Paul wants to nip it in the bud.  A lot of passion comes through in those letters.  His letter to the Philippians is filled with gratitude and affection.  His letter to the Galatians gives you that feeling of standing in the foyer of your house getting chewed out by your parents when you come home long past curfew without a good explanation.

A lot of the challenges facing the United Methodist Church today – and churches around the world and across the centuries for that matter – are a result of our failure to remember that these biblical epistles started out as someone’s mail.  Paul’s letters weren’t just about theology; they were about community and how to live in community.  Perhaps more than anything else, Paul’s letters can serve to remind us that the gospel (good news) is experienced at that nexus where the sacred story and our personal or communal stories intersect.

Bring you; bring your story to Fusion on Monday, April 15.  Our speaker with be Allegra Smith sharing the story of her love of writing; how writing has been a way of her processing and working through problems; how she has built community through writing; and her experiences teaching others to write.  This year’s Lenten artwork will also be on display.



The Word Still Comes to Life

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When I graduated from high school, my parents – in lieu of a big graduation party or a class ring – gifted me with the family vacation of my choice.  We went to New England and one of our stops was in Stratford, Connecticut at the Shakespeare Theater there.  We started out in the nosebleed section but, during intermission, my dad – who would talk to anyone – struck up a conversation with an usher who learned we’d traveled all the way from Pennsylvania and that this evening at the theater was his teenage daughter’s dream.  The usher found us three seats in the front row.  It was the splash zone.  I don’t remember the play we saw but a character spewed (purposefully) whatever he was drinking and I got sprayed… a little gross.  But I’ve never forgotten it.  Honestly, I didn’t really care much for the Shakespeare plays I read in literature class in high school.  But that night at the theater was amazing.  It came to life.

Few people think about scripture as literary drama.  Often when I hear scripture read in churches I’m amazed that we can make such an exciting, life-changing story sound so dull and boring.  One of my seminary professors said there’s no worse sin than to make the gospel boring.

Our gospels are more than religious writings; more than good theology.  They’re also really good literature.  This month at Trinity Fusion our guest will be John Collier who will talk about his lifelong passion for community theater.  We’ll also look at Jesus’ parables as drama.  Not many people know that, in the first century in the Mediterranean world, people didn’t just listen quietly.  Audiences weren’t passive.  They would enter into the action; they’d gesture and shout things out.  I imagine if we did that today not as many people would fall asleep in church!

Join us for Fusion on Monday, March 18, at 6 p.m.  Bring your story; bring you into a welcome space to connect, discover and grow.  Check out the Fusion Facebook page for more details: https://www.facebook.com/events/782213388828582/