Wednesday, February 01, 2017


May the oily stain upon my shoulder
from the morning bottle feed
or the one tiny oatmeal-covered hand
that grasped me in delight
Which stands out against the pitch black
of my crisp, clean clergy shirt
become a stubborn reminder
within my range of sight
Of the other mark upon my life
The stain that holds me fast
That says my life—each day!—begins in joy
A bearer of the light

Friday, October 28, 2016

saying grace at Maw Maw's

Grace is Sunday dinner—
a baker’s dozen or so dishes
Corningware, Pyrex, pie tin, wicker basket
spread out in the matriarch’s kitchen

Grace is “Come to think of it, I don’t know when it all got made.
It was just always there. Always ready.”

Grace is the tacit understanding
among everyone
that it won’t all fit the first go round

So get you another plate!
Go back for more!

But more than that
grace is being a welcome—
no, expected—guest
for 42 years
and realizing at the last
you never
(not once!)
brought a dish
to share.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

If St. Patrick had come to Virginia

He would have taught the Trinity not with a shamrock but with the oak
they are plentiful in our forests and sometimes acorns grow in perfect threes
He would have said
God contains wonders do not try to apprehend

He would have said
you may find it marvelous now but wait
for God must fall to the earth and die to bring new life
and then he would have added
one day it will even yield a sturdy wood
like the kind for making crosses

And tossing it in his hand he would have said
God seems small at this point but when allowed to grow the branches prosper so far about
that even birds of the air may come and lodge therein
a leafy kingdom no one can control
save the wind

And knowing its mystery cannot even be beheld in late summer
when the acorn survives the fall from the sky
he would have saved that precious Triune package
and buried it like a treasure in a field
in the dead of winter.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Prayer for Holy Week

(in response to the terrorist attacks in Brussels, March 22, 2016)

Lord, so many of us will gather later this week
with the primary purpose of remembering
an act of violence.

And to that remembrance we regret we must add
so many more examples--
yea, even from
this week.

So as we gather
As we remember
As we grieve
Forgive us, once again,
for we know not what we do.

And Lord: remove from us
any vanity or shallow misbegotten reflection
which would prevent us from understanding
that you do not perpetrate violence

and help us learn
and help us teach
that the killing bombing maiming hating
that still happens here
is killing bombing maiming hating
somehow done to


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

To my god-daughter on Maundy Thursday

My oldest god-child will be receiving Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday this year with her fellow fifth-graders. Like our own daughters, she has actually been receiving the bread and the wine since baptism, but her parents want to mark this milestone for her and underscore, once again, the importance of this sacrament for her life of faith. To do so, they have asked each of her god-parents to write something (a reflection, a story) which explains what the Lord's Supper means to us and to include a word she might learn to associate with the meal. Each word will be painted onto a chalice they plan to make with her.

All of our god-children are special to us, and I know Thursday evening will be special for her. God bless her and her family!

Dear S-------,

Thirteen years ago when I became a pastor and began serving a congregation, it quickly dawned on me that part of my job was going to involve handing out bread every week. I don’t know why this caught me so off-guard. Holy Communion has always been important to me, but I hadn’t thought about what it would feel like to break a loaf in front of a bunch of people so often. It’s kind of a odd part of our job, if you think about it! I guess I was concentrating so much on preaching and learning to feed people with sermons and Bible studies that I never realized that I would also literally be feeding people real bread! I thought I knew what it took to create a sermon, but I had no idea what it took to create bread. I figured that if I was going to be handing out bread all the time and talking about how important it was and how much it reminds us of Jesus, then I figured I had better learn what goes into making it.

That is when I learned to make my first loaf of bread leavened with yeast. It was thirteen years ago. I got a recipe from someone in that congregation, Vickie Wiegand, who also turned out to be the bride in the first wedding I ever officiated. I tried her oatmeal loaf and quickly learned that bread-making is not easy! It takes a lot of time and a lot more patience than I typically have! But I got better over time and with lots of practice. I ended up throwing out a lot of loaves that didn’t rise or didn’t taste right. What else did I learn? I learned that it makes the house smell amazing. I learned that dough is basically a living organism that needs to be tended.

I also learned something that is essential about baking bread: a good loaf MUST be shared with someone else. In fact, tearing off a piece of a fresh loaf that is still warm from the oven, savoring it, and then handing it to someone else so that they, too, can break off a piece is maybe the best part of baking bread. Bread, therefore, is essentially about community. There is no such thing as a personal-sized loaf. Some of my favorite memories of you, S------, have been the times we’ve made baguettes and cinnamon rolls together—and savored them—on our summer trips.

I think this process of bread-baking has helped deepen my understanding of Holy Communion. Yes, it has helped me appreciate all the time and precision and patience that goes into the loaves that I hand out at the communion rail (which are actually just purchased from the store—but someone made it somewhere! And someone still had to go to the store and buy it!). More than that, it has helped me understand that God is most nourishing when God is shared with others. It has helped me understand that if Jesus is the bread of life, then God must put a lot of time and skill and patience into His care for us. The cross, of course, reminds us of that.

Overall, Holy Communion for me is about ASSURANCE—assurance that God loves me, assurance that God cares for me enough to prepare something so delicious as the life of his Son, assurance that God really does want to draw each of us close, even though we’re so undeserving. This meal is assurance that God’s love is better when we draw more people in to it. And, as the pastor places a torn-off piece of bread in my hand each week under the shadow of that cross, it becomes assurance that, despite my many imperfections, the good gifts of Jesus’ forgiveness are really meant for me.

Eat up!

Much love,

Uncle Phillip

Sunday, November 01, 2015

November 1

One big funeral sermon
for all those we name
and honor with a single bell tone
during our prayers,
notes that arrange themselves
in a unique
but awkward arpeggio
a particular order
never to be repeated
And for all the others who’ve left us
who won’t be named
but who
strove and inspire and
failed and lost
and won
And for the wee weeks-old
who begins the journey
still wet
still waking up
and receiving a kiss
from an older sibling
who stretches toward his forehead
to touch her lips just at the place
where the oil has made a cross
And for the daughter who explores a new Bible
half-interested in the routine
of bed-time prayers
because she’s busy
hunting verses underlined by
her cloud of witnesses
And for the ones who weep
And for the ones who wonder why
And for all resting ringing reading resounding
In the embrace of the One who’s risen
For all the saints

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Dear Emanuel's": A letter to a closing (merging) congregation

On Sunday, July 12, 2015, the first congregation I was called to serve as pastor, Emanuel's Lutheran Church, Bellevue (Pittsburgh), PA, will be closing its doors. Technically-speaking the congregation itself has (as of the end of June) merged with another small parish in a nearby borough, but for all intents and purposes the building that housed this once-vibrant congregation of Lutherans will be shut down and will not be a house of worship for the people that built it and derived identity from it.
The Congregation Council of Emanuel's is holding a celebration service to mark this occasion and invited all former pastors and members to attend, if possible. Due to other duties on my calendar, I am unable to attend, but it was suggested that I write a letter that could be read aloud at their gathering. Below is the letter I wrote. I share it here for the sake of anyone who was part of the Emanuel's extended family who also could not attend, that they may read it and hear how grateful my family is for the ministry we shared there.
I also share it for the sake of anyone who has gone through or might go through a congregation closing. I imagine we'll be seeing quite a few more of these in the coming years. According to many statistics, nine congregations close each week across the United States. Congregation closings are difficult to do and they are difficult to talk about. However, I believe that it is important to acknowledge the life that a congregation once gave to particular community and its members. Likewise, it is vital to remember that God is always present in the midst of difficulty, raising up hope and vision for God's people.
Dear members and friends of Emanuel’s Lutheran Church:

Like most of you, I am deeply saddened that Emanuel’s will be closing its doors and no longer serving as a place of worship for a congregation that I deeply love, a congregation that not too long ago celebrated its centennial in Bellevue. There is something inside of each of us that tells us congregations are not supposed to close. They are places of such life, after all: wellsprings that nurture the young, challenge the faithful, and comfort the aged. There is something that disturbs and depresses us about an organ no longer being played, a font no longer being filled with water, a door of welcome no longer being opened to the lost and the lonely. For this reason and many more, this occasion must feel like a funeral.

I know that for my family, especially, this day is a very sad one. I met Melinda in this place. I asked her to marry me in the narthex one evening. Neither of us will ever forget the sight of Jack Grimes walking Melinda down that long, sloping aisle on the day we announced our engagement in front of the congregation. In October of 2005 we exchanged vows at the altar, and within the span of just a few years we had our two daughters baptized here. Now it is highly likely that we will never be able to return to this particular building that is so sacred to our family. What would the Martins' lives be like without the faithful people of Emanuel’s who welcomed us, gave us a spiritual home, and formed us in our early married life? We will always be indebted to this congregation for the ways in which you loved us. But as disheartened as Melinda and I are, I can’t imagine how the rest of you feel who have seen your children raised here, confirmed here, and maybe even married here. I can’t imagine how sad this must be for anyone who came here each week with the expectation they would encounter Christ again.

Additionally, you were the congregation that took a chance on a young seminarian out of the south. You called me to serve among you, but pretty quickly I realized the Holy Spirit had really sent me to Bellevue to be your student. You were experts at teaching me about God’s grace and the joy of following Jesus. You opened your hearts and lives to me, modeling patience amidst crisis and generosity amidst hard times. I will always remember celebrating kids’ birthdays in the social hall downstairs, playing VBS games out on the lawn, and many, many good Pittsburgh meals from the kitchen. For all of this I thank you.

But, as I said, you were my teachers, and one of the things you taught me was that Christ grants us the insight to see possibilities where we see only death, and that the Spirit opens our eyes to laughter and life where we might only sense doom and gloom. So, even in this sadness and loss, I hope you can still teach one another this lesson. I hope that God can open your hearts once again to realize, as the old Sunday School song goes, that “a church is not a steeple, nor a resting place…the church is a people.” This particular place may no longer be “in service,” but the people of God are never, ever out of service.

With that in mind, I hope that you see you are being presented with a choice in this situation: going forward, do you venture out and find another congregation in which to share your gifts, thereby showing the world that you follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One, the one who brings new life through his body’s presence in the world…or do you stay at home on the Lord’s Day from now on and withhold your gifts from God’s people, thereby showing the world that for all these years you were just worshiping a building? I know it may be somewhat out-of-line for a student and former pastor to pose such a question to his teacher, especially because you’ve given so much of your time, talent, and treasure to these walls. Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty today. And I ask it with the confidence that the Emanuel’s people I knew and loved would find this to be an easy choice. The Emanuel’s people who strengthened my faith for almost six years knew that death was the place precisely where new life began.

You will be in my family’s prayers today and on the coming Sunday mornings. I know it will be hard to bear, but please trust that the God of new beginnings will be with you. After all, that is exactly what the word Emanuel means. It is Hebrew for “God is with us.”

Yours in Christ’s service.