I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy *catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen. (*catholic in lower case means “universal.”)
This is one of the first things I learned growing up Presbyterian and going to church just about every Sunday. When I was a kid, I learned it by rote. And lately you may have noticed a couple times at least, I catch myself messing it up.
Senior moments? Maybe…but it makes me wonder.
How often have we said it in church? How many hundreds of times in your life? Have we said it so many times that it’s rote: Do we even hear it anymore? And what are we saying?
We use it as our “Affirmation of Faith” where we—corporately, together— stand up and recite it. In the Presbyterian church, we use it so often (and a number of other creeds and statements of belief that are in our Book of Confessions) that I asked a retired professor Dr. Charles Courtney from Drew University to do some research on the Confessions for me, including the Apostles’ Creed. Here’s what he shares:
The later disproved legend was that the Apostles, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote this creed on the tenth day after the Ascension. It originated in Rome ca. 100 and became the common creed of Western Christendom when it took its present form ca. 700. Often used at baptism, the three articles were put to the candidate in the form of a question: “Do you believe?” After each affirmative answer, the candidate was immersed. Note that this bare-bones creed does not mention the ministry or teachings of Jesus. It’s just the “facts.”
Well, after my most recent stumbling through it, I remembered this Richard Rohr devotional about it from a couple years ago. And Richard Rohr is all about it, here. Go see what I mean.
The Apostles’ Creed gives us a lot to believe in and Charles even points out the omission. It’s a lot to live into as is, but I never thought much about this until now. Father Richard demands that we pull out the microscope and look closely at this:
“born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”
How many times do you think we’ve seen it/said it? How many times?
Look closely at the comma and where it falls. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you may notice that comma basically “yadda-yadda’s” Jesus entire life and ministry. Right? Think about it.
Jesus’ entire life is packed into that comma!
Every teaching, preaching, parable, healing, miracle, and yes, his commas, too.
Hello, disciples! That is a huge wake-up call.
Trying to live this life, live into this Way, just trying to get through the day. That’s you and me. We spend our entire lives unpacking and living into that comma.
Right? What that looks like is up to you and me. Individually, walking the walk.
I had to fill out a form for the DMV yesterday. I’m sure you already know what I did—How many times have you written 2021 so far while you’re putting a date on something?
Which poses a whole other question: How many checks do you write anymore anyway?
Some meme was going around with a couple dinosaurs carving the wrong pre-historic era into a slate. No, this is not my forte. But still, I Googled to learn that the Paleolithic Period was when stone tools were developed, some 40,000 years ago—long, long, after the dinosaurs. I’ll leave you to Google how to label the dinosaur eras. I have no clue.
I had a nice vacation! It’s good to get away and recharge. I’m good at shutting it off. Spend some time in peace down the shore. You know, it’s nice.
Did you make any resolutions?
Every year somebody will post a meme on social—some snapshot of a packed parking lot—caption: “The gym this week.”
Less screen time? (now there’s an auto-app to monitor that on iPhone).
More alone time?
I’ve been exercising on my indoor trainer for the bike so I can get back the 5 pounds I put on during the holidays from Thanksgiving Chex mix to Christmas cookies. You know—it’s a mess. And it’s no resolution—I know better than that. But, I’m trying. I am gonna do better.
Gonna shake the Etch A Sketch (very old-school reference) and do better.
That’s it. There’s my one, and only resolution. Do better. Gonna keep following Jesus and do better.
If it were easy, I guess everybody’d be doing it. What do you think? Can we try?
Go ahead, Google Etch A Sketch. You won’t offend me. I already know I’m old.
Grace, Peace, and Happy New Year! Scott
ps. Confession: after all that, I saved this document as Jan. 12, 2021. Augh!
Not that I ever was any good at penmanship anyway, but do kids these days even learn how to write in cursive anymore? Since my kids are way grown, I’m way out of the loop on elementary education. Do they still even hand write assignments anymore, or has keyboarding changed the model?
I’m sure I’ve told you—I keep a journal of my prayers every day. I almost never miss a day and it’s a part of my morning quiet time. My routine is: The Daily Lectionary, Richard Rohr, J. Philip Newell, Phyllis Tickle, some blogs, etc. But there’s always a prayer journal entry at the end. Always? Well on the rare occasion, I may not actually fill in an entry but there’s at least a notation in my Moleskine for every day.
I don’t bother to write in cursive anymore because I print everything in all caps. Now, I realize that when you’re using a keyboard, “ALL CAPS” IS LIKE SCREAMING. But in handwriting, it’s not so off-putting. Even my all-caps printing is hard to read because my handwriting is so sloppy. Well, these are my prayers anyway, so God probably doesn’t have any problem with the handwriting. It’s authentic and I tell myself God likes it that way.
Not that long ago, I actually pay attention and I notice my sloppy writing. It’s terrible! That day’s prayer starts out with what looks to me like “AMAZING GOO…” And I’m kinda snickering. Imagine my cartoon thought bubble: “Goo? Goo, you know what I mean, right?” Amazing. God/Goo. Goo/God. You know what I mean. You know who you are. And you know that I know that, too. So anyway, you’re still amazing. I’m sure you get a huge kick out of a goofball like me anyway. It must be entertaining. Made in your image, eh? If this is really your image for me, I can only imagine how funny you think you are. Reminds me of the old saying, “We make plans and God laughs.” You know me. I know you. Something tells me that you have quite a bit more to laugh about than we know. Amazing Goo. Whatever your name is…you probably don’t have to read it.
You. Are. Still. Just. Amazing.
Grace & Peace, Scott
**Please note: I’m going on vacation after Christmas Eve so the blog and the Focus are going on hiatus until Jan. 12, too. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Interesting change in weather patterns, probably connected to global warming, but I never realized we get tornados here in New Jersey until I moved here. A couple years ago, one rips through Madison where I’m living at the time. It touches down, goes back up, touches down, back up, and touches down again a few times almost randomly hitting and skipping neighborhoods. It leaves trees down everywhere and millions in damages to many homes in the area.
And it is only an EF1. The lowest rating for tornado strength on the scale.
My accent sometimes betrays me. I come from Oklahoma, the buckle of the tornado belt. Tornados are a way of life there. You pay attention. You take shelter. You get out of the way. Or not.
In May of 2013, I’m doing a wedding in El Reno, Oklahoma and the entire wedding party huddles in the dank and damp basement of the old post office waiting out what turns out to be the largest tornado on record. This one is an EF6. And it grazes the downtown area—it tracks less than a mile away! Close call for us.
It is as devastating as you can imagine. More. The aerial news photography shows a mile-wide swatch of land where you can only see streets, driveways, and foundations where the neighborhoods used to be. I don’t remember how many people die.
Nothing is left—everything is swept away and strewn across the state.
And so it goes with the EF3 tornados that struck Kentucky and the mid-South this weekend. The death count keeps rising as they find more people. If you’ve seen any of the coverage you know—it’s just as bad as you can imagine.
So I’m sure you wonder—every time disaster strikes—I’m sure you wonder, “what can I do?”
With Sandy not really that long ago—everybody here knows the destruction and damage left in the wake of a hurricane. Out in the Tornado Belt, it’s not a matter of what, but when disaster strikes.
In Oklahoma, we established a permanent committee just to traffic the disaster response agencies and to speed the process of getting aid to the people who need it most. Otherwise, you gotta reorganize a committee and reinvent the wheel every time. It wastes valuable time and resources when people need the most help.
What can we do? The temptation is to collect clothing, household goods, toiletries, water, etc. But the fact is, on the ground? All that stuff ends up getting in the way.
I remember seeing walls of pallets of bottled water months after tornados. One of my pastor friends was still trying to give away the 200 shovels somebody sent her church. “Please take a shovel! What am I gonna do with 200 shovels?”
One thing I learned—I personally witnessed our own Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) in action. PDA is really effective, nimble, and on site. They are excellent at getting to the table with Red Cross and FEMA and the other faith-based aid organizations channeling resources to affected areas. They are great at it!
So, the best thing we can do when disaster strikes—whether it’s Kentucky, the coast of Florida, Puerto Rico, or right down the shore—the best thing we can do is give money to PDA or the Red Cross. They tap their vast network of volunteers and mobilize right away. Our money goes right to the heart of the disaster with efficient and cost-effective resources and humanitarian response.
It’s the most effective way to fund EXACTLY what’s needed EXACTLY where it is needed.
Bruce Springsteen is a national treasure. Poet. Prophet. Rock star.
He was the first show to open on Broadway since COVID. If you’ve ever gotten a chance to see Springsteen over the years, you know exactly what I’m talking about. They put the first version of his Broadway show out on Netflix a few years ago, so check it out and watch it if you can. No really, watch this show!
If you love Springsteen already, you’ll love him even more. And even if you don’t love him, you will get to know him. He’s as real as it gets. Raw. What you see is what you get.
We know he’s a magnificent story-teller just from the music and the band, and all those years on the road. 1 plus 1 equals 3 for the E. Street Band. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. He gives all the credit to the band.
But without the songs? Without the stories? Without these paintings, it’s just a good band with a great front man.
It’s all about the songs. The stories. How he paints the pictures. And he says “this is my magic trick.”
He’s never worked in a factory—he wrote all those songs about screaming down the highway and “Born to Run” and he couldn’t even drive a car! He’s quippy about never working 5 days a week “until now.” Until he did the Broadway show.
So, he makes up the stories, but he’s very clear about who he is. Rock star, yes. But a regular guy who gets lonely, has depression, father, husband, all that. This is the picture he paints in the Broadway show. It’s a live autobiography. And he’s raw, vulnerable, real. It’s all about how he paints the pictures.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot lately about what we’re doing here. We’re doing our first discernment event this Sunday. We’re going to create a timeline of the people, events, and missions in our recent history that got us here. We’re going to hear you paint your pictures of our church. How we got here—where we are. Right here. Right now.
Knowing where we’ve been will tell us a lot about where we need to go. Who we need to lead us and the gifts and skills they will need. How do we start painting our next story board?
How are we painting the picture? What does that look like?
Well, it looks like us. You and me. Doing our best to walk the walk. Perfect in our imperfections. Love God. Love your neighbor.
All that. Just be.
This whole “Jesus thing” was lifestyle long before it was church. Long before it became a belief system. I asked the kids in confirmation class what Jesus would make of the church. Not just our church, but the whole thing. What it’s become. What would Jesus think of what the church has become? What’s the picture we’re painting?
Here’s where I’m going:
Reclaim the lifestyle.
Let’s be church—connect to the community and each other by loving God and loving each other, just like Jesus says. Listen to Jesus to the exclusion of everything else. Just be. Take care of each other.
It’s not a magic trick. It’s just being real. Perfect in our imperfection.
Maybe it’s not about the pictures we’re painting. What about how we’re painting?
So, if you were in church or on Facebook Live this week, you may have stayed awake for the sermon, “Help!” I didn’t catch anybody sleeping in the sanctuary, if you’re curious. But nobody will blame you if you nod off because you’re watching in bed or on the couch with a big pillow. You know, it’s real life. We get it.
I was riffing a little on Anne Lamott, and I’ve read almost everything she’s written. She’s a good, solid Presbyterian from the San Francisco area. Love her! Love her take on real life. Love her books. You can’t go wrong.
Probably the biggest takeaway is this: Prayer is a simple thing between us and God. Between you and God. Between me and God. Big words not required. Flowery language not required. Thee’s and thou’s not required.
Simply—pray. Get to it. Just. Say. It.
She’s building on an idea from one of her earlier books. She tells a story about her prayer life and always seems to find herself coming back home to a couple basics: Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
So, now she boils it all down to three essential prayers—wait for it…
Help. Thanks. Wow.
That’s it. Simple.
When you can’t put two words together, just pick one: Help. Thanks. Wow.
Petition God for assistance. Express gratitude for a blessing. Sit in awe of God’s massive peace and power.
I do think it helps to get comfortable or get quiet or get in the zone, wherever you can find peace—however you do that. But it’s absolutely not necessary. When you’ve got the time and space, you might go for the Lord’s Prayer—which might be the perfect prayer. Even Jesus says, “When you pray,” pray like this…
But you may not have the time and space! You may not have the peace. The world may be raging all around you.
In any case, any one of these three words can put you in touch with God. In a word. Literally.
Simply pray. When you can’t put two words together, try just one:
Probably just like most of you, one of the things I love most about Christmas is the tree. Now don’t jump to some non-Spiritual conclusion about my Christmas love. I’m all about the baby Jesus! He’s my favorite Jesus, for sure. But let me love the trees!
I love driving through towns seeing the town trees and decorations, and especially the trees going up in living rooms all along the road. I love you can see them from the road. It’s just beautiful and it’s captivating.
This is our version of Stars Hollow, Mayberry, Pawnee, or Castle Rock. Pick your favorite TV town. Califon/Fairmount is just as idyllic. More.
I’ve said it a million times—we live in a snow globe!
And that snow globe just looks right when the trees start popping up!
Back in the 90’s, I used to walk through Rockefeller Center every day on the way to work. Most years I’d catch them trimming and putting up what I think of as “The Tree.” Forget about the White House. To me, it’s not Christmas until they light the tree in Rockefeller Center.
When they’re trimming that tree, there’s a ton of debris and I would pick up a big branch and haul it into work. Then, I’d sit in my office and cut it into little pieces and mail it out to my friends all over the country. Just so they’d get a little piece of the tree. A little Christmas cheer…
Ever since I moved back to the East Coast this time, I’ve missed my chance every year. The tree goes up, the lights, the whole deal while I’ve been too busy to run into the city. Too busy with my stuff. Just not paying attention.
Back home, my wife and kids used to do most of the work decorating the house. I would help put up the tree (artificial) and helped them hang the beads that look like cranberries. Otherwise, they did everything else.
Last year, I didn’t do it. Just wasn’t feeling it. It’s just me in my apartment—I put out the nativity, with my little baby Jesus, but that’s it. Last year was hard.
Not this year! I’m in it. Really feeling it—and I put the tree up over the weekend. All is right with the world now. This morning I’m sitting in my favorite chair in the dark of the early morning with just the tree on. Nativity set out where it belongs, picking up the light. It was a pristine moment.
It’s not just the tree, it’s the whole glow. It’s on. It’s so on…
Same thing for our church. The Mistletoe Market is coming. The Hat and Mitten tree is going up. The kids in Haytown are singing Christmas Songs.
And it’s not just the trees. Merry Christmas, Fairmount!
When I think about God I think of a person who would never murder or kill anyone. But when you think about it you wonder because wasn’t it God who swept the angel of death over Egypt? It makes you think doesn’t it? Is God against it or is he not? I mean what had the boys done to die? It was the Pharaoh wasn’t it? Now do you realise how little we know about God? I hope this made you think, thanks for listening. — Lucy, 9 years old
Loosely, the book is about a cosmic shift from “right belief” to “right practice” in following Jesus. McLaren is a leading progressive Christian author who recently spoke about the migration in New Zealand. Lucy’s little sermon was written in response to the conflicting signals she, as a 9-year-old, gets when she reflects on the Bible. In one blessed move, she makes an incredible theological leap that often takes much more educated and seasoned adults years, decades even, to make. This book is awesome, by the way!
The Bible is full of hope, faith, love, miracles, stories of redemption, repentance, contradiction, controversy, pain, punishment, life and death, acts of God and more. It’s a collection of Spirit-driven peoples, following God (or not), and writing their tribal histories trying to make some sense of the triumphs and injustices in their societies, their politics, their world and God’s power (or not). The Bible is humankind’s best effort to make sense of what God is doing with their world, what God is doing with them.
You may notice that I put it on “them.” The Bible is firstly imperfect as a human construct as it reflects on their life, their times, and what God may or may not be doing in their world. It survives through history. If you look at it through that lens, you immediately see the problem with airlifting scripture out of ancient times and drop-shipping them literally into 2021. I’m sure you can think of a number of instances when the problem rears its head.
Though the nature of church and preaching, this blog, the Focus, etc. may often seem a bit like one-way “broadcasting” especially as we open our worship on Facebook Live. Nevertheless, it really is a group conversation. We call it “Presbyterian.” We’re all in different places on this journey, and either in person or via Zoom or Facebook Live, the conversation is always rolling in the foreground or the background 24/7.
Right around the time I was reading the book, there was a southern state senate candidate accused of child molestation and supported by a number of evangelicals citing the age difference between Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ parents. We’re not really sure how old Mary was, but the assumption is that she was betrothed to Joseph as a young teen.
Men controlled the sexuality of the women in those days. It was the custom (as awful as this is) for fathers to give away their young daughters as wives to older men in a business transaction. Applying this ancient understanding morally in today’s culture is a huge violation—very problematic. You immediately see the problem on so many levels.
A retired Drew professor wrote to me wondering if these evangelicals were thereby disavowing the virgin birth. That’s good comedy, but it’s not really that funny as it sinks in, is it?
You see the problem.
From time-to-time people talk to me about the emptiness of the “thoughts and prayers” offered by politicians every time some horrendous terrorist act of gun violence takes place. And just this week, I see that Alex Jones, the InfoWars guy, has lost another defamation suit about Sandy Hook. I think that’s good, but I’m sure the poor parents of those students are getting more harassment from the crazies on the conspiracy alt-right and more “thoughts and prayers” from well-intentioned people. Still, years later!
None of this is “normal.” This is NOT normal. We cannot accept the normalizing of it in the midst of all the politicizing. It happens all the time.
The Book of James is pretty clear on this problem, from Chapter 2: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
I even beat a little on the “thoughts and prayers” problem in last Sunday’s sermon! It does preach…And if you made it this far this week—thanks for taking this walk with me, no matter where you are on it. You’re welcome here. By God, literally, this is what we do—together. I get a lot of comfort in that.
Here’s the thing—especially this year as I finished my doctorate and my dissertation and all the work that comes along with it. It’s like drinking from a firehose. And I keep learning—over and over and over again—the more I learn, the main thing I learn is how little I know.
Thanks again, Lucy--
Now do you realise how little we know about God? I hope this made you think, thanks for listening.
I’ve told my share of Dad Jokes over the years. Just ask my kids! You’ve even heard at least a couple in sermons. I’m sorry!
I still get Dad Jokes from my dad! And I love them, still.
Back in the day, when somebody asked my dad, “How ya doin?” Dad would always say, “Pretty good for a man my age.”
It was guaranteed to get an eye-roll out of me. Every time! Trouble is, now I get it. I even had another birthday this week and getting old doesn’t bother me a bit—never has. But I do get it. I do!
So not too long ago, Dad sends this one:
Three boys are in the schoolyard bragging about their fathers.
The first boy says, 'My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a poem, they give him $50.'
The second boy says, 'That's nothing. My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a song, they give him $100.'
The third boy says, 'I got you both beat. My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!'
I’m sure Dad shared that one because every church and non-profit are in the middle of stewardship or fundraising time. FPC stewardship is coming too! We pray there’s some truth in that!
I’m so thankful that I still have my mom & dad. And I love that Dad still sends me Dad Jokes! Let the inbox chime and chime again! I’m grateful.
I’m grateful for it on every level. And so many other things—you don’t have time to read my list. But I suspect you’ve got your list, too. And I hope and pray that your mom and your dad and your whole family are on it.
As we’re looking forward to Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, our Prayer of Confession in church this week asked God for our thanksgiving to be constant and not seasonal. Let’s thank God for everything. Everything. All. The. Time.
Try to remember to stop in your tracks if you can, and just pick one thing off your list. Thank God. And do it again. And again. And again.
A couple weeks ago, I grabbed something off the Richard Rohr devotional. This: Religion, from the root “religio,” means to reconnect, to bind back together…In a very real sense, the word “God” is just a synonym for everything. So if you do not want to get involved with everything, stay away from God.
So, thanking God means if you want to get involved with it, we’re talking everything.
There’s my inbox chiming again. Thank God! Maybe it’s Dad…
Three years or so ago, I took up yoga as part of my regular personal devotional routine. I was doing yoga 2-3 times a week or more. It was incredible! Yoga is an awesome Body and Spirit practice! I love it! It was great for me.
Christianity doesn’t do a very good job of connecting Body and Spirit. We do an amazing job of connecting Mind and Spirit, but not so much Body and Spirit. Yoga is awesome!
Then COVID hit.
I tried to keep at it by doing yoga streaming on my laptop, but I really missed the communal aspect of it, like we get from coming to church for worship. Yoga is a worship practice, to me. I hope that we’re able to create community with you in our worship on Facebook Live. I realize it’s not the best substitute for worshipping in the sanctuary together, but I hope and pray it helps you stay connected.
Anyway, since being interim pastor at Fairmount, my commute and schedule have changed. I’ve stopped doing yoga. Even the classes are back in person, but they don’t fit my schedule so—it has gone by the wayside.
Every now and then, I’ll run across something that hits me—something I wish I’d written. I’ll pass it along to you in this blog, or I’ll quote it sermons, maybe even email it to you. Today is one of those days.
I’ve told you that I read Richard Rohr every day—he and his people are part of my daily devotional quiet time. Every week on Saturday, it’s a summary of the previous week’s devotions AND there’s a devotional practice. This week, it was on Body! It’s awesome!
Do this prayer! Wow! It’s written by Jan Richardson, a writer, poet, artist, and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. I wish I’d written this! Wonderful!
Blessing the Body
This blessing takes one look at you and all it can say is holy.
Holy hands. Holy face. Holy feet. Holy everything in between.
Holy even in pain. Holy even when weary. In brokenness, holy. In shame, holy still. Holy in delight. Holy in distress. Holy when being born. Holy when we lay it down at the hour of our death.
So, friend, open your eyes (holy eyes). For one moment see what this blessing sees, this blessing that knows how you have been formed and knit together in wonder and in love.
Welcome this blessing that folds its hands in prayer when it meets you; receive this blessing that wants to kneel in reverence before you-- you who are temple, sanctuary, home for God in this world.
Amen! Amen! Amen! Body and Spirit! Thank you, God.