Changes

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Do any of you remember the David Bowie song “Changes” from his 1972 album “Hunky Dory”? I find myself singing the chorus of that song even as I type these words:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Gonna’ have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time

Changes rarely happen without some struggle. And yet, in spite of the challenges, the rhythms of transition are often where God accomplishes some of God’s most magnificent work.

I am finding evidence of change wherever I look these days. Changes in our denomination. Changes in the political climate of our country and the nature of our social discourse. Changes in the dynamics of our churches and the communities to which they are connected. Changes in how people think about spirituality and its ramifications.

Changes.

On a personal level, the changes are even more daunting. Effective July 1, I will become the District Superintendent of the Butler District in United Methodism’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I will be succeeding my current District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, who will retire on July 1 and whose creative ministry and trustworthy friendship have been a regular source of blessing in my life for the last 26 years.

My new appointment requires that I  say hello to a work I have done before. It also requires that I say goodbye to the work of serving as a Senior Pastor to a congregation I dearly love and admire.

Changes.

In the eyes of some, District Superintendents are little more than denominational bureaucrats who toe the party line, extend the episcopal office, put out ecclesiastical fires on occasion, manage the distribution and collection of paperwork, and show up for the yearly administrative dinosaur known as the church conference. Others conceptualize the District Superintendents as the backroom negotiators who shuffle around pastors in that inscrutable segment of United Methodist polity called the appointment system.

For me to be able to return to the role of District Superintendent with a sense of integrity and purpose, I must cultivate within myself a vision for the work that might carry me beyond the sinking sand of cynicism to a more dynamic spirit of hope. District Superintendents, at their best, can be attentive encouragers who hold pastors gently but firmly accountable for their ministry but who also allow themselves to be held gently but firmly accountable by their pastors and congregations. District Superintendents can be facilitators of authentic worship who dare to see worship as humankind’s only appropriate response to God’s majesty and who diligently create opportunities for their brothers and sisters on the district to connect with one another in the context of the communal adoration of God.

They can be relentless champions for outreach and mission who work with other visionaries to create opportunities for hands-on ministry beyond the walls of the church building. They can be sojourners who travel alongside the pastors and laity of their district, comforting the afflicted with gentle words, afflicting the “too comfortable” with prophetic words, and listening quietly when no words are necessary, all the while cultivating the kind of attentiveness that honors the integrity of those they superintend.

They can be enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, who pray for their pastors and churches, who study the Word and meditate upon its revelation, who preach the Gospel with passion, who fast for discernment (in order to remind themselves that they are hungrier for God than they are for food), who worship as though their lives depended on it, and who commit themselves to holy conferencing (both with the churches on their district and the Cabinet).

District Superintendents have a unique opportunity in a changing denomination to lead with simultaneous compassion and vision, so that their ministry is driven, not by a commitment to institutional maintenance, but by a fervent commitment to relational evangelism and missional innovation.

My emotions concerning this new appointment are deeply mixed because of my love for the people of Butler First Church with whom I have journeyed over the last five years as Senior Pastor. Granted, I will have the privilege of serving as this church’s District Superintendent, which is both a blessing and an honor. That relationship, however, is something different than serving as the church’s Senior Pastor. Another Senior Pastor will come and will lead with beautiful giftedness and inspiring integrity. Of this I am greatly confident. One of the strengths of our denomination’s system of polity, after all, is our perpetual discernment of how pastoral leaders can be best deployed and how churches can be best served. With great sadness, I will let go of the role of Senior Pastor. With great joy, I will become an ardent supporter and encourager of my successor.

Please pray for me. Pray for my wife, Tara, who is as unsettled by this transition as I am. Pray for the incredible souls at Butler First Church and for their new pastor (yet to be named). Pray for our Bishop and Cabinet as they engage in the messy and meaningful work of another appointment season. Pray for Joel and Debbie Garrett as they prepare for Joel’s retirement. Along the way, allow yourself to be completely undone by the holiness and hugeness of God amidst all the “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” with which you might be confronted.

Might You Be

DETAIL FROM ICON OF THE NATIVITY

When Mary held Jesus on that first holy night, I wonder what her thoughts and prayers might have been. I wonder what she imagined when she looked into the face of her newborn son, when she attempted to reconcile his sweet vulnerability with the angel’s message about his mystical identity and his role in the world’s redemption.

I wonder if Mary allowed herself to experience precious moments of letting go of the theological complexities that were embodied in her child so that he could simply be her little boy and so that she could simply be his loving mother.

I wonder.

This is a song about that wondering, a song about God traveling into human history through the vulnerability and comprehensive humanity of an infant. It is also a song about a loving mother and her newborn child.

I pray that you experience a joyful and meaningful celebration of Christmas.

Might You Be
(Words and Music by Eric Park—except the included portion of “What Child Is This,” lyrics by William Chatterton Dix, set to the tune of “Greensleeves,” a traditional English folk song)

Might you be Deity
Cradled within these human arms sleeping peacefully
Might you be Royalty
Sovereign without a crown trusting me completely
Might you be Jubilee
Come to redeem your people, come to bring liberty
Might you be Charity
Love breathing human breath lying here to save me

But the angel said as much to me
A peasant girl’s epiphany
Still, I’m left wondering were his words meant for another
But let’s let go the future now, we cannot see it anyhow
Tonight just be my precious boy, and I will be your mother

What child is this…

Might you be Prophecy
Words of the ancient ones fulfilled in your infancy
Might you be Purity
One day to bear the stain of our vain iniquity

But the angel said as much to me
A peasant girl’s epiphany
Still, I’m left wondering were his words meant for another
But let’s let go the future now, we cannot see it anyhow
Tonight just be my precious boy, and I will be your mother

 

Life Lessons From “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

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November of 2017 marks the 44th anniversary of the release of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” I watched it every year during my childhood. These days, in my “adult childhood,” I still make it a point to watch it every November.

There are moments in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” that are particularly noteworthy. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, these moments, long before I was aware of their impact, helped me to pay attention to the world and its nuances. Here are some of the moments I have in mind:

CB 1

SNOOPY’S BATTLE WITH THE ORNERY LAWN CHAIR—Tapping into the frustration that most of us have experienced with uncooperative folding lawn furniture, Snoopy’s passionate fight with the anthropomorphic chair ranks as one of the great moments in all of animation. I think about that scene whenever I have difficulty opening up the folding chairs at church, which is often. It is a slapstick lesson in fortitude, a ridiculous but cautionary moment that makes a case for a raw “get-r-done” kind of gusto.

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FRANKLIN’S UNIQUE GREETING WHEN ENTERING CHARLIE BROWN’S HOUSE—When Peppermint Patty and Marcie come through the door, they greet Charlie Brown with simple hellos. But when Franklin, the only African American boy in the story, comes into the house, he and Charlie Brown exchange a pronounced and audible slap of hands. In light of the fact that this was 1973, such a greeting was a slap heard round the world—a moment of communicational intimacy that signaled the continuing development of a new age in race relations, even in the world of animation.

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SNOOPY’S PANICKED EXPRESSION WHEN HEARING THE INVITATION TO PRAY OVER DINNER—Peppermint Patty calls for someone to pray over the Thanksgiving meal. Snoopy, in a split-second response, looks suddenly panicked, as though he’s afraid that someone might look to him for the blessing. That sudden look of canine consternation makes me laugh every year because of its creative illumination of a very common spiritual reluctance. “Please, God, don’t let anyone ask me to pray out loud!”

CB 4

SNOOPY’S TOASTED EAR—While preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, Woodstock the bird accidentally puts Snoopy’s ear in the toaster, then butters it. No dinner, I suppose, is complete without a spoonful of personal sacrifice and a dash of vulnerability.

CB 5

WOODSTOCK’S FONDNESS FOR POULTRY—It hit me in late elementary school that, in the closing scene, when Snoopy and Woodstock sit down for a turkey dinner, Woodstock is actually committing a form of avian cannibalism before my very eyes. I wonder if the turkey was accompanied by some fava beans and a nice chianti.

CB 6

AN ECLECTIC THANKSGIVING MEAL—The actual meal that Charlie Brown serves to his friends includes jellybeans, pretzels, popcorn, and toast, reminding everyone that the beauty of the feast is always in the eye of the (hungry) beholder.

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LINUS’ PRAYER—When Linus quotes the prayer that was prayed by Elder William Brewster at the first Thanksgiving meal, it is the only moment in the entire animation that his security blanket is not visible. What a winsomely subtle way of making the point that, when Linus experiences the security of prayer, he no longer needs the blanket.

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THE SPONTANEOUS REJOICING—When the children receive word that they are all invited to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house for a real Thanksgiving dinner, they erupt with a joyful fervency normally reserved for Steelers games and Springsteen concerts. Their child-like exuberance awakens within me the desire to do everything I can to make the church into the kind of place that always—always—invites children to the table.

CB 9

THE REALISTIC SINGING—In the car, when the children sing “Over the River and Through the Woods,” they are neither unified in their tempo nor disciplined about their tonality—meaning that they sounded exactly like every group of singing children that I have ever heard (except for the Jackson 5 and that time that the Brady Bunch kids became the Silver Platters). Their joyful and spirited singing reminds me of how grateful I am that music has occupied a significant place in my life. I want it to occupy such a place in many lives.

CB 10

THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE MOVEMENT TO SUBURBIA—“There’s only one problem with that song,” Charlie Brown says about the bucolic “Over the River and Through the Woods” as the children sing the song together.

“What’s that, Charlie Brown?”

“My grandmother lives in a condominium!”

By uttering those six words, Charlie Brown concludes the production with a bold and prophetic acknowledgement of the frightening implications of suburban sprawl, generational compartmentalization, and architectural homogeneity. It is a subtle but appropriate warning to a culture that frequently runs the risk of forgetting that rivers, woods, and grandmothers are never to be taken for granted.

If you watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” this year, pay attention. It offers some wonderfully whimsical and insightful moments, even after 44 years.

 

 

 

 

A Hollywood Scandal and the Scandalous Reality That Undergirds It

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Recent accusations and allegations in the Hollywood community have illuminated with horrifying clarity the mistreatment and dehumanization of women within the very industry upon which we so frequently depend for compelling and life-giving stories. The scandal surrounding producer Harvey Weinstein is neither compelling nor life-giving. Quite the contrary, it is a narrative of brokenness that shines intense light on both sexist hierarchies and accommodated injustices. It is a methodical and long-standing moral failure that diminishes all of us, whether we realize it or not.

As a male, it is sometimes difficult for me to discern the most meaningful way for me to find my voice in a discussion like the one this scandal demands. My inability to understand the fullness of what it means to be a woman in our world, coupled with my fear of sounding like a privileged observer who is way out of his depth, makes me somewhat reluctant to say anything at all. Silence in the face of injustice, however, is precisely the kind of response that permits the perpetuation of the kinds of environments that men like Harvey Weinstein have enjoyed for so long. As awkward as finding a voice in these conversations can be, silence is simply not a moral option.

And so, I speak. I speak with a penitent heart and a grieved spirit. I speak with a re-awakened anger, a re-engaged sadness, and a re-energized vision for redeemed relationships. I speak through groans too deep for words, trusting in the Holy Spirit to carry my feeble articulations to the heart of God as the petitions that they should be.

I speak through a desperate and broken prayer.

For what am I praying?

I am praying that the hearts of all people (women, men, and youth), are meaningfully broken and outraged whenever women are objectified, dehumanized, and violated by any language or behavior that perpetrates a violence against women and against the sacred image of God that women so uniquely bear. Whether in the locker room or the living room, the church hallway or the workplace, such language and behavior corrupt our relationships and disfigure our shared humanity. If we wink at it, make light of it, or ignore it altogether, our hearts become colder and harder to one another’s personhood and to the supernatural love that God created us to manifest. I believe this with all of my being.

I am also praying a prayer of repentance for the way in which the church (of all denominations) has all too frequently reinforced and perpetuated the mistreatment and undervaluing of women through silence, through institutionalized misogyny, and through a stubborn refusal to subordinate distorted understandings of masculinity and femininity to the transforming Way of Jesus.

The repentance I am describing is deeply personal for me today as I spend a few moments looking at photographs of the women who have shaped my life through their love, integrity, and giftedness. I am thinking of my wife. My mother. My sister. My nieces and sisters-in-law. Teachers, Sunday School teachers, pastors, and friends who have mentored me and taught me what it means to be authentically human. As I celebrate the image of God that these women so beautifully reveal, I repent of the ways in which I contribute, wittingly and unwittingly, to an ethos of gender-driven mistreatment that might make it painfully difficult for these women I love—and all women—to live into the world-changing and countercultural community that Galatians 3:28 describes:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Therein lies my response as a male searching to find his voice in this heartbreaking but urgent conversation. My response is a deepening repentance, an escalated attentiveness to the stories and journeys of women, and an intensified commitment to being part of the cultural and ecclesiastical transformation that I desire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Ethics and the Conundrum of Gun Control

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As a follower of Jesus, I am often far less interested in the opinion that a person holds on an issue than I am in how the person arrived at that opinion and, even more important, how the person engages both with those who hold a similar viewpoint and those who approach the issue with different convictions.

I have long believed that arriving at a passionately-held opinion is the least-demanding portion of ethical discourse. Strong opinions, while they may involve a certain degree of deductive or inductive reasoning and sophisticated cognition, require no artistry, nuance, or relationship. They demand nothing more than an individual’s intellectual assent to an articulated position. Following the intellectual assent, the opinion itself often becomes as comfortable as rhythmic breathing, rarely contemplated, but regularly expressed.

Holding strong opinions is the easy part. Everyone can do it and normally does.

The real challenge of ethical discourse, however, involves the territory that surrounds the opinion. Has the opinion been reached in a manner that is intellectually holistic and experientially reinforced? Has the opinion been cultivated with a reasonable attentiveness to all of the available data and not simply the portions of data that reinforce our preexisting predilections? Has the opinion been liberated from the weight of rhetoric and tested with the scrutiny of an open and rigorous mind? And is the opinion held with the kind of flexible intellectual grip that permits engagement with differing viewpoints? These are the questions that lead a person well beyond the simple “speaking of one’s mind” and into the undulating terrain of ethical contemplation and moral decision-making.

If one is a Christ-follower, the task becomes even more complex. Christianity’s narrative is one that is rich with seemingly absurd instructions: Do not simply speak the truth (or, translated a bit differently, do not simply speak your mind), but “speak the truth IN LOVE” (Ephesians 4:15). Do not simply insist on a particular course of action, but conduct yourself in a spirit that is “not arrogant or rude…or irritable or resentful.  (1 Corinthians 13:5). Do not become idolatrous about particular opinions, but be perpetually aware of the fact that “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

In the face of a rather complex social issue in his day, the Apostle Paul addressed the question of what Christ-followers are to do about eating meat that had been offered to idols, since there existed an ethical and theological disagreement between those who felt free to eat what they wanted and those who felt obligated to adhere to strict dietary laws. Paul’s counsel in the matter bears witness to his conviction that, at least in certain ethical and spiritual matters, the particular opinion one holds is less important than the manner in which s/he holds it: “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…If food is the cause of [people’s] falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:8-9, 13).

In this revelatory moment in Paul’s ministry, he expresses the rather countercultural idea that one’s individual viewpoint cannot be so monolithic and uncompromising that it refuses to be subordinated to the integrity and preservation of that diverse and heterogeneous community that Christians call church. In other words, to borrow Paul’s language from earlier in this same portion of Scripture, agapic love is the governor of individual opinions, since “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

What does all of this have to do with the current debate on gun control? Much, I think. Followers of Jesus, if they are to be true to the narrative by which they are called to live, must be specifically Christian, not only in the opinions that they hold, but also in the manner in which they arrive at those opinions, steward those opinions, and communicate those opinions.  To borrow the Apostle Paul’s framework, Christ-followers are simply not permitted to elevate a particular conviction about eating meat (or, for that matter, owning guns) above their moral responsibility to preserve the kind of Christ-centered community that is durable enough to accommodate differing viewpoints without rancor, without malice, and without a sharp-edged insistence upon one’s own rightness.

The Christian narrative, of course, in no way removes from the Christ-follower the opportunity to develop and hold passionate viewpoints and convictions. Christians are not called to be devoid of individual perspective. What is powerfully unique about the Christ-follower’s individual perspective, though, is the way in which the Christ-follower is called to manage and articulate it. Specifically, Christ-followers are called to hold and offer their convictions in a manner that bears consistent witness to their stubborn refusal to value their opinions over their relationships with those who do not share them. I see this as a critical portion of the sanctification of individual perspectives.

In light of the urgency of this sanctification, I offer the following thoughts. These are my own personal opinions, held firmly but with a flexible grip:

1. Christ-followers would do well to make peace with the fact that intelligent people of deep and authentic faith reside on both sides of the issue of gun control. Several months ago, I shared a meal with two Christians that I greatly admire, one of whom is a pacifist who sees no value whatsoever in most gun control legislation (since, in his words, “the peace we are called to manifest will never be legislated”). The other Christian at the table was a soldier, hunter, and gun-owner who believes that new regulations related to gun and ammunition control are “desperately needed in this country, if for no other reason to establish the right boundaries for how the issue is approached.”

While I personally gravitated toward the viewpoint of the soldier, I found myself deeply encouraged by the absence of bitterness in the conversation. These were not rhetoricians insisting on the absoluteness of their own rightness. They were brothers in Christ who seemed genuinely interested in how the other person arrived at his conviction. I did not have the sense that either man had become idolatrous about his opinion; or that either man felt that the Kingdom of God (or the United States Constitution, for that matter) depended upon the promulgation of his viewpoint; or that their individual perspectives were more important to either of them than their shared friendship. Rather, I sensed that I was in the presence of two men of deep intellect and even deeper faith whose respectful disagreement about gun control found a comfortable home in the context of their mystical and durable oneness in Christ. On that afternoon, the salad bar at Eat’n Park became a Eucharistic meal where differing opinions were nothing but optional side dishes to the shared Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation.

2. Christ-followers would do well to remember that, in a specifically Christian conversation about moral behavior, the foundational question is never “What do I have the right to do?” but rather “What IS right to do?” It troubles me when Christian people limit their ethical conversations to debates about the nuances of their constitutional or civil “rights,” since, for Christ-followers, the primary concern is not the preservation of identified rights but the transformational and Spirit-enabled pursuit of righteousness.

This is not to suggest that the clear enumeration and protection of constitutional and civil rights is not an important conversation in which to participate. Such rights, after all, are an integral portion of the maintenance of a fair and just nation.  In a specifically Christian morality, however, the concept of unalienable rights (which is not a Biblical concept) is never the starting or ending point of any conversation.  Rather, Christocentric ethics are grounded in a different set of questions: What is the most right thing for me to do? What is the most helpful and edifying thing for me to do?  Am I being called to sacrifice something for a greater good? Am I being called to defend something because of a Biblical principle?  What decision will represent my very best effort to work toward a just and merciful outcome? How can I best bear witness to my primary identity—not my identity as an American citizen with inalienable rights, but my identity as a baptized follower of Jesus whose national citizenship, while important, is secondary to his/her Christological citizenship?

Such questions will not always lead two Christians to the same ethical viewpoint, especially on a controversial matter like gun control. My fear, however, is not potential disagreement. My fear is that, in the current climate, too many Christians are arriving at an opinion without an honest wresting with the right questions.

3. Christ-followers would do well to remember what history has all too frequently taught us—that vitriolic fundamentalism of any sort normally distorts the pursuit of moral truth and replaces the dynamic hunger for righteousness with a stifling and malicious desire to protect and promulgate a particular ideology. Concerning the particular issue at hand, fundamentalism is alive and well. It might come in the form of one of these viewpoints:

*“They will have to pry my gun out of my cold dead fingers!”

*“People who aren’t in favor of gun control are ALL addicted to the pathological violence of our culture.”

*“I don’t see how ANY CHRISTIAN could NOT be in favor of stricter gun laws, especially in the aftermath of what happened in Las Vegas.”

*“The ONLY WAY to ensure our freedom as a country is to preserve the right to arm ourselves with the same kind of weapons that our military has. It is our ONLY protection against the development of tyranny.”

These very real and current viewpoints may raise significant issues for the conversation, but the tone of the viewpoints resonates, not with a passionate yearning for a just and truthful discernment, but a fundamentalistic impulse to fixate on a conviction while dismissing or demonizing those who do not agree with it. The church behaves like the church only when it refuses to allow any ethical conversation to be stifled by the compartmentalizing rubrics of fundamentalism.

4. Christ-followers would do well to practice the spiritual discipline of acknowledging (to themselves and others) the fact that they might be wrong in their opinions, no matter how right they believe themselves to be. Again, by this I do not mean to suggest that Christians are to relinquish their strong views on important issues. I am convinced, however, that we practice specifically Christian ethics only when we operate with a keen awareness of the important differences between “conviction” and “certainty.” Convictions are discerned and lived. Certainty is established and protected. Convictions can live peacefully with opposing convictions. Certainty normally seeks to defend its territory. Convictions can be held firmly but gently, with a profound awareness of our incomplete knowledge. Certainty often demands a tighter grip and the illusion of omniscience.

Related to the issue of gun control—and all other issues—Christ-followers are at their best when they manifest the kind of genuine humility that heartfelt convictions permit but that rigid certainty resists.

5. Christ-followers would do well to commit themselves to making certain that their contemplation and discussion of gun control bear witness to the “new creatures” that they have become in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and the new birth that Christ makes possible (John 3:3). No matter whether one opposes or supports gun control reform, it is essential for the Christ-follower to resist the ethical schizophrenia of being Christologically reborn but behaviorally and practically heathen. If Christ has made one new, then even the manner in which one articulates one’s perspectives and participates in public debate must be under the transformation of sanctification.

Practically speaking, this will mean that Christ-followers will listen respectfully and attentively to opposing viewpoints, thereby avoiding the temptation to become nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It will mean that Christ-followers on both sides of the issue will refuse to allow the issue itself to become a divisive litmus test for relationship, thereby ensuring a commitment to being “patient and kind…not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

It will mean that Christ-followers will be far more interested in standing on the solid ground of ever-expanding discernment than they are in jumping on the bandwagon of convenient and divisive rhetoric, thereby generating a spirit that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Most of all, it will mean that Christ-followers will live with a perpetual and holistic awareness of the fact that, irrespective of what decisions are made related to gun control reform, our life-giving hope and deepest deliverance are not to be found in the preservation, reformation, or interpretation of a constitutional amendment, but in Christ’s astoundingly gracious invitation to participate in an often countercultural and radically peaceable Kingdom in which “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

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

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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.