No Sweeter Place

On September 26, 1967, Tara Rivetti was born. My heart leaps at the thought of her arrival and her vulnerable first breaths. Eyes opening. Hands reaching out to embrace the world. Little cries, giving voice to a desire to know and be known.

Fifty years later, I am celebrating the astonishing beauty of her personhood; the soul-shaping music that her life makes; the stunning  and multi-layered integrity of her daily walk; and her gracious willingness to love me and to be loved by me in the context of a covenant that, in so many ways, defines my life.

She is my favorite person. The comprehensive goodness of her spirit creates magnificent poetry in a world trapped within prose. A journey through her countenance is always the best part of my day, my week, my life.

There is no sweeter place than by her side and in her heart and on her mind. This is a song about that very thing, created for Tara and sung for her with deep and grateful love on the occasion of her birthday.

“No Sweeter Place”

In the courtship and
In the covenant
In the tears we’ve gently cried
In the prayers and
In the puzzlement
There’s no sweeter place than at your side

In the tensions and
In the resonance
In the shades of grace we find
In my journeys through
Your countenance
There’s no sweeter place than on your mind

No sweeter place
No sweeter place
Than at your side
And on your mind
No matter where
The road will lead me
There’s no sweeter place I’ll ever find

In the Sabbath and
In the silliness
In the pain of time apart
In the warmth and
In the chilliness
There’s no sweeter place than in your heart

In the smiles and
In the somberness
In the fear of life’s extremes
In the mirth and
In the madness
There’s no sweeter place than in your dreams

No sweeter place
No sweeter place
Than at your side
And on your mind
No matter where
The road will lead me
There’s no sweeter place I’ll ever find

In our hopes and
In our dreaming
In the memories we retrace
In this world that
God’s redeeming
There’s no sweeter place than your embrace

No sweeter place
No sweeter place
Than at your side
And on your mind
No matter where
The road will lead me
There’s no sweeter place I’ll ever find

A Back to School Prayer


God of the Ages, who cares deeply about what transpires in both the sanctuary and the classroom; at both the dinner table and the cafeteria; in both the home and the hallways of our educational institutions:  We cry out to you on behalf of our students.  Some of these students are very young, heading off for their first day of pre-school.  Some are a bit older, making ready for elementary school or middle school or high school.  Others are headed off to college, or perhaps into a new season of graduate study.  Others are entering the workforce in order to begin a journey of lifelong learning.

Open the minds of the students, that they might be available to their teachers and receptive to meaningful learning.  Open their hearts, that they might be compassionately attentive to the other people whose lives intersect with theirs in the journey of their education.  Even now, O God, the faces of many different students are appearing in our prayerful reflection.  Grant that, as the students learn about mathematics and science and literature and language, they might also learn a deeper reverence for the One in whom all knowledge is ultimately to be found.

We cry out to you on behalf of our teachers. Strengthen them in their labor.  Energize them in their task.  Guard them against the kind of negativity and cynicism that can make a classroom into a cold and hurtful place.  Deepen their love, not only for their subject matter, but also for the ones they teach.  By the power of your Holy Spirit, equip these teachers to be the instruments of compassionate tutelage that you are calling them to be.

We cry out to you on behalf of our school administrators and staff.  College presidents, deans, financial officers, planners, and registrars.  Superintendents, principals, vice-principals, and guidance counselors.  Nurses, school psychologists, and behavioral counselors.  Administrative assistants, receptionists, custodial staff, security officers, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.  These are the souls whose sacred responsibility it is to generate a safe and nurturing environment in which holistic learning might take place.  Bless them with an ever-deepening awareness of their purpose, and grant to them the strength to fulfill it.

We cry out to you on behalf of families that are struggling in painful ways during this season of transition.  Some parents are dealing with the anxiety of seeing their child step onto a school bus for the very first time.  Some parents are finding it particularly difficult to let their children go as they head off to college in this often-frightening world.  Some children and youth are burdened by a sense of insecurity as they enter into a new season of life and learning.  Weave the different threads of these family circumstances into the rich and vibrant tapestry of your grace, so that the members of these families might be drawn closer to one another and closer to you.

Build a protective fortress, O God, around our schools and our institutions of higher learning.  Guard them against violence, hatred, bullying, and hurtful manipulation. Make every classroom and office into a sanctuary for your presence, so that, through our system of education, many will be led to recognize that a reverence for you is the beginning of all wisdom.  We pray this in the trustworthy name of Jesus Christ, whose transforming Lordship is our highest learning and whose grace is the curriculum by which we live, move, and find our being.  Amen.

The Church in “Downtown Owl”


A while ago, I had the opportunity to read Chuck Klosterman’s relentlessly entertaining novel “Downtown Owl” (published in 2008). The novel focuses on life in the mid-1980’s as it unfolds in the fictional small town of Owl, North Dakota—a town where cable television is not available and where “disco is over but punk never happened.”

As the people of Owl proudly resist the narrative of popular culture, they invest their energies in those time-tested realities that seem to be woven into the DNA of the town’s lifeblood: high school football, hating the government, reckless sexual relationships, and the copious consumption of alcohol. In Owl, normalcy is impossible for outsiders to define, and even the lifelong residents have stopped trying.

Interestingly, church life is still important to a portion of Owl’s population. In fact, the local Roman Catholic church is very pleased with the arrival of its new priest, Father Steele, who is “a young, fat, affable, nebulously feminine individual who—in stark contrast to his predecessor—did not assume that all women were the intellectual equivalent of cows.”

In one of the most hilarious literary treatments of church decision-making that I have ever read, Klosterman takes the practice of Bible study (in a Roman Catholic context) and makes it the center point of a church-related controversy. The narrator in the story sets the stage in this fashion:

Traditionally, Roman Catholics are not big Bible scholars. Catholics focus on the Gospels; the rest of the Bible is what Protestants arbitrarily memorize for no obvious reason. Father Steele wanted to change this…[And so] five middle-aged women agreed to meet with Father Steele every Wednesday morning in the basement of the church rectory to debate the Word of God. That was September. By October, Vernetta Mauch hated Melba Hereford the way Nixon hated JFK. The feelings were mutual.

At the heart of this controversy is the question of what a Bible study should include. Vernetta Mauch believes that Bible study is best treated as an opportunity for individuals to relate the biblical stories to their personal experiences, and Vernetta has become quite adept at this practice. In fact, according to the narrator, “there was not a single anecdote from either Testament that Vernetta could not connect to specific dramatic events in her own personal history, or even to semi-dramatic events from the previous Friday.”

In short, Vernetta approaches Bible study as an opportunity to discuss the intersection of Scripture and her personal journey, much to the disdain of Melba Hereford.

Melba, under the influence of a vastly different hermeneutical approach, resents what she perceives to be Vernetta’s efforts to use the Bible as a springboard for self-centered revelation:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Melba interjected when Vernetta tried to use Christ’s damning of a fig tree as a means to criticize her husband’s insistence on buying a new lawn tractor. “Buying a lawn mower has nothing to do with the Son of God. You’re ruining the Bible for everyone.”

For Melba, Bible study is not to be a time of personal revelation and application. Rather, it is to be a context for intellectual discernment in which a safe and dignified distance can be maintained between Biblical truth and the people who are pondering it (preferably in silence). So passionate is Melba about this conviction (and her dislike for Vernetta) that she encapsulates her angst into an administrative point of order: “I want to make a new rule,” Melba says during a Bible study. “From now on, no one can talk about their own life during Bible study.”

Like all good church people, they put it to a vote. The final tally was 3-2 in favor. As a result, “Owl now had the only Bible-study group in America where it was forbidden to tell any story less than two thousand years old.”

Klosterman’s deft and creative literary exploration of this fictional (but wonderfully true to life) milieu brought me to simultaneous laughter and sadness. I laughed because I heard in Vernetta and Melba the voices of hundreds of my past parishioners, all of whom had passionate convictions about everything from Bible study to worship, everything from sacramental practice to church music. The laughter, however, was accompanied by a strange sense of sadness over my remembrance of the Vernetta’s and Melba’s I’ve encountered over the years who wound up hating one another because of their drastically divergent views of what the church’s ministry should and should not accommodate.

When I ponder the relationship between Melba and Vernetta, it is impossible for me not to think about two women in my very first appointment who were locked in a seven-year feud over whether the American flag was to be located stage-right or stage-left of the altar. (Interestingly, when I suggested to them that it may be best for the American flag not to be present on either side of the altar, since Trinitarian worship bears witness to a Kingdom that transcends nationalistic identity, both women found an unanticipated unity in their shared dislike for their pastor’s “newfangled ideas!”)

I suppose that my point (and, I think, Klosterman’s) is that church can be a tricky place. It is a place where great potential exists for mystical intersections between the eternal and the commonplace. And yet, given the eccentricities, passions, and personalities of the church’s people, it can also become a fragmented and compartmentalized environment in which people are either loved or hated depending upon which compartment they choose to occupy. In such an environment, it is often difficult to avoid jumping into a murky sea of distorted priorities—a sea in which the church’s people are far more interested in the school of red herrings swimming around them than they are in the One who walks on the water and invites his followers to join him there.

And yet, after all the literary dust had settled, my reading of “Downtown Owl” left me with a feeling of gratitude for the church and its ministry. Klosterman, perhaps unintentionally, helped me to remember that the Church, at its best, is the only environment in the world in which Vernetta’s and Melba’s can be confronted by biblical truth and challenged to live into the reality of making Christ-centered peace amidst divergent convictions. The risk of such an environment, of course, is that people might wind up hating one another (if their desire to win the argument becomes more passionate than their desire for Christocentric community).

But, every once in a while, I still find Melba and Vernetta sitting beside one another in the same pew—singing together, praying together, and allowing the cross of Christ to bridge the gap between their contrasting personal preferences. In those moments, I tend to be awestruck by the church’s holy potential that is occasionally and beautifully realized.  It inspires me to pray that all of our “Melbas” and “Vernettas” will be drawn closer to one another and closer to the risen Christ.

It Was “Fifty” Years Ago Today


Fifty years ago, in early June, 1967, the Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, made its way to American ears for the first time. Recorded over a four-and-a-half month period at Abbey Road Studios (formerly EMI), the album inspired both lavish praise and pointed criticism, not to mention a half-century debate over the album’s place in the history of rock and roll.

While I am committed to avoiding the kind of overstatements that often become bigger than the album itself, I remain convinced that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band represents a uniquely significant expansion of everything from recording technique to album art; everything from eclectic musicianship to innovative instrumentation; everything from evocative storytelling to stylistic experimentation. Whether or not one cares for the Beatles’ music, there is an excellent chance that, wherever one’s musical preferences lead, he or she will listen to many artists that have somehow been influenced by the impulses and musicianship embodied by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The songs, while strangely connected, take the listener to many different worlds. Some of those world are whimsical. Others are tragic. The creative musicality that holds the worlds together is what is most striking. It elevates the Beatles above other bands of the era (or any era) in terms of musical innovation and eclecticism. In many ways, it also elevates popular music to an art form.

While “A Day in the Life” is the song on the album that normally garners the most attention (no doubt because of its grand instrumentation and thematic creativity), my personal favorite is “She’s Leaving Home.” It is a haunting musical description of a young girl’s experience of running away. The melody line, more modal than tonal, beautifully captures the sadness and angst of the story. The sparse but poignant instrumentation heightens the sense of the voice’s isolation. The fact that both the girl and her parents “speak” in the song indicates a poetic complexity rarely embraced in the popular music of that era.

I invite you to listen to “She’s Leaving Home.” Allow it to remind you of a moment fifty years ago when a rock album intersected, artistically and truthfully, with real world dynamics.

“She’s Leaving Home” (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

Wednesday morning at five o’clock
As the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes downstairs to the kitchen
Clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside, she is free

(we gave her most of our lives)
Is leaving
(sacrificed most of our lives)
(we gave her everything money could buy)
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years (bye bye)

Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that’s lying there
Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband
“Daddy, our baby’s gone.
Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
How could she do this to me?”

(we never thought of ourselves)
Is leaving
(never a thought for ourselves)
(we struggled hard all our lives to get by)
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years

Friday morning, at nine o’clock
She is far away
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the Motortrade

(what did we do that was wrong)
Is Having
(we didn’t know it was wrong)
(fun is the one thing that money can’t buy)

Something inside, that was always denied, for so many years
She’s leaving home, bye, bye

13 Reasons Why


At the recommendation of a friend who knows me well, I made the time recently to watch the first season of the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” (based on the 2007 novel of the same title). It is a hard-hitting and sobering treatment of a variety of gut-wrenching issues faced by young people (and older people) in modern times: suicide; drug and alcohol abuse; bullying; body-shaming; the complexity of social media; sexual pressure and assault; fiercely-guarded cliques; disappointing friendships; heartbreaking family dynamics; betrayal. At its essence, the show tells the story of a young, vibrant, and broken soul named Hannah Baker and the “13 reasons why” she chooses to end her life.

There is considerable debate around “13 Reasons Why.” Some critics and counselors believe that it romanticizes suicide and nurtures the dangerous idea that suicide can be justified by a set of clearly articulated reasons. Other critics and counselors believe that, if it is experienced in the context of healthy community, the show can be a powerful doorway into important and life-saving conversations about matters too frequently ignored. This debate, I think, is worth having but cannot be resolved here.

So, why am I writing about “13 Reasons Why”? To tell you the truth, I am not sure. I think it has something to do with the tears that I shed toward the end of the final episode. Tears over Hannah’s loneliness, isolation, and heartbreaking decisions.  Tears over how cruel people can be to one another. Tears over what I would imagine is an all-too-realistic depiction of some of the dynamics of high school life.

My experience with “13 Reasons Why” made me want to listen more attentively to the people around me so as not to miss their joy and their pain. It made me want to repent of all the different ways in which I have been guilty of bullying or ostracizing—through my fierce arguments or my insensitive words or my harmfully-wielded opinions or my posture of defensiveness. Most of all, it made me want to value young people even more deeply and to invest more of myself in the journeys that they are navigating.

If you ever consider the possibility of watching “13 Reasons Why,” please know that it is not for those who prefer their television shows to be thoroughly sanitized. It does not look away from the ugly circumstances that many people face, including suicide (meaning that potential viewers need to be aware of the starkness of the show and the possible emotional triggers that it may present).  There are plot contrivances that sometimes hinder the storytelling and sub-narratives that occasionally strain the viewer’s credulity. But, by the end of season 1, I felt as though I had been ushered into an important story, one that illuminates both the sweet delight and the crushing despair that might reside within the heart of the person standing right next to us.

Clay, Hannah’s friend, gives expression to the new kind of community that he hopes Hannah’s death will inspire: “It has to get better,” Clay says. “The way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better somehow.”

Indeed. It has to.


Finer Footwear


I remember being in the presence of real violence for the very first time. I was in kindergarten. The kickball game at recess had been interrupted because two of my classmates were arguing over a play at first base:

“I was safe!”

“No! You were out!”

The argument escalated until one of the boys balled up his fist and hit the other boy squarely in the face. Standing close by, I was horrified by the unmistakable sound of flesh smashing against flesh. The boy who had been hit fell to the ground. I stood there, transfixed by the intensity of the moment and nauseated by the sight of blood trickling out of the fallen boy’s mouth.

I won’t ever forget that moment. In my mind, I can still hear the punch. It was my brutal initiation into a violent world—a world of warfare and terrorism; a world of hateful words and bitter feuds; a world in which children learn to fight one another over something as insignificant as a kickball game.

The fact that we live in the midst of such violence makes the following words of Scripture all the more meaningful: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace” (Ephesians 6:15). These words unsettle me whenever I read them (which I did just this morning). They unsettle me because of the way in which they bring to light the fact that, in my personal spiritual garb, I am often much more drawn to the combat boots of coercion and contempt than I am to the shoes of the Gospel of Peace.

When I reflect upon this particular portion of the spiritual armor of God, I am instantaneously reminded that the way of Christ invites me to become more passionate about reconciliation than I am about retaliation; more passionate about mercy than I am about manipulation; more passionate about patient listening than I am about winning the argument.

I may not have the wherewithal as an individual soul to bring peace to the Middle East. I may not possess the necessary influence to end all manifestations of warfare. But will the fact that I cannot create ALL peace prevent me from creating SOME peace? Will I dare to incarnate the Gospel of Peace in my little corner of the world? Will I allow myself to be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that I become a peacemaker in my home, in my family, in my neighborhood, in my network of relationships, in the rhythms of social media, and in the hallways of my church? What might such a peace-making life look like for me?

As I type these words, I am praying that I will begin to make a more substantive place in my spiritual wardrobe for the shoes that enable me to proclaim the Gospel of Peace wherever I walk. I am envisioning the kind of “wardrobe expansion” that produces a counter-cultural disciple whose words are edifying rather than insulting, whose demeanor is engaging rather than dismissive, and whose governing passion is for authentic relationship rather than acrimonious division? Then, and only then, will I be able to say with integrity that I am a proclaimer and practitioner of the Gospel of Peace.



About a month ago, I woke up at 2:15 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I knew that it was going to be one of those nights–or mornings.  For some reason, in those restless moments, I was thinking about “The Bridge,” our new weekly worship experience that launches this Saturday, May 6, at 7:00 p.m. “The Bridge” is open to all, but it offers a particularly attentive welcome to those individuals and families that are currently accommodating the struggle of addiction or the journey of addiction recovery.

My mind was flooded with both deep concerns and desperate hopes in the hours of my sleeplessness.  “Will people support yet another worship experience in our church and in the city of Butler?  Have we rightly heard the voice of God on this?  How will we sustain this service for the long haul? Do we have what it takes? Do I have what it takes? Will God raise up a congregation that sees the urgency of gathering each week simply to sing praises and to pray and to declare that the Lordship of Jesus holds authority over the drug epidemic of our community? What about the adults and young people of our community who are feeling crushed by the burden of addiction? Will they dare to believe that a place like the the church has a loving and hopeful word that is specifically for them?” Questions. Lots of them. My mind was racing.

Realizing that a return to sleep was nowhere close, I quietly made my way into our basement and sat at the electronic keyboard that we keep there. (A piano or keyboard is often where I place myself when I am confronted with things that are difficult for me to process. I think it helps me to pray.) As I allowed my hands to play some seemingly random chords, a pattern developed.  Then a melody. Then a rhythm. Without really knowing what I was doing, I began to mumble these words to the music, quietly and clumsily: “Grant me serenity, to accept the things I cannot change.” When I paid attention to what I was mumbling, I realized that I was giving expression to what has come to be known as “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, “The Serenity Prayer” is still used by millions of recovering addicts and alcoholics as a spiritual doorway into prayerful surrender. In my sleeplessness, I was thinking about my addicted and recovering sisters and brothers and praying the same prayer that is so often upon their lips.

By 4:00 that morning, additional words started to form in my consciousness as I sat at the keyboard. By 5:10, I had an entire song. Songwriting does not often happen that quickly for me. That morning, it did.

So, as the launch of “The Bridge” draws near, it is on my heart to share with you a very rough version of the song that I wrote in those hours.  I recorded the song hastily this morning on my iPhone.  Please pardon the poor quality of the recording and my pitchiness. I felt a sense of urgency about sharing the song with you just as it is, even in its unfinished and unpolished state. A better recording will come in time.

I hope to teach this new song to the Bridge congregation this Saturday night at our first service. Perhaps it will will give to people a musical way to call to mind, not only a familiar prayer, but also the truth that Jesus is the most trustworthy bridge upon which a person can stand.

Thanks for listening. Here’s the song:

Bridge (words and music by Eric Park)

Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Grant me courage to change the things I can
Grant me wisdom to understand the difference
Grant me strength to stand upon that bridge

You’re the bridge that leads to holy ground
You’re the bridge for captive souls unbound
You’re the bridge across a wildly raging sea
You’re the bridge into a serenity

Grant us patience to live one day and then the next
Grant us mercy, that sins will be made clean
Grant redemption, that life will be as you intend
Grant us grace to travel on that bridge

You’re the bridge that leads to love that heals
You’re the bridge that holds what God reveals
You’re the bridge that sets a lonely prisoner free
You’re the bridge into eternity

It’s a bridge we know will never fall
Come and see, there’s room for one and all
We will hear the call and come to take our part
Jesus is the Bridge to God’s own heart
Jesus is the Bridge to God’s own heart