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.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the church going to make it??

Is the church going to make it? Is there any hope for us? Are we going to see the end of the 21st century?

It sure doesn’t seem like it if you were to believe all the blog posts and articles from church leaders and religious pundits these days. Their anxiety about the state of the Church is overwhelming. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s wrong. The church has always had a million problems, they admit, but ones we’re facing now are going to do us in! Here are some summaries of what I’ve heard:

The church, unable to learn the language of a digital, post-Christendom culture, hasn’t stayed relevant. Let’s face it, folks. We haven’t caught up with the times. We're still living in the Middle Ages. Our websites, if we even have them, are too dull. We don’t Tweet enough. We stay in our buildings or in front of our computers too much and therefore don’t get out in the coffee shops, craft beer pubs, and dog parks where people are. This is all due to the fact we’re stuck on models we developed in the fifties (that’s the 1850’s, mind you) and no one has thought about what’s happening right now.

The church hasn’t been doing enough service work…or at least hasn’t been visible enough about it. Don’t we realize that service projects in the community are clearly the best way to involve people in themission of Christ? If we were building more houses/marching in more parades/serving in more soup kitchens things wouldn’t be this way. More service work, especially when performed in matching t-shirts, will make us more relevant.

The church hasn’t figured out which style of worship it needs to have. Some say we need to keep it ancient and sacramental. Others hail Contemporary Post-modern Everything as the remedy that will suddenly give us traction. Keep the old hymnal! Get rid of all hymnals! Bring in the technology! Take it out! Whatever you do, get it right, because it’s do-or-die these days! Cry havoc and let loose the hounds of worship war!

The church doesn’t know how to reach/retain/enthrall/appeal to the prized Millennial generation. This is one of the most prevalent sources of anxiety. All the studies claim they’re leaving us, but no one can really explain why. Nevertheless, everyone is convinced it must be our fault that it’s happening. Yet the Millennials represent youth and youthfulness and a church has no future if it loses the approval of its young people, right? The Millennials are a uniform bloc, by the way, containing no variety within their ranks. In fact, you’ve probably spotted them roving the streets like a pack of feral dogs, looking for the newest indie coffee shop where they can hang out and be all postmodern.

The church has turned too many people away, as evidenced by the rise in numbers of those who claim “no religious affiliation” at all. Don’t we realize that people are finding more compelling sources for meaning-making elsewhere? Not only that. Everyone has figured out that church people are hypocritical, anyway (which of course we are). Our stances on “the issues” aren’t progressive enough. Or, wait, they’re too progressive, which is the reason behind the slow erosion between us and the culture we’re supposed to critique. Regardless, what we should really be worried about is that we come across as too inauthentic all the time. Don’t we know that everyone is really desiring authenticity? The Millennials certainly are! In fact, word on the street is that they’re seeking authentic relationships within community more than any other generation that has ever come along. Their knack for it even exceeds the generation that grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II, the people who have, by and large, been supporting the church and keeping it going for all these years. Don’t these old people realize how inauthentic they’ve become?

I must admit all this kvetching confuses me. It also puts me off. At some point the voices of fear and worry become so numerous I don’t know which direction I’m supposed to run first. Change the worship style? Do more service work? Change long-standing sacramental practices? Invest immediately in an electronic sign our front that looks all post-moderny?

I’m sure there is more than a bit of truth to each of these viewpoints, and it never hurts to shine the mirror of critique on oneself. The church dearly needs to listen to what its surrounding culture considers important and should always stretch itself learn to engage people where they are. Yet, I can’t help but feel that at some point in the past few years our well-intentioned self-reflection has turned into unproductive self-flagellation. Must we be to blame for all of the so-called problems we’re facing? Are we doing nothing right?

As I look back over some of the trends I’ve witnessed in my own life of ministry, I have come to believe that a good many of the challenges the church is facing today are actually not ones we’ve created. Moreover, I also think we’re doing a half-decent job of responding and adapting to them. While the people of God are never called to stick their heads in the sand, it is also helpful for us to realize that a lot of the things that buffet us that are really out of our control. They are socio-economic, demographic shifts that would cause any organization or individual considerable strain and stress. In fact, just about any of the concerns above could be voiced, with just a few changes in wording, by television and print media,  by civic organizations (Kiwanis, etc.) by many corporations, and by institutions of higher education, just to name a few.

So, in response to the issues named above, I offer a few alternate reasons why the church feels it might be struggling to find its footing at the moment. In doing so, I realize I’m shifting the blame away from the church and back onto “the times.” So be it. The times need that critical mirror, too. After all, Jesus didn’t beat himself up every time someone turned and walked away from what he was teaching.

It is far easier--and more attractive--to be self-sufficient (to live as a free individual) now than ever before in human history, and yet the church is inherently a community. Technology, among other factors, has provided us the ability to have self-contained (and self-absorbed) lives. Suburban living, too, presents all kinds of interesting challenges to human social structures that, until fairly recently, operated as mostly agrarian. We're not "joiners." These and other factors give us the illusion we don’t depend on each other. Yes, people connect online, blah, blah, blah. Yes, people still crave community. But overall people’s lives don’t overlap during the week with their co-religionists like they used to. We aren’t as constantly aware of the ways we actually do need other people. In a culture that prizes individual expression and personalized experiences, the church—which is fundamentally a community—is going to be swimming upstream. This isn’t the church’s fault.

Sundays are not “easy” for people anymore. Thanks to the legacy of Christendom, the church used to have a free day to gather and worship. People also used to have two days of “free” time every weekend. However, now a growing number of people—especially Millennials!—must work weekends. People’s lives (and their family budgets) have also been taken over by sports. Plenty of cranky pastors have lamented this drift for decades, but now it appears that even the sports community is waking up to the unseemly hold athletics has on our lives. To some degree this loss of privileged status in people’s calendars is somewhat helpful because it might have a distilling effect on the church. However, a community can only twist and change so much in order to provide new scheduling strategies which allow for the necessary time for critical relationship-building. At the end of the day there are still only 24 hours. People only have so much time to work with and time they’re able to give. This isn’t the church’s fault.

People are more affluent than they ever have been and have more options for spending their money than ever before. This factor partly ties into the one stated above, but reaches even wider. The church is swimming in a sea of other competitors. More personal disposable income has meant we are able to give more of our money to things like recreation and travel (which tend to consume us on the weekends…see above). I look at my own family’s expenditures and wonder if similar activities would have been possible for a family like ours 30 or 40 years ago. One result of all this? The definition of “regular” worship attendance or “regular” giving, even from highly committed people, has changed significantly. Attending worship once a month is considered “frequent,” and the church should give thanks for that. But, again, the church’s strength is in its relationships, and if people are nowadays around each other less often in church settings then it stands to reason that the relationships will be weaker. This isn’t the church’s fault.

Family structure has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. People are getting married later than ever, and having children later in life. They are also having fewer children. This is neither good nor bad, but it does have interesting implications for church life which, for better or worse, is very centered on supporting and nurturing families. There are faith communities out there that do a good job of ministering to and with single persons and people with no children, but by and large the programs of so many churches are based in family ministry. This is partly the church’s fault. The church needs to think carefully about how much it caters to families often to the exclusion of others. However, the larger demographic and social changes that have affected our membership and ministries are not in our control.

We crave instantaneous everything. The church is about slow growth. This isn't the church's fault.

These are only a few challenges I see contributing to the church’s sense of anxiety that have nothing to do with what we’re “doing.” They just are. In a nutshell, as individuals become more affluent, better educated, and longer-living, it is easier for them to reach the false conclusion that they don't need God. And professing a need for God is what churches are supposed to be about. All the congregations I have come into contact with have been full of good people who are working as hard as they can to adapt their message to a culture that finds new gods. I have seen very few examples of church folk who are willingly sticking their heads in the sand about it all.

Mind you, I have no hard data to back up any of these observations. I do not know if they are accurate or not. But one thing I do know is this: any ministry strategies that are borne out of anxiety or panic will not go well. By contrast, ministry that is birthed from hope and joy will eventually bear good fruit.

icon of the Pentecost
As it happens, this week is the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost, the day the church commemorates God’s gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the lives of the believers who were gathered in Jerusalem fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Pentecost was the event that helped the disciples make sense of what Jesus’ witness actually meant, that it wasn’t just a message for one time or one place or one people. It was the moment they were shaped as a community and pushed, with the energy of a hurricane wind, into their surrounding context. Somewhat like a fire, the Spirit danced and blazed paths for them even when the culture seemed to throw up obstacles all over the place.

Any reading of this Pentecost event in Scripture—and of the events that follow it—reveals an almost blundering group of broken but confident people who don’t really have much control over how the church is growing or changing. Some audiences listen, while others don't. What is missing in the Pentecost story, however, is a sense of anxiety. It just isn’t there. Clumsiness, conflict, tragedy, confusion…those are all present, but fear never really gets a mention. Another thing that doesn’t play a big part is self-blame.

Given all our modern-day hand-wringing about our ineptitude about discerning the times and finding the appropriate responses, maybe it’s high time to revisit the Pentecost story. Maybe this is the perfect time to remember that no amount of fretfulness get disciples anywhere. We can’t do too much about our tendency to make mistakes and our penchant for getting into disputes with each other over the issues. But we can remember that it is the Holy Spirit, not our programs and slick strategies, who is really in charge. We can remember that the Spirit continues to help us make sense of Jesus, both to ourselves and to the world. For in the end, that is the message we are sent to proclaim: Jesus is Lord. Sometimes people will listen. Sometimes they won't.

So, is the church going to make it? Is there really any hope for us?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. We are Pentecost people.
Paul preaching